Stoicism and Christian Ethics

Elizabeth Agnew Cochran

It is widely accepted that the Stoics had a decisive influence on historical Christian thought, particularly Christian ethics. But the nature of this influence is contested among contemporary scholars. Moreover, even those historical and contemporary theologians who engage with Stoic writings recognize that certain Stoic positions, most notably the Stoics’ tendency towards fatalism, their radical rejection of the emotions including grief and anger, and their positive account of suicide, are incompatible with Christian teaching. Despite these complexities, the Stoics remain significant both for understanding the historical development of Christian thought and for contemporary Christian practice. This article familiarizes the reader with major contours of contemporary scholarship on the Stoics’ import for Christian ethics and suggests possible directions for constructive scholarship through which contemporary Christian ethicists may continue to engage the work of the Stoics.

1 General historical overview

In considering the Stoic influence on Christian thought, it is important to begin with a general account of the thinkers and positions associated with the Stoic school, as well as developments in this school over time. A general discussion of how the Stoics were received in later centuries is also instructive; different Stoics were read in certain historical eras and contexts, and the emphases of different thinkers shaped the ways in which Christians historically encountered and responded to Stoicism as a whole. This section briefly identifies and differentiates the range of Stoic philosophers, makes note of the ways in which early and medieval Christian theology developed in conversation with Stoicism, and concludes with a discussion of the reception of Stoicism in modernity and its influence on Christian thinkers.

1.1 Three major eras of Stoic thought

Scholars commonly recognize three eras of Stoicism: the ancient Stoa, the middle Stoa, and the Roman Stoa. The ancient Stoa and Roman Stoa were particularly influential on Christian thought. The philosopher Zeno of Citium is the most significant thinker of the ancient Stoa. Zeno founded the Stoic school in Athens in 301 BCE, shortly after Aristotle’s death (Colish 1985: 7 [vol.1]). Many of Zeno’s positions emerged in conversation with other Hellenistic philosophical traditions. Zeno studied with philosophers in the Megarian School, established by a well-known follower of Socrates, and it is highly likely that he was familiar with Aristotle’s ideas as well (Long 1986: 8–10).

After Zeno’s death, the Stoic school was led by Cleanthes, who modified Stoic thought in a manner that made it more theological. A general religious orientation in Stoicism became more pronounced in the thought of Chrysippus, who became head of the Stoic school in 232 BCE. Chrysippus refined and expanded Stoic teaching through engaging critiques that were put forth by competing philosophical schools, particularly the Skeptics (Colish 1985: 10 [vol.1]). Christoph Jeden’s study of Chrysippus is particularly attentive to the ways that Chrysippus’s religious convictions shape his ethics. Jeden argues that all Stoic philosophy has a ‘religious tenor’ that Chrysippus particularly exemplifies in his belief that the divine will shapes and orders the world and that virtue consists in living in accord with the divine nature (2009: 9–30, 61). Chrysippus’s religious commitments are important for making sense of some of the beliefs that have come to be seen as distinctive of Stoic ethics: an understanding of the virtues as unified but distinct, and the notion that virtue, as the sole good, is both necessary and sufficient for happiness (Jeden 2009: 75–80, 140).

The other era of Stoicism whose thinkers most directly influenced Christian theologians is the third stage, the Roman Stoa, which took place in the first and second century CE. The Roman Stoa held a distinctive interest in ethics and was particularly focused on questions of practical application, the way that Stoic ethics might speak to the people in their concrete circumstances. The three most prolific and influential Roman Stoics were Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Seneca was a wealthy politician who faced a number of challenges and dilemmas during the reigns of the emperors Claudius and Nero. Epictetus was a Greek slave who was living in Rome, and, after being freed, studied Stoic philosophy under Musonius Rufus. Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Roman Stoics, was emperor of Rome from 161–180 (Colish 1985: 12–21 [vol.1]).

As Julia Annas (1993) notes, the ancient Stoics share with Aristotle and other ancient philosophical approaches a eudaimonistic and teleological framework that distinguishes them from modern approaches to ethics. The Stoics equate the good life with a life in accordance with Nature, which some Stoics, particularly in the Roman era, equate with God (Sellars 2006: 125–128). Human beings pursue this life through cultivating virtue, a quality that comprises our good as rational beings. One characteristic Stoic claim is that virtue is the only thing that is genuinely good. As the only genuine good, virtue is both necessary and sufficient for human beings to achieve eudaimonia (flourishing or happiness) (Sellars 2006: 110–112). The Stoic understanding of virtue reflects a way of conceiving the world and human beings’ place within it that the Stoics saw as in contrast with Epicureanism. Epicureanism was a movement that linked morality to the achievement of pleasure and saw the gods as transcendent beings disinterested in the world. Zeno and later Stoics opposed Epicureanism and argued instead that the world is coherently and rationally ordered and that humans are connected to this order through our faculty of reason (Long 1986: 110–112).

1.2 The Stoics’ reception in early Christianity

The degree to which the Stoics influenced various Christian authors is the subject of debate (see Christianity and Graeco-Roman Paganism), but it is clear that many theological positions were developed in contexts in which the Stoics were widely read, and that numerous Christian authors read the Stoics directly. The apostle Paul was from Tarsus, a centre of Stoic philosophy, and some scholars suggest that Paul’s sermon to the Athenians in Areopagus (Acts 17) may quote from a hymn to Zeus written by the Stoic Cleanthes. The nature and extent of the Stoics’ influence on Paul’s epistles, and on Pauline ethics specifically, is contested, as will be discussed further below.

