Exactly one week ago, I sat at my laptop and composed my response to Danny Akin’s rejection of drinking alcohol. Who would know (except God) that one week later I would be composing my response to Dr. Paige Patterson’s BP article rejecting alcohol? There are many similarities between Akin and Patterson’s arguments, but a few differences. I am grateful that Dr. Patterson, President of one of our SBC entities, has chosen to speak to this issue. However, again I am disappointed with the argumentation. Let me briefly summarize his argument and then provide my response.
Unlike Akin, Patterson does not employ any emotional arguments in his article. He gives a brief explanation of four types of fermenting in NT times. Then, he provides an “abstinence” hermeneutic for various NT passages that discuss wine. He inserts some added observations and concludes by reminding his readers of the crux of his argument (which is woven throughout the article): there are three categories: the prohibited, the acceptable, and God’s ideal. Patterson would have his readers believe that, though drinking alcohol is not rejected by Scripture, abstinence is “God’s ideal”.
Here are my thoughts on Patterson’s argument. First, I applauded Patterson for seeking to deal honestly with certain passages (specifically John 2.1-11 and 1 Timothy 5.23). I disagree with his interpretations (which I will get to shortly), but I am grateful that he did not simply skip over them. Second, I do believe there are legitimate categories such as Patterson has outlined: prohibited, acceptable, and ideal for the Christian life. Third, he is right to point out that “one must acknowledge that the ancients, however noble, imbibed without reluctance. Evidently the prophets and the apostles did not view this as wrong, so long as it was a small glass of wine . . . taken with the noon or evening meal”. Despite these points of agreement, I find his overall argument to be unconvincing, at best, and in error, at worst.
First, Patterson’s application of the three categories seems to be too convenient. If one pressed these categories upon other issues within Scripture, would Patterson be as quick to come to the same conclusions. For instance, he argues (rightly) that polygamy is an unacceptable practice. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7, notes that marriage (and the accompanying marital act of sex) is acceptable, but that singleness is the preferable (i.e., ideal) state (see 1 Cor. 7.25-26, 28-29, 34-35, 40). Patterson’s final plea in his article “Can it be anything less than sin for a believer who is genuinely grateful for the atoning power of Christ in his life to pursue anything other than the highest — God’s ideal — the best that he can be for Christ?” rings only hollow as his ‘grid’ pertains to marriage. Paul seems to believe singleness is ideal. Then, according to Patterson, why would anyone grateful for the atoning power of Christ in his life pursue anything other than the highest — God’s ideal — the best that he can be for Christ?
Second, Patterson mentions that the first time wine is ever mentioned in the Bible (Gen 9.21), it is seen as causing Noah to sin. What Patterson fails to mention is that the second pericope in which wine is mentioned (Gen 14.18) is the story of Melchizedek’s encounter with Abram. Melchizedek brings out “bread and wine” and the text describes Melchizedek as “a priest of God Most High”. Melchizedek blessed Abram and then blessed Abram’s God. There is no explicit statement that those gathered ate the bread and drank the wine, but common sense would lead one to just such a conclusion. I wonder if Patterson is willing to say the priest-archetype for Christ (Ps. 110.4; Heb. 7.17) did only ‘the acceptable’ but not ‘God’s ideal’?
Third, one of Patterson’s arguments is that “the noticeable absence of any mention of wine prior to Noah might indicates [sic] that men, in their pristine state, were not drawn to wine. In any case, the fuller revelation in Christ, plus the development of superior medications and purer drinking substances, render the whole subject passé for the believer.” This is silly on multiple levels. First, I am not sure how he is using the word “pristine” when referencing pre-Noah humanity. The standard definition is “perfect” or “unblemished”. Certainly Patterson is not arguing that those before Noah were sinless. However, I am not sure what sort of ‘secondary’ definition he is using. In addition, that the Noah periscope is the first mention of wine in the Bible does not ‘have’ to mean anything other than the obvious (it is the first time the word is mentioned). Patterson’s inference that pre-Noah humanity may not have drunk wine is no more reasonable than saying women may not have had menstrual cycles until Gen 31.35, the first mention of “the manner of women” that fell upon Rachel (though she was lying to hide the idols under her saddle). Also, to call the “whole subject passé” is too simplistic. His case for superior medicine and better drinking substances does not negate the celebratory function of wine, as found in both the Old and New Testaments.
Fourth, his use of 1 Timothy 3.3 appears to be anything but a straightforward reading of the text. Patterson writes “The bishop (pastor) is to be free from wine (1 Timothy 3:3). One would presume that this admonition, at least in part, is for an example. If so, here again the ideal would be total abstinence for all who make up the body of Christ, i.e., the church.” However, that is absolutely NOT what the verse says. Paul wrote to Timothy concerning elders/pastors: that they be “not addicted to wine”. There is a vast divide between Paul’s words and Patterson’s application. Paul writes “Do not be addicted”; Patterson reads “Do not ever drink”. Those are not the same concepts.
Fifth, I take great umbrage with the implications of Patterson’s following statement: “For the believer to say, ‘Let me get as close to sin as I can without being guilty,’ indicates a strange mentality indeed!” Rightly has he identified that drunkenness is a sin. However, to equate drinking alcohol as trying to get as close to sin without being guilty is illogical. If we apply that to gluttony, then one should never eat. If we apply it to sexual temptation, then one should never turn on a TV, drive in areas where there are billboards, or open up a magazine (much less EVER get near the internet). Why is this “logic” only used with alcohol?
Sixth, Patterson’s statement that “the Bible has almost no good word about [wine] and, in fact, usually associates tragedy and sin with the use of wine” simply doesn’t hold up. Any simple electronic word search of “wine” will produce a multiplicity of responses. What about Jacob’s blessing to his son Judah (the tribe from which Jesus would descend), that his eyes would be “dull from wine and his teeth white from milk” (Gen. 49.12)? It doesn’t appear that this is a condemnation, but a praise that he would have an abundance of wine and milk to drink. Such is the example of just one usage of wine in the Bible.
In conclusion, I am still utterly unconvinced that abstinence is the Biblical mandate for Christians. In addition, such a prescription for all leaders, especially in light of no clear instruction from the Bible smacks of legalism. I know many will claim that abstinence is the ‘wise’ choice, but such is, in my opinion, only a flimsy position. Last night I had dinner with a group of people, one of which currently serves on staff at a church in my town. This person ordered one beer to drink while eating dinner. This person was not the driver of a vehicle and during our dinner, exhibited absolutely no change in behavior due to alcohol consumption. There were six of us at dinner; only two of us abstained from drinking and the funny thing was that no one made a deal of it at all. I honestly believe it is a cultural issue: (generally speaking) those over 35 see all alcohol as sinful while those under 35 appreciate moderation. So, should we just wait till the ‘old guard’ dies off before we press for toleration? I do not think this is ‘wise’. I don’t suspect they would allow such generational differences to be pushed on them if younger people said that technology is so important that no one serving in leadership could be without a cell phone and detailed knowledge of how to email, surf the web, and have their own blog. I know comparing issues is apples and oranges. However, since the consumption of (or abstinence from) alcohol is NOT an ESSENTIAL, then the restrictive view should not be forced on the entire convention.
Alethes (Truthful) Baptist