Author: Mikael Stenhammar
Category: Poverty and Wealth
There was no way anyone could convince me that the Prosperity Gospel was not absolutely true. I had graduated Rhema Bible Training Centre, sitting two years under the feet of the grandfather of prosperity teaching, Kenneth Hagin, Sr. I had been guided through the Bible and seen with my own eyes how God rewarded faith with wealth. The list of verses to back it up was too long for anyone to challenge. I had consumed the prosperity books and knew much of it by heart.
I discussed with several who opposed the Prosperity Gospel, including some professors at the Bible College I later attended, but their arguments did not bite. Why? Because they could not show me “chapter and verse” that what I believed was false. They used big sounding arguments about God’s nature and sovereignty but I was sitting on the “plain facts” of Scripture. I had been trained well; “if it is not in the Bible, do not believe it.” And the opponents of the Prosperity Gospel did not have the Bible on their side. Case closed.
I was invited to go to Kenya to administrate and teach in a seminary for three years. I taught all the principles of the Prosperity Gospel and they were very well received. After the time was up I went back to Sweden, my native home, and continued my theological studies and began digging deeper into the New Testament. I knew that the Word of Faith movement had not had anyone who could respond to all the criticism voiced, at least not in an informed academic manner, so I set out to be one who could. But as I began entering the New Testament world more seriously I came to realize that what I had been taught did not really match what I now saw. Hermeneutics became a special interest and I studied literature which helped me better read the Scriptures. In this whole process my take on the Prosperity Gospel began to shift drastically. My eyes opened to some severe misunderstandings and misusages of Scripture. What I thought was the “plain Bible” was really a flattening of the Bible and an exercise in “proof-scripturing.” Some very fundamental hermeneutical guidelines were constantly broken (literary context and genres were mostly overlooked).
As I got in touch with more main stream Evangelical theology (especially in the writings of Alister McGrath) I also realized that the Prosperity Gospel was theologically poor, not just hermeneutically. After some years of postgraduate studies and research, I felt a heavy burden to return to Kenya, this time teaching “a different gospel.” I wanted to help my fellow believers escape the snare of the materialistic message of success which impoverished their faith, as it had mine. Since hermeneutics had helped me see where the prosperity message was wrong and also empowered me to read the Scriptures in a more sound way, I decided to start a training program in biblical interpretation for church leaders. We started in December 2008 with four students sitting at the kitchen table in the house we rented. Today we have about forty to fifty pastors and leaders enrolled in the program and the school is attracting more and more interest. We target mostly Pentecostal and Charismatic leaders who want to learn how to better read, understand and proclaim the message of Scripture. The absolute majority have never attended any formal theological training (often due to lack of financial resources) yet have hundreds of church members. Many come from prosperity oriented groups who uncritically receive and echo its message. But as they come to learn the basics of hermeneutics, they start to change. The process is far from painless and sometimes the level of frustration is high but the end result is very encouraging. The need for hermeneutical training is extreme and I suggest that this is perhaps the most effective way in which to help people see the problems with the Prosperity Gospel.
The battle against the Prosperity Gospel – if I may use polemical terminology – can only be won by using the sword of the Spirit. That is to say, since those in the Prosperity camp are utterly convinced that what they believe is right out of the Bible, they must be convinced by the use of Scripture to think otherwise. That is where hermeneutics is so effective. Instead of falling into the Scripture-against-Scripture approach, where one verse is quoted to counter another, hermeneutics helps the student take a step back and see the bigger picture. Sound guidelines of interpretation are constantly broken by prosperity teachers and when that becomes evident, the teaching itself crumbles.
A big problem we have to face is that the gospel of wealth is folk theology (or folk hermeneutics). The direct consequence of this is that academic writings and arguments are often ineffective. What is needed is to popularize quality material in a form that connects with the especially the leaders who have not studied theology at all (and for whom theology often is looked upon as something of a hindrance rather than help). We have to find ways of spreading knowledge of what is proper and improper usage of Scripture. The greatest number of those following and preaching prosperity are good and godly people who are convinced that what they believe is truly what the Bible teaches. “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it” is a famous dictum in the Word of Faith movement. So if they find out that the central points of the Prosperity Gospel are not in line with a proper usage of Scripture, then many are ready to change.
For my students, as well as for me, one of Calvin’s statement was revolutionary: “it is the first business of an interpreter to let the author say what he does say, instead of attributing to him what we think he ought to say.” Such basic hermeneutical insights will be a very effective antidote to prosperity theology. Hermeneutics helped making my Bible reading sound, and I think many other prosperity proponents need the same cure.