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Should Christians Drink? Wine, Booze, Spirits and the Bible

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Michael Patton (MP): Welcome to Theology Unplugged. We have got some interesting guests…no an interesting guest with us. Clint Roberts you are a philosopher extraordinaire– Are you just a philosopher at large here at the Credo House?

Clint Roberts (CR): Yes, at large and in charge.

Should Christians Drink Wine, Beer, Booze, Alchahol?

MP: At large and in charge.

Sam Storms (SS): So why did you almost say extraordinaire, and then you decided not to say it? Did you decide he wasn’t extraordinary or-?

MP: Well, I just haven’t gotten that far yet.

CR: He thought better of it.

MP: I, well, we’ll let the audience decide. You know? I’ve got my opinions, and I’ve just heard, and I don’t go off rumors with you. It’s just, you’ve got to figure out whether or not you’re going to be able to pull this off.

CR: I don’t want you to set the expectations so high that I’m doomed to disappoint.

MP: Well thank you for joining us, you are…tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

CR: I teach many classes related to philosophy for many schools. Intro to Philosophy, Critical Thinking, Ethics, Religion…

MP: – Are you a critical thinker?

CR: …Basket weaving, dolphin grooming….

MP: Very nice.

CR: Most of those anyway.

MP: Very nice. Are you a critical thinker?

CR: Mostly.

MP: You try to be.

CR: Right.

MP: Is it hard to get your students to be critical thinkers?

CR: If by hard, you mean near to impossible?

MP: Yeah.

CR: Yes.

SS: Basically he means, it’s hard to get them to think.

MP: Yeah.

SS: The critical part is, you know, kind of a pipe dream.

MP: Well, we have got problem passages we’re continuing to deal with, problem issues. This one we are starting in John chapter 2, and as you guys know whenever we get to the book of John, John is a rather unique book in a lot of ways. I think 92% of John is original. And what I mean by that, is that, 92% of what he says is not contained within what we call the “Synoptics”—the gospels that see the same way: Matthew, Mark and Luke. That’s why they’re called the Synoptics. But John has some original stories and this is one of the original stories. And he goes through these seven miracles of Jesus and this is the first of the miracles that John records. And this is the wedding at Cana, and this is where you have this situation where Christ is at a wedding and it says His mother and his servants are coming to Him, and His mother is entreating Him to perform a sign. Now in verse 6 of chapter 2 it says there were six waterpots set forth there, by the Jewish custom for purification, containing 23 gallons each.

Jesus said, “Fill the waterpots.”

And they filled them up, and He said to them, “Draw some water out now.”

And He took it to the headwaiter and the headwaiter took it to the appropriate people, and the water had become wine.

And then afterwards, some servants come up to Him and say in verse 10, “every man serves the good wine first, and when the men have drunk freely, then that which is the poor wine. You have the good wine until now, Jesus.”

And so we have this extraordinary miracle and I think it’s a problem passage, this is the only reason we bring this up, is because it’s a difficult thing whenever we bring up Jesus turning water into wine, at least for a plot of people today.

A lot of people would look at this and say, “How could Jesus do this? This possibly was something different than what we think. Maybe this is grape juice that He turned it into, maybe it is something other than an alcoholic beverage.”

But guys, we do have problems in our country, we do have problems, and there’s going to be people listening to this that are going to have problems with alcohol, in their families, loved ones, and themselves have problems with alcohol. And so what we find is that, this odd situation where Jesus seems to be a head waiter. I look at this as He’s not the waiter or the bartender, but He’s actually the brewer of the wine. Is this a problem?

CR: He’s a vintner.

SS: Well, I suppose it is in many respects. By the way, let’s just get on the record, something that we need to state up front. And that is that, whatever we may say in the next few minutes, the Bible is very clear in that it condemns drunkenness. We are all agreed that there is no excuse; there is no rationalization for intoxication.

The Bible is very clear. “Do not be drunk with wine,” Paul says.

