Deuteronomic Theology and the Gospel of Prosperity

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of October 4. Enjoy!

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In the midst of warning the Israelites about a litany of curses that could befall them for not upholding God’s Laws, the Deuteronomist pauses to promise broad-sweeping earthly blessings for those who will “obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees” (Dt 30:6 NIV).  This basic concept, repeated throughout Deuteronomy with nuance, forms what Victor P. Hamilton refers to as “Deuteronomic theology.”[1] Perhaps the promise of blessings for the righteous is a natural progression that follows the delivery of the Law, wherein God can be understood as the originator of positive reinforcement.  Stated another way, God knew his people needed an incentive to obey him.  Rightfully so, however, Hamilton astutely notes that the phenomena of blessings and curses in Deuteronomy are not always related to the degree to which one follows the Law.[2] Yet, this reflection paper will examine the application of the basic concept as mirrored by modern popular theology and as found elsewhere in the Old Testament.

Deuteronomic theology forms the backbone of the cynically titled “prosperity gospel,” a message popularized by Joel Osteen and based on the promise of blessing from Deuteronomy (Dt 30:1-10).  Osteen pastors a Houston-area mega-church, but is more widely known around the United States for his loosely theological self-help books.  Having never heard Osteen speak in person, I must rely on video clips, sound bites and other means of understanding his yoke.  However, for a cogent summary of his message, I defer to friend and colleague Andrew Baumgartner, who in 2009 visited Osteen’s Lakewood Church and walked away with a critical assessment.  Referring to Osteen’s message, he wrote, “To the untrained or uncaring ear, it could sound almost Christian.  It is full of happy platitudes, and some genuinely get comfort from it.  But upon further examination and reflection, prosperity is built on the theological sand.”[3]

If this indeed were the case, Osteen would not be the first to build an understanding of God on sand, referencing the saying of Jesus (Mt 7:24-27).  Perhaps the most compelling argument against the broad-brush application of Deuteronomic theology comes when God judges against the counsel of Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu regarding the reason for Job’s suffering (Jb 42:7-10).  Throughout the greater part of the book, these friends attempt to reason that Job lost his material blessings of family, servants, livestock and possessions due to some unrighteous or sinful action hidden in Job’s life.  Emphatically, God responds to Eliphaz, “‘I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. . . . Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly’” (Jb 42:7-8 NIV).  Not only are Job’s friends wrong, they are also foolish for applying such basic Deuteronomic theology in this instance.

Considering this passage as part of a discussion regarding the authority of the full Bible, Brian D. McLaren concludes that while individual books and passages contain truth, “We speak nonsense when we practice verse snatching from Deuteronomy, the middle of Job, or anywhere else.”[4] McLaren posits that a fuller understanding of the Bible is found in context, conversation, and community.  Without these vital clues, it is difficult to understand that the promise of Godly blessing in Deuteronomy may be necessary positive reinforcement to incentivize the freshly minted Law, rather than a verdict on the origin of one’s recent promotion or cancer diagnosis.


[1] Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 446.

[2] Ibid., 450-451.

[3] Andrew Baumgartner, “My Evening at Lakewood Church,” I’m Wide Awake, entry posted October 12, 2009, http://abaumgart.livejournal.com/98075.html (accessed October 3, 2010).

[4] Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 90-91.

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2 thoughts on “Deuteronomic Theology and the Gospel of Prosperity

  1. Being quoted in a Grad School paper is something I can now mark off my nerd bucket list.

    It also makes me want to go fix all the typos in the cited blog.

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