Yesterday's lead article at ChristianityToday.com answers the question "Is occasional social drinking OK for Christians?" As the author, J. Lawrence Burkholder notes, "One's attitudes toward alcohol are seldom objective, even if one tries to be tolerant. One can be sure that a refined, cultured gentleman from Burgundy is not likely to be an abstainer. And a wife of an alcoholic is not likely to be convinced that any policy of moderation is wise."
Still, for thousands of years, Christians writing on the subject have generally attempted to be moderate. A few deny that the Bible has anything positive to say about alcohol. But generally speaking, Christians have, like Burkholder, made the case for abstinence or very little drinking while acknowledging that biblical injunctions are against drunkenness, not necessarily fermented beverages as a whole. But as Burkholder says, the debate is still contentious. And from the lips of early church bishops to today's local pastors and televangelists, the differing viewpoints are available in abundance online.
After Jesus and Paul (who both had several things to say about wine), one of the earliest Christians to write about alcohol was first-century Clement of Rome, whose "On Drinking" (from Book Two of The Instructor or Paedagogus) is available at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Clement was very quick to point out the dangers of alcohol: it kindles "wild impulses and burning lusts and fiery habits" in youth (Clement's descriptions make for, um, fascinating reading), it is easy to become drunk, and there are many other potential side effects, including "constant spitting and wiping off perspiration, and hastening to evacuations." But he also encouraged a little wine to keep warm during evening studies, noted that Jesus set an example by drinking wine, and noted the pleasant physical effects:
It is fitting, then, that some apply wine by way of physic, for the sake of health alone, and others for purposes of relaxation and enjoyment. For first wine makes the man who has drunk it more benignant than before, more agreeable to his boon companions, kinder to his domestics, and more pleasant to his friends. But when intoxicated, he becomes violent instead.
Blame the drinker, not the drink
A few centuries later, John Chrysostom (c.347-407) echoed Clement's moderate teachings. But by his day, more radical prohibitionists and ascetics were preaching against the use of wine, so Chrysostom's preaching on the subject is more aggressive than Clement's clement pontificating. Many of his writings on Biblical references to alcohol are also at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (see his commentaries on Ephesians 5:18 and 1 Timothy 5:23). His lengthiest sermon on the subject, however, he delivered early in his career while preaching on 1 Timothy 5:23:
For wine was given us of God, not that we might be drunken, but that we might be sober; that we might be glad, not that we get ourselves pain. … The passage before us is useful also against heretics, who speak evil of God's creatures; for if it had been among the number of things forbidden, Paul would not have permitted it, nor would have said it was to be used. And not only against the heretics, but against the simple ones among our brethren, who when they see any persons disgracing themselves from drunkenness, instead of reproving such, blame the fruit given them by God, and say, "Let there be no wine." We should say then in answer to such, "Let there be no drunkenness; for wine is the work of God, but drunkenness is the work of the devil. Wine maketh not drunkenness; but intemperance produceth it. Do not accuse that which is the workmanship of God, but accuse the madness of a fellow mortal. But thou, while omitting to reprove and correct the sinner, treatest thy Benefactor with contempt!"
And so it went through the centuries. There were those who forbade all alcohol, but these seemed to be in the minority. Augustine of Hippo noted in Confessions, (Book 6, Chapter 2), that his mother's bishop forbade alcohol "even to those who would use it in moderation, lest thereby it might be an occasion of gluttony for those who were already drunken (and also because these funereal memorials were very much like some of the superstitious practices of the pagans)." But he also personally acknowledged wine's beneficial qualities.
Protest and Prohibition
The Protestant Reformers had little qualms with alcohol as well, as Dave Armstrong discusses in his Web page Alcohol: Biblical and Catholic Teaching. Martin Luther even converted part of his monastery into a brewery. And in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (4:13:4), John Calvin wrote, "If you vow abstinence from wine, as if there were any holiness in so doing, you are superstitious; but if you have some end in view which is not perverse, no one can disapprove.
