October is Reformation month for confessional Protestants, i.e., those Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican Churches that trace their roots to the Protestant Reformation. One of the basic tenets of the Reformation was sola Scriptura, according to Scripture alone. By “Scripture alone” we do not confess what some have called “Scriptura nuda” (bare scripture) without any subsidiary or subordinate authorities. This is also sometimes known as biblicism, the attempt to read the Scriptures without the church. The Reformation Churches all published official confessions of faith, in which the churches officially declared their interpretation of key passages of Scripture and their conclusions drawn from their interpretation of Scripture.
What Christian Liberty Is And Is Not
One of the conclusions that the Reformation Churches drew from the Scriptures is that, in their daily lives, Christians have liberty of conscience in matters indifferent (adiaphora). The Westminster Confession gives us a marvelous account of what Christian liberty is and is not:
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also (WCF 20.2).
The Westminster Divines were quick to clarify that the Protestant doctrine of Christian liberty was not a license for sin:
They who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty, which is, that being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life (WCF 20.3).
The definition of what is sin, however, is determined not by preference, experience, prejudice, or opinion, but by God’s sufficiently clear Word. In Christian fundamentalism, however, the line between what Scripture says and opinion is often blurred. In fundamentalist religious cultures there are typically authority figures who issue extra-biblical rules about what may or may not be done. Thus, members of those religious communities live in a kind of bondage to man-made rules. This is ironic, because they think of themselves as being faithful to Scripture and quite opposed to Roman Catholicism, which they rightly reject as a corruption of the faith. They seem oblivious to the ways in which they have created their own legalism in the Christian life.
One of those legalisms, i.e., the imposition of a rule in the Christian life where Scripture nether teaches or implies one, is the prohibition of alcohol. The really odd thing about this debate is that the biblical evidence against the Prohibitionist position is so strong. The case against prohibitionism is rather easily made, if Scripture is the final authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life, as the Reformation confesses it to be. NB: I do not make this argument out of any personal interest in the drinking of alcohol. As a matter of wisdom and taste, I rarely partake. In most years the only alcohol I receive is in holy communion.
“Wine” Means Wine
Some fundamentalist and Pietist (that movement that began in the 17th century as a reaction to perceived spiritual indifference in the Lutheran state-churches of Europe, which emphasizes the necessity of personal religious experience over confessional orthodoxy) are convinced that Scripture forbids the use of any intoxicating drink and have developed elaborate theories about why “wine” in the Scriptures cannot refer to a potentially intoxicating drink.
As mentioned above, the evidence against this supposition is overwhelming.1 Almost from the beginning of the history of salvation we see that wine is potentially intoxicating. One of the first thing that Noah did after leaving the ark was to plant a vineyard (Gen 9:20). He knew that what Psalm 104:15 says is true, that God has given us wine to gladden our hearts. Apparently, however, as soon as the vineyard gave him grapes he made wine and with it he got drunk: “He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent” (Genesis 9:21; ESV). The Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX), which was influential on New Testament vocabulary and usage uses the word οἶνος (oinos), which is the same word used in the NT. It means “a beverage made from fermented juice of the grape, wine.”2
The wine Noah drank was intoxicating. We see the same thing in the New Testament. Our Lord compares old and new wine skins (Matt 9:17; Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37–38). The prohibitionist argument essentially argues that oinos refers to something like what we know as grape juice (which did not exist until the 19th century).3 Were we to substitute “grape juice” for “wine” in those passages they would make no sense. The only reason the old wineskin would burst is fermentation. It was the healing properties of oil and wine that made them useful in the treatment of the injured man (Luke 10:34; Compare Rev 6:6). The wine (οἶνος) that Paul commended to Timothy for the sake of his stomach, is commended because of its beneficial properties (1 Tim 5:23).
