Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University

A comment I often hear when meeting readers of my books in different parts of the world, goes something like this: “I enjoyed immensely your book on . . . , but I must confess that I haven’t finished reading it yet.” Reading only a portion of a book often means missing what could be the most important part of its content and failing to gain a complete picture of the subject presented.

Partly out of consideration toward those readers whose busy lifestyle makes it difficult to read a book through systematically to the end, and partly out of a desire to give at the outset an overview of the issues discussed, I decided to try something new. Instead of giving a summary of this book at the end by way of conclusion, I am presenting a preview of its content at the beginning. The concept of a preview is hardly new. The underlying assumption is that if a person likes the preview, he or she will be motivated to purchase the product. Applied to this study, it is my hope that an introductory preview will accomplish two objectives:

(1) provide an overview of the various issues examined and conclusions reached; 
(2) stimulate readers to read the whole book to gain a fuller understanding of the many issues discussed.

This book addresses from a Biblical perspective the most prevailing, costly and destructive habit of our society, the drinking of alcoholic beverages.

A Look at the Drinking Problem 

The study begins in Chapter 1 with a look at the drinking problem in America today and our Christian responsibility toward it. The drinking of alcoholic beverages by over 100 million Americans is rightly regarded by social analysts as America’s number-one public enemy. This “beloved enemy,” as Jack Van Impe calls it, claims at least 100,000 American lives per year, 25 times as many as all illegal drugs combined.

The economic cost to the American society of the use of alcohol is estimated by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at $117 billion a year. This staggering figure includes the cost of premature deaths, reduced production and special treatments.

The real human cost of alcohol, however, transcends any statistical estimate of deaths, disabilities or dollar figures. A 1987 Gallup Poll indicates that 1 in 4 families are troubled by alcohol. This means that more than 61 million Americans are affected by some alcohol-related problems such as retarded children, divorce, violence in the home, crime, sickness and death.

A Christian Responsibility 

Christian churches bear considerable responsibility for the inestimable human and economic costs of alcohol, because through their beliefs, teachings and preaching they are able to influence the moral values and practices of society, possibly more than does any other institution. For example, in the early part of this century evangelical churches played a major role in influencing the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States on January 16, 1919, outlawing the “manufacture, sale or transportation” of alcoholic beverages.

Since the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, however, most churches have abandoned their stand for total abstinence, encouraging ” moderation” instead. Unfortunately, moderation has led over 18 million Americans to become immoderate drinkers, because alcohol is a habit-forming narcotic which weakens one’s capacity for self-control.

The moderationists position rests on the belief that Scripture condemns the immoderate use of alcohol but approves its moderate use. This belief is in turn based on the assumption that the Bible knows only of fermented wine (“one wine theory”) which it considers as a divine blessing to be enjoyed with moderation. According to this theory, any condemnation of wine in the Bible refers not to the kind of wine, but to the amount consumed.

Moral or Medical Issue? 

By maintaining that the Bible sanctions the moderate use of alcoholic beverages, moderationists have led people to believe that drinking alcohol is not a moral but a medical issue. It is not a transgression of a God-given principle, but a habit which can harm one’s health, if abused. The elimination of any sinful connotation from the use of alcohol has had an enormous influence on the drinking habits of millions of Christians. It has provided Christians with an alleged Biblical and moral justification for drinking alcohol, thus depriving them of a Biblical and moral conviction for abstaining from intoxicating beverages.

In view of the immense influence the moderationists view has had on the drinking habits of millions of Christians, the major objective of this study has been to examine its fundamental assumption, namely, that the Bible sanctions a moderate use of alcoholic beverages. Since this assumption is dictated by the belief that the terms for “wine” in the Bible always mean “fermented wine,” I began this investigation by ascertaining the Biblical and historical usage of such terms.

The Meaning of “Wine.” 

The objective of the survey conducted in Chapter 2 was to ascertain if the terms used for “wine” in the Bible denote exclusively fermented wine or inclusively either fermented or unfermented wine. I traced the usage of the word “wine” backward, from English, to Latin, Greek and finally to Hebrew. The survey shows that the four related words—wine in English, vinum in Latin, oinos in Greek and yayin in Hebrew—have been used historically to refer to the juice of the grape, whether fermented or unfermented. This significant finding discredits the claim that the Bible knows only fermented wine, which it approves when used moderately. The truth of the matter is that the Bible knows both fermented wine, which it disapproves, and unfermented grape juice, which it approves.

