Prosperity Preaching & Theology

Prosperity Preaching & Theology

 Origin and Growth of Prosperity Gospel:

Prosperity preaching or prosperity gospel is sometimes referred to as Prosperity theology. The health and wealth gospel or the gospel of success[1] is a religious belief among some Christians that financial blessing is the will of God for them and that faith, positive speech, and donations will increase one’s material wealth. Though it is impossible to trace the prosperity gospel back to an exact starting point, there are at least three movements from which it draws its ideas. The 1st is experience-centered Christianity, birthed in the mind of nineteenth-century theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher and has come to fruition in the form of the twentieth-century Charismatic movement. The 2nd philosophy that gave rise to the prosperity gospel was the “positive thinking” school of Norman Vincent Peale. Harvey Cox wrote concerning the prosperity gospel: “it owed much to the ‘positive thinking of the late Norman Vincent Peale’ (272).” [2] The 3rd modern movement influencing the prosperity gospel is simply the “American dream,” or materialism. Prosperity theology became prominent in the United States during the ‘Healing Revivals’ of the 1950s.

However, the origin of this theology has been linked to the New Thought movement that began in the 19th century. The prosperity preaching after that figured prominently in the Word of Faith movement and 1980s televangelism. It was adopted by influential leaders in the Charismatic Movement in the 1990s and 2000s and promoted by Christian missionaries worldwide, sometimes leading to the establishment of mega-churches. Prominent leaders in developing prosperity theology include E. W. Kenyon, Oral Roberts, TD Jakes, A.A Allen, Robert Tilton, T. l. Osborn, Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland, Reverend Ike, and Kenneth Hagin. Many so-called Pentecostal Preachers, the sole leaders of their churches in Nigeria, belong to this group. Prosperity gospel emphasizes the Book of Malachi; the doctrine views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, he will deliver his promises of security and prosperity. Confessing these promises to be true is perceived as an act of faith, which God will honor. The doctrine emphasizes the importance of personal empowerment, proposing that it is God’s will for his people to be happy. Jesus’ atonement includes alleviating sickness and poverty, which are viewed as curses to be broken by faith.

 Three Basic Classifications of Prosperity Theology:

Basilius M. Kasera, in his Master of Theology’s Thesis at South African Theological Seminary (2012)[3], divided Prosperity Theology into three main groups based on views. There are:

  1.   Fierce proponents believe that God’s will for all Christians is to flourish in all areas of life. According to this group, prosperity preaching means having a holistic approach to man’s needs, including his material well-being. A reference to this is deduced from David Oyedepo’s book[4], which argues that ‘possessing your possession’ is part of God’s covenant and believers ought to prosper. Oyedepo claims that the death of Christ seals this covenant and that all who believe in the gospel’s message will, along with the salvation of their souls, obtain all good things in this world, including wealth, health, and total success.
  2. Fierce opponents: Hank Hanegraaff [5] is in this group, who believes that posterity theology poses one of the greatest contemporary threats to orthodox Christianity. Through it, cultic theology is being increasingly accepted as true Christianity. Robison (2003)[6] said prosperity theology appeals to the western materialistic mindset.
  3.  The Middle View: This group acknowledges some of the positive things in prosperity theology and says it is a wake-up call to the evangelical churches, especially on the issues of faith. However, they state their disagreement with prosperity theology but refuse to condemn it outright by being cautious in concluding. Prosperity Preaching is a gospel of wealth (financial wellness and luxury). 

Biblical Interpretation of Prosperity Gospel

Author Ken Sarles wrote of the prosperity preachers that their: 

The method of interpreting the biblical text is highly subjective and arbitrary. Bible verses are often quoted without attention to grammatical indicators, semantic nuances, or literary and historical context. The result is a set of ideas and principles based on a distortion of textual meaning. [7]

 Indeed, a survey of the volumes of literature produced by the prosperity preachers/teachers yields numerous examples of such misinterpretations. Sarles chose 3 John 2[8] as an example to examine both the prosperity gospel and orthodox interpretations of the text. 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” – 3 John 2 NKJV. Prosperity Preachers interpret this verse to mean that God wants all believers to “prosper in all things.” Furthermore, their interpretation of this verse claims 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 that God miraculously led him to 3 John 2, which he understood as a revelation of the prosperity gospel. [9]

 Another faith teacher who 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,” [10] and writer Bruce Barron remarked that “the Copelands use the words so often that they appear to be the key verse of their ministry.” [11] A careful study of 3 John 2, however, reveals that John’s purpose in writing 3 John 2 was not to teach doctrine; it was simply to open his letter with a greeting. That is not to say that doctrine cannot be derived from a non-doctrinal 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 disregarded. This paper agrees that the focus of the original text is a prayer-wish (a form of greetings) and not that all believers must have material prosperity. The term “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 instead means “to grant a prosperous expedition and expeditious journey” or “to lead by a direct and easy way.” [12] The wording of modern translations, such as the New International Version, reflects the word’s nuance. 

