(19)The Bankruptcy of the Prosperity Theology

An Exercise in Biblical and Theological Ethics

By: David Jones M.Div.; Ph.D.

(A)Introduction

1.Just over one hundred years ago, the renowned pastor

   and statesman Charles H. Spurgeon spoke these words to

   the then-largest congregation in all Christendom:

   [I believe that it is anti-Christian and unholy for any Christian

   to live with the object of accumulating wealth. You will say,

   [Are we not to strive all we can to get all the money we can?]

   You may do so. I cannot doubt but what, in so doing, you may

   do service to the cause of God. But what I said was that to

   live with the object of accumulating wealth is anti-Christian].

2.Over the years, however, the message being preached in some

   of the largest churches in the world has changed. Due, in part,

   to the rise of several ungodly philosophies and movements,

   a new gospel is being taught today. This gospel has been ascribed

   many names, such as the [name it and claim it] gospel, the

   [blab it and grab it] gospel, the [health and wealth] gospel,

   the [word of faith] movement, the [gospel of success], the

   [prosperity gospel],and [positive confession theology].

3.No matter what name is used, though, the teaching is

   the same. Simply put, this egocentric gospel teaches that

   God wants believers to be materially wealthy. Listen to the

   words of Robert Tilton, one of the prosperity gospel’s most

   well-known spokesmen: [I believe that it is the will of God

   for all to prosper because I see it in the Word [of God], not

   because it has worked mightily for someone else. I do not

   put my eyes on men, but on God who gives me the power

   to get wealth].

4.Teachers of the prosperity gospel encourage their followers

   to pray, and even demand, of God [everything from modes

   of transportation (cars, vans, trucks, even two-seat planes),

   [to] homes, furniture, and large bank accounts.

5.By closely examining the faulty theology and errant biblical

   interpretation of the teachers of this movement, this study

   will prove that the prosperity gospel teachings regarding

   the acquisition and accumulation of wealth are ethically

   incorrect.

 

(B)The Theology of the Prosperity Gospel

1.[Theology is important],wrote scholar Millard J. Erickson,

   [because correct doctrinal beliefs are essential to the

   relationship between the believer and God].

2.A corollary to this statement is that an incorrect theology

   will lead to incorrect beliefs about God, His Word, and His

   dealings with men.

3.The thesis of this paper is that the prosperity gospel is

   constructed upon a faulty theology. Consequently, many of

   its doctrines, including the teachings concerning wealth, are

   erroneous.

4.While it is beyond the scope of this study to examine in detail

   all of the specific doctrines of prosperity theology, there are

   four crucial areas of error relating to their teachings on wealth

   that may be isolated and examined. These areas are the

   Abrahamic covenant, the Atonement, giving, and faith.

 

(C)Prosperity Theology and the Abrahamic Covenant

1.The theological basis of the prosperity gospel is the

   Abrahamic covenant. While this is good in that prosperity

   theologians recognize that much of Scripture is the record

   of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, it is bad in

   that they do not maintain an orthodox view of this covenant.

2.Prosperity theologians hold an incorrect view of the inception

   of the Abrahamic covenant; what is more germane to the present

   study, however, they hold to an erroneous view concerning the

   application of the covenant.

3.Researcher Edward Pousson best stated the prosperity view

   on the application of the Abrahamic covenant when he wrote,

   [Christians are Abraham’s spiritual children and heirs to the

   blessings of faith…. This Abrahamic inheritance is unpacked

   primarily in terms of material entitlements.

4.In other words, according to the prosperity gospel, the

   primary purpose of the Abrahamic covenant was for God to

   bless Abraham materially. Since believers are now [Abraham’s

   spiritual children], they consequently have inherited these

   financial blessings of the covenant.

5.Prosperity teacher Kenneth Copeland wrote, [Since God’s

   Covenant has been established and prosperity is a provision

   of this covenant, you need to realize that prosperity belongs

   to you now!]. Referring to the prosperity theology of Kenneth

   Hagin, author Harvey Cox wrote, [Through the crucifixion of

   Christ, Christians have inherited all the promises made to

   Abraham, and these include both spiritual and material

   well-being.

6.To support this claim, prosperity teachers such as Copeland

   and Hagin appeal to Gal. 3:14 which says [that the blessings of

   Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus. .]

7.While it is not an understatement to say that the problems

   with this argument are legion, two glaring problems need to

   be addressed.

8.First, in their appeal to Gal.3:14, prosperity teachers ignore

   the second half of the verse, which reads, [That we might

   receive the promise of the Spirit through faith]. In this verse

   Paul clearly was reminding the Galatians of the spiritual

   blessing of salvation, not the material blessing of wealth.

9.Second, prosperity teachers claim that the conduit through

   which believers receive Abraham’s blessings is faith. This

   completely ignores the orthodox understanding that the

   Abrahamic covenant was an unconditional covenant.

