Theology as poetry -Ephrem of Nisibis

In my last post, I spoke of the idea of God as beauty. By equating God with such a word, one that defies exact definition, we allow in a whole variety of ways of speaking about him. In contrast an attempt to define God or make definite statements about him with words having fixed meanings, encourages division and even conflict. I want in this blog post to take this discussion one step further and consider what would be the effect if we encouraged the use of poetry when writing our theology.

One of the problems for Christian theology is that, from the beginning, it has been articulated in languages that are, culturally speaking, close to our own. These languages, Greek, Latin through to our modern European tongues have always prided themselves on being good at precision and definitions. The invention of philosophy by the Greeks was possible because their language had precision and structure in the way that words are used. Philosophical debate needs a language that has consistency in the way that words retain their meaning in whatever setting they are used. You do not find this precision in the other Biblical language, namely Hebrew. Although I did not take my study of Hebrew beyond a fairly basic level, I could appreciate the way it diverged from Greek in its attempt to describe reality and theological ideas. To summarise, the Hebrew language has an abhorrence for abstract and thus philosophical definitions. Every Hebrew word has a primary reference to a physical reality even though the same word may appear translated in our Bibles as an abstract. To take one example there is a word translated as ‘glory’ in our versions. The Hebrew word literally means ‘weight’. In many instances an original Hebrew word has a cluster of meanings and the English translation is dictated by the context. Another way of describing how this language works is to say that Hebrew words evoke their meaning. This is how I understand the use of language in poetry. A poet wants to evoke in his or her reader, not an idea but a memory or experience. Communication is made with the reader through sharing feelings and insights. In the day-to-day use of language to convey information or ideas, the inner experience of the reader is of no concern. By contrast the poet is often trying to create pictures and sensations in the mind of the reader.

Most of the theology we are familiar with today is wrapped up in a philosophical approach which tries to create defining statements about God. This way of doing theology is there from the earliest days of the New Testament. Paul, writing in Greek, has handed on a style of doing theology that is some way removed from the more poetic thinking and use of language that we find in the Old Testament. Jesus of course spoke Aramaic, a language close to Hebrew and Paul had the task of translating this semitic thinking into a Greek format. Something of course was lost in this process. Attempts by scholars to resurrect the original Aramaic words of Jesus is a difficult but fascinating exercise. The Lord’s prayer, for example, has quite a different feel to it when its Aramaic original has been reconstructed. Greek language and thought became dominant in the transmission of the faith after Paul except in one small corner of the Roman Empire. This area, now in parts of Iraq and Syria, was the home to a Syriac speaking population. Most people today are unaware of the existence of a body of writings in this ancient semitic language of Syriac. These Syrian Christians had never used Greek so their version of Christianity has fascinating and intriguing links to the language and culture of Jesus himself.

The writer that I wish to introduce in this post was called Ephrem. He lived in the fourth century in a town in eastern Turkey now called Nusaybin. I visited this town in 1975 and saw the actual church building which Ephrem himself would have known. Many writings have come down to us attributed to him. Some take the form of poetry while others are in prose. Although I do not know any Syriac, much of Ephrem’s work has been translated and we can, even in translation, appreciate what he thought about God. In summary, his understanding of theology can be described as poetic rather than philosophical and dogmatic. His main purpose is to evoke in the reader a sense of the wonder and the paradox of the creator involving himself in his creation. The intellect is never going to be the primary way to penetrate the great mysteries of God and his self-revelation in Christ. Truth is to be found by understanding the mysteries that are hidden within symbols. Nature is one symbol that through meditative prayer and faith will reveal its inner truth. Other symbols to be penetrated in a similar way are the sacraments and scripture itself. All the themes of the Christian faith are presented as poetic truths to be grasped through contemplation and meditation. At one end of the spectrum of reality is this hiddenness and mystery of God; to be a Christian is to be given glimpses and intuitions of this wonder because God chooses to reveal himself to us through symbols.

Another strongly semitic theme in the writings of Ephrem is the way that he sees humanity as single reality. When he speaks about Adam he may be referring either to the individual or to the human race as a whole. Adam is Everyman. The role of Christ is to take upon himself the identity of Adam. Through the death and resurrection, the whole of humanity is able to regain through Christ the paradise lost through Adam’s fall. In Christ, the fall is in this way reversed; humanity identified with Christ is welcomed back to the bliss which God desires for his people.

It will be apparent from the flavour of these few comments about Ephrem that he is thinking in a totally different way from our theologies of today. We would use words like poetic and symbolic to describe his style of thinking about God and the incarnation. One thing that we are a long way away from are theological definitions and what is called today propositional theology. Reading Ephrem is a bit like wandering into an alternative theology where there are few familiar signposts and links to our traditional expressions of Christianity. But in presenting my reader with this different way of doing theology, I would suggest that Ephrem has succeeded in preserving the essential outline of our creeds. But to do this he is using quite distinctive genres of poetry, paradox and symbol. This style of doing theology is utterly unfamiliar but is it such a bad thing that it is hard to grapple with this different style? Interpreting poetry is sometimes hard. To do it even partly successfully we need to use our imagination and considerable flexibility of understanding.

This blog post may seem to be a long way away from our normal theme. But I offer these thoughts precisely because propositional language and strong definitions are often used by authoritative Christians to control their followers. By pointing out how an ancient expression of Christianity completely avoids such controlling definitions and philosophical language, we are given a freedom to be a Christian in a new way. Perhaps borrowing this poetic and symbolic language of Ephrem will help us to see a new way of doing theology which is both intriguing but also liberating at the same time. When words are allowed to enslave us, we need to hear a use of words which liberates. Perhaps we have that liberation and newness in the symbols and concepts of Ephrem of Nisibis.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

4 thoughts on “Theology as poetry -Ephrem of Nisibis

  1. Of course there are lots of different types of poetry, including in the bible, think of the psalms for example – does the work of Ephrem share something with these perhaps?

  2. Of course the much of the Old Testament counts as poetry. We tend to think of this as an extra to our theological debate. The real ‘meat’ is in the dogmatic formulations and that has been true right across hisory. The important thing about Ephrem (and Jesus?) is that they did not have any other way of doing theology except in poetic language. This meant that what they had to say had fewer hard edges which excluded people. We still have have yet to come to terms with the fact that Jesus taught in parables and not in theologically consistent sound-bites! This is just a starter in thinking what theology would be like if hard-edged philosophical discussion had never come into our theology. Poetry creates something quite different.

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