By. C. FitzSimons Allison
An early caution against heresy can be found in our Lord’s warning to his disciples: “Take heed, beware the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of the Sadducees” (Matt. 16:6). The disciples were confused and thought Jesus was rebuking them because they had brought no bread. He had to explain to them that he was speaking of the “teaching” of both the Pharisees and the Sadducees. If he meant “teaching” why did he say “yeast” (or “leaven”)? The teachings of the Sadducees and the Pharisees were so pervasive, contagious, unseen, and malignant that some other word had to be chosen to carry this dangerous connotation.
Consider the age-old art of wine making. People are often unaware of the role of yeast in making wine. Enormous effort must go into protecting the product from the invasion of destructive yeasts that would corrupt and ruin the fermenting process.
Protection Against Heresy
Similarly, great care (“Take heed, beware…) must be taken to safeguard the Good News of the Gospel from the prevailing and pervasive presence of the yeast of the Pharisee and of the Sadducee. One of the simple ways of preserving wine as it is being fermented is to allow the expanding air to flow through a tube in the stopper to let air into a jar of water. This bubbling jar of water is an air lock that keeps corrupting yeasts from entering the process.
How do we protect ourselves from the yeasts of the Sadducees and Pharisees? As the air lock protects the wine, so creeds and confessions protect the faith. They are not the whole faith, but they are necessary summaries of the faith that help to preserve it. Too often conservative traditions have mistakenly given people the air lock water to drink rather than the rich wine. On the other hand, failure to appreciate the role and function of creeds and confessions leaves the Gospel vulnerable to the distortions of each age and the “itching ears” of each generation.
What are some contemporary examples of the yeasts of the Sadducees and Pharisees?
The Yeast of the Sadducees
We don’t know a great deal about the Sadducees, but we do know that they did not believe in resurrection. In neo-orthodox theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous phrase concerning modern secularism, they believed that “this-world-is-all-there-is-ism.” There are more complex and sophisticated definitions but all include this aspect. (1) Our secular culture, that is now saturated with Sadducean yeast, amid a general disregard for the function of air locks, leaves us with no protection from the very contaminating air about which our Lord warns us.
What are the results of our infection by this yeast of secularism? Although there are many, space allows that we treat only two.
The Idolatry of Proximate Hopes
If there is no resurrection, there is no Alpha and Omega. The limits of human meaning are confined to this world. Wonderful and commendable goals and hopes turn tyrannical and demonic when there is no transcendent judgment on them or on the means used to implement them.
“Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” is a motto of exemplary hope from the French Revolution. But when the goddess of Reason replaced the Christian crucifix, the streets soon ran red with blood in the Reign of Terror.
Look at the Third Reich, whose hope could not be appreciated except by a Europe whose nations without a rule had warred with each other over centuries like children in The Lord of the Flies. The only hope of peace seemed to be something like the First Reich (Rule) of the Roman Empire and the Second Reich of the Holy Roman Empire (in theory at least). Here was the promise of that rarest of European experiences, peace, by a rule, a Third Reich. With no transcendent judgment on such a hope, or the means of realizing the hope, more than 20 million Europeans were slaughtered by this infection of Sadducean yeast.
The same is true in Communism. “Every man receive according to his need and every man give according to his ability” was a most commendable hope that infected the intelligentsia of the world for half a century. It was no mild infection. Hope for this utopia on earth, wrought by force, became a god. Joseph Stalin admitted to Winston Churchill that merely one purge had exterminated 15 million people. Stephane Courtois’s Le Livre Noir Du Communisme makes an impressive case for the fact that Communism’s evil far exceeded even that of the Nazis. Martin Malia’s review in the Times Literary Supplement makes a telling observation showing that such idolatrous hopes lack popular acknowledgement.
Any realistic accounting of Communist crime would effectively shut the door on utopia; and too many good souls in our unjust world cannot abandon hope for an end to inequality. And so, all comrade-questers after historical truth should gird their loins for a very long march indeed before communism is accorded its fair share of absolute evil. (2)
Being created in the image of God means an undying thirst for justice but a justice not of this world alone. Without the judgment and mercy of God, justice results in the idolatry of utopias and its concomitant evils. This Sadducee yeast is one of the great hazards of our time.
