The Son of Pharisees

paultheophaneskrisWhen the Apostle Paul stood before the Sanhedrin to answer for his teaching he “perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees [and] he cried out in the council, ‘Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial’” (Acts 23:6). It is clear that there was broad doctrinal agreement between the Pharisees and the Christians. Both held to the Law and the Prophets as the Word of God. Both taught the immortality of the soul, of eternal punishment and rewards in the afterlife, the resurrection at the end of the age, and the reality of angels and demons. The Sadducees denied all of this.

Josephus highlights another doctrine of the Pharisees held in common with Christians: the belief in God’s complete sovereignty and the corresponding believe in divine predestination.

Josephus explains that the Pharisees, “ascribe all to fate [or providence], and to God, and yet allow, that to act what is right, or the contrary, is principally in the power of men, although fate does co-operate in every action.… But the Sadducees… take away fate entirely…and they say, that to act what is good, or what is evil, is at man’s own choice (War 2.8.14). “And when they [the Pharisees] determine that all things are done by fate, they do not take away the freedom from men of acting as they think fit; since their notion is, that it hath pleased God to make a temperament, whereby what he wills is done” (Ant 18.1.3).

What can we say except that the New Testament teaches a similar view of divine sovereignty and human responsibility? For example, it should be evident to any student of Scripture that the Apostle Paul’s Pharisaic training is on full display in Romans 9. After Paul explains God’s election of Jacob over Esau and God’s hardening the heart of Pharaoh, Paul anticipates the objection we all have. “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ … What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory” (11, 19-20, 22-23).

Like the Pharisees, the Apostle does not deny that the human will is free to choose what it desires. He denies that this choice is in any way outside of God’s eternal decree. Paul also insists that the will of man is not by nature inclined toward God (Rom 8:6-7; 1 Cor 2:14), so that conversion requires God’s supernatural intervention – a new birth.

Given Paul’s Pharisaic background, any alternate interpretation of Paul is frankly impossible. Controversies give rise to clarifying distinctions used to demarcate truth from error. For example, Jesus and Paul carry out a sustained polemic against the Pharisees on those areas where Christianity swerves sharply from the standard Pharisaic orthodoxy. Jesus and Paul condemned the “tradition of the elders” as either beside or contrary to the Word of God – our sole authority for faith and life. They condemned the Pharisees for emphasizing legal minutia and ritual at the expense of love and justice. Finally, the Pharisees believed God would account them righteous for their observance to the law while Christians insist that we are justified by Christ alone, through whom we have redemption – the forgiveness of sins, and that we receive the benefits of Christ through faith alone, apart from works of the law. Yet when speaking of God’s sovereignty, Paul sounds like a Pharisee.

It seems undeniable, therefore, that the Apostle Paul was not only a “son of Pharisees” regarding the doctrine of the resurrection, but also regarding the doctrine of God’s sovereign predestination.