Chapter 7: The Victory of a Stoic God

God of Empowering Love: A History and Reconception of the Theodicy Conundrum
by David P. Polk

Chapter 7: The Victory of a Stoic God

The debate has long been waged as to which Greek philosophical system most extensively underlies the development of Christian thought in the West: the Platonism and neo-Platonism appropriated by Augustine or the Aristotelianism reshaped by Thomas Aquinas. With regard to an understanding of the power and love of God, I contend that neither was victorious. The actual philosophical model that became dominant in this particular respect was, in fact, Stoicism.


The title of this philosophical movement comes from the Greek philosopher Zeno’s habit of lecturing formally on the Stoa Poikile, the “Painted Porch,” in Athens around 300 BCE. The “late Stoics” are represented in Rome by the ex-slave Epictetus (ca. 50–138 CE) and the emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180).

It is not the Stoics’ doctrine of God itself so much as the ethic of stoicism imposed upon the divine that has been utilized: to be utterly tranquil, unaffected by external exigencies, nonattached, disinterested— in short, apathetic (apatheia). [102]

Live according to the benevolence and orderliness of the universe. The consequence of such a life is apatheia, or euthymia, spiritual peace and well-being . . . Having achieved this ultimate goal, one’s life is as autonomous, as uniform, and as benevolent as God himself.1

In underscoring the inclusion of pathos as a valid aspect of the witness of the biblical prophets, Abraham Heschel traced the avoidance of this concession back to the influence of the fundamental Stoic stance:

The Stoics regarded passion, impulse, desire—the emotions in the widest sense—as unreasonable, unnatural, and the source of evil. To live rightly was to dominate the emotional life by reason, and so to act by will. Pathos was considered to be the chief danger to the self-determination of man, whereas “apathy”—the subduing of the emotions—was believed to be the supreme moral task.2

Heschel quotes Zeno as having defined pathos as “a movement in the soul contrary to reason to the soul’s very nature.”3

Marcus Aurelius observed in his Meditations (170–80) the importance of “keeping the divinity within us free from violence and unharmed, superior to pain and pleasure . . . not feeling the need of another’s doing or not doing something; and, furthermore, accepting all that happens and all that is allotted us, as coming from the source, wherever it is, whence it itself came.”4 There is here, of course, a definite touch of determinism, of simply “going with the flow”: “Love only that which happens to you and is woven with the thread of your destiny.”5 But the relevancy of these observations is the notion of not becoming attached to anything outside oneself, so that Aurelius can finally propose: “Wipe out fancy; check desire; extinguish appetite; keep your ruling faculty in control.”6 In short, achieve an attitude of sublime indifference toward everything outside your own being.7 Be benevolent toward others, certainly, but without any expectation of your benevolence making any difference in the flow of the universe.



I am by no means the first to observe this dominant role of the Stoic ethic in how the theistic synthesis came to be expressed in the theologians I have been analyzing up to this point. Well over half a century ago, Charles Hartshorne offered this observation:

Just as the Stoics said the ideal was to have good will toward all but not in such fashion as to depend in any degree for happiness upon their fortunes or misfortunes, so Christian theologians, who scarcely accepted this idea in their ethics, nevertheless adhered to it in characterizing God.8

And more recently, on this same point, Nicholas Wolterstorff concluded:

the Augustinian God turns out to be remarkably like the Stoic sage: devoid of passions, unfamiliar with longing, foreign to suffering, dwelling in steady bliss, exhibiting to others only benevolence. Augustine fought free of the Stoic (and neo-Platonic) vision when it came to humanity; when it came to God, he succumbed.9

Jürgen Moltmann appears to be the one who has devoted the greatest amount of attention to this matter. His overall contribution to our subject will be examined in a later chapter, but it is pertinent here to lift up his evaluation of the role Stoic ideas played in the established view on God’s love and power.

