Epektasis is a Greek word that means “extension” or “stretching out towards”. In Christian theology, it refers to the eternal progression or growth in the knowledge and love of God. The concept of epektasis conveys the idea that while believers come to know and experience God in the present, there is always more to discover. Even in heaven, the soul’s union with God will deepen progressively throughout eternity.
The main biblical source for the doctrine of epektasis is Gregory of Nyssa, one of the great Cappadocian Fathers of the 4th century. Drawing on Philippians 3:12-14, Gregory taught that growth in the knowledge and love of God is without end. As we draw nearer to God, His infinite majesty is increasingly revealed to us.
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14, ESV)
For Gregory, this constant striving and progression is an endless journey into the inexhaustible mystery of God. As finite creatures, we will never fully comprehend the infinite glory of the Creator. Epektasis thus ensures that heaven will never be static or boring, as we experience ever new depths of God’s love.
Role in Spiritual Growth
Epektasis underscores that the Christian life is one of continual growth and transformation. We are called not just to conversion, but to lifelong maturation through cooperating with God’s grace. Every step forward expands our capacity to receive more of God’s love and gifts.
As believers nurture their relationship with Christ, epektasis suggests that new spiritual horizons continually open up. There are always greater heights of holiness, prayer, virtue, and theological understanding that we can experience. Just as the first disciples repeatedly witnessed Jesus manifest His glory in new ways, God seeks to reveal Himself to us progressively.
The doctrine of epektasis gives hope that the adventure of knowing God will stretch into eternity. Our enjoyment of His presence, and awe at His greatness, will only increase as we draw closer to the source of all beauty, goodness, and truth.
Connection to Theosis
Epektasis is closely linked to the doctrine of theosis, or divinization. Theosis means that through God’s grace humans can participate in the very life of God. As we grow in holiness and love, we become ever more like Christ and permeated by His Spirit. Epektasis adds that this Christoformity is a never-ending process – we will forever deepen in union and communion with God.
Several Greek Fathers, such as Irenaeus of Lyons, saw theosis as the ultimate goal of human existence. God created us for spiritual ascent, that we might grow into His likeness and share fully in the divine communion of love. Epektasis qualifies this by noting that such participation can expand infinitely, given the limitless transcendence of God.
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. (2 Peter 1:3-4, ESV)
Thus epektasis and theosis reflect God’s intention that we experience ever greater depths of life in Him. By the Spirit, Christ shares His sonship with us that we might shine increasingly with His radiance.
Role in Personal Holiness
The idea of unlimited growth in God provides strong motivation for personal holiness and spiritual discipline. If there are unplumbed depths of life in Christ awaiting us, it spurs us to cooperate zealously with His grace. We have only begun to taste the true joy, freedom and fullness for which God made us.
Epektasis inspires us to reject complacency or spiritual laziness. Do not be content with mediocre faith, when profound peace, wisdom and boldness are on offer! We must cast aside encumbrances, take up our cross, and follow Jesus up the high mountain of human destiny. He wants intimacy with us that transforms our entire being.
Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:11-12, ESV)
Knowing that God’s love is without limit gives hope that victory over sin is possible. Since growth in holiness has no ceiling, we can aspire to profound conversion. Epektasis means God will patiently walk with us there, even if the journey takes eternity.
Epektasis directly pertains to the life awaiting believers after death. The joys of heaven are not static, but will unfold progressively into greater and greater wonders. As we draw closer to the blinding light of Christ’s glory, we will understand more fully the mystery of His incarnation. Our worship will intensify as we grow in knowledge of God’s splendor and goodness.
The hope of epektasis gives eschatological significance to our present spiritual growth. Our capacity to experience the life of heaven is widened as we surrender more deeply to Christ here and now. What we lay hold of by grace today prepares us for what is to come. While full communion awaits, we already begin to partake of it through growth in faith, hope, and love.
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12, ESV)
Thus epektasis provides motivation to “redeem the time” (Eph 5:16). The fruits of our labors in Christ are not lost, but will be carried over into eternity. As we allow the Spirit to expand our capacity for God now, we are equipping our souls for the infinite ocean of His presence later.
Gregory was not the first to articulate the doctrine of epektasis. Several strands of development can be traced back through earlier Greek Fathers:
– Irenaeus spoke of humans advancing by degrees through the ages towards final perfection. The full revelation of God will come through continual growth.
– Origen argued that the soul’s ascent to God has no limit, given His transcendence. He said Scripture’s spiritual meanings are inexhaustible.
– Athanasius believed grace constantly increases our ability to receive God. We will perpetually grow in wonder and enjoyment.
– Macrina the Younger, Gregory’s sister, believed after death we make perpetual progress towards God through limitless perfection.
Building on such ideas, Gregory of Nyssa synthesized the doctrine and gave it mature expression. His writings emphasize how epektasis is rooted in the infinity of God. Since God is without limits, those who share His life can experience endless growth. Human persons have an unlimited capacity for perfection.
Gregory also clarified that epektasis does not make deification the result of human effort. Rather, it is wholly God’s giving of Himself that allows participation in His life. Epektasis describes the endless dynamism of loving communion with God.
Many in the Byzantine, Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions upheld epektasis in some form. Key ideas include:
– Maximus the Confessor: Deification involves endless progression enabled by grace. The logoi (divine ideas) will be revealed over the ages.
– Thomas Aquinas: Heaven entails continuous intellectual progress as we contemplate God’s essence. This cannot be exhaustive given divine infinity.
– John Calvin: In heaven believers gain understanding progressively over ages without end. The glory of God will eternally expand before us.
– John Wesley: No limits or end to sanctification and holiness, as God’s transforming power exceeds finite human capacity.
– Karl Barth: Eternal life means knowing God increasingly without the possibility of completion. His grace makes participation endlessly dynamic.
Objections and Responses
Some theological concerns have been raised about epektasis, along with responses:
Objection: Epektasis wrongly implies God’s nature is not fully knowable. It undermines His revelation in Christ.
Reply: God truly reveals Himself in Christ, but as infinite, there are inexhaustible depths to be discovered eternally.
Objection: Epektasis undervalues the present by making heaven all about progress.
Reply: Growth comes through gratefully receiving each moment’s grace. It deepens our joy now.
Objection: If grace increases endlessly, was the grace of the apostles deficient?
Reply: Grace was sufficient for their time and calling. But God desires to share His life without limits.
Objection: Epektasis could encourage self-reliance instead of reliance on grace.
Reply: All growth comes through grace. But grace invites our cooperation for boundless sharing in divine life.
Epektasis powerfully expresses the endlessness of life in God. By His grace and Spirit, believers can grow eternally in communion with the Triune God whose depths surpass all limits. This hope-filled vision spurs us to press into ever deeper love and knowledge of our Creator. He wants intimate friendship with us through the Son, that His own divine life may blossom within us without ceasing. Epektasis calls us to avail ourselves of God’s offer by wholeheartedly seeking Him.