A Sober Assessment of Reformational Drinking

Jim West
Thursday, July 5th 2007
Mar/Apr 2000

Protestant reflection on the consumption of alcohol has undergone a dramatic transformation since the Reformation. Whether this change stems from the rise of pietism or the triumph of middle-class morality, contemporary evangelical ideas about alcohol are at odds with the views of the Protestant reformers. Attending to the reformers' ideas, then, is important not only for those who would claim to be their heirs but also for a good understanding of what the Bible teaches about alcohol.

Calvin Addresses the Old Testament

In a sermon by John Calvin on Deuteronomy 14:26, which is arguably the classic Old Testament text with regard to drinking alcoholic beverages, the command reads:

"And you shall bestow that money for whatsoever your soul lusts after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever your soul desires: and you shall eat there before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice, and your household."

Calvin's exposition of this verse is interesting. He accentuates not only the glory of God but eating and drinking in the presence of the God of glory. When we drink wine or strong drink, we drink in the audience of the heavenly Vintner who expects us to enjoy his gifts.

Calvin also cautions us that Deuteronomy 14:26 was a crucial text of the fifth century Manichaean heretics who were dualists in creation. Their theology was that the character of the good God is a sufficient guarantee that he would not have filled the universe with things that man could abuse to his own damnation. They deduced that the material universe is not the work of God, but of the devil. And they employed as a rampart this same verse. Calvin wrote of them:

A certain sect of Heretics called the Manichees, which scorned God's law and the prophets, alleged this present text and such other like, to show that the God of the Old Testament as they blasphemously term him, was a God of disorder and such a one as kept no good rule. For why, said they, he laid the bridle upon his people's neck, and bade them eat whatsoever they like, and so as the meaning was to make them drunkards and gluttons, by encouraging them to eat and drink after that fashion. But the true God (said they) will have folk to be sober, whereby a man may see that the Law is not given from heaven.

Against the Manichees, Calvin argued that meat and strong drink are gifts that should be unwrapped in the presence of God. He wrote that we "never come to the table, without considering that God is present there."

The Manichaean approach to wine may be illustrated by some contemporary fulminations. For example, the Koran reads: "O true believers! Surely wine and gambling and stone pillars are an abomination, of the work of Satan." Again: "There is a devil in every berry of the grape." In American Church history, Dr. Thomas Welch introduced Welch's grape juice to replace wine in 1869. Welch was a Methodist minister (and dentist) who learned of Pasteur's experiments about how yeast and grape juice interact to create wine. Thus, Welch experimented with a method of boiling wine and filtering it so that the alcoholic content was removed. The result was "Dr. Welch's Unfermented Wine." Later, his son Charles carried the torch himself, desiring to give the church what he called "the fruit of the vine, instead of the cup of devils." So pervasive is the anti-alcohol bias today, that even the translators of the New King James Bible seemed to abandon their translation integrity by substituting "similar drink" for "strong drink" in Deuteronomy 14:26.

Reformation Churches Allowed Alcohol

The Churches of the Protestant Reformation were universally tolerant of drinking. This was unwittingly attested to by Erasmus of Rotterdam, who although remaining loyal to Rome, yet when rebuked for drinking Pommard on a fast day, said, "My heart is Catholic, but my stomach is Protestant." He was neutral to the Reformation, but he was not neutral about wine.

John Calvin also expressed his heartfelt gratitude for wine. He wrote in his The Institutes of Christian Religion that "It is permissible to use wine not only for necessity, but also to make us merry." Calvin praised the transubstantiation of the water into wine at Cana of Galilee as "most excellent wine." He laid down two conditions for wine drinking: First, it must be moderate, "lest men forget themselves, drown their senses, and destroy their strength." Calvin even argued that "in making merry," those who enjoy wine "feel a livelier gratitude to God."