Less disputed is a recognition that Stoicism was central to the intellectual climates in which a number of Christian authors wrote. By the second century, Greek and Latin Christian writers commonly encountered and engaged Stoic writings. One of the most notable examples of Stoic influence on Greek Christianity consists in the reception of Epictetus’s Encheiridion by the monastic tradition. Christian theologians adapted the Encheiridion on three occasions, showing their dedicated engagement with Stoic ideas. Two of the manuscripts (one falsely attributed to Nilus Ancyranus, the other found in Vaticanus gr. 2231) did not significantly modify the original text of the Encheiridion. The third, the Paraphrasis Christiana, changed the Encheiridion more dramatically (Boter 1999: xiv). The Stoic understanding of apatheia also informed the Greek monastic tradition. The ascetical writings of Evagrius are often highlighted as a paradigmatic example of this influence. Evagrius’s discussion of how Christians can resist temptations characterizes the rejection of certain mental representations or ‘bad thoughts’ as an important part of making progress towards apatheia. Scholars have traditionally seen the Stoics as the primary philosophical influence on Evagrius’s account of mental representations (e.g. Sorabji 2002; Knuutilla 2004), though more recently other scholars have contended that Evagrius’s theory is more Platonic than Stoic (e.g. Corrigan 2009; Gibbons 2015).

Some Latin patristic authors found clear points of contact between Stoicism and Christianity, for example by identifying Seneca as a ‘sage’, by speculating that the Stoics must have acquired their wisdom from the scriptures, and, in the fourth century, by forging correspondence between Seneca and St. Paul (Colish 1985: 15–17 [vol.1]). At times, Latin authors accepted specific Stoic claims but worked to ‘Christianize’ them or use them as ‘constructive tools for the formulation and defense of Christian doctrine’. At other points, these authors found much of Stoicism antithetical to Christian teaching. In a landmark study of the ways that early Christian theologians encountered the Stoics, Marcia L. Colish recognizes that this range of attitudes towards Stoic ideas is evident even within the writing of individual thinkers (Colish 1985: 4–7 [vol.2]).

Augustine’s interaction with the Stoics exemplifies the array of differing approaches to Stoic thought that Colish describes. Augustine was familiar with a broad range of Stoic sources in Greek and Latin and demonstrates a respect for the classical tradition of which Stoicism is a part. Augustine reads the Stoics in both positive and negative ways, drawing on some ideas without changing them, rejecting others, and reshaping others (Colish 1985: 209 [vol.2]). His assessment of particular Stoic commitments changes over time (Gregory 2008: 275–280), but the complex character of his response to the Stoics is evident even in individual texts. In The City of God, for example, Augustine is critical of a Stoic account of fate in Book 5 but simultaneously appreciates the ways in which this fate recognizes the providential ordering of a benevolent God at work in the world. In book 9, he presents selected claims of Stoic ethics in a fairly positive light. In book 14, he expresses agreement with substantial claims in Stoic ethics, such as a view of virtue as summum bonum and an alignment of virtue with reason, but ultimately treats Stoic doctrine as an expression of the earthly city (Brooke 2012: 1–11).

1.3 Christianity and Stoicism in modernity

Seneca’s ethical writings remained popular throughout the Middle Ages (Colish 1985: 17–19 [vol.1]), and some medieval Christians interacted with Stoic texts. Certain figures central to Victorine and Cistercian spirituality, most notably Isaac of Stella, drew on accounts of the human being and the moral life rooted in Stoic philosophy (Knuutilla 2004). Additionally, a number of medieval authors, including Peter Abelard and Peter Lombard, worked to navigate whether Christian virtue should be pursued for its own sake, for the sake of beatitude, or both, a question that further considers and refines some of Augustine’s concerns regarding Stoic thought (Bejczy 2009: 107–113). But there was a marked revival of interest in Stoic thought in the Renaissance and Reformation, especially among thinkers interested in finding ways to articulate a universal ethic. In the sixteenth century, the works of the Roman Stoics became available in printed form in Europe, and writings originally in Greek were translated into Latin and other vernacular languages. Erasmus published editions of Seneca in the early 1500s. The result was a new era of interest in Stoic thought (Colish 1979: 2–3).

Engagement with Stoic thinking informed the arguments of many modern philosophers, including Grotius, Shaftesbury, Rousseau, Kant, and Adam Smith (Brooke 2012). Some modern philosophers worked deliberately to synthesize ideas from Christianity and Stoic ethics. The sixteenth-century Flemish humanist Justus Lipsius made efforts to reconstruct Stoic thought through a Christianized reading that drew on Christian authors such as Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, Jerome, Clement of Alexandria, and Augustine (Papy 2009: 149–150). In the seventeenth century, Gilles Boileau published a biography of Epictetus that characterized Epictetus as the pagan philosopher whose thought is closest to Christian ethics, and, apart from his acceptance of suicide, as compatible with the Christian gospel (Colish 1979: 2–3). In the eighteenth century, Francis Hutcheson, an influential moral philosopher who taught at the University of Glasgow and who was ordained in the Presbyterian Church, made use of a Christianized reading of Roman Stoic thought to argue for a view of human nature that countered the notion (popularized in the work of Thomas Hobbes and Bernard Mandeville) that vice and self-interest are important tools for society’s thriving. While Hutcheson’s relation to Stoic thought is more complex than that of some other modern thinkers, scholars commonly recognize his views of divine providence and human nature as reflecting a Christianized Stoicism (Brooke 2012: 159–164).

