With regard to the use of alcoholic beverages, my practice and teaching are those of total abstinence. This stand is based on biblical principles, but I am free to confess that it is not based on biblical precepts or biblical practice. Both the Old and the New Testaments enjoin moderation rather than total abstinence. How then can one describe one's position as biblical if it goes beyond the Bible?

An analogy is to be found in the case of slavery. Nowhere in the Bible is the institution condemned, and from the time of the patriarchs to Philemon the worthies of both dispensations owned slaves. Many of the injunctions addressed in the New Testament to servants, according to the older versions, are correctly directed in the Revised Standard Version to slaves. The defenders of slavery in the South before the war made out a very plausible case from the Bible. Thereupon the Quaker historian Henry C. Lea satirized their plea by making an equally good case in all apparent seriousness for polygamy, which was practiced in the Old Testament and nowhere expressly forbidden in the New Testament. Yet few in this land today would fail to agree that Christian principles require alike the emancipation of slaves and the abandonment of polygamy. Similarly one may argue that Christian principles call for abstinence from intoxicating beverages.

Spirit Against Letter

Yet an exegesis which deduces from Christian principles a position at variance with early Christian practice may well appear strained. This is the old question of the spirit against the letter, the question whether the Bible is a code of laws or an enunciation of principles. The Old Testament itself discloses both views. The Pentateuch is the Torah, the Law, whereas Jeremiah called for a New Covenant graven not on tables of stone, but on hearts of flesh. Judaism tended, however, to forget the prophets and to build up the law as the only feasible focus for the religious life of the people. Christianity rebelled against the legalism of Judaism. Jesus transgressed the laws of the Sabbath and Paul declared the law to be abrogated. But legalism crept speedily again into Christianity. The precepts of Jesus were treated as legal demands and the Church in the Middle Ages built up so many regulations about holy days and clean and unclean foods that Christianity had come to resemble closely the Judaism of Jesus' day.

Another Cycle

The Reformation was another revolt. The rules were abrogated, but the cycle recommenced. The Bible was so potent a weapon in combating the church that it soon came to be seated in a position of rigid authority. The first stage was to say that whatever the Bible did not prohibit might be allowed. The second was to say that whatever the Bible did not enjoin must be rejected. And the third was to say that whatever the Bible at any point enjoined must be reinstated. Hence in some quarters the restoration of polygamy and in Puritan England the revival of a rigid Sabbatarianism. The final stage in biblicism was not openly recognized. It consisted in imposing upon the Bible a meaning which would justify current practices actually adopted on nonbiblical grounds. For example, George Fox refused to lift a hat as a mark of deference to persons in authority. His real motive was social equalitarianism, but when challenged for a biblical warrant he replied, "Shadracb, Meshach and Abednego were cast into the midst of the burning fiery furnace with their coats and their hose and their hats on."

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More insidious has been the use of this method by the temperance reformers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to wrest the meaning of Scripture in order to find in it an explicit warrant for their practice. Since several words, used in the Hebrew and in the Greek of the Old and New Testaments, describe drinks of juice, the assumption has been that some referred to fermented and some to unfermented beverages and that wherever a drink was commended or not condemned, it must have been nonalcoholic.

The validity of this contention can be tested only through an examination of the meaning of words, but prior to a philological study one must take into account the ethical presuppositions of Judaism and Christianity which conditioned the meaning of words. Their attitude toward the use of alcoholic beverages is not isolated, but is a part of an entire attitude to life. These religions may be described as life affirming and morally disciplined ' They are to be contrasted with religions which are, on the one hand, orgiastic and, on the other hand, ascetic. Orgiastic religions believe that God is to be discovered primarily within the processes of nature, particularly those of fertility and fermentation. Communion with God is sought by eating the flesh or blood of an animal in which the god supposedly dwells, or through the excitations of sex and intoxication.

The contrast to the orgiastic religion is the ascetic, which regards all things physical as evil and as unfit vehicles for the communication of the divine. The body is defiling, especially the dead body and blood. That which excites the body, such as the sexual act and inebriation, are likewise defiling. Quite commonly religions of this type demand celibacy, vegetarianism and total abstinence. Judaism and Christianity at certain points reveal tendencies in this direction, but the main line of both is not ascetic.

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Affirmative Attitude

Judaism and Christianity are affirmative in their attitude to life. The Old Testament declares that God made the world and saw that it was good. Ascetic religions regard the world as evil and frequently assign its creation to a malevolent deity. But the Jewish-Christian tradition looks upon the creation as originally good. Corruption of the good ensued. After, not before the creation, came the fall. Because of this corruption in man, not in nature, certain restrictions have to be placed upon the use of nature. Hence life must be disciplined. These two words characterize the Jewish-Christian attitude to life, affirmative and disciplined.

This being so, one would scarcely expect to find total abstinence enjoined as an absolute rule, certainly not on ascetic grounds. We should certainly expect to find drunkenness and all excess condemned. What we do find in fact is the inculcation of moderation.

