Investigation and Scripture

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Ephrem the Syrian and early Syrian Christianity.

Investigation and Scripture in Ephrem’s Hymns on Faith 1-9

Open BibleEphrem scholar Jeff Wickes contextualizes the Hymns on Faith as essentially belonging to the post-Nicaea “homoean” camp that remained anti-subordinationist while problematizing the language of Nicaea.[1] This characterization, I believe, proves most helpful for explicating Ephrem’s theology. Here we see that Ephrem’s unique perspective and approach to this stage of the Christological controversies demonstrates his attempt to reset the paradigm of the debate. For Ephrem, theological investigation needs to be done appropriately—there is a certain way to “do” theology. The Hymns on Faith are therefore not just a critique of subordinationist Arian theology, but of a way of doing theology.[2] This reflection examines Hymns on Faith 1-9, arguing that the Christian scriptures serve as Ephrem’s formative theological paradigm and the basis for all proper investigation of God.

For Ephrem, “investigation” represents the manner of approaching God [3], and throughout the Hymns on Faith he disavows “investigation” of the Son. For example: “Refrain from debating, which cannot comprehend him, and acquire silence, which befits him” (HdF, 1.18); and “A thing-made is not able to investigate him, / for as great as it may be, / Greater is the one who made it” (HdF, 4.3). These are not isolated instances of Ephrem decrying investigation; rather, as Wickes points out, this critique of investigation runs throughout the Hymns on Faith.[4] Yet to read these critiques of “investigation” as a total rejection any type of critical theology fails to take Ephrem holistically. For Ephrem also writes that investigation can be undertaken properly. In Hymn 1.19 he prays, “May I not debate presumptuously; may I not be silent imprudently. / May I learn beneficial speech; may I acquire discerning silence.” This seems to indicate that Ephrem does not have a problem with debate, investigation, or speech per se, but rather with the way they are currently being undertaken by the Arians and the Homoousians in their controversy regarding the divinity of Jesus.

Ephrem the Syrian
Ephrem the Syrian

How, then, can proper investigation be undertaken? Ephrem seems to suggest that by examining what has been revealed by God through the scriptures, theologians may appropriately discuss and investigate. In Hymn 2.1 he writes that those who hand the “mirror of truth” are privileged to see the birth of the Savior. This seems to be an indication that the mirror of truth is composed, at the very least, from the gospel accounts of Christ’s birth.[5] His later statement in Hymn 9.1, to “Call out and investigate who the Child is, / do not investigate ‘how’”, likewise corresponds to gospel accounts which leave unanswered specifics about how the incarnation occurred. Similarly, Ephrem prefers the “simplicity” of the Apostles to the “bitterness of the wisdom of the Greeks” (HdF, 2.23), a polemic clearly privileging the scriptures against philosophical and semantic complexities. Additionally, Ephrem’s statement in Hymn 8.9, that “In the Church there is / investigation which discusses revealed things”, suggests a liturgical context for the things revealed, again pointing toward the scriptures.

Four “blessed” statements offer further indications of Ephrem’s paradigm of scripture. Hymn  2.9 reads “Blessed is the one whose lyre has played the songs David played: / Revealed things, without debating, and hidden things, without investigating.” This indicates that certain things have been revealed to humanity, while others have been hidden. Hymn 2.11 says “Blessed is the one who has made a straight measure, which is set / by that of the Prophets and Apostles—a measure which righteousness has made.” As is well known, the phrase “Prophets and Apostles” experienced wide currency throughout the early Church as a reference to what are now called the Old and New Testaments. Here we see Ephrem affirming these writings as the measure by which righteousness is made, the standard for proper conduct and theology. Third is Hymn 2.14: “Blessed is the one who labored to investigate what he could find….” This shows that investigations into what may be found, things revealed and not incomprehensible, are appropriate endeavors. Finally, in Hymn 5.1, Ephrem writes, “Blessed is the one who has measured / his journey alongside his knowledge, / in order to come to a resting place.” Here we see that knowledge may increase, but must always come to a resting place, a boundary and stopping point. These passages are among the clearest indications of the importance Ephrem placed upon adhering to the revealed knowledge of God as the basis for theological investigation. Thus, as Ephrem critiques “investigation” as a method doing theology, he sharpens his perspective by emphasizing the basis for proper theological investigation, namely, the Christian scriptures.


[1] Jeff Wickes, “Introduction to HF,” 29. [2] Ibid., 31. [3] Ibid., 32. [4] Wickes, 37. [5] In discussing more fully the birth of Christ in HdF 7.5 Ephrem combines features of the birth narratives now found in Matthew and Luke, likely demonstrating his reliance upon the Diatesseron for knowledge of the birth narratives.



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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