The wine that our Lord Jesus made by a miracle for the wedding at Cana was not grape juice. The wonder was that the host had saved the good wine for the end of the feast, after people had been drinking and eating for days (John 2:10). John uses the same noun there (οἶνος) as is used regularly for a fermented, potentially intoxicating drink. Grape juice is good but it is not intoxicating.
Paul instructed the Roman congregation (Rom 14:21) to abstain from “wine [οἶνος] and meat” in order to prevent Christians, who had just been converted out of paganism, from stumbling and falling back into the old ways and patterns of behavior. The pagans were not drinking too much grape juice, but they were known to drink alcohol and to make meat offerings to pagan gods. The Apostle Peter addressed the same sort of problem in Asia Minor: “For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry” (1 Pet 4:3; ESV). The word that Peter uses (οἰνοφλυγία) oinophlygia means “drunkenness” and is built on the same root (οἶνος) as the principal noun for wine. In other words, the pagans were not over indulging in something like grape juice. Pagan debauchery, from which Christians have been delivered, was marked by the abuse of alcohol. In the same way, 1 Timothy 3:8 and Titus 2:3 warns about the abuse of alcohol (not grape juice) not its use. Older women and Deacons are not to be given to drinking “much wine” (οἴνῳ πολλῷ). Paul did not require abstinence but self-control. There is a difference between them.
The several references to wine in the Revelation also make no sense unless wine is alcoholic. The metaphor, “wine of sexual immorality” (Rev 14:8) makes sense in context. We could substitute “the intoxication of sexual immorality” and get the sense of the verse. If we subtract intoxication, the passage is stripped of its force. The same is true of Revelation 14:10, “the wine of God’s wrath.” Wine has some potency. With all due respect to Welches, Grape juice simply does not. See also Revelation 16:19, 17:2, 18:3, 15 and 19:13 for the same imagery.
Drinking Is Not Drunkeness
Scripture does not condemn Noah for drinking but implicitly for getting drunk. Paul does not forbid the drinking of wine but the abuse of wine. When Paul says “be not drunk with wine” he uses the very same noun (οἶνος) that the LXX used in Genesis 9:20. Again, were he thinking about grape juice, the passage makes no sense. Too much sugar might make one giddy, and there are some rare medical conditions where sugar can produce a sort of intoxication, but the plain, intended sense is that Christians are not to be over-indulging in intoxicating drink. Rather, they are to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Substituting grape juice for wine in Ephesians 5:18 turns the passage to nonsense.
At Pentecost, after the Holy Spirit fell upon the Apostles, they were accused of being drunk with wine. Peter denied the charge (Acts 2:13–14). They were not drunk. They were literally filled with the Holy Spirit. The new wine (γλεύκους) about which the critics talking was potentially intoxicating because it was fermented and thus alcoholic. “Grape juice” would make no sense in this context.
The Reformation Delivered Us From Legalism
The annual celebration of the Reformation in Reformed churches is not tribalism. It is an opportunity to recover our own confession, our theology, our piety, and our practice. One of the many blessings of the Reformation, along with the recovery of the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, was the recovery of sola Scriptura, the biblical truth that the Word of God alone is the final arbiter of Christian doctrine and the final standard for the conduct of the Christian life.
No authority, however well meaning he may be, has authority to put the Christian under rules that are not taught or necessarily implied by God’s Word. No authority can make the Christian do things in worship that are not commanded or necessarily implied by God’s Word. In Belgic Confession (1561), article 7, we confess:
We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul says. For since it is forbidden to add unto or take away anything from the Word of God, it does thereby evidently appear that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects.
Prohibitionists mean well but they are misguided but their rules are a symptom of a deeper problem: the loss of the doctrine of sola Scriptura and the loss of the doctrine of Christian liberty but we have been set free and October is a great time to remember that truth.
1. Some of the material for this essay is drawn from this earlier essay.
2. Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. S.v., οἶνος.
3. Unfermented grape juice was invented in the 19th century as part of the “Temperance” (anti-alcohol) movement, strongly supported among Methodists and others.