   That is, the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant were not

   contingent upon one man’s obedience. Therefore, even if

   the Abrahamic covenant did apply to Christians,

   all believers would already be experiencing the material

   blessings regardless of prosperity theology.

 

(D)Prosperity Theology and the Atonement

1.A second cracked pillar upon which prosperity theology

   stands is that of a faulty view of the Atonement. Theologian

   Ken Sarles wrote that [the prosperity gospel claims that

   both physical healing and financial prosperity have been

   provided for in the Atonement].

2.This seems to be an accurate observation in light of

   teacher Kenneth Copeland’s comment that [the basic

   principle of the Christian life is to know that God put our

   sin, sickness, disease, sorrow, grief, and poverty on Jesus

   at Calvary.

3.This misunderstanding of the Atonement stems from

   two errors that proponents of the prosperity gospel make.

   First, many who hold to prosperity theology have a

   fundamental misconception of the life of Christ.

   For example, teacher John Avanzini proclaimed

   that [Jesus had a nice house, a big house]. Jesus was

   handling big money,and He even [wore designer clothes].

4.It is easy to see how such a warped view of the life of Christ

   could lead to an equally warped misconception of the

   death of Christ.

5.A second error of prosperity theology, which also leads

   to a faulty view of the Atonement, is the misinterpretation of

   2 Cor. 8:9 Without exception, this is the verse to which

   prosperity teachers appeal in order to support their view

   of the Atonement. The verse reads, [For you know the

   grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich,

   yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through

   His poverty might become rich.

6.This problem with this interpretation is, of course,

   that in this verse Paul was in no way teaching that

   Christ died on the cross for the purpose of increasing

   anyone’s net worth materially. In fact, Paul was actually

   teaching the exact opposite principle.

7.Contextually, it is clear that Paul was teaching the

   Corinthians that since Christ accomplished so much for

   them through the Atonement, then how much more ought

   they empty themselves of their riches in service of the

   Savior. This is why just five short verses later Paul would

   urge the Corinthians to give their wealth away to their

   needy brothers, writing [that now at this time your

   abundance may supply their lack].

8.Commentator Philip E. Hughes wrote of  2 Cor.8:9 [The logic

   implicit in the statement of this great truth is too obvious

   for anyone to miss it].Apparently, however, the champions

   of the prosperity gospel have indeed missed it.

 

(E)Prosperity Theology and Giving

1.One of the most striking characteristics of the prosperity

   theologians is their seeming fixation with the act of giving.

   Students of the prosperity gospel are urged to give generously

   and are confronted with such pious statements as,

   [True prosperity is the ability to use God’s power to meet the

   needs of mankind in any realm of life], and, [We have been

   called to finance the gospel to the world].

2.While at face value these statements do indeed appear

   to be praiseworthy, a closer examination of the theology

   behind them reveals that the prosperity gospel’s emphasis

   on giving is built on anything but philanthropic motives.

3.The driving force behind this emphasis on giving is what

   teacher Robert Tilton referred to as the [Law of Compensation].

   According to this law, which is supposedly based on Mark 10:30.

   Christians need to give generously to others because when they

   do, God gives back more in return. This, in turn, leads to a cycle

   of ever-increasing prosperity.

4.As Gloria Copeland put it, “Give $10 and receive $1,000;

   give $1,000 and receive $100,000;… in short, Mark 10:30  is a

   very good deal. It is evident, then, that the prosperity gospel’s

   doctrine of giving is built upon faulty motives. Whereas Jesus

   taught His disciples to [give, hoping for nothing in return],

   prosperity theologians teach their disciples to give because

   they will get a great return. One cannot help but agree

   with author Edward Pousson’s observation that the

   stewardship of [the prosperity message is in captivity

   to the American dream].

 

(F)Prosperity Theology and Faith

1.A final area of prosperity theology that merits investigation

   is that of the doctrine of faith. Whereas orthodox Christianity

   understands faith to be [trust in the person of Jesus Christ,

   the truth of His teaching, and the redemptive work He

   accomplished at Calvary], prosperity teachers espouse

   quite a different doctrine.

2.In his book, The Laws of Prosperity, Kenneth Copeland

   wrote that [faith is a spiritual force, a spiritual energy,

    a spiritual power. It is this force of faith which makes

   the laws of the spirit world function. . . . There are certain

   laws governing prosperity revealed in God’s Word. Faith

   causes them to function.This is obviously a faulty, if not

   heretical, understanding of faith.

3.Later in the same book Copeland wrote that [if you make up

   your mind . . . that you are willing to live in divine prosperity

   and abundance, . . . divine prosperity will come to pass in

   your life. You have exercised your faith.

