For those that don’t know, I was at one time an adherent of Word/Faith theology. I considered it to be a legitimate representation of the Bible’s prescription for exercising our faith. It was not uncommon for me to recite certain passages of scripture as the basis for a verbal declaration of desired outcomes or an expectation that God would move according to the level of my faith. Such passages included
Proverbs 18:21 – Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit
Mark 11:23-24 – Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea, and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him. Therefore, I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you.
Hebrews 11:1 – Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
James 1:6-7 – But he must ask in faith without any doubting , for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord.
Needless to say, I have since learned that a consideration of faith in correlation to the complete witness of scripture does not yield the formula of faith that supporters of Word/Faith theology promote. That is, that faith is the conduit through which God moves on behalf of his people and words must align accordingly. It is a syncretist philosophy that attempts to blend metaphysical principles of positive confession and the idea that such confessions can yield corresponding results. Moreover, it is used to support the idea that blessings come in the form of some type of material gain that is believed to be an appropriate symbol of favortism of God.
The passages listed above are commonly used to support this idea but they must be evaluated in their literary and cultural context sourced in the authorial intent of the overriding message of God’s revelation in Christ and his ultimate plan for history. The association of confession with belief does not yield a formula of faith that gets results but rather aligns the heart towards an appropriate response towards God, his plan and purpose that is recognized in prayer. Faith is not an abstract concept of hope placed in whatever we desire, but a necessity of trust in what has already been revealed. Jesus’ words must be considered in context of his redemptive plan and purpose. One of my fellow bloggers over at Theologica wrote a really nice piece here on the substance of faith.
So I could talk about the biggest gripe with Word/Faith theology is that it promotes an elevated anthropology that consequently undermines the sovereignty of God. For Word/Faith does insist that man was granted certain abilities to access divine attributes that in turn can transform the ability to believe into a reality of whatever it is that is being professed. But that is not it. Nor is my biggest gripe the fact that this theology can have the tendency to promote self-focused interests that contradicts an alignment of our lives with what God desires. Although it is and pretty severe.
It seems like the exegetical and hermeneutical fallacies that remove isolated passages from their literary context to impose meanings that the authors did not intend are enough to promote a gripe. Most definitely, there is a very significant gripe there. Word/faith theology is built on a rather destructive tendency to perform eisegesis that reads the faith formula into particular passages. It also does not make distinctions of discontinuity between the Old and New Testament. It is a philosophy that does not seek to understand the Bible on its own terms but rather yield self-interested results for the reader. This is most certainly a gripe, but not my biggest one.
The biggest gripe I have with Word/Faith theology is the impact it has on people, and particularly precious brothers and sisters in Christ who lack discernment or proper teaching of the biblical expression of faith. The fallacy of this theology is that it puts the onus of outcomes on the individual but fails to consider how divinely orchestrated circumstances will not always work out in the way we suppose, regardless of how much we want to see a particular outcome or have a confident affirmation that such events will occur simply because they are believed and professed. Moreover, it fails to encourage the believer to appropriately hold Christ as the object of faith, rather than hope in a particular prayer or formula. It can discourage a believer in their faith if prayers are not answered or if they have not achieved a certain level of ‘blessings’, not realizing that they are already blessed (Ephesians 1:3)
And exhorting one another in Christ is what the believer is commanded to do. The biblical evidence of who the Christian is a member of the body of Christ compels a consideration of other members and necessity to build each other up in the faith. When I consider the exhortation and instruction of the letters to the believers, there is encouragement that is never sourced in what can be produced for our benefit but what already has been produced so that the community of faith can effectively serve Christ and one another and grow towards maturity. That means, we should hold precious how we encourage one another and not employ methods or teaching that will discourage or even shipwreck another believer’s faith.
It also means understanding that pain, suffering, loss and disappointing circumstances cannot be escaped for the faithful follower of Christ. Examine Paul’s encouragement to the Thessalonians and Peter’s letter to bear up in suffering. At what point are these churches encouraged to make positive confessions to obtain desired outcomes according to their faith? Rather, they are exhorted in the sufficiency and supremacy of Christ and God’s plan for history. Where are they ever told that prayer is about self-interested gain? Paul tells Timothy that godliness is not about material gain but the pursuit of righteousness and the richness that abides in that (1 Timothy 6:3-11)
I was grieved the other day to see a reflection of Word/faith exhortation posted on a Facebook status, that if one doubts, one should not even pray, based erroneously on James 1:6 since James is referring to apply God’s wisdom in the face of trials. Can you imagine discouraging another believer to pray? And I think examples like this abound, where believers suppose that focusing on the faith formula will somehow translate into spiritual maturity by castigating any doubt as detrimental to that believer’s life. But instead, such advice could have a devastating impact on another’s faith, particularly if that person does not have a biblical conviction that the object of faith is Christ and prayer serves as an alignment for conformity to him. This is the antithesis to the exhortation in Christ that should be promoted towards other brothers and sisters in Christ.
So my hope and prayer is that there will be more genuine building up in the faith of another rather than encouraging faith as a gain to promote self-focused and self-produced outcomes. As long as the latter continues, that will be my biggest gripe.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]