Interestingly, Calvin's yearly salary in Geneva included several barrels of wine. The Town Council recognized the large number of guests he would be expected to entertain; thus he was given "the substantial annual salary of 500 florins, together with twelve measures of wheat and two bossets (perhaps 250 gallons) of wine." (1)

Calvin was also persuaded that wine should be served during the administration of the Lord's Supper. He catechized his catechumens accordingly, "But why is the body of our Lord figured by bread, and his blood by wine?" He answered that "by wine the hearts of men are gladdened, their strength recruited, and the whole man strengthened, so by the blood of our Lord the same benefits are received by our souls."

Like Luther, Calvin also compared music with wine. He believed that music was the first gift of God, having the power to "enter the heart like wine poured into a vessel, with good or evil effect." (2)

Concerning drunkenness, both Calvin and Luther thundered. Calvin warned, "If a man knows that he has a weak head and that he cannot carry three glasses of wine without being overcome, and then drinks indiscreetly, is he not a hog?" Luther's unscientific definition of drunkenness is classic: "Drunkenness: when the tongue walks on stilts and reason goes forward under a half sail." These pithy phrases are reminiscent of one of their pedigree, Increase Mather, who was to preach to New Englanders: "Wine comes from God, but the drunkard from the Devil."

Calvin's commentary on the vow of the Rechabites to obey the Fifth Commandment by forgoing wine will startle all Rechabite-like clones (Jer. 35). He wrote that the self-abnegation of the Rechabites was not that they denied themselves sinful things, but things supremely good. He projected himself into the Rechabite family when he said that their willingness to forgo wine was "hard."

Luther's Strong Advocacy of Alcohol

Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli all had "Protestant Stomachs." Luther wrote a love letter to his wife when he was away from home complaining that "there is nothing fit to drink here." He then pled the impossible from Catherine who herself was a trained brewster:

It would be a good thing for you to send me the whole wine cellar and a bottle of your own beer as often as you can. If you don't I shall not come back for the new beer. Amen. Your lover, Martin Luther.

Again, he wrote her:

You must wonder how long I am likely to stay or, rather, how long you will be rid of me. I keep thinking what good wine and beer I have at home, as well as a beautiful wife, or shall I say lord?

Luther also had a mug that was encircled by three rings. One ring represented the Lord's Prayer, another the Ten Commandments, and the third the Apostle's Creed. A memorable incident occurred in Luther's life when he was amused on one occasion that he could drain the glass of wine through the Lord's Prayer, but his friend Agricola could not get beyond the second ring, the Ten Commandments.

Luther was so adamant about using wine in the Lord's Supper that he said in his Table Talk that "if a person can't tolerate wine, omit it (the Sacrament) altogether in order that no innovation may be made or introduced."

The Diet of Worms featured no diet of beer! Luther was brought a tankard of German beer by the footmen of the Duke of Brunswick. He was heartily appreciative. "As Duke Erick has this day remembered me," he said, after a good draught, "so may our Lord Jesus Christ remember him in the hour of his last conflict."

When Luther was married, he was presented with several casks of beer, but the university gave him a large silver tankard, "platted with gold on the outside and inside, weighing five pounds and a quarter."

Martin Luther's counseling of depressed students sometimes included recommendations for drinking wine. Writing to a young man in 1530, he counsels him to fight against Satan by joking and laughing and talking nonsense. He urges the man to drink, especially if the devil has tempted him not to drink. Luther may have been the first to recognize that our wily enemy the devil may tempt a saint not to drink. His "nouthetic" counseling featured the following advice:

We are nowhere forbidden to laugh, or to be satisfied with food, or to annex new possessions to those already enjoyed by ourselves or our ancestors, or to be delighted with music.

One must always do what the Devil forbids. What other cause do you think I have for drinking so much strong drink, talking so freely and making so often, except that I wish to mock and harass the devil who is wont to mock and harass me?

