The consensus position in the Reformed tradition is that Scripture teaches us that alcohol is a good gift from God and that a believer has the right, according to liberty of conscience, to enjoy it in moderation to the glory of God. Drunkenness, however, is a serious sin against the Lord and must be avoided at all costs. Which is why it should come as a surprise to discover an article at a respected Reformed theological website that makes the following statement: "Even in the case of drinking alcohol, it is not entirely clear that drunkenness is always a sin." What possible defense could be given for such an irresponsible statement?
It's difficult to imagine the biblical rationale one might find to support a spiritually dangerous statement about drunkenness. The author of the article appeals to the biblical support of the merriment of wine (Psalm 104:15, Ecclesiastes 10:19) and the seemingly acceptable behavior of the guests at the wedding at Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-10, especially noting verse 10). In light of the way the author uses Scripture to equivocate on the sinfulness of drunkenness, we should remind ourselves of some essential points of interpretation.
1. Descriptive texts should never be used to overturn the plain meaning of prescriptive texts. For example, if we pointed to the Bible's description of Joseph and his brothers' drunkenness in Genesis 43:34 to prove that drunkenness is sometimes acceptable, we would be falling into this error. The historical description of what they did then must not cloud our eyes to the clear teaching of what we must not do (Ephesians 5:18). We must bear in mind that Joseph also practiced divination (Genesis 44:5), which is prohibited by God's Law (Deuteronomy 18:10ff). Surely we wouldn't argue that Deuteronomy 18:10 can't be prohibiting all forms of divination because of the historical description of Joseph's behavior!
2. Figurative texts should never be used to overturn literal texts. Ephesians 5:18 is an exhortation in a letter written to Christians telling them not to be drunk with wine but filled with the Holy Spirit. What if someone cited Song of Solomon 5:1 about being "drunk with love" in order to argue that love drunkenness is acceptable? Hopefully, we would find this method of reasoning to be devoid of...reasoning. It would be no more appropriate to reason along these lines than it would be to defend occasional covetousness on the basis of Paul's statement, "But covet earnestly the best gifts" (1 Corinthians 12:31, KJV).
3. We must remember the progressive nature of revelation. It's illegitimate to use Old Testament passages describing drunkenness to take exception to the clear statement of God's Word: "Do not be drunk with wine which is debauchery." Even if, in brief sections of the Old Testament, God didn't always rebuke His people for the sin of drunkenness, we have the progressive nature of God's revelation to consider. At the same time, is it really unclear that drunkenness is shameful in the Old Testament? Consider Noah's intoxication which includes his shameful exposure of his nakedness (Genesis 9:20-29). Although the focus of that passage is on Ham's sin, Noah doesn't get a pass. John Calvin said that "we are to learn from Noah, what a filthy and detestable crime drunkenness is." Calvin continues: "And let us know, that Noah, by the judgment of God, has been set forth as a spectacle to be a warning to others, that they should not be intoxicated by excessive drinking."
4. The overarching teaching of the Bible must be preserved. The Bible is full of warnings about the dangers of alcohol abuse. Drunkenness abuses God's good gift of fermented beverage. God gave "wine to gladden the heart of man" (Psalm 104:15) and throughout the Bible wine is a symbol of God's abundant blessing (e.g. Isaiah 25:6). In addition to the positive statements about alcohol, there are many stern warnings about the dangers of abusing strong drink. Proverbs 20:1 warns, "Wine is a mocker, strong drink is a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise." We could add to this the list of woes in Proverbs 23:29-35 for "those who tarry over wine." The New Testament contains many exhortations to sober-mindedness (1 Thessalonians 5:6, 8; 1 Peter 1:13, 4:7; 5:8, etc.). The thrust of the Bible's message, then, does not give us the impression that there are appropriate times for drunkenness. It's never the right time to sin against the Lord.
The claim, "it is not entirely clear that drunkenness is always a sin," is a distortion of the biblical message on this important subject. Such a statement runs the risk of having a detrimental impact on a brother or sister who has an alcohol problem. The Holy Spirit, however, will never mislead us if we stick to the parameters of his Word. God the Holy Spirit never uses the word "drunk" as a shorthand for the merriment of wine, and neither should we. May we be as careful as Scripture in approaching this subject so as not to cause a brother to sin."
Logan Almy is the Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Waynesboro, GA.