Does the Bible teach total abstinence or moderation?


The Nugget:

Proverbs 20:1  Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.


My Comment:

Proverbs 20:1 is a verse that I must have noticed upon my first serious reading of the Bible. I remember that I wrote this verse in full at the top of an assignment for my electrical class when I attended Cass Technical High School. My teacher was very displeased that I pointed out that verse to him that way. I, in turn, was very displeased that he spent the whole hour telling the class about how wonderful tasting various kinds of alcoholic beverages were. I did not think then, and I do not think now, that such a discussion was appropriate in a high school class.

But addressing the question: Does the Bible teach total abstinence or moderation? Here is a lesson on how to find the answer in the Bible. My findings will not agree with the findings of some Bible scholars and commentators, but I believe my findings are the result of a more accurate and comprehensive study of the subject.

Looking at the cross references I have given for Proverbs 20:1 in my resource, The Ultimate Cross Reference Treasury, I see now immediately that I need to add more references and links to additional notes and references in the New Testament.

The Bible is very clear, when studied more accurately, that God requires total abstinence.

Here is a note from 1 Kings 20:16,

1Ki 20:16  And they went out at noon. But Benhadad was drinking himself drunk in the pavilions, he and the kings, the thirty and two kings that helped him.

the thirty and two. Note (from the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, not in the Comprehensive Bible): The Syrians, the besiegers, had their directions from a drunken king, who gave orders over his cups while he was drinking at noon. Drunkenness is a sin which is most detestable in all, but more so in a king than in a private individual, inasmuch as the greater weight a man’s situation carries, whether from accumulated riches, family connections, hereditary authority, or invested command, so is the influence which his vices must have on those around him. Perhaps it may be said, from past experience, that drunkenness, which is a most heinous sin in the sight of God, may be charged on those who indulge only now and then in that which may eventually lead them into drunkenness; for they shut their eyes against the most palpable facts, and rather than give up the paltry gratification of a debauch, involve thousands by their example to positive harm. Benhadad’s drunkenness was the forerunner of his fall. Belshazzar also, we read, drank wine with his princes, his wives, and his concubines, and praised the gods of gold, silver, brass, iron, wood, and stone: and in the same hour came forth the finger of a man’s hand and wrote his doom on the plaster of the wall. Those who fancy themselves perfectly secure, and above the possibility of falling, are commonly nearest their destruction: there is always an Ahab ready to take advantage of and improve the self-imposed imbecility. Isa_54:15.

My Subject Index also gives references to Jeremiah 35:14 and Ephesians 5:18 for the topic “Abstinence, total, from alcoholic beverage, commended.

The notes given at Ephesians 5:18 are most important:

Eph 5:18  And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit;

excess. or, debauchery. Gr. asōtia (S# G810), properly unsavedness, that is, (by implication) profligacy: elsewhere rendered riot (Strong). or, in which it is unsaving (LNT). Unsaving translates asōtia. The a negates the meaning of the word it prefixes, sōtia, which comes from the verb sōzō, to save, the word used to express being saved from sin. So any form of drinking is a departure from safety, and to become drunk is an unsaving experience filled with multiple negatives. Friberg says on this term: “…strictly, the disposition of an asōtos (having no hope of safety); the act of one who has abandoned himself to reckless immoral behavior…” (The Greek has been transliterated). To drink then is not a matter of excess, or discipline, or moderation, but of abstinence. The context speaks of—works of darkness, wake up, carefully walk, evil days, the will of the Lord; thus only abstinence fits the context (cf. 1Ti 3:2; 1Ti 3:11; Tit 2:2) [LNT, fn t]. 1Sa 25:36, Pro 23:30, Pro 7:11; Pro 25:16, Hos 7:5, *Mat 23:25, Luk 15:13, Tit 1:6 g. **1Pe 4:3; **1Pe 4:4 g.


Since I devised the Subject Index I have learned that the Bible actually teaches “Total abstinence from alcoholic beverages required.”

