The Prosperity Gospel and the Responsible Interpretation of the Bible (continued from “My concerns with the prosperity gospel in Africa” from January 12)

A. Prosperity Preachers’ Proof Texts

Is the gospel of prosperity biblical? That is, does it communicate what Scripture itself teaches, and does it express what is true of the Bible as a whole?

Certainly those who preach prosperity present it as a message from Scripture. They point to a wide array of key verses that seem to guarantee financial breakthroughs. For instance, prosperity preachers repeatedly quote 2 Corinthians 8-9, including: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9, NIV).  They also repeat, “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (2 Cor 9:8, NIV).

However, these verses which prosperity preachers quote tend to be removed from their original context of 2 Corinthians. This is one of the biblical books most quoted by prosperity preachers, but as a whole it teaches something very different than the prosperity gospel. It is the same letter where the Apostle says twice that he has often gone hungry (2 Cor 6:5; 11:27) and where he teaches that the sufferings of Christ are abundant in the lives of believers (2 Cor 1:5). It is also in 2 Corinthians that Paul tells of the thorn in his flesh that would not leave him, despite his repeated pleas to God (2 Cor 12:7-10). In fact, one of the main themes of 2 Corinthians is that the Christian life is not about escaping or moving beyond weakness and suffering. For this reason, it is quite strange to use verses from 2 Corinthians to guarantee material success to believers.

If 2 Corinthians as a whole does not promise prosperity to believers, then how is it that prosperity preachers keep turning to 2 Corinthians for promises of financial breakthrough? The answer lies in their interpretive method: They tend to rely upon scattered verses in the New Testament that are removed from their original context, and they tend to overlook the main aims, major lines of thought, and key themes of biblical books from where the verses originate. Prosperity preachers’ removal of verses from where they originate leads them to misinterpret the verses they quote. In the case of 2 Corinthians, the result is a contradiction of the overall message of the book. Preachers need to be careful about relying upon a few scattered Bible verses pulled out of their historical and literary context. They need to be wary of utilizing these as proof texts that run against the main themes of the books of the Bible where they were originally found. Yet this is precisely the error that many who preach the message of prosperity fall into.

Understanding communication, and interpreting it wisely, always requires context. Imagine trying to view an impressionist painting by looking at only a few of the artist’s dots, while ignoring the whole. Or imagine the proverbial blind person trying to describe an elephant by touching only one part of its body. In both cases, the resulting picture is quite different than reality. The same might be said of prosperity preachers’ approach to quoting the Bible.

B. Literary Context

The prevalence and progress of the prosperity gospel is partly due to Christians’ failure to understand verses of the Bible in their original literary context. What does it mean to read Scripture in light of the literary context, and why is the literary context so important?

By giving attention to the “literary context,” I mean that we interpret words in light of the verses of the Bible in which they are found. And we interpret verses in light of the immediate sections of Scripture in which they’re found. And we interpret small sections of verses in light of chapters and larger sections of a book of the Bible. And we interpret chapters and larger sections of a book of the Bible in light of the book as a whole. Words, sentences, passages, and chapters “take their meaning from the biblical book of which they are a part” (Brown 2007: 213).[1] In short, making use of the literary context means that we interpret words and verses according to what we find in the immediate and surrounding passages, and we interpret these smaller parts in light of what we see in a book of Scripture as a whole.

The literary context is important because it keeps us on track by setting interpretive limits and clarifying the possible range of meaning for a verse of the Bible. It is true that we all bring ideologies and concerns that affect our interpretation of a text. This is unavoidable to a degree, but too often we force a piece of Scripture to fit our preconceived notions. This occurs with few limits, resulting in any number of possible meanings, if we do not read in context. Yet when we read a verse in its literary context, we have to face what is really in the text, which makes it much more difficult to compel Scripture to say whatever we want it to say. When we read a verse in its literary context, we must deal with the verse in light of what the rest of its own context is saying. While it is very hard to see the meaning of a text if we do not understand what the author says before and after that given piece of text, the literary context gives us much to work with, because we have the author’s own guidance to clarify the meaning. A good literary approach allows Scripture to have its own voice rather than being dictated strictly by the concerns of the reader.

