Review: Christians and Alcohol: A Scriptural Case for Abstinence

Christians and Alcohol: A Scriptural Case for Abstinence
by Randy Jaeggli, published by Bob Jones University Seminary
© Bob Jones University Press, 2014.

Reviewed by Don Johnson

The subject of alcohol has been a contentious one among Christians since at least the beginning of the Temperance Movement in the 19th century and continues to trouble the church to this day. While that is no surprise, we find it surprising that the debate has now become contentious among the most conservative Christians to the point that we find we must argue within the circles of Christian fundamentalism, with some wishing to share our label but apparently pushing for greater latitude in this area of conduct. Thankfully, leaders among us have spoken with no uncertain terms against the use of alcohol by Christians. The book, Christians and Alcohol, by Randy Jaeggli provides a welcome support for those who stand for total abstinence when it comes to alcohol. It is well worth the investment of your time and treasure to buy, read, and absorb the information found in this book.

Dr. Jaeggli introduces with some reflections from personal experience and shocking observations concerning the use of alcohol on American college campuses. In spite of these statistics, it is tragic to observe the shift of thinking among evangelical Christians on alcohol consumption. This raises serious questions for those who hold to the abstinence position. Dr. Jaeggli proposes to “evaluate the question of drinking from an exegetical methodology.” (p. 5) He then defines that methodology by explaining normal hermeneutical methods: grammatical, historical, contextual and theological interpretations of data and Scripture. He states unequivocally his objective:

I hope to persuade readers that a sound interpretive analysis of the biblical data, together with an understanding of the crucial importance of being good stewards of our bodies, mandates that Christians today wisely refrain from any consumption of alcoholic beverages. (p. 9)

Chapter 1 lays out four crucial considerations that must be taken into account when coming to one’s own position on alcohol. First, we must acknowledge that in ancient times fermentation of grape juice was unavoidable. Modern methods of juice preservation simply were unavailable in those days. Second, modern alcoholic beverages are far more intoxicating than what was available in ancient times. There are a number of reasons for this, including the practice of dilution by the ancients of all cultures. Third, scripture warns about the danger of alcohol. Those who wish to advocate for drinking simply cannot ignore the multiple warnings found in Scripture. Finally, Christian liberty has limits. Those advocating for liberty themselves put limits on the liberty to consume alcohol, Dr. Jaeggli offers reasons why the limits ought to be much tighter than is supposed. In this chapter he includes a quote from a Southern Baptist, Dr. Danny Akins:

Moderation is not the cure for the liquor problem. Moderation is the cause of the liquor problem. Becoming an alcoholic does not begin with the last drink, it always begins with the first. Just leave it alone. (see footnote on p. 24 for full citation)

Chapter 2 discusses the use of alcohol in Old Testament times. The subject is considered primarily in the form of a word study on the Hebrew word for wine, yayin. Brief studies of the words tirosh, ‘asis, and shekar are also included. In this chapter, Dr. Jaeggli explains why positive references to wine cannot be unfermented (pp. 40-44), but gives a logical and theological explanation of the positive references which precludes any use of them to promote a drinking culture (pp. 44-48). He then works through references to wine as a curse (pp. 48-58) In commenting on Solomon’s prohibition of even looking at wine (Pr 23.31), he comments “Enticement begins with the first longing gaze, so do not take it!” (p. 55) Besides warnings, the OT uses wine as a metaphor of judgement (pp. 58-60). It seems strange for Christians to use the positive references to pervert the warnings and metaphors of judgement that fill the pages of the OT. Finally, the study notes notable OT examples of abstinence (pp. 60-67). On these examples, Dr. Jaeggli concludes:

The existence of these Old Testament instances of voluntary and mandatory abstention from even the diluted wine of the ancient period is instructive for us today. Modern wine is highly intoxicating, and modern life is generally more demanding of mental prowess. We should be leading people toward greater devotion to Christ and further away from the ungodly world system that Satan controls. Total abstinence from alcoholic beverages enhances such leadership. (p. 65)

In Chapter 3, the book turns to the New Testament period, again with a word study, and this time the primary word of the New Testament, oinos. There are brief comments on gleukos at the end of the chapter. Jaeggli acknowledges that in the New Testament there are some positive references to wine, but he successfully explains the differences between that era and modern times and shows why these references cannot be any excuse for a liberalizing standard today. As in the OT, the NT also uses wine as a picture of sin and God’s judgement. The forcefulness of these passages also ought to give pause to those advocating for relaxed standards.

