Blessed to be Rich? A Biblical Theology of Blessing (part 1)
This is an edited (because of space) version of part 1 of a 4 part series. It is written by Paul Barker and from the Gospel Coalition Website. Paul Barker is the regional coordinator for Langham Preaching
The so-called “prosperity gospel” is prevalent and pervasive. Students and pastors from Nigeria to Myanmar frequently ask me about its theology and speak of its influence. In this series of posts I want to outline a response to it.
Introduction to Prosperity Theology
In summary, prosperity theology says that God wants his people to be rich. James Tinney summarises it as: “God’s got it, I can have it, and by faith I’m going to get it.”
For those who have followed this thinking, that believe that it is God’s will is for Christians to be financially blessed and prosperous. Sometimes financial wealth is regarded as a measure of faith – meaning poverty shows a lack of faith or obedience. Pat Robertson says that poverty “is a curse that comes upon those who either have not served God properly, or who are not following certain laws of God, or are temporarily in transit to one of God’s destinations.”
The Theological Platform of Prosperity Theology
Prosperity theology relies heavily on an Old Testament vision of life. It highlights the physical blessings given to Adam and Eve and the promises of prosperity given to Abraham. It reasons that, since prosperity was lost through sin, it must also be restored by Jesus’ removal of sins curse. Jesus makes that blessing of wealth available through faith that claims it.
The promises to Abraham are crucial here. No doubt, the promises of Genesis 12:2-3 do imply prosperity and wealth, though that is made neither explicit nor primary (Abraham’s general greatness as a blessing of the nations is primary). Furthermore, as the Old Testament narrative unfolds, prosperity becomes more explicit. Abraham himself is wealthy (Genesis 13:2). Those who obey the law of Moses are promised prosperity too (see Deuteronomy 28:1-14).
Prosperity theology insists that these promises still apply to Christians today. As James Smith observes, Pentecostalism embraces a wholistic vision of creation that refuses to spiritualise the promises of the Gospel.
Responses to Prosperity Theology
There are various criticisms that might be made of the prosperity gospel.
One of the problems of those who promote the prosperity gospel is that their theologians have quick answers for the complexities of life, and “reduce the Christian life to knowing the right technique or formula, or following the prescribed steps to achieve prosperity.”
Another problem with prosperity theology is how it twists out of context the passages they often quote.
The Need for a Biblical Theology Approach
What is really needed is a biblical theology approach. As Gordon Fee observes, the weakness of prosperity theology isn’t just that it cherrypicks and misinterprets key texts, it also demonstrates a “failure to have a wholistic biblical view of things, especially a failure to understand the essential theological framework of the New Testament writers.”
The root problem here is a fragmented approach to the Bible: A verse for the day on a calendar, or via Facebook; devotional books that focus on one verse at a time; textual preaching. All these make it harder for all of us – both prosperity advocates and their critics – to read the Bible in its context.
If we really want to understand what the Bible has to say about prosperity we need to go beyond the verse-by-verse approach and study the broad stream of biblical flow and development.
In the following three parts of this series we will try to do just that, beginning with Genesis.