Saturday, June 24, 2006

Wine in the Bible -- What Does God's Word Really Say? (Pt. 1)

At the request of our dear Peek a Boo at the WTM boards, I took a look at the writings of a Seventh-Day Adventist writer who argues that the Bible teaches total abstinence from alcohol. Now I’m no Pyromaniac or John MacArthur, but I’ve got a MacArthur Study Bible handy and the house to myself at 2 a.m. If my writing seems muddled, it means I probably dozed off at the keyboard and my hands went all floppy. I’m shootin’ for brevity here (not my strong suit, as you’ll see).

“This book addresses from a Biblical perspective the most prevailing, costly and destructive habit of our society, the drinking of alcoholic beverages.”
I’m not sure this is correct. That dubious honor most likely goes to p*rn. Fodder for another post, maybe.

“claims at least 100,000 American lives per year…” “The figures are provided by the 1986 report of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, as quoted in "Coming to Grips with Alcoholism," U.S. News & World Report (November 30, 1987):56.”
I’d love to know how the NIAAA came up with that figure. Is that number only deaths from cirrhosis of the liver? Drunk driving? Shootings by drunken boyfriends? Was it anything like the hundreds of thousands of supposedly-smoking-related deaths every year that we heard about a few years ago? This study the author has cited is really old. I wonder when the book was published. If it’s only a few years old, the guy really should have come up with some more recent research.

“A 1987 Gallup Poll indicates…” OK, this book must be really old. No sense wasting my time pulling his ancient data apart.

“The moderationist position rests on the belief that Scripture condemns the immoderate use of alcohol but approves its moderate use. This belief is in turn based on the assumption that the Bible knows only of fermented wine ("one wine theory") which it considers as a divine blessing to be enjoyed with moderation. According to this theory, any condemnation of wine in the Bible refers not to the kind of wine, but to the amount consumed.”
This seems like a mostly fair treatment of the “moderationist” position, although I’ve never heard of the “one wine theory” before, and the only places online I could find that had any reference to it by name were the author’s website and another total abstinence website. However, I contend that "the belief that Scripture condemns the immoderate use of alcohol but approves its moderate use" is not based on the “one wine theory” but is based instead on what Scripture actually says. (Specific examples to come later; we’ve got a long slog ahead of us.)

“By maintaining that the Bible sanctions the moderate use of alcoholic beverages, moderationists have led people to believe that drinking alcohol is not a moral but a medical issue. It is not a transgression of a God-given principle, but a habit which can harm one’s health, if abused. The elimination of any sinful connotation from the use of alcohol has had an enormous influence on the drinking habits of millions of Christians. It has provided Christians with an alleged Biblical and moral justification for drinking alcohol, thus depriving them of a Biblical and moral conviction for abstaining from intoxicating beverages.”
Now this is where I’d like to see some citations. This is just assertions of fact without any proof. It’s not even logical. If the Bible says that moderate alcohol consumption isn’t wrong but drunkenness is wrong (and I believe that’s what it says), how does that become a medical issue? It’s got moral distinction written all over it. “A is not wrong, but B is wrong.” The sinful connotation applies to drunkenness – the abuse of alcohol. It’s the world, not the church, which has medicalized sin and spiritual struggles – alcoholism, “mental illness”, eating disorders, homosexuality, etc.

Now am I going to deny that the church has never adopted the world’s way of thinking? Fuhgeddaboutit. But let’s lay blame at the feet of the proper owners, mm’k? The funny thing is, (and here’s where I throw in useless anecdotal evidence) I’ve known a lot of Christians in my 15 years as a believer. Almost all of them had a biblical view of alcohol, and almost none of them drank it at all.

The thrust of the author’s argument involves the proper translation of the word(s) for wine. For that, I’ll need my dh’s help, since he’s the resident Greek expert, and our copy of BibleWorks isn’t running properly right now. I can’t even begin to deal with this writer’s assertions about wine, because he says that all the good mentions of the fruit of the vine are of grape juice, and all the bad mentions are of fermented wine. So until I have my dh or one of our pastors weigh in on the proper translation in those verses, I’ll have to put that part of the discussion on hold for now.