But the temperance reformers would not have it so. The attempt has been made to give another sense to Scripture. This was done by making distinctions as to the meaning of the words used for beverages in the Old 'Testament and in the New. In each, two words are in primary use—in Hebrew yayin and tirosh, in Greek oinos and gleukos. The contention is that in each language the one word refers to unfermented and the other to fermented juice and that only the unfermented is approved.

A careful study of the context in which these words occur does not bear out the distinction. In Hebrew tirosh is the word alleged to represent unfermented grape juice. The various usages of the word indicate that it does mean the juice of the grape whether in the grape or in the vat. It is the raw product out of which wine is made as bread is made out of flour. Tirosh is commonly translated "new wine." But this is not to say that it was not intoxicating. We have one passage in which very clearly it was so regarded. Hosea says, "Whoredom and yayin and tirosh take away the understanding" (4: 11). Here tirosh is distinguished from yayin but both are compared to fornication.

With regard to yayin there is no question that it was intoxicating. Noah drank of the yayin and was drunken (Genesis 9:20-21). The daughters of Lot made their father drunk with yayin (Genesis 19:32-35). Eli said to Hannah, "How long wilt thou be drunken? put away thy yayin from thee" (1 Samuel 1:14).

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Such drunkenness was roundly condemned alike in Proverbs and in the prophets (Proverbs 20: 1; 23:29-32; Isaiah 28:1-7; Joel 1:5; Habakkuk 2:5).

But if the temperance interpreters were correct, yayin should be universally condemned; but such is not the case. The lover in the Song of Solomon sings to her beloved, "Thy love is better than yayin" (1:2).

The clearest passage is in the 104th Psalm: "He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man; that he may bring forth food out of the earth, and yayin that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread that strengtheneth man's heart" (vs. 14).

And then there is the great passage in the prophet Isaiah: "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy and eat; yea, come, buy yayin and milk without money and without price" (55:1).

As far as the words are concerned, the attempt to distinguish between a fermented wine which is condemned and an unfermented which is approved simply will not hold. The temperance interpreters are driven to say quite arbitrarily that whatever is approved must be unfermented.

New Testament Context

The attempt to find a distinction between two kinds of beverage in the New Testament, the one intoxicating and the other unintoxicating, likewise breaks down. The Greek equivalent of the Hebrew tirosh is gleukos. The word is used once in the New Testament and the context certainly indicates that it was intoxicating. The occasion was the preaching with tongues at Pentecost. Some of the bystanders were amazed. Others mocked saying, "They are filled with gleukos" (Acts 2:13). What point was there in the sneer if it meant that these men were talking gibberish because they had had grape juice for breakfast?

The common word for wine in the New Testament is oinos. This is the Hebrew yayin. As in the Old Testament only the abuse and not the use is condemned. Drunkenness is of course reproved. Our Master said, "Take heed to yourselves lest haply your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness … " (Luke 21:34). Again the servant who in his lord's absence began to beat the other servants, to eat and drink and be drunken, was to receive his portion with the unfaithful (Luke 12:45-46, Matthew 24:45-51).

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The apostle Paul was shocked that at the love feast one was hungry and another drunken (1 Corinthians 11:21). His corrective for this disorder was not an absolute prohibition, but that he who was hungry and presumably by the same token he who was thirsty should first be satisfied at home before coming to the assembly (1 Corinthians 11:34). Again he enjoined, "Let us walk becomingly, as in the day; not in reveling and drunkenness … " (Romans 13:13). The pastoral Epistles require that bishops should not be quarrelsome over wine (1 Timothy 3:3); that elderly women should not be enslaved to too much wine (Titus 2:3), and 1 Peter condemns winebibbings (4:3).

(An excellent treatment on the historical side of the issue is that of Irving Woodworth Raymond, "The Teaching of the Early Church on the Use of Wine and Strong Drink," Columbia, Studies in History, Economics and Public Law, Number 286, 1927.)

Use Of Wine

But the use of wine is nowhere subject to prohibition whether in precept or in practice. Jesus was contrasted with John the Baptist who had taken a Nazarite vow: "John the Baptist is come eating no bread nor drinking wine; and ye say, he hath a demon. The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold, a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, … " (Luke 7:33-34). Surely this reproach would have been without point if Jesus were consuming only grape juice.

The temperance interpreters have maintained that the wine into which water was turned at the wedding feast at Cana must have been unintoxicating. But can one suppose that the guests at an oriental wedding, having already freely imbibed, would have considered the last wine to be the best if it were unfermented?

Finally the wine used at the Lord's Supper must have been fermented unless Jesus was going flatly counter to current Jewish usage. The word wine, by the way, is not used in the accounts of the Lord's Supper. Its presence is inferred from the references to the cup.

The apostle Paul recommended to Timothy that he be no longer a drinker of water, but use a little wine for his stomach's sake (1 Timothy 5:23).

The case is so abundantly clear that so lengthy a refutation might well appear superfluous. One notes that the contributors to Kittel's Theologisches Wörterbuch do not so much as consider whether oinos might have been unfermented, nor whether nepho could have meant "totally abstinent" rather than simply "not drunk." The only reason I have discussed the matter at such length is that in this country biblical literalists still persist in their effort to make of the Bible a book enjoining total abstinence. It is argued that since intoxicating wine is a drink of death and Christ is the Lord of life, he simply cannot have turned water into intoxicating wine. There is really no use in discussing the meaning of words in that case. The matter is settled by the presuppositions.

