Why not prosperity?
So why do we have so much difficulty seeing what is so plainly and repeatedly set out? Why do we reflexively try to spiritualize these prosperity scriptures? Why do we resist the plain meaning of them? What makes us want to argue that God couldn’t be interested in such things?
Turns out the problem is the tremendous influence of Greek philosophy on Christianity. The objections to prosperity aren’t about what the Bible says, but about something above the Bible, something more authoritative than the Word of God, something above God himself, something to which even God must submit, Greek philosophy’s notion of what a God should be like.
When Jesus quoted the Bible, which he did a lot, he was quoting the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament. When Paul needed an authority for some proposition he’d cite the Hebrew Bible. When Paul says,
16 All Scripture is God- breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, (2 Timothy 3;16 NIV)
he means the Hebrew scriptures. The New Testament scriptures hadn’t even been compiled yet.
Athens versus Jerusalem.
But as Christianity spread into the non-jewish world of Greek and Roman civilization it began to be understood and interpreted according to Greek and Roman culture, and Greek and Roman philosophy.
The first Christian theologians were students of Greek philosophy. Marvin Wilson points out how deeply Christian theology was influenced by Greek, particularly Platonist philosophy:
The widespread influence of Plato upon the history of Christian thought can hardly be overestimated. Accordingly, Werner Jaeger states that “the most important fact in the history of Christian doctrine was that the father of Christian theology, Origen, was a Platonic philosopher at the school of Alexandria.” Furthermore, he points out that “he [Origen] built into Christian doctrine the whole cosmic drama of the soul, which he took from Plato, and though later Christian fathers decided that he took over too much, that which they kept was still the essence of Plato’s philosophy of the soul.” (Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham, Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, pg. 168 )
Here’s, evangelical theologian, Justo Gonzalez:
“Thus Clement of Alexandria, Origen’s great forerunner, turned Platonism into one of his main instruments for understanding Scripture. In consequence, both Clement and Origen came to the conclusion that all Scripture concerning God must be understood in such a manner that it is compatible with what the philosophers had said about the Supreme Being.” (Justo L. Gonzalez, Christian Thought Revisited, Three Types of Theology, pg. 23)
Perfect God In A Material World
One lasting result of this Greek philosophical influence on Christianity is Christian contempt for the material world.
Greek, platonist, philosophy, involved the idea of dualism, the segregation, the antithes-izing, of the spiritual and the material. Dualism reasoned that God couldn’t have created the material world because God is perfect, the material world is imperfect, and a perfect God could not have created something imperfect. From there it wasn’t far to conclude that God and His spiritual realm were completely separate from, they could have no contact with, the material realm. Here’s Marvin Wilson explaining platonism:
Platonism holds that there are two worlds: the visible, material world and the invisible, spiritual world. The visible or phenomenal world is in tension with the invisible or conceptual world. Because it is imperfect, and a source of evil, the material world is inferior to that of the spiritual. (Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham, Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, pg. 168 )
The spiritual and the material were opposed to each other. Put simply the spiritual world was good and the material world evil. Those who wished to follow God should then only seek after and value spiritual things.
Though this may sound like basic Christianity to many of us, it was, in fact, the religion of Greek platonist and neo-platonist philosophy. That it seems like normal Christianity demonstrates the huge influence Greek philosophy has had on Christian thinking.
These ideas were opposed to the Jewish ideas of God and creation. In Judaism creation was the work of the one God, and the material world was considered good because God had said it was good, when He created it.
Marcion and the inferior god of creation.
The impact of this type of Greek philosophical thinking on Christianity is illustrated by the tremendous, widespread influence of the Second Century, Christian minister, Marcion, who interpreted Christianity according to Greek philosophical thought.
Marcion taught, for example, that the creator God of the Hebrew Bible was a different and inferior God, to God the Father, of Jesus Christ. Different and inferior because he had created the material world and so was obviously not the perfect God of Greek philosophy.
