Saturday, March 10, 2012

Book Review: Health and Wealth is No Gospel


Health, Wealth & Happiness: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ? By David W. Jones & Russell S. Woodbridge. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011. 201 pages.

The combined academic and life experiences of the authors make them uniquely qualified to write on the topic of the prosperity gospel and its theological shortcomings. Dr. David Jones (PhD) earned his PhD in theological studies with an emphasis in financial ethics from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he currently serves as assistant professor of Christian Ethics (p.8). Dr. Russell Woodbridge (PhD) has an extensive background in finance including time spent as “Vice-President for Equity Derivatives for Salomon Brothers AG in Frankfurt, Germany” (p. 201). He currently serves with the International Mission Board and is a former assistant professor of Theology and Church History at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (p. 201).

Jones and Woodbridge argue that the prosperity gospel is a false gospel born out of a volatile mix of poor theology laced with the teachings of the New Thought movement. They seek to trace the influence of New Thought philosophy on the early proponents of the prosperity gospel, and their theological blunders, in an effort to show the fundamental errors that lie behind prosperity theology. Jones and Woodbridge then refute the basic tenets of the prosperity gospel. The aim is to give the reader a basic understanding of the prosperity gospel and to demonstrate how it does not align with standard Christian doctrine so that the reader will be equipped to spot and refute prosperity theology and to help those who have been influence by the prosperity gospel (p.20).

A heavy focus during the first-half of the book is devoted to the origins and philosophy behind the New Thought movement. Jones and Woodbridge incorporate their research into what they call the five pillars of New Thought philosophy: (1) a distorted view of God; (2) an elevation of mind over matter; (3) an exalted view of human kind; (4) a focus on health and wealth; (5) and an unorthodox view of salvation. In this section the reader is presented with convincing evidence that shows how New Thought philosophy differs from normative Christian teachings on the nature of God, humanity, health and wealth, and salvation.

From that foundation Jones and Woodbridge then argue that modern prosperity theology is rooted in “the New Thought movement, as well as other theological errors”(57). By analyzing the teachings of modern prosperity teachers, and comparing those teachings against the five pillars mentioned above, Jones and Woodbridge show how prosperity theology distorts traditional Christian teachings on the nature of God, humanity, health and wealth, and salvation in ways that resemble the teachings of New Thought philosophy on the same topics. That much is clear.

However, the connection between New Thought philosophy and prosperity theology is not so clear. The connection hinges on two early prosperity gospel proponents: E.W. Kenyon and Kenneth Hagin. It is argued that Kenyon incorporated New Thought philosophy into a “Christian veneer” while attending Emerson School of Oratory, a school saturated with New Thought philosophy (p.51). Later, the book shows that Hagin, who was known as the “the greatest evangelist of the prosperity gospel,” plagiarized Kenyon in several sermons (p.54-55).

It is surmised that several preachers, including Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn, adopted Hagin’s “New Thought tainted doctrine” and collectively formed the modern prosperity gospel movement (p.55). While striking similarities exist, a direct link is never substantiated. Thus the evidence of a connection between New Thought philosophy and modern prosperity theology is tenuous. And to their credit, Jones and Woodbridge seem to concede that point more than once (p.53;71).

Although the link to New Thought philosophy is unconvincing, it is clear that an inherent problem with most, if not all, prosperity gospel teachers is their poor hermeneutical approach to Scripture. It is here where the book excels. Time and again the reader is confronted with blatant examples of prosperity teachers ripping verses out from their original context. A couple of examples include the misapplication of Psalm 82:6 (p.63-64) and 2 Corinthians 8:9 (p. 90). The former is often used as a proof text for a misinformed exaltation of mankind and the latter is a typical proof text for advocating the accumulation of material wealth. In each case the authors show how each verse has been manipulated and pulled from its original context and meaning. The book is replete with similar examples.

Likewise the book excels in its defense of orthodox teachings on suffering, health and wealth, and giving. Here the authors synthesize the Scriptural teachings on these topics and arrive at a well balanced and biblically sound alternative to prosperity theology. One example is the fairness in which they treat the topic of wealth. For instance, they rightly argue that a Christ-centered approach to wealth does not outright condemn the “accumulation and enjoyment of material goods,” nor does it condone the hoarding of wealth (p. 135).

Jones and Woodbridge conclude that a proper biblical view of wealth will focus on using material possessions to help meet the needs of others, while recognizing that the accumulation of wealth can be a spiritual pitfall (140). This is just one example of how Jones and Woodbridge avoid moving to the opposite extreme of prosperity theology during their defense of traditional doctrine. Instead, they strike a well balanced and biblically sound teaching on suffering, health and wealth, and giving.

In conclusion, Jones and Woodbridge should be commended for achieving their intended purpose of introducing the reader to the fundamental errors of the prosperity gospel. Although the foray into the New Thought movement was unpersuasive, the remainder of the book presents a fair and accurate description of prosperity theology and how its teachings differ from orthodox Christianity. Just as important is how Jones and Woodbridge outline a proper Christian understanding on the number of topics that have been distorted by many prosperity gospel teachers. To that end the book is a success and should be read by anyone who has been exposed to any amount of prosperity gospel teaching.

Likewise, the book is a useful resource for those who have friends or relatives who routinely watch any one of the numerous prosperity gospel preachers on television. As the book makes clear, many of these teachers are gifted communicators who give the appearance of being within the fold of mainline Christianity. Yet, as the book also demonstrates, many prosperity teachers hold unorthodox views on a wide range of topics in addition to their skewed views on wealth and health. Anyone who reads the book will be better prepared to point out to their friends and relatives the various unbiblical teachings that emanate from prosperity gospel teachers and the inherent spiritual dangers that lurk behind their Christian veneer.

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