Does Scripture Permit Us to Drink Alcoholic Beverages?

Kenneth Gentry has played a tremendous role in shaping my thinking on matters of eschatology and ethics. What follows is a summary article based on his book entitled: God Gave Wine, a book thoroughly analyzing the Biblical issues in the drinking question. It defends the practice of moderation in alcohol consumption.This article’s purpose is to review the three major positions on the issue and acquaint the reader with the topic and the debate. As I’ve said before, “you can’t know, unless you understand.” By God’s grace the church will no longer make the same mistakes made by the revivalist in the early part of the 20th century. I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D.
December 8, 2004

Few issues have generated more heated debate among Christians than that of the morality of alcohol consumption. The dispute has generated responses ranging from local educational temperance movements to federal amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Certainly there is evidence of widespread abuse of alcoholic beverages today; this few would deny. Furthermore, the Bible clearly condemns all forms of alcohol abuse, by binding precept and by notorious example. Yet the ethical issue before us is, Does the Bible allow for a righteous consumption of the beverage alcohol? The fundamental question is ethical, not cultural or demographical; it requires an answer from a Biblical, not an emotional, base.

Three Viewpoints
Among evangelicals, the fundamental approaches to alcohol use may be distilled (no pun intended) into three basic viewpoints. (1) The prohibitionist viewpoint universally decries all consumption of the beverage alcohol. Adherents to this position do not find any Scriptural warrant for alcohol consumption, even in Biblical times. (2) The abstentionist perspective discourages alcohol use in our modern context, though acknowledging its use in Biblical days. They point to modern cultural differences as justification for the distinction: widespread alcoholism (a contemporary social problem), higher potency distilled beverages (unknown in Biblical times), and intensified dangers in a technological society (e.g., speeding cars). (3) The moderationist position allows for the righteous consumption of alcoholic beverages. This position, while acknowledging, deploring, and condemning all forms of alcohol abuse and dependency, argues that Scripture allows the partaking of alcoholic beverages in moderation and with circumspection.

The Importance of the Question
Often, non-moderationist argumentation inadvertently and negatively affects certain aspects of the Christian faith. It can undercut the authority of Scripture (in that any universal condemnation of what Scripture allows diminishes the authority of Scripture in Christian thought). It may distort the doctrine of Christ (in that any universal censure of something Jesus did detracts from His holiness). It adversely affects our apologetic (in that any denunciation of that which Scripture allows sets forth an inconsistent Biblical witness).

My approach to the issue before us involves three presuppositions: (1) the Bible is the inerrant Word of God; (2) therefore, the Bible is the determinative and binding standard for all ethical inquiry; and (3) the Bible condemns all forms of alcohol abuse and dependence. The moderationist viewpoint in no way compromises any of these three fundamental commitments.

The Wine of the Bible
Undoubtedly, the starting point for any rational discussion of the matter must be with the nature of the wine in Scripture. The moderationist position is that the wine righteously employed by and allowed for consumption among God’s people in the Bible is a fermented quality, alcoholic-content beverage. Consider the evidence for this assertion.

1. Lexical Consensus. The leading Old and New Testament lexicons and etymological dictionaries affirm that the major terms used of wine represent a fermented beverage, a “wine,” not “grape juice.” The most important terms for the debate that are employed in Scripture are yayin and shekar (Hebrew) and oinos (Greek).

2. Translational Consensus. The major English translations of Scripture translate these words by English equivalents that bespeak alcoholic beverages, rather than terms such as “juice,” “grape juice,” and so forth. Translations include “wine,” “strong drink,” “liquor,” and “beer.”

3. Lexical Relationship. One of the major words in our debate is shekar (“strong drink,” NASB). It is the noun form of the verb shakar, which means “become drunk.” This is evidence of the inebriating capacity of shekar.

4. Contextual Usage. Many of the verses that condemn drunkenness make reference to such beverages as yayin, shekar, and oinos. In addition, yayin is said to “make glad the heart” in a number of places. This surely has reference to the effect of an alcoholic beverage, when used in moderation.

5. Descriptive Reference. In certain places in Scripture the aging of the liquid express of the grape is specifically mentioned (Isa. 25:6; Luke 5:39 ). Aging is an essential factor for wine to be alcoholic.

