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Sunday, October 14, 2012

Measuring Oral Roberts' Influence


Originally Posted December 18, 2009

Selected Scriptures Code: B091218

John MacArthur

Oral Roberts died this week and the obituaries have been abuzz with analyses of his life and legacy. The USA Today headline summed up his contributions this way: "Oral Roberts brought health-and-wealth Gospel mainstream." The Los Angeles Times gave a similar snapshot of the man: "Oral Roberts dies at 91; televangelist was pioneering preacher of the 'prosperity gospel'"

But Christianity Today's lead blogger, Ted Olsen, disagreed. He responded with a post titled "Why the Oral Roberts Obituaries Are Wrong." The long subtitle at the head of Olsen's post explained: "The 'faith-healer' (who hated the term) may have done much to mainstream Pentecostalism, but he was no architect of the Prosperity Gospel."

Olsen's argument, essentially, is that the real founder and mastermind of prosperity doctrine was not Oral Roberts but Kenneth Hagin, "who is far more widely recognized as the man who joined Pentecostalism with the Faith Movement (also called 'Word-Faith,' or derogatively, the Prosperity Gospel or 'Health and Wealth' gospel)."

Olsen, however, is wrong. He has evidently confused two categories. It is quite true that Kenneth Hagin is the main prosperity preacher who popularized word-faith doctrine--the notion that the words we speak determine the blessings we receive. Hagin borrowed that doctrine from an earlier, lesser-known preacher--E. W. Kenyon. (A mountain of evidence suggests that Hagin actually plagiarized large portions of his published works from Kenyon's writings.) Kenyon had been strongly influenced by the teachings of New Thought, a 19th-century metaphysical cult similar to Christian Science. So Hagin's word-faith doctrines had deeply cultic roots, but the idea fit perfectly with the prosperity doctrines that were already being taught by A. A. Allen, Oral Roberts, Jack Coe, and other faith-healers. The two ideas were natural complements to one another.

Still, word-faith doctrine and the prosperity gospel are not synonymous. (Even the current Wikipedia entry acknowledges this: "Although [the Word of Faith movement] shares teachings in common with Prosperity theology, they are not the same thing.") Prosperity doctrine is the notion that God's favor is expressed mainly through physical health and material prosperity, and that these blessings are available for the claiming by anyone who has sufficient faith.

Oral Roberts was certainly the 20th century's leading advocate of that idea. His prosperity doctrine laid the foundation for an enormous media-based religious system, and Oral Roberts was indeed its chief architect. It is preposterous that Christianity Today would try to whitewash that fact. Prosperity teaching was what Roberts himself wanted to be remembered for.

In Oral Roberts: An American Life, biographer David Edwin Harrell, Jr., describes how Roberts discovered the prosperity gospel and how it became the centerpiece of his message. One day he opened his Bible randomly and spotted 3 John 2: "Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth." He showed it to his wife, Evelyn, and "They talked excitedly about the verse's implications. Did it mean they could have a 'new car,' 'a new house,' a 'brand-new ministry?' In later years, Evelyn looked back on that morning as the point of embarkation: 'I really believe that that very morning was the beginning of this worldwide ministry that he has had, because it opened up his thinking" [(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 1985), p. 66]. Roberts testified that a shiny new Buick, acquired by unexpected means shortly after that experience, "became a symbol to me of what a man could do if he would believe God."
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http://www.gty.org/Resources/Print/Blog/B091218
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