This brief historical overview demonstrates the recurrence, over time, of the notion that there is some degree of compatibility or complementarity between Stoicism and Christian thought. The relation between Stoic and Christian moral thought was of interest both to major thinkers in the Christian intellectual tradition and to those who read and received them, particularly in modernity; the work of Hutcheson, for example, was influential for a number of Scottish Presbyterian clergy (Sher 1985). We will see below, however, that the relation of Stoic and Christian thought raises certain concerns, and that a consideration of the historical interplay between these traditions informs some of these concerns.

2 Christian engagement with the Stoics: concerns and challenges

2.1 Historical concerns

Many contemporary scholars express concern about exploring questions about the interplay of Stoic and Christian ethics because of the role that Stoic retrieval played in the emergence of modern moral thought. Beginning in the late seventeenth century and continuing through the eighteenth century, many Enlightenment thinkers drew on Stoicism to develop positions that would call Christian theology into question, positions more in keeping with rational theism and that opened pathways to secularism (Colish 1979: 3–4). Contemporary analyses of this historical shift consider whether the widespread retrieval of the Stoics in support of rational theism and humanism indicates that Stoic thought intrinsically lends itself to the emergence of secularism. Alasdair MacIntyre (2007 [first published 1981]) associates the modern retrieval of Stoic thought with the decline of virtue, as well as the decline of the teleological framework that gives meaning and coherence to moral convictions (2007: 168–169, 233–234). MacIntyre’s analysis does not directly address the continuity between Stoicism and Christianity; his narrative implicates the Protestant Reformation, as well as Stoicism, in the decline of virtue theory and the development of modern ethics (2007: 52–54; 1998: 121–126 [first published 1966]). But his narrative does suggest that Stoic retrieval is a project that tends towards Enlightenment thought, including the emergence of philosophical positions that prioritize the individual and their decision-making powers as central to the enterprise of ethics.

Charles Taylor (2007) similarly presents Stoic retrieval as a project that tends towards secular moral thinking. He argues that the efforts of thinkers such as Lipsius to synthesize Christianity with Stoicism marks a step towards the later modern emergence of a Deist and humanist ethic, even as Lipsius’s own neo-Stoicism is theistic and Lipsius conceives God as necessary to his moral system (2007: 115–117). In considering whether Stoicism necessarily promotes a secular worldview – a worldview that places great ‘confidence in our own powers of moral ordering’ – Taylor ultimately argues that ancient pagan philosophical systems, including Stoicism, should not be thought of as an ‘exclusive humanism’ insofar as it places humans ‘in a larger spiritual or cosmic order’ and resists ‘disenchantment and the mechanistic universe’. Nevertheless, Taylor concludes that certain reconstructions of Stoic ethics helped to shape the emergence of modern accounts of Deism and humanism (2007: 27, 250, 289–291).

2.2 Methodological concerns

Efforts to consider the Stoics’ import for contemporary Christian ethics raise methodological questions as well as historical ones. C. Kavin Rowe (2016) challenges a number of contemporary efforts to assess the influence of Stoic ideas on Christian thought and to suggest that Christian ideas and positions are partly indebted to Stoicism. Most scholarship on Christianity and Roman Stoicism depends on comparisons of ideas that have been abstracted from each tradition, an approach that Rowe contends is consistent with what MacIntyre (1990) describes as an encyclopedic approach to knowledge. This scholarship presumes that Christianity and Roman Stoicism can be understood by appealing to a rationality that draws on a generalized account of human nature, rather than relying on separate rationalities internal to their traditions (Rowe 2016: 175–203). Rowe argues that it is more appropriate to look at the work of particular Stoic and Christian thinkers as representatives of distinct and coherent traditions that are grounded in competing views of life. Stoic and Christian ideas cannot be detached from the particular narrative commitments that ground them. Any comparison of the traditions must carefully explicate these differing narratives (Rowe 2016: 206–224). Linguistic terms, such as ‘God’, ‘human being’, and ‘society’, do not easily translate across the traditions and must instead be understood through each tradition’s particular grammar (2016: 225–230).

Rowe’s work urges contemporary scholars to be attentive to the broader contexts of narrative and tradition when interpreting both Christian and Stoic thinkers, and not to be overly confident in presuming easy comparisons between the traditions. At the same time, many scholars would contend that Stoicism so fully permeated the contexts in which Christian thought developed that the distinction between the two traditions is not as marked as Rowe’s account would suggest. Recognition that historical Christian thinkers themselves engaged, adapted, altered, and transformed selected ideas and arguments from Stoic philosophers requires a picture of the two traditions, and corresponding forms of life, as less separable than Rowe presumes.

2.3 Theological concerns

While Stoicism’s historical influence on Christian thought is well supported, Christian theologians across the centuries have been fairly consistent in rejecting certain tenets of Stoicism. The efforts theologians make to differentiate Christian theological convictions from Stoic views demonstrate the complexity of the relation between the two traditions. Recognizing the major theological concerns that historical and contemporary Christian thinkers raise about Stoicism is an important step in discerning the nature of Stoic influence on the tradition.

