Stoicism: A Heresy for the Ages

“So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12). And, yet, as every Christian knows, not only is the law insufficient. It actually points us in precisely the opposite direction. How can this be?

I was again reminded of this heresy — for that is what it is — by Attorney General William Barr’s invocation of God’s so-called “moral order.” Christians will be familiar with this moral order primarily from the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans, where the Apostle lays out the grounds for God’s condemnation of “the nations,” i.e., peoples to whom God did not deliver Torah. What is less often noticed is that the Apostle places the “natural order” on a par with Torah. Both Torah and natural law are sufficient only to condemn, not to redeem. Nowhere is this parity clearer than where the Apostle claims that Nero and his Empire are “servants of God,” whom God has sent to administer justice. Therefore ought “all people” to obey the authorities whom God has established (Romans 13:1-7).

Paul’s counsel was inspired by the universally acclaimed ground of first century Roman jurisprudence. If Jews and non-Jews could agree upon anything it was the well-ordered, moral character of the natural world, which, of course, included the political world. It especially was natural.

Yet, the warrants Paul set forth in Romans were not particularly Christian. Indeed, they were not particularly Jewish. They were pagan. In fact, they were Stoic. But before we fault Paul for drawing upon pagan authorities, we might bear in mind that for first century Romans, Stoicism was the equivalent of contemporary science. It did no more, but also no less than accurately describe how the universe worked.

And, how does the universe work? The universe is composed of being. Literally, the universe is composed of ουσίες, beings. Each being, each ουσία, enjoys power. If a being enjoys no power it does not exist. Of course, the being that enjoys the greatest power is God. Do you want to know why beings influence one another? It is because they exist. They have being. Do you want to know why one is subordinate to and another is superior to another? It is because they possess greater and lesser being.

And it is precisely here that Attorney General Barr’s heresy fits. These relationships of subordination and domination also characterize the moral order. Here is how Paul put it in his Letter to the Romans:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive their approval; for they are God’s servants for your good.

Romans 13:1-4a

Did God establish this “natural order”? That seems clear. Is it specially moral or Christian? Ideally, yes. But, as the Apostle had already noted, the natural order was fundamentally distorted. “What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means” (Romans 7:7)! “Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means” (Romans 7:13)!

No. No. No. But the relationships of domination and subordination visible from creation are therefore an unreliable guide. Or, to be more accurate, they can be relied on for condemnation, but not for redemption.

Stoicism held good, everywhere, except in communities of faith:

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no oned might boast in the presence of God.

I Corinthians 1:26-30

In communities of faith a different order rules, not the order of domination and submission, but of service and care. And had the natural order understood this other order, history might have looked very different. “None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (I Corinthians 2:8).

Nevertheless, the early church folded Stoicism into its theological foundations, baptizing the orders of domination and submission that, for purely heuristic purposes, the Apostle Paul had invoked in his Letter to the Romans. Tragically, the Apostle’s endorsement of Stoicism was perceived by non-diaspora Jews — the Jerusalem community — as an olive branch extended in peace to Christians who still observed ritual purity. This clearly lies behind the Apostle Peter’s backhanded complement:

So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures

II Peter 3:15b-16

“Hard to understand” is, of course, a euphemism. Peter, a Jerusalem Jew, had very little truck with the liberties taken by Pharisees such as Saul — or “Paul,” as he was now calling himself. But, yes, “the ignorant and unstable” were, in Peter’s view, twisting Paul’s words “to their own destruction.”

By the fourth century, this deep divide had been completely papered over by Luke-Acts, enabling Stoicism to establish itself firmly at the foundation of Christian theology and moral teaching.

Bob Barr, the Roman Catholic Attorney General, is an heir to this dubious legacy. But, ask yourself, does Bob Barr bear a closer resemblance to Jesus or to Nero? Just asking.

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