The Wedding at Cana
Regarding the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12), I’ll refer to the MSB’s notes and to the Victor Journey Through the Bible (VJTB). It's important to look at the context of the whole passage to get a sense for the meaning of individual verses and words.

In John 2:3, the wedding party runs out of wine. MSB says that “Such a wedding celebration in Palestine could last for a week.” (VJTB says sometimes the wedding party ran 14 days. Can you imagine a two-week wedding reception?)

Back to MSB: “Financial responsibility lay with the groom (vv. 9,10). To run out of wine for the guests would have been an embarrassment to the groom and may have even opened him to a potential lawsuit from the relatives of the bride.” Guess our sue-happy culture isn’t all that unusual after all, is it? LOL. “Feed all 50 of us for a whole week, or we’re calling a lawyer.” “Uh, OK… ‘Dad.’ Can I call you Dad?”

So Jesus tells the servants to take the pots meant for ceremonial purification, and fill them with water. Then he turns the water into wine (John 2:6-9) Ya think John put that little detail in for fun? No! He’s telling us something important about the Lord and the vessels he chose to use for the miracle. Jesus didn’t say, “Oh, we can’t use those pots. We need them for ceremonial hand cleansing. Find some others.” Outward cleansing was less important than meeting someone’s actual need. Chew on *that* for a while. This wine/grape juice thing isn’t so interesting anymore, is it? Oh well, back to the wine issue…

MSB says: “The wine served was subject to fermentation. In the ancient world, however, to quench thirst without inducing drunkenness, wine was diluted with water to between one-third and one-tenth of its strength. Due to the climate and circumstances, even “new wine” fermented quickly and had an inebriating effect if not mixed (Acts 2:13). Because of a lack of water purification process, wine mixed with water was also safer to drink than water alone. While the Bible condemns drunkenness, it does not necessarily condemn the consumption of wine (Ps. 104:15; Prov. 20:1; see notes on Eph. 5:18 [emphasis author’s]).

So even if it was watered down, it was still fermented. That’s what helped make the water safe to drink.

Now let’s look at the master of the feast’s reaction to the grape juice/wine/tasty stuff (John 2:9b-12): “(T)he master of the feast called the bridegroom. And he said to him, ‘Every man at the beginning sets out the good wine, and when the guests have well drunk, then the inferior. You have kept the good wine until now!’” Try to put yourself in the average first-century Jewish bridegroom’s shoes. If you’re throwing a big weeklong party, don’t you want the Chateau-briand and Dom Perrignon put out when everyone’s first arriving and looking at the spread, deciding whether you’re a mensch or a cheapskate? Then, after everyone’s gotten three days of grape flavor stuck to their tongues (and maybe even gotten a little buzzed), you sneak out the boxed Franzia and Two Buck Chuck. I mean, come on, half the crowd’s gone home by now anyway. With all due respect to our SDA anti-alcohol crusader friend, does the context of this passage lend itself to “morally good” wine rather than to “high quality, good tasting” wine? I think not.

The “good wine” remark from the master of the feast has more to do with providing us with an example of Christ’s miracles. When Christ performed a healing, the person healed was never kinda sorta halfway healed. The person was completely restored. When He fed the 5,000 and the 4,000, He fed them enough that several big baskets were needed to pick up the leftovers. When He raised the dead, it wasn’t putting the corpse into a coma. It was complete restoration. When He cast out demons, the victim was left “in his right mind.”

And that’s just how God performed His wonders in the OT. Remember Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel? After the prophets of Baal failed to awaken their god, Elijah had his offering to Yahweh drenched with water, and “the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood and the stones and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench.” (1 Kings 18:38) Nothing halfway about that.