"But, as is widely known, evangelical Christians led the charge against drink in the nineteenth century. Evangelist Billy Sunday railed against booze as fervently as he preached salvation. What caused the change? It's a topic historian Mark A. Noll addressed in a January 19, 1979 Christianity Today editorial we are reprinting today at ChristianityToday.com.
More recently, pastors and professors have echoed the pre-Prohibition theologians. The winner of the best-designed Web page on Christians and alcohol goes to Antithesis.com, which has reprinted Jim West's article on the subject, "What Would Jesus Drink?" It originally appeared in the February 2000 issue of Tabletalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul. West looks at the role wine played in Christ's ministry and passion, concluding that Jesus did not happen to drink wine. It is "God's special drink."
If West's is the best-looking online article on the topic, the one by Daniel B. Wallace, Associate Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, is the most quoted. His site, part of The Biblical Studies Foundation site, hasn't really been updated since 1997, but it's an excellent overview what the Bible says on the subject:
The general contours of biblical teaching are that wine is a blessing from the Lord, something to be enjoyed. But like any good gift from God, it can be abused: in this case, abuse involves addiction and drunkenness. But whenever we condemn others who are able to enjoy God's good gifts in moderation as though they were abusers, we misrepresent biblical Christianity. At bottom, it seems that biblical Christianity has a much different face than what much of modern Christianity wears. In many respects, we resemble more the ancient Pharisees than the Lord's disciples.
Ray Pritchard, pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Illinois, takes an approach very similar to that of J. Lawrence Burkholder and Christianity Today: voluntary abstinence. Careful to distinguish his encouragement from a mandate, Pritchard argues that the dangers of using alcohol far outweigh any potential benefits.
I do not drink alcoholic beverages for one major reason: My conduct might cause someone else, who is weak, to stumble. … In a country where there are at least twenty million problem drinkers, and millions of others who use alcohol to excess, Christians just cannot stand by and say, "I can drink alcoholic beverages because the Bible does not say not to." My conduct should be governed by the law of love.
Among the very few denominational statements on alcohol is that of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); which has its 1986 statement on the subject—as well as a history of its stance—on its official Web site. It is clear to say it disagrees with Prohibition, "a policy which would appear to attribute the entire problem to alcohol itself," but the denomination "encourages and supports personal decision to abstain from alcohol."
Not all Christians agree that the Bible has mixed messages on wine. In another widely disseminated work, "Wine in the Bible," Samuele Bacchiocchi says, "the Bible consistently teaches total abstinence as a divine imperative." Bacchiocchi and others believe that when the wine the Bible commends was non-alcoholic: "The 'good wine' Jesus made at Canaan was 'good' not because of its high alcoholic content but because it was fresh, unfermented grape-juice." This assertion is one of the issues discussed in Roland Bainton's "Total Abstinence and Biblical Principles," which appeared as the lead story for Christianity Today's July 7, 1958 issue, and which reappears today on ChristianityToday.com.
David L. Brown, pastor of First Baptist Church of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, has an original take on why Christians shouldn't drink: they're part of the royal priesthood, which has always been forbidden to drink. (The case is also made by Chris Warren at the New Covenant Church of God). "Drinking, even social drinking, cannot be legitimately supported by the Bible," Brown writes, "Every drink that is available today, even beer, falls into the category of unmixed or strong drink. Drinking unmixed or strong drink is forbidden in the Bible, except in two instances."
And then there's the concern of Boundless, a Focus on the Family Web magazine, which focuses its drinking article at Christian college students, particularly those at Christian colleges. Writer Clem Boyd notes that about one in five undergrads at Christian colleges drank alcohol in high school, a percentage lower than their state school counterparts, but still troubling. "By drinking, Christian students surrender their high calling, like Esau surrendering his birthright for pottage—an indulgence of the moment that has subtle and not-so-subtle consequences on relationships," Boyd writes.
The argument is not so far off from Clement's warning that "we must, as far as possible, try to quench the impulses of youth by removing the Bacchic fuel of the threatened danger; and by pouring the antidote to the inflammation, so keep down the burning soul, and keep in the swelling members, and allay the agitation of lust when it is already in commotion."
Ted Olsen is Online Editor of ChristianityToday.com
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