Let us look at a real-life example. On more than one occasion I have heard Zambian preachers discuss whether or not Jesus’ promise of abundant life in the Gospel of John should encourage them to dream of owning their own airplanes. The debate concerns this verse: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10, NRSV). In the contemporary context of Africa’s preachers, where the prosperity gospel thrives, and where a preacher’s personal wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, true abundance might look like owning one’s own airplane. However, from the perspective of using the literary context of Scripture, questions of the contemporary context are not the first or only ones that matter. The literary approach asks the question: What does abundant life mean in the Gospel of John? “Life” is one of the main themes of that gospel, so by tracing how it uses and speaks of the word “life”, we can arrive at a fairly clear idea of what these words mean in their original literary context. This should clarify and put limits on the contemporary discussion of whether pastors should seek to own their own airplanes. By looking at how John’s gospel uses the word “life”, we can see that it tends to mean “eternal life”, and yet eternal life begins now through our faith and knowledge of God. One only needs a Bible concordance to see where and how Jesus speaks of life in John’s gospel; then a reader can discern the extent to which Jesus has material goods in mind when Jesus speaks of life abundant.

Some readers may be cautious about our ability to be sure of what Scripture really teaches. Can a person be certain that the Bible actually teaches for or against the prosperity gospel? Some may claim: Are not our readings contextual and largely determined by our point of view and attitudes which we have before we pick up the Bible and read? Some might ask this question because they wish to avoid the authority of Scripture in their personal lifestyle, but many others genuinely wonder about these questions.

Certainly, all readings of Scripture bear the influence of our contemporary context and the lens of experience and ideology through which we read. There is no such thing as an entirely objective reading. However, while the limitations of a reader and his or her context put limits on his or her interpretation, interpretation is not simply or only shaped by the reader’s context. The writers of Scripture did not leave us in the dark in regard to their main aims and themes, and we can trace them by learning to read well. We can gain confidence about discovering what Scripture says by learning to use its literary context. As we use the literary context, we can hold the content of what we find in the Bible in dialogue with our situation on the ground in Africa. This helps us to hear how the content of Scripture addresses our contemporary context.

C. Canonical Context

Some readers might grant the argument so far but argue that the prosperity gospel is a key theme spread throughout much of the Old Testament, and especially the book of Deuteronomy. Indeed, in support of the message of prosperity, Deuteronomy does teach that God blesses the obedient with material prosperity. This is at the heart of Deuteronomy’s theology. When Deuteronomy 28:2 says, All these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the LORD your God”, it is more than a proof text, and the wider literary context of the book demonstrates that material blessings are included. The verse communicates what Deuteronomy is actually about, and this theology can be found scattered in the Old Testament’s literature.

While this essay grants that prosperity as a reward for obedience is a genuine principal theme of Deuteronomy, and that we find this idea in a wide variety of Old Testament books, the trouble is that prosperity preachers take this theme and make it a guarantee for believers today to receive material blessing, without observing the way the rest of the biblical canon puts limits on this teaching and prevents it from being a guarantee in every case. Failure to observe the way the rest of the canon qualifies and nuances its teaching is a hallmark of the prosperity gospel. The meaning of a verse of Scripture should be understood in light of the book of the Bible in which it is found; in addition, we need to observe the canonical context when we preach something as a general truth. For a teaching to be considered crucial enough to repeat day after day and week after week, as the prosperity gospel is proclaimed in Africa, it must stand the test of what we discover in the rest of the canon, which is crucial for determining the church’s main teachings.

Filtering the prosperity gospel through the New Testament would mean qualifying the message substantially, but the canon of the Old Testament also requires that we nuance this message. The Psalms of lament, for example, sometimes present the Psalmist as one who is righteous and yet suffers. Psalm 44:15, 17-19, and 23-24 (NIV) state:

My disgrace is before me all day long, and my face is covered with shame… All this happened to us, though we had not forgotten you or been false to your covenant.  Our hearts had not turned back; our feet had not strayed from your path.  But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals and covered us over with deep darkness… Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.  Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?

Along similar lines, Psalm 73:13-14 (NIV) gives voice to the reality that sometimes the faithful suffer: Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.  All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning.” Yet the same Psalm affirms:  “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:25-26).

It is not only the Psalms which call the guarantee of prosperity into question. Job is a righteous sufferer. Isaiah 53, a chapter which came to hold significance for the early Christians’ understanding of Jesus, speaks of the righteous servant who suffers. The prophet Jeremiah was faithful and yet suffered. While material blessings often come to the righteous in the Old Testament, it is not uncommon that the righteous suffer.

In light of these realities, relying on the Old Testament canon as a whole, a preacher cannot guarantee physical blessings to believers in return for their obedience. Physical blessings as a reward for obedience is one of the ways God works; the Old Testament also presents other very different ways God deals with the faithful. As Ellen Davis states, “The Bible is rigorously realistic in its representations of human character, the conditions and contingencies of life in this world. Therefore the aim of Old Testament preaching is to invite Christians to grow toward spiritual maturity in circumstances that are always less than ideal” (“Witnessing to God in the Midst of Life: Old Testament Preaching” Expository Times 124 Oct 1:1).

