The authors generally appreciate the work of John MacArthur. John Fraiser is a Lutheran minister and Uri Brito is a Reformed minister. We are thankful for MacArthur’s commitment to the Scriptures and his love for the gospel of grace. Early on in our studies, MacArthur was certainly one wave that carried us into the rich world of 16th century Reformation. Yet, we must not be blinded to assume the Reformation did not offer a cultural way of thinking and living. We have embraced the larger Reformational world not simply because of its Soteriology—which we affirm—but because of the richness it provides to both mind and body. The Reformation means embracing the biblical vision of a new humanity engaging a re-created world in and through Jesus Christ.
Part of this larger Reformed picture is unmistakably missing in John MacArthur’s recent attack on the Young, Restless, and Reformed (henceforth, YRR). MacArthur’s analysis leads him to conclude that “It’s clear that beer-loving passion is a prominent badge of identity for many in the YRR movement.” Now, neither of us belong to the YRR movement. So MacArthur isn’t directly addressing us and we have no interest in protecting the movement itself. Normally we wouldn’t even take the time to respond MacArthur’s argument, but sometimes you must bend to answer the absurd, if only because others take the absurd so seriously. Indeed a great many people have already answered him, but we wish to add our voices to the company of those Christians who think that alcohol should not merely be tolerated but commended, celebrated, and cherished among the people of God. We sense that MacArthur’s overall tone is a direct attack on broader Reformational groups, such as Lutherans and Calvinists.
In addressing MacArthur and his concerns, we wish to organize our response in the following manner: (a) The Lutheran and Reformed Historical Argument for the Use of Alcohol, (b) Arguments for Alcohol in Biblical Culture, (c) The Sociology of Abstinence, and (d) The Use and Abuse of Alcohol.
The Lutheran and Reformed Historical Argument for the Use of Alcohol
John MacArthur has condemned the so-called “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement (YRR) for “deliberately cultivating an appetite for beer or a reputation for loving liquor.” According to him, recreational alcohol consumption is “bad missional strategy and a bad testimony.”
We wonder:”Why should a celebration of the moderate consumption of alcohol among the Reformed be surprising or disappointing when this attitude is deeply rooted in the history of the Reformation and when alcohol is celebrated among the Reformers themselves and nearly all who subsequently identify themselves as Reformed?”
MacArthur concedes that wine could be mixed with water for the purpose of purifying the water, but since modern convenience affords us clean drinking water, this use is virtually unnecessary, leaving alcohol with no place in the life of a modern Christian. But is this how the Reformers – who also lacked refrigeration – viewed alcohol? Did they only see it as regrettable necessary substitute for pure water? Without any question whatsoever, the Reformers – Luther, Calvin, et al – did not have such a utilitarian attitude toward alcohol.
Here is a summary of their collective attitude toward alcohol. (1) Alcohol is to be extolled for its taste. (2) Alcohol has positive effects on our mood when used moderately. (3)Drunkenness is clearly a sin . (4) Alcohol is a good gift of God to his creation which should be celebrated when used in moderation. Furthermore, from their writings, we can discern (5) clean water was not generally preferred over a quality alcoholic beverage.
Ad fontes! Let’s go to the sources. Unfortunately, the limits of space will permit us to mention only a few of an abundance of examples.
(1) Alcohol is to be extolled for its taste.
Luther writes to his fellow reformer and friend, Justus Jonas:
Further, if you can buy, or hunt at no expense to yourself, some rabbit or similar meaty delicacies send them along, for we intend to satisfy the bellies of all of you, if that drink called beer finally turns out all right. For my Katie has cooked 7 Quartalia (as they call them) into which she has mixed 32 Scheffel of malt, because she wants to satisfy my palate. She hopes it will turn out to be good beer. Whatever it is, you and the others will taste it.
Note that Luther’s concern with respect to the beer is how it tastes. The hope is that their labor will yield a delicious beer commensurate with an excellent meal that Jonas is to provide for the group.
(2) Alcohol has positive effects on our mood when used moderately.
In his commentary on Psalm 104:15, Calvin writes, “We gather from his words that it is lawful to use wine not only in cases of necessity, but also thereby to make us merry.”Calvin understands the psalmist to say that a merry mood from the effects of alcoholic beverage is one of God’s gifts.
Luther offers this counsel to his children’s private tutor who is battling depression, “Never be alone. Act foolish and play. Drink a good deal.” According to Luther, the cheering effects from alcohol can be an aid to lift our spirits.
(3) Drunkenness is clearly a sin.
Commenting on I Timothy 3:3, Luther understands the word πάροινος to mean “one who is always eager for wine or drink.” He clarifies that “it is not that he [a bishop] should dislike wine, but that he should not be a drunkard.” According to Luther, Paul’s only concern is that we should not be drunk, but he is not concerned with the matter of consumption.