 Therefore it is evident that preachers who understand 3 John 2 to translate to prosperity theology are misinterpreting the text. Five of the reasons the prosperity gospel concerning wealth is inappropriate are:

  1. It is built upon a faulty understanding of the Abrahamic covenant;
  2. It is built upon a faulty understanding of the atonement;
  3. It is based upon a faulty understanding of the biblical teachings on giving; 
  4. It is based upon a faulty understanding of the biblical teachings on faith; and
  5. The prosperity gospel has generally been constructed upon faulty biblical interpretation. 

As scholar James R. Goff noted, God is “reduced to a kind of ‘cosmic bellhop’ attending to the needs and desires of his creation.” [13] 

The Theology of Prosperity Gospel/Preaching:

“Theology is important,” wrote scholar Millard J. Erickson, “because correct doctrinal beliefs are essential to the relationship between the believer and God.” [14] This paper emphasizes that the prosperity gospel is constructed upon a faulty theology. Consequently, many of its doctrines, including the preaching concerning wealth, are flawed. Four crucial areas of error relating to the prosperity theology on wealth are examined here. These are the ‘Abrahamic Covenant,’ the ‘Atonement,’ ‘Giving,’ and ‘Faith.’

 Prosperity Theology and the Abrahamic Covenant: 

The theological basis of the prosperity gospel is the Abrahamic covenant. [15] Edward Pousson stated the prosperity view on applying 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.” [16] 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. 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!” [17]

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.” [18] To support this claim, prosperity preachers such as Copeland and Hagin appeal to Gal. 3:14a, “that the blessings of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus.” In their appeal to Gal. 3:14, they ignore the second half of the verse, which reads, “That we might receive the promise of the Spirit through Faith Gal. 3:14b (NKJV),”; where Paul reminded the Galatians of the spiritual blessing of salvation, not the material blessing of wealth. Also, prosperity preachers claim that the conduit through which believers receive Abraham’s blessings is faith. That completely ignores the orthodox understanding that the Abrahamic covenant was an unconditional covenant. [19]. The blessings of the Abrahamic covenant were not contingent upon one man’s obedience. Even if the Abrahamic covenant did apply to Christians, all believers would already be experiencing the material blessings regardless of prosperity theology.

Prosperity Theology and the Atonement: 

Theologian Ken Sarles wrote, “The prosperity gospel claims that both physical healing and financial prosperity have been provided for in the Atonement.” [20] 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.” [21] This misunderstanding of the atonement stems from two errors: (1) Fundamental misconception of the life of Christ. (2) The misinterpretation of 2 Cor. 8:9. Without exception, this is the verse to which prosperity preachers appeal to support their view of the atonement:

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 – 2 Cor. 8:9 NKJV.

The prosperity preachers misinterpreted this verse to mean that Paul was teaching that Christ died on the cross to increase believers’ material net worth. 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. The verses later confirmed the real meaning when Paul urged the Corinthians to give their wealth away to their needy brothers “that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack.” – 2 Cor. 8:14 NKJV. Philip E. Hughes, in his commentary of 2 Cor. 8:9, says, “The logic implicit in the statement of this great truth is too obvious for anyone to miss it.” [22]

Prosperity Theology and Giving: 

One of the most striking characteristics of the prosperity theologians is their seeming fixation on the act of giving. Followers of the prosperity preachers are urged to give generously. They are told that “True prosperity is the ability to use God’s power to meet the needs of mankind in any realm of life” [23] and that “we have been called to finance the gospel to the world.” [24] While these statements appear to be accurate at face value, a closer examination of the theology behind them reveals that the prosperity gospel’s emphasis on giving is not built on philanthropic or godly motives. The driving force behind this emphasis on giving is what Robert Tilton called the “Law of Compensation.” [25] According to this law, supposedly based on Mark 10:30[26], Christians need to give generously to others because when they do, God gives back more in return. As Gloria Copeland puts it, “Give $10 and receive $1,000; give $1,000 and receive $100,000; in short, Mark 10:30 is an excellent deal.” [27] 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” – Luke 10:35 (NKJV), prosperity theologians teach their disciples to give because they will prosper more.