John Knox, the colossus of the Scottish Reformation, composed a letter before leaving Scotland on how Protestant religious instruction should be practiced in his absence. He urged Protestants to read the Bible regularly, even if God's elect people became bored or weary. If they wearied, the antidote was to remember their persecuted brethren who were in no position to read the Bible at all. Knox argued:

If such men as having to read and exercise themselves in God's holy Scriptures, and yet begin to weary, because from time to time they read but one thing, I ask, why weary they not also each to eat bread? Every day to drink wine? Every day to behold the brightness of the sun?

The premise that wine drinking was a daily occurrence seems undeniable.

On November 15, 1572, Knox ate his last dinner. Two friends joined him at noon. Knox sat at the meal with them, and ordered a fresh hogshead of wine to be drawn. A hogshead was no pittance. It measured about fifty-one gallons. Knox even lamented that because of the immanency of his death that he would probably not be present to finish the hogshead.

The great Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli was also partial to wine. Zwingli compared the Word of God to "a good strong wine." He writes:

To the healthy it warms his blood. But if there is someone who is sick of a disease or fever, he cannot even taste it, let alone drink it, and he marvels that the healthy is able to do so. This is not due to any defect in the wine, but to that of the sickness. So too it is with the Word of God. It is right in itself and its proclamation is always for good. If there are those who cannot bear or understand or receive it, it is because they are sick."

We read in the Confessions that originated from the Reformation that wine is commanded in the Lord's Supper. For example, the Heidelberg Catechism, which was written by Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus in 1562, presupposes both bread and wine in the Lord's Supper. What is more, the Heidelberg glorifies wine-drinking in common meals too, when it speaks of "wine that sustains this temporal life." The Westminster Larger Catechism (Q-168) defines the Lord's Supper as "a sacrament of the New Testament, wherein by giving and receiving bread and wine according to the appointment of Jesus Christ." The regulative principle is in part a culinary principle: It tells us that we must allow the Lord to set our tables and to pour our wine so that our cups run over.

Christian Liberty and Wine

It is clear that the reformers regarded the use of wine in the Lord's Supper as an absolute. The question is: What were their views about the use of wine outside the context of public worship? Would they concur that if wine "offends" another brother that it should not be drunk? Is this not the teaching of Paul who wrote that "If meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world stands?" (1 Cor. 8:13).

To answer this question we must assess a common, superficial interpretation of the word "offend." Many will use the word "offend" in a way altogether foreign to the Apostle Paul. There are some who take offense at virtually anything that contradicts their own traditions. To allow such Christians to regulate our lives would be folly. Practical Theology Professor R. B. Kuiper writes:

Emphatically though he taught that Christians must serve one another in love, he did not promise never to do anything that might possibly displease a brother…. What Paul meant was that he would scrupulously refrain from knowingly placing, by his conduct, a stumbling block before his brother over which the brother might fall into sin. (3)

Biblically, "to offend," means to make a person sin. If we place someone in a context where he feels pressured to eat or to drink what he cannot do in faith, then we have "offended" him (Rom. 14:20, 23). But to "offend" does not mean to displease or irritate a brother. If this were the meaning, then the Christian who drinks wine or strong drink would have greater justification to be offended, since wine is a gift that should elicit our praise (Ps. 104). "To offend," means to "stumble" or trip a brother into sin. Because of this narrow meaning, and with specific regard to Christian liberty, it might even be permissible to drink wine in the presence of a weak brother, as long as we do not grandstand it, or use the occasion to pressure a weak brother to sin against his conscience. A "weak brother" is not weak because he is easily irritable; a weak brother has a weak conscience.

The ascension of teetotalism, or abstinence, in the American church scene did not come easily. In his Religion and Wine (subtitled, A Cultural History of Wine Drinking in the United States) Robert C. Fuller documents the teetotaler's arch dilemma. His dilemma was not primarily how to abolish wine altogether, but how to cope with the temperate drinker, that is, the drinker who heartily drank but with no ruinous side effects.

