Two Hermeneutical Errors of the Prosperity Gospel

The prosperity “gospel” is perhaps the largest heresy of the church today. It is ubiquitous in, and growing on, every continent. There has been much written about the errors of the prosperity “gospel”, for they are legion. A whole volume could be filled with examples of how they rip Scripture out of context, downplay the promise of suffering in the New Testament, absolutize one Scripture at the expense of others, read physical prosperity into texts where it has no place, elevate the gift above the giver, distort the warnings about wealth etc. However, beneath all this there are two fundamental hermeneutical problems that I have encountered again and again in its adherents. They are a backwards reading of redemptive history and an over-realized eschatology.

Hermeneutical problem number one: a backwards reading of redemptive history.

Prosperity “gospel” preachers often appeal to Old Testament texts which promise physical blessings to Israel and apply them in a 1:1 fashion to the church. They like to do this particularly with the Psalms because the Psalms often promise physical protection and prosperity for God’s people (e.g. Psalm 35:27, 37:25). Other wisdom literature does so as well – Proverbs especially. Yet the hermeneutical problem comes when they apply them in a 1:1 fashion to the church because the church is not the same as Israel in some very important respects.

First, the church is not a theocratic, geopolitical state. Israel was specifically constituted as a geopolitical nation. They were given a specific legal code and a specific land in which they were to live. The Kingdom of Israel was a physical kingdom with physical properties. The political and military enemies of Israel were the enemies of God. As Meredith Kline has argued, the theocratic state of Israel was an eschatological intrusion, by which he means that Israel itself, under the Mosaic Covenant, typified the end-time, eternal Kingdom of God.  In the consummated eternal state, the New Heavens/New Earth, the people of God will live in the final Promised Land and all of their enemies will be completely destroyed in the eternal hell. Israel, as a physical kingdom, foreshadowed this consummated reality. Therefore, when God promises to protect Israel from her enemies in the Old Testament, the promise was to protect her from her literal, physical, military enemies who wished to destroy her!

The New Testament church, not being a physical nation-state cannot apply those blessings directly to herself in the same way that Israel could. Jesus explicitly said that His kingdom was not of this world – otherwise His disciples would have been fighting (John 18:36). We must note that it was not only permissible but commanded for God’s people to engage in holy warfare in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 7:1-5). The prosperity “gospel” also overlooks the fact that even in the Old Testament the promises of physical prosperity were not universal and absolute – the lament Psalms are proof of this. Psalm 44 is particularly relevant because in it the congregation asserts its own innocence (“we have not forgotten you, and we have not been false to your covenant” 44:18-19), yet despite that, they are facing defeat at the hands of their enemies (44:9-16). Clearly even in the Old Testament the righteous suffered and were treated unjustly.[1]

Second, the Mosaic Covenant was instituted as a temporary covenant which has been brought to an end by the coming of Christ. The book of Hebrews is clear, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13). Similarly, Paul’s whole argument in Galatians is that the Mosaic Covenant has ended and therefore its requirements, specifically circumcision, no longer remain as in force. It is contrary to the gospel to require Christians to come under the Mosaic Law. While the issue of the Christian’s relationship to the Mosaic Law is debatedone issue is clear – Christians are not under the Mosaic Law as a covenant. Christians are not “under law” (Romans 6:14). Christians have “died to the law through the body of Christ” (Romans 7:4). The Mosaic Law as a covenant administration has come to an end. Part of what that means is that Christians no longer operate under the blessings and cursings of the Mosaic covenant.

At the institution of the Mosaic Covenant there were blessings and cursings set forth as the sanctions for obedience and disobedience respectively. This was common of Ancient Near Eastern treaties made by a king with his subjects – these were called Suzerain-Vassal treaties. The blessings and cursings of the Mosaic Covenant are given in Deuteronomy 28. They are symmetrical in many ways – if Israel obeys, they are promised urban, agricultural, familial, economic, political, and military blessings in the land of Canaan (28:1-14). Yet, if they disobey they are promised urban, agricultural, familial, economic, political, and military cursing, culminating in a removal from the land of Canaan (28:15-68). These things were particular to the Mosaic economy and are not instituted in the New Covenant. When Christ instituted the New Covenant the disciples did not repeat its curses and take them upon themselves saying “Amen” (see Deuteronomy 27:9-26). Neither did Christ promise physical, economic, or military blessings for His disciples in this life. Instead He promised that they would share in His sufferings (John 16:33). Without a doubt, the New Covenant brings blessings for its members, but they are not identical with the blessings of the Mosaic Covenant; to identify them as such is to turn back the redemptive-historical clock. Therefore, when prosperity preachers attempt to place believers under the sanctions of the Mosaic Covenant, they are denying the radical, epoch-changing nature of Christ’s death and resurrection.[2]

Hermeneutical problem number two: an over-realized eschatology.

