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Reconstructing Word of Faith Theology

In his zeal to protect the purity of the gospel, Paul gave another command in order to deal with those who are not teaching sound doctrine. Paul writes to Timothy,

Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.[12]

There is room within word of faith theology to “correct, rebuke and encourage,” but it requires “great patience and careful instruction.” Word of faith teaching is not a heresy to be obliterated, but a theologically premature movement that needs significant reconstruction. Word of faith theology is within the bounds of orthodoxy because of its historical roots in Holiness/Pentecostalism and its exaltation of the biblical authority. These elements provide a sufficient theological foundation to seek correction and not condemnation.


Historical Roots and the Flaws of the “Kenyon Connection”

The historical argument raised by word of faith critics is the claim that word of faith theology is rooted in the metaphysical cults. They construct a simple syllogism. Premise one, a bad historical root equals bad theological fruit. Premise two, faith theology has a bad root. Conclusion, faith theology is bad theological fruit. McConnell presents the strongest argument for the metaphysical cultic root of faith theology. He first published his work as a master’s thesis at Oral Roberts University in 1982 under the heading “The Kenyon Connection: A Theological and Historical Analysis of the Cultic Origins of the Faith Movement.” It was then published by Hendrickson in 1988 under the title A Different Gospel.[13] “The Kenyon Connection,” according to McConnell, is the link between the metaphysical cults and the modern-day word of faith movement. He argues that the writings and ideas of the 19th century New Thought movement significantly impacted the theological mind of E. W. Kenyon. Kenneth Hagin plagiarized Kenyon and incorporated the heretical strands of Kenyon’s teachings into his own theology. Finally, Kenyon becomes the true “father” of the word of faith movement through Hagin’s books and tapes.[14] This historical analysis has become a scholastic landmark in building a case for the heretical nature of word of faith theology.[15] However, there are serious flaws at each level of McConnell’s analysis that call the final conclusion into question. The “Kenyon connection” breaks down under three significant flaws: (1) a misconstrued history of Kenyon’s relationship with the New Thought movement, (2) a misunderstanding of Kenyon’s theology, and (3) the lack of emphasis on non-Kenyon influences on Hagin.

(1) McConnell builds his case for the heretical nature of Kenyon’s teaching first upon the fact that Kenyon attended Emerson College, the seedbed of New Thought thinking. He writes, “…in 1892 Kenyon enrolled in the Emerson College of Oratory, an institution that was absolutely inundated with metaphysical, cultic ideas and practices.”[16] McConnell shrinks the historical development of metaphysics at Emerson College and presents a flattened view of history that is misleading and inaccurate. While Emerson College did become a hub of New Thought ideas and doctrines, it had not become so at the time Kenyon attended. Joe McIntyre argues that while Kenyon attended Emerson College in 1892, the College was just beginning to be exposed to New Thought doctrines. For McConnell to claim that Emerson was “absolutely inundated” with metaphysical thinking is nothing more than “speculation based upon presuppositions” as attested to by McIntyre[17] It would be a few years in the future before Emerson professors would begin to teach New Thought doctrines. Ralph Waldo Trine, who was a professor and student at Emerson College, taught while Kenyon was a student. McConnell claims that Trine’s presence at the school exemplifies his claim that the “brand of New Thought there was of a pure and intense variety.”[18] This is historically inaccurate. Emerson historians state that Trine did not begin teaching New Thought doctrines until after he left the school in 1894.[19] McConnell even notes that Trine did not publish his New Thought ideas until 1897.[20] If New Thought ideas were active on the Emerson campus, they were neither “intense” nor were they systematically communicated by the faculty. McConnell’s shallow historical analysis causes him to force a distorted history to be read into the “Kenyon Connection.” The lack of historical evidence causes the “Kenyon Connection” to break down at the initial argument.[21]

(2) This false assumption of a historical connection between Kenyon and New Thought ideas causes a critical bias when evaluating Kenyon’s theology. If there is an assumption that Kenyon was heavily influenced by the metaphysical cults, then an objective evaluation of Kenyon’s theology has been compromised. Instead of evaluating Kenyon on his own merits, observers of Kenyon are looking for metaphysical elements in his theology because their false view of the history dictates that these heretical elements already exist in Kenyon’s writings. Even though the alleged historical connection between Kenyon and the metaphysical cults is without solid historical evidence, the claim that Kenyon’s own writings contain unsound doctrine that is based in metaphysical thought could still remain.

The writings of E.W. Kenyon lack theological sophistication and, in part, reveal a departure from the most sound of hermeneutical principles. However, the whole of his teachings falls within the bounds of historical orthodox Christianity, on the fringe perhaps, but still within orthodoxy. One teaching of Kenyon that is attacked and deemed heretical is his doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hell, which extended the sufferings of Christ from the cross into Hell itself. Kenyon writes, “For three days and three nights the Lamb of God was our Substitute in Hell. He was there for us.”[22] While the errors of the doctrine can be identified, this doctrine itself does not fall out of historic Christian theology. John Calvin taught a similar doctrine according to the Apostle’s Creed. He writes,

Nothing had been done if Christ had only endured corporeal death. In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance. Whence also it was necessary that he should engage, as it were, at close quarters with the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death.[23]

The doctrine, replete with theological pitfalls, is hotly debated. And while Calvin and Kenyon hold the minority opinion, the opinion itself does not relegate Kenyon to heresy.

McConnell claims that Kenyon held several doctrines that were refashioned metaphysics, three of which become predominate in word of faith theology,[24] namely deism, dualism and deification. Upon citing three passages from Kenyon’s Hidden Man, McConnell comments,

In each of these (passages), Kenyon claims that his teaching is not metaphysical and then immediately follows his disclaimer with a central dogma of metaphysics. For example, when he speaks of “the great spiritual laws that govern the unseen forces of life,” he is espousing deism, the metaphysical world view that the universe is governed by impersonal, spiritual laws rather than a personal, sovereign God. When Kenyon refers to “God breaking into the sense realm,” he is espousing dualism, which is the metaphysical view of reality that the spiritual realm and the physical realm are mutually exclusive and even opposed to one another. Finally, when Kenyon refers to “God imparting his own nature to the human spirit” and God becoming a part of our very consciousness,” he is espousing deification, which is the metaphysical view that salvation entails man becoming a god.[25]

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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). Twitter: @DerekVreeland

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