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Book Review: Alcohol Today: Abstinence in an Age of Indulgence (Part II)

February 22, 2010

In the previous post, I attempted to accurately present Lumpkins’ argument that  abstinence is the historically, exegetically, and morally superior argument.  I want to now interact with the three notable claims that I posted in the prior post.  While I do appreciate Lumpkins’ desire to hold Christians morally accountable, in the end, his book provides no compelling support for the view of abstinence.  In fact, I would argue that Lumpkins spends a great deal of time avoiding the issue.

1. Let’s begin by looking at Lumpkins’ claim that abstinence is the ‘historic’ Christian stance.  As I mentioned earlier, Lumpkins argues historically the church has vouched for abstinence in regards to alcohol.  He then devotes an entire chapter to this historic stance.  Unfortunately, he offers no historical evidence prior to the 19th century for this claim.  He does mention on page 50 that a ‘strong thread of abstinence from intoxicants beginning in the first-century church can easily be traced,” but then offers no examples!  Instead, Lumpkins focuses primarily on the Prohibition movement and hails it as the historical stance.  There is a major problem with this view.  Mainly, it is not representative of the full Christian tradition from the first century until now.  It is not the nature of this review to go into a full blown discussion of the historical position; my main point is that for readers to take seriously Lumpkins’ argument, it would be necessary for him to offer a comprehensive case for abstinence as the historic position.  However, it is my understanding that the majority position concerning alcohol has been moderation (I know Wikipedia is not the most scholarly of sources but see this article).

So while it is true that “recent trends among Christians in the United States are toward moderation” (see first post), this is only because we are moving out of the  residual effects of Prohibition, and back towards a more faithful understanding of the historical tradition.  Most Christians throughout history have supported the moderate usage of alcohol.  The Puritans (of all people!) were okay with moderate consumption of alcohol.  While John Wesley opposed the drinking of ‘distilled liquors’ he did not obstinately oppose the moderate use of beer and wine.  It seems that the reason Lumpkins must devote all of his efforts to the Prohibition period is because that is the only historical period in Christian history that explicitly prohibits the use of alcohol.

2. Lumpkins’ view of that the Bible’s understanding of different types of “wine” is beside the point.   Regardless of the different words for wine, and the claim that the ancient world knows little of alcoholic beverages (which is certainly debatable), the fact of the matter is that the Bible condemns drunkenness not usage.  Lumpkins may think that the claim “There are no scriptures that say ‘don’t drink’” is ignorant (110), but I would suggest it’s more a matter of logic.  If drinking alcoholic beverages was inherently sinful, then why wouldn’t that be the universal testimony of scripture?  Why didn’t Paul say “Don’t drink wine, but be filled with the Spirit” instead of “Don’t be drunk with wine” (Ephesians 5)?

It just seems to me that if the Biblical position was abstinence concerning alcohol it would have been clear.  Christians throughout history have had no problem condemning adultery as a sinful act because it is explicitly forbidden in scripture.  No such prohibition exists for alcohol.  This leads me to my final point.

3. Lumpkins assumes that because there are certain moral absolutes in Scripture, then all moral issues must be absolute.  He then proceeds to use the examples of God’s forbidding Adam and Eve from eating of the tree in the garden, God’s forbidding the worship of idols, the forbidding of stealing, or coveting a neighbor’s wife as examples that show that abstinence rather than moderation is the principle given in the Bible for moral issues (101).  In fact, he equates moderation with relativism (see the quote in the third point of the first post).

Now it doesn’t take a genius to see the logical inconsistency here.  He assumes that since there are moral absolutes in Scripture, that all issues must be absolute.  But why must we jump to this conclusion?  I hope a couple of examples will suffice.  When God repeatedly condemns gluttony in the scriptures, He doesn’t mean that we should never eat!  The very idea of gluttony is that it is an issue of immoderation.  The view of money in the Bible is largely that of moderation:  money is not intrinsically evil, but can be abused when an immoderate trust is placed in it.  I would suggest that the idea of the Sabbath is that of moderation concerning work.  God commands us to rest so that we don’t work all the time.

It seems that there are certainly principles in the Bible that are absolute—and the Bible lets us know what they are.  In the Bible we find the universal condemnation of many issues—but the consumption of alcohol is not one of them.  That is why Lumpkins must ultimately appeal to moral absolutes concerning other issues to build his entire case for the abstaining of alcohol.  He cannot provide once instance where Scripture unequivocally condemns its use.

In the end, Lumpkins would have done much better to develop the idea of abstentionism—the idea that alcohol is not intrinsically evil, but should be avoided by Christians as a sign of wisdom and charity (See the Wikpedia article and look for abstentionism).  If there is any case to be made for abstaining from alcohol, it must be made here.


8 Comments leave one →
  1. Matt Bohlman permalink
    February 26, 2010 1:16

    This was well written and I especially liked point 3. A solid job all around.

    • jonathangroover permalink*
      February 26, 2010 8:45

      Thanks Matt! I tried to be as fair as I could be, but with radically different views it was a challenge at times. 🙂

  2. February 27, 2010 12:36

    Thanks for these reviews. I agree with you. The “historic” Christian stance offered is very telling.

    • jonathangroover permalink*
      February 27, 2010 9:15

      Mark, thanks for stopping by. 🙂 Yeah, the view given in this book is very one sided.

  3. TIM permalink
    March 21, 2010 10:35

    Mark I agree with you on all points.To add on is that on of the sacrfices that was to offered to God in Law was strong drink as one translation puts it and a acholic breverage as another puts it.If it was prohibited by God why would he require this as an offering to him?

  4. March 25, 2010 9:44

    I just stumbled across this review from Hannibal Books tweets (why they are willing to link to your review, I don’t know). You are absolutely correct in your assessment. I read the book shortly after it came out and I was blown away that the only historical reference was during the Prohibition era. I also noted that there was no Gospel to the argument, it was all “This is what is moral” not “This is what is appropriate or inappropriate for Christians who have been ransomed by Christ”. Its moralism at its peak, and has no gospel. I also was blown away by how little citations there were for his claims, especially in the introduction where he attempted to tug on heart strings instead of using logic and reason.

    Well done on the review.


    • jonathangroover permalink*
      March 26, 2010 10:06

      Hey Jacob, thanks for stopping by! I was asked to do the book review by Hannibal, so it was very kind of them to place my review on their site even though I strongly opposed the views found in the book. I attempted to be charitable in my critique, but it was very difficult when there were so many logical leaps and poor research. Thanks for taking the time to read and for the positive feedback.


  5. Joshua King permalink
    October 23, 2011 7:45

    Dear Jonathan,
    I have always shared your view and convictions.Your articles and reviews are well written and I wish I could write as thoroughly and clearly as this.
    Some people should never drink.Some should enjoy a little red wine and beer.Let every man be fully persuaded in his heart.The godly man avoids all extremes -NIV- Moderation could mean abstinence for him who cannot control his longing and a little for him who can.
    Good job and God ble4s you.

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