The alcohol debate is beginning to build steam in Baptist churches. Should Baptists be as strongly against alcohol or is it true to say that the Bible really doesn’t call the drinking of alcohol a sin? Is the “sin” of alcohol nothing more than a Baptist tradition or is there something else to it?
I’ve been pondering this question myself in light of things. I read Mark Driscoll’s book “The Radical Reformission” and pored over his chapter on alcohol, entitled “The Sin of Light Beer.” At first I was intrigued and somewhat accepting of his view. The second time I read it I became skeptical and now the third time I’ve considered this chapter I have come to the conclusion that his arguments are weak and his conclusions should not be trusted based on his arguments.
Driscoll’s first argument for Christian liberty in the consumption of alcohol is a story about how he studied the Biblical account of Jesus turning water into wine. He said it convicted him of his “sin of abstinence from alcohol”. Unfortunately he doesn’t say what part of the study convicted him. He doesn’t explain what brought him to this conclusion. In fact, he doesn’t give any further information whatsoever. The reader is left to assume that the story of Jesus’ turning water into wine should lead us and convict us into believing that the consumption of alcohol is okay for believers.
His second argument is his study of church history. Driscoll lists Martin Luther and John Calvin as references for early church reformers who took great joy in drinking. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone since they were fresh out of the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. There are a lot of things Calvin and Luther did that we don’t do. For instance, John Calvin believed “infants cannot be deprived of it [baptism] without open violation of the will of God.” According to Calvin’s theology, we are out of the will of God for not baptizing babies. Does that mean we need to fill the baptismal; sprinkle babies and pop open a “cold one” to celebrate? “They did it so we can too” is not a good argument for any reasonably minded adult.
His third argument is actually an accusation. Those dang feminists have ruined everything! The combination of Christianity and feminism drove out the decent brewers and left us with “wimpy” beer. The feminized church was also one of the culprits for the prohibition of alcohol. Driscoll says, “I personally long for the return to the glory days of Christian pubs where God’s men gather to drink beer and talk theology.”
While these are his main arguments, Driscoll does appeal to scripture in this chapter. His first real Biblical argument is “Drunkenness is a sin.” Whether you are for alcohol or against it, we can all agree that drunkenness is a sin. The Bible is clear, it is indeed a sin and it causes all sorts of problems.
The next argument is over biblical terminology. This is the place were I start to have a major problem with Driscoll’s line of reasoning. He takes a jab at Christians who believe certain terminology such as wine and new wine may refer to nonalcoholic beverages. His argument is that these people who claim that the term “wine” doesn’t mean wine are the same people who believe in inerrancy, making the claim that they are contradicting themselves. His reasoning suggests that in order to believe in inerrancy you have to believe that the term “wine” in Scripture has to refer to what we think of as wine today.
Here is why that is wrong. If we are going with Driscoll’s line of thinking we would have to say that in order to be inerrant we must believe that the term “love” found in scripture has to mean exactly what we think of as love today. Love is love right? Well, no… not exactly. The truth is we know that in Greek there are three words for this idea of love: Eros, Philia, and Agape. In modern Greek there two more: storge and thelema. These are all different words with different meanings and yet in our English translations they are translated as love. In order to have a greater understanding of scripture we have to discover which Greek word is being used. This knowledge can completely change the meaning of a passage. Driscoll makes the comment in reference to the term wine “what else could it mean, hubcap?” Would he make the same comment for the term love? I doubt it.
Driscoll’s argument is extremely weak in my opinion, which makes some of his final conclusions almost humorous to me. He says “Now that we have established a flexible theology of alcohol that is more reasonable than many theologians’…” I don’t think Driscoll actually establishes anything but his own opinion and I definitely don’t think we can pull a “flexible theology of alcohol” out of his little can of worms. Mainly because I think the one thing lacking in his whole argument is theology.
I’m not harping on this because I hate Mark Driscoll, I actually enjoyed the book and I’m currently experiencing the joys of Vintage Jesus. I am normally in agreement with him, but on this issue I think he has merely scraped a little dirt off a much bigger issue and tried to pull a conclusion to the issue out of thin air. I also think that in dealing with this issue in such a haphazard way he has done exactly what Paul warns against in Romans 14:13-23. Whether or not his conclusion is right or wrong is not the issue. The ways in which he has presented his case is the problem and therefore his conclusion should be seriously questioned with much caution. All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t read Driscoll’s book, jump the gun, use his chapter on alcohol as a license to drink and run to the bar. It should simply make us study the issues a little deeper.
