Monday, December 3, 2012

On the consumption of alcohol....Part 2: What I was taught

I'm going to just caveat this up front, instead of interspersing constant disclaimers throughout: I do not believe what I am teaching in this post. I am doing my best to present these teachings the way I received them, not creating any straw men.

My motivation for this is intellectual honesty. In my later posts, I will be addressing the key points (and some of the minor points) in this teaching, and I don't want to waste my time or yours with irrelevant arguments. I'm not here to win a debate by rhetorical tricks.

For sake of space, this will be in outline form, with some comments here and there.

The Arguments From Scripture

First, there are the anecdotal arguments. This includes arguments derived from stories in the Bible. The point of these was always, "See! If you drink, bad things happen, and when you don't, good things happen. Alcohol is evil." Because this is the basic argument, I will only list the passages for this type, without comment on each one; as I said in Part 1, I'll address the basic argument being used here later on.

  • Noah and his vineyard. (Gen. 9:20-27)
  • Lot and his daughters. (Gen. 19:30-38)
  • Amnon (2 Sam. 13:28, 29)
  • Job's sons and daughters. (Job 1:13, 18, 19)

This rebuttal is easy: Yes, alcohol, when overconsumed, can have bad effects. It can be turned to evil. But potential evil usage is no reason to forbid all usage. If it were, you would have to assume that all material objects are forbidden. Your feet can carry you into nefarious situations; should you therefore never walk again? Jesus said, "If your eye offends you, cut it out", right? Well yes. But He did not say, "If your eye has the potential to offend you, cut it out." Else we would all be blind.

Next, there are the exemplary arguments. This goes along the lines of, "See! People that were really close to God didn't drink. You shouldn't either, if you want to be close to God. Alcohol is evil."

  • Daniel and company (Dan. 1:5-21)
  • Nazarites (Num. 6:3)
  • Priests & Levites (Lev. 10:9
  • Kings (Prov. 31:4, 5)
  • John the Baptist (Luke 1:15)
  • Jesus on the Cross (Mark 15:23)

Another class of the exemplary arguments is a bit more stretched (if such a thing were possible). This is, for example, as in Ps. 75:8. The verse makes a metaphor of God's wrath as wine mixed with other things, and the forced drinking of that mixture is a punishment. It is assumed that because alcohol can be used as a punishment, it is therefore understood to be a bad thing.

In rebuttal to both types of exemplary argument, this is simply an error of composition/division, or perhaps of exaggeration. The fact that abstention is a tool that can be used (like fasting or other ascetic works) is no reason to command it of everybody. In fact, the fact that the Nazarites were a special class would tend to indicate the opposite: that such a tool is to be used carefully, and only by those who are called to use it.

Lastly, there are the arguments from commandment, and these all center around passages where the text seems to directly command abstention from alcohol. Since rebuttal of these is a matter of case-by-case hermeneutics, rather than listing them, I will address them in order.

Prov. 20:1

This is typically interpreted to mean that if you drink, you are deceived by wine/strong drink, and are therefore not wise. So if you want to be wise, don't drink.

But this is not the only interpretation that the passage admits. It could also be (and I think it is) referring to the alcoholic: the one who thinks that there is no danger, and no limit — that he's really not under the power of the drink. This, I believe, only applies to someone who has a problem with it, and is "in denial". It is not talking about the general consumption of alcohol in general.

Right now, this far along in the series, this is purely a matter of opinion. However, we will see later that it cannot be construed as referring to the casual consumer, else God would be at variance with Himself.

Prov. 21:17

This is applied as follows: "You want to be rich, right? Wine will make you poor. Look at the drunk beggar; do you want to be like him? Then abstain from this evil!"

However, the absurdity of this extremist interpretation is manifest: would you also forbid oil? Clearly you're reading the passage wrong. The beginning of the verse sets the stage: it's talking about "he that loveth pleasure". That is what makes a man poor, and prevents him from being rich: he spends too much on nice things!

Wine and oil are nice things, pleasures. But they are also expensive. Throughout the Bible this pair indicate riches and wealth. The poverty referred to here has little if anything to do with the deleterious effects of overconsumption/addiction.

Prov. 23:29-35

Here is the capstone of the Old Testament verses, the most direct. It is, however, merely another "exemplary" argument. See above for it's general refutation. But on this specific passage, let's simply say: it's warning against the evils of alcoholism, certainly. But not alcohol qua alcohol.

That this is true, note two characteristics: first, he describes a state of "blackout" drunkenness. No one is arguing that this is OK. It's not. But for the vast majority of humanity, one drink does not equal blackout. There are varying degrees, and there is room for moderation.

Secondly, he describes this particular case as saying, "When shall I awake? I will seek it yet again." In other words, he's talking about an alcoholic, not a regular person enjoying a drink here or there.

To them — that is, to alcoholics — as any AA meeting will tell you: Yes, the advice here is good advice. Complete abstention is the path for you. Don't even look at the stuff.

But again, this only applies to alcoholics. It is not generally applicable. It can't be, or God would be at variance with Himself, as we will see.

Is. 5:11

Even if this were talking primarily about literal wine and strong drink (hint: it's not), it would still fall to the same rebuttal as Prov. 23:2-35 — it's talking about alcoholics.

Is. 5:22, 23; 28:7

These are not talking about literal wine/strong drink. The end of each passage makes it plain that this is a metaphor for erring vision and bad judgment, which are well-known side effects of overconsumption. Once again, any consumption does not automatically equal overconsumption.

Rom. 14:21

Here Paul says that abstention for the sake of a brother's salvation is good. This does not apply as a blanket command, though, obviously, and I would venture that it only applies in the brother's presence, even, although some may disagree.

Eph. 5:18

Here Paul commands directly: "Be not drunk with wine". And his reason is, "wherein is excess". Ok, fine: getting drunk leads to doing excessive things, probably sins, and that's not good. Better to be filled with the Spirit. I get that. But notice he does not say, "Don't drink wine." There is a difference between drinking and getting drunk.

But Steve! Where's the limit? Glad you asked. Here's where your discernment comes in. Get to know your body, and how much is enough. If you're not sure, ask your church, family, or (real) friends to help you figure it out. But let your moderation be known to all men.

1 Tim. 3:3, 8; Tit. 1:7; 2:3

Applicable only to clergy, and only to keep alcoholics from obtaining those positions; not even a prohibition against clerical consumption, let alone anything more.

1 Pet. 4:3

Once again, condemns alcoholism, not alcohol. Note the word "excess".


So here I have listed the common Scriptural arguments given against the consumption of alcohol, and my rebuttals to those arguments.

In the next Part, we will look at some of the positive uses/examples of alcohol in the Scripture, the arguments against them from the abstention crowd, and the rebuttals to those arguments.

And we won't have even gotten to the "showstopper" verse yet. :)

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