The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospels

By Gordon D. Fee, Vancouver: Regent College Publisher, 2006. 45 pp.

Review by 
Dr Ng Peh Cheng

The two infectious and insidious diseases that plague the lives of the American Christians are the gospel of “prosperity” and the gospel of “perfect health.” The book speaks of Gordon Fee’s intention to examine the issue and to correct the flaws in these gospels. His presentation should not be viewed as a personal attack on the proponents or evangelists of the “wealth and health” teaching but their ardent claim on the source of authority for their message, “It’s in the Bible.  God says it. So think God’s thoughts.  Claim it.  And it’s yours!” (p. 7). Fee’s major concern is, “their message is in fact a dangerous twisting of God’s truth, a message which can appeal ultimately only to human fallenness, not to our life in the Spirit” (p. 8). The “dangerous twist” relates to two questionable affirmations of the “wealth and health” theology,

 

God wills the (financial) prosperity of every one of his children, and therefore for a Christian to be in poverty is to be outside God’s intended will: it is to be living a Satan-defeated life. And usually tucked away in this affirmation is a second: Because we are God’s children (the King’s kids, as some like to put it) we should always go first-class - we should have the biggest and best, a Cadillac instead of a Volkswagen, because this alone brings glory to God (pp. 8-9).

 

Fee’s comment was, “a curious theology indeed, given the nature of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion” (pp. 8-9).

 

So, what is the author’s prognosis of the “wealth and health” theology?

 

According to Fee, the problems are both biblical and theological. Chapter One presents his arguments against the “prosperity” gospel. The first of the three flaws about the teaching lies in applying unsound hermeneutics, that is, in the interpretation of  Scripture. Copeland’s book on the “wealth and health” gospels claims to be “putting the Word of God first and foremost . . ., not what we think it says, but what it actually says.” Fee, however, argues that Copeland’s book is a clear example of the “purely subjective” and “arbitrary way” of interpreting the biblical text” (p. 9).  He reminds readers that the first rule of “all valid interpretation” of Scripture” is to understand the “plain meaning” of the text which he explains on pages 9-10. Breaking the rule would lead to distortion of the text. He illustrates the statement with examples and one of them is the word, “prosper” in 3 John 2 (KJV) which means “to go well with someone” and not “God wills our financial prosperity” (p. 10). Again in John 10:10, the interpretation of “abundant life” should not be confused with “material abundance” (p. 11). 

 

The second flaw is “hermeneutical selectivity” that leads to their conclusion that poverty and prosperity are “conflict realities.” Does God prefer believers to be poor or rich? The answer is the latter since the former is considered a curse (Deut. 28:15ff). Fee refutes the faulty teaching with the affirmation that,

 

neither prosperity nor poverty is a value, is thoroughgoing in the New Testament.  According to Jesus, the good news of the inbreaking of the Kingdom frees us from all those pagan concerns (Matthew. 6:32). With His own coming the Kingdom has been inaugurated-even though it has yet to be fully consummated; the time of God’s rule is now; the future with its new values is already at work in the present (p. 14).

 

That is, “in the new order, brought about by Jesus, the standard is sufficiency, and surplus is called into question” (p. 14) as seen in the early chapters of the Acts and the rich man who seeks for more wealth (Luke 12:15). Fee’s presentation of wealth and possessions as zero value for the people of God is a biblical response to those who inquire, “What should the wealthy believers do?” Or, “How should the ‘poor’ believers view their plight?” (pp. 14-15). 

 

Thirdly, the “prosperity” gospel’s teaching that it is to God’s glory that believers should prosper is condemned as man-centred, seeking for one’s selfish and sense of well-being. The propagation is considered non-theological, a “non-biblical” nonsense which he tags with a warning, “Every tendency to make God serve human interests is irrevocably doomed” (pp. 15-16).

The teaching that “God wills our perfect health,” the second part of the “wealth and health” gospel, is expounded in Chapter Two. If “healing” is a part of the ministries of Jesus and the apostles, and given to the church as a “gift,” should it be viewed as non-biblical and non-theological? Fee, after all is an ordained minister of the Assemblies of God who firmly believes in miraculous healing. But in this chapter, he protests against the “bad biblical interpretation and theology” of the “perfect health” movement. Similar to the “wealth” emphasis of the gospel, the “health” emphasis is defective in its interpretation of primary texts, hermenuetical selectivity and lack of wholistic theological framework that takes into account the entire New Testament. One major question is whether “healing is provided for in the atonement.” In response, the exegesis on Isaiah 53:4 and Isaiah 53: 5 as cited in Matthew and I Peter 2:24 shows that these texts do not support the conclusion that “every child of God should enjoy perfect health simply because he or she is a child of God. If they do  not experience healing, then, of course, it is due to their lack of genuine trust in God” (p. 27). In addition, Fee criticizes the movement’s lack of adequate biblical theology as simply repeating the Corinthian error (pp. 31-34).

 The final chapter reiterates the author’s intention,

 

My interest is this essay is not to try to resolve these tensions for the individual Christian in modern American society. Rather it is my hope to indicate what the New Testament itself teaches about wealth and material goods, so as to provide a biblical frame of reference for discussion and decision making (p. 38).

 

Dr Fee’s credentials affirm his interest and expertise to speak on the topic. He is Professor Emeritus of New Testament Studies at Regent College (Vancouver, British Columbia) and esteemed to be one of the foremost experts in textual criticism of the New Testament. He was a member of the editorial board responsible for the New International Version (NIV) and Today’s New International Version (TNIV) translations of the Bible. He also writes commentaries and books on interpretation including “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.”  

 

The book may be written for the American context but the issue addressed should interest those who are struggling with the same tensions outside the States or looking for a sound Christian framework to understand the controversial doctrine.

 

Is a Christian promised good financial health by virtue of his or her faith in Christ? Does God will that the true believer in Christ be in good physical health? If the Christian does not experience these blessing, must we assume that he or she is outside the will of God?

 

The author’s response to the question provides a sound Christian framework to believers looking for answers to understand the controversy involved.

 

Chapel Notes

On 21st January Dr Philip Satterthwaite spoke on Psalms 123-125 under the title "Faith under Attack".

News Bits

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