6. Circumspection Requirement. On some occasions, “strong” Christians are instructed to forgo the use of wine (Rom. 14:21 ), when there is a serious likelihood of “destroying” (Rom. 14:15 ) a “weaker brother” (Rom. 14:1; 15:1). This surely indicates the temporary forgoing of an alcoholic beverage, rather than grape juice.

7. Ecclesiastical Expectation. Church officers are required to use wine in moderation (1 Tim. 3:8; Titus 2:3), indicating its fermented quality and intoxicating capacity.

8. Qualified Silence. Interestingly, there are no Biblical distinctions between “safe” wines. Scripture lacks any commendation of “new wine” (fresh grape juice) over and exclusive of “old wine” (fermented beverages). Scripture lacks any commendation of watered wine over undiluted wine (it even disparages watered wine, Isa. 1:22 ). Scripture lacks any encouragement to retarding fermentation, which occurs naturally. Evidence exists that wine was intentionally exposed in order to accelerate the fermentation process (Isa. 25:6; Jer. 48:11).

Wine Use in the Bible
Having demonstrated the fermented quality (and consequently the inebriating potential) of the wine of the Bible, I will now set forth several Biblical evidences of its righteous employment.

1. Righteous Example. In Genesis 14:18 Melchizedek gave yayin to Abraham in righteous circumstances. There is no evidence of any divine disapprobation in this episode. (See also Neh. 5:16–19.)

2. Sacred Employment. The Scripture teaches that both yayin (Exod. 29:38ff.) and shekar (Num. 28:7) were used for offerings to God. This is important for two reasons: (1) these (alcoholic) beverages had to be produced for worship, and (2) they were acceptable as offerings to God. If alcoholic beverages were unsuitable for human consumption, why were they acceptable in divine worship?

3. Positive Blessing. God’s Law allowed yayin and shekar to be purchased with the Tithe of Rejoicing and to be drunk before the Lord. “You shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine [yayin] or strong drink [shekar], for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household” (Deut. 14:26 ).

In fact, the psalmist attributes to God the production of yayin, which makes man’s heart glad (Ps. 104:14–15). Surely God’s provision has in view a righteous employment of alcoholic beverage. Furthermore, Scripture speaks of the satisfaction of life as illustrated in the eating of bread and drinking of yayin with gladness (Eccles. 9:7).

4. Spiritual Symbolism. The rich symbolism of God’s redemptive revelation makes bold use of fermented beverages. The blessings of salvation are likened to free provision of yayin: “Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isa. 55:1).

Kingdom blessings are symbolized by the abundant provision of yayin: “`Behold, the days are coming,’ says the LORD, `when the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him who sows seed … I will bring back the captives of My people Israel … They shall plant vineyards and drink wine from them’” (Amos 9:13 –14). Elsewhere we read: “In this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all people a feast of choice pieces, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of well-refined wines on the lees” (Isa. 25:6). Clearly, wine — even carefully aged wine — is viewed as a symbol of God’s blessings.

5. Christ’s Witness. Interestingly, our Lord Jesus Christ miraculously “manufactured” an abundance (John 2:6) of wine [yayin] for a marriage feast. This wine was deemed “good” by the headmaster of the feast (John 2:10) — and men prefer “old [i.e., aged, fermented] wine” because it is good (Luke 5:39).

Having “manufactured” wine in His first miracle, it is no surprise that the Lord publicly drank it. This put a clear distinction between Him and the ascetic John the Baptizer: “John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, `He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, `Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Luke 7:33–34).

6. Prohibitional Silence. Scripture nowhere gives a universal command on the order: “Take no wine at all.” In fact, select groups that forgo wine are worthy of mention as acting differently from accepted Biblical practice, e.g., the Nazarites (Num. 6:2–6) and John the Baptizer (Luke 1:15 ). Others are forbidden to imbibe wine only during the formal exercise of their specific duties, e.g., priests (Lev. 10:8–11) and kings (Prov. 31: 4–5).