(4) Alcohol is a good gift of God to his creation which should be celebrated according to moderate use.
We have already seen this point made by Calvin in the above quote, but we can see it also in the study notes of the Geneva Bible on John 2:10. Here, we are told that we can even glorify God in our moderate drinking. “We drink well when we drink to the glory of God and when our drinking does not exceed the limits of moderation.”
Further in his commentary on Psalm 104:15, Calvin has this to say about the proper way to enjoy alcohol. “This mirth must however be tempered with sobriety, first, that men may not forget themselves, drown their senses, and destroy their strength, but rejoice before their God.”
(5) Clean water was not generally preferred over a quality alcoholic beverage.Comparing water to beer, Luther notes, “No peasant is so stupid as to give a hundred bushels of grain for a scrap of paper, nor a burgher to give a hundred brews of beer for a drink of water.” As a beverage, water was not generally valued over beer.
It is no wonder, then, that the YRR crowd regards the enjoyment of alcohol in moderation as something that should accompany their interest in the theology of the Reformers – it’s planted deep in the heritage of the Reformation. If MacArthur wishes to complain about this attitude, he has to go back much further than a twenty-first century movement. His complaint is ultimately with the Reformers themselves. Yet, if the Reformers themselves do not collectively get to speak about what is acceptable Reformed behavior, then no one does. MacArthur stands entirely outside the view of the Reformers on this one.
The Reformed community has largely maintained the same view as the Reformers down to today. It’s worth showing briefly that MacArthur’s opposition is really to the broader Reformed community and not to a splinter group like YRR.
Here are few interesting examples out of possible thousands.
Rousas J. Rushdoony remarked that he and Cornelius Van Til would often meet to discuss theology and philosophy over beer.
R. C. Sproul often extols the virtues of alcohol. It is curious that MacArthur doesn’t break into finger-wagging at his friend and fellow conference-rounder. We have, on numerous occasions, heard Sproul defend the practice of moderate drinking for enjoyment, and criticize those who convey to unbelievers that Christians are teetotalers. He also makes the point in print: “Wine also is associated with joy, and for that reason people drank wine at wedding feasts and other celebrations. Drunkenness was forbidden, but it should be noted that wine was regarded as one of God’s great blessings.”
Arguments for Alcohol in Biblical Culture
MacArthur argues that consumption of alcohol was necessary in “biblical times” because often the water was not potable and so wine was cut with it to reduce the amount of contagions. Then MacArthur moves from this point to the claim that Christians have no necessary reason to drink alcohol since we have an abundance of clean water and refrigeration. While it is true that alcohol was consumed in the Ancient Near East in order to purify the water, it requires a chasmic leap to conclude that once this need is eliminated there is no other use for alcohol either in the lives of those in the Ancient Near East nor in the lives of 21st-century Christians.
Strangely, Scripture never makes reference to the public-health use for alcohol that MacArthur mentions. Instead, the authors are more interested in the gladdening effects of wine and strong drink, and they speak of these effects approvingly. Two examples out of a number of others will suffice to demonstrate the point.
- And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire–oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household (Deuteronomy 14:23-26).
- You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart (Psalm 104:14-15).
The only point we want to draw here is that there is a place in the mind of the biblical authors for rejoicing with alcohol and for enjoying the effects of alcohol within moderate bounds.
Yet, we suspect that MacArthur already knows that consuming alcohol in moderation is not a sin, since his criticism comes down to guilt by association. He writes:
“In fact, until fairly recently, no credible believer in the entire church age would ever have suggested that so many features evoking the ambiance of a pool hall or a casino could also be suitable insignia for the people of God.”
As we noted above, comments like these demonstrate that MacArthur doesn’t know his church history very well. Yet, they also reveal that MacArthur doesn’t know public perception of alcohol very well. In whose mind is alcohol and cigars associated with pool halls and casinos? There’s no necessary association between these things and places.
From what we can tell, it’s MacArthur and his ilk that have to keep this association alive because the rest of us recognize that alcohol and tobacco is found in use across so many different cultures, classes, venues that it is absurd to make such a narrow association. Why should we when there’s hardly any other social behavior that is more pluralistic than alcohol and tobacco? Pool halls and casinos? This is a left-over association from Prohibition where the critics who drew the association were the very people who created the legislative conditions in which alcohol would only be found in the very places they criticized it for being found. But in a world where middle-class soccer-moms are sipping wine spritzers at an “Eat, Pray, Love” book club, it’s just as credible to associate water as it is alcohol with pool halls and casinos – which is just to say: it isn’t credible at all.
