Sidney H. Griffith, “Faith Adoring the Mystery”

Sidney H. Griffith, ‘Faith Adoring the Mystery’: Reading the Bible with St Ephraem the Syrian, Marquette University Press, Milwaukee, 2001 (56 pp.)

This is splendid little book was first delivered as a lecture in 1997. It commences with a concise overview of the little known of his life. He probably lived alone (ihidiaya)  as one of the Sons of the Covenant (bnay qyama, 9). Griffith mentions how the writings attributed to Ephrem may in fact be spurious, but now, fortunately, more of his genuine works are becoming known. Benedict XV proclaimed his a doctor of the Universal Church on 5 October 1920 (4). Griffith notes the diversity of opinions concerning the quality of Ephrem’s writing (5). Well before the year 650, Ephrem was a commanding figure in the Syriac language Church (6-7), his poetry probably being chanted the accompaniment of a lyre (kennara, 10). Whether all his writing was used in the liturgy or not, it was all in the service of the Church. He was probably a deacon, took care to train the choirs, and introduced women’s choirs into the Church (12).

It is unusual for people today, but Ephrem’s theology, even his biblical meditations (I cannot call them “criticism”) were written in metrical poetry (13-14). However, he was concerned to criticise heretics such as Mani, Marcio, and Bar Daisan (14-15). I was surprised to learn that the Syriac text of the Bible he used is believed to have been based on Hebrew rather than Greek (15). If this is true, it would support Griffith’s assertion that Ephrem belonged to a ”Christian world of the Semitic languages (in which) there was a certain continuity fo thought and imagination with the Jewish world about the interpretation of the biblical narratives …” (15). At this point I might note that the Commentary on the Diatessaron which is attributed to Ephrem has been pronounced by high authority as being pseudonymous, but hails from “his school” (15-16). I am not qualified to judge.

Griffith then comes to Ephrem on Scripture. God has provided us with two witnesses to read, says Ephrem: Nature and Scripture (17). We read the second, but we use the first; and if we read scripture rightly, it brings us to a paradisaical state of mind (17-19). I am not clear on how Ephrem meant this, but he did say that Nature confirms Scripture, and that “Faith in the Scriptures is the second soul” (20). Griffith does not say this, but it seems to me arguable that what Ephrem means is that the types and images found in Scripture are drawn from Nature, and are fulfilled in Christ (21, quoting 22 of the Hymns against Heresies). In this way, both Scripture and Nature are fulfilled in Christ. However, it does strike me that our acquaintance with Nature precedes that with Scripture, and that the very references and allusions of Scripture must be drawn from Nature.

Now, a significant point emerges: Scripture, like Christ Himself, are said by Ephrem to be bridges over the chasm between God and Man (21). I do not think Ephrem says the same about Nature. However, he also states that there is a gap between Christ and ourselves which cannot be bridged by our minds (22). In this context, he stresses the importance of keeping silent about matters beyond our human minds (22-23). He refers to how Scripture speaks of the “eyes” and “ears” of God to allow us to understand what we otherwise could not (23). This supports my interpretation that Scripture must use terms drawn from Nature, and so the two work together, but Scripture comes more directly from God and attests Him more directly.

The mind (tar3ito) has a special role in approaching God, because when one reads Scripture (or even, I think, when one contemplates Nature) the mind can proceed beyond words and sights, because the mind can contemplate types and images (24-25). Griffith says that, for Ephrem, all types and images point to the “very reality of God incarnate, in seeing whom one sees the Father” (25). He concludes that, for Ephrem: “… the mind (tar3ita or re3yana) can be likened to a mirror (maHzita) in which one sees the types and symbols from nature and Scripture, which themselves in turn function like a mirror in which one sees the hidden things of God” (26). In number 20 of the Hymns on Virginity, he says that the world is filled with the types, icons and symbols of God (27, Griffith does not provide the Syriac equivalents). When we speak about God, says Ephrem, we must use the names which He Himself provided in Scripture (27-28).

Griffith acknowledges the difference between this manner of theology, and not only Greek and Latin but also modern “systematic theology” (29). I am, however, doubtful of the idea that, for Ephrem, we only know images and words in the mind, not reality (29). I suspect that the images are reality of a certain order, and that they reliably point us to the more complete and eternal reality of God. He has an absolutely brilliant way of explaining this:

The prophets, the kings, and the priests, who were creatures, all of them painted your portrait, but … you alone are capable of painting the portrait. They indeed drew the lines of your portrait; you in your coming brought it to completion. The lines then disappeared due to the strength of the paints, the most brilliant of all colours. (Hymns on Virginity 2-3)

That means that the perception of images reveals to us something which is in fact real, even if not perfect. Griffith is, however, correct to say that Ephrem’s understanding of types goes beyond what we usually take them to be (a way of interpreting the Old in the light of the New Testament). Were we to go beyond the types and symbols and try to apprehend God directly, we would fail (29-30). Agreed. But that does not mean that the mind cannot bring us to something real, only that it can, by straying beyond its proper bounds, take us into error. I would say that the ability of the mind to avoid error implies its ability to achieve truth, and truth must imply reality.

In the Commentary on the Diatessaron, Ephrem (if indeed he wrote it) states that we cannot exhaust the meaning of Scripture: it is endlessly multifaceted and we can only interpret it according to our ability (32). So how does Ephrem study Scripture? He does not set out his method, but he displays it: he starts with the literal meaning, then goes to the spiritual sense revealed in names and types (32). A most interesting passage, also from this commentary, says that the Mysteries of the Old Testament spoke, and that the Church was hidden inside these, but now the Church speaks and those Mysteries are silent (34-35). This seems to me to allow a more exalted place for the Church and its tradition, relative to the Old Testament, than modern Latin thought usually would.

In the final stretch of this paper, Griffith shows that Ephrem said that it is not enough to read to approach God, one must do so with faith: “In faith, love, and wisdom, (Man) is united (metmazag) with the Godhead, and is configured into its image” (36). He concludes:

… with St Ephraem the Syrian, one engages not so much in theology, in the … sense of fides quaerens intellectum, but in a contemplative lectio divina which is more like fides adorans mysterium. Its idiom is not primarily expository prose but a poetry akin to that of the Psalms which is more likely than not to induce silence in response to that awesome wonder (37).

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