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Secular Wisdom ≠ the Prosperity Gospel

April 30th, 2012 No comments

Is this the kind of thinking that gets you a berth at the New York Times? Ross Douthat apparently can’t distinguish between “Prosperity Theology” and the use of secular tools in promoting religious faith:

I should say that I’m an admirer of Rick Warren and I do quote him in the book specifically condemning prosperity theology. But, I think what you see a lot of in American religion, even in areas of American Christianity that don’t go all the way with Osteen to the idea that God wants you to have this big house and so on, the nature of American religion right now, the fact that it is so non-denominational and post-denominational, the most successful churches have to be run more like businesses than ever before. I think that just exposes Christians to a constant temptation to think about the ministry more as a business than they sometimes should.

Of course he’s right to reject prosperity theology. But that doesn’t mean he can’t use secular wisdom to promote his faith. This is an old debate. Tertullian said that Christians had no use for secular ideas (“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”). Augustine, by contrast, argued that Christians should use the (secular) discipline of Rhetoric to persuade their opponents (On Christian Doctrine).

On the one hand, we have the purists, who insist that God will provide us everything we need. On the other hand, those who agree, and say that God, not uncommonly, provides what we need by secular means.

Calvin, who believed the age of extraordinary miracles had ceased, thought that God gave us brains so we wouldn’t need miracles. Instead we had science:

It is also from the true science of astrology that doctors draw their judgments concerning the appropriate time to order blood-lettings, infusions, pills, or other medical necessities. Therefore we must admit that there is some correspondence between the stars and the planets and the dispositions of human bodies. All of this, as I have said, is included in the science of natural astrology.—from his “Warning Against Judicial Astronomy.”

We can smile at the idea of using the moon to time a blood-letting, but the point is legitimate. If you use your brains to develop medicine or provide food for the hungry, can’t you use them to spread your faith? Or does God’s providence only work on the horizontal dimension?

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