One major concern relates to the Stoics’ understanding of the divine nature. In an effort to counter the Epicureans’ view of the gods as transcendent and disinterested in human affairs, the Stoics emphasize divine immanence to a degree that tends towards pantheism, a position that aligns God’s being with the substance of the natural world. Diogenes Laertius, a third-century author who wrote biographies of ancient Greek philosophers, affirms that the Stoics use the term ‘world’ (kosmos) to describe both divine being and the being of the world. He describes the Stoic view of creation as one in which God, who contains all being, makes the world and reconsumes and reproduces it from his own being: God is ‘the peculiarly qualified individual consisting of all substance, who is indestructible and ingenerable, since he is the manufacturer of the world-order, at set periods of time consuming all substance into himself and reproducing it again from himself’ (Diogenes Laertius 7.137; in Long and Sedley 1987: 270). Christian theology, in contrast, has traditionally maintained that God’s being is distinct from the world; as Being itself, God transcends the created world. At the same time, God’s transcendence and distinction from the world makes it possible for God graciously to be immanent to the world, so that God is both immanent and transcendent (Tanner 1988; Burrell 1990). A conception of God as both transcendent and distinct from the created world helps to support the view that creation is a loving and gracious act of God rather than a necessary, spontaneous outcome of God’s being and goodness overflowing. The notion that divine and created being are distinct is also important to the traditional doctrine of the incarnation, which recognizes the incarnate Jesus Christ as fully divine and fully human, with neither nature collapsing into the other.

A second concern about Stoic thought relates to the Stoics’ view of fate. In contrast to the Judeo-Christian tradition, which affirms God’s concern for particular human beings and the details of their lives, the early Stoics and Chrysippus deny that providence is highly personalized. In describing early Stoic thought, Cicero affirms that ‘it is not a Stoic doctrine that the gods concern themselves with individual cracks in the liver or individual bird-songs. That is unbecoming, unworthy of the gods, and quite impossible’ (Cicero, On Divination 1.117–118; in Long and Sedley 1987: 261). The Roman Stoics more clearly affirm a view of providence that is closer to the Christian view of God as actively working to order the world towards its good. Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus also generally characterize God as a personal being rather than an abstract and impersonal fate, and present God’s oversight of the world as rational and benevolent. But even the Roman Stoics present a view of God’s work in the universe in ways that are at times at odds with Christian theology. For example, even as Seneca speaks of God as a ‘father’ who ‘loves’ human beings (On Providence: 5), he also upholds a strict enough account of fate to affirm that God is bound by fate’s laws. God created the universe and was the original author of ‘fate’s decrees’, but after making these decrees ‘once’, God is required to ‘obey’ them for eternity. Seneca likewise believes that all events of the world are predetermined. This position leads him towards a moral stance that indicates that just as faith guides God’s actions, so should humans resign themselves to the workings of fate: ‘the duty of a good man’ is ‘to offer himself to fate’ (On Providence: 14–15). The degree of resignation that some of the Stoics encourage, coupled with the somewhat emotionally detached view of God that some of them advocate, has led Christian theologians to be uneasy with their views of fate and providence and to argue that some parts of the Stoic views are incompatible with Christian understandings of God and God’s relation to the created world. Yet Christian accounts of providence are not entirely out of keeping with the views that some Stoics, particularly Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, articulate, as will be discussed below.

3 The Stoics and Christian scripture: reading Pauline epistles in conversation with the Stoics

The question of whether and how Stoic thought may have informed the New Testament has interested Christian theologians for centuries. But whereas Christians through early modernity were often comfortable with the notion of influence across these traditions (as described above), by the nineteenth century, questions about the relation of Stoicism and New Testament writings were a greater source of tension, and even anxiety, for Christian theologians and scholars. The theological and historical concerns noted above seem to inform the tension evident in nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholarship on the relation of Christianity and Stoicism.

In both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, academic considerations of the relation between Stoicism and Christianity demonstrated a sort of anxiety about the possible implications of establishing such a relationship. Perhaps this anxiety reflected an awareness that eighteenth-century thinkers had made use of Stoic thought to develop views of ethics that excluded Christianity. A number of nineteenth-century scholars overtly worked to defend the superiority of Christianity over Stoicism. Some of these thinkers, such as the German theologians G. H. Klippel and J. C. F. Meyer, emphasized the stark differences between Stoic ethics and the New Testament and the importance of treating the two as separate traditions in order to preserve the integrity of each (and particularly the integrity of Christianity, the superior tradition). Others argued for compatibility between Stoic ethics and New Testament ethics but concluded, on the basis of this compatibility, that the Roman Stoics were in some way influenced by the New Testament. While some scholars argued that Epictetus must have been influenced by the New Testament even if he was unaware of it, the most influential work of this kind was Amedee Fleury’s two-volume work published in 1853 arguing that Seneca had converted to Christianity. Fleury’s work was widely read by his contemporaries but disregarded a few decades later, partly because Fleury relied on early Christian theories about a correspondence between St. Paul and Seneca, without seemingly realizing that Erasmus had discredited this correspondence a few centuries before Fluery wrote (Colish 1979: 5–8). A later wave of concern about what might be at stake in comparing the traditions occurred in the twentieth century, in response to the work of Rudolf Bultmann, who argued that Paul drew heavily on the Stoics, particularly in developing his moral arguments. Some Christian scholars responded to this idea with ‘horror’ and concern that Bultmann’s approach would appear to undermine the uniqueness of the Christian gospel (Colish 1979: 10–12).

By the late 1970s, Colish offers a summary of the current state of the field that suggests both that her contemporaries no longer assert the view that Christianity influenced the Stoics, and at the same time, that the possible convergence of Hellenistic and biblical ideas is by and large no longer seen as threatening to these traditions. In general, she indicates, comparison between the two traditions is seen as a worthwhile enterprise for scholarly exploration (Colish 1979: 13–14). Her analysis of the field seems more or less consistent with its current state, although the work of Rowe (2016), discussed above, articulates contemporary concerns about the methodological problems that arise in efforts to argue for constructive interplay between the Stoic and Christian traditions.