The Bible says don’t be drunk, not that you can’t drink. Does the Bible contradict itself?

I ran across this question when I was virtually required to go to a bar with fellow workers for an evening meal. I ordered milk, not wine or beer. That brought on this very question, and more questions besides!

I know many say what these questioners suggest, but their opinion is entirely mistaken.

Earlier this year I read a book I learned that I had in my Logos Bible software titled Bible Wines. It fully proves from Scripture that total abstinence is required in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Dr. Malcolm Lavender is the person who taught me what was going on in the Greek text of the New Testament, and the subject of total abstinence is affirmed in notes at Ephesians 5:18 as well as at 1 Timothy 3:2, 1 Timothy 3:11, and Titus 2:2.

Here is the Titus 2:2 note:

Titus 2:2  That the aged men be sober, grave, temperate, sound in faith, in charity, in patience.

sober. or, vigilant. or, to be without wine (LNT). Gr. nēphalios (S# G3524), sober, that is, (figuratively) circumspect (Strong). Without wine from nēphalios, meaning abstinence from wine or alcohol. Friberg says “…strictly holding no wine, without wine; of persons sober…abstinent.” Cf. Eph 5:18; 1Ti 3:2; 1Ti 3:11. These passages are normally translated that the use of alcoholic beverages in moderate drinking is acceptable. But moderate drinking does not accord with the meaning of this word as used in the New Testament, or with circumspect living as a Christian. Circumspect from Latin: circum, round + specio, to look; hence, to look around and consider the outcome of an act, end result, example, etc. (LNT, fn c). Tit 2:4, 5, 6, Gen 9:21, *1Co 15:34, Eph 5:18 note, *1Th 5:6; *1Th 5:8, 1Ti 3:2 g, 1Ti 3:11 g. +1Pe 1:13; 1Pe 4:7; *1Pe 5:8 g.


Many will ask, if this is the case, why did Jesus turn the water into wine?


First, it must be understood that there are two kinds of wines in the Bible:

Jesus turned the water into non-intoxicating wine. This is made clear by the exegesis given in the book, Bible Wines:

“Let one thing more be now proved, and the whole case is too clear for question. Were the ancients in the habit of preserving and using as such, free from fermentation, this juice of the grape which they called wine?

“Beyond all doubt, they were. The evidence is to be found in almost any classical authority. So say Plato, Columella, Pliny, Aristotle. So indicate Horace, Homer, Plutarch.

“Some of these ancient writers give in detail the very processes of boiling, filtering, and sulphurization by which the wines were preserved from fermentation.

“Anthon, in his Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities; Archbishop Potter, in his Grecian Antiquities; Smith, in his Dictionary of the Bible; and many other competent scholars, confirm and support this position.

“Moses Stuart, that prince of philologists, says, ‘Facts show that the ancients not only preserved their wines unfermented, but regarded it as of a higher flavor and finer quality than fermented wine.’ There is no ancient custom with a better amount and character of proof than this.

“There were, therefore, two kinds of wine in ancient use. The one was sweet, pleasant, refreshing, unfermented; the other was exciting, inflaming, intoxicating. How natural, now, to say of the one, ‘A blessing is in it—it maketh glad the heart’! How natural to say of the other, ‘Deceit is in it—it bringeth woe and sorrow’!

“There is no difficulty now in the reconciliation of Scripture with Scripture. The Bible is not a wholesale endorsement of the use of the alcoholic cup. It puts no weapon into the hands of the drinkers and venders of strong drink. And the binding obligations of the law of love in its application to the wine question may be pressed home upon the conscience and the heart, unweakened by any opposing plea of divine precept or example.” (Patton, W. (2004). Bible Wines (pp. 108-109). Redding, CA: Pleasant Places).

