Be Careful Little Lips What You Drink…

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.

8 thoughts on “Be Careful Little Lips What You Drink…

  1. I’m going to have to take slight issue with your assessment of what Driscoll was saying in this chapter. Even though it is entitled “the sin of light beer”, the chapter isn’t about alcohol. The chapter is about the dangers of syncretism (going too far into culture so that it replaces Christ as you primary influence) and sectarianism (completely withdrawing from the culture that Christians are called to be lights to). Alcohol was merely used as an illustration of this point. On p. 145, he says “To illustrate the pitfalls of syncretism and sectarianism, I want to unabashedly play plank and speck with the numerous Christians who consider alcohol consumption unfit for God’s people and a measure of one’s lack of piety.”

    Now, if Driscoll were writing a book about Christians and alcohol, I would lean to agree with some of your points, but being that the issue of alcohol consumption was merely an illustration of a larger point, I don’t think it was necessary for him into the depth that you would’ve liked for him to. Too much, and you end up chasing rabbits and getting away from the central message that you’re trying to get across.

    …but I do see your point.

  2. I’m going to have to take a slight issue with your assessment of my assessment of what Driscoll was saying in this chapter. I agree that this chapter is supposed to be about the dangers of syncretism and sectarianism. That is how he sets it up in the first 7 pages of the chapter. He then says he is going to “illustrate” the pitfalls of syncretism and sectarianism using the issue of alcohol consumption and Christianity on page 145.

    In order to use this as an illustration, however, Driscoll must set up his own position on alcohol. He doesn’t actually start to use alcohol as an illustration of the pitfalls of syncretism and sectarianism until page 151. So what does he do on the 6 pages between his set up for the illustration and the actual use of the illustration? He uses those 6 pages to do exactly what you say he is not doing. He is writing 6 pages about Christians and alcohol.

    You will also notice that on page 150, just before he actually uses alcohol as an illustration, he makes this statement “Now that we have established a flexible theology of alcohol that is more reasonable than many theologians’, some readers may be asking, ‘Why does all of this matter?’” He had to establish his “theology of alcohol” in order for his “illustration” to make sense. Driscoll is going way beyond using the issue to illustrate his point.

    When Driscoll finally gets around to his illustration after establishing his “theology of alcohol” he makes the claim that syncretism in Christianity led to prohibition, which took away the Christian freedom to drink and undermined the “CLEAR TEACHINGS OF SCRIPTURE IN AN EFFORT TO FABRICATE A THEOLOGY THAT SUPPORTED ITS CULTURAL FORM OF MORALITY.” If you are going to make the statement that syncretism undermined the clear teachings of Scripture then you are going to have to establish what these so called “clear teachings of Scripture” are. Does he tell us what these “clear teachings” are? Yes. When he established his “theology of alcohol” in the 6 pages preceding his illustration. However his “clear teachings” are not as clear as he makes them out to be. It is this establishment of his theology on alcohol that I have disagreed with in my post.

    I am astounded that you of all people would ever suggest that something being used to illustrate a point is not capable of establishing a theological viewpoint or important enough for us to question. While he may indeed be using this issue as an illustration it is through this usage that he is making bold biblical statements that should indeed be thought through carefully. I’ve given my opinion or assessment of his “theology of alcohol” in this post and I do believe he has haphazardly established a theology that may be somewhat misleading.

    Now if his establishment of his theology of alcohol would have been more convincing then indeed it would have driven home the point. If he would have established his reasoning behind his viewpoints biblically, then his statement about syncretism causing us to undermine clear teachings of scripture would have been powerful. However, he is asking the reader to simply trust him and take his word for it. That I cannot do.

    Maybe he should have entitled this chapter “the sin of light theology”.

  3. “the sin of light theology”……ouch.

    Again, I’m going to say that I don’t feel Driscoll was intending to write a deeply theological chapter about alcohol and Christian freedom. Should he have done more to explain himself and his position? Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t think he simply asking the reader to trust him and take his word for it, otherwise he wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of citing a number of verses that deal with drunkeness and alcohol.

    Now, if one does want to go into further study, he does give references. I looked up one entitled God Gave Wine on amazon.com. I intend to buy it and see for myself, but the comments that were left seem to suggest that the author goes into much theological depth concerning Christian consumption of alcohol. In the interest of keeping things moving and not getting stuck talking too much about something that’s designed as an illustration, he points the reader to his sources and moves along.

    Also, if you look in the footnotes (which I’ll admit, not everyone reads) he states that at his church, both grape juice and wine are offered during communion so as to not violate anyone’s conscience.

    I think that we need to keep in mind that this is book aimed at the lay person and not the professional. For those reading who are more into that kind of stuff, he cites his sources. For others, he makes his point and keeps the book moving.

  4. Well in the interest of not having a circular argument I’m going to just have to say that I still disagree. I don’t think this is a lay person/professional issue at all. The only way the Christian liberty illustration works as an illustration in this chapter is if you understand and agree with Driscoll’s position on alcohol. If you have a different opinion on his view of alcohol then the conclusion to his illustration is false. He uses his “position” on alcohol to support his illustration on syncretism.

    Because there is not a clear, “set in stone” position on the issue, this was a very poor illustration. He is using the illustration as if the issue is indeed cleared up and set in stone. That’s enough to lead me to believe that this whole section of the chapter may even be an agenda laden illustration.

    It’s funny that Driscoll’s conclusion is that Syncretism got us into this “abstinince” issue and sectarianism kept the issue prominent when the culture shifted. Now he is promoting syncretism once again to get back those things that were taken away. Your point was that his goal in this chapter was to illustrate syncretism and sectarianism. Yet in the concluding paragraph he says that the one thing he wants his readers to remember is that reformission is not about abstinence. Instead it is about redeeming the things we have abstained from “through the power of the gospel and to use them rightly according to Scripture, bringing God glory and his people a satisfied joy.

