Volume 11 - Issue 3

The ‘theology of success’ momement: a comment

By António Barbosa da Silva

This article is a brief description and critical analysis of the ‘theology of success’ movement, which has recently become prominent in various parts of the world, notably in the USA and Scandinavia.

By ‘theology of success’ (hereafter TS) is meant a theology according to which a real Christian (a) has to be rich and healthy, to enjoy himself and to prosper in all spheres of his life, (b) possesses God’s nature, and (c) should be baptized in the Holy Spirit, the unmistakable signs of this kind of baptism being the possession of the gift of speaking in tongues (glossolalia) and of the gifts of healing and miracle working. TS suggests that those who claim to be Christians, but who do not possess these characteristics are not Christians at all, or are Christians of weak faith or are living in sin.

Preliminary observations

Before these particular three points are discussed, some preliminary observations are in order. First, the adherents of TS reject classical Pentecostalism as it is established in the western world. Even if TS is charismatic in character, it should not be confused with the charismatic movements of the 1960s, which influenced almost all sections of Protestantism and the Catholic church too in some countries.1 Generally speaking, TS can be described as a degeneration and extreme radicalization of the charismatic movement. TS owes its origin to, among others, the following theologians or preachers: Norman Vincent Peale, Kenneth E. Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, Robert H. Schuller, Paul Yonggi Cho, E. W. Kenyon, Jim Casemann, Ulf Ekman (from Sweden), Hans Braterud (from Norway). The ideological roots of TS are to be found in, among other things, the optimistic anthropology ‘preached’ by the so-called New-Age-movement and the positive-thinking psychology of, above all, Carl Rogers and Roberto Assagioli.

Further features of TS to be noted include (a) its suggestive way of ‘inducing’ faith in individuals—faith in the promise of success; (b) its distinctive hermeneutical approach, which amounts to a rejection of the classical Christian approach to Scripture, according to which the Old Testament should be interpreted in the light of the New. The teachings of Jesus and of the apostles have classically been seen as the decisive criteria for the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament and for the assessment of all kinds of religious experience; (c) the almost idolatrous attitude of adherents of TS towards their leaders: the words and advice of the authoritative leaders, who are regarded as prophets, apostles or even as Christ himself, have to be accepted unconditionally. In this respect TS has very similar tendencies to those of the People Temple Full Gospel Church led by James Warren Jones (alias Jim Jones).2

The main tenets

Let us now consider the three main tenets of TS. Support is claimed for them all from the Bible, but in each case the view in question represents an exaggeration and/or misinterpretation of the biblical teaching.

(a) To defend the view that a Christian should prosper and be rich, TS appeals to the Old Testament, e.g. to God’s promise to Abraham (Gn. 12:1–2), to God’s blessing of Job (Jb. 42:10–17), and to Isaiah 52:13 where we read ‘Behold, my servant shall prosper …’ This sort of appeal to the Old Testament is, to say the least, simplistic. With regard to God’s promises to Abraham and to other men of great faith (cf. Heb. 11:1–28), these are taken in Galatians 3:16–20 and Hebrews 11:39 in a spiritual sense, and they are seen as fulfilled not in the Old Testament but in the New Testament in the coming of Jesus and in what he did for his church. With regard to Isaiah 52:13, this cannot be taken of material prosperity in the way suggested by TS, since chs. 52 and 53 are interpreted in the New Testament of the sufferings of Jesus the Messiah. TS fails to interpret the Old Testament properly in the light of the New Testament. So far as Job is concerned, it is true that God blessed Job materially after his long suffering; but the book of Job is not a narrative about how God always blesses the faithful, but about how even the most faithful can suffer and face despair. Of Job’s four friends who tried to comfort him only one (Elihu) understood Job’s situation rightly; the others preached to Job a theology akin to TS (see Jb. 32:1–22; 42:7).

There is no question that the Old Testament (and to a lesser extent the New Testament) can see this-worldly prosperity as a God-given blessing. However, only some passages point in this direction; others make it clear that even the unrighteous can prosper and succeed, whereas the righteous may sometimes experience misfortune. The New Testament is, by and large, negative towards wealth (see Mt. 13:22; 19:24; Mk. 4:19; Lk. 1:53; 6:24; 1 Tim. 6:9, 17; Jas. 1:11; 2:5–6; 5:1).

TS also preaches that Christians must be healthy and that sickness is a sign of sin and lack of faith. The Bible is said to promise healing to every Christian. Some of the most quoted passages in support of this view are: Isaiah 53:4–6; Mark 16:15–18; James 5:13–16 and 1 Peter 2:24. What can be said about this view? First, despite the passages mentioned, which must be taken entirely seriously, the New Testament makes it plain that sickness is not always the consequence of a specific sin committed by the one who is or becomes sick; see, for example, John 9:1–3. Second, there are examples in the New Testament of Christians becoming sick without there being any reason to suppose that this is to be connected with some sin they have committed; see, for example, Philippians 2:25–27; 1 Timothy 5:23; 2 Timothy 4:20. Thirdly, even though the New Testament does not ascribe pain or suffering any intrinsic value—i.e. suffering has no value in itself—it does consider it as having some instrumental value in that it can lead to something good, for example patience; see Romans 5:3–5; 8:35–37. Lastly, the New Testament does not promise us a life without suffering or problems. The kingdom of God with its blessings (including physical blessings) has broken into history with Jesus; but as Christians we have only ‘tasted’ the kingdom of God, the fullness of which we are expecting and longing for; see Romans 8:18–28; 2 Corinthians 5:6–8; Revelation 21:23–27; 22:1–5.

