David Roach

About David Roach

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press in Nashville, Tennessee, and a contributor to both BibleMesh and Kairos Journal. He holds a philosophy degree from Vanderbilt University and earned his PhD in church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His writings have appeared in academic journals and various Southern Baptist denominational publications.

What’s Wrong with Noah?

Numerous Christian reviewers have pointed out that Darren Aronofsky’s movie Noah “takes liberties” with the biblical story of Noah. Indeed, the Bible doesn’t record any giant lava monsters, stowaways on the ark, or sacred serpent-skin relics. But the problem with Noah goes deeper than simply an imaginative portrayal of the details. Aronofsky fundamentally shifts the meaning and theology of the Noah story. As reviewer Brian Mattson points out, Aronofsky packed the movie with themes from the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, specifically a form of Jewish Gnosticism called Kabbalah (which the singer Madonna popularized in recent years). Essentially, Gnosticism teaches that all physical matter is evil, created as an accident by an inferior deity, and that the goal of life is to attain Russell Crowe as Noah“secret knowledge” that will free us from entrapment in the physical world. (The term “Gnosticism” derives from the Greek word for “knowledge.”) Gnosticism was a major threat to early Christianity and provoked extensive refutation from church fathers like Irenaeus of Lyons. It regained some prominence during the past decade thanks in part to mention in Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code.

Consider some of Noah’s Gnostic references. It depicts Adam and Eve as luminescent and fleshless until they eat the forbidden fruit and are relegated to the evil material world. Lesser divine beings (the Lava Monsters) redeem themselves, shed their material nature, and return to the heavens. As in Gnosticism, the god in Noah seems at times to be a violent lower deity. The serpent, often referred to as “Sophia,” “Mother,” or “Wisdom,” represents to Gnostics the true divine in contrast to the vindictive Creator of matter. This dovetails with Noah’s depiction of the Creator and Aronofsky’s eerie portrayal of a serpent skin from the Garden of Eden as the key to receiving blessing. Before Noah turns from his homicidal ways and professes love for his newborn granddaughters, he kills Tubal-Cain and recovers the serpent skin—possibly the inspiration for his enlightened perspective. The rainbow in Noah, which is circular like an important sign in Kabbalah, appears not as a sign of any covenant God makes with Noah but after Noah wraps the serpent skin around his arm and blesses his family. Probably not coincidentally, Aronofsky’s first feature film, Pi, also had Kabbalah as part of its subject matter.

Now consider the Noah story from Genesis. In that account, God is supreme and all-powerful, both a just judge and a merciful Savior, punishing mankind for its wickedness but preserving the human race by showing grace to a faithful remnant. The biblical God is a far cry from the cold deity of Noah who wants to wipe out all humans. Upon Noah’s exit from the ark, God professes His unflinching love for human life, forbidding murder and prescribing the death penalty for any who would destroy the crown jewel of His creation, “for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:6).

What’s more, in the Bible’s Noah story, there is nothing inherently evil about matter and no hint that we need to be freed from the material universe. In fact, when Noah exits the ark, God reissues the charge He gave Adam at creation: steward the earth, be fruitful, and multiply (Genesis 8:16-17). The New Testament holds up Noah as a model of faith who obeyed God even when it didn’t seem to make sense (Hebrews 11:7) and preached about God’s righteousness to his unbelieving neighbors (2 Peter 2:5). Again, a contrast to Aronofsky’s portrayal.

All this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t see the movie. That’s a decision for each person to make according to his or her conscience. But whether you see it or not, don’t let a Gnostic-influenced Hollywood director cloud your understanding of the facts or theology of Scripture. For an accurate picture of Noah, turn to Genesis 5-10 and Bible-based resources like BibleMesh’s The Biblical Story. There you’ll discover the true Noah, who “became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith” (Hebrews 11:7).

Does God Care About the Final Four?

final fourIt’s the most exciting time of the year for college basketball fans in America: the Final Four. This weekend, they will don their team’s colors and expend no small amount of energy cheering as the last four teams alive battle for a national championship. Amid this excitement, I heard a radio host in Kentucky (where the University of Kentucky is hoping for its ninth national title) comment how silly it is that fans pray for their teams to win. His implication is a common one—God doesn’t really care about basketball games. After all, He’s busy with more important matters like sustaining the universe and righting injustice. But is that true? There is plenty of biblical evidence to suggest it’s not. Whether the sport is basketball, baseball, swimming, or soccer, both the outcome and how the game is played matter to God.