Chapter 4 is a discussion of various views of alcohol from Church history. An interesting passage from Cyprian is cited where it is quite clear that the wine used by the early church for communion was diluted, and this, to Cyprian’s mind, was a much more appropriate picture than the use of straight wine. Various attitudes of the Reformers and other historical leaders are surveyed, including a discussion of the views of the Temperance movement. Some of the excesses of this movement are also noted. This is where most of the discussion in this chapter was centered, as Dr. Jaeggli addressed what is called the “Two-Wine Theory,” the teaching that positive references to wine in the Bible are references to unfermented juice. He shows how this view is untenable, but also shows that one can argue for total abstinence without holding this view. For example, consider this quote from John Broadus:

The pure wine of Palestine, in our Lord’s time, taken as was the custom with a double quantity of water (a man who ‘drinks unmixed,’ among the Greeks, meant a hard drinker), and used in moderation, was about as stimulating as our tea and coffee, and was used by the Saviour and by others just as we use them. The case is altered now, for such pure and mild wines would be very hard to get, and they are not needed because we have tea and coffee, and their use would tend to encourage the use of distilled liquors, which are so much more powerful and dangerous. Therefore it is better to abstain from the use of wine for our own sake and as an example to others. (for the full citation, see the footnote on p. 115)

Chapter 5 addresses the medical perspective. The basic premise of the chapter is that it is our obligation to take care of our bodies as the temple of the Holy Spirit. The book warns about misstating the case on medical issues (for example, fermentation is a process of life, not death, as some allege). But Dr. Jaeggli goes on to highlight the massive costs to society brought on by alcohol, concluding “there are no compelling reasons to justify drinking today and many reasons to cause the wise believer to stay as far away from becoming ensnared by the mind-altering potential of alcohol.” (p. 124) The chapter closes with a discussion of the risks of moderate alcohol consumption, including the interesting observation that medical people advocate moderation not to get people to start drinking at all, but rather to get people to stop drinking so much. The problem in our society is not moderation!

Finally, chapter 6 closes the book by discussing “How Drinking Is Incompatible with Holiness.” This surely is the crux of the issue for Christians. The fact is that our lives ought to be oriented towards God and the one motivation that should guide our choices is love for the Lord. Holiness is the evidence of a truly God-centered focus of life. It mandates a negative response to the world system. Here, Dr. Jaeggli clearly explains what that world system is. He points out how drinking alcohol today is a form of worldliness, motivated by a lust to escape reality and marks a common bond with other worldly people – it is the badge of the modern sophisticate, after all. He offers a striking illustration provided by one of his students which shows how pervasive the view of the world is on this matter. (p. 137) In light of this, “The avoidance of alcohol is one of the clearest outward behaviours signaling a distinctive difference in a Christian’s lifestyle. We ought to use such clarity as an opportunity to present the good news of salvation in Christ to everyone who asks why we refuse to identify with Satan’s world system.” (p. 138)

All in all, this reviewer applauds the effort made to put out this book. It is a replacement volume to an initial (and shorter) book that was put out some years ago. I applauded that book at that time as well, but unfortunately, a vocal group of men misunderstood the methodology of the book and used it to attack the author and publisher. I thought that attack was unfortunate and unchristian, but the end result was a stronger book. To use a much used (over-used?) term, it is a must-read. For anyone involved in Christian ministry today, you must get a copy of this book, both as a reference tool for your own library and as a resource for discipleship.

I’d like to close by noting this — many leading fundamentalists endorse the subject of the book. We include the endorsement of our president, Dr. John Vaughn:

Christians and Alcohol: A Scriptural Case for Abstinence is a must-read. I wish I had read this book early in my ministry before preaching incorrect information in a sincere effort to discourage drinking. Dr. Jaeggli’s scholarship is thorough, his arguments well-reasoned, his writing clear and concise. Dr. Jaeggli ‘hope[s] the reader will carefully consider the value of [his] methodology and conclusions and be persuaded in his own mind concerning what he should believe about this important subject.’ Surely, the objective reader will conclude, along with Dr. Jaeggli, and many others of us, that total abstinence is the only position to take.”[1]

Others whole-heartedly endorsing the material in the book include: Stephen Jones, Bob Jones III, Steve Pettit, Mark Minnick, John R. Van Gelderen, David Shumate and others. While in the end, God is the authority and the Bible is our guide, it is significant that Bible-believing fundamentalist leaders speak with one voice on this issue.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.

  1. John Vaughn, President, FBFI, from the endorsements included in the front matter to the book. []