With that being said I would like to go back to dealing with the issue of terminology. These are some of the theological issues I wish Driscoll would have dealt with or at least gave an honorable mention.
Much like the English translation of love could be several different words in Greek. The English translation of wine has many different Greek and Hebrew counterparts. In fact Yayin, Tirosh, Shekar, Asis, Chemer, Chamar, Sobe, Shemer, Nasek, Mimsak, Yeqeb, Enab, Chomets, Misteh, Oinos, Sikera, Gleukos, and Methuo could all be translated as wine in the Bible. Do all of these words mean the exact same thing? Not necessarily and yet when we read our English translation we read one word, “wine”.
The word Shekar is almost always translated as a “strong drink” (21 times in the Bible) or “strong wine” (1 time). Shekar was the type of drink that was made from dates, barley, etc and it was always a curse. This would most likely be the drink with the highest alcohol content in Scripture. Distillation was not invented until the Middle Ages. Wine in Biblical days could only be created by natural fermentation. The highest content of alcohol that could be possible would have been Shekar. Through natural fermentation the highest Shekar could have been was 11%. Most of the time it was mixed with 1 to 3 parts water which would dilute it down to almost 2%. Your average beer has a 3% to 6% percent alcohol content. American wine has an alcohol content of approximately 9% to 14% which in some cases is higher than Shekar which was forbidden to drink. Wines containing brandy increase the alcohol content to 20%. Hard liquors also have a higher alcohol content.
Proverbs 31:4-5 “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine (Shekar) or for rulers to take strong drink (Shekar), lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.”
The only case where Shekar was actually allowed as a drink was for medicinal purposes. Basically if you were hurting you could drink Shekar to knock yourself out.
Proverbs 31:6-7 “Give strong drink (Shekar) to the one who is perishing and wine (Shekar) to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.”
Shekar was universally condemned throughout the Bible and was only allowed for those whose suffering was too much to bear because it did intoxicate and numb the senses. (Note: Today we don’t need “strong wine” for medicinal purposes because of advanced technology and medicine.)
I was listening to a podcast today by a pastor from Alabama named Zach Terry. He described the word yayin which piqued my interest enough to start looking it up myself. There is quite a bit of confusion and controversy over what the term yayin actually means. I’ve heard the argument that yayin is non-fermented wine. That doesn’t seem to be completely true since in Genesis 9:21 Noah drank yayin excessively and became drunk. However, some believe that yayin was wine that was boiled until it became a thick syrup that could be preserved. They could store it until they took some of the syrup and mixed it with water to make a drink. I think yayin refers to both. In some places it refers to fermented wine and in others it is referring to the thick syrup used to make a watered-down beverage. There are numerous extra-biblical sources that point to this practice. Terry points out that the Jewish Mishnah (their oral traditions) stated that the Jewish people regularly boiled wine, which was reduced to a thick consistency by heating. Even Aristotle described the wine of Arcadia as being so thick that you had to scrape it out of the jar and dilute it with water.
Already you can see the difficulty in the interpretation of the Biblical position on wine. You can’t just look at the word “wine” and say it means what it means, because in reality it may mean something completely different. You must always consider translation when dealing with these passages. No matter which way you prefer to look at yayin you still have to understand that mixed wine did exist and was common and yayin more often than not refers to this mixed wine, it was not as strong of a drink as Shekar.
Tirosh refers to “freshly expressed grape-juice in its natural condition.” In the Authorized Version of the Bible Tirosh is translated as “new wine” eleven times and “wine” twenty-six times. This word was not used to describe fermented wine.
The issue of whether or not alcohol should be used by a believer is a lot bigger issue than it may seem and one in which I would exhort you to do extensive and careful study. This isn’t something to take lightly or to gloss over with some quick-witted comments or insults. It takes a little more than pondering the story of Jesus’ turning water into wine to build a case for a biblical use of alcohol… if a reasonable case can even be made.