What I mean by an “over-realized eschatology” is that the prosperity “gospel” takes blessings promised to Christians in the New Heavens/New Earth and applies them to Christians now. They typically put great weight on verses such as 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come,” and use them to run roughshod over the rest of the New Testaments teaching on the already/not yet nature of the church’s life.

Romans 8 is instructive here. If one only read Romans 8:1-16 he could get the idea that we have the fullness of God’s blessings now. We have the Spirit of God and are sons of God! Yet, this must be balanced by 8:18-25. In this section Paul says that all of creation is in bondage, it is groaning as it awaits the revealing of the sons of God. Notice what Paul says in verse 23, “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (emphasis added). Although in one sense we have received the Spirit and already are adopted as sons of God – in another sense we only have the firstfruits of the Spirit and still wait for our adoption. It is particularly important that Paul specifies the aspect of our adoption that we are waiting for: the redemption of our bodies. In verse 24 he emphasizes that this is what we hope for, not what we presently possess. The physical aspect of our adoption as sons of God, i.e. the resurrection of the dead, is in the future. It is patently obvious that Christians do not have their resurrected bodies now. Although prosperity preachers want to argue that it is God’s will for everyone to be healed – they still age and die.

Earlier we said that one could read Romans 8:1-16 and get the idea that all God’s blessings are for now. Yet, that is a generalization and does not do justice to the text, for in it Paul says, “the body is dead because of sin” (8:10). Even in the highpoint of Paul’s elaboration of the Christian’s blessing in union with Christ, he makes clear that we do not have every blessing applied to us now. There will come a time when the body is no longer dead because of sin, but that time is not now.

Paul lists a particular type of over-realized eschatology as “irreverent babble” which leads people into ungodliness in 2 Timothy 2:17-18. The specific nature of this over-realized eschatology was that it claimed, “That the resurrection has already happened.” It was serious enough to upset the faith of some believers (2 Timothy 2:18). Similarly, the prosperity gospel teaches that it is God’s will for believers to have perfect health and financial prosperity bound to upend the faith of many. Those who have been deceived by it will be caught in an ever-losing battle where they must doubt their faith constantly, because it is not producing the supposed results that it should. Therefore, when prosperity preachers try to argue for physical health and prosperity they are unwarrantedly attempting to force what God has promised in the life to come into this life and thereby making shipwreck of their faith and of the faith of others (1 Timothy 1:19).

These two hermeneutical issues come together when we ask, “what stage of Israel’s history does the New Testament identify the church with?” The answer is clear from the book of Hebrews: the church is identified with Israel in the wilderness. In Hebrews chapter 3-4 Christ is portrayed as the new Moses who has led His people in a new Exodus. As Moses led Israel out of bondage in the house of Egypt, Christ has led His people out of bondage to sin. As the Israelites in the wilderness looked forward to their entrance into the Promised Land, so the church looks forward to its entrance into the heavenly promised land. The rest of Israel in Canaan typified the eternal rest of the saints in the New Heavens/New Earth. The author of Hebrews exhorts the church not to be like the generation in the wilderness who hardened their hearts and did not believe the word of God. Instead he exhorts them to hold fast to their original faith and not fall by disobedience, for there remains a Sabbath rest which the people of God look forward to. The situation of the church is not that which Israel in the Promised Land, enjoying God’s blessings, typified; but it is that of Israel in the wilderness, living by faith in the word of God looking forward to a heavenly country and a New Jerusalem.

The prosperity “gospel” fundamentally misunderstands the Bible. At the same time it tries to turn the redemptive-historical clock backwards by putting Christians back under the sanctions of the Mosaic Covenant and tries to turn the redemptive-historical clock forward by claiming all the eschatological blessings of the New Heavens/New Earth and applying them in the here and now. Let us be clear here: these are not insignificant errors. Paul anathematized the Judaizers at Galatia for teaching that Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised, i.e. come under the Mosaic Law. An over-realized eschatology can have devastating impacts. It leads to unrealistic expectations both from oneself and from others – often in the form of perfectionism. The prosperity “gospel” is another gospel.

 

 


 

[1] It is interesting that Paul uses this very Psalm in Romans 8:36 to describe the situation of the church – a Psalm where the people of God are suffering unjustly and don’t seem to be getting the covenant blessings.

[2] It should be noted that they also do this with the Abrahamic covenant. They take the physical blessings given to Abraham and apply them in a 1:1 fashion to New Covenant believers without allowing for the distinctions and discontinuity inherent in the biblical covenants.

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