“Wine” in Biblical Perspective 

Building on the conclusions reached in Chapter 2, I proceeded in Chapter 3 to examine the reasons for the Biblical approval and disapproval of wine. What I found is that the positive references to “wine” have to do with unfermented and unintoxicating grape juice. Because of its natural and nourishing properties, grape juice was fittingly used to represent the divine blessing of material prosperity (Gen 27:28; 49:10-11; Deut 33:28), the blessing of the messianic age (Joel 2:18-19; Jer 31:10-12; Amos 9:13, 14), the free offer of God’s saving grace (Is 55:1), the wholesome joy God offers to His people (Ps 104:14-15; 4:7), and the acknowledgment of God through the use of grape juice as tithe, offerings and libations (Num 18:12; Deut 14:23; Ex 29:40; Lev 23:13).

On the other hand, the negative references to “wine” have to do with fermented and intoxicating wine. Some of the reasons Scripture condemns the use of alcoholic beverages are that they distort the perception of reality (Is 28:7; Prov 23:33); they impair the capacity to make responsible decisions (Lev 10:9-11); they weaken moral sensitivities and inhibitions (Gen 9:21; 19:32; Hab 2:15; Is 5:11-12); they cause physical sickness (Prov 23:20-21; Hos 7:5; Is 19:14; Ps 60:3); and they disqualify for both civil and religious service (Prov 31:4-5; Lev 10:9-11; Ezek 44:23; 1 Tim 3:2-3; Titus 1:7-8).

The Preservation of Wine

A major objection against the view that Scripture approves the use of unfermented grape juice is the alleged impossibility in Bible times of preserving grape juice unfermented. Thus, I devoted Chapter 4 to probing this popular assumption by investigating the testimonies of ancient writers regarding the art of preserving fruits and wines in general and grape juice in particular. To my surprise I discovered that the ancients were far more knowledgeable in the art of preserving fruits and wines than is generally believed.

Contrary to popular opinion, the problems the ancients encountered in preserving fermented wine were as great as, if not actually greater than, those faced in preserving unfermented grape juice. To prevent fermented wine from becoming acid, mouldy, or foul-smelling, vintners used a host of preservatives such as salt, sea-water, liquid or solid pitch, boiled-down must, marble dust, lime, sulphur fumes and crushed iris.

In comparison to preserving fermented wine, preserving grape juice unfermented was a relatively simpler process. It was accomplished by boiling down the juice to a syrup, or by separating the fermentable pulp from the juice of the grape by means of filtration, or by placing the grape juice in sealed jars which were immersed in a pool of cold water, or by fumigating the wine jars with sulphur before sealing them. The use of such techniques clearly indicates that the means of preserving grape juice without fermentation were known and used in the ancient world. This conclusion is indirectly supported by the teachings and example of Jesus.

Jesus and Wine 

The next logical step was to examine the major wine-related stories or sayings of Jesus since these are commonly used to prove that Christ made, commended, used and even commanded the use of alcoholic wine. In Chapter 5 I went into considerable detail to examine these claims. The conclusion of my analysis is that they are devoid of textual, contextual and historical support.

The “good wine” Jesus made at Cana (John 2:10) was “good” not because of its high alcoholic content, but because it was fresh, unfermented grape juice. This is indicated by external and internal considerations. Externally, contemporary authors, such as Pliny and Plutarch, attest that “good wines” were those which did not intoxicate, having had their alcoholic potency removed. Internally, moral consistency demands that Christ could not have miraculously produced between 120 to 160 gallons of intoxicating wine for the use of men, women and children gathered at the Cana’s wedding feast, without becoming morally responsible for prolonging and increasing their intoxication. Scriptural and moral consistency requires that “the good wine” produced by Christ was fresh, unfermented grape juice. This is supported by the very adjective used to describe it, namely kalos, which denotes that which is morally excellent, instead of agathos, which means simply good.

The “new wine” Jesus commended through the parable of the new wineskins (Luke 5:37-38; Mark 2:22) was unfermented must, either boiled or filtered, because not even new wineskins could withstand the pressure of the gas produced by fermenting new wine.

The self-description of Jesus as “eating and drinking” (Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34) does not imply that He used alcoholic wine, but rather that He freely associated with people at their meals and elsewhere. The phrase “eating and drinking” was used idiomatically to describe Christ’s social lifestyle.