In The Crucified God (originally, 1972), an intentionally provocative title, Moltmann saw clearly that traditional Christian thought tried to resolve the tension between God’s love and God’s self-contained immutability by championing the Stoic elevation of apatheia as a way of characterizing a divine love that is no in way affected by the recipient of that love. Agape was translated into apathetic love:

What Christianity proclaimed as the agape of God and the believer was rarely translated as pathos. Because true agape derives from liberation from the inward and outward fetters of the flesh (sarx), and loves without self-seeking and anxiety . . . apatheia could be taken up as an enabling ground for this love and be [104] filled with it. Love arises from the spirit and from freedom, not from desire or anxiety. The apathic God could therefore be understood as the free God who freed others for himself. The negation of need, desire and compulsion expressed by apatheia was taken up and filled with a new positive content.10

Clearly the elevation of non-pathos was not limited to Stoic writings; it permeates much of ancient Greek philosophy in general. But it is so explicitly at the heart of Stoicism that I claim justification for the thesis of this chapter. This comes with the strong conviction that the process of undoing the bondage of biblical witness to unhelpful philosophical categories will necessarily include this reversal as a key component of challenge and reconstruction. Apathetic love is not biblical love. A more satisfactory way of comprehending divine love may well pave the way to a more viable way of reconceiving divine power.


Gordon Kaufman (1925–2011) has called attention to an overemphasis on “God’s tyrannical omnipotence” that offended many sensitive and thoughtful humanists who found it impossible to worship or believe in such a deity.

The horrendous evils in human society, especially as these have come clearly into view in the twentieth century, suggest that only a terrible monster-God could have been responsible for our world. If God is indeed omnipotent, the one whose will is being realized in our history, God is not one whom we should serve but rather one whom we should loathe and despise and against whom we should struggle with all our strength. Worship of such a being could, in fact, evoke from devotees harsh and authoritarian attitudes and actions similar to those attributed to God.11

It seems hardly coincidental that the term in English for those who reject the reality of God is “atheism.” That becomes understandable, to me, specifically as a-theism, much more the rejection of theism’s God than of a God more accurately conceived. Atheism is never the denial [105] of God in general. It always takes the shape of the denial of a particular way of conceiving of God.12 The Stoic God of classical Christian theism has become a problem to be resolved.

How do we move beyond the impasse? Many voices have not been heard up to now. The voices to which I wish to pay extensive attention are those that might be called “counter-testimonies.”13 Challenges to the Augustinian synthesis can be found as far back as the Middle Ages themselves, but they become stronger and more widespread only in more recent times, continuing emphatically into the present. The variety of concerns and issues finding expression in these counter-testimonies contributes each in its own way to chipping away at a crumbling and increasingly uninhabitable edifice, suggesting valuable alternatives that merit consideration as attempts at a new resolution are explored. To these we now turn.


  1. Philip P. Hallie, “Stoicism,” in Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1967), 8:21.
  2. Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 2:32.
  3. Ibid., 2:33.
  4. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2:17, tr. Charles Long, rev., in Marcus Aurelius and His Times (Roslyn, New York: Walter J. Black, Inc., 1945), 25.
  5. Ibid., 7:57 (Long, 76).
  6. Ibid., 9:7 (Long, 93). See also 3:6 (Long, 29).
  7. See, e.g., ibid., 11:16 (Long, 119).
  8. Charles Hartshorne, Man’s Vision of God (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941), 116.
  9. Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Suffering Love,” in Thomas V. Morris, ed., Philosophy and the Christian Faith (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 210.
  10. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the [106] Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, tr. R. A. Wilson and John Bowden (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 269f. See 267–78 for his full discussion of the topic, particularly as it applies to Jewish tradition and responses to the Holocaust.
  11. Gordon D. Kaufman, The Theological Imagination: Constructing the Concept of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1981), 42.
  12. As a quick illustration of this point, consider the frequent remarks of Bill Maher on his HBO weekly television show.
  13. I am indebted to Walter Brueggemann for this term, in the title of Part II of his Theology of the Old Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 315.