Ephrem’s affect on me


A shift in perspective, experience of scripture, and beauty of our hope.

St. Ephrem the Syrian, even in translation, is one of the most powerful writers and profoundly beautiful poets I have ever read.  The way the Holy Spirit illumines Scripture through his writings has opened up the horizons of my heart and mind in ways I did not foresee.  He has brought about for me a change in how I think about several things.  So rather than exploring extensively one of his writings or even a topic he directly addresses, I want to share how he has changed my perspective on three areas:  Typology, Scripture, and Apologetics.


Ephrem and Typology: a shift in perspective

When I used to think about typology, I basically had a technological framework in mind.  That is, I thought of Old Testament types like the prototype of an invention:  a trial run or a first attempt requiring modifications or upgrades to be what was actually intended.  I think I used to think that typology played out scripturally by saying something like:  Jesus is like (fill in the blank with your choice of Old Testament figures), because he (does something like them or fulfills/completes something they began).  Or perhaps, it’s saying something like this:  the Exodus (or another Old Testament event) has the one and only benefit of foreshadowing what it will be like to be rescued by Jesus from the dominion of sin, indicating that it doesn’t actually matter that God’s chosen people were rescued out of the land of slavery.  I think these ways of thinking are not altogether helpful or entirely faithful.  And that’s how I (mis)understood typology, and why I variously downplayed it, disregarded it, and/or was very wary of it.  Maybe I’m the only one, but I suspect many Protestants think that typology itself is somehow dubious, and/or they have a dubious understanding of typology, like I did.

St. Ephrem brought about a shift in perspective for me, and helped illumine Scriptural occurrences of typology as well.  In Hymn 8 from Ephrem’s Hymns on Virginity (translated by Kathleen McVey), he writes this in strophe 3: “[Jesus Christ’s] diadem is portrayed by kings, and by prophets His truth, His atonement by priests.”  Note that Ephrem has switched my above ‘typical’ understanding of typology.  He does not say that Jesus has inherited the crown of the kings, the truth of the prophets, and the atonement of the priests.  Similarly, in strophe 15, he writes, “On the tribes of Jacob Your twelve are imprinted:  on Judah your robe, and on Levi your censer, and Your dispensation on Joseph.”  Again, Jesus’ royal robe goes to Judah, Jesus’ priestly censer to Levi, and the distribution of his Spirit for prophecy to Joseph.  Here’s the primary difference between my previous understanding of typology and Ephrem’s: Jesus does not base his role or activity on the history of Israel, rather, Israel and its history is based on who Jesus always has been.  This is not to say that the history of Israel is inconsequential.  Just the opposite!  Because Jesus has always been faithful to his people before they were faithful to him – and therefore always in the business of redemption – so the Hebrews were freed.  Because Jesus has always been High Priest and sacrifice, so the Levitical priesthood was established.  Because Jesus was always the Word of God, so the prophets received by the Spirit a partial revelation of that Word.  And because Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords, so Jacob said, “the scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his” (Gen 49:10, NIV).

Jesus is both the Alpha and the Omega.  He is the starting point and reality behind these “shadows” (cf. Col 2:17; Heb 8:5; 10:1).  He is also their completion, because only when he appeared was it possible to fully understand their meaning, importance, and source.  Or as Ephrem asks Jesus about Isaac, “Are You his symbol or is he Your type?  Do You resemble Isaac, or, indeed, does he resemble You?” (Hymns on the Nativity, 13:17).


Ephrem’s Experience of Scripture

I suspect that most – hopefully all – Christians believe that the Holy Bible is important, though the related questions of “why?” and “how important?” would receive widely varying responses, today.  The discussion of those questions will inevitably lead to the question:  what is Scripture?  But I do not want to ask Ephrem about that, here.  Ephrem is clearly steeped in Scripture, and reading his hymns have deepened my understanding of what Scripture can do.  And this is what I want to ask Ephrem about, here.

Dr. Partee helpfully suggests, in his book coauthored with Dr. Purves, that the Church might benefit from redirecting our divisive discussion about Scripture to focus on its use rather than its nature (Encountering God: Christian Faith in Turbulent Times [Louisville, KY: WJK Press, 2000], 129, 131).  How do we – or should we – use Scripture properly?  But I don’t even want to ask that question, here.  I would like to take it a step further and ask: how does God use Scripture?  In Hymns on Paradise (translated by Sebastian Brock), Ephrem rarely says anything about what Scripture is (V:2?).  He does include a few stanzas about how it can be used appropriately or inappropriately (I:2; V:7; XI:7).  Ephrem obviously quotes and alludes to Scriptural passages in every hymn, but when he writes about the Bible itself, he mostly reflects on his experience of Scripture!  That is, Scripture does something!  My question for Ephrem, here, is: what does Scripture do?

