Thursday, June 16, 2011

Observation, The Analogy of the Faith, and a Glass of Wine (Part 1)

We received the following question from Munene Kiruja (CA), an "On the Box" viewer.

The Question
Hello Soldiers of the LORD,

I heard Mark Spence give some pretty neutral comments about drinking wine on the show today.

I would like to hear what message about this topic he (or anyone else there) gets from Prov 31:4-9, or even Prov 20:1 among others. Or Noah's example.

How can we endorse something that impairs your judgment to know when to stop, knowing that if we fail to stop it also leads to great ruin?
My Personal Practices, Feelings, and Presuppositions

By way of disclosure, allow me to share my personal practices, feelings, and presuppositions as they pertain to the consumption of alcoholic beverages.

I don't drink alcoholic beverages. I never have, even before coming to faith in Jesus Christ. While I've tasted champagne and beer, Mahria and I toasted with 7-Up at our wedding. Again, that was before either of us came to faith in Jesus Christ. Frankly, I don't like the taste.

I don't drink alcoholic beverages because I've seen what drunkenness and alcoholism has done to members of my family, and it has forever left a negative image in my mind.

As a deputy sheriff, I dealt with too many obnoxious, vomiting, self-soiled, belligerent, violent drunkards (both men and women) on the streets and in the back seat of my patrol car to have any desire to consume that which led them to their pitiful state. This is not to say that all people who become intoxicated behave in the before-mentioned ways. Nor is this to say that everyone who drinks gets drunk. But I've seen all of these sinful behaviors (and others) in drunken people, so that's enough for me. Whenever I smell beer, I'm taken back to some of those less than pleasant memories.

As a deputy sheriff and a chaplain I had to knock on the doors of too many homes late at night to tell too many people their loved one(s) would never come home as a result of the careless, selfish, indifferent, and criminal actions of someone who decided to climb behind the wheel of a vehicle while intoxicated. How many times have I done this, you may ask? Does it matter? I did it a number of times, and one was too many.

I have a number of Christian friends that drink alcoholic beverages. The fact that they do imbibe has no bearing on our friendship. My friendship and fellowship with other Christians is not based on our individual positions regarding this issue.

Arguments and Hermeneutic Principles

In this two-part article, I hope to make two primary points: 1) the Bible neither commands nor condemns the consumption of alcoholic beverages, by Christians. Therefore, in the end, it is a matter of one's individual conscience; and 2) while the Christian can consume alcoholic beverages (so long as the result is not drunkenness), there are good biblical reasons for the Christian to abstain from this particular liberty.

In order to make the above arguments, I will employ a couple of important hermeneutic (Bible study) principles. One is "observation." The other is "the analogy of the faith."

The principle of "observation" is executed by trying to determine the answers to at least three questions regarding any given verse or passage of Scripture: what does the verse or passage say; what doesn't the verse or passage say; and what questions come to mind as a result of a simple reading of the text. Observation is distinct from and preliminary to interpretation in that the student is not, at this point in the study process, trying to determine the God-inspired, writer-intended meaning of the text.

The principle of "the analogy of the faith," which is part of the interpretive process, is understood as follows: the best way to determine the meaning of unclear passages of Scripture is by looking to clear passages of Scripture, on the same topic. In other words, let Scripture interpret Scripture.

The topic we’re looking at in this article is a good example of why these two hermeneutical principles are so important to a right understanding of Scripture.

The Bible neither commands nor condemns the consumption of alcoholic beverages, by Christians.

The first passage to which the viewer who submitted the above question refers in an effort to make a case against the consumption of alcoholic beverages is Proverbs 31:4-9.

"It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted. Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more. Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy" (Proverbs 31:4-9).

A key word in this passage is "forget." And it is also important to note that in this passage is a contrast between kings and those who are "perishing" (condemned).

It was not uncommon for condemned criminals to be given an alcoholic concoction to dull their minds and prepare them for execution.

Kings, on the other hand, are encouraged to be careful when consuming alcoholic beverages "lest they drink and forget what has been decreed." Looking at the above passage in its proper context, the writer of the proverb is not issuing a mandate from God against the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Rather, the sage is issuing a strong warning against drunkenness. For an intoxicated king is one who could very well make bad decisions while inebriated.

The above passage provides a warning to leaders against consuming strong drink. The above passage does not issue a command against Christians consuming strong drink.

The next Scripture reference the viewer uses to support their position is Proverbs 20:1. "Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise."

The key phrase in this verse is 'led astray by it [alcohol]."

Again, the emphasis of this verse is not on the mere consumption of alcoholic beverages. Rather, the emphasis is upon consumption to the point of intoxication--drunkenness. There is a distinct difference between the consumption of strong drink and being led astray or controlled by that which is being consumed.

Lastly, the viewer appealed to what was likely Noah's most embarrassing moment to support their case for a biblical prohibition against the consumption of alcoholic beverages.

“Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard he drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.” ~ Genesis 9:20-23

The key phrase in this passage is "he drank of the wine and became drunk." Again, it was not Noah's consumption of wine that was sinful. It was his consumption to the point of intoxication which was both sinful and led to his embarrassment and the cursing of one of his sons.

A common mistake by those who practice eisegesis (forcing a desired presupposition or meaning upon a text of Scripture) instead of exegesis (the art of applying sound hermeneutic principles to draw the true meaning from a text of Scripture) is assigning imperative commands of God to the narrative stories of His Word. Certainly there are life lessons to be learned from reading the narrative passages of Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments, and there are times when narrative passages contain commands of Almighty God. But unless the biblical characters in a narrative passage are articulating specific commands of God, it ought not be immediately assumed by the reader that God is either commanding or condemning behaviors chronicled in such narrative passages.

