The Prosperity Movement and Karl Barth

The prosperity movement is rampant in South Africa[1]. Anecdotal evidence suggests it is rampant throughout our continent, Africa. In its very worst forms this is the movement that calls people, often very poor people, to “sow” their money so that they will reap material blessing from God. In more subtle forms it teaches that God wants your very best, as you define it. It thus allows worldliness to determine the direction of your life and grants God only the power to accelerate you down your chosen path. According to this teaching, God will make you a better entrepreneur, give you a beautiful spouse, and make your kids the pride of the neighbourhood—the desires of your heart will be met. This teaching gains momentum on a continent where traditional spirituality teaches one to undertake customs, rituals, and sacrifices to please the ancestors and secure their provision.

Many Christians who have had access to good Bible teaching, and many who have not had that privilege, very easily dismiss the prosperity movement, at least on an intellectual level. While recently reading Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans, The Epistle to the Romans, I found his theological exposition of Romans to be provocative and insightful. Barth’s core insights are disruptive to any form of prosperity teaching. Let’s take a look at three ways in which this is true.

Salvation: God’s “No” to Sin.

Barth writes, “So new, so unheard of, so unexpected in this world is the power of God unto salvation, that it can appear among us, be received and understood by us only as a contradiction” (Romans, p. 38). Consistent throughout his exposition of salvation is that God’s gospel speaks a stark contradiction to the principles of this world. For Barth, in both salvation and judgement, God says “No” to the world imprisoned by sin. At one point he refers to God’s gospel as “The fire-alarm of a coming new world” (Romans, p. 38).

The one who is saved by God speaking his ‘No’ is “He who knows the world to be bounded by a truth that contradicts it; he who knows himself to be bounded by a will that contradicts him” (Romans, p. 39). Salvation comes through God’s ‘No’ when the believer responds to God’s ‘No’ with an accepting ‘Yes’. Then God and his creature stand aligned in their contradiction to the way of the world imprisoned in sin.

The point to take from this is that in both salvation and judgement, God contradicts and undermines the direction of the world and the desires of our hearts. The prosperity movement tells us that God will give us the desires of our heart and accelerate us in the direction of the world. It speaks no contradiction to the idol of material wealth or the basic structure of traditional spirituality. The prosperity movement fails to confront the world gone mad for money.

In both salvation and judgement, God contradicts and undermines the direction of the world and the desires of our hearts.

On the other hand, the gospel of Jesus Christ contradicts our hearts and the world, bringing us into conformity with Christ. A fire-alarm changes your direction and removes you from a way of life that is perishing. So it is with the gospel. You don’t need your heart’s desires; you need your heart to have new desires. Salvation doesn’t tolerate; it overcomes. The believer, according to Barth, is he who opens himself up to God’s gracious contradiction of all that is evil within him.

The “No-God”

Barth understands the righteousness of God to be “the consistency of God with himself” (Romans, p. 40). I don’t think this is a correct interpretation of the phrase “righteousness of God” in Romans, but it is nevertheless a theologically true statement that God is consistent with himself.

This “consistency of God with himself” means that God is not moved off course by the sinfulness of the world, but remains free. He is in one sense unaffected. Thus he is free to speak his contradicting “No” to the world. If you have a God who cannot say “No” to the world, then you have a God who does not have any consistency with himself, and in the end you have what Barth calls “No-God”.

What men on this side of the resurrection name ‘God’ is most characteristically not God. Their ‘God’ does not redeem creation, but allows free course to the unrighteousness of men; does not declare himself to be God, but is the complete affirmation of the course of the world and of men as it is. This is intolerable, for in spite of the highest honours we offer him for his adornment, he is, in fact, ‘No-God’.

(Romans, p. 40)

Barth identifies here that humans create in their minds a conception of God that suits them.[2] This ‘god’ offers no contradiction to the world, but instead affirmation. By his affirmation he does not redeem the world but allows it to rot in evil. Because this god has been deprived of his self-consistency, he is not a God worthy of the name.

This is a crippling blow to the prosperity movement. A god who speaks no contradiction to the god of Western materialism or traditional African spirituality is not a self-consistent God, and so he is “No-God”. The prosperity movement seeks to prosper from “No-God”. Barth thinks it more sensible to be an atheist than to worship “No-God”.

The Tamers and Masters of God

When commenting on Romans 1:18, “The wrath of God is revealed against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men”, Barth describes our “ungodliness”:

We assign to Him the highest place in our world: and in so doing we place him fundamentally on one line with ourselves and with things. We assume that He needs something: and so we assume that we are able to arrange our relation to him as we arrange our other relations…We dare to deck ourselves as his companions, patrons, advisers, and commissioners.

(Romans, p. 44)

It is an ungodly thing to remove from God his “otherness” and make him needy—a being dependent on us. Ungodliness is the taming of God.

Barth, describing our “unrighteousness”, says, “Secretly we are ourselves the masters in this relationship…We are not concerned with God, but with our own requirements, to which God must adjust Himself…And so, when we set God upon the throne of the world, we mean by God ourselves. In ‘believing’ on Him, we justify, enjoy, and adore ourselves” (Romans, p. 44). It is an unrighteous thing to seek to manipulate and adjust God to suit ourselves. Unrighteousness is the mastering of God.

Ungodliness is the taming of God.

These two great sins, the taming and mastering of God, work together. Once we have a god who is needy, like us, we can use his needs to manipulate him. A tame god is a god whom we can stand over as master.

These two great sins are very much evident in the prosperity movement. The calls to “sow” your money imply a neediness on God’s part. They ask the blasphemous question, “What will God do without your money?” Since the purpose of this “sowing” is to reap material wealth, God is portrayed as alterable. It makes the blasphemous statement that you can make God give you what you want if you give him what he needs.

The leaders of the prosperity movement teach people ungodliness and unrighteousness.

A Complete Failure

Karl Barth shows us that the prosperity movement is a complete theological failure through and through. It fails in its doctrine of God, serving instead “No-God”; it fails in its doctrine of salvation because in promising prosperity, God speaks no contradiction; and it fails in its ethics, teaching people ungodliness and unrighteousness.

[1] I cannot stomach calling it by its more common name, “the prosperity gospel”, because it is really no gospel at all.

[2] For what it’s worth, “creating in your mind a conception of God”, as I have put it, is what Karl Barth detested in much of the academic theology of his time.

This post originally appeared at The Subtle Manifesto.

[Photo by Ouael Ben Salah on Unsplash


Comment here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s