Among the more astute and creative figures of twentieth-century intelligentsia was Arthur Koestler. Although he affirmed no transcendent justice, he nevertheless diagnosed much of his generation’s hope in his book The God That Failed. He knew that the commitment that sent him to risk his life in the Spanish Civil War, that he did not regret, was nevertheless, a “god” and one that failed. The underlying dynamic, of good things becoming dangerous or evil, is called “idolatry” in Scripture.
Our modern world is dangerously naive about idolatry, living under the false assumption that idolatry is merely the habit of primitive people. On the contrary, Gerhard Forde, professor from Luther Seminary, shows that seeking to construct an image of God more amenable to our expectations and desires, a common contemporary practice, “is no different from making a god of wood or stone or bronze: it is simply idolatry, and it is born of unbelief.” (3)
Andre Malraux, war hero, scholar, novelist, and French intellectual, writes under the influence of the Sadducean yeast:
What is unique about man is not that he has been cast at random among the profusion of the stars and the galaxies, but in this prison, he can fashion such images of himself that they have the power to deny his nothingness.
To “fashion images” of ourselves is precisely what Scripture means by idolatry. The reformers were right when they insisted that the heart of humanity “is a veritable idol factory.” (4) All ideals, hopes, and goals in history are contingent, imperfect, and proximate. Without hope of the resurrection and the transcendent justice, judgment, and mercy of God upon all historical claims, historical hopes will inevitably and ineluctably become idolatrous and the results evil and malignant.
The second result of the Sadducee yeast infection follows.
Power Replaces Truth
Alasdair MacIntyre’s Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry traces the postmodern development roots of Deconstruction to the demise of rationalism and the seminal thought of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s views are indicated in his reply to the question “What then is truth?”:
A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms, a sum in short, of human relations which, rhetorically and poetically intensified, ornamented and transformed, come to be thought of, after long usage by a people, as fixed, binding, and canonical. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions, worn out metaphors now impotent to stir the senses, coins which have lost their faces and are considered now as metal rather than currency. (5)
When truth is no longer the currency of the realm, all appeals to truth, honor, justice, moral, or aesthetic values are just rhetoric masking the will to power. It is not merely the courts that have reduced the struggle for justice to competition in power but the universities of Western civilization that are also in danger of reducing the search for truth to a similar struggle for power.
The protagonists in this important debate about meaning and truth in a post-Christian culture (Alistair MacIntyre, Paul DeMan, Jacques Derrida, Anthony Thiselton, and John Milbank) have made contributions that are insufficiently accessible to the general reading public for the danger to our civilization to be appreciated.
Historian George Marsden puts the matter quite simply: “Without theism…the only effective arbiter of contested moral claims is power.” Theism assumes a transcendent interaction in history. It gives humans a hope that guides and judges all proximate historical hopes in the midst of defeats and victories, sin and grace, evil and benevolence. Without such a God, Ivan Karamazov is right: “If God is dead, anything is permissible.”
If there is no resurrection justice, the only inhibition is the prospect of getting caught. The nineteenth-century jurist, Lord Moulton, observed: “The measure of a civilization is the degree of obedience to the unenforceable.” In place of moral, religious, or truth claims, power becomes the final arbiter and the Sadducee yeast infects civilization itself. Truth is replaced by power.
The Yeast of the Pharisees
The Pharisees agreed with Jesus regarding the resurrection. They warned Jesus of a plot by Herod against his life (Luke 13:31), they invited Jesus to meals in spite of their dietary scruples (Luke 7:36-50, 14:1), some even believed in him (John 3:1, 7:45-53, 9:13-38), and they were instrumental in ensuring the survival of Jesus’ followers (Acts 5:34; 23:6-9). Yet Jesus is much harsher on them than on the Sadducees. Why?