The “fruit of the vine” Christ commanded to be used as a memorial of His redeeming blood (Matt 26:28-29; Mark 14:24-25) was not fermented wine, which in the Scripture represents human depravity and divine indignation, but pure unfermented grape juice, which is a fitting emblem of Christ’s untainted blood shed for the remission of our sins. This conclusion was established through a study of the language of the Last Supper, the Jewish Passover wine, the Passover law of fermentation, the consistency of the symbol and the survival of the use of unfermented grape juice at the Lord’s Supper. Most telling is the fact that Josephus calls the freshly squeezed grape juice “the fruit of the vine.” This establishes unequivocally that the phrase was used to designate the sweet, unfermented juice of the grape. The evidences submitted shows that Jesus abstained from all intoxicating substances and gave no sanction to His followers for using them.

Wine in the Apostolic Church 

The way the Apostolic Church understood, preached and practiced the teachings of Jesus and of the Old Testament regarding the use of alcoholic beverages provides a most valuable verification and clarification as to whether Scripture teaches moderation or abstinence. In view of the fundamental importance attached to the witness of the Apostolic Church, my next logical step was to examine in Chapter 6 the apostolic teachings regarding the use of wine in particular and of intoxicating substances in general.

This investigation proved to be the most rewarding. Contrary to the prevailing perception, I found that the New Testament is amazingly consistent in its teaching of abstinence from the use of alcoholic beverages. The very passages often used to support the moderationists view, under close scrutiny were found to negate such a view, teaching abstinence instead. For example, the irony of the mockers’ charge that on the day of Pentecost the apostles were drunk on gleukos, that is, on the grape juice which apparently was their common beverage (Acts 2:13), provides an indirect but important proof of their abstemious life-style and inferentially of the life-style of their Master. There would have been no point in the mockers’ attributing to unfermented grape juice the cause of the disciples’ strange actions, if it was not common knowledge that the apostles abstained from intoxicating wine. The intended jibewas that the disciples were such naíve simpletons they got drunk on grape juice!

Similarly, Paul’s reference to drunkenness at the communion table of the Corinthian church (1 Cor 11:21) offers no support for a moderate use of alcoholic wine, for two reasons. First, whatever was done at Corinth was a departure from the instructions Paul had delivered to the church (1 Cor 11:23); thus, the Corinthians’ conduct constitutes a warning rather than an example for us. Second, a study of the meaning of the verb methuo (“satiated”) and of the implications of Paul’s admonitions, clearly suggests that the problem at Corinth was indulgence in eating rather than intoxication with alcoholic wine.

I found one of the most powerful Biblical indictments against intoxicating wine in Ephesians 5:18, where Paul condemns wine as the cause of debauchery and shows the irreconcilable contrast between the spirit of wine and the Holy Spirit of God. To my great surprise, however, I found that most English translations and commentaries have chosen to translate or interpret Ephesians 5:18 by making “drunkenness” rather than “wine” the cause of debauchery. This was surprising to me because not only the Catholic and Protestant Italian translations, with which I am most familiar, but also numerous other ancient and modern translations, all translate Paul’s text as saying that in the very nature of wine is debauchery. It seems that some English translators had such a predilection for wine that they decided, to borrow the words of Ernest Gordon, to “save the face of wine while condemning drunkenness.”

The translators’ bias toward wine became most evident in the study of the apostolic admonitions to abstinence, expressed through the verb nepho and the adjective nephalios. The first meaning of the verb is “to abstain from wine” and of the adjective “abstinent, without wine.” Yet these words have been consistently translated with their secondary sense of being “temperate, sober, steady,” rather than by their primary sense of being “abstinent.” Such biased and inaccurate translations have misled many sincere Christians into believing that the Bible teaches moderation in the use of alcoholic beverages, rather than abstinence from them.

It was equally surprising for me to discover that the fundamental reason given by Peter and Paul for their call to a life of mental vigilance and physical abstinence is eschatological, namely, preparation to live in the holy presence of Christ at His soon Coming. This reason has added significance for Christians like the Seventh-day Adventists, who accept the Biblical teachings on the Second Advent literally rather than existentially, that is, as a future realization of our present expectations rather than a present experience of the future. To abstain from intoxicating substances represents a tangible response to God’s invitation to make concrete preparation for the physical return of Christ. The analysis of the apostolic teachings regarding alcoholic beverages presented in Chapter 6, the longest in the book, provides in my view the most compelling defense of the Biblical principle of abstinence from intoxicating beverages.

Some Misunderstood Passages 

To be fair to those who find support for their moderationists position in certain Biblical passages, I devoted Chapter 7 to an extensive analysis of five of such passages. The study of each text in the light of its immediate and larger context, the historical customs of the time and the overall teaching of Scripture, has shown that none of them contradict the Biblical imperative for abstinence. On the contrary, some of them indirectly but conclusively support abstinence.

