The Heart of the Pharisee I

Some years ago I used a research opportunity to do a study that now ranks as one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Since then I have taught on this subject in a variety of settings and to a strange mixture of people. I have done so in Baptist churches, independent fellowships, home churches and even to a group of inmates in a maximum security prison. I have always been amazed at the response, and, as a result, have had it in my heart for many years to publish these teachings. I have, however, never felt led to do so. Until now.

I ask readers to bear with the style of writing, as the original academic document is only slightly edited for the present purposes of blog publishing. The language is somewhat academic here and there, but not so highfalutin as to be unreadable. I shall publish it in six chapters over the course of the next few days, the first one to follow hereunder. Please feel free to comment.

The subject under scrutiny is close to my heart. I admit, unashamedly, that I was a modern day Pharisee for most of my life, and that I shall become so again, in the blink of an eye, were it not for the continuous grace of the almighty God who allowed himself to be crucified by traitors like me.

Chapter 1: Introduction

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote ‘The Pharisee is not an adventitious historical phenomenon of a particular time’ in Ethics (1955:12), he struck a chord that is not often heard in the annals of theological seminaries, and rarely sounded by higher academics. Scholars, it seems, prefer to study Pharisaism from the safe distance of two millennia, much in the same way Pasteur studied his bacteria – detached and clinically objective.

This became especially clear to me as I began my research for this work. The first pile of books that I brought home from the university library carried titles about rabbinic traditions, Jewish sects, Zealots and early Christianity. And, of course, they had nothing to say about the type of Pharisaism Bonhoeffer spoke about. When a second visit proved ineffective, I turned my attention to psychology, and in particular the psychology of religion. I found brief references to contemporary Pharisaism in works by Victor Frankl and M. Scott Peck, but little else that could serve as a basis for my study. Even the psychology of religion offered very little assistance.

The problem, it seems, is twofold. On the one hand, the term appears to be suffering from the all too common disease of overfamiliarity: Everyone thinks they know what is meant by it, until asked for a definition, and that is where the confusion begins. On the other hand: The academic world has always been hesitant to venture into the subjective realm of metaphors. To try and work out a definition of a word that brings with it very little data that can be analysed, verified and tested, and that might be defined in another way by the next person, is simply not worth the effort. Who knows what was going on in the minds of the Pharisees? Moreover, most scholars would agree that the present system of classification for psychiatric illness provides a sufficient paradigm to analyse and diagnose every conceivable type of neurosis and disorder, and that would include the particular ones that constitute the Pharisaic personality. To try and create yet another subcategory for no other reason than giving content to a metaphor derived from an ancient Jewish sect – a sect that happened to gain notoriety for little other reason than their coincidental presence on the platform from which Christ spoke to the world – indeed sounds like a silly and futile exercise.

Unless we, like Bonhoeffer, detect an ageless parable in the stories of Christ and the Pharisees. Under the flowing robes with their long, fringed tassels Bonhoeffer sees ‘the man of disunion’, the religious person ‘to whom only the knowledge of good and evil has come to be of importance in his entire life’ (1955:12). He sees a timeless phenomenon, a people who are, in spite of their orthodoxy and piety, spiritually diseased and deaf to the call of Christ. As such, he sees in the gospels not merely an historical account but a present danger, and one that threatens the fabric of our faith to the very degree that it did those of our forefathers.

If this is the case, which I am convinced it is, then we dare not ignore the Pharisee, and we dare not leave him for the sociologist or religious historian to study. The Pharisee demands theological scrutiny. At the heart of the Pharisee we see a complex belief system coupled with an admirable adherence to orthodoxy and a passionate zeal for the furtherance of God’s cause. But we also see a person who, in spite of this commitment, rejects this very God as he reveals himself in and through Jesus Christ. It is this strange paradox that forces us to pay attention to the Pharisee, for it proves that there is an attraction in religion that has nothing to do with God.

What is this attraction? What is behind the strange enchantment of religion that blinds its devotees to the point of opposing the very God they profess to serve? Furthermore, was this magic restricted to the sect of the Pharisees, or do we also find it in the religions of the world, including Christianity? Is it present in our churches, and are we perhaps so oblivious to its existence that we not only ignore it, but actually employ it to draw the crowds to our meetings?