Interestingly (at least to me) is that while the above scriptures cannot be used to show the Bible condemns the consumption of alcoholic beverages, I will return to these same passages (and others) to make the case that while prohibition of the activity is not biblically-based, abstinence from the activity is. But before I do that (see Part 2), let's employ "the analogy of faith" principle to further sustain the argument that there is no biblical prohibition against the consumption of alcoholic beverages.

There is a plethora of passages in the Word of God that show that the mere consumption of alcoholic beverages, such as wine, so long as the consumption of such beverages does not result in drunkenness, is not sinful.

"And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, 'This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.' For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, 'Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.' So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, 'Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved' (Nehemiah 8:9-11).

After the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt,under Nehemiah's superior leadership (I'm standing next to the wall in the photo), the people of Israel gathered to hear what they had not heard for many, many years--the public reading of the Law of God. Ezra the scribe had the distinct honor of heralding God's Word that day (Nehemiah 8:1-8). The people stood in the square near the Water Gate from early morning to mid-day, listening attentively to the Word of God. How sad it is that so many pastors these days fear preaching for more than thirty minutes on a Sunday morning--fearing their congregations may grow bored or frustrated. But I digress.

Once the reading of God's Word was complete a gifted politician, a godly penman, and the gathered priests exhorted the people to stop mourning and, instead, to celebrate what was a holy day. And in their celebration the people were encouraged to party--to consume good food and good wine. In fact, not only were they to eat, drink and be merry, but they were also instructed to make sure to provide food and wine for any of their neighbors who might lack such party trimmings.

It should be obvious to even the casual reader of the above passage of Scripture that had the mere consumption of wine been sinful in the eyes of God the godly leadership of the people of Israel would not have encouraged the people to sin by consuming wine.

"Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do" (Ecclesiastes 9:7).

John Gill's commentary on this verse is helpful.
Eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; which includes all things necessary and convenient, and which should be used and enjoyed freely and cheerfully; not barely for refreshment, but recreation; not for necessity only, but for pleasure; yet with moderation, not to excess; and with thankfulness to God; and the rather joy and mirth should mix with these things, since to a good man they are in love. It may be observed that it is said "thy bread and thy wine", thine own and not another's; what is got by labour, and in an honest way, and not by rapine and oppression, as Alshech observes; what God in his providence gives, our daily food, what is convenient for us, or is our portion and allotment.
"Therefore I strike you with a grievous blow, making you desolate because of your sins. You shall eat, but not be satisfied, and there shall be hunger within you; you shall put away, but not preserve, and what you preserve I will give to the sword. You shall sow, but not reap; you shall tread olives, but not anoint yourselves with oil; you shall tread grapes, but not drink wine" (Micah 6:13-15).

Part of God's judgment against the wicked would be that they would not enjoy the wine made from their own vineyards. If the consumption of wine is prohibited by God, then why would keeping the people from wine be a form of judgment? The judgment in the above passage is clear. God would make his people toil without receiving the benefits of their labor, one of the benefits being wine.

In fact, the prophet Amos tells the people of Israel that wine would be part of the blessing of the restoration of Israel. "I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit" (Amos 9:14).

The next three verses are not only an application of "the analogy of faith," but also serve as examples of the observation principle--specifically, regarding what the verses do not say.

"And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit" (Ephesians 5:18).

"Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain" (1 Timothy 3:8).

"Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good" (Titus 2:3).

While some may try to use these verses to support a prohibition against the consumption of alcoholic beverages, to do so would be to ignore what the verses do not say. None of the above verses prohibits the consumption of alcohol. What they prohibit in relation to the consumption of alcoholic beverages is drunkenness and addiction.

And we cannot leave this part of the discussion without citing what is probably the most significant passage of Scripture to refute the notion that the Bible prohibits the consumption of alcoholic beverages.
On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."

Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, "Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast." So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now." This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.
Now before you rush to fill the comment text box with the argument that the wine in Jesus' day was really just grape juice with a little kick, you should know that the Bible makes a distinction between grape juice and wine.
Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, when either a man or a woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to separate himself to the LORD, he shall separate himself from wine and strong drink. He shall drink no vinegar made from wine or strong drink and shall not drink any juice of grapes or eat grapes, fresh or dried. All the days of his separation he shall eat nothing that is produced by the grapevine, not even the seeds or the skins (Numbers 6:2-4, emphasis mine).
If the consumption of alcoholic beverages is sinful in God's eyes, then God in the flesh, the Lord Jesus Christ, would not have provided the wedding party with more wine. Does any follower of Christ believe that the incarnate God-Man would choose as His first recorded miracle the turning of water into wine if the mere consumption of wine is sinful? And let it not be argued that the God-Man used the miracle to tempt fallible people, for God does not tempt anyone (James 1:13).

While there is no all-encompassing prohibitions in the Bible against the consumption of alcoholic beverages, I did find a few specific groups of people in the Bible to whom such a prohibition applies. They were: Aaron and his descendants (the Levitical priesthood) while serving in the Tabernacle (Leviticus 10:8-11); Old Testament priests when he enters the inner court of the Temple (Ezekiel 44:21); and those committed to the Nazirite Vow (Numbers 6:1-21).

While the Christian can consume alcoholic beverages (so long as the result is not drunkenness), there are good biblical reasons for the Christian to abstain from this particular liberty. And that brings us to the second point of this article, which I will share in Part 2.