August 7, 2008

Alcohol and the Bible

The Bible makes it clear that Jesus drank wine (Matthew 15:11; Luke 7:33-35) and approved of its moderate consumption (Matthew 15:11). On the other hand, he was critical of drunkenness (Luke 21:34, 12:42; Matthew 24:45-51).

The later writings of St. Paul (d. 64?) deal with alcohol in detail and are important to traditional Christian doctrine on the subject. He considered wine to be a creation of God and therefore inherently good (1 Timothy 4:4), recommended its use for medicinal purposes (1 Timothy 5:23), condemned drunkenness (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 5:11, 6:10; Galatians 5:19-21; Romans 13:3) and recommended abstinence for those who could not control their drinking.

However, late in the second century, several heretical Christian sects rejected alcohol and called for abstinence. By the late fourth and early fifth centuries, the Church responded by asserting that wine was an inherently good gift of God to be used and enjoyed. While individuals may choose not to drink, to despise wine was heresy. The Church advocated its moderate use but rejected excessive or abusive use as a sin. Those individuals who could not drink in moderation were urged to abstain.

Royce has observed that "there seems to be neither historical nor theological basis for the total abstinence movement, since...the Jews, Christ, and the founders of the major Protestant denominations all drank. Although drunkenness is condemned in both the Old and New Testaments, there is no condemnation of drinking in either."

However, some Christians today argue that whenever "wine" was used by Jesus or praised as a gift of God, it was really grape juice; only when it caused drunkenness was it wine. Thus, they interpret the Bible as asserting that grape juice is good and that drinking it is acceptable to God but that alcohol is bad and that drinking it is religiously unacceptable.

This reasoning appears to be incorrect for at least two reasons. First, neither the Hebrew nor Biblical Greek words for wine can be translated or interpreted as referring to grape juice. 4 The same Hebrew and Greek word is used for the wine that Jesus drank and the wine that made Noah drunk. 5 Second, grape juice would very quickly ferment into wine in the warm climate of the Mediterranean region without refrigeration or modern methods of preservation.

The development of the "two-wine" doctrine occurred in the 19th century. Before that time, the moderate consumption of alcohol was widely accepted as natural and normal by Christian teachings. However, as the temperance movement spread, some Christian churches began to preach that the consumption of alcohol was not only undesirable but was actually sinful.... and that the substance of alcohol itself was evil. This was a rejection of the earlier Christian view that alcohol was the "good gift of God" and its replacement by the view that alcohol was "Demon Rum."

Obviously this new assertion that alcohol was evil and that consuming it was sinful faced a major problem: Jesus, himself, had used wine and had approved of its moderate consumption. Thus, the "two-wine" doctrine was formulated to deal with these otherwise inconsistent facts.

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