Acton Institute Powerblog

The Heresy of the Prosperity Gospel

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We have just wrapped up Acton University, our annual conference that focuses on integrating Christian theology and sound economic thinking. In light of that, it was interesting to read this post at Patheos.com, “America’s Premier Heresy,” where Scot McKnight takes a look at the Prosperity Gospel, especially as presented by Pastor Joel Osteen.

If you’re not familiar with the Prosperity Gospel, it preaches that God wants all of us to be wealthy and healthy in this life, and that riches and health are ours, simply for the asking, in faith and obedience to Him. The problems of poverty, ill-health, unemployment, underemployment and general malaise are that we don’t implore God to shower us with blessings. Once we recognize that God has only positive things in store for us, and we ask for them, it’s all ours.

It was interesting – to say the least  – to have been reading this blog post while surrounded by some of the most intelligent people on the planet who had gathered at Acton University to discuss things like alleviating poverty in the developing world, business as mission and vocation, and the role of envy and fairness in economic thought. McKnight poses these interesting questions:

If you could offer a better theology to proponents of prosperity theology, what would it look like? How does an economic theory work into your critique or your offer?

Last week’s activities at Acton University offered a plethora of answers to these two questions, but I’m going to focus on just a few. First, the Rev. Robert Sirico’s new book Defending the Free Market recognizes the need for economic answers to questions of poverty. The recognition isn’t one of glamorous outpourings of wealth from a sugar daddy in the sky. It is, as Fr. Sirico puts it, “humdrum business”. That’s right: It’s just hard, creative work of human beings that lifts people out of poverty and helps them forge opportunities for themselves, their employees, families and communities. It’s not the same as asking God to simply make these things appear in one’s life; it’s being willing to partner with God, if you will, to bring about change.

Second, those who attended Acton University had the privilege of hearing Arthur C. Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute speak. (You can download a recording of his speech here.) Much of Mr. Brooks’ speech is typified in this quote from his book The Road to Freedom:

Under free enterprise, people can pursue their own ends, and they can reap the rewards and consequences, positive and negative, of their own actions.

Again, notice that the emphasis is placed on the work we must do, as free human beings, in order to create good things in our lives.

Finally, Amy Sherman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Faith in Communities at Sagamore Institute talked to us about our stewardship responsibilities in our work lives.

The big Gospel reminds us of God’s big story. He created a paradise and invited us to steward it, legitimating all kinds of work. We blew it, but God did not retract the cultural mandate from us even after the Fall. But the Fall meant that our work would be much more difficult and sometimes feel futile. Jesus’ redemption means that the restoration project is underway. Jesus’ great salvation work pushes back every aspect of the curse: redeeming the broken relationship between humans and God, humans and themselves, humans with one another, and humans with the creation itself. All of that is Jesus’ work, not just “saving souls.”

The 800+ attendees at Acton University can answer the questions posited by Mr. McKnight in his critique of the Prosperity Gospel. What economic theory and theological insights can we offer as an answer to the theology of Joel Osteen? It’s just plain, hum-drum business, free enterprise and the freedom for people to create – in cooperation with God – a better life and abundant economic opportunities.

(For more on the Prosperity Gospel, listen to Glenn Sunshine’s Acton Lecture Series presentation “Wealth, Work and the Church“.)

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.

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