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Reconstructing Word of Faith Theology

Pastor Vreeland offers a defense, analysis, and refinement of the theology of the Word of Faith Movement.

 

“O, when it comes to faith, what a living, creative, active, powerful thing it is. It cannot do other than good at all times. It never waits to ask whether there is some good work to do…”

 Martin Luther, Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans [1]

 

The Debate over Word of Faith Theology

The independent charismatic movement has struggled to form an ecclesiastic identity amid its mosaic of churches, ministries, theological systems, and points of biblical emphasis. It surged onto the Pentecostal landscape in the fury of post World War II healing revivalism under the leadership of spiritual enthusiasts who were dissatisfied with established denominational Pentecostalism. They received the loose classification “independent charismatics” to distinguish them from the denominational charismatics or neo-Pentecostals of the late 20th century charismatic renewal. Their self-imposed isolation from traditional denominational structures created an opportunity for theological innovations. This freedom has also allowed an array of voices to rise up and speak to the issue of theology often with less than accurate methodologies and piece meal constructs that in part have hindered the work of the Holy Spirit. No other movement has been more pervasive in the independent charismatic tradition than the word of faith movement[2] and none other has been as persuasive.

Researchers and Pentecostal historians have difficulty finding any independent charismatic church or ministry that has not been exposed to the word of faith movement to some degree. Tenants of word of faith theology, such as positive confession and prosperity, have become the caricatures of the entire independent charismatic tradition. The spread of the word of faith movement over the last 25 years has not been without opposition. Critics have spoken out from reformed, evangelical, classic Pentecostal backgrounds and from within the independent charismatic tradition itself. Some critics decry the movement as cultic and the theology as heresy.[3] Much to the detriment of the word of faith movement, this has been a rather one-sided debate. Many of the predominate word of faith proponents choose not to respond to the critics in an attempt to heed the Pauline warning to not “quarrel about words.”[4] While some substantial books have been published in response to some of the critical extremes[5], a thorough reconstruction of word of faith theology has not been attempted. A reconstruction of word of faith theology requires redeeming the word of faith movement from the “heresy junk pile” that it has been heaped on by answering the question, “Do the theological weaknesses within word of faith doctrines constitute an anathemaic condemnation or is there sufficient orthodoxy in word of faith theology to apply correction?” This will be a partial response to D. R. McConnell and other word of faith critics. The remaining process of reconstruction includes an explanation of four distinctives of word of faith theology – the nature of faith, positive confession, healing and prosperity. The final step to reconstruction will be to refine those tenants by answering the question, “Can each word of faith distinctive be reconstructed on a solid theological foundation and still retain its word of faith identity?”

 

Condemnation or Correction?

The integrity of the gospel is a primary concern in the Pauline letters. However, Paul’s injunctions do not fall into rigid categories, but differ depending upon the context. To the Galatians, he writes,

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned![6]

Paul emphatically states that the response to those who preach a different gospel is anathema esto. The verb esto is a third person singular, present active imperative form of eimi implying a command. This command becomes weightier as Paul repeats his instructions in verse 9. Anathema refers to a person or thing that is consecrated and devoted to God for destruction in that it is alienated from God spiritually by sin.[7] If word of faith theology breaks the boundaries of orthodoxy and is indeed preaching a different gospel, then we should apply the Pauline injunction to declare it anathema. This has been the direction taken by some word of faith critics. In his summary remarks, McConnell concludes,

This analysis of the Faith movement has characterized the Faith theology as “a different gospel.”…Is the charge justified that the Faith theology constitutes a different gospel? I think that it is, for three reasons: (1) its historical origins; (2) its heretical doctrines; and (3) its cultic practices.[8]

Christian Research Institute President Hank Hanegraaff writes, “The Faith movement has systematically subverted the very essence of Christianity so as to present us with a counterfeit Christ and a counterfeit Christianity. Therefore standing against the theology of the Faith movement does not divide; rather, it unites believers.”[9] In 1980, Charles Farah brought the debate to the Society for Pentecostal Studies where he concludes, “The (Faith) movement uses Gnostic hermeneutical principles and displaces contextual scientific exegesis. It shares many of the goals of present day humanism, particularly in regards to the creaturely comforts. It is in fact, a burgeoning heresy.”[10] Nearly ten years later, H. Terris Neuman adds to the debate upon the SPS platform. He writes, “…this paper is a call to the wider evangelical community also to engage in an apologetic that will distinguish the gospel of Jesus Christ from those who indeed propagate a “different gospel”[11] (i.e. the proponents of word of faith theology). However, anathema is not the only option.

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Category: Fall 2016, In Depth

About the Author: Derek Vreeland, MDiv (Oral Roberts University), DMin (Asbury Theological Seminary), is the Discipleship Pastor at Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. He is the author of Shape Shifters: How God Changes the Human Heart: A Trinitarian Vision of Spiritual Transformation (Word & Spirit Press, 2008), Primal Credo: Your Entrance into the Apostles' Creed (Doctrina Press, 2011), and Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright: A Reader's Guide to Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Doctrina Press, 2015). http://derekvreeland.com Twitter: @DerekVreeland

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