The book of Proverbs is very, very vivid in its description of the destructive effects of excessive use of alcohol. But the question obviously remains, “Is there a place within Christian freedom for the use of alcohol in moderation?” And that is an issue on which Christians really divide; they get mad, they get angry, and as you said Michael, the fact that Jesus would have turned this water into wine at this celebration, this wedding feast, does prove problematic for some people.

I mean I think of John or Luke chapter seven, verse thirty-four where the religious leaders are condemning Jesus, and they said, “We condemn John the Baptist because he only ate locust and wouldn’t drink anything, and now you condemn Jesus and call Him a drunk, and a glutton.”

So evidently, because Jesus Himself partook in some of these celebrations and imbibed wine, whatever the nature it may be, we’ll have to determine that he was being accused of being somebody who overate and over drank.

MP: Some people have looked at this and said, “Well the problem has to be in our interpretation of it. We must see, in that day, that wine was something very different. It was something that was a drink that people had because the water, the water was not good to drink on its own. Therefore, we would always have a little wine with stuff in order to make it to where it was no longer contaminated or hurtful.”

And so, when we see wine, and Jesus turning water into wine, I’ve got this quote from a conservative Biblical commentator theologian that says, “Wine today has a much higher alcohol content than it did in the NT. In fact in the NT times, when one would drink there would be a twenty to one parts of water to wine, so that they would not consume an alcoholic beverage like we do today.”

CR: There was a book years ago that I read called the Wrath of Grapes, and basically it was the writer was wanting to find any way to lighten the impact, you know, of this passage, and not just this passage, but also the Supper, in a way. And so, he had five or six different theories that people had, to sort of resolve this. One of them was alcoholic content just way lower. One of them was almost…you could call it a miraculous transformation almost to…you know spur of the moment transubstantiation, if you like, into something non-alcoholic, and then a couple other ones.

And even though I wasn’t, you know I didn’t know, I had never really considered this at the time, and I didn’t know much about it, something about the book, something told me, “Hm, I’m not sure I buy any of this, because I could tell that the operative premise of the book was: anything to get us off the hook in terms of having to admit this is just wine.”

And so, as you say, you know the historical circumstances are just what they are. And you know, we wouldn’t want to read into the circumstance a sort of contemporary, industrialized alcohol complex with sophisticated distilleries and so on, but isn’t alcohol of every sort just part of the context of the ancient world? As long as people have existed they’ve figured out ways, with grains and fruits and everything else, to manufacture, you know, alcohol. Sort of the oldest medicine, all encompassing stimulant that there ever was, it seems.

MP: Well let me, try to provide the unpluggedness here that a lot of people discuss when they do get into this, because I see this a lot more in younger generations as well. Not quite so much in my generation, but people that are younger Christians, they are very much into alcohol in a way that the older generation wasn’t. So much so that you have these single malt parties that they have in Christian communities sometimes to where everybody brings their favorite single malt. You’ll also have a lot of Christians that are out there that are into bar ministries. I had a friend that was at seminary that would travel from bar to bar and that’s what he would do is engage in those contexts and have a drink. Have a mixed drink, and be able to, from his perspective, talk to people that he wouldn’t be able to talk to beforehand. But there does seem to be kind of a movement now towards, kind of a liberation of sorts, towards alcohol…

SS: And this has caused, and I think with some justifiable alarm, because I’m afraid that at times, people in the Christian community want to think, well how far can I push the envelope? How close can I come to the edge before I cross over into sinful intoxication? And I don’t think that’s a good approach to take, you know, I have very very close friends who are teetotalers. They embrace total abstinence. I respect the position. I think it’s a totally legitimate option, if somebody chooses to embrace that. They do it for a variety of reasons: some say its because they don’t like the taste of it, some because they’re concerned about the example they’re setting for their children, others because they are in relationships that would be damaged otherwise. And then some are just so concerned with the over intoxication of American culture at large and the number of DUIs and the people who have died from alcoholic poisoning or they’ve been killed on our highways. And so there are perfectly legitimate reasons for people to live in total abstinence. What I don’t find in Scripture is a justification to insist that everybody else must do so. I think Christians are absolutely free to totally abstain from alcohol in any quantity, I don’t think the Bible says they’re free to insist that others must do so as well.