Proverbs 31:6, for example, suggests in an ironical fashion that alcoholic beverages are only suited for killing the excruciating pain of someone who is dying. Similarly, Hosea 4:11 provides no justification for a moderate use of alcoholic beverages for two reasons. First, because “wine and new wine” are mentioned figuratively, as representative of the good gifts God had provided to the children of Israel, gifts which they had used for idolatrous purposes. Second, even if “wine and new wine” were alcoholic, they are condemned in the text for taking away understanding, irrespective of the quantity used.

In a different yet equally convincing way, 1 Timothy 5:23 supports the principle of abstinence in two significant ways. First, the advice, “No longer drink only water,” implies that Timothy, like the priests and Nazirites, had abstained until that time from both fermented and unfermented wines, presumably in accordance with the instructions and example of Paul. Second, the apostle recommended to Timothy to use only a little wine, not for the physical pleasure of the belly, but for the medical need of the stomach. Ancient writers such as Aristotle, Athanaeus, and Pliny indicate that unfermented wine was known and preferred to alcoholic wine for medical purposes, because it did not have the side effects of the latter. In the light of these testimonies and of the other Biblical teachings regarding wine, it is reasonable to assume that the wine recommended by Paul for medical use was unfermented grape juice.

The conclusion of this whole study on the Biblical teaching regarding the use of alcoholic beverages can be summarized in one sentence: Scripture is consistent in teaching moderation in the use of wholesome, unfermented beverages and abstinence from the use of intoxicating fermented beverages.

Ellen White and Alcoholic Beverages 

In view of the major influence exerted by Ellen G. While in the adoption of the Biblical principle of abstinence from alcoholic beverages by the Seventh-day Adventist church, I felt it appropriate to examine in Chapter 8 her understanding of Christian temperance in general and of abstinence in particular.

The study reveals that for Ellen White the message of temperance was a fundamental part of the gospel and of the mission of the Seventh-day Adventist church. Such a message entails teaching people moderation in the use of healthful things and abstinence from the use of harmful things such as alcoholic beverages.

Ellen White deeply believed that total abstinence is a principle clearly taught in the Scripture by warnings and examples. Disregard for this principle represents a violation of the law of God. Obedience to this principle, through Christ’s enabling power, contributes to the restoration of God’s moral image in us. This restoration is an essential part of our preparation for Christ’s return.

Ellen White discusses at great length the harmful effects of the use of alcoholic beverages upon the individual, the home and society at large. The ill effects upon the drinker are mental, moral and physical. As for the home, the use of alcoholic beverages often deprives families of their basic necessities, and fosters violence and the abuse of children. With reference to society, Ellen White finds alcohol consumption to be an incentive to crime, a major cause of accidents and of public-health problems. The theological convictions and practical counsels of Ellen White on the use of alcoholic beverages stand out, in my view, for their Biblical consistency and their practical relevance to our time.

Alcohol in America

To help the reader appreciate from a social and medical perspective why the Bible condemns the use of alcoholic beverages, I have devoted Chapter 9 to a brief survey of the social and medical consequences of alcohol consumption in American society. The survey indicates that the cost of alcohol use to the American people is appallingly high, not only in economic terms ($117 billion per year), but also in terms of human pain, misery, violence, child and spouse abuse, divorces, crime, sickness and death. It is inconceivable to think that at least 100,000 human lives are lost every year in America alone because of alcohol-related problems.

If America wants to deal effectively with the tragedy of alcohol, it must develop an entirely new cultural attitude through the aggressive promotion of abstinence. Christians can play a vital role in this endeavor, if they recover the Biblical imperative for abstinence. It is only when Christians recognize and accept the fact that drinking alcoholic beverages is not only physically harmful, but also Biblically and morally wrong, that they are likely to feel compelled, not only to abstain from intoxicating substances themselves, but also to help others do likewise.


1. The phrase “beloved enemy” is used by Jack Van Impe repeatedly in his book, Alcohol: The Beloved Enemy (Royal Oak, Michigan, 1980).

2. The figures are provided by the 1986 report of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, as quoted in “Coming to Grips with Alcoholism,” U.S. News & World Report (November 30, 1987):56.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., p. 57.

5. Ibid., p. 56.

6. Ernest Gordon, Christ, the Apostles and Wine (Philadelphia, 1947), p. 31.

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