Examining the Prosperity Gospel #3: The Faulty Hermeneutics of the Prosperity Gospel

One of the reasons that the Prosperity Gospel thrives is that it is built upon faulty hermeneutics, or in other words, it is based on unsound principles of interpretation. Passages are quoted out of context and meaning is forced where it does not exist, leading to interpretations that would never come about from an honest reading. The primary culprit in this mishandling of Scripture is the practice of proof texting—quoting a single verse without regard for context as the proof for a point. In order to demonstrate the faulty hermeneutics that prosperity theology is based upon, I would like to survey three passages that are indicative of the overall framework. 

As an aside, not everything a prosperity preacher teaches is necessarily based on a wrong interpretation; there are points where they may actually handle the text correctly. That being said, proper interpretation at one point does not excuse the outright misuse at others. The only way to arrive at prosperity and Word of Faith theology is through faulty hermeneutics.

Habakkuk 2:2

A quite inexcusable passage that is used as a proof text is Habakkuk 2:2. Prosperity preachers present this passage as support of some sort command to write down your personal vision of hope for the future. First, see how Creflo Dollar misuses the text:

“For example, if you’re starting a new business, the first thing you should do is find specific Scriptures from the Word of God that you can stand on. Habakkuk 2:2 says, “And the Lord answered me and said, Write the vision and engrave it so plainly upon tablets that everyone who passes may [be able to] read [it easily and quickly] as he hastens by” (AMP). Write the vision just as the Word of God recommends. Then share it with the right people so they may clearly understand your vision and help you fulfill it.”[1]

We see something similar from Paula White:

The Bible tells us to write down what God calls us to do (see Habakkuk 2:2 and Jeremiah 30:2).” Collecting photos is a way of writing down the things God desires for you… Get a clear image of precisely what you need in order to fulfill the tasks in front of you. [2]

Lastly, see how Joel Osteen makes use of the passage:

“You may prefer to write the statements, so you can have a record of them. It says in Habakkuk to write down your vision. Make a list of your dreams, goals, and aspirations as well as the areas you want to improve, the things you want to see changed. Always make sure you can back it up with God’s Word. Then get alone with God and take a few minutes every day to declare good things over your life.”[3]

Now let us examine the passage in it’s own context:

2And the Lord answered me: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. 3For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay. 4“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,  but the righteous shall live by his faith. 5“Moreover, wine is a traitor, an arrogant man who is never at rest. His greed is as wide as Sheol; like death he has never enough. He gathers for himself all nations and collects as his own all peoples.” — Habakkuk 2:2-5, ESV

The context of Habakkuk 2:2 is the Lord telling Habakkuk to write down his vision concerning the coming judgment. There is no enduring commandment or principle to draw from God telling Habakkuk to write his prophetic vision; it has meaning only for Habakkuk at this precise time. To say that this somehow applies to us now in writing down what we want to come to pass completely ignores who God was speaking to and the original context it was written in. In fact, the reason for Habakkuk writing down his vision is quite the opposite of what the prosperity preachers propose: it was not so that the vision might come to passthe outcome was surebut it was so that the people might read of it and repent.

3 John 2

Using 3 John 2 is a hallmark prooftext for prosperity preachers. It says all the right words and seems to definitively prove the point, at least when its context is ignored. See first Paula White:

Health, success, salvation, inner peace, loving relationships—all of these are part of the total package that God desires to give to those who love and serve Him (3 John 2). Don’t limit yourself in trusting God for his highest, best, and most complete blessing. He seeks to give you a life that is abundantly overflowing, more than anything you can imagine.[4]

Creflo Dollar finds his support in this passage as well:

It’s unfortunate that so many Christians have problems with prosperity because they can’t see it clearly in the Word of God. The truth is, God has placed this promise throughout the Bible, and salvation is the first step. Third John 1:2 reads, “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” Prosperity is success and wholeness in every area of your life, including relationships, health, work, and—yes—finances, although it isn’t just about money.[5]

We don’t see 3 John quoted very often since it is such a small book, thus most of us tend to be less familiar with it. Here is the true context for the quote:

1The elder unto the wellbeloved Gaius, whom I love in the truth.2Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth. 3For I rejoiced greatly, when the brethren came and testified of the truth that is in thee, even as thou walkest in the truth. — 3 John 1-3, KJV

This prooftext is nothing more than a greeting that John gives to Gaius to open his letter. At the time when John wrote this letter, this would be hardly more significant than us starting a letter in OUR current day with, “I hope things are going well for you.” It is a matter of politeness, not a theological statement that prosperity is promised to believers. The KJV’s use of “prosperity” at that point is also not the most accurate translation, as the idea of prosperity was not actually in view. This is why newer translations render the statement differently to better reflect the nature of the greeting. Consider the ESV, for example: “I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul.” 

Romans 4:17

This last example is one of the most egregious misuses of the text and is indicative of how a faulty hermeneutic can lead to outright blasphemy. See how Joel Osteen uses the passage:

Romans 4 says “to call the things that are not as though they are.” That simply means that you shouldn’t talk about the way you are. Talk about the way you want to be. If you’re struggling in your finances, don’t go around saying, “Oh, man, business is so slow. The economy is so down. It’s never going to work out.” That’s calling the things that are as if they will always be that way. That’s just describing the situation. By faith you have to say, “I am blessed. I am successful. I am surrounded by God’s favor.”[6]

Note how Osteen draws a direct application from his quotation of Romans 4: you, believer, need to call things that are not as though they were. The passage that he is actually quoting is Romans 4:17. A fair reading of the text could never bring one to assume Scripture tells us to call things to be; that assertion does not exist. See the passage below:

16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” — Romans 4:16-18, ESV

The one who calls things into being is God, it is not us. There is no getting around the fact that Osteen appropriated an attribute of God and applied it to mere human beings. He not only misapplied the text, he lied about what it said. This is a dangerous and heretical handling of the text that must be rejected. 

Conclusion

I won’t belabour the point in this post. The prosperity gospel’s doctrines are built on the back of faulty hermeneutics. Only by ignoring all context within a passage can they come to the conclusions that they come to. Sadly, many Christians do not easily spot mishandling of the text, which speaks to a larger problem of biblical illiteracy among Christians in general.

Syncretistic categories, many imported from New Thought, supported by faulty hermeneutics is what results in the aberrant teachings of the prosperity gospel. If all rules of proper interpretation are ignored, it is quite easy to make the Bible say what you want it to say, which is unfortunately what often occurs. With some foundations laid as to the ideological forebears of the prosperity gospel and of the general hermeneutic employed in its teaching, we will begin to look at its specific doctrines in the next posts.


[1] Creflo Dollar, 8 Steps to Create the Life You Want: The Anatomy of a Successful Life (New York, NY: FaithWords, 2008), 32.

[2] Paula White, You’re All That! Understand God’s Design for Your Life (New York, NY: Faith Words, 2007), 45.

[3] Joel Osteen, Becoming a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day (New York: Free Press, 2007), 115.

[4] White, You’re All That!, 43-44.

[5] Dollar, 8 Steps to Create the Life You Want, 20.

[6] Joel Osteen, The Power of I Am: Two Words That Will Change Your Life Today (New York: FaithWords, 2015), 11.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s