Paul’s Counsel to Timothy (1 Timothy 5:23)
I’m going to wrap up for now with some thoughts on this verse, also cited by the author. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul advises him, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for your stomach’s sake and your frequent infirmities.” MSB says, “’Water’ in the ancient world was often polluted and carried many diseases. Therefore Paul urged Timothy not to risk illness, not even for the sake of a commitment to abstinence from wine. Apparently Timothy avoided wine, so as not to place himself in harm’s way (see note on 3:3 [emphasis author’s]). Among the qualifications for an elder are that he should “not [be] given to wine” (I Tim. 3:3). MSB says, “More than a mere prohibition against drunkenness (see note on 5:18 [emphasis author’s]). An elder must not have a reputation as a drinker; his judgment must never be clouded by alcohol (cf. Prov. 31:4,5; 1 Cor. 6:12), his lifestyle must be radically different from the world and lead others to holiness, not sin (Rom. 14:21).

More MSB: “Paul wanted Timothy to use wine which, because of fermentation, acted as a disinfectant to protect his health problems due to the harmful effects of impure water. With this advice, however, Paul was not advocating that Timothy lower the high standard of behavior for leaders (cf. Num. 6:1-4; Prov. 31:4,5).”

The Law of Love (Romans 14:14-23)
OK, I just have to add one more. In Romans 14:14-23 (NASB), Paul talks about the need to remove “stumbling blocks” from the paths of weaker brethren in Christ:

14I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.
15For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died.
16Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil;
17for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking [emphasis mine], but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
18For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.
19So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.
20Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense.
21It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles.

22The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.
23But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.

Now that the sun is up, I think I'll nap. Busy day ahead of us today. When I've got more to post or link on this topic, I'll... post or link or something.


Nan said...

Oh boy! You ROCK!! (((We're not worthy! We're not worthy)))
Seriously. You have done a great job here!

Peek a Boo said...

you are so diligent!!! keep going--
the "one wine" theory is simply a default label: if you believe wine is only known by "one type" [i.e. fermented]. his case revolves around whether that is an historically accurate assumption.

i've got a couple of wine coolers sitting here for when your eyes are done going blind on footnotes. and if you end up thinking he's right, i'm gonna smash them over your head :-)

i'll just add one disclaimer about this whole thing: i was actually looking for a better argument on the alcohol thing when we were discussing dry [nonalcoholic] churches years ago, so i was kinda wierded out that his writings kept hovering in my head so much.

I'm not looking for a right or wrong answer, but simply to establish whether he has some spiritual and scriptural truth to offer. While i appreciate that most people who have studied this topic in depth disagree w/ his findings [even if they haven't READ them, nan! lol....], i also know that God's ideas are not based upon a democratic vote :-)

thanks for taking this on, you SOM!

and nan --is that a pic of *you*??

Sebastian said...

What a nice analysis so far. I once applied for a job at a small Christian school. I found it odd that they were quite willing to take me to teach senior English before I had finished my education degree but they were really bothered by the fact that I was a social drinker. I would have to sign something that agreed I would never drink in the presence of students. Not just that I wouldn't pull out my hip flask in the middle of a particularly tricky sentence diagram. But also that I would not attempt to drink a toast at a wedding if students were also guests.
A couple of references that you might want to check out. Christian History did a column once about the history of using juice instead of wine for communion. I can't locate it online but I think it was the March 2005 issue.
There is also an extensive discussion of the concept of cleanliness and stumbling blocks in a book about Harry Potter by
Connie Neal (What's a Christian to do with Harry Potter). Many of the conclusions she draws would be equally valid on the topic of drinking wine (generally that it is sinful for some, not for others. It should be neither outlawed nor flaunted).
I'm looking forward to part 2

Silly Old Mom said...


All I can say is, "Aw, GAWRSH! Hyuk!"


Thanks for stopping by! How did you find me?

Peek a Boo said...

thanks for that reference! i'll see if i can dig it up. it's now in my file on "can i debunk this guy's research".....

we're Harry Potter fans here :-)

Sebastian said...

I saw the posts on WTM. I blog under a different name than I post.