Ephrem’s Boundaries of Investigation: Scriptural and Natural

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Ephrem the Syrian and early Syriac theology.
Saint Ephrem the Syrian
Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Throughout his Hymns on Faith, Ephrem remains especially concerned with recasting the terms of the Arian-Orthodox debate concerning the relationship of the Son to the Father. Instead of simply affirming a Nicene, Homoean, or Subordinationist perspective, Ephrem focuses on what he believes to be the root cause of the Christological controversy of his day: investigation. In Ephrem’s view, improper investigation has lead to the current turmoil and improper debate. While subordinationist theologies are in the wrong Christologically and methodologically, Ephrem does not hesitate to also problematize the methods of those with whom his Christology agree. In this essay, I briefly reflect on Ephrem’s two chief boundary markers for proper investigation: nature and scripture.

Clear throughout the Hymns on Faith is Ephrem’s position that investigation of God remains bounded and that humans cannot presume to fully understand and explain the divine, for human knowledge “wanders” (HdF 5.1, 13; 11.1; 28.8). Ephrem does not banish all investigation, but calls for upright searching, emphasizing the who of Christ rather than the how, for only God may turn back the confusion of humanity through his revelation, bridging the gap between Creator and created (HdF 9.1; 37.7; 69.11-12). And for Ephrem, this revelation comes in two distinct ways: scripture and nature. For if investigators “considered nature alongside the book, / They would learn from both the Lord of both” (HdF 35.10). Thus, key for Ephrem’s understanding of proper investigation is the presence of revealed order: God has revealed Himself through the order of nature and words of scripture.

CreationEphrem appeals to a number of natural examples and symbols, for nature reveals all sorts of knowledge and “provides eyes” for proper human investigation of God (HdF 20.1-5; 36.11). First and most common are arguments from images, that the seemingly mundane things of nature, when properly reflected upon, may depict and reveal the Divine (HdF 6.3). To provide a few examples: flying birds reveal the sign of the cross (HdF 18.6); the names of the rives of paradise teach us about purity and redemption (HdF 48.10); the four-corners of the earth point to the four corners of the cross (HdF 18.3-4); the pearl can teach about the pure things of God (HdF 85.1-3); and fish jumping in rivers demonstrate the borders of acceptable musing and investigation (HdF 46.1).

Second, Ephrem appeals to the power of nature to reveal the Divine. Lightning, earthquakes, storms, fire, and floods all reveal the power of God, His transcendence, and human inability to understand and control—“Who will presume to look upon / That force in whose power all stands?” (HdF 25.7; 28.1). Third, there is the order of nature, which assists humans in their approach to nature and aids in their measure of the cosmos (HdF 28.3-5). Yet the Divine has provided no such tools for investigation of Himself. Finally, Ephrem argues from the hierarchy and complexity of nature that we cannot ask questions of those things higher than us (HdF 5.4). In the same way that the cosmic sun cannot be looked at or understood with human eyes, so also we cannot investigate and understand the divine Son (HdF 6.2; 40.1). The sea has limits, yet cannot be investigated—how can human investigate the limitless (HdF 9.15-16)? And there are “There are ten thousand more of [such] discoveries— Of rocks, plants and the power of medicine. Who could limit or discern their natures?” (HdF 41.3).

lightning photos 1600X1200Likewise, Ephrem appeals to a number of scriptural examples as evidence of bounded investigation. First, he affirms that it is only through the scriptures that any knowledge of the nature of the Lord is revealed, for only “his Books have uncovered him” (HdF 64.10). Second, Ephrem relies upon the examples of Job, the prophets, and Miriam to indicate that investigation was clearly bounded in the past and that traversing that boundary could result in severe punishment (HdF 9.4-5; 28.9-11). Third, there is the scripturally revealed principle that the creature cannot understand the purposes of its creator: the clay cannot investigate its potter (HdF 29.6; 37.22). Finally, Ephrem offers a two-part linguistic argument. Initially, we are reminded that humans cannot understand all revealed language—how then can they expect to understand the hidden language and silence of God (HdF 11.7-8)? Later, Ephrem posits that all human language and thought exists as a byproduct and gift of the Divine Word, whose gift of language has purposely left hidden the “Sinai” of investigating the incarnation of the Word (HdF 25.4; 38.16). Thus Ephrem bounds investigation of the Son through nature and scripture, for “…although nature Stands before us in everything, {the book} can teach / About the Father and the Son and the Spirit—whether in truth / They baptize and enliven us” (HdF 65.3).


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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