The most significant picture of the Pharisee in Scripture is perhaps the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple. The Pharisee thanks God that he is not like other men: extortionists, unjust, and adulterers. He fasts twice a week and gives tithes of all that he receives. This is surely commendable and it would seem to be a view to be encouraged. Any rector of a church without Pharisees on the stewardship committee, the altar guild, church school, and vestry, is in deep trouble. Does not the culture of today applaud the Pharisee and infer that Jesus taught some singularly bad hygiene in backing the tax-collector, the very illustration of a masochist, beating his chest, not even lifting up his eyes and calling himself-God forbid-a sinner? The object of Pharisee religion is to escape condemnation, to feel self-justified. For New Testament Pharisees this escape was by endeavors of righteous acts. With contemporary Pharisees, escape is by seeking self-esteem.
There can scarcely be a more pervasive dogma of the secular world than the religion of self-esteem. It seems to be the very aim of pedagogy, psychology, and religiosity. A recent accounting placed American students over all those of other industrial nations in feeling good about themselves but way down the list in actual competence in math, sciences, languages, and verbal skills.
Richard Erickson, a Seattle psychologist, has written an article in The Journal of Pastoral Care entitled “Psychology of Self-Esteem: Promise or Peril?” in which he shows that it is not promise but peril. He is not unaware of the value of self-esteem in effective living, but the basic difficulty with the cult of self-esteem is that it attempts to substitute “disclosure and acceptance” for “repentance and forgiveness.” He insists that
The popularizers lack a psychology or theology to encompass unremitting or irreversible failure, pain, loss, or suffering. “Tough times never last, but tough people do,” declares Robert Schuller, whose attempt to relate the Cross to psychology of self-esteem was all but incoherent to me. (6)
Charles Sykes’s book, A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character, quotes Aaron Waldavsky, that by current standards 74 percent of the population can consider themselves oppressed minorities. The loss of responsibility consequent upon the self-esteem cult and the current victimology provides the yeast to justify anyone who can claim victimhood.
The sad price paid for this escape from responsibility is that when one is not held responsible, one begins to be unable to respond. This yeast infects one’s very dignity and identity. A culture infected with the Pharisee yeast, a system which produces the justifying indolence of victimhood, produces the self-indulgent compulsive seeker after self-esteem. The heavy price paid for this current form of Pharisaism is the abolition of mercy, the obsolescence of forgiveness, the reduction of justice, and the nurture of self-indulgence. The result is a religion of desperate attempts at self-satisfaction. This compulsion to escape responsibility is a heavy burden to bear.
One aspect of this heavy burden is what the Church has called Pelagianism: the confidence that humans are free (in the sense of “able”) to do what they ought (see R. C. Sproul’s article in this issue). Unlike Luther in his book Bondage of the Will, Erasmus assumed freedom in the initial situation in Freedom of the Will. Luther knew that our initial situation, before grace, is bondage, not freedom (“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” [Rom. 7:19]). It is
helpful to consider the passage in John 8:31-36 and ask the question: why did they lie? Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to any one. How is it that you say, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not continue in the house for ever; the son continues for ever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. (7)
Did they not remember “bricks without straw,” the slavery in Egypt, the Passover, the Red Sea, the event celebrated each year? And they answered “…we have never been in bondage to any man.” Why did they lie? Did their hostility to Jesus distort their memories? No, the text explicitly tells us they were “Jews who had believed in him.”
They lied for the same reason we lie about freedom. This side of Eden, we humans still believe we are free if our wills are fulfilled. Inasmuch as we are not sinless, our wills lead us into further bondage, not freedom. Most of us have the wisdom to know that if others were given the complete power of their wills, through money, politics, or the conferred authority of an office, it would tend to their corruption. It’s more difficult to perceive it in oneself.
Lord Acton’s oft-quoted dictum, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” is wisdom about will and power. (Too often the word “tends” is omitted. Inasmuch as some victory over sin has been granted, to that extent power is beneficial.) Like the Jews in the text, we believe we are free if we can choose what we want. But as we are yet sinful, choices merely tend to lead to further bondage.
This recognition, of the Pharisees’ infected confidence in his own will’s power to be free, led St. Augustine to his famous claim that “it is better not to be able to sin than to be able not to sin.” (8) Augustine’s important point can be better understood by looking at three stages. “Not able not to sin” is a tragic compulsion that is obviously bondage. “Able not to sin” is obviously a more desirable condition but implies a necessity of restraint and control. “Not able to sin” is a condition not of external compulsion, but of a changed will (metanoia) where love leaves no room in the will to hate, to destroy, or to replace God.