“He (Marcion) held, rather, that the God Yahweh of the Old Testament was not the same as the Father who sent Jesus to the world. Yahweh was an inferior god who made this world either out of ignorance, or out of spite against the Supreme God, and placed us in it.” (Justo Gonzalez, Christian Thought Revisited, Three Types of Theology, pg. 19)
As a result Marcion rejected the Hebrew Scriptures and even those parts of the Christian Scriptures, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John for example, which he felt had been overly influenced by Judaism and it’s lesser god.
Though Marcion was later excomunicated as a hereitic, Seventh Day Adventist scholar Jacques Doukhan describes the effect of his type of Greek philosophical thinking on Christianity:
Christian overemphasis on salvation against creation originated, in fact, in Marcion, who opposed salvation to creation, the Savior to the Creator, the two Beings being exclusive. Since that time, this thought has prevailed in Christian theology. In the nineteenth century, philosopher Ludwig Feurbach described Christian thinking in these terms: “ Nature, the world, has no value, no interest for Christians. The Christian thinks only of himself and the salvation of his soul.”
… This conceptualization has gone far beyond the borders of professional theoreticians of Christian theology. It has produced a dualistic mentality that has had a profound impact on our civilization. Henceforth, the physical world was opposed to the spiritual one. The Hebrew positive view of creation with its affirmation of life and of the human body was replaced by the Christian valorization of death, suffering, and despisement of anything appealing to the sensual enjoyment of physical life. (Jacques B. Doukhan, Israel And The Church, Two Voices for the Same God, pg. 60-70)
More spiritual than God.
As a result of Greek philosophical influence and its contempt for the physical, material, world, Christians have tended to over-spiritualize the Bible.
Following the example of Marcion, who spiritualized even that most carnal and material of Christian doctrines, the resurrection of the dead, that is, the Christian doctrine that in the age to come the bodies of believers will be raised from the dead;
“…the resurrection of the body, which had to be interpreted in a manner consistent with the centrality of deliverance, that is, had to be changed into ‘the salvation of the soul.’ For it was the purpose of the coming of Jesus to abolish all the works belonging to ‘this world’ and its creator the ruler of the Universe,” (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Traditon, A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 1 The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), pg. 73,)
Christians have tended to spiritualize every material promise in the Bible.
The point isn’t that God isn’t a spirit, He is. Jesus said,
24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:24 NIV)
The point is, that God is a spirit who likes material things. He made them. He said they were good.
31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning —the sixth day. (Genesis 1:31 NIV)
God likes the material world.
When we spiritualize the promises of prosperity we end up trying to be more spiritual than God. We end up, like Marcion, spiritualizing every plain word in the Bible. We end up worshiping the God of Greek philosophical invention, instead of the God of the Bible. When we reject the material promises of the Bible we reject the goodness of God.
The case is stronger than it appears.
The ubiquity, the everywhere—ness, of the promises of prosperity in the Bible is even clearer when you discover that many “prosperity” words in the Hebrew Bible have been spiritualized beyond all recognition in Christian translations. Among these Hebrew prosperity words are, “peace,” “salvation,” and “righteousness.”
As one writer put it when discussing the difference between the jewish and Christian ideas of salvation:
“The Hebrew Bible uses different terms to express nuances in the idea of deliverance, yeshuah and geulah. Two overlapping types, however, can be discerned—one concerned with the individual and one focused on the nation. The former looks to the well-being, security, prosperity and vindication of the individual. Many of the Psalms, a greater part of the Book of Proverbs, and scattered indications in the historical and prophetic books emphasize God’s power to provide individual success. A theme in the Pentateuch is that obedience to divine teachings and commandments (halakha) will lead to personal vindication and prosperity. This set of concepts can be said to refer to salvation.” (A Dictionary Of The Jewish-Christian Dialogue, Edited by Leon Klenicki and Geoffrey Wigoder, article about the Jewish view of salvation by S. Daniel Breslauer, pg 179-182)