Christian Theology and Alcohol
Paolo Veronese: Wedding at Cana ~1560
Let's step on toes!
Today I want to begin to address an issue that has been raised by a number of people about the "True Christian" perspective on alcohol. I will try to be concise but I am warning you now that I tend to ramble on. For further discussion, please feel free to stop in and discuss the topic at your leisure.
I will start by stating my position on alcohol in general that I feel can be absolutely supported by the inerrant word of God.
"Imbibing alcohol is not an inherent evil; supplanting a sovereign God with a desire or addiction for it is." ModernSocrates
What does this mean? In simplest terms, alcohol itself in its various forms is not an inherent evil. The pursuit of it to excess for purposes of intellectual escape, addiction, or placing it as a center point of one's life is the problem. The same can be said of any false idol that is not God; be it lust, gluttony, envy, pride or choose one of the seven sins and extrapolate. Let's explore the common arguments for and against the "True Christian" perspective.
This term is often used and more often overloaded with meaning. I would argue that even the existence of the term demonstrates the fallibility of human logic and debasement of the human spirit. I will not debate the existence of a "True Christian" as I feel that this is an absolute from God's perspective. There will be souls in heaven and in hell for all eternity. By definition, the "True Christians" will reside with the Lord forever, and those who are not will be cast into eternal darkness. The never-ending question is how do we know who they are? The real question is why do you care? There is one being that has the knowledge and power to determine this, and in our infinitely microscopic and pathetic existence we have no right to pass or extrapolate this judgement on others much less ourselves. Accepting the Lord as your savior and trusting in him to permit your loathsome self into his perfect kingdom solely by his mercy is a personal decision and one which you endeavor to live out to the best of your ability in the short time you are permitted life. Trying to determine another's final destination so to speak is the height of hubris and pride (the original sin). You are not God, you do not control God, you are not the arbiter of his will. Stop trying to be such.
Argument 1: Jesus turned water into wine
Off that soapbox which I unfortunately could stand on until the end of my mortal life. Let's talk about the old classic of the wedding at Cana. Classically depicted in John 2:1-11 it is the first miracle Jesus performed during his mortal life. It is depicted in the above painting from the 1560's by Paolo Veronese. The general story is that the local sommelier greatly underestimated the volume of patrons at the wedding (likely secondary to the host wanting to cut corners on the catering) and they ran out of wine. Having none of that, Jesus calls the servants to bring six stone jars of water which they fill, but when presented to the cheapskate master of the feast they miraculously have turned to wine. In fact, the vintage was so excellent that the guests accuse the host of hoarding all of the good wine for later in contradiction to the longstanding practice of serving increasingly worse alcohol as the party goes on. Jesus apparently has an excellent palate for his miracles, but I would expect nothing less: he is God incarnate and quite literally invented wine.
A few points: Jesus created wine and had it served to his disciples and likely himself although this is not explicitly stated. More on that later though. If Christ was absolutely against wine, why would he do this? Would he not be committing sins (he can not) or enticing others to do so (he can not)? This is fairly straightforward in my opinion.
But wait Socrates, I've got you! He made "New Wine" which was just crushed grapes that was not alcoholic yet. It wasn't fermented, it was just grape juice. Well that sounds fanciful, but not only is there no biblical ground for that claim there is also no historical accuracy in that assertion. There are certainly ancient people who boiled grape juice or utilized a raisin tea which contained no alcohol but try this for yourself sometime and see how it tastes. Or I will save you the trouble: its horrid. The palate lies somewhere between watered down sugarless jam and insipid tannic water. Very few people would do this when it involved more process and valuable wasting of resource for a vastly inferior product. It certainly would not produce "Good Wine." Thomas Welch didn't invent the "pasteurization" of grape juice until 1869 which coincidentally coincided with the rapid rise of the prohibition movement. Also coincidentally he turned this into a profitable business by persuading local churches to utilize the product for communion to avoid the "devil inherent in alcohol."
Both the Greek and Hebrew words for wine have no counterpart to describe a non-fermented drink. They are by definition fermented. The argument that "New Wine" was not intoxicating is both untrue for the technology of the day, but also explicitly contradicted in the scripture. Try Acts 2:13 "But others, mocking, said, 'They are filled with new wine'." Don't like that one? Try Is 49:26; Hos 4:11; Judges 9:13;Gn 27:28; Mi 6:15 ect.. I think not. Trying to shoehorn modern day interpretive acrobatics into the word of God is a lesson in futility if not outright heresy. New wine is in fact fermented. It starts to do so the moment it is off the vine before it is even crushed. Typically by three days it will be at least 8% alcohol by volume and most likely more. Wine made utilizing wild yeasts in the Middle East and European regions typically reaches an ABV of 11-16%. Keep in mind a typical beer is 3-5% ABV. Jesus refers to himself tangentially as a new wine which would burst old vessels if placed in them. Why would this happen? Well because the new wine is continuing to undergo rapid fermentation and the carbon dioxide release will destroy the old and brittle wineskins. New simply refers to the fact that it hasn't been aged which would allow the volatile esters to dissipate and create a more refined taste.
