Can Christians Drink Wine with the Reformers?

My good friend Luke Gossett has agreed to write a blog concerning alcohol, the Christian use of it, and Christian liberty. He is a graduate of Southeastern Bible College who is pursuing further education to become an OT scholar. I know Luke as a good friend, a Christ-loving brother, and a man who loves God’s word and has a desire to see God’s people know that word! I hope you enjoy his post. Luke blogs regularly about theology and life on his blogsite (found here). I’m in agreement with Luke’s view concerning the issue and I personally think he has a lot of good points to consider. Enjoy!

My goals are threefold within this upcoming blog: to survey the issue of drinking alcohol within Scripture, to provide a brief survey of drinking alcohol in Church history (specifically Calvin and Luther) and to offer some thoughts on Christian liberty and the moderate use of alcohol. In this debate there are three positions namely, prohibitionism (a view that the Bible prohibits alcohol), abstentionism (a position that the Bible teaches Christians ought to abstain from alcohol) and moderationism (a stance that the Bible teaches that Christians may enjoy God’s creation in the form of alcoholic beverages).[1] I think the Bible argues for the latter position from cover to cover. It is helpful to note that a moderationist position condemns alcohol abuse as sin.[2] No group advocates the sin of drunkenness. In his book God Gave Wine, Kenneth Gentry was right to say:

Let us begin our formal inquiry by noting first that Scripture clearly deems drunkenness a sinful state meriting God’s disapproval and anger. Each of the three Christian positions on the use of wine condemns alcohol abuse and dependance. In fact, the Scripture unsparingly condemns drunkenness, frequently and from a variety of angles.[3]

Alcohol in Scripture

First, one must determine some biblical vocabulary, namely, the Hebrew terms yayin, tirosh, shekar,and asis. These refer to alcoholic beverages.[4] There are also Greek terms including oinos and gleukos that, among others, also refer to alcoholic beverages.[5] Also this begs the conclusion that the people of the Bible, both from the OT and NT eras, had access to beverages that were alcoholic. These words denote beverages that were alcoholic to the extent of retaining the ability to cause drunkenness due to Scriptural warnings against drunkenness: Isa 28:1, Eph 5:18, Rom 13:13, Gal 5:19-21, and 1 Cor 6:10. Why give a command to avoid drunkenness if what you’re drinking cannot provide the opportunity? Attempts to make the argument that the wine of Jesus’ day was not alcoholic but mere grape juice are quite dubious at best (here). Nathan MacDonald noted that wine was a crucial part of Israel’s diet:

The frequent references to wine in the Old Testament suggest that it was not only the principle alcoholic beverage, but the principle drink, period… Shimon Dar estimates up to a liter of wine per person per day.[6]

One sees that God’s people in the OT drank alcoholic wine as their principle drink. Further evidence can be found around the web concerning the use of alcoholic beverages within the Bible (here, here and here).

Alcohol in History

Second, because the presence of alcohol is found throughout the Bible, the use of the substance has been advocated in moderation by the Church for hundreds of years. The great Genevan reformer John Calvin tied Romans 14:23 with Genesis 1 in his commentary.[7] This reenforces the thesis that Calvin coupled his creation theology with his position on alcohol.[8] His premise on this issue has been summarized as thus, “if God gives something, it isn’t bad in itself only in its abuse.”[9] It is argued that Calvin saw wine as a gift from God along with all of creation. He saw creation, including wine, as existing for human needs, pleasures, and delights.[10] To reject wine was to in some sense to reject something God created for good.

Also Calvin is not without sermons on the topic. He preached on Deut 14:26 giving admonishments on the subject of alcohol.[11] Jim West dubbed this “The Moses Stout Text.”[12] This text invites OT worshippers to a “rejoicing tithe” and allows them to drink alcoholic beverages in the presence of the Lord as a tithe.[13] The author of Genesis uses the terms yayin, and shekar, both of which are cited above as alcoholic. In reference to this passage, Gentry writes:

The thrust of this passage is unambiguous; the divine sanction unmistakable: Moses not only allows shekar among God’s people, but encourages its enjoyment “in the presence of the LORD” (v. 26), if partaken in “the fear of God” (v. 23).[14]

Calvin unquestionably teaches moderationism in his commentary on Psalm 104:15. While condemning abuse, he also ties enjoyment of wine with that of bread equating them.[15]

Moreover when men have been carefully taught to bridle their lusts, it is important for them to know, that God permits them to enjoy pleasures in moderation, where there is the ability to provide them ; else they will never partake even of bread and wine with a tranquil conscience ; yea, they will begin to scruple about the tasting of water, at least they will never come to the table but in fearfulness. Meanwhile, the greater part of the world will wallow in pleasures without discrimination, because they do not consider what God permits them ; for his fatherly kindness should be to us the best mistress to teach us moderation.[16]

