Faith, Health & Prosperity
My primary regret about this book is that it will probably not be widely distributed or read in the United States. Published in the U.K. under the auspices of ACUTE, I doubt that it will receive much notice here in the U.S. But it should. This, quite simply, is the best, most balanced, most biblical treatment of the Word of Faith movement that I’ve read.
The book was initially undertaken in response to concerns raised by the ministry in the U.K. of Morris Cerullo (his international organization is known as MCWE, or Morris Cerullo World Evangelism). The issue that stirred the waters was “the direct link he [Cerullo] appeared to make between the level of donors’ contributions to his own particular ministry and the extent of God’s blessing upon those donors’ lives” (x). Believing this to be a matter of grave importance, ACUTE formed a working committee originally comprised of six members to investigate the teachings of this movement and to produce preliminary papers on all aspects of Word of Faith theology. In the end, numerous individuals contributed in some measure to the final product. However, and this is one of the more remarkable features of this book, the volume reads as if written by one individual. Perhaps this is due to the editorial skills of Andrew Perriman. Whatever the case, it is extremely well written and reflects a unified perspective.
Let me give you a quick overview of the variety of topics addressed in this volume. Part One, Chapter One, begins with an excellent introduction to the primary beliefs and the more well known and influential representatives of Word of Faith teaching. Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth and Gloria Copeland are mentioned in particular, as well as the global extent of the movement’s influence. Chapter Two seeks to articulate the basic premises of Word of Faith and does so by addressing their beliefs concerning the creation and fall of Adam, as well as the nature of Christ’s atoning work. In Chapter Three the authors come straight to the point:
“The Word of Faith argument is, on the one hand, that we may transcend the limitations of human understanding by receiving ‘revelation knowledge’ directly from God; and on the other, that by activating certain spiritual ‘laws’ that have been built into the universe, the most important being the law of faith, we may gain access to a supernatural power than can dramatically change our material circumstances” (30).
The power of unflinching faith that refuses to tolerate doubt in any form, together with visualization and confession, are carefully analyzed. Chapter Four turns to the issues of both health and wealth and why the doubt-free heart can lay claim to them. The final chapter in Part One turns to the debate on the origins of the movement, focusing on the various philosophies, theologies, and individuals who have contributed to the emergence of this now worldwide phenomenon.
Part Two is devoted to an evaluation of Word of Faith teaching. I was quite impressed by the theologically sophisticated analysis of Word of Faith hermeneutics (Chapter Six). The authors are to be commended for noting the Word of Faith movement’s “highly utilitarian use of the biblical texts. Scripture,” they proceed to point out, “is treated as a contractual or covenantal document whose practical value lies almost entirely in the fact that it comprises a set of promises, rules, laws, conditions, etc., which must be appropriated and activated by the believer in order to achieve spiritual and material success” (82). Word of Faith teaching, they continue, “operates with a nave hermeneutic which largely disregards historical and literary distinctions within the text and refuses to engage in dialogue with the scholarly community” (82).
Chapter Seven is a critical analysis of the theory of double atonement (that Christ died both physically and spiritually), Christ as second Adam, his alleged descent into hell and subsequent rebirth, and the relationship between salvation and material prosperity. The “little gods” doctrine is carefully addressed, together with the question of healing in the atonement and the relationship of God’s will to physical health. Chapter Eight is entirely devoted to articulating and then critiquing the concept of faith as found among the movement’s primary spokesmen.
Chapters Nine, Ten, and Eleven are all devoted to a study of the teaching of Scripture on financial prosperity, as they consider, respectively, “Poverty and Wealth in the Old Testament,” “Poverty and Wealth in the Gospels,” and “Poverty and Wealth in the New Testament Church.”
Chapter Twelve, titled “Ministry and Ethics,” is must reading for all believers. A few representative citations will highlight the importance of what is addressed:
“In order to ensure the efficacy of faith in the life of the ordinary believer, the Word of Faith movement has developed a highly functional and formulaic spirituality. Success in the spiritual life is not a haphazard affair: we can be certain of achieving our spiritual objectives if we act in accordance with the various laws that were embedded by God in the universe at creation – rather as the Jews were guaranteed prosperity if they observed the rules prescribed in the Torah” (196).
“Word of Faith spirituality is dominated by the determination to get results, to prosper, and this is where the legalism comes into play: the practical outworking of the spiritual life, whether as personal sanctification or as ministry, is governed by the operation of spiritual laws” (196).
While addressing the issue of integrity, one finds this pointed and painfully true assessment:
“Just as a rationalist biblical fundamentalism is likely to conceal or misrepresent the intellectual difficulties presented by Scripture, a fundamentalism of faith will always be tempted to conceal or misrepresent the failure of faith, to manipulate people and circumstances in order to maintain the appearance of effectiveness” (198).
The book ends with a chapter devoted to what both those inside and outside the Word of Faith movement can learn from each other. There is an appendix containing the “Statement of the World Evangelical Fellowship on Prosperity Theology and the Theology of Suffering (1995).” The book is thoroughly documented, with 45 pages of endnotes, and an extensive bibliography.
Let me close with several important observations.
First, this book is not, like so many others of the same genre, a disdainful critique of Word of Faith teaching. There is a genuine and almost always successful attempt to understand what Word of Faith teachers are really saying and why they say it. The analysis is fair and even handed. I never sensed the authors were looking down their theological noses at this movement. There is an authentic desire to engage in serious dialogue and to subject all our views to the authority of Scripture.
Second, often in books of this nature there is what can only be called a patronizing attitude in which the compliments paid to one’s opponents come across as insincere and, at best, reluctant concessions that serve only to protect the authors from being perceived as theological Pharisees. You will find none of that in this volume. For my part, I sensed that the authors were genuinely concerned to learn from the Word of Faith movement and to honestly acknowledge where the mainstream evangelical church has failed to appropriate its biblical emphases. In particular, the authors point to the priority given to the Word of God, their belief in a powerful God, their thoroughgoing optimism, and their emphasis on godly prosperity as areas where evangelicalism has a lot to learn.
They warn those on the outside of “the tendency to condemn the movement on the basis of an ingrained and largely unexamined moral revulsion. Much of what passes for doctrinal integrity,” they conclude, “is often little more than spiritual snobbery and disdain for what appears to be the uneducated, status-seeking vulgarity of Word of Faith religion” (230). They insist that “if there is to be any progress in dialogue, evangelicals must be ready to affirm those aspects of Word of Faith teaching and practice that coincide with their own biblical convictions” (231).
Third, contrary to what one might expect, the authors are not hesitant to be critical of other Word of Faith critics. Authors such as Hank Hanegraaff, Robert Bowman, and John Ankerberg, among others, are held accountable for some of the irresponsible and unkind ways they have misrepresented Word of Faith teaching.
Fourth, and finally, unlike some critics of the movement, these authors do not place Word of Faith advocates in the category of a cult, far less do they consign them to a life outside the pale of evangelical orthodoxy. That doesn’t mean they hesitate to point out theological error when they see it. But it does mean they regard such errant folk as brethren, fellow-laborers in the body of Christ.
Again, I cannot too highly recommend this book, especially for you who are either in the Word of Faith movement or have occasion to interact with friends and family who are. It is the best of its kind.