Argument 2: Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit
1 Corinthians 6:19: Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;
The first question I raise upon hearing any verse is "what is the context?". What are we talking about here? What is the original language translation? This passage is referring to sexual immorality and sexual sins without question by simply reading the chapter and context but I have no problem extrapolating meaning. I will allow the argument that this applies to every aspect of human existence, but this will create more problems for the absolute prohibitionists than it solves. Let us supposedly apply this to any aspect of our lives which we can control that could do harm to our bodies. Alcohol in excess will certainly have detrimental effects both mentally and physically for humans. This is not in question. Unfortunately it also has a great many benefits as well. But rather than going down that rabbit hole, let us focus on the main line of reasoning: "If something done to excess can harm your body or mind, and your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit therefore respect your body and abstain from it." Fair enough, but do you have the courage of your conviction? Let's list off some major body and mind harming things that I don't see prohibition movements of:
Fatty Foods: Here is the number one killer via obesity/strokes/heart etc. attacks in the western world. I look forward to the sermons condemning the local grocery store and fast food restaurants. Not to mention the farmers, dairy producers, cattle ranchers, pork producers ect. Courage my friends!
Refined Sugar: Not a thing until the late 1500's and not widely available to the public until the 1800's. Can you say obesity epidemic and diabetes? I can. Let's add sugar beet farmers, soda manufacturers, and every single major food source provider in the world to our list of offenders.
Salt: Remember that heart attack and stroke problem? One of the principle factors is blood pressure for these disease and well as peripheral vascular disease. What is the most common preventable choice based solution for this? Drop that salt out of the diet. It's gotta go.
Tobacco: Oh man.. this stuff is really bad for you. Cancer being the number two leading cause of death in the western world and lung cancer hovering between number 2 and 3 for the dominant cancers means that this is absolutely from the Devil. Lets not even start on the peripheral effects adding to the other aforementioned causes of death. Goodbye Tobacco.
The Sun: Uh oh.. That great ball of death in the sky is responsible almost completely for the absolutely massive numbers of fatal and debilitating cancers in the human populace. I expect that any day I will hear about banning the sun from our leaders in the faith.
Gasoline, Oil, Industrial Chemicals: Yep, they cause cancer, lung disease, skin disorders, and contribute to premature aging ect. On the bright side, all that smog can contribute a somewhat protective UV radiation shield.
Do I need to go on?
So are you willing to give up anything that could have a harmful effect on your body? Is there anything that doesn't have some sort of harmful effect? Just ask any torte trial lawyer and they will tell you that everything and anyone can be sued for harming you. So why single out one thing philosophically if you don't apply the same criteria for all?
Temperance and Moderation
How about these verses? Ephesians 5:18, “Do not get drunk with wine…” (additionally: Luke 12:45; 1 Thes 5:7; Rev. 17:12). No complaints there. Don't get drunk on alcohol. Seems pretty straightforward. How about those Nazarite vows? No wine for you guys. But it's not just wine: its grapes in any form or grape products or their seeds or skins. Oh and you also can't shave any hair on your body, nor can you go to your grandma's funeral, and you can't touch anything dead so meat is out. Why focus on just one part? Go whole hog my friend. Where does this prohibition and teetotalling come from? In the Americas mainly from John Wesley depicted above. He ascribed the age old philosophy of "if it could be bad when taken to excess then lets make an arbitrary law prohibiting it so the stupid unwashed populace can't make mistakes." We had a different name for these people in Jesus's time: Pharisees. They made hundreds of ancillary strict laws designed to make sure that if you followed them you would not be in violation of the actual laws laid down by the Lord. The reason: you are too stupid to understand that word of God, so I will protect you from your own ignorance and in the same move will demonstrate how much more holy I am than you. Hark, I obey my own earthly laws that I made up and you don't, therefore God favors me more. If you get to heaven and you stand in front of an omnipotent and all powerful God and your claim to inherit his kingdom is "because I followed all of this Pharisee's, pastor's, pope's, king's, government's, denomination's rules" I feel you are going to be in trouble.
So Wesley and his ilk saw an issue with drunkenness and public welfare issues related to alcohol consumption and they felt that if they used their spiritual leader positions to tell people that alcohol itself was evil, then they would solve the problem. Why preach sermons implicating individual choice and personal responsibility when we can collectively ban something we think would help the common good? It's the best of all worlds, prevent people from possibly making bad decisions and they won't make them. Well that isn't how it played out at all. I will go into the history of prohibition here in the United States at some point, but it didn't quite have the desired effect. Interestingly enough, this position that an inanimate object naturally conceived of in the world is an inherent evil poses another problem. If that is true, then why did an omnibenevolent God create such a thing and allow it? This argument will go down the Epicurean train of thought, but could it not be that a perfect God made a world in which his creation can be used for evil, but is not inherently evil? Alcohol is not inherently evil although it can be used for such. Much the same can be said for other phenomena: meat, tobacco, sugar, fuel, guns, cars, rocks, sticks, jawbone of an ass and toilet seats. Should we ban all donkey jawbones because they can be used to slay Philistines and murder is wrong? Should we march against wood and the utilization of it because people are speared to death or crucified on wood or perhaps both? Objects are not evil, what man does with them is evil. Thus is the way of a fallen world. To proclaim otherwise is to deny the perfection of creation and by inference the perfection of the creator. Neither of which I am prepared to do.
Believe it or not, this is the short form essay on the subject, and it can go way deeper! Theology and Philosophy are at the heart of human knowledge. They create discussion, relationships, and deeper understanding of this world in which we live. Reach out to me, ask questions, stop in to talk. I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions!