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The Origin of Prosperity Doctrine Part I: Reformation

The Reformation and the Protestant work ethic

What is the origin of the prosperity doctrine of modern day Pentecostalism? Where did Pentecostals get their emphasis on blessing in the form of material wealth from God? In Part I of this article, we'll talk about the social, economic and political changes of the fifteen and sixteen hundreds and how they gave legitimacy to the pursuit of monetary wealth and the growing capitalism of the West and opened the way for our contemporary culture of secularity.

Monasticism and Asceticism

After the close of the early church era of the first few centuries, Christianity increasingly developed a leaning towards asceticism; a paradigm prevailed that lead Christians to make simplistic living the goal and abstinence from the normal pleasures of life the model godly lifestyle. This focus on self denial of material satisfaction was institutionalised within monasticism.

Monasticism spread through the Christian world during the fourth to sixth centuries. Monastics emphasised poverty, simplicity and humility as a way of imitating Christ. Consequently, the Middle Ages saw the trend towards asceticism increase. Sufficiency for daily needs was acceptable; poverty was virtuous. Covertness and uncharitable living were targeted vices. Money-making was dangerous; commerce was equated with iniquity; profiting was unchristian. It goes without saying that the private accumulation of material wealth was discouraged in the church prior to the fifteenth century.

The Reformation and Protestantism

During the sixeteenth and seventeenth centuries unprecedented social and economic change occurred in the West. The Protestant Reformation changed society radically. It occurred within a historical context of existing economic change. Urban growth, expanding trade, a new money economy and new technologies all resulted in a new assertive middle class that rose above the discontents of the existing peasantry. The scientific progress of this time had its roots in the Renaissance that began in the fourteenth century. Francis Schaeffer has shown that the Protestant Reformation not only opened up the free approach to God that the Bible prescribes. The Reformation was also a catalyst for the creation of political and economic freedom in society.

A widespread proliferation of material wealth and general prosperity occurred during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and was coupled with a momentous shift in emphasis within Christianity in regard to work and wealth.

Protestants objected to the superiority of the “religious” life and the inferiority of the “secular,” portrayed by Monasticism. The reformed theology of Martin Luther and subsequent reformers rejected the distinction between the secular and religious world altogether. Martin Luther, and John Calvin after him, exulted the dignity of the ordinary life, stressing that human callings to work in the world, in the home or with the ground, were as sacred as the call to minister in the Church. They regarded the secular political office as one of the most significan Christian vocations of all.

Protestants stressed predestination, discipline and vocationalism. Money-making became profitable for the glory of God; material prosperity became the reward of virtue and a sign of godliness. Now, improvidence and idleness became targeted vices. In a way, because Protestantism reconciled Christianity and commerce, enabling acceptable religion to be married with the demands of business and industry, it gave legitimacy to the pursuit of increasing wealth and the growing capitalism of the West. It also opened the way for our contemporary culture of secularity.

More on this topic

The origin of the prosperity doctrine - Part II

Changing views on money

What Pentecostals believe about prosperity

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Dictionary of Pentecostal and charismatic movements / Stanley M. Burgess and Gary B. McGee, editors; Patrick H. Alexander, associate editor, Grand Rapids, Mich. : Regency Reference Library, 1988.

Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Ed., Paternoster Press, 2001, p. 900.

The Oxford companion to Christian thought / edited by Adrian Hastings ... [et al.], Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2000.

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