While the question of the Stoics’ direct influence on Paul is indeterminate, some contemporary biblical scholars argue that comparing Paul’s letters with Stoic writings is instructive for interpreting the Pauline epistles, simply because of the Stoics’ importance to the context in which these letters were written and the likelihood that the letters’ original audiences would have been familiar with Stoic ideas. For example, Timothy A. Brookins (2014) argues that Stoicism is valuable for interpreting many of the ideas Paul lays out in 1 Corinthians. He contends that the self-identified ‘wise men’ at Corinth described themselves using Stoic language, and that Paul’s letter makes overt use of Stoic philosophical arguments, such as the Stoic view of ‘knowledge’ and ‘weakness’ and the Stoics’ account of freedom, to engage and challenge this audience (2014: 153–200). Runar M. Thorsteinsson (2010) argues that Roman Stoic ethics are instructive for interpreting Paul’s moral teaching in Romans 12–15, in part because Paul makes use of specific Greek terms from the Stoics that would be familiar to his Roman audience from their knowledge of Stoic thought. The initial section of Romans 12 makes use of standard Stoic terminology for speaking about human beings’ relation to God and the ways that human beings best serve God through worship and through seeking the good, aligning their minds with God’s. Paul’s emphasis on the needs of the community as a whole is also consistent with the Stoics’ concern for the ‘social dimension of ethics’ evidenced in virtues such as humanitas and clementia (2010: 23–28).

The contemporary biblical scholar who has considered possible connections between Pauline and Stoic thought most extensively is Troels Engberg-Pedersen. Engberg-Pedersen (2010) does not argue that the Stoics necessarily influenced Paul, but he nevertheless maintains that Stoicism was clearly central to the ‘philosophical environment’ in which Paul wrote (2010: 19). Reading Paul in conversation with the Stoics, Engberg-Pedersen explains, therefore helps to make sense of Paul’s texts (2000: 1–5). Engberg-Pedersen suggests points of congruence between Stoic philosophy and aspects of Paul’s writings, such as his ethics. For example, he offers an extended comparison between Epictetus’s and Paul’s accounts of divine and human freedom and agency, arguing that both authors navigate a relationship between divine and human agency that runs counter to views of freedom that associate human agency with autonomy. For both Paul and the Stoics, Engberg-Pedersen contends, human beings experience genuine freedom through first coming to understand the world as governed by divine providence, and then embodying a model of agency consonant of this providence, agency that stretches towards God (2010: 108).

Engberg-Pedersen shows how engagement with the Stoics helps to illuminate Paul’s texts by developing an extended comparison between the writings of Epictetus (who is slightly younger than Paul but who lived at the same time) and those of Paul. Paul differs from Epictetus in one important way; Paul sees this knowledge of God as in a sense ‘unpredictable’ and ‘inscrutable’, not something that can be entirely discerned through reason but that also requires revelation. Revelation points to facets of God’s actions and character – in particular God’s capacity to generate life from death – that depart from Greek wisdom (2010: 134–135). But there are points of similarity also: both thinkers, Engberg-Pedersen explains, understand human agency in similar ways, as predicated on cognition and the knowledge of God’s providence, and achieved in a sort of alignment of oneself with God. Moreover, when a Stoic sage (through reason) or a Christian (through reason and revelation) comes to know God, this knowledge has the character of genuine wisdom (2010: 136–137). For Engberg-Pedersen, as for Brookins and Thorsteinsson, the similarities and dissimilarities between Paul and the Stoics help make sense of the ethic Paul develops in his letters.

4 The believer and the community: the Stoics’ contemporary significance

4.1 Providence and moral responsibility

There are two related lines of thought in Stoic ethics whose coincidence and points of departure from Christian moral thought are particularly instructive for considering the moral arguments of select Christian theologians. The first relates to divine providence and human moral agency. As noted above, the Stoics at times make claims about the workings of fate that are decidedly at odds with the Christian understanding of God as graciously and lovingly ordering the world towards its good. But Chrysippus and the Roman Stoics do at times speak of providence in ways that are more compatible with Christian faith and that have interested and possibly informed the thinking of major Christian theologians. Though Marcus Aurelius at times employs the term ‘necessity’, he more often presents an account of providence that characterizes the divine nature (‘the gods’, or at times nature itself) as rational and benevolent. He expresses uncertainty about whether the gods are concerned for the particular circumstances of individual human beings. But regardless of this point, he is clear that the gods seek out the overall ‘interests of the Universe’ (Meditations VI.44; in Haines 1915: 155). And are thus concerned to promote ‘good for every part of Nature’ (Meditations II.3; in Haines 1915: 29). Epictetus likewise describes God’s providential oversight of the world in a manner that conceives God as rational and good, and more clearly sees God as intimately concerned with the details of the world. He affirms that God is the ‘maker, and father, and guardian’ of human beings (Epictetus Discourses I.9; Epictetus 1998: 65 [vol.1]). He draws on the language of sympatheia to describe the intimacy of God’s oversight of the world. The material world is ‘closely’ and ‘intimately’ connected to the spiritual world, and human souls are so closely related to God as to be ‘parts and portions of His being’, so that God can feel their ‘every motion’ as something happening within himself (Discourses I.14; Epictetus 1998: 99–101 [vol.1]). The sympathy between God and the created world ensures that God is ‘able to oversee all things’ (Discourses I.11; Epictetus 1998: 101 [vol.1]).

The Stoic accounts of providence and fate are in many ways at odds with Christian views of providence. In developing his highly personalized understanding of the workings of divine providence, John Calvin explicitly rejects Stoic necessity, which he sees as operating impersonally through a series of natural causes and effects (Institutes 1.16.8; Calvin 2009: 119). The pantheistic undertones of Epictetus’s account of sympatheia are also clearly at odds with the emphasis traditional Christian theology places on divine transcendence as necessary for promoting God’s intimate involvement in human affairs (Tanner 2013: 146–147). At the same time, Calvin does make clear that a Stoic account of divine providence is superior to an Epicurean view of God as detached from and disinterested in the concerns of the material world. He indicates approval of Stoic understandings of God as sovereign and human beings as rational (Partree 1977: 120–125; Kirby 2003).