If we are serious about our faith we dare not ignore these questions. They deal with the heart of Christianity. The Pharisee stands opposed to God, and his religion antithetical to the faith proclaimed by Christ and handed down by the apostles. A Christianity that accommodates the Pharisee has ceased to be a true Christianity.

It is for these reasons that I have been moved to attempt a study of a deadly spiritual disease that I have found precious little mention of in both theological and psychological literature. I call it a deadly spiritual disease, for I see it present in the greatest of Christ’s enemies, and in Christ himself I see greater intolerance for this disease than for any other. His compassion for adulterers and drunkards, for thieves and murderers, for any and all from every walk of life, was and is unparalleled. Yet, when we read of his encounters with the ancient Jewish sect of religious separatists called the Pharisees, we see a different side of Christ. We see Christ the Judge taking the place of Christ the Saviour.

The Pharisee: A Living, Breathing Metaphor

It should be mentioned that, in studying the phenomenon of modern day Pharisaism, the ‘subjective’ nature of metaphors need not be a problem: Can anyone deny that the adulterous woman of John 8, the cheating Zacchaeus of Luke 19 and the sentenced robber of Luke 23 have spoken for centuries to thousands of adulterous women, cheats and inmates on death row? In fact, all sinners can see themselves depicted in these and other stories in the gospels, and we are not doing any injustice to the facts of history by applying them as metaphors to our lives.

The same goes for the metaphor of the Pharisee, which happens to contain a sterner warning than the metaphors of the tax collector or adulterous woman. Resistance to the gospel message is greater in the former, and therefore it may be argued that the problem of the Pharisee demands greater reflection than the problem of the tax collectors and harlots. After all, it was the Pharisee who wanted to see Christ on the cross, and not for the purpose of obtaining redemption from sin.

Who is the Pharisee? From a purely historical perspective much can be said in reply, but then this is exactly what Bonhoeffer warns us against. The Pharisee is more than a religious order referred to by the gospel writers, and as such I have decided not to involve myself with the historical details of the ancient sect of the Pharisees – details that are irrelevant for the purposes of these articles. If the Pharisees present to us a metaphor, a timeless phenomenon, then they need to be assessed theologically, and only afterwards can the light of other disciplines, such as the psychology of religion, be shed on that which theology and the Bible have to offer.

With this conviction I went to the New Testament to see if I could find what neither church history nor psychology offered, and I found infinitely more than I could ever have anticipated or hoped for. In the gospels I found the Pharisee introduced as the religious person who loves the law, but hates the lawgiver. I found, in the apostle Paul, the psyche of the Pharisee revealed as no biography of Hillel, Pollion or Samaias could ever have done. I detected, in various discourses dealing with the conversion of the religious person, such as Matt. 5, Matt. 19, Rom. 7 and Phil. 3, clear teaching on both the origin and cure for Pharisaism. In short, I encountered the phenomenon of religious interest, even obsession, accompanied by little or no interest in the One who invented religion, and so a powerful metaphor for a problem that every minister and Christian worker has to face at some stage of his or her ministry.

With this in hand I returned to the psychology of religion, and this time around it did not take me long to find Pharisaism there, albeit under other names. I present my findings in these articles, and I wish to emphasise that this research represents a mere scratch on the surface of the subject in question. The aim of this work is no more than to present a mere introduction to a field that requires much further research.


My findings are presented in six chapters. Chapter one is the introductory section, while chapter two deals with the law of God, how it relates to our subject, and what we can learn from the conversion of Saul the Pharisee. Chapter three deals with the nature and roots of covetousness, its cure, and the implications thereof for the problem of Pharisaism. Chapter 4 focuses on the Pharisee’s interest in religion, touches on the psychology of Pharisaism, and also deals briefly with the place of the religious environment and the incentives it offers for the Pharisee. Chapter 5 is a study of the effects that an ‘Old Covenant paradigm’ has on Christianity, as the Pharisee rejects the terms and regulations of the New Covenant. Chapter 6 summarises and presents the conclusions drawn from the research.

May the Lord bless and guide you as you join me on this adventure!


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