Prosperity Theology and Faith:

Orthodox Christianity understands faith as total surrender, belief, and trust in Jesus Christ, the truth of His teaching, and the redemptive work He accomplished at Calvary, but prosperity preachers promote a different doctrine. In his book, The Laws of Prosperity, Kenneth Copeland (51) wrote:

 Faith is a spiritual force, spiritual energy, a spiritual power. This force of faith makes the laws of the spirit world function. There are specific laws governing prosperity revealed in God’s Word. Faith causes them to function. [28]

It is not only faulty but also a heretical understanding of ‘Faith.’ Later in the same book, Copeland wrote:

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. [29]

According to prosperity theology, faith is not a theocentric act of the will or trust in God; instead, it is an anthropocentric spiritual force directed at God. Indeed, any theology that views faith solely as a means to material gains rather than accepting heavenly justification must be judged faulty.

  •   [1] Pejorative nicknames have been attached to the theology, including “name it and claim it” and “blab it and grab it” – Garber, Kent (February 15, 2008). “Behind the Prosperity Gospel” U.S. News &World Report
  • [2] Harvey Cox, Fire from Heaven (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1995), 272.
  • [3] Basilius M. Kasera, “The Biblical and Theological Examination of Prosperity Theology and its Impact among the poor in Namibia,” Thesis submitted for the degree of Master of Theology, South African Theological Seminary, 2012, 6-9
  • [4] David Oyedepo, Possessing your Possession, (Lagos, Dominion Publishing House, 2007), 63-65
  • [5] Hank Hanegraaf, “What’s wrong with the faith movement (part one): E. W. Kenyon and the twelve apostles of another gospel,” Christian Research Journal 15(3):(1993): 1-8
  • [6] J., Robison, “Another view of the prosperity gospel,” in Charisma, (electronic journal), (2003), accessed on 17 January 2011
  • [7] Ken L. Sarles, “A Theological Evaluation of the Prosperity Gospel,” Bibliotheca Sacra 143 (Oct.-Dec. 1986), 337
  • [8] Sarles says this is an “often quoted verse” in the prosperity movement. Sarles, 338. Hanegraaff wrote that 3 John 2 was a “classic example” of prosperity misinterpretation. Hanegraaff, 223. Gordon Fee called 3 John 2 “the basic Scripture text of the cult of prosperity.” Gordon Fee, “The ‘Gospel’ of Prosperity,” Reformation Today 82 (Nov.-Dec. 1984): 40. Bruce Barron wrote that 3 John 2 was “the ‘Old Faithful’ of prosperity proof texts.”
  • [9] For a complete account of Roberts’ miraculous revelation concerning 3 John 2, see Barron, 62.
  • [10] Kenneth S. Kantzer, “The Cut-Rate Grace of a Health and Wealth Gospel,” Christianity Today, vol. 29, June 1985, 14
  • [11] Bruce Barron, The Health and Wealth Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 91
  • [12] Joseph Henry Thayer, The New Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1981), s.v., “eiio86w.”
  • [13] James R. Goff, Jr., “The Faith That Claims,” Christianity Todayvol. 34, February 1990,21
  • [14] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1985), 28.
  • [15] This critical covenant is mentioned numerous times in the writings of the prosperity teachers, i.e., Gloria Copeland, God’s Willis Prosperity (Fort Worth, TX: Kenneth Copeland Publications, 1973), 4-6; Kenneth Copeland, The Laws of Prosperity (Fort Worth, TX: Kenneth Copeland Publications, 1974), 51; idem, Our Covenant with God (Fort Worth, TX: Kenneth Copeland Publications, 1987), 10; Edward Pousson,       Spreading the Flame (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 158; and Kenneth Copeland, The   Troublemaker (Fort Worth, TX: Kenneth Copeland Publications, n.d.), 6.
  • [16] Pousson, 158
  • [17] Kenneth Copeland, The Laws of Prosperity(Fort Worth, TX: Kenneth Copeland Publications, 1974), 51
  • [18] Cox, 271
  • [19] The unconditional Abrahamic covenant can be demonstrated by four facts. First, the covenant ceremony in Genesis 15 was unilateral, and Abraham was asleep. Second, no conditions are stated in the covenant. Third, in the restatement of the covenant in Gen. 17: 7, 13, and 19, the covenant is called “everlasting.” Finally, the covenant was confirmed despite Abraham’s continued disobedience and lack of faith.
  • [20] Sarles, 339
  • [21] Copeland, 6
  • [22] Philip E. Hughes, “The Second Epistle to the Corinthians,” New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishers, 1962), 300
  • [23] Copeland, 26
  • [24] Gloria Copeland, God’s Will Is Prosperity45.
  • [25] Theologian Ken Sarles rightly noted that “the Law of Compensation [is] the bedrock of the prosperity movement.” Sarles, 349.
  • [26] In Mark 10:29-30, Jesus stated: “Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sister or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life” (NKJV). Other verses that the “Law of Compensation” is based upon include Eccl. 11:1, 2 Cor. 9:6, and Gal. 6:7
  • [27] Gloria Copeland, 54.
  • [28] Copeland, 19
  • [29] Copeland, 41

Leave a Reply