The Positive Thinking Philosophy

By Mike Willis

The apostle Paul warned, “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Col. 2:8). The Christian is constantly in a struggle to keep from being conformed to this world (Rom. 12:1-2), whether it be this world’s morals, dress, speech, or philosophies.

The world is in a state of constant flux. “For the fashion of this world passeth away” (1 Cor. 7:31). What is in vogue today will be old hat tomorrow and another new thing will take its place. The observation that “the world passeth away” (1 Jn. 2:15) is not solely aimed at the passing which will occur when Jesus returns. The world is constantly passing away even now.

This observation is obvious when thinking of women’s fashions. It is not so obvious to some when thinking about the philosophies and doctrines which attract the attention of this world. Yet, those familiar with religious history are aware of many doctrines which came on the scene and have vanished over the course of the centuries, such as Gnosticism, Arianism, Sabellianism, and many others.

The people of God sometimes become enamored with the various philosophies of the world. On many occasions, religious do-gooders have sought to pick out the good things of some heathen philosophy and bring them into Christianity. Rather than Christianizing heathenism, they succeed in heathenizing Christianity. When Norman L. Geisler commented on C.S. Lewis’ “Christian humanism,” he sounded a warning “that the Christian humanist must maintain a constant vigil to make sure he has a Christian view of what is human and not a humanist view of what is Christian” (Is Man The Measure?, p. 107). What Geisler observed about “Christian humanism” is true of every other attempt to pick out the good points of any system of human philosophy.

There have been many different philosophies which have appeared in recent decades. Modernism appeared denying the miracles of the Bible, the Bible’s inspiration, the deity of Jesus, the virgin birth, the atonement, and any other thing that was supernatural. As the movement gained control over churches and these churches rejected the hope of eternal life in heaven as man’s goal and spreading the gospel to convert a lost world as the church’s mission, the churches were led into the social gospel, a redirecting of the mission of the church away from the salvation of lost souls to correcting social ills in the world. The further development of this infidelity has led some into secular humanism, a denial of God and everything supernatural. Others reacted by trying to recapture some of the lost beliefs of Christianity in neo-orthodoxy, while still rejecting the verbal inspiration of the Bible. Those familiar with our own history are aware that each of these philosophies eventually affected the Lord’s church. Consequently, each of these philosophies had to be studied, exposed, and repudiated by gospel preachers in previous generations.

Another philosophy which has sprung up and gained in popularity in recent years is the positive thinking philosophy. It too is beginning to have its impact on brethren. Consequently, we need to become aware of its roots in history, its primary doctrines, and wherein it assaults the gospel of Christ. In an effort to make us aware of the danger of the positive thinking philosophy, I present these articles. I trust that brethren will be benefitted by this material and better equipped to recognize the dangers of being carried away by this philosophy.

Historical Development of the Positive Thinking Movement

In detailing the history of the positive thinking movement, one soon discovers that its present thrust is the result of the converging of many different movements. As these diverse movements all move toward one common philosophy, the philosophy’s impact on society is increased. In detailing the history of the positive thinking movement, I will only be able to call attention to some of its more prominent leaders. Those interested in a more detailed study should consult The Positive Thinkers by Donald Meyer.

1. Mary Baker Eddy. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Mrs. Eddy began teaching a philosophy she learned from Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, a practitioner of mental healing. Attention began to focus on the relationship of the mind to healing as the study of psychology as a science began. The work of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), who is described as the founder of psychoanalysis, falls into this period. Mrs. Eddy taught that all sickness was a result of wrong thinking. If one could redirect man’s thinking, his illnesses would be cured. She said, “A sick body is evolved from sick thoughts”; “They think sickly thoughts, and so become sick”; “Tell him that he suffers only as the insane suffer, from false beliefs” (Science and Health 260:19, 24-25; 420:33-421:1). As one corrected wrong thinking, he released a power to heal the body of diseases. Positive thinking created a healthy, prosperous life.

2. The Business Community. The next major advance for the positive thinking philosophy came from several very successful business leaders. A new group of business men began to teach that men could be successful if they would learn to think success. Insofar as every man could control his own thoughts, every man could succeed by thinking rightly. Among those business leaders who preached a gospel of success was Napoleon Hill (author of The Law of Success and Think and Grow Rich). He began teaching that in order to control the conscious, one must learn to control his subconscious. By affirmation and visualization, one can input positive thoughts which result in positive thinking – the key to success.

In 1936 Dale Carnegie published his success classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carnegie encouraged salesmen to smile, extend lavish praise, offer hearty approbation, talk about what people are interested in, let them think new ideas are their ideas, and be interested in them. When one is genuinely committed to these ideas, good things come back to him – success.

W. Clement Stone circulated the positive thinking philosophy through Success magazine and Success Unlimited, Inc., a company which distributes his tapes – He taught sales people, “What the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve.” A very popular speaker at various sales rallies, Stone spread the positive thinking philosophy in the business community.

