“And Jesus answered them: ‘Have faith in God’” (Mark 11:22).
One of the most troubling aspects of the so-called Word-Faith movement is that its self-styled teachers often employ biblical concepts and idioms in ways that pervert their original meaning. An example of such an adulteration is a concept that is central to the movement: faith. In one of his best-selling books, the late Kenneth Hagin, whom Charisma magazine once called the ‘Father of the Faith Movement’, famously wrote: ‘Did you ever stop to think about having faith in your own faith? Evidently, God had faith in his faith, because he spoke words of faith and they came to pass … In other words, having faith in your words is having faith in your faith. That’s what you’ve got to learn to do to get things from God: Have faith in your faith’.
Hagin was of the view that God had faith in his faith when he spoke the world into being. He insisted that this divine faith is in the possession of believers in his book, New Thresholds when he wrote that ‘the kind of faith that spoke the world into existence is dealt in our hearts’. Thus, if we would only have faith in our faith, we could, like God himself, make possible the impossible. Based on this conviction, Hagin took liberties to edit Mark 11:22 to read as follows: ‘Have the faith of God’. In this Hagin followed his secret mentor, Essek William Kenyon, whom writers like William De Arteaga regard as the ‘pioneer theologian and true father of the contemporary Word-Faith movement’. The great New Testament scholar C.E.B. Cranfield plainly calls such mutilations of the text ‘a monstrosity of exegesis’.
For Word-Faith teachers like Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn, such faith is exercised through what they call ‘positive confession’. The origins of this doctrine can be traced to Kenyon, who stated it succinctly and memorably in this way: ‘What I confess, I possess’. Although Kenyon’s initial association with Pentecostalism is undisputed, he was also influenced by syncretistic, pseudo-Christian cults such as Religious Science, Christian Science and the Unity School of Christianity. Most significantly, Kenyon drew heavily from New Thought Metaphysics, a religious cult associated with Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-1866). In New Thought Metaphysics, positive confession is often accompanied by visualisation. Thus, in his book In Tune with the Infinite, New Thought proponent Ralph Waldo Trine writes: ‘Suggest prosperity to yourself. See yourself in a prosperous condition … You thus make yourself a magnet to attract the things that you desire’. The family-resemblances of the teachings of the apostles of the prosperity gospel like Kenneth Copeland with the tenets of New Thought are unmistakable.
Needless to say, the ‘theologians’ of the Word-Faith movement have perverted what the Bible means by faith, which always has to do with the believer’s trusting and obedient relationship with God, by turning it into a technique that can be used to manipulate God, or, as some of them prefer, the spiritual laws, to get what they want. At best, this idea of faith as a manipulative instrument reduces God to some kind of genii that can be summoned at will to pander to our selfish and superficial desires for wealth and prosperity. Or, we could even say that given this dogma – ‘have faith in your faith’ – God is no longer necessary. Faith has become an occult technique that is guaranteed to work once the principles are correctly understood and the proper method is used. Hagin taught this quite clearly when he insisted that even unbelievers could get results by operating according to these spiritual laws: ‘God has a certain law of prosperity and when you get into contact with that law and those rules, it just works for you – whoever you are. When you come into contact with God’s laws, they work’.
Properly understood, faith is always a theocentric (God-centred) concept: we have faith in God, who is the object of our faith. When Hagin and his followers exhorted their audience and readers to have faith in their own faith, they have corrupted the biblical concept of faith by turning it into an anthropocentric (man-centred) idea. For to claim to be able to enjoy health, wealth and success by putting faith in one’s own faith, that is, by the sheer positivity of one’s attitude and will, is surely the ultimate expression of man’s confidence in his own ability to fashion his own future. This recalls Charles Farah’s perceptive characterisation of the Word-Faith and Prosperity Gospel movement as a form of ‘charismatic humanism’. For underneath all the highfalutin religious jargon is the banal celebration of the omni-competence of the human self, the idea that we have the capacity to create our own worlds and shape our own destiny.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was published in The Bible Speaks Today (April 2014).