4.According to prosperity theology, faith is not a theocentric

   act of the will, or simply trust in God; rather it is an

   anthropocentric spiritual force, directed at God. Indeed,

   any theology that views faith solely as a means to material

   gain rather than the acceptance of heavenly justification

   must be judged as faulty and inadequate.

 

(G)The Biblical Interpretation of the Prosperity Gospel

1.As has already been demonstrated in this paper, the

   hermeneutics of the prosperity movement leaves much

   to be desired. Author Ken Sarles wrote of the prosperity

   teachers that their [method of interpreting the biblical text

   is highly subjective and arbitrary. Bible verses are quoted

   in abundance without attention to grammatical indicators,

   semantic nuances, or literary and historical context.

   The result is a set of ideas and principles based on distortion

   of textual meaning]. Indeed, a survey of the volumes of

   literature produced by the prosperity teachers yields

   numerous examples of such misinterpretations. As was

   the case in the theological study of this movement, an analysis

   of all such examples of misinterpreted texts would fall beyond

   the scope of this study. However, it is possible to choose one

   verse as an example and to examine both the prosperity

   gospel and orthodox interpretations of the text.

2.A suitable verse for this study is  3 John 2.In this verse,

   the Apostle John wrote, [Beloved, I pray that you may

   prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul

   prospers]. This verse is interpreted by prosperity teachers

   to mean that God wants all believers to [prosper in all things].

3.Furthermore, their interpretation of this verse makes clear

   their claim that material prosperity is inseparably linked to

   spiritual growth. Oral Roberts, regarded by many to be the

   father of the prosperity gospel movement, claimed at the

   beginning of his ministry, during a time of search for

   direction, that God miraculously led him to 3 John 2,

   which he understood as a revelation of the prosperity gospel.

4.Another faith teacher who has built his ministry around this

   faulty interpretation of  3 John 2 is Kenneth Copeland. Author

   Kenneth Kantzer noted that [Copeland misinterprets this [verse]

   as a universal promise,and writer Bruce Barron remarked that

   [the Copelands use these words so often that they appear to

   be the key verse of their ministry.

5.A careful study of 3 John 2, however, reveals that this verse

   is not a carte blanche approval of prosperity gospel teachings.

   Those who use 3 John 2  to support the prosperity gospel are

   committing two crucial errors, the first contextual and the

   second grammatical.

6.First, con-textually, one is wise to note that John’s purpose

   in writing 3 John 2 was not to teach doctrine; it was simply to

   open his letter with a greeting. This is not to say that doctrine

   cannot be derived from a nondoctrinal passage, for all

   Scripture is profitable for doctrine, but it is to say that one

   must be sensitive to the original author’s intent. Therefore,

   the claim that 3 John 2 teaches the doctrine of prosperity

   ought to be regarded as suspect at best.

7.Second, one is wise to note the meaning of the word

   [prosperity] as it occurs in this verse. The term translated

   [prosperity] is a form of the Greek word eujodovw. This word,

   which is used only four times in Scripture, does not mean

   to prosper in the sense of [gaining material possessions],

   but rather means [to grant a prosperous expedition and

   expeditious journey] or [to lead by a direct and easy way].

8.The wording of modern translations such as the New

   International Version even reflect this nuance of the word.

   Therefore it is evident that teachers who understand 

   3 John 2 to teach prosperity theology are misinterpreting

   the text.

 

(H)Conclusion

(1)Through this study of the theology and the biblical

   interpretation of the prosperity gospel, one may discern

   five clear reasons why this movement’s teachings concerning

   wealth are incorrect:

1. The prosperity gospel is built upon a faulty understanding

   of the Abrahamic covenant.

2. The prosperity gospel is built upon a faulty understanding

   of the Atonement.

3. The prosperity gospel is based upon a faulty understanding

   of the biblical tachings on giving.

4. The prosperity gospel is based upon a faulty understanding

   of the biblical teachings on faith.

5. The prosperity gospel, in general, has been constructed

   upon faulty biblical interpretation.

(2)Aside from these five specific theological and biblical arguments

   against the prosperity gospel, and without even considering

   the practical implications of this movement, there is perhaps one

   general, summary reason why the prosperity gospel is a wayward

   gospel: its faulty view of the relationship between God and man.

1.Simply put, if the prosperity gospel is correct, grace becomes

   obsolete, God becomes irrelevant, and man is the measure

   of all things.

2.Whether it is the Abrahamic covenant, the Atonement, giving,

   faith, or the biblical interpretation of any given verse,

   the prosperity teacher seeks to turn the relationship between

   God and man into a financial quid pro quo transaction.

3.As scholar James R. Goff noted, God is [reduced to a kind of

   cosmic bellhop attending to the needs and desires of his

   creation.

4.This is a wholly inadequate and unbiblical view of the

   relationship between God and man and the stewardship of wealth.

 

(Note: This article was originally published in Faith and Mission

   Vol 16, p. 79ff. Published with permission).

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