All prohibitions to partaking wine involve prohibitions either to immoderate consumption or to abusers: Do not be drunk with wine (Eph. 5:18 ). Do not be with heavy drinkers (Prov. 23:20). Do not be addicted to wine (1 Tim. 3:8; Titus 2:3). Do not linger long over wine (Prov. 23:30).

Conclusion
When all is said and done, we must distinguish the use of wine from its abuse. Sometimes in Scripture gluttonous partaking of food is paralleled with immoderate drinking of wine (Deut. 21:20 ; Prov. 23:21). But food is not universally prohibited! Sometimes in Scripture sexual perversion is paralleled with drunkenness (Rom. 13:13 ; 1 Pet. 4:3). But all sexual activity is not condemned! Wealth often becomes a snare to the sinner (1 Tim. 6:9–11), but the Scripture does not universally decry its acquisition (Job 42:10–17)! Each of these factors in life is intended by God to be a blessing for man, when used according to His righteous Law.

It would seem abundantly clear, then, that the Scriptures do allow the moderate partaking of alcoholic beverages. There is no hesitancy in Scripture in commending wine, or embarrassment in portraying its consumption among the righteous of Biblical days. Wine is set before the saints as blessing and gladness (Deut. 14:26; Ps. 104:14–15), even though it may be to the immoderate and wicked a mocker and curse (Prov. 20:1; 23:29–35).

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About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
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11 Responses to Does Scripture Permit Us to Drink Alcoholic Beverages?

  1. Andy says:

    I advise Drinking With Calvin and Luther on this matter, too. Rev. Jim West, Fwd. by RC Sproul, Jr.

  2. U.T. Brito says:

    I’ve heard of that book before. Perhaps I shall order it. Thanks. Anything forward by R.C. Sproul JR. is a goody!

  3. Andy says:

    http://oakdown.com/

    It’s put out by the same publisher as Gentry’s book. Give the table of contents a peek. And be sure to order from Oakdown, since they’re struggling to get off the ground.

  4. Cicero Jabok says:

    Uri and amigos,
    I had to a cost benefits analyses of sorts on varying degrees of alcohol consumption. Here is some Evidence Based Medicine to add to your noggin.

    Hoser

    Cirrhosis is a common occurrence in our society. Over 70% of the cirrhosis which occurs is caused by alcohol consumption. Yet, sometimes alcohol can be beneficial. It is this paradox of alcohol which causes it to be so difficult for physicians to answer the following patient’s question, “Is it alright if I drink doctor?” So how does a physician answer this question? We know in moderation alcohol may improve health. However some drinkers will experience horrendous complications related to its use. So what are the risk and benefits which a physician should be aware of to make the proper recommendation to their patient?

    There are some obstacles which a physician has to overcome when he embarks upon answering this question. There are no long-term randomized controlled trials of alcohol administration. Our data is limited to short-term trials of moderate alcohol consumption, which analyze the effect of alcohol upon physiological measures and to observational studies which compare abstainers and moderate drinkers. These studies shed little light on alcohol’s long-term risks and benefits since societal alcohol use extends over decades. These trials also are mostly studying young, healthy, white males so we can’t extend their finding to other populations. Observational studies also have “immeasurable differences” such as the following: “Cessation of drinking with illness,” ”Inclusion of former alcoholics,” “Abstention as an indicator of underlying emotional or physical problems,” “Moderate alcohol use as a marker of socioeconomic status,” “Moderate alcohol use as an indicator of resistance to alcoholism.”

    So what are some of the benefits? There are meta-analyses which show that the consumption of less then 0.5 alcoholic beverages (half a glass of wine) is beneficial in lowering the risk for myocardial infarction. Consumption of 1-3 drinks per week lowers people’s overall mortality. Moderate alcohol consumption also seems to have more of a beneficial effect in older patients then in younger ones when it comes to preventing heart disease. Although no quality of life studies have been done for moderate drinkers, self-reported health was always best with patients who drank one to two drinks daily. Moderate drinking (12 to 24 g/day) also reduced ischemic strokes, and less then 12 g/day had the lowest incidence of stroke. Moderate drinking also reduces the risk of atherosclerosis and cholelithiasis.