Even as the Stoic and Christian views of providence diverge at several points, their broad points of common ground indicate that the Stoics can be helpful conversation partners for Christian ethicists thinking through how to articulate a vision of personal agency and moral responsibility that is compatible with a belief that God actively and providentially oversees the world, directing it towards its good. Epictetus recognizes that affirming human beings’ moral freedoms is essential to a conception of God as intrinsically good and loving (Epictetus, Discourses I.17; Epictetus 1998: 117–119 [vol.1]). As Cicero explains, the Stoics affirm that human beings have the ‘power’ to seek to live virtuously, which means choosing to live ‘according to nature and in harmony with nature’ (Cicero Tusculan Disputations XXVIII; qtd. in Becker 1998: 155). Even as the Stoics recognize that many things in life are not under our control, their ethic is not one of passive resignation to fate but of active responsibility for the pursuit of virtue (Annas 1993: 427–428). The Stoics provide intellectual tools for grappling with questions about responsibility and moral agency that can be helpful, even if adaptation is necessary, for Christian theologians wrestling with complex questions about the interplay between divine grace and human agency.

4.2 Virtue as a unified, singular, and transformative good

The second Stoic commitment important for Christian moral thought is an understanding of virtue as a unified, singular, and transformative good. The Stoics are committed to a strong account of the unity of the virtues in two different senses: the virtues are unified such that having one virtue entails having all virtues, and also, more strongly, in the sense that the core meaning of individual virtues can be predicated on one another. As Plutarch explains, Zeno identifies several distinct virtues – prudence, courage, moderation, and justice. But he affirms both that these virtues cannot be separated and that these virtues are also all defined in terms of the singular quality of prudence: courage, moderation, and justice are prudence exhibited in particular circumstances (Plutarch, On Stoic Self-Contradictions 1034C–3, in Long and Sedley 1987: 378 [vol.1]). Seneca likewise defends the idea of the unity of the virtues by comparing a virtuous character to a single human who holds multiple social roles: ‘For just as someone is both a poet and an orator but still one person, so the virtues are living beings but not a plurality of these’, insofar as they apply to a singular disposition of the mind (Seneca, Letters 113.24, in Long and Sedley 1987: 379 [vol.1]).

The Stoics also affirm that virtue is the only thing that is truly ‘good’. The goodness of virtue is qualitatively different from the apparent value of other things humans might desire, such as health and wealth. The term ‘good’ applies to virtue alone, and other qualities such as health, strength, and reputation are not good, but merely ‘indifferent’. As the only true good, virtue alone is necessary for eudaimonia, happiness or flourishing (Nussbaum 2009: 361–363). This conviction is one well known point of departure between the Stoics and Aristotle. Both the Stoics and Aristotle see virtue as necessary to happiness, but the Stoics also affirm that virtue is sufficient for happiness: no other quality is necessary for it. For the Stoics, the happiness one can obtain through virtue does not depend on any other circumstances, whereas Aristotelian positions understand happiness to depend on other external goods in addition to virtue (Annas 1993: 430–432). The Stoics’ commitment to the idea that virtue is the only good is also aligned with their understanding of virtue as radically egalitarian. God has given all human beings the faculty of reason, which is sufficient for the cultivation of virtue. Because virtue has a singular goodness, growth in virtue does not require outside supports or resources or depend on the presence of other goods. The accessibility of virtue to all, regardless of life circumstances, is underscored in the range of social locations from which the Roman Stoics develop their ideas: Marcus Aurelius is an emperor, and Epictetus is a slave.

The Stoics’ commitment to a strong account of the unity of the virtues and their sense that virtue has a unique value leads them towards understanding the virtues as acquired through a transformative experience akin to a conversion. While the Stoics allow that some measure of moral progress can be made prior to this transformation, they are also careful to limit this progress by suggesting that the natural cultivation of self-love cannot lead to virtue, which is a different source for human behavior (Annas 1993: 432). The Stoics draw a sharp distinction between the person who has not yet attained virtue and the person who is virtuous (Long 1986: 181). Until a moral agent becomes virtuous, their actions fall short of being moral and are thus, ‘strictly speaking, immoral’ (Rist 1977: 83). As Colish puts it, the ancient Stoics see virtue and vice as ‘all-or-nothing propositions’, so that rather than gradually being formed in virtue as through Aristotelian habituation, human beings acquire virtue instantaneously (Colish 1985: 44–45 [vol.1]).

The Stoic account of virtue does not coincide perfectly with the Christian account, but there are particular historical strands of Christian moral thought, particularly as Christian moral thought developed in modernity and within Reformed Protestant traditions, that may be more easily illuminated in conversation with Stoic views of virtue than with Aristotelian perspectives on the virtues. Faith possesses a unique value in the Christian life that is similar to the unique value the Stoics attribute to virtue. Like Stoic virtue, faith has a moral value that distinguishes it from all other goods and makes it sufficient for salvation. In The Freedom of a Christian, Luther presents faith as a uniquely good quality on which all other goods depend: ‘whoever has faith will have everything, and whoever does not have faith will have nothing’ (Luther, The Freedom of a Christian: 349 [vol.31]). For Jonathan Edwards, faith is ‘the only condition for salvation’ and in a sense is thus the only moral attribute that ‘can stand alone’ in the Christian life (as explained by McDermott 2007: 102–103). While Luther and Edwards do not designate faith as a virtue (Luther, The Freedom of a Christian: 343 [vol.31]; Edwards, Justification by Faith Alone: 149, 154 [vol.19]), faith, at least as lived out after justification, does bear attributes of a virtue: faith is a disposition that shapes our character and is sustained through time, and it is essential to human wellbeing insofar as it is an appropriate response to the love and goodness shown by our Creator. Stoic virtue thus offers a philosophical framework that can assist Christians in articulating an ethic that differentiates virtue from all other goods and that contends that other goods are not necessary for the ultimate flourishing found in salvation.