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Need for Total Abstinence

Nevertheless a sound case can be made for total abstinence on the basis of biblical principles. These principles have to be applied and reapplied to new sets of circumstances, and what may have been legitimately permissible in one era ceases to be in another. Before considering these principles, we do well to recall the difference between the situation in biblical times and our own.

Drunkenness of course existed in biblical times and was condemned, but it was not so rampant as in our day because we have made such technological advance. First, the discovery of distillation has rendered possible an enormous increase in the alcoholic content of beverages. Secondly an industry has arisen which depends for its existence on an expanding consumption of alcohol. Thirdly, the temptation to excess has been increased by all of the new strains involved in modern living, and finally menace of inebriation is greater in a society where any blunting of extreme alertness may result in serious accidents.

Whereas in antiquity drunkenness was certainly to be condemned as a destroyer of judgment and a breeder of crime, today in the United States alcoholism is one of our major social problems. In 1949 Dr. Jellenik compiled statistics which added up to nearly four million alcoholics in this country, to be exact the number was 3,852,000. Of these 3,276,000 were male and 576,000 were female. The alcoholic is defined as one for whom the craving for alcohol has become a disease and who consumes so much as to be recurrently incapacitated for work. (E. M. Jellenik, Quarterly Journal of Alcoholic Studies, XVIII, June, 1952, pp. 215218.)

Selden Bacon, writing in 1951, considered the above estimates conservative. He reported also on the financial losses to industry in the year 1946. The most moderate estimate was a billion dollars. Other "seriously considered estimates ran to more than ten times that figure" (The Civitan Magazine, March 1951, pp. 1-8).

Surgeons report their heaviest time to be on weekends, because of the higher number of automobile accidents in which alcohol is a very frequent causative factor. Ministers must give an inordinate amount of time to the endeavor to keep married couples together in cases where alcohol makes it almost imperative for them to live apart.

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Recent investigations have taught us that alcohol is not a stimulant, but a sedative which relaxes the controls of intelligence and will. The consumption of alcohol may develop into the disease known as alcoholism. Some persons by reason of personality factors, perhaps physical factors, are predisposed to this disease. No one can tell in advance whether he is of this type. He can find out only by getting well on the road toward alcoholism, and then to stop is a frightful struggle.

This is the situation as described by sober investigators. To this situation biblical principles must be brought to bear. The first principle is this: "Know ye not that your bodies are members of Christ? … know ye not that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit … ?" (I Cor. 6:15 and 19). Certainly of themselves these tests do not require total abstinence. The question is, what does dishonor the body? Many will hold that a moderate use of alcoholic beverages is no dishonor, but others will reply that although a moderate use under carefully controlled conditions is no dishonor, nevertheless the moderate can lead to the immoderate, and the consequences of immoderate use in our highly mechanized society are so drastic that one is wise to preclude the possibility of excess by refraining from the moderate which may lead to it.

The second great biblical principle is consideration for the weaker brother. The classic passage is in Romans 14:

Let us not therefore judge one another any more. One man hath faith to eat all things, but he that is weak eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth set at naught him that eateth not; and let not him that eateth not judge him that eateth. … Let us not therefore judge one another any more; but judge ye this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock in his brother's way. … I know, and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean of itself; save that to him who accounteth anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. For if because of meat thy brother is grieved, thou walkest no longer in love. … Overthrow not for meat's sake the work of God. … It is good not to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor to do anything whereby thy brother stumbleth.

Apparently there were in the early Christian cornmunity those who abstained not simply from meat and wine polluted by having been offered to idols, but from all meat and from all wine. They were vegetarians and aquarians. The apostle regarded them as weak. Nevertheless they were to receive consideration, and the strong should adopt the practice of the weak rather than give offense.

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If we translate these precepts into the terms of our situation, we may say that there are some who are capable of drinking in moderation, but others either for physical or psychological reasons are in danger of the Lost Weekend. For the sake of such people, those who can drink without excess should abstain in order to create a social environment in which abstinence is not an act of courage but accepted behavior.

The apostle Paul did not draw this specific inference. He was not legislating. He was enunciating principles. These two principles, that our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit and that the strong should accommodate themselves to the weak, are the biblical grounds on which I base my practice and teaching of total abstinence.

This article originally appeared as the lead story in the July 7, 1958 issue of Christianity Today. At the time, Roland H. Bainton was Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale Divinity School. Among his published works are Here I Stand, A Life of Martin Luther (1950) and Yale and the Ministry (1957).

Related Elsewhere

See our related articles on Christians and alcohol this week:

A Little Wine for the Soul? | The Bible says drunkenness is a sin (Gal. 5:21). But is occasional social drinking OK for Christians?

Amassed Media: The Drink Debate | What Christian leaders past and present have said about social drinking—and where to find them online.

CT Classic: America's Battle Against the Bottle | Evangelical support of temperance is no cause for embarrassment in our intemperate society.