(b) There is a real sense in which the Christian receives, in and through the Holy Spirit, a share in the divine life and nature; but the proponents of TS have an over-simple and misleading understanding of this concept, failing to appreciate all the dimensions of the New Testament view of salvation. The very word ‘salvation’ is used in the New Testament both in the sense of conversion (Acts 2:40, 47), i.e. of something completed, and also to denote something eschatological and not yet complete (Rom. 13:11–14). TS confuses these two tenses of salvation when it suggests that Christians are already saved in a realized-eschatological sense, such that they are deemed to be perfect during their earthly life. One can easily refute this doctrine by pointing out that, if Christians had the divine nature in the eschatological sense, they would not die. In fact, as the Bible teaches, all men must die (2 Cor. 5:10; Heb. 9:27). St Paul made it very clear that he had not become perfect; on the contrary he regarded himself as the chief of sinners (Phil. 3:12–14; 1 Tim. 1:15). Advocates of TS defend their theology against this kind of argument by maintaining that it is the spirit in man and not his body which is made perfect in the act of salvation; but this body/spirit dualism is Gnostic, not biblical.

(c) The emphasis that TS puts on the baptism of the Holy Spirit and on the gifts of the Spirit, especially on the gift of healing, can be seen as a protest against the well-established churches, including the Pentecostal ones. They are seen by proponents of TS as conservative, as too cerebral in their approach to the Bible, and as having disastrously neglected the gifts of the Spirit. In my opinion, TS is right in pointing to deficiencies in many local churches. It is, however, wrong in the way it preaches what it takes to be lacking in other churches. For example, although it is quite right to say that the New Testament sees every Christian as a partaker in the Holy Spirit, it is not true to say that the Holy Spirit will give every believer the gift of speaking in tongues or the gift of teaching (or, for that matter, perfect physical health). St Paul, speaking about ideas resembling some of those found today in TS, states very clearly in 1 Corinthians 12:1–31 that the gifts of the Spirit are given to different members of the church according to the will of the Spirit and for the edification of the congregation.

Concluding remarks

Throughout the history of the church, from New Testament times onwards, radical groups of Christians sharing some of the characteristics of TS have appeared, and their views have been refuted by the great theologians of the church. If one asks why religious movements such as TS have arisen particularly in the modern western world, the broad answer must be that the traditional churches have often failed to preach the ‘full gospel’. Thus, for example, they have failed to preach about the gifts of the Spirit, and they have effectively discounted the possibility of supernatural healing in the church today. But there are also ideological, economic and social causes. The ideological factor is that people (especially young people) are lacking, but looking for, authoritative answers to their existential, religious and political questions. The economic factor is the widespread economic instability in both the richer and poorer parts of the world, manifesting itself in inflation, unemployment, etc.Factors such as these give rise to anxiety and to feelings of insecurity about the future. Because of its simple message and authoritative preaching, TS appeals to, and brings relief to, many. There are cases of healing. And there is warm fellowship: the informal meetings associated with TS movement—with music, singing and crying—function as a kind of mental therapy for the many people in the west who lack human fellowship and satisfying social relationships. It is not surprising that a movement which promises economic prosperity, a divine nature, health, miracle-working power and good fellowship (in some cases collective living) appeals to the nature of homo economicus and homo sapiens!

Whereas TS brings relief to some, it often has disastrous consequences on the mental health of those who want to be Christians, but who do not experience all the blessings that are (misleading) offered by the preachers of TS. Such people, if experience in Sweden and Norway is typical, often become mentally disturbed, and need much pastoral counselling from psychologists and priests.

From the point of view of the philosophy of religion, TS gives rise to many important questions; these include questions about the biblical view of evil and pain, about how the power and activity of Satan are to be related to the biblical view of God as an almighty, omniscient and provident loving Father, about the nature and relationship of justification and sanctification, and, above all, about Christian ethics. These questions cannot be explained and discussed here. Suffice it to say, in conclusion, that TS represents a subtly attractive, but dangerous, distortion of Christian truth. Christians must be on their guard against it, not only by insisting on the right interpretation of the relevant biblical teaching, but also by seeking to work out and to live out the biblical pattern of Christian living more faithfully within the church of Christ.

1 For a concise account of the charismatic movement see the article by Anne Mather in Themelios 9.3 (1984), pp. 17–21. On the influence of the movement see Goodnews, Newsletter of the National Service Committee or Catholic Charismatic Renewal in England 52 (June/July 1984).

2 The basic themes of TS can be found in the following books: Kenneth E. Hagin, Seven Things You Should Know about Divine Healing; idem. Seven Vital Steps to Receiving the Holy Spirit; idem, The Art of Intercession; idem, Authority of the Believer; Idem, The Ministry of the Prophet; idem. Demons and how to deal with them; idem, You can have what you say; Idem, How to keep your Healing; Having Faith in your Faith (all published by Kenneth Hagin Ministries in Toronto, Canada, or Tulsa, USA, in 1980/81); E. W. Kenyon, Advanced Bible Course; Idem, Studies in the Deeper Life (Kenyon Gospel Publishing Society, USA, 1970); Robert H. Schuller, Self-Love, The Dynamic Force of Success (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1969); idem. You can become the person you want to be (New York: Pillar Books, 1973); idem, Discover your Possibilities(Irvine, California: Harvest House Publishers, 1978); Elda Susan Morran and Lawrence Schlemmer, Faith for the Fearful (Durban, South Africa; Centre for Applied Social Sciences, University of Natal, 1984).

António Barbosa da Silva

Uppsala University