In addition to offering an ethic in which virtue is seen as a unique good, the Roman Stoic account of virtue as fundamentally a dispositional stance of assent to divine providence has important points of congruence with Christian understandings of virtue that closely align faith with love. Oliver Crisp identifies two dimensions of faith typically upheld in mainstream Reformed and evangelical Christian theology, a cognitive dimension that is ‘doxatic’ or ‘propositional’, and a dispositional dimension that he calls ‘fiducial’ or trust-centred (Crisp 2014: 22). Both of these dimensions of faith have some similarity with virtuous assent: faith and assent are rooted in an intellectual belief in God’s goodness, and faith and assent are more adequately understood not simply in terms of propositional belief, but as a moral disposition of trust in God. At the same time, it is important to note that the trust in God implied in assent, the assent to providence, involves aligning one’s perspective and character with the good of the whole universe. For Christians, a similar alignment takes place as faith generates love for both God and our neighbors, a universal concern for other human beings. For Edwards, for example, love and faith depend on each other and are interconnected. Virtuous love, he explains, is predicated on faith, ‘for a being cannot truly be loved, and especially loved above all other things, which is not looked upon as a real being’. But love also promotes growth in faith, ‘because those whom we love we are more apt to believe and give credit to, and disposed to trust in’ (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 8: Ethical Writings: 329 [vol.8]). While Edwards’ description of love here focuses on love specifically for God, his discussion of virtue elsewhere makes clear that love for God and love for neighbour – understood as all human beings – are necessarily aligned. Edwards’ definition of true virtue as ‘benevolence toward Being in general’ indicates that God and the world as a whole, and human beings in particular, are true virtue’s proper object (Two Dissertations: 540 [vol.8]). Faith and love are aligned in this account of Christian virtue in a manner that bears striking points of similarity with the Roman Stoic view of virtuous assent.

5 Interactions with the sciences

5.1 The virtue of gratitude

In the past ten years, scientists have increasingly paid attention to gratitude and its potential effects on human wellbeing. A number of studies connect gratitude to increased happiness and health of human beings across the lifespan (Emmons, Froh, and Rose 2019). Moreover, some scholars suggest that the cultivation of religious gratitude specifically – gratitude to God rather than a more general disposition of gratitude – increases the outcomes associated with psychological wellbeing (Rosmarin et al. 2011), even as scholars simultaneously debate whether gratitude is properly to be considered a moral virtue (Carr 2015). The Stoics, and in particular the Roman Stoics, develop an account of virtue in which gratitude to God plays a central role, and their views can offer a point of entry for philosophers and theologians wishing to engage contemporary scientific conversations about gratitude. Epictetus indicates that the purpose of human existence is to recognize God’s goodness and respond by ‘rehearsing His benefits’ and ‘singing hymns of praise to God’ (Epictetus, Discourses I.16; Epictetus 1998: 1, 111 [vol.1]). We are ‘spectators’ of God and God’s works (Epictetus, Discourses I.6; Epictetus 1998: 45 [vol.1]), and our observation of God’s goodness and the workings of providence is the starting point for virtue (Epictetus, Discourses II.14; Epictetus 1998: 301 [vol.1]). As Marcus Aurelius puts it, we encounter things in life and recognize the presence and work of God in some of the things we encounter (Meditations, III.11; in Haines 1915: 59–61). Recognizing the benevolent work of divine providence is a starting point for virtue, a dispositional act of ‘assent’. But the virtue of assent to divine providence, as the Roman Stoics conceive it, is not merely intellectual. It involves both an intellectual recognition of God’s goodness and a more deliberative choice to ‘assent’ to this goodness; the Roman Stoics associate this act with the faculty of reason and also with the prohairesis, which scholars sometimes translate as will but suggest may be more adequately described through the term ‘moral personality’ (Frede 2011: 43–46; Rist 1977: 230–232). Assent is a particular means through which a disposition of gratitude is practiced; a moral agent embodies a trust in (or consent to) the will of providence. As Epictetus explains, recognition of God’s benevolent activity in the world generates a ‘sense of gratitude’ towards God (Epictetus, Discourses I.6; Epictetus 1998: 39 [vol.1]). This sense of gratitude, in turn, leads humans to adopt an appropriate response of working to emulate God’s benevolence and thus to align our character with God’s being and with the world God is directing towards its good (Epictetus, Discourses II.14; Epictetus 1998: 301 [vol.1]).

The Stoics’ account of virtuous assent offers philosophical resources for reflecting on the nature of gratitude to God and its status as a virtue, and how the notion of gratitude to God may differ from other forms of gratitude that centre on human relations. The Stoics also present this virtue as central to human wellbeing, complementing studies in psychology about links between gratitude and wellbeing. At the same time, because of the unique relation they establish between virtue and happiness (discussed above), their understanding of virtue indicates that only virtue, and thus only gratitude to God, is necessary to happiness. Further analysis of how the Stoics develop this argument may be worthwhile to consider alongside the connections between gratitude and happiness that are developed particularly within positive psychology. It may be that the Stoic understanding of gratitude’s relation to happiness simply offers philosophical weight to this empirical connection, but it may also be that Stoic philosophy and empirical studies of gratitude and happiness challenge each other in constructive ways that can generate new insight into their relation.

