Revelation, Christ the Key

I was going to post something from Herman Bavinck, and his Philosophy of Revelation, but instead I am going to post something on St. Efrem the Syrian’s theory of revelation which comes from an essay that Mark christ_creationMourachian wrote for the last installment of Participatio Journal’s offering which was themed off of Thomas F Torrance and Orthodoxy. Mourachian brings Torrance into conversation with St. Efrem, and part of what I am going to share is the result of that conversation. What should stand out about this theory of revelation, from St. Efrem, as reported by Mourachian is how Jesus Christ serves as the key that unlocks all of the riches that are present in God-given creation. Here is Mourachian:

Up to this point, our discussion of Ephrem’s understanding of divine revelation has focused on the manifest things of God, that which he has planted in the midst of creation voicelessly, and that which he has conveyed through the Bible by means of human language. It is necessary, though, to appreciate the correlate to Ephrem’s emphasis on God’s self-manifestation: his stress on God’s hiddenness. In one of his Hymns on Faith Ephrem writes:

Indeed, who is able to comprehend the Lord of natures,

to inquire into His Being and to investigate His Fatherhood,

and to explore His Greatness and to say how It is?

For, behold, in all those respects He is hidden from all,

and unless He wants to make Himself plain to us

there is nothing in Creation that is able to interpret Him.[1]

The core assumption at work here – indeed, everywhere in Ephrem’s theology – is that between the Creator and the creation there yawns a gaping chasm, a “great, boundless gulf” over which no created thing may cross.[2] Any and all knowledge of God is fundamentally dependent upon God’s good pleasure in revealing himself as he sees fit. Note the last two verses in the stanza quoted above: God is altogether hidden, and no created thing can interpret him, unless he wills it do so. He has so willed, and his very act of creating the natural world and taking on human language is sufficient evidence of that claim’s truth. Yet as near as God may draw, through the created means he chooses for his self-revelation, he nevertheless remains infinitely transcendent. He is at once very close and immeasurably far.[3]

Sebastian Brock uses the category of perspective to explain this example of Ephrem’s habit of thinking through polarities.[4] From our perspective, all created things are of revelatory significance, and we understand them as just that, God’s self-revelations in and through his handiwork. But from the perspective of divine reality itself, God has hidden something of himself in created things, pointing “to something that will one day be revealed: what is ‘hidden’ in the symbols of Nature and of Scripture is revealed in Christ at the Incarnation; what lies hidden in the Sacraments will be revealed at the eschaton, in Paradise.”[5] Even when we come to see the symbolic significance of all that God has imprinted of himself in created realities, he yet remains hidden, which fact is all the more apparent in view of the ontological divide between God and creation: nothing finite could ever manifest completely the infinite, inimitable majesty of God as he is in himself.

While Brock’s explanation of the polarity between the hidden and the revealed is helpful, there is one point on which his language is potentially misleading. He speaks of the human perspective as “subjective,” while the divine perspective enjoys objectivity.[6] By “subjective” he means that “every individual will approach God’s hiddenness by way of a different set of galyata, or points of revelation.”[7] That is so because all the instances of God’s self-revelation are differentiated, and that to which they all point in their manifold ways, God himself, is infinitely greater than the sum of revelation’s parts: “the revelation is always partial.”[8] His explanation of what he deems the “subjective” character of the human perspective is certainly true to Ephrem, but his choice of the term “subjective,” in contrast to “objective,” is open to misinterpretation. To the modern ear those terms typically register in ways that are contrary to Ephrem’s thinking and are commonly understood against the background of a dualist framework in which subjectivism is pit against claims to an accessible objective reality—not with reference to subjectivity.

Brock surely does not foist on Ephrem some radical disconnect between knower and known, or between the content of one’s thought and the reality it appears to intend, such as a dualist epistemology would entail. His exposition of Ephrem shows no marks of that kind of crippling of the human capacity for real knowledge. But it bears repeating that, for Ephrem, it is God who implanted in creation reliable indications and symbols of himself, constituting them to function as the faithful mind of the believer understands them to function. In that respect, both the divine and the human perspective are objective: they are grounded in and intend the objective reality that God is, albeit in radically different ways. God makes created symbols to correspond in a contingent, creaturely way to the truth that he himself is in a non-contingent, uncreated way.

It is better to consider the terms “subjective” and “objective,” as applied to Ephrem’s theology, from within the realist framework that Torrance so clearly articulated. In Torrance’s description, realism is:

the orientation in thought that obtains in semantics, science, or theology on the basis of a nondualist or unitary relation between the empirical and theoretical ingredients in the structure of the real world and in our knowledge of it. This is an epistemic orientation of the two-way relation between the subject and object poles of thought and speech, in which ontological primacy and control are naturally accorded to reality over all our conceiving and speaking of it.[9]

It is critical to appreciate how much a realist Ephrem actually is. In no way whatsoever does Ephrem allow for a theory of meaning as subjectively constructed out of whole cloth and totally dependent on the idiosyncrasies and fantasies of the mind unmoored from objective reality. The media through which God reveals himself to us, and the specific content of those manifestations, are objectively determined by God to be what they are and to function as they do. When we exert the effort to engage those media and discern their function and their hidden, divinely bestowed content, that experience yields results that are real yet, as Brock rightly notes, always and necessarily partial – partial in each individual instance and in the aggregate. What that fact implies is that the revelation of God is always and everywhere new, and the particulars of its manifestations are unexpected. As Michael Polanyi avers:

To hold knowledge is indeed always a commitment to indeterminate implications, for human knowledge is but an intimation of reality, and we can never quite tell in what new way reality may yet manifest itself. It is external to us; it is objective; and so its future manifestations can never be completely under our intellectual control.[10]

While we are free to discover the coherence and meaning of divine revelation through created things, we are not free to construct it. In other words, the fundamental structure, manner, and content of divine revelation are not subject to human control and determination: the structure, because the Creator orders all things; the manner, because he reveals himself as he wills; and the content, because the real, ultimate content of his self-revelation is the person of the incarnate Word, who reconciles us with the Father and gives us his Spirit to guide us “into all truth.”[11] [see whole essay from Mark Mourachian herestarting at pg. 94]


[1] HdF 44.7.

[2] HdF 15.5. It should be noted that the chasm is not the result of man’s disobedience and sin; it exists simply by virtue of the Creator-creation distinction.

[3] See HdF 72.23-24.

[4] See his discussion in his Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1992), 27-29.

[5] Ibid., 28-29.

[6] Ibid., 27-28.

[7] Ibid., 27.

[8] Ibid.

[9] T. F. Torrance, Reality and Evangelical Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982), 60. See also Torrance’s essay “Theological Realism,” in The Philosophical Frontiers of Christian Theology, ed. Brian Hebblethwaite and Stewart Sutherland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 173.

[10] Michael Polanyi, “Faith and Reason,” Journal of Religion 41 (1961): 244. See also Torrance’s discussion of open concepts (Theological Science, 15), with respect to which “the reality conceived keeps on disclosing itself to us in such a way that it continually overflows all our statements about it.”

[11] John 16:13.

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