Scripture bears witness to the Creator (V:2).  Likewise, it has “made the Creator perceptible and transmitted His actions; it has envisioned all His craftsmanship, made manifest His works of art” (VI:1).  Scripture can fill us with joy, as Ephrem experienced in reading Genesis, “for its verses and lines spread out their arms to welcome me; the first rushed out and kissed me, and led me to its companion; and when I reached that verse wherein is written the story of Paradise, it lifted me up and transported me from the bosom of the book to the very bosom of Paradise” (V:3).  By the Holy Spirit, Scripture is able to transport one’s mind “as over a bridge” (V:4) right “to the gate of Paradise” (VI:2; cp. V:5).  In Ephrem’s final strophe of his last Hymn on Paradise, he writes: “All this, and similar things that I have read in the Scriptures, have helped depict in my mind that Garden of Life” (XV:17).

I, for one, am challenged by Ephrem’s account of Scripture’s action in his life with Christ, and I now desire to so be open to the Holy Spirit that I may fully experience God’s gift of Scripture to his Church.  As Ephrem writes, “In the Church [God] implanted the Word which causes rejoicing with its promises, which causes fear with its warning: he who despises the Word, perishes, he who takes warning, lives” (VI:7).  May Scripture cause the Church to rejoice and take warning that we may truly live in the Word, and all that that means.


Ephrem and Apologetics: the beauty of our hope

Lastly, reading Ephrem’s hymns have given me a taste for what Christian apologetics can be.  “Apologetics” comes from the Greek word apologia in 1 Peter 3:15.  The term is frequently used in a legal sense as a statement of “defense” or a “reply.”  In 1 Peter 3:15, apologia is used in conjunction with the word logos, which most basically means “word,” but can have a wide range of derivative meanings, including an “account” or “reckoning” of something done, or “reason” as in the “reason for or cause of something” (BDAG, s.v. logos, 2.d.)  In our cultural context, combining this sense of a legal “defense” with “reason” resulted in many, including myself, to practice an apologetics that tried to logically prove the existence of the Christian God.  As I read Ephrem, I don’t get the sense that that’s what he’s doing even when he defends “the claims of Christianity against criticisms” (McVey, Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns, p.128).  Instead, his apologia seems to plumb the depths of the mystery and beauty of the gospel.  1 Peter 3:15 reads:  “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.  Always be prepared to give an answer (apologia) to everyone who asks you to give the reason (logos) for the hope that you have.  But do this with gentleness and respect” (NIV).  Let us not perpetuate the ‘Enlightenment’ or ‘Modern’ model of apologetics, like mine above, which easily short-circuits this passage’s meaning.  Instead, let us “pay more careful attention…to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (Hebrews 2:1)…

Two things to note about 1 Peter 3:15:  1) it assumes that we are living in such a way that we will be questioned about why we’re living that way; 2) this way of living is marked by hope.  In Acts, Paul says that his hope is in the coming resurrection because of Jesus, and it is because of his hope that he’s in chains and on trial (24:15, 21; 26:6, 7; 28:20).  Brothers and sisters, may we not cast our hope on our ability to reason or logically explain things.  Our only hope is in Jesus Christ!  Our true apologia, then, is the proclamation of the gospel, namely: Jesus is Lord!  He died for our sins and rose again from the dead!  Though it is “foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor 1:18), it is in the gospel that we discover and declare the beauty of our Savior and the riches of his grace.

Ephrem does not try to explain away or ‘apologize’ for the mystery of the gospel, as if God is an elderly woman who needs assistance.  Rather he dives into the gospel headfirst and brings the reader along for the ride, swimming to the depths and beauty of the types and mystery he’s experienced in Scripture.  In U2’s song Stand Up Comedy, Bono sings, “The DNA lottery may have left you smart / But can you stand up to beauty, dictator of the heart / I can stand up for hope, faith, love / But while I’m getting over certainty / Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady / Out from under your beds / C’mon ye people / Stand up for your love.”  May we ‘stand up’ for our love, Jesus, by living a life of bold love in hope of the resurrection, declaring the reason for our hope (i.e., the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ), and how we have experienced his love, mercy and “peace that transcends all understanding” (Php 4:7).  I leave you with Ephrem, Hymn 23 of his Hymns on the Nativity (str. 1, 3, 6, 14):

…magnify my weak mind
that I may tell about Your birth, not to investigate Your majesty,
but to proclaim Your grace…
Your majesty is hidden from us; Your grace is revealed before us.
I will be silent, my Lord, about your majesty, but I will speak about Your grace…
Since human hope was shattered, hope was increased by Your birth.
…Your birth became for the hopeless
a spring gushing hope.  Blessed is the hope that brought the Gospel!…
Since Your birth sufficed for the sons of Adam as [for] Adam,
O Great One Who became a babe, by Your birth again You begot me.
O Pure One who was baptized, let Your washing wash us of impurity.
O Living One Who was embalmed, let us obtain life by Your death.
I will thank You entirely in Him Who fills all.  Glory to You entirely from all of us!

Amen! May we make Ephrem’s, Paul’s and Peter’s hope our own (cf. 1 Peter 1:3; 13; 18-21), and may we fully live into the hope we have in Jesus Christ, proclaiming his gospel as our apologia.


  1. Beautiful post, Jeff! Thanks for the reflection and encouragement.

  2. There is power here, in your writing Jeff. Thank you.

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