5.2 Life, death, and health care ethics

Historical and contemporary Christian thinkers have questioned the compatibility of the Christian tradition with the Stoics’ commitment to apatheia, the rejection or eradication of the emotions. Calvin criticizes the Stoics for presenting the virtuous person as a ‘man of iron, and exempt from human affections’, and criticizes some of his contemporaries for following the Stoics in rejecting feelings of sadness and anxiety (Calvin, Commentary on Philippians 2:27; Calvin 1851: 68). From the vantage point of Christian theology, the most problematic dimension of apatheia is that it suggests that the moral life requires avoiding grief at the loss of a loved one. Excessive feelings of grief, for the Stoics, put us at risk for seeing ourselves and our particular loved ones as having a unique value that differentiates us from other human beings and that fails to recognize adequately that virtue is the only true good (Nussbaum 2009: 377).

On the surface, this suggestion risks undermining Christianity’s commitment to the sanctity of life, and the inherent value and dignity of each individual, particular human being. In general, the Stoics do tend to elevate the overall good of the world at the expense of affirming the unique value of individual persons, a stance that places them at odds with Christianity. It is not surprising that so many theologians’ criticisms of Stoic apatheia focus on the positive role the emotions in general, and grief in particular, can play in expressing love for other persons. Many of these arguments centre on an understanding of the incarnate Jesus Christ as a moral exemplar whose life, death, and resurrection reveal to Christians what it means to live morally and virtuously. Augustine argues that emotions are natural to human beings and were exercised by the incarnate Christ as part of his full humanity, and that Christians should likewise accept them as part of our human existence. He does, however, suggest that emotions such as grief will be absent in paradise, though other emotions such as joy and love will remain (The City of God 14.9). Calvin explains that through the practice of emotions such as sadness and grief, Christ condemned the ‘iron philosophy’ of Stoicism ‘not only in word, but also by his own example’, grieving and shedding tears for his own sadness and the sadness of others (Institutes: 3.8.9; Calvin 2009: 461–462). Grief, for Christians, should not be eliminated, but mixed with hope in the resurrection (Calvin, Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4:13–14; Calvin 1851: 256).

While apatheia provides a particular example of an area of Stoic thought that Christian theologians engage with in mixed and complex ways, Paul Scherz (2017) offers a compelling argument for how the Stoics may provide a resource for assisting Christians in thinking about life and death in ways that may be helpful to conversations in health care ethics about experiences of death and dying. Scherz argues that early Christian accounts of consolation (particularly focusing on Ambrose, but also exploring Tertullian and Cyprian) transform Stoic apatheia in a manner that does not entirely neglect its insights but that adapts them into a Christian eschatological framework. Both these Christian authors and the Stoic ideas they draw on can be valuable for thinking about two related issues that arise in health care ethics, according to Scherz. First, they facilitate our reflection on how our understanding of death should be informed by and grounded in our broader understanding of the meaning and purpose of life. Second, they offer tools for clarifying what sorts of obligations of care human beings have towards those around us, and for specifying how we can cultivate emotional states that support proper care for those with whom we are in relation. Scherz’s argument not only represents a new interpretation of the meaning and import of apatheia that clarifies its place within the Christian life and within the Stoics’ broader ethic, but it also points towards ways that the Stoics can assist contemporary health care ethicists in forming responses to moral questions about life and death that are important to both abstract reflection on the faith and more concrete ministerial practice.

6 Conclusion

Christian interpretations of Stoic thought have been varied, often critical, and almost always contested. However, the regularity with which Christian theologians have engaged with Stoicism points to the importance of the tradition to Christian theology, whether that takes the form of Stoic influence on Christianity or Christian ideas defined in opposition to those of Stoicism.


Copyright Elizabeth Agnew Cochran (CC BY-NC)

Portions of this article have been adapted from: Elizabeth Agnew Cochran, Protestant Virtue and Stoic Ethics (London: T&T Clark/Bloomsbury Academic 2018).


  • Further reading

    • Brooke, Christopher. 2012. Philosophic Pride: Stoicism and Political Thought from Lipsius to Rousseau. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
    • Brookins, Timothy A. 2014. Corinthian Wisdom, Stoic Philosophy, and the Ancient Economy. New York: Cambridge University Press.
    • Byers, Sarah. 2013. Perception, Sensibility, and Moral Motivation in Augustine: A Stoic-Platonic Synthesis. New York: Cambridge University Press.
    • Colish, Marcia L. 1985. The Stoic Tradition from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages. 2 vols. Leiden: Brill.
    • Engberg-Pedersen, Troels. 2000. Paul and the Stoics. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
    • Inwood, Brad. 2008. Reading Seneca: Stoic Philosophy at Rome. New York: Oxford University Press.
    • Jeden, Christoph. 2009. Stoic Virtues: Chrysippus and the Religious Character of Stoic Ethics. London: Continuum Press.
    • Kirby, W. J. Torrance. 2003. ‘Stoic and Epicurean? Calvin’s Dialectical Account of Providence in the Institutes’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 5, no. 3: 309–322.
    • Long, A. A. 1986. Hellenistic Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, Skeptics. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 2nd edition.
    • Scherz, Paul. 2017. ‘Grief, Death, and Longing in Stoic and Christian Ethics’, Journal of Religious Ethics 45, no. 1: 7–28.
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