God and Money

October 7, 2014
Harvey Cox
HDS professor Harvey Cox / Photo: Steve Gilbert

Victoria Osteen, co-pastor with her husband Joel of the Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, recently sparked controversy after she told her congregation that "when we obey God, we're not doing it for God…we're doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we are happy…So, I want you to know this morning—just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy…"

Osteen was criticized by both conservative and liberal Christians for her championing of the so-called prosperity theology, the notion that God rewards the faithful with health and wealth—and presumably punishes the faithless or people of other faiths with poverty. Christians on the left and right also defended the Osteens, saying that prosperity need not mean luxury, and that there is support for this theology in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament.

HDS sat down with Hollis Research Professor of Divinity Harvey G. Cox, Jr., to ask him for his take on the controversy. Cox's popular fall semester course "God and Money" explores the spiritual significance of money and the controversial questions of faith posed by wealth and poverty.  

Harvard Divinity School: Osteen's defenders point to Malachi 3:10 ("Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this, says the Lord Almighty, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.") and to Joshua 1:8 ("Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.") as proof that "there are other alternatives to poverty theology [a focus on sacrifice, self-denial, and the poverty of Christ]." Do they have a point?

Harvey Cox: For the thoughtful interpreter, you have to feed into the equation of who it is that's hearing the message that God doesn't want you to be poor and starving. That's a message for poor people. God doesn't will you to be poor. He doesn't want you to be starving. He wants you to have what you need to live. This is authentically biblical, and it is emphasized in liberation theology.

In Latin American and in Africa, there is actually a lot of this in churches who preach the message of prosperity theology, and I confess that I'm a little impatient with the comfortably off American and European people who are enormously critical of the prosperity theology as it's preached in poor countries.

It's a little hypocritical for the people who already have plenty to criticize people who welcome a message that God wants them to live better, which I think God does. Jesus said that he wanted people not only to have life but to have it "more abundantly." In liberation theology, that "abundance" includes health, and enough to live on, even "prosperity" in terms of having enough to be comfortable in life.

But when people who already have a lot hear this, it's from a very different angle. When you think about the Jesus parable of "If you have two coats give one to the poor," it sounds very different if you don't have even one coat, or if you have a closet full. Depending on the recipient of the message, it has a certain valance.

HDS: Osteen's critics say that the prosperity theology is not really Christian. There is "No reference to sin as the fundamental issue. No explanation of atonement and resurrection as God's saving acts; no clarity of any sort on the need for faith in Christ and repentance of sin," according to the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Seminary. Is there any way to reconcile prosperity theology with the New Testament?

HC: People don't usually find me and Al Mohler on the same side of an issue, but I'm with him on this. It's a feel good message.

One of the first things we did in the "God and Money" course was to look at all of the biblical references to wealth, from the very beginning up through the New Testament—the "law" section, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, the prophets, the teachings of Jesus, and so on. It comes down to this: All wealth belongs to God. We are only stewards of the wealth. God is the creator. "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." We do not really own it.

That said, wealth can indeed be a reward for hard work. But it can also be a temptation to fall into pride and venality. It can be an obstacle to faith and spiritual maturity if it isn't viewed correctly. Wealth can also sometimes be the product of ill-gotten gains.

So there's not a single biblical view of wealth, but underlying all of it, from beginning to end, is the bias of God for the left out, the poor, the marginalized, the orphans, and the widows. Justice for them is the number one item throughout. That's unchanging from the very beginning up through the Book of Revelation, which has some very graphic passages judging the rich merchants of "Babylon," which means Rome.

Now, there's a big temptation for preachers to pick and choose—to find a text or a couple of texts that support their view of wealth and not mention much of anything else. Joel Osteen is one of the best known of the prosperity gospel preachers. I don't know much about the makeup of his church, except that it's quite large, but most, I would judge, are people who do have enough and ought to be told from the pulpit that they don't own all of this. It belongs to God, and God expects those who have to share and to help those who have not. And I don't hear that from him very much.

HDS: So what's the origin of prosperity theology? Is this even really an argument between Christians or a rehash of the ages-old tension between the way that classical Epicureanism prizes the pleasures of the physical world and Christianity champions suffering today in the name of drawing closer to the transcendent?

HC: There is certainly a long history of efforts to reconcile Epicureanism, Platonism, Aristotle, and more with the Christian message. But I think prosperity theology is an effort to reconcile the Gospel with the American dream: prosperity, health, good feelings, and happiness. They don't talk too much about "take up your cross and follow me." You can dignify it by saying that it is part of the long tradition of reconciling Christianity with various motifs in Greek thinking, but it's really the American dream of doing well and having your children do better.

The sources for this type of theology are a certain kind of distorted Calvinism. Calvinism had an enormous influence on American institutions. One reading of it says that if you're doing well materially, God must favor you. It's a sign that you are one of the elect. If you're not doing so well, you must not be one of the elect. There's a real motivation to do well in worldly terms—to bring assurance that you were really in the Kingdom of God. That's found its way into American preaching and religion right up through Norman Vincent Peale and The Power of Positive Thinking.

There's another source that comes from Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical seminary in Los Angeles. Some years ago, a couple of preachers there were pushing something they called "faith-based theology," but the nickname that others attached to it was "name it and claim it." It's pretty hard to trace that directly to Calvin. It comes more out of a neo-Pentecostal tradition. If you tell God what you want, God has obligated himself to provide for your eternal salvation and worldly well-being. If you don't have "it,"—whatever "it" is—you haven't named it and claimed it. It's your fault.

HDS: So, is it somehow un-Christian to want to be prosperous and happy?

HC: Not at all, but the main underlying theme of the Bible is that those who have wealth need to remember that it is not really theirs; it is God's, and they have a responsibility for those who are deprived. There's nothing clearer in the Gospel. We have an obligation that can't be gainsaid or downstated. If you keep promising people who already have enough or more that they're favored by God, you're not contributing to their spiritual maturation at all.

Remember that Jesus said to sell all you have and give it to the poor, but remember the context, too. It was his conversation with the rich young ruler. He didn't say same thing to everyone. He didn't have many conversations with wealthy people. When he did, it was unvarnished.

—by Paul Massari