Of course, He’s not in suspense about the outcome like we are. The one who “declar[es] the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10) doesn’t bite His nails at the end of a tight game. Nevertheless, here are some reasons why it’s biblical to say that God cares about the Final Four (or your sporting event of choice):

– His providence extends to who wins games. If He controls the outcome of lot casting (Proverbs 16:33), doesn’t He also control how a ball bounces off a rim, whether a referee sees a foul at a crucial moment, and even which team scores more points?

– God rewards the hard work. Proverbs 13:4 promises that “the soul of the diligent is richly supplied,” and Proverbs 14:23 says, “In all toil there is profit.” Although Proverbs are general truths that may have exceptions, it stands to reason that God would honor the efforts of a team that prepared for their Final Four appearance more diligently. If this law applies to school, business, and family, wouldn’t it also apply to sports?

– The Apostle Paul used sports analogies (1 Corinthians 9:24-27) and said physical training “is of some value” (1 Timothy 4:8). Though godliness is of greater value, we have divinely inspired testimony that God regards athletics as valuable.

– God cares about whatever licit activities are important to His people. For instance, Jesus took an interest in and blessed His disciples’ fishing business on more than one occasion (Luke 5:1-7; John 21:1-11). Some might claim that the Lord has more important matters to attend than something as temporal and insignificant as catching fish, but His love for the disciples moved Him to bless them in a realm of life about which they cared deeply. Might He likewise bless Christian basketball players occasionally as a gesture of love?

– God takes joy in His creatures’ using the abilities He has given them to display His glory (1 Corinthians 10:31). As Scottish sprinter Eric Liddell famously said in the movie Chariots of Fire, “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” It can also display God’s glory when a man that He’s made strong and agile dunks a basketball or hits a three-pointer.

God makes no promises that godly athletes or even skilled athletes will always win. To the contrary, often He uses defeat to build character—and, as Paul said, that’s far more important than winning a game or match (1 Timothy 4:8). Still, God cares about sports. You won’t find Him clad in your team’s colors (though North Carolina fans have been known to ask, “If God isn’t a Tar Heel, why is the sky Carolina blue?”). But be assured this weekend that God is not ignoring the Final Four.

Presidential Devotion to the Bible

The United States has long illustrated the truth of Proverbs 14:34, which says that “righteousness exalts a nation.” Though far from perfect, America historically has upheld biblical standards of justice and liberty, and consequently enjoyed God’s blessing. A contributing factor to the nation’s virtue doubtless has been the devotion of its presidents to the Bible, recounted by Tevi Troy in a February 13 Wall Street Journal article. Spanning four centuries, occupants of the Oval Office have shared a unique love for Scripture—even those who exhibited prominent moral flaws or were not committed followers of Jesus. Consider the following:

presidentsAll 44 US presidents have referenced God in their inaugural addresses, with many quoting or alluding to the Bible. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were all committed readers of the Bible. Madison even studied Hebrew as a student at Princeton University so that he could better understand the Old Testament. Though Jefferson was a noted skeptic who regarded Scripture’s miracle accounts as “contrary to reason,” he nonetheless called Jesus’ teachings “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” In retirement, he arranged excerpts from the four Gospels into a chronological account of Jesus’ life and teachings. The resulting book—which includes four columns with biblical texts in Greek, Latin, French, and English—came to be known as The Jefferson Bible.

John Qunicy Adams wrote letters to his son about the Bible’s teachings. In one he called the Hebrew prophets “messengers, specifically commissioned of God, to warn the people of their duty, to foretell the punishments which awaited their transgressions.” Abraham Lincoln read the Bible from cover to cover many times. His famous reference in the Gettysburg Address to “four score and seven years ago” was an allusion to Psalm 90:10, which refers to the human lifespan as “threescore years and ten” or “fourscore years” for those with exceptional strength.

Woodrow Wilson refused to discuss public policy on the Sabbath and read the Bible nightly. When he suffered a stroke, one biographer noticed a Bible beside his sickbed. In the introduction to a New Testament for distribution to soldiers, Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote, “As Commander-in-Chief I take pleasure in commending the reading of the Bible to all who serve in the armed forces of the United States. Throughout the centuries men of many faiths and diverse origins have found in the Sacred Book words of wisdom, counsel and inspiration.”

Gerald Ford requested that a Bible be placed in the stateroom of Air Force One whenever he was aboard, and having a copy of Scripture on the presidential plane became a tradition. Jimmy Carter published a study Bible compiled from the Sunday School lessons he taught for decades at a Southern Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. Ronald Reagan said of the Bible, “All the complex and horrendous questions confronting us at home and worldwide have their answer in that single book.”