MP: They will talk about the differences…often RA Torry is one of the famous people who brings this up, that you find quoted as talking about new wine. Jesus turned it into new wine, since it was new wine, it was unfermented wine, and so it’s again this kind of idea that whenever you do subscribe to this, probably because of some family history, and let me be frank: my dad was a very heavy drinker, and it caused trouble my entire life, with my family, with my mother, and it was something that is part, imbedded, into my childhood memories. I personally don’t drink—it’s not that I stay away from it completely, but it’s just not something that’s part of my lifestyle, I don’t like alcohol, that’s basically what it comes down to with me, is a taste issue.

However, there are people who do look at this and say, “We have got to somehow figure out how to make the Bible against wine. “ But the problem is, and this is the unplugged part, the Bible seems to suggest that wine is a gift of God.

SS: Well yeah, I mean I’m thinking one passage in Isaiah, chapter 25 where the prophet is describing the consummation, when God will wipe away every tear and we will live forever and forever on the new heavens and the new earth, and one of the blessings that is described is in verse 6 of Isaiah 25, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.”

So, here we have a portrayal of the feast and the celebration that’s coming in the consummation and it seems as if well aged wine, is at the very heart of it, as a blessing from God to His people.

MP: Well and not only that, and here is the one that may cause a lot of problems, and this one I want to talk about a little bit, because I don’t get it, okay? You guys help me out here. The Bible says that, the wine is a gift to men, talks about it in Genesis, chapter 27, verse 28; but in Psalm 104 verse 14 and 15, it talks about these many gifts, you know, including food and including enjoyment being given to men, but also it says this, “Wine that gladdens the hearts of men.” Now ‘gladden the heart…’

SS: Yeah, in fact before you said that, I actually had turned to that passage, I’m looking at it right now, yes.

MP: Well what do we do with that? I mean is…can wine gladden the heart? I mean what does it mean to gladden the heart? And where do you have this line that we’re talking about where we’re saying: all right drunkenness? Definitely wrong. Being a drunkard? Definitely wrong. But how can we say, wine can gladden the heart of men?

CR: Well we heard just in the beginning the disclaimer, Hey! You know, this can be dangerous, we’re opposed to the idea that you can be a booze hound, and somehow baptize it in whiskey and say it’s all good, on the other hand, here are these passages that speak of it almost as a comfort food and a medicine, which I think in the ancient world it sort of was all those things. And you have both these things represented, I’m reminded of a quote of a very fine thinker, fictional character, it was Homer Simpson after all, who once said…

SS: This is unplugged folks.

CR: Who raised a toast and said, “To alcohol, the cause of, and solution to all of life’s problems.” And of course, you have these passages, I mean on the one hand, it’s a mocker, it’s a brawler, and in real life we know that it destroys people, it kills people, it’s a real issue, and not just here. I mean you know I’ve been to places overseas where they’re plagued by alcoholism in the culture, and you think this culture would be better off without any of it.

And there’s just the common wisdom that says, “If you can’t moderate, abstain.”

But human nature is such, that we don’t moderate well, right? With food, drink or anything. We just tend to go over the top and while you can go over the top and be gluttonous and over consuming with anything, not all things are equal in terms of their impact and the price that you pay.

MP: But it still says, “It gladdens people’s hearts.” What if I came in and you saw me and I’m drinking a beer, I’m drinking a single malt, whatever that is, I really don’t know what that is.

CR: You’re really into this single malt.

MP: I tried to look up the difference between the single and the double malt because that movement that’s going on.

But I had that, and you said, “Michael, have you been drinking?”

And I said, “Yes I have.”

And I said, “But I’m not drunk, but my heart is gladdened.”

You know? Enough to where I’m gladdened in my heart, when Ecclesiastes version that is something similar it is, it “makes the heart merry”. That’s where I’m at, I’m at a merry point.

CR: You could say it takes the edge off.