A number of success motivation seminars have been developed by business which have been used by many businesses. Through selling tapes to direct sales personnel (Amway, Home Interiors, Shaklee vitamins, Mary Kay Cosmetics, and other direct sales companies), the positive thinking philosophy has spread to affect the thinking of many citizens. (These businesses should not be judged wrongly because they used the current, popular business promotions to move their products. These statements should not be understood as a criticism of their products.) Success Motivation Institute, Inc. distributed The Dynamics of Goal Setting by Paul Meyer. The positive thinking philosophy affirms: “Anything you can imagine, visualize, and develop a sincere desire for can be yours if you plan for it and work for it through a program of goal setting” (Lesson 2, p. 1). The power of thinking positively generates ideas, unleases power, which enables you to accomplish the goal which you set, the affirmation which you made and the visualization which you imagined. If you can believe that you can be successful, if you will affirm that you are going to be successful, and if you visualize yourself as being successful, this will unlease a power which enables you to be successful.

3. Norman Vincent Peale. In 1952, Norman Vincent Peale published his book The Power of Positive Thinking. Religion was changing from theology to psychology. More and more books were being published as self-help manuals (how to overcome depression, hate, guilt, bitterness, etc.). Peale applied many of the principles of the positive thinking philosophy to the Bible, teaching that these principles were always in the Bible but only recently discovered. What others attributed to sub-conscious thinking, visualization, and affirmation, Peale called “faith.” This “faith” released an inner power which enabled one to accomplish his goals and be successful. He instructed:

. . . change your mental habits to belief instead of disbelief. Learn to expect, not to doubt. In so doing you bring everything into the realm of possibility. . . . When you expect the best, you release a magnetic force in your mind which by a law of attraction tends to bring the best to you (p. 94).

To change your circumstances, first start thinking differently. Do not passively accept unsatisfactory circumstances, but form a picture in your mind of circumstances as they should be. Hold that picture, develop it firmly in all details, believe in it, pray about it, work at it, and you can actualize it according to that mental image emphasized in your positive thinking.

This is one of the greatest laws in the universe. Fervently do I wish I had discovered it as a very young man. It dawned upon me much later in life and I have found it to be one of the greatest if not my greatest discovery, outside of my relationship to God. And in a deep sense this law is a factor in one’s relationship with God because it channels God’s power into personality (p. 170).

By eliminating all negative thoughts and thinking positively, faith releases a power which enables one to obtain his successes. If one will expect the best, he will get it. Peale made positive thinking a matter of faith and made the one responsible for success, not some mystical power of the mind, but God. The positive thinking philosophy was now sanctified into religion – Christianity. So long as the positive thinking philosophy was tied to Christian Science, it was viewed as a cult, neither Christian nor science. With Peale, the positive thinking philosophy moved into the mainstream of denominationalism.

4. Television evangelists. A number of very popular television evangelists have preached a health and wealth gospel of success that is conditioned upon faith in God. Men such as Robert Schuller, Pat Robertson, Jim and Tammy Bakker, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, and many others have presented programs which have featured testimonials (similar to those in Peale’s books) of those whose lives have been changed from sickness to health, from poverty to wealth, from sadness to gladness through faith in Jesus Christ.

In Oral Roberts’ book, Miracles of Seed Faith, the influence of the positive thinking movement is obvious. Roberts wrote, “Whatever you can conceive, and believe, you can do!” (p. 7) Roberts counseled his readers to show their faith in God by planting seed-faith. In order for a farmer to harvest a crop, he must first plant the seed; the more he plants, the greater harvest he can expect. In a similar way, one plants seed-faith in God and God blesses the seed faith with an abundant harvest. One first gives to God and then God gives him an abundant harvest. Hence, faith in God releases a po were from God. One should plant his seed faith and expect a miracle from God. His book contains many stories relating people’s success in planting seed-faith and receiving a large harvest.

Similar examination of the writings of Kenneth Copeland and the publications of other television evangelists will also demonstrate the influence of the positive thinking movement which teaches that faith in God releases a power which makes success attainable.

Robert Schuller combines the positive thinking philosophy and piety to assure audiences of their own self-worth and success. His individual-centered “gospel” glosses over sin and preaches a success-oriented message with a shallow, happy optimism.

5. The human potential movement. Another source of positive thinking has arisen from secular humanism’s teaching of human potential. Humanists reject the supernatural and look to no power higher than man. Viewing the process of evolution as continuing, humanists believe there is undeveloped and almost unlimited potential for development in man. The development and achievement of “human potential” is man’s only hope for survival. As humanists develop their concept of man, they look within man for the answer to life’s problems. Developing this human potential releases powers heretofore unused. Some humanists see parapsychology, ESP, and mental telepathy as potential development of the human mind. Though the ties between humanism and the positive thinking movement are not direct, both groups see a release of power from inside of man which enables him to achieve success, One group might attribute it to achieving human potential, another might call it re-programming the sub-conscious, and another group might call it faith, but all see a power released by man which enables him to achieve.

6. Eastern religion. The subjectivism of the Eastern religions with yoga exercises, visualization, and meditation have made perceivable contributions to the positive thinking movement as well. The eastern religions see the answers to life’s problems locked inside of man and claim that these answers can be experienced in meditation, yoga, or other mental and subjective exercises. Eastern religions teach that God is within each of us and, as we get in touch with our inner self, we have contact with God, releasing a power to help us succeed in life.


As we bring this article to a close, we should begin to see the merging of a variety of influences which have created a distinct positive thinking philosophy influencing our society. In our next article, I will try to call attention to some of the distinct doctrines which have been spawned in this movement.

Guardian of Truth XXXI: 7, pp. 194, 212-213
April 2, 1987