Positivity Trumps Pauline Truth
The January 25, 2016 issue of the Weekly Standard profiles “The Religion of Trump: Will evangelicals balk at pulling the lever for him?” In this article, Weekly Standard executive editor Terry Eastman reports that Trump calls himself a Presbyterian, appealing to his family’s long-time association with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Eastman reveals, however, that Trump personally attends Marble Collegiate Church every Christmas, Easter and “whenever he can.” Marble Collegiate is a congregation of the Dutch Reformed communion known as the Reformed Church in America (RCA).For 52 years, it was pastored by a man who had become a household name during my childhood in the 70’s, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.
Peale’s claim to fame was his best-selling The Power of Positive Thinking (Prentice Hall Press, 1952; Touchstone, 2003). In 1945, Peale co-founded Guideposts Magazine with his wife Ruth Stafford Peale, a well-known magazine that is still in circulation and online. Fellow RCA minister, the late Dr. Robert H. Schuller, whose services at the Crystal Cathedral (now Christ Cathedral Catholic Church) were televised for decades on The Hour of Power, took the baton from Norman Vincent Peale to build his own ministry-empire on the power of positive thinking. In 1992, Dr. Schuller was interviewed on The White Horse Inn radio show, in which he had what proved to be a revealing and therefore necessarily contentious exchange with Dr. Michael S. Horton, a minister is the conservative Dutch Reformed denomination called the United Reformed Church of North America, on why he preaches positivity like Jesus did, rather than a negative message against sin the way Paul did (read excerpts here).
This positive-thinking distortion to the Reformed Faith is appreciated and affirmed by the infamous “prosperity gospel” televangelists in the Word of Faith movement like Paula White, who, along with a group of fellow televangelists laid hands on Trump, “believing for” success for his campaign. While the prosperity gospel of the Word of Faith movement descends from charismatic faith healer Kenneth Hagin (see A Different Gospel) through Kenneth Copeland to more popular and less obnoxiously money-fixated speakers like Joel Osteen, John Hagee, T.D. Jakes and Joyce Meyer, the Word of Faith movement bears an unmistakable family resemblance to the mainline positive thinking doctrines of Peale and Schuller. I used to watch the love fest between Robert Schuller and Trinity Broadcasting Network founders Paul and Jan Crouch on a regular basis in the late 1980’s.
In those days, Bible believing Christians used to affirm their orthodoxy, or at least their fundamentalism, and disassociate themselves from the American-made heresy of positive thinking with a play on words coined by Adlai Stevenson in 1952 in response to Peale’s criticism of his bid for President (HT: David Stokes): “I find Paul appealing, and Peale appalling!” This slogan calls for a modern re-popularization among Christians, in light of the candidacy of Donald Trump. The problem is that today, so many who consider themselves “Bible believers” are too biblically illiterate and thus uninformed on the false doctrine of positive thinking to know what’s so appalling about Peale and company, much less what’s so appealing about Paul.
What’s so “Appalling About Peale”?
The positive thinking teachings of Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller, along with the Word of Faith theology of Hagin, Copeland, Jakes, Osteen and Meyer, focus on techniques for attracting success or prosperity to oneself, believing material prosperity to be as much the believer’s right as his spiritual “prosperity” in terms of peace with God by faith in Christ and spiritual growth in grace according to the Word of God with a view to bearing the fruit of the Spirit. Hank Hanegraaff, writing in Christianity in Crisis, characterizes this as “desiring what’s on the Master’s table, rather than the Master Himself.”
In the introduction to The Power of Positive Thinking, Peale points to the successful experimentation in his positive thinking techniques which he demonstrated during his ministry at the church which Trump now occasionally visits:
How can I be so certain that the practice of these principles will produce such results? The answer is simply that for many years in the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City we have taught a system of creative living based on spiritual techniques, carefully noting its operation in the lives of hundreds of people. It is no speculative series of extravagant assertions that I make, for these principles have worked so efficiently for so long a period of time that they are now firmly established as documented and demonstrable truth. The system outlined is a perfected and amazing method of successful living. (Peale, Power of Positive Thinking; Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1952, 1956; N.V.Peale, 1980; Fireside, 2003. Introduction, page xii.)
The closest I come to a thumb-nail sketch of Norman Vincent Peale’s power of positive thinking is drawn by Steven Hein on his website, EQI.org:
1. Picture yourself as succeeding.
2. Whenever a negative thought comes to mind, deliberately voice a positive thought to cancel it out.
3. Do not build up obstacles in your imagination. Instead tear them down by tearing them apart
4. Do not compare yourself to others.
5. Get a competent counselor to help you understand why you do what you do. Learn the origin of your inferiority and self-doubt feelings which often begin in childhood. Self-knowledge leads to a cure.
6. Practice self-affirmations, for example, Yes, I can. or I can do all things through belief in myself [sic]
7. List all the things you have going for you.
It’s not hard to see why billionaire casino tycoon and television personality, Donald Trump, would be attracted to the man-centered techniques of Norman Vincent Peale which view emotional, physical and fiscal success as a sign of spiritual vitality that are the results of pseudo-spiritual practices that amount to self-hypnosis according to some, and New Age occultism according to others.
What’s so “Appealing About Paul”?
Contrary to this, the Apostle Paul taught and exemplified a life that majored on contentment regardless of one’s bottom line:
“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11).
The final sentence of this passage of Scripture draws a stark contrast with Peale’s man-centered paraphrase of it in step #6 of his techniques, as described above.
Paul decried those who taught that gain is godly, as do the positive thinking disciples of Peale, and instructed his son in the faith to separate from them:
“If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.” (1 Timothy 6:3-11)
The appealing doctrine of Paul follows the example of the Lord Jesus Christ, who, as God the Son had every right to hold onto his eternal power and glory he shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit in heaven, yet condescended to give it all up, taking on a human nature to suffer the deprivations of human poverty and suffering, calling his followers to take up their crosses of suffering as well. Paul writes in his great passage on the grace of giving, ““For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9) Paul meant this to be taken in the exclusively spiritual sense of forgiveness of sin and inheriting the Kingdom of God (which is not of this world).
It is not my goal to promote a presidential candidate. It is my goal to teach Christians to be discerning about what is and is not biblical. The modern doctrine of prosperity and positive thinking is not biblical. That’s why the gospel preached by Trump’s church is appalling. The teaching of Paul, our great Christian example, who eschewed prosperity for its own sake in this temporary life to gain an eternal life of reigning with Christ on the right hand of the Father, is much more appealing.