St. Gregory of Nyssa: “Epektasis (ἐπέκτασις)- The soul’s eternal ‘straining toward’ God”.

“Brothers, I do not yet reckon myself to have seized hold, save of one thing: Both forgetting the things lying behind and also stretching out [ἐπεκτεινόμενος] to the things lying ahead,”

Philippians 3:13 from The New Testament- a translation by David Bentley Hart


Background – A Brief Summary of Gregory of Nyssa’s Theology

In Gregory’s account of creation, the nature-energies distinction, developed to counter Eunomius, a defender of the 4th century Arian heresy, becomes extended into a general cosmological principle.

To Gregory, the essence of God is incomprehensible, transcendent, and cannot be defined by any set of human concepts. When speaking of God’s essence, or ousia, all that can be said is what that essence is not (Against Eunomius II, IV). In saying this, Gregory anticipates the via negativa (apophatic) theology of Pseudo-Dionysius (5th century) and much of subsequent Orthodox theological thought.

If God is simply some transcendent, unknowable entity, what possible relation to the world could God ever have? Gregory answers these questions by distinguishing between God’s “nature” (phusis) and God’s “energies” (energeiai). God’s energies are the projection of the divine nature into the world; initially creating it and ultimately guiding it to its appointed destination (Beatitudes VI). The idea of God’s energies in Gregory’s theology emphasizes God’s actual presence in those parts of creation which are perfected just because of that presence. Whereas God’s nature is totally transcendent and unknowable, God’s energies are immanent and knowable to mankind. With this revelation, Gregory anticipates the more famous substance-energies distinction of the 14th century Byzantine theologian Gregory Palamas.

Gregory’s view of human nature is dominated by his belief that humans were created in the image of God. This means that because God’s transcendent nature projects energies out into the world, we would expect the same structural relationship to exist in human beings between their minds and their bodies. In fact, that is precisely what Gregory argues concerning the human nous (a word that was traditionally translated as “mind”, but by the 4th century included the Christian idea of its nature also extending beyond and separate from the physical world).

The most important characteristic of the nature of the nous is that it provides for a unity of consciousness; where the myriad perceptions from various sense organs are all coordinated with each other. Using the metaphor of a city in which family members come in by various gates but all meet somewhere inside, Gregory’s assertion is that this can occur only if we presuppose a transcendent self to which all of one’s experiences are referred (Making of Man 10). But Gregory maintains that this unity of consciousness is entirely mysterious, much like the mysterious nature of the Godhead (Making of Man 11).

Yet the nous is also extended by its energies throughout the body, which includes our ordinary sensory and psychological experiences as well as our discursive, rational mind (dianoia) (Making of Man 15; Soul and Resurrection).

There are two further important characteristics of the human nous according to Gregory. First, because the human nous is created in the image of God, it possesses a certain “dignity of royalty” (to tes basileias axioma) that is lacking in the rest of creation. Second, the nous is free. Gregory derives the freedom of the nous from the freedom of God. For God, being dependent on nothing, governs the universe through the free exercise of will; and the nous is created in God’s image (Making of Man 4).

Epektasis – the eternal ‘stretching and straining’ of the soul toward God

This concept of epektasis features heavily throughout the writings of Gregory of Nyssa (most especially in his Life of Moses and Homilies on the Song of Songs). His work leans toward an ascetic, mystical approach to the faith. Gregory believed that man’s ultimate purpose was to grow in participation in the divine. Since God is transcendent and infinite and man is created and finite, he reasoned that man could never reach a point where he fully participated in God; hence the need for the concept of epektasis. Gregory rejected the more typical view that happiness and perfection are found in attaining a concrete spiritual goal. Rather, he suggested, since humanity is incapable of reaching the actual transcendent perfection of God, purpose and meaning are found in progress toward that relationship standard. Gregory’s views on spiritualty had an early and lasting impact on the Eastern Orthodox interpretation of theosis.

Epektasis is derived from a Greek word found in verses such as Philippians 3:13, where it is translated as “stretching out.” Epectasis, like askesis, is a term from athletics. It implies something that is becoming, developing, being strived for. 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 spiritual growth and development. That is, it is the internal change we experience that produces a sense of happiness, not the achievement of any particular goal. Specifically, epektasis emphasizes the need for continual “spiritual transformation” and suggests this process will continue forever in eternity. For Gregory, it is the journey that is important.

As Gregory puts it, “Deity is in everything, penetrating it, embracing it, and seated in it” (Great Catechism 25). So, we directly experience the divine energies in the only thing in the universe that we can view from within – ourselves. God’s energies are always a force for good. Thus, we encounter them in the experience of virtues such as purity, passionlessness (apatheia), sanctity, and simplicity in our own moral character. “if . . . these things be in you,” Gregory concludes, “God is indeed in you” (Beatitudes VI).

Gregory tells us epektasis also imposes certain obligations on us in relation to both others and ourselves. To others we owe mercy (Beatitudes V) and the Christian virtue of agape (Beatitudes VII). To ourselves we owe the effort to overcome (through askesis; athletic training) the deficiencies and shortcomings in our likeness to God; for we are unable to contemplate God directly, and morally our free will has been compromised by the passions (pathe). Thus, with respect to ourselves we must continuously stretch out our souls (epektasis; like a straining athlete), toward intellectual and moral perfection (Beatitudes III).


“Whereby he has given us his precious and majestic promises, so that through these you may become communicants in the divine nature, having escaped from the decay that is in the cosmos on account of desire.”

2 Peter 1:4 from The New Testament- a translation by David Bentley Hart


Text references (by Gregory of Nyssa):
Against Eunomius
Homilies on the Beatitudes
On the Making of Man
On the Soul and the Resurrection
The Life of Moses
Homilies on the Song of Songs
The Great Catechism

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  1. #1 by johnbholt on April 21, 2023 - 7:36 AM

    I have always felt that practice (process or procedure) is as important (or more so) than the result. There is great benefit in the aphorism “act yourself into the right way of thinking.” This posting on Gregory and epektasis is right on the mark. Indeed, the joy is in the journey.

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