    Even his conclusion to the chapter makes the bold statement that abstinence from drinking is wrong and reclaiming alcohol use is right and brings glory to God. However, if I’m convinced that his conclusion of what is right according to Scripture is actually wrong or isn’t completely right, then it is right for me to feel as though he is spreading false theology. This “hit the point and move on” thing does not excuse faulty theology. Making statements and adding a footnote does not excuse faulty theology. He needs to establish whether or not his theology is right, especially on an issue that is “disputable”. When it comes down to that, it doesn’t really matter whether or not a lay person or a professional is reading it. So, once again I say that in order to agree with Driscoll’s conclusion you have to fully accept his position on alcohol. I don’t think I fully accept it, so in conclusion I have big problems with this illustration.

  5. I think that you’ve misunderstood this entire chapter. Does he make some bold and opinionated claims about alcohol? Yeah, I’d say that he does. Is he saying that a personal decision to abstain from alcohol is wrong? Absolutely not. In fact, he doesn’t even conclude by saying that abstinence from alcohol and reclaiming its use is right (as you’ve asserted).

    Here’s what he’s saying: it’s not wrong to make a personal decision to abstain from alcohol, but if you take your personal matters of conscience on a disputable matter and try to make an extra-Biblical law out of it that people must follow, then you’ve veered off course.

    We may have to agree to disagree on this, but I’ll say again that the alcohol example was merely an illustration of a larger point and didn’t warrant the lengthy and detailed explanation that you may’ve wanted (but that I would be interested in reading as well). He cites other disputable matters where people can either go too far one way and become sectarians or too far the other and become syncretists including “singing, working, playing, eating, love-making and the like.”

    Personally, I’m glad that he chose this as his illustration. It makes you think and challenges traditional views that may not be as Biblical as one may think. I’m also glad that he firmly stated that drunkeness is sinful and backed it all up with Scripture. In light of the purpose of the chapter, I would say that the only thing it may’ve lacked was a more clear assertion that one should not consume alcohol if it is a violation of your conscience (which is vaguely referenced in the footnotes) nor should one consume alcohol in the presence of one with whom alcohol is a weakness.

  6. I think agreeing to disagree on this is probably where we are headed. I don’t think I’ve misunderstood the chapter at all. I understand what Driscoll was attempting to do, but in the midst of it I personally believe he has a somewhat underhanded agenda to establish a “theology of alcohol” with little evidence for such claims. It makes this chapter misleading. He pushes his illustration to the point that it could indeed lead someone to violate their conscience without further study on such matters. I can see how it could easily give someone a license to consume alcohol and a passion to battle the church on said issues without giving good reason to do so. Driscoll writes and preaches in such a compelling way that he could very easily persuade people to believe what he believes. He writes in a way that to follow his “theology of alcohol that is better than most theologians” is the cool thing to do and if you don’t do it then you’re an idiot. While I personally dig his style, I also know that it can be dangerous. Especially for the “lay person” that doesn’t know how to really think through this chapter in a critical and discerning way, as you might be able to do.

    He absolutely concludes that reclaiming the use of alcohol is right, just as I have asserted. On page 150 he says “When used in a right and redeemed way, alcohol is a gift from God to be drunk with gladness…” He concludes the chapter with the idea that we must redeem drinking, singing, working, playing, eating, and love making through “the power of the gospel so that they are used rightly according to Scripture, bringing God glory and his people a satisfied joy.” He believes prohibition was a direct violation of Scripture and therefore “rightly according to Scripture” obviously means he believes Christians should be permitted to drink. He claims that without the consumption of alcohol there is no joy, a joy that was trampled upon when the church joined the feminist movement and fabricated the un-biblical theology of prohibition. It is abundantly clear that his view is Christians should indeed drink alcohol. Now, I know that in all of this what he really means is Christians should have the free liberty to choose for themselves and by their own conscience whether or not drinking alcohol is right for them and that it shouldn’t be prohibited across the board. The violation of Scripture is the violation of Paul’s idea of disputable matters. At least that is what I understand from his message. Not because that is what I’ve pulled from this chapter, but because I’ve dealt with this issue enough to know where he is most likely coming from. Driscoll does not make it clear. In fact, I think he makes the issue more convoluted than it has to be. This issue is convoluted enough as it is.

    Not to mention the things he makes reference to that I think are just flat wrong. For instance, his idea that “wine is wine” is a “fabrication of theology” if you ask me. That is clearly an untrue statement. It is abundantly clear that the majority of today’s alcoholic beverages are unlike anything they had in Biblical times. The issue of alcohol consumption should have some special consideration in view of this issue.

    I also have an issue with his little history lesson. He uses God Gave Wine by Kenneth Gentry Jr which I’m going to have to purchase now because it seems he goes into the history of this issue. I assume Driscoll got all of his information about the feminist movement and prohibition from this book. What confuses me, however, is the fact that Driscoll declares the position that the violation of the Christian liberty to drink all started with the feminist movement and prohibition. It seems as though he is making the claim that alcohol use wasn’t even an issue in the church until then. However there were religious issues with alcohol at least 200 years before prohibition. In 1697 in New York the religious beliefs of the citizens helped to pass the law that all public drinking establishments had to be closed on Sundays. Was that the feminist movement that helped pass that law too? I don’t think so since the ideology of liberal feminism didn’t come about until the late 18th century. So, I’m going to have to do some further study on this issue as well.

    Again I have to say that this is a very poorly put together chapter containing misinformation, misleading theology, questionable agendas, and confusing conclusions.

  7. This is a very debatable topic. i’ve seen what alcohol can do to a person, family and a community. Paul said that although something may not be sin it may not be recommended to do.

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