D. Learning the Skill of Analysis

One reason for the prosperity gospel’s success in Africa is that Christians receive a steady diet of this gospel from the television and the radio, and few people have the tools and preparation to evaluate the message as to whether or not it is biblical. When students arrive at our institution, they are comfortable with listening to lectures and reading books to receive and pass on information, but most have not been exposed to education that teaches them to analyze what they read. When new students prepare a sermon, they tend to be at a loss when asked to do personal analysis of a biblical text. Instead of analyzing their passage of the Bible, the tendency is to copy what a Bible commentary says about their passage and then begin to think for themselves about the practical application. When they neglect the personal analysis of Scripture for themselves, they demonstrate a lack of confidence and skill in interpretation of Scripture. Relatively few people have gained the ability to trace the line of thought within biblical books and see the variety of nuances contained in passages of Scripture. But if theological colleges teach students the skill of analyzing a text (any text), and they learn to apply that skill to the Bible, then they will be able to see for themselves the extent to which the gospel of prosperity rings true with the themes and aims of the Bible.

To assure that teaching is biblical, preachers and teachers must learn to identify the main aims, themes, and lines of thought in the writings of Scripture for themselves. We can learn to do this in individual passages, in individual books of the Bible, and in the canon as a whole. The result is that as teachers and preachers we know that what we teach matches what the Bible is really about, because we see our teaching emphasized as main themes in whole streams of thought, represented in large sections of Scripture. And where a teaching is nuanced by other lines of thought, we need to admit that and not give guarantees that God automatically works in one way instead of another.

When preachers learn to interpret individual verses in light of the larger pieces of Scripture in which they are found, the result is that they will be able to tell the difference between a proof text taken out of context and a statement or verse that represents what Scripture as a whole teaches. This is of great value when evaluating the prosperity gospel or any other teaching.

While God may bless believers with prosperity, this is not affirmed throughout Scripture. Therefore it cannot be taught as something that is automatic and mechanical as so many prosperity preachers guarantee. To be a central message of the church and a true interpretation of the Christian life, a teaching must square with main lines of thought in the biblical canon, and it should not violate the main lines of thought of the biblical writings from which verses are quoted. The prosperity gospel must be held in dialogue with, and critiqued by, the themes of Scripture which anyone may observe to be genuinely central.

[1]  I recommend Brown’s Scripture as Communication: Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics (2007) for an initial study of hermeneutics, along with Anthony C. Thiselton, Hermeneutics: An Introduction (2009). 

Cooperating with the Gospel

Thanks to friends at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte for the idea of making this video. It lasts nine minutes, and here’s the beginning in case you want to know more about it before deciding to watch:

If in your reading of 1 Corinthians you made it into chapters 8 and 9, you may be asking, “What’s the big deal with meat that’s been sacrificed to idols?”

Well, let’s remember that a letter in the New Testament, such as 1 Corinthians, is rooted in a particular place and time. There’s a historical gap between us and the original group of people to whom the letter was sent.

Let’s see if we can fill in the gap a little: Some members of the Corinthian church figured out that since they knew idols were not real gods, it would technically not be wrong to eat the meat that had been sacrificed to them. The most readily available meat was that which had been used in pagan worship, so this knowledge of theirs gave them new freedom, freedom to enjoy meat as they pleased.

All of this sounds fine, but the apostle Paul responds: “Hold on. It’s not quite that simple.” We have to think critically about our freedom. It’s not just knowledge that informs our choices. Love for others, and a desire to build them up, needs to shape what we choose. He also says in 8:9, “Be careful… that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”

Then, in chapter 9, Paul goes on to talk a lot about his choices and about the gospel. Now many of us are accustomed to thinking about our relationship with God and how that impacts our choices. But Paul also thought a lot about the relationship we have with the gospel. He talks about his relationship with the gospel throughout chapter 9 and how that relationship affected what he did with his freedom. This may be where a first-century issue of food sacrificed to idols overlaps with our lives. So let’s let Paul help us to see what he saw about the role of the gospel in his life and how that affected his choices.

He mentions the word “gospel” and preaching the gospel probably more in 1 Corinthians 9 than in any other passage in the Bible. It’s also one of the passages where Paul talks about himself about as much as anywhere else. But he isn’t just talking about himself. We need to remember that chapters 8 and 9 are part of this section of 1 Corinthians that ends with the conclusion, “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ” in 11:1. So when the apostle talks about his choices, he’s also saying something about us, about our choices, and our calling…