This strategy can be seen in the work of the nineteenth century minister and historian Daniel Dorchester, who distinguished himself by rewriting viticulture history and redefining Christian liberty. His first strategy was to argue that wines available to the nineteenth century consumer bore no resemblance to the wines of biblical ages. He maintained that biblical wines were "mild, nonharmful." This was due, he said, to the differences between soil and climate. Then, Dorchester reproduced a famous chart composed by Dr. Benjamin Rush (who wrote in 1784) that listed the ill effects of alcohol. However, Dorchester willfully omitted Rush's category that equated wine with virtue. For example, Rush associated wine with "cheerfulness" and "strength" and "nourishment." But Dorchester's greatest challenge (and embarrassment) was the temperate drinker. Fuller has written, "The moderate drinker was a vexing problem that threatened to invalidate their whole line of reasoning." Thus, Dorchester began by ignoring the moderate drinker altogether. Then he emphasized that wine was not reliably "temperate" as we might first think. Editorialists spread disinformation that wine in the United States was adulterated with more potent spirits. This strategy was crowned with the teetotaler's viniferous application of 1 Corinthians 5:7-where Paul warns about a "little leaven" leavening the whole lump. In other words, even while granting that a little wine may not souse a man, prohibitionists maintained that its ultimate effect could only lead to societal debilitation. To drink the smallest measure of wine was to predestinate drunkenness for others (if not for oneself). Therefore, the Temperance Recorder of 1835 explained:

Our views with regard to pure wine are, that the Bible sanctions its moderate use-that there can be no immorality in such use, under certain circumstances; but in our present condition with the fact that pure wine is fatal to the recovery of the drunkard, because it intoxicates, often forms the appetite for stronger drinks in the temperate, and its use by the rich hinders the poor from uniting with temperance societies-that all, or nearly all the wine in this country, is a most vile compound; these are the reasons why we urge abstinence from all wine.

The reader will notice such expressions as "vile compound," "but in our present condition," etc. All of these arguments have invaded and occupied the Church today. Added to these contentions is a specious argument from Romans 14:21, where Paul's use of the word "offend" is interpreted as a trumpet for even moderate drinkers to cease and desist. Thus, the teetotaler agenda through the Volstead Act of 1919 was imposed upon all America until its repeal in 1933. Virtually all American denominations consented to it, even though they were not required by law to forego communion wine.

Hundreds of years before the anti-alcohol juggernaut in the United States and the unofficial endorsement of the Volstead Act in American churches, John Calvin foresaw the danger of a new cult of abstinence. In his commentary on Psalm 104:15, he writes that God has given "wine to make the heart of man glad," he warned against making the peril of drunkenness "a pretext for a new cult based upon abstinence."

The rhetoric behind this "new cult based upon abstinence" is often sharper than a doubled-edged sword. Our Lord himself was accused of drunkenness when he was called a "winebibber." This is the old strategy of the Devil, whose name means "slanderer." It is well for us to remember that the Devil slanders moderate drinkers, calling them drunkards; and that he slanders drinks, calling them evil.

Martin Luther's response to the iconoclasts, who sought to demolish abused objects, has a fitting application to the interplay between alcohol and Christian liberty. He wrote:

Do you suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object which is abused? Men can go wrong with wine and women. Shall we then prohibit and abolish women? The sun, the moon, and the stars have been worshipped. Shall we then pluck them out of the sky? … See how much He has been able to accomplish through me, though I did no more than pray and preach. The Word did it all. Had I wished I might have started a conflagration at Worms. But while I sat still and drank beer with Philip and Amsdorf, God dealt the papacy a mighty blow.

Deuteronomy 14:26 teaches that God's people are to drink "wine" and "strong drink" in God's presence. The New Testament corollary is 1 Corinthians 10, which teaches all drinking for Christians is religious. "Therefore whatsoever you do, whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31).

Thursday, July 5th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church