Calvin here is quite succinct, he shows that God provides these “benefits.”[17] He also considers these blessings God’s fatherly kindness, an allusion to God’s provision of these things. Calvin sees abundance of provision as a teacher of moderation. Calvin also has a chapter treating Christian Liberty in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. In this work he notes that “we are not bound before God to any observance to any external things which are in themselves indifferent (adiaphora) but that we are now at full liberty either to use or omit them.[18] Calvin also in this section states that the teaching and doctrine of Christian Liberty is essential and that without it one’s conscience will not have rest, and there will be no end of superstition.[19]Here Calvin also notes a degeneration from the lack of teaching to the point of one not drinking water at all if it is perceived as too sweet and pure.[20] He notes wine along this degeneration and ends his section with these words: “When men are involved in such doubts whatever be the direction in which they turn, everything they see must offend their conscience.”[21] Thus, Calvin advocates Christian liberty and moderation in the issue of wine. Luther contributes two thoughts to this discussion. First the refomer says:

Do not suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object which is abused. Men can go wrong with wine and women. Shall we then prohibit and abolish women? The sun, the moon, and the stars have been worshipped. Shall we then pluck them out of the sky?[22]

Here Luther argues against two different practices within the modern debate: the prohibition of alcohol and abolishment of alcohol. One cannot reasonably abolish or prohibit anything based on its abuse by another party. No one argues this is a universal rule. Christian husbands should no more stop having sex with their wives because of the rampant abuse of sex in our culture anymore than Christians should abstain from God’s good gift of wine because others abuse it. Second is Luther’s idea that joy is the way to counter the devil. For the theologian, alcohol assists in joy. Thus one drinks to be joyous in the Lord, and therefore defeats the devil with the joy of the Christian life.[23] Luther wrote to a friend on the issue of affliction from the devil and how to counter it and he wrote that:

By all means flee solitude, for he lies in wait most for those alone. This devil is conquered by despising and mocking him, not by resisting and arguing… Be strong and cheerful and cast out those monstrous thoughts. Whenever the devil harasses you thus, seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, aye, even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles.[24]

Luther here states that we must do whatever necessary to defeat the devil and this includes drinking alcohol. This would make alcohol compulsory for some occasions in Luther’s mind. For summary, we’ve noted a few things within this blog: 1) alcoholic drinks are found throughout Scripture, 2) they are to be used as good gifts from God by God’s people in moderation (we should avoid drunkeness), 3) arguments against the use of alcohol because of the abuse of it are inconsistent at best, and 4) wine and other beverages can be used as a source of Christian joy in your fight against the hosts of hell.

For a helpful discussion concerning the issue, Austin has included some links to various blogs and sources from believers on both sides of the issue below. Examine the types of arguments and see for yourself who has the better points.

The following people argue against the use of alcohol within the Christian life or see it as unwise at times: John MacArthur (here), Norman Geisler (here), John Piper (here), Daniel Akin (here), and the Southern Baptist Covention (here).

Others with more of a moderationist viewpoint can be found on the following sites: one blogger asks how much is too much? (here), Mark Driscol gives his thoughts on the use of alcohol (here), pastor-scholar Doug Wilson offers wise statements on his blog (here, here and here), a few bloggers take John MacArthur to task on his exegesis and arguments (here, here, here and here), Justin Taylor writes a piece on the Christan use of drinking and legalism (here), Thomas S. Kidd discusses how evangelicals lost their way on the issue of alcohol (here), Tim Challies offers his thoughts on the topic (here), the thirsty theologian makes some comments on the subject (here), some fellow Southern Baptists respond to the convention’s stance on alcohol (here, here and here), a few other bloggers look at the question (here), and the Founders Ministries (here)and Grace Communion International (here) has written on this topic.

For some fun reading, here’s two excerpts from books of drinking. Drinking with Calvin and Luther by Jim West (DrinkingCalvinLuther) and God gave Wine by Kenneth L. Gentry (GodGaveWine). Also, ever wondered how someone actually gets drunk? Go here. It is kind of neat how alcohol affects the body.

[1] Ibid., 3-6
[2] Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., God Gave Wine: What the Bible Says About Alcohol (Lincoln, CA: Oakdown, 2001), 16.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., 33-65.
[5] Ibid., 68-72.
[6] Nathan MacDonald, What Did the Ancient Israelites Eat?: Diet In Biblical Times (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 22-23.
[7] John Calvin, Commentaries on The First Book of Moses Called Genesis (Trans. John King, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 99.
[8] Jim West, Drinking With Calvin and Luther!: A History of Alcohol in the Church. (Lincoln, CAal: Oakdown, 2003), 57.
[9] Ibid., 57-58.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., 58-60
[12] Ibid., 144.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Gentry, 62.
[15] John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms V. 4 (Trans. James Anderson, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 156-158.
[16] Ibid., 158.
[17] Ibid., 156.
[18] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Trans. Henry Beveridge, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2009), 552.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Taken from West., 116.
[23] Ibid., 33-35.
[24] Ibid.

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