Obviously, in our earthly pilgrimage, mixtures of these conditions will always exist, but the Pharisaic yeast, with its false confidence in human willpower, reduces Christianity from a religion of true freedom to a religion of control. Their picture of Jesus is a teeth-gritting sinlessness. Adoptionism is the historical illustration of this infection where the Father accepts Jesus at his baptism because he had succeeded in overcoming sin and, according to seventeenth-century Socinianism, was rewarded with a delegated divinity as a result. The Gospel is thus reduced to “Go, be like Jesus.” He controlled and conquered sin, he is now a mere example of what we should (and can) do. Thus, Christianity is reduced to scolding, exhortation, rebuke, and threats.
This pervasive infection in the Church stems from the perennial seduction of the serpent, “And ye shall be as gods.” The false belief, that we are free in the initial situation, stems not from ignorance but from sin, from the lie that we are naturally free. We were created to be free, but our present condition is bondage. Only by the grace of God, not by our fallen wills, can we be made free.
Episcopal Bishop James Pike, in his best years of effective orthodoxy regarding Justification, the Incarnation, and the Trinity, had built his faith on top of this lie. In A Time for Christian Candor the infection breaks through: “A necessary corollary is not only is man free to do good and constructive things but he is also free to do evil and destructive things” (9) (italics mine). Paul, Augustine, and Luther knew that doing “evil and destructive things” is not freedom but bondage. It is the lie of the Pharisees, the Pelagians, Erasmus, and historical and contemporary adoptionists.
This lie worked through Pike’s system so that by page 124 he could write “…the doctrine of the Trinity has in fact been a barrier with well educated and less educated alike. And it is not central to the Christian faith.” (10)
This infection is not merely an academic matter. It has produced the cruel half-truth lie called the free-will defense in relation to the problem of evil. It is true that some suffering is brought about by our own behavior. (A doctor once observed that much of what he operates on is caused by what we put in our mouths.) Yet there is plenty of suffering that is not caused by anything we have done (see Luke 13:1-5). Consider when Jesus was asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1-3). It was not that this man or his parents sinned, but it is the yeast of the Pharisee that gives each of us in each generation the belief that our “freedom” has caused our suffering.
It is a cruel theodicy (explanation of evil) but one that is almost innate, given the lie concerning freedom. There are too many random, innocent, and impersonal aspects of evil to explain suffering on the Pharisee’s lie regarding freedom.
This yeast of the Pharisee works its way through the logic of doctrine and destroys the air locks that guard the wine as we’ve seen in the case of Bishop Pike. This yeast reduces the Good News to mere exhortation, scolding, and fussing, the tragic inference so many have of Christianity. It also is a cruel condemnation to those who falsely attribute their condition to their misuse of “freedom.”
Jesus’ dire warning to his disciples is directed to us also. “Take heed, Beware the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of the Sadducees.” The urgent function of creeds and confessions as contemporary air locks is essential. However, nothing is more effective for healing our malignant infections than the Good News of what God’s love has accomplished in his Son, Jesus Christ.
1 See Craig M. Gay, The Way of the (Modern) World, or Why It’s Tempting To Live As If God Doesn’t Exist (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster Press, 1998), 13-14, 18-24.
2 Martin Malia, Times Literary Supplement (March 27, 1998).
3Gerhard Forde, Speaking the Christian God (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992), 114.
4 See, e.g., Calvin’s Institutes, Book I.
5 Alisdair C. MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1990).
6 Robert Erickson, “Psychology of Self-Esteem: Promise or Peril”? in The Journal of Pastoral Care (Spring 1987).
7 Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will, trans. J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston (London: J. Clarke, 1957).
8 St. Augustine, “Posse non peccare or non posse peccare,” City of God, Bk. XXII, Chap. XXX.
9 James Pike, A Time for Christian Candor (New York: Harper and Row, 1964).
10 Ibid., 124.