SS: Yeah, of course somebody who’s a teetotaler might want to push back and say, “Look, he’s only talking about the aesthetic blessings of the wine, the taste, the flavor, the varieties that you can enjoy, and that has nothing to do with any intoxicating effects upon the human mind or the human body.” I suppose that argument could be made, but evidently there, it would seem as if, if this is talking at some level of physiological impact of the wine that there is a difference between being “gladdened” and being somehow incapacitated.

MP: Or controlled.

SS: Or crossing a line where you lose control, you lose the capacity to engage in normal conversation, I…the phrase that I have often used with people when they ask whether the Bible permits the use of alcoholic beverages in moderation I say, “Whatever decision you come to on that, here’s a principle of the word of God that can be justified throughout scripture: ‘Be ruthlessly clear headed. Be ruthlessly clear-headed’.”

If a person can engage and participate in wine or have a beer or mixed drink and still be ruthlessly clear-headed, and not in any way physically incapacitated then it seems to me the Bible grants them that freedom.

MP: I’m just trying to figure out the difference between “ruthlessly clear-headed” and “gladdened”.

SS: Well I’m glad when I’m ruthlessly clear-headed. Yeah, let me throw out a couple other texts, that for example, When God brought the people of Israel into the promised land, he’s describing the blessings that they can enjoy, you know we typically describe it as a land flowing with milk and honey? Well there’s a lot more flowing than just that.

So for example, in Deuteronomy, chapter 14 verse 26, He says, “ When you arrive there, spend the money for whatever you desire, oxen or sheep, or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves.”

And then again later in Deuteronomy 32, in verse 14, He’s describing again the blessings in the promised land, “There will be curds from the herd, milk from the flock, the fat of lambs, rams of Bashan and goats, with the very finest of the wheat—and you drank foaming wine made from the blood of the grape.”

So here we have, again, God saying, “I’ve given you all things to enjoy, all things to make you glad,” but I think he also says, “remain ruthlessly clear-headed. Self-control is essential; drunkenness is absolutely forbidden.” So there is a, you know the reason why a lot of Christians don’t like to hear this, it feels too slippery.

It feels too subjective, they want a hard and fast line in the sand, and that is why they say, “Look, total abstinence. I don’t have to worry about this at all. I don’t have to question, I don’t have to know what ‘gladden the heart’ means, I don’t have to know what it means to be ruthlessly clear-headed because I’ve determined to totally abstain.”

And I think that’s a fine thing to do, I have no objections to that. But for the person who, in the exercise of their liberty, wants to enjoy some of the things that God has made available to us, there is a subjectivity to it, there is a fuzziness in terms of determining when the glad heart has crossed a boundary into a level of intoxication, and that makes people really nervous, and I understand that. And I think we need to be very careful in how we advocate Christian liberty, that we do not push people across a line from enjoyment and glad-heartedness into an area where they’re gonna be a danger to themselves and to others.

MP: The original passage where we’re talking about turning water into wine, the best I can tell from “Wine in the Ancient World,” the Baker Encyclopedia, it’s an encyclopedia on this issue, it does talk about this, and it talks about new wine, and new wine was the wine that the apostles were drinking in Acts 2. And they were accused of being full of sweet wine, and that obviously would have alcoholic contents as well, they would say here, in this encyclopedia, that the reason why water was added to it was because it was so much higher content than we actually have today. And so, talked about wine actually being able to start a fire on some of these things, but I think Sam, what you have said to kind of close us out is this: There is this line, and it can be crossed, and in everything we have to be prudent, in that we are enjoying God’s gifts, but we understand that it can be abused.

SS: Absolutely, and then again, let’s remember, if there was no alcoholic content to the wine that was used in the New Testament, it pretty much renders meaningless the exhortations to avoid drunkenness.

If you couldn’t get intoxicated by it, what’s the point of saying, “Do not be drunk with wine.”

And what was happening in Corinth that we read about in 1 Corinthians 11 that some of those who abused the wine of the Lord’s table had become intoxicated, so it seems as if that the alcoholic content was there, it was present, but the New Testament authors want to uphold Christian liberty, and the enjoyment of God’s good gifts if they’re received with thanksgiving, without leading us to cross a line into the loss of self-control in some of the more dangerous things that alcohol can bring about in our own lives and in society as a whole.

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