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What is the meaning of epektasis?

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Epektasis is derived from a Greek word found in verses such as Philippians 3:13, where it is translated as “straining toward.” The term implies something that is becoming, striving, or developing. It has alternately been understood as “evolving” or “growing.” As it pertains to Christian theology, epektasis implies that true joy in Christian living is found in the process of growth and development. That is, it is the change we experience that produces a sense of happiness, not the achievement of any particular goal. Specifically, epektasis emphasizes the need for “spiritual transformation” and suggests this process will continue forever in eternity.

This concept of epektasis features heavily in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa. His work leans toward an ascetic, mystical approach to the faith. Gregory rejected the more typical view that happiness and perfection are found in attaining a goal. Rather, he suggested, since humanity is incapable of reaching the actual perfection of God, purpose and meaning are found in progress toward that standard. Gregory’s flavor of spiritualty had an impact on the Eastern Orthodox interpretation of theosis.

As applied to Christian faith, the most controversial facet of epektasis is what it implies for man’s spiritual condition in eternity. First John 3:2, for instance, says that, when Christ appears, “we shall be like him.” The traditional interpretation of statements like this is that believers will immediately attain spiritual perfection—or at least obtain some fixed and permanent level of holiness.

Certain views of epektasis would suggest the opposite: that, while we will be markedly changed when we meet Christ, we will spend all of eternity “progressing” to be more and more like God, never actually arriving at that goal. In and of itself, this version of epektasis is not necessarily wrong. There is much about eternity and heaven that God has not yet revealed to us. The debate over whether we will be “unchanging” or “progressing” in heaven is ultimately a matter of details and definitions.

What’s more concerning is how the concept of epektasis can be applied to earthly spirituality in incorrect ways. While epektasis is not at all the same thing as process theology, clumsy application can invite relativism or inconsistent doctrine. It’s one thing to suggest we’ll spend eternity growing ever closer to God. It’s another to claim that mankind has evolved or progressed to the point that “old” views of sin, salvation, morality, and the Bible can be cast aside. Such “progressive” applications of epektasis are wrong.

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This page last updated: March 29, 2024