The Mirror of Merit: Divine Grace in Origen of Alexandria and Ephrem of Nisibis

Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Religious Studies

First Advisor

McGowan, Andrew


In this dissertation I argue for a new understanding of grace in Origen of Alexandria and Ephrem of Nisibis. Despite being major figures in early Christianity, neither Origen’s nor Ephrem’s theology of grace has been the subject of a large-scale scholarly study since the mid-twentieth century. This dissertation fills this lacuna in the scholarship, while also showing how grace in Origen and Ephrem has been misunderstood because western scholarship has viewed the topic through the distorting lens of later western theologies. My introduction makes the case for these twin scholarly interventions and establishes a philological foundation for the study by assessing the terms for grace in the languages which preserve works by Origen and Ephrem: Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Armenian. The work is divided into two halves: the first half (chapters 1-3) focuses on Origen, the second half (chapters 4-5) focuses on Ephrem. In the first chapter, “Elkanah’s Wives,” I argue that grace for Origen is a technical term for the spiritual gifts, which God bestows upon the righteous. In the second chapter, “The Justice of God,” I situate this idea of merited grace within his theology of divine justice. In the third chapter, “The Bridegroom and the Well,” I describe Origen’s understanding of the role of the spiritual gifts of grace in scriptural interpretation. In the fourth chapter, “The Mirror of Nisibis,” I turn to Ephrem. Focusing on his “occasional poems,” I situate Ephrem’s concept of grace as divine benevolence within his broader concept of God’s pedagogical governance of the world; in this chapter I also introduce the important contrast in Ephrem’s thought between grace and justice. In the fifth chapter, “From Justice to Grace,” I expand my view to take in the full body of Ephrem’s works, showing how grace characterizes God’s actions across the whole scope of cosmic history, from creation to the Last Judgment. In a brief conclusion I offer a synthetic appraisal of continuities and contrasts between the theologies of grace found in Origen, Ephrem, and traditional western theology.

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