Bill Clinton knew the Bible well. When Commerce Secretary Ron Brown died, a speechwriter inserted Brown’s favorite verse in Clinton’s eulogy. The president saw it and said, “Oh this is Isaiah 40:31. It sounds like the New English translation. I prefer the King James version myself.” George W. Bush read the Bible annually, along with a daily devotional. In his book The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama spoke of reading the Bible “not [as] a static text but the Living Word.”

Of course, some presidential references to the Bible are attempts to win religious voters more than reflections of deep Christian commitment. And the actions of some presidents belie their expressions of devotion to God’s Word. Still, it is a testament to Scripture’s power that so many presidents drew from it as they led the nation. May this tradition continue. Presidents give it up at the nation’s peril.

6 Ways to Start Learning Church History

StainGlassCHistoryIn response to a post about why to learn a bit of church history, BibleMesh was asked where a person can get started. So here are six ways to enrich your walk with God by learning church history.

1. As part of your personal Bible study, research what previous generations thought about particular passages and topics. One way to do that is by exploring the “theology” articles in BibleMesh’s Biblical Story course. Each has a “historical interpretation” section explaining how notable Christians from the past viewed the topic and directing you to further reading. Also, check out Kairos Journal. It’s a free online resource for pastors that documents the positions of Christians through history on abortion, economics, family life, education, the environment, the relationship between church and state, and a host of other cultural issues. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series is another great resource, compiling commentary from the church fathers on various books of the Bible.

2. Read an overview of church history. Books like Mark Noll’s Turning Points and Timothy Paul Jones’ Christian History Made Easy present brief flyovers that introduce the most important characters and events. If you want a more in-depth survey, try Justo Gonzalez’s two-volume The Story of Christianity.

3. Read biographies of great Christians. There are scores of books about Jonathan Edwards, Augustine of Hippo, John Wesley, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, and other famous characters in church history. A good place to begin is Justin Taylor’s list of the best biographies, compiled from a survey of theologians and church historians.

4. Ask your pastor about his favorite church history resources. Especially if he’s seminary-trained, he ought to have a few favorites to recommend.

5. Explore Christian History magazine online. Their website has a wealth of free information, including back issues catalogued according to what century of church history they reference. This will let you learn through bite-sized articles rather than having to tackle an entire book.

6. Learn about your denomination’s heroes. This can make church history seem especially personal and relevant. If you’re a Methodist, read about John Wesley, Charles Wesley, and Francis Asbury. Presbyterians can turn to J. Gresham Machen, John Knox, and Robert Lewis Dabney. For Baptists there’s Charles Spurgeon, James P. Boyce, and John Broadus. Every camp within Christianity has its heroes. Find yours.

“I don’t know where to begin” is no longer a valid excuse. Get started in your study of church history.

10 Reasons to Know a Little Bit of Church History

Transfiguration of Christ

Who was Athanasius? In what century did the Protestant Reformation occur? Why was Jonathan Edwards important? What was the Second Great Awakening? In most churches, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who could answer these questions. Indeed, the study of church history has fallen on hard times. But here are 10 reasons why the average believer’s walk with Christ would be enriched by learning a bit of church history.

1. Church history confirms the promises of Scripture. For example, George Muller of England demonstrated time and again the truth of James 5:16 (“. . . The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working”), as God answered his prayers and provided miraculously for the needs of the 2,000 orphans in his care. And the Church’s growth from a marginalized, persecuted Jewish sect in AD 40 to the Roman Empire’s official religion in 325 to the world’s largest religion in 2014 powerfully confirms the truth of Matthew 16:18—the gates of hell will not prevail against Christ’s Church.

2. Church history comforts believers in their struggles. Jonathan Edwards was fired from a job. Martin Luther was plagued by fear. Elisabeth Elliot endured the death of two husbands—one at the hands of violent natives on the mission field. Yet none of their lives were ruined by these hardships. They all went on to fruitfulness. Knowing this encourages perseverance amid our own afflictions.

3. Church history broadens our choice of devotional literature. There’s nothing wrong with reading devotional guides by popular radio preachers. But knowing a bit of history helps believers realize that there are also enriching choices from ages past, including Charles Spurgeon, the Puritans, early Church fathers, and C. S. Lewis.

4. Church history helps Christians counter heresies and cults. Most theological errors are recapitulations from previous generations and have already been refuted by faithful Bible students. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims, who deny the deity of Christ, and the so-called “Jesus only” movement, which denies the coequality of the Godhead’s three persons, can all be answered with arguments from the Trinitarian controversy of the third and fourth centuries.

