Ephrem - Theologian and Composer

Ephrem - Theologian and Composer
Ephrem - Theologian and Composer

Known as the Harp of the Spirit, Ephrem was perhaps the most creative voice of the Syriac culture and church and one of the most influential theologians of early Christianity.

He was born in 306 c.e., just south of the holy region of Syriac monks and spirituality in Mesopotamia. Formed into a mature Christian by the mentor and holy man Jacob, Ephrem became proficient enough to join his teacher in the same school of Nisibis.

Julian the Apostate ignominiously lost his war with the Persian Sassanid Empire, so the Romans were forced to withdraw from Nisibis in 363. The Christians associated with Ephrem also retreated to the eastern frontier city of Edessa. There Ephrem served his people in two primary ways.

First, he threw himself into the distribution of food and alms among the refugees of the retreat. For all of his impact on the church the only office he held was deacon. He had no desire to be a priest, and he avoided the popular call to be a bishop by feigning madness.

His personality aided him in his quest to steer clear of the hierarchy, for he had an irascible personality that only personal sanctity could control. Second, he produced a corpus of hymns, homilies, poems, and commentaries that scholars marvel at today. His genius lay in combining his hymnology with a unique method of interpreting the Bible and spiritual mysteries.

On one hand he accepts the plain sense of scripture (this is called the Antiochene method of interpreting the Bible); but on the other hand he relies on allegory and poetic license when logic and historical circumstances do not offer a relevant application (this is called the Alexandrian method).

His hybrid thinking represents the Syriac Church penchant for dealing with the forces of Gnosticism, and early Judaism. The central event of history and nature is the Christ event: the incarnation of the divine in the life of Jesus (Christ) of Nazareth.

Ephrem finds symbols of this mystery in history and nature, and even the Bible speaks in a typological way about this event. He has no hesitation about borrowing a vocabulary and hymnology that the Syriac church encountered in the Mesopotamian world of the heterodox currents and Jewish influences.

While his method was unique, his own doctrine was orthodox. His hymns and elevated speech show him to be steadfast in opposing Arianism, Marcionism, Manichaeanism, and other Christian Dualisms.

His images stand in support of such ideas as the Last Judgment, purgatory, original sin, free will and its reliance on grace, the primacy of Peter, the intercession of the saints, the real presence of Jesus in the bread of communion, the sacraments, and the Trinity.

All these doctrines are in the crucible of theological development, so Ephrem’s genius is valuable and ahead of his time. He had a special devotion to the mother of Jesus and foreshadowed the concept of her Immaculate Conception.

His compositions are in Syriac, and many were immediately translated into Greek. People so loved his metaphors and analogies that they used them in their own languages and liturgies; thus, some works exist only in their Latin or Armenian forms. A complete inventory of his compositions has yet to be accomplished. Ephrem died in the epidemic of 373, taking care of Edessa’s refugees.