The Sociology of Abstinence
MacArthur warns us about what he thinks are the perceived consequences of alcohol usage. He writes:
It is puerile and irresponsible for any pastor to encourage the recreational use of intoxicants—especially in church-sponsored activities. The ravages of alcoholism and drug abuse in our culture are too well known, and no symbol of sin’s bondage is more seductive or more oppressive than booze. I have ministered to hundreds of people over the years who have been delivered from alcohol addiction. Many of them wage a daily battle with fleshly desires made a thousand times more potent because of that addiction. The last thing I would ever want to do is be the cause of stumbling for one of them.
MacArthur is right to stress the dangers of alcohol abuse in our culture. Indeed, as pastors, we too have encountered parishioners who have struggled with alcohol in the past and who come from families where alcohol was largely abused. But does this mean, then, that alcohol is to be eliminated and banished from the Christian home, or more importantly, from the Christian Church? God forbid. MacArthur suffers from the same sociological problems as those in fundamentalist circles. Fundamentalists take examples of abuse and use them to make dogma. They take the abuse and declare that God has thus spoken. Others—more moderate evangelicals– while affirming that God nowhere prohibits partaking of alcohol, at the same time prophesy of the cultural consequences and the dangers of losing Christian witness before the world. Both approaches fail to discern the biblical rationale for alcohol usage, and because the Bible has not taken its central role in shaping the debate, they have come to unhealthy conclusions.
As we have discussed earlier, MacArthur is well outside the Reformed tradition in understanding the purpose of alcohol. He has to deal with the fact that the Reformers overwhelmingly—with the exception of small groups of pietistic reformers in the early 20thcentury—enjoyed alcohol and treated it not as an evil to avoid, but as a gift to enjoy.
MacArthur has long championed the importance of sanctification in the Christian life. He has made profound and biblical pronouncements on the importance of the Lordship of Jesus over the life of the Christian. Yet, he fails to stress the importance of maturity when it comes to God’s gifts. For MacArthur, the end goal of the Christian life is to avoid worldliness. While we can affirm this goal, we do not—and dare not—affirm the avoidance of the world. Worldliness pertains to those matters that deny the law of God and the goodness of God. The world, on the other hand, pertains to everything God has created. Therefore, the danger of MacArthur’s pastoral counsel is that it places his parishioners in an outright rejection of the world of God and embracing a near form of Gnosticism. Under Gnostic presuppositions, Christians detach themselves from a world which Christ has come to redeem (John 3:17). When Yahweh declared all things very good He was not playing word games. He was actually declaring that creation and all therein is good.
The Use and Abuse of Alcohol
What are we then to do with those who struggle with former alcohol problems and with those who come from families where alcoholism is prevalent? The remedy is not simple, but glorious. We give them the Gospel. We believe that where the gospel is present, therein is victory. As pastors, we are to teach that in Christ they can overcome sin, and in Christ sin has been overcome. MacArthur fails to put the gospel into his agenda, because he fails to make proper biblical qualifications between abuse and moderate use. You do not remove a gift because it has been abused (sex, food, etc.), rather you treat the gift as it should be treated: with moderation and care. Removing those who struggle with alcohol from the very presence of alcohol is the surest way to cause a brother to stumble, but properly exposing those who struggle with the appropriate and godly way of using and enjoying certain gifts is the only way to overcome certain addictions. As Luther so ably put it:
…wine and women bring many a man to misery and make a fool of him [Ecclus. 19:2; 31:30]; so we kill all the women and pour out all the wine. Again, gold and silver cause much evil, so we condemn them. Indeed, if we want to drive away our worst enemy, the one who does us the most harm, we shall have to kill ourselves, for we have no greater enemy than our own heart, as the prophet, Jer. 17 [:9], says, “The heart of man is crooked,” or, as I take the meaning, “always twisting to one side.” And so on—what would we not do?
Luther understood that the abuse of something is not an argument against its proper use. By making alcohol anathema, MacArthur offers another reason for the world to reject the Christian faith. In fact, we will go so far as to say that alcohol—whether beer or wine—is about the enjoyment of life, and thus accepting its common use in the Christian community is the necessary step to reclaiming a biblical view of God and world.
 Luther’s Works, 50:95, Letters III, eds. J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999).
 Quoted in Martin Marty’s Martin Luther (New York: Viking/Penguin, 2004), p. 181.
 Luther’s Works, 28:3, 1 Corinthians 7, 1 Corinthians 15, Lectures on 1 Timothy, eds. J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999).
 Luther’s Works, 23, John 6:27, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 6-8, eds.J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999).
 Jim West, Drinking with Calvin and Luther!: A History of Alcohol in the Church(Oakdown Press), p. 114
 R. C. Sproul, Before the Face of God, vol. 2. Found at http://www.allthingsexpounded.com/2011/08/sipping-saints-3-more-post-biblical-witnesses/
 Perhaps MacArthur only has American Christians in mind since there are over one billion people world-wide without regular access to clean water and refrigeration.
 Luther’s Works, 51:85, Sermons I, eds. J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999).