5. Church history helps believers interpret the Bible. Knowing how Christians in ages past viewed various passages can shed tremendous light on Scripture. The commentaries of John Calvin, Matthew Henry, John Gill, and others are all helpful resources in addition to today’s Bible aides.

6. Church history bolsters faith. Think about the vast number of people who have followed Christ over the ages and their staggering contributions to human flourishing. Christians helped spawn hospitals, orphanages, democracy, human rights, art, widespread literacy, and much more. Indeed, “we are surrounded by so great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1).

7. Church history provides terms to use in describing difficult doctrines. The Trinity is “one essence and three persons.” Jesus has “two natures in one person.” The Bible is “inerrant and infallible.” Believers who don’t know a bit of church history probably won’t have these phrases in their theological tool belts.

8. Church history frees us from the illusion that modern, secular psychology is the only solution for emotional and behavioral problems. Though psychology brings helpful insights, the Puritans, Spurgeon, and others developed keen pastoral insights long before anyone heard of Ritalin or behavioral therapy. The student of church history enjoys a wealth of counseling resources.

9. Church history contains cautionary tales to remind us that Christians can dishonor their Lord. The crusades, the Salem Witch Trials, the Inquisition, and the Reformers’ squelching of religious freedom all engender humility and caution for believers. Zeal is not enough to justify our words or deeds. We must take care that actions we label “Christian” truly reflect Jesus.

10. Church history provides believers with a spiritual genealogy.  We know who our physical ancestors are. Why not learn about our spiritual forebears too?

So get to know church history. You will probably find it more edifying that you ever considered.

Is Israel’s New Abortion Law Consistent with Its Jewish Heritage?

The state of Israel has long illustrated the cultural fruitfulness of rooting a nation in the Judeo-Christian tradition, far outpacing its Muslim neighbors in the areas of democracy, religious freedom, education, scientific achievement, and the just treatment of women. But in January 2014, Israel approved an abortion law that is incongruous with its biblical heritage. Now, any Israeli woman between ages 20 and 33 may receive a state-funded abortion for any reason. (Previously, the government helped pay for abortions only in medical emergencies, cases of sexual abuse, and for women under 20 and over 40.) The Israel-Flagleader of the committee that drafted the law, Jonathan Halevy, explained, “We want large families in Israel. We definitely encourage birth. But when pregnancy occurs and it is undesired or inadvertent, I think we should supply the means to end the pregnancy properly.” Halevy said his committee hopes to expand state funding of abortion to all women under 40. This change in policy makes Israel’s abortion laws among the most liberal in the world.

The new law represents a striking departure from Israel’s Jewish heritage. In light of Bible passages like Jeremiah 1:5 (“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”) and Psalm 139:13 (“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.”), Jews historically have affirmed the sanctity of unborn life and viewed abortion as evil.

For example, Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher who lived around the time of Jesus, prescribed harsh punishment for anyone who struck a pregnant woman and caused her to miscarry. He called the aborted baby “a human being . . . destroyed in the laboratory of Nature who judges that the hour has not yet come for bringing it out into the light.” The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, a collection of ethical instructions written between 50 BC and AD 50, was explicit about abortion: “A woman should not destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after birth throw it before the dogs and vultures as prey.” The apocalyptic Sibylline Oracles (first century BC) said women who aborted their children would suffer God’s wrath along with sorcerers, adulterers, and thieves.

First Enoch, among the books of the Jewish Pseudepigrapha produced in the first or second century BC, said an evil angel taught humans how to “smash the embryo in the womb.” Referring to the Old Testament, the Jewish historian Josephus (ca. AD 37-100) argued, “The Law orders all the offspring to be brought up, and forbids women either to cause abortion or to make away with the fetus; a woman convicted of this is regarded as an infanticide, because she destroys a soul and diminishes the race.” Ancient Jews agreed almost universally that abortion was a sin.

Early Christians, many of whom were Jews, continued the tradition of opposing abortion. The Didache, a popular first or second century Christian work, counselled, “Love your neighbor as yourself . . . You shall not murder a child by abortion nor shall you kill a newborn.” Likewise, The Epistle of Barnabas from the same era said, “You shall love your neighbor more than your own life. You shall not murder a child by abortion nor shall you kill a newborn.” Though these works were not included in the New Testament canon, they were read widely in the churches and reflected the position of early believers.

Contemporary abortion advocates, and perhaps even Israeli policy makers, may argue that the Bible is ambiguous when it comes to abortion. But that was not the position of Jews and Christians 2,000 years ago. They were convinced that Scripture came down strongly in defense of unborn life—and for good reason. Friends of Israel who “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6) should add to their petitions that the nation would return to its heritage and protect unborn life.