    What are some of the health risks? There is a statistically significant elevation in subarachnoid hemorrhage even in light drinkers (less then 12 g/day), and heavy drinking (more then 5 drinks a day) increases the risk of stroke. Embolic strokes can be triggered by acute consumption of any quantity in patients who have a source of thrombus either in the heart or large arteries. Over 30 epidemiologic studies have concluded that breast cancer is increased in women who drink 0.5 or g/day or more of alcohol. For every 10 g/day consumed (about 70% of a normal drink) the risk of breast cancer increased by 9%. It has been shown that Folic acid supplements (300 micrograms/daily) may ameliorate the carcinogenic effects of alcohol on women. The beneficial effects depend on the type of malignancy, but nevertheless a multivitamin should be taken daily. Mouth, larynx, pharynx, esophagus, and liver cancer mortalities were 40 percent higher in less-than-daily drinkers than in abstainers. It seems that beer and wine were not so much associated with these types of cancers. Colorectal and Pancreatic cancers seem to have an association with alcohol consumption but the science is mixed on these findings. Although cirrhosis is rare among moderate drinkers, compared to abstainers, moderate drinkers were at an elevated risk for this and other non-malignant hepatocellular disease and consequently co-morbidities and sequelae of such diseases. Mild alcohol consumption also seems to carry with it an increased risk for both acute and chronic pancreatitis when compared to abstainers. There is also some association between moderate use and osteoporosis, but again, the evidence is mixed at best.

    So whom should physicians warn that abstinence from alcohol is the best option for them? First, we must realize that for some people there are absolutely no safe and reliable levels of alcohol consumption. The types of patients which would be contraindicative for any alcohol use are as follows: “age less than 21, pregnancy, personal or strong family history of alcoholism or breast cancer, previous hemorrhagic stroke, hepatic or pancreatic disease, premalignant conditions of the aerodigestive tract, and operation of potentially dangerous equipment or machinery.” For patients who do not fall into any of the previous danger categories, physicians should recommend 0.5 to 1 alcoholic beverage daily (approximately 10 to 15 grams of ethanol, which is what is typically found in a single glass of wine, one mixed drink, or one can or bottle of beer) for men and less then 0.5 alcoholic beverages daily for women, as well as folic acid supplements. Physicians should also forewarn patients to not drink more 2 drinks in single day.

  5. U.T. Brito says:

    Excellent piece. Thanks Hoser. Very informative

  6. Anonymous says:

    Few issues have generated more heated debate among Christians than that of the morality of alcohol consumptionBaloney. What you mean is “Few issues have generated more heated debate among American Protestants…”–and that’s something much different from “Christian”. I’d argue that American Protestantism, whether Southern Baptist, Mormon, or in any of it infinite other varieties, is about “Christian” to the same extent as Mohammedanism is Christian (and note the shared fear of alcohol in that sect). As someone from Europe (the UK), I find it amazing that anyone would seriously consider this prohibitionist rubbish as having anything to do with Christianity at all.

    –Radicalfeministpoet

  7. apologus says:

    I can tell you are fairly unaware of discussions within Christendom. Mormonism is not Christianity. Thanks for sharing your uninformed comments. Learn 1) How has the church defined the term “Christian”
    2) Become aware of issues of disputation in Christendom. Then, please come back.

  8. Steve Arnaut says:

    I read Gentry’s book years ago and found it to be immensely helpful. The ironic thing is that as Ken Gentry says in his book he doesn’t imbibe. He has some kind of liver problem and can’t metabolize alcohol.

    You mentioned R.C. Sproul Jr. I Googled on his name and “drinking” and was shocked by what I found. Apparently Sproul has a very creative definition for “moderation” and even “legal drinking age”. Very troubling. No wonder he was defrocked. Yes we have the liberty as Christians to drink, but we shouldn’t ever use it as a license to sin. A man like Sproul should’ve been a better example to his flock.

  9. Uri Brito says:

    Steve, do I know you? My new website is: apologus.notsorry.net
    thanks for the comments

  10. Darrius says:

    2pEYHTHrBX89h

  11. Ilene says:

    Hi, everything is going soiund here and ofcourse every one is sharing information, that’s in
    fact good, keep up writing.

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