Ancient Wine and the Modern Christian [part 1]

The question of whether a Christian should consume alcohol remains one of the most hotly debated issues in evangelicalism today. As Pastor John MacArthur puts it, “there have been few periods of history in which the drinking of alcoholic beverages has not been an issue of disagreement and debate.”[1] With loved and respected pastors and scholars on both sides of the issue, it can sometimes be a daunting task to attempt to arrive at a conclusion. In recent years, there has been a resurgence, most noticeably within the “Young, Restless and Reformed” crowd, of conservative evangelicals who not only partake in drinking alcohol, but openly celebrate their freedom to do so. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who believe that Christians should never consume alcohol. Of course, there are also Christians all along this spectrum as well.

John MacArthur and Norman Geisler are two well-known scholars who have taught that Christians should never consume alcohol. Dr. Geisler has two articles entitled “To Drink or not to Drink: A Sober Look at the Question,” and “A Christian Perspective on Wine-Drinking.” Dr. MacArthur has spoken and written on the subject numerous times, but perhaps most comprehensively in his commentary on the book of Ephesians. Unfortunately, rather than appealing to primary historical sources, both Geisler and MacArthur have relied predominantly on a single article from Christianity Today, written by Dr. Robert Stein, entitled, “Wine-Drinking in New Testament Times.”

What I’d like to do in the next several posts therefore, is to examine Dr. Stein’s use of ancient Greco-Roman sources, namely, Homer, Pliny, Athanaeus, and Plutarch, in support of his claim that the wine spoken of in the New Testament is fundamentally different than the wine of today. It is not necessarily my purpose right now to argue a particular theological position on the issue of drinking, but simply to critique Dr. Stein’s use of historical sources in the support of his position.

The Argument

The Bible clearly teaches that drunkenness, or being given to alcohol, is wrong (e.g. Prov 20:1; Isa 28:1; Eph 5:18; Titus 1:7; 2:3; Gal 5:21; 1 Cor 6:10) — however, because the Bible does not explicitly condemn the drinking of alcohol, but rather even speaks positively of it at times (e.g. Amos 9:14; Isa 55:1; Dan 10:3; Deut 14:26; Ps 104:14-15; Eccl 9:7), the approach taken by Stein (as well as MacArthur and Geisler) is to posit that biblical wine (that is, the wine of which the Bible speaks) was fundamentally different than modern wine.

This topic may seem like a terribly boring study of some dry and dusty dead people, with no real implication for every-day life. But the reason I think this is an important thing to look into today is that pastors use this argument all the time to argue that Christians are not free to drink alcohol. If the wine the Bible speaks of was actually watered down so much that it was nothing like modern wine, then any argument from Scripture claiming that a Christian is free to drink alcohol is utterly moot, due to the essential dissimilarity between ancient and modern wine. MacArthur begins his commentary on Ephesians 5:18 with this point, saying,

Many sincere, Bible honoring Christians justify their drinking wine on the basis of its being an acceptable practice both in the Old and New Testaments. But if the kind of wine used then was different from that used today, then application of the biblical teaching concerning wine will also be different.[2]

Stein also introduces his article by saying, “…the Bible was not written to evangelicals living in the twentieth century… If we do not seek first to understand what the text meant when it was written, it will be very difficult to interpret intelligently what it means and demands of us today.” Stein then proceeds in his article to draw upon several ancient Greco-Roman sources in order to support his claim of the fundamental difference between ancient and modern wine. Specifically, he argues that alcohol in the ancient world was so watered down that drunkenness was next to impossible.[3]

It is rather clear that wine in the Old Testament was not in fact watered down. On the contrary, “wine diluted with water became symbolic of spiritual adulteration (Isa. 1:22).”[4] Dr. Stein’s article however, and thus the focus of this series, is on the practices surrounding the New Testament era regarding wine. So what I’d like to do is to simply examine Stein’s use of his sources as he comes to them, evaluating whether he arrives at his points from a legitimate reading of the historical source, keeping in line with the context and intention of the original writer. Next time, we’ll look at Homer’s Odyssey, and see what kind of wine Homer says was mixed with twenty parts water to one part wine!


Footnotes:

[1] MacArthur, John. “5:18a.” In Ephesians. Chicago: Moody Press, 1986. Page 229.

[2] MacArthur, 235.

[3] And, therefore, this is why the Bible allowed for Christians to drink. But since the wine of today is so alcoholic, and it is so easy to get drunk from drinking it, Christians should still abstain totally (you can see how this plays out in churches everywhere today).

[4] Tenney, Merrill C. “Wine.” In The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. Vol. 5, Q-Z. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1975.

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We exist to exhort passionate followers of Christ to think more deeply about their faith, and to challenge deep thinkers to become more passionate followers of Christ. Throughout history, taverns have provided a venue for theological and political debate. Hoping to honor that tradition, welcome to the Tavern!
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One Response to Ancient Wine and the Modern Christian [part 1]

  1. Jan Preston says:

    Good start. Excited to read the next several posts!

    Like

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