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Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Gregory of Nyssa and Epektasis


One of the most important contributions made by Gregory of Nyssa should be seen in light of a prevailing belief of the day, namely, that the Platonic notion of perfection is static as opposed to movement or change. It is here that Gregory breaks with a strong philosophical position--that stability is perfection and that alteration is for the worse. It was therefore easy to envisage in Christian terms, for example in Origen, that humankind "fell" from perfection and needed to return to this static state of existence. On the other hand, Gregory saw perfection in terms of constant progress, the term for which is epektasis, perpetual ascent or striving (see Phil. 3:13), his most notable contribution to theology. In Gregory’s theology, God himself has always been perfect and has never changed, and never will. Humanity fell from grace in the Garden of Eden, but rather than return to an unchanging state, humanity's goal is to become more and more perfect, more like God (theosis), even though humanity will never understand, much less attain, God's transcendence. Since there is no limit to perfection, the same applies to virtue. Thus progress is never-ending.

While this notion of advancement can be misunderstood as giving rise to a certain unfulfillment, Gregory sees the soul as never satiated; as soon as it attains one degree of satiety, it advances with increased ardor to the next and so forth. This idea is based in Gregory's most fundamental perception, namely, that human mutability enables us to make constant progress while on the other hand, God's transcendence can never be grasped. This incomprehensibility of God is established in his infinity which for Gregory is a positive insight as opposed to the Greek philosophical tradition which held it as being formless.

Gregory of Nyssa expresses his ideas through the vehicle of allegorical representation which can appear alien to a modern reader. However, one cannot help but be captivated by his original notion of epektasis, perpetual ascent or striving, which runs throughout most of his writings. If only Nietzsche, who wrote "all joy wants eternity, wants deep, deep, deep eternity!", studied Gregory.


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