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Prosperity Gospel: A Valid Evangelical Option? Part 1

Florida mega-church pastor and sometime religious television personality Paula White is emerging in news media coverage as a leading spokesperson for “American evangelicals.”

Her church in suburban Orlando attracts about 20,000 attendees, and thousands more watch her on television and read her writings. Her version of evangelical Christianity is what is popularly known as the “Prosperity Gospel.”

The thrust of that theology is that God wants his people to be healthy and financially prosperous if not rich.

If they have sufficient faith, expressed in the right ways, they can and should overcome poverty, live lives of financial abundance (if not luxury) and be physically well all the time – right up until they die.

All across U.S. and much of the world, certain “evangelical” evangelists and pastors are promoting this theology as their primary theme.

Its beginnings lie in 19th century New Thought – the movement begun by evangelist Phineas Quimby in New England.

Where Quimby got it is unknown, but “mind over matter” philosophies were “in the air” in both Europe and America – driven at least somewhat by a vulgarized interpretation of German idealism that metaphysically connected thought and being as inseparable.

Quimby became Mary Baker Eddy’s “guru” and she claimed healing through his ministry of mentalism – mind over matter using positive thinking and speaking.

She founded “Christian Science” – one of the first and best-known organized forms of New Thought.

There were numerous other individual “practitioners” of New Thought, and several religious groups grew out of the movement.

The common idea of all of them was that God’s power to heal and prosper lies in the human mind because God’s mind and the human mind are not separate but interconnected.

New Thought’s idea of “prayer” was simply positive thinking and speaking – a form of magic.

The beginning of New Thought infiltrating evangelical Christianity has been to a healing evangelist and author named E.W. Kenyon (1867-1948).

Kenyon combined the evangelical healing movement that was spreading among Holiness Christians and New Thought. To Holiness-Pentecostals who prayed for the sick to be healed, he added the dimension of positive thinking and speaking.

The contemporary movement known as “Word-Faith” exists primarily among Pentecostal and charismatic Christians.

The immediate “father” of the movement was Kenneth Hagin (1917-2003), founder of the Rhema Bible Institute in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Some scholars claim he received his “name it and claim it” message about health and wealth from Kenyon.

Hagin denied that, claiming he both received it from the Bible and “revelation” – the “rhema Word,” which is God’s contemporary revelation, as distinct from the “logos Word,” which is God’s revelation in the past.

The method of prospering and being in health, according to Hagin and other Word-Faith evangelists, is “speaking the Word.” It is not enough simply to think positively; one must speak health and prosperity into existence.

The precise mechanisms of influence of New Thought on Pentecostal-charismatic Word-Faith theology is much debated.

Yet, there is general agreement on Kenyon as a major player in blending them and transmitting that hybrid theology to 20th century Pentecostal-charismatics like Hagin who, in turn, passed it on to popularizers, such as Kenneth Copeland and Joel Osteen.

Another “strain” of New Thought entered into so-called “mainstream” Protestantism through popular Reformed pastor and writer Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993), pastor of the historic Marble Collegiate Church (New York City) and author of “The Power of Positive Thinking.”

A favorite saying of Peale’s was, “Change your thoughts and you can change your world.”

Peale is generally considered to have been Robert Schuller’s inspiration. He founded the wildly popular magazine “Guideposts.”

Again, the precise mechanisms of New Thought’s influence on Peale are unknown, but by the time he wrote “The Power of Positive Thinking,” elements of New Thought were simply “in the air” in American culture.

But Peale seems to have drawn on New Thought for his basic philosophy of success in life, blending it with “mainline Protestantism” and handing that on to people like Schuller.

Peale and Schuller belonged to the same denomination, the old Dutch Reformed Church now known as the Reformed Church of America.

Yet, is this “gospel of health and wealth” through positive thinking and speaking, this “prosperity gospel,” this “Word-Faith movement,” this “name it and claim it” teaching, authentically evangelical. Is it a valid evangelical option?

Apparently the national news media thinks so, labeling prosperity gospel preachers like Paula White “evangelicals,” and most of the movement’s adherents do claim to be evangelical in some sense.

Yet, the label is not an accurate description of the Word-Faith movement.

Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Against Calvinism” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a longer version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.