Wedding-Wine at Cana

John 2:1–11: The distinguishing fact is that Christ turned the water into wine. The Greek word is oinos; and it is claimed that therefore the wine was alcoholic and intoxicating. But as oinos is a generic word, and, as such, includes all kinds of wine and all stages of the juice of the grape, and sometimes the clusters and even the vine, it is begging the whole question to assert that it was intoxicating. As the narrative is silent on this point, the character of the wine can only be determined by the attendant circumstances – by the occasion, the material used, the person making the wine, and the moral influence of the  miracle.

The occasion was a wedding convocation. The material was water – the same element which the clouds pour down, which the vine draws up from the earth by its roots, and in its passage to the clusters changes into juice. The operator was Jesus Christ, the same who, in the beginning, fixed that law by which the vine takes up water and converts it into pure, unfermented juice.

The wine provided by the family was used up, and the mother of Jesus informed him of that fact. He directed that the six water-pots be filled with water. This being done, he commanded to draw and hand it to the master of the feast. He pronounced it wine – good wine.

The moral influence of the miracle will be determined by the character of the wine. It is pertinent to ask, Is it not derogatory to the character of Christ and the teachings of the Bible to suppose that he exerted his miraculous power to produce, according to Alvord, 126, and according to Smith, at least 60 gallons of intoxicating wine? – wine which inspiration had denounced as “a mocker,” as “biting like a serpent,” and “stinging like an adder,” as “the poison of dragons,” “the cruel venom of asps,” and which the Holy Ghost had selected as the emblem of the wrath of God Almighty? Is it probable that he gave that to the guests after they had used the wine provided by the host, and which, it is claimed, was intoxicating?

But wherein was the miracle? We read in Matthew 15:34 that Christ fed four thousand persons, and In Mark 4:38 that he fed five thousand persons, in each case upon a few loaves and fishes, taking up seven and twelve baskets of fragments. In these cases, Christ did instantly what, by the laws of nature which he had ordained, it would have taken months to grow and ripen into wheat. So in the case of the wine, Christ, by supernatural and superhuman rapidity, produced that marvelous conversion of water into the “pure blood of the grape” which, by his own established law of nature, takes place annually through a series of months, as the vine draws up the water from the earth, and transmutes it into the pure and unfermented juice found in the rich, ripe clusters on the vine.

In Psalm 104:14–15, we read: “That he may bring forth food out of the earth, and wine that maketh glad the heart of man.” Here the juice of the grape which is produced out of the earth is called wine. This wine was made by the direct law of God – that law by which the vine draws water from the earth and transmutes it into pure juice in the clusters.

I am happy to state that this is not a modern interpretation, forced out by the pressure of the wine question, but was also entertained by the early fathers.

St. Augustine, born A.D. 354, thus explains this miracle: “For he on that marriage-day made wine in the six jars which he ordered to be filled with water – he who now makes it every year in the vines; for, as what the servants had poured into the water jars was turned into wine by the power of the Lord, so, also, that which the clouds pour forth is turned into wine by the power of the self-same Lord. But we cease to wonder at what is done every year; its very frequency makes astonishment to fail.” – Bible Commentary p. 305.

Chrysostom, born A.D. 344, says: “Now, indeed, making plain that it is he who changes into wine the water in the vines and the rain drawn up by the roots. He produced instantly at the wedding-feast that which is formed in the plant during a long course of time.” – Bible Commentary, p. 305.

Dr. Joseph Hall, Bishop of Norwich, England, in 1600, says: “What doeth he in the ordinary way of nature but turn the watery juice that arises up from the root into wine? He will only do this, now suddenly and at once, which he does usually by sensible degrees” – Bible Commentary, p. 305.

The critical Dr. Trench, now Archbishop of Dublin says: “He who each year prepares the wine in the grape, causing it to drink up and swell with the moisture of earth and heaven, to transmute this into its own nobler juices, concentrated all those slower processes now into the act of a single moment, and accomplished in an instant what ordinarily he does not accomplish but in months.” – Bible Commentary, p. 305.

We have the highest authority that alcohol is not found in any living thing, and is not a process of life. Sir Humphry Davy says of alcohol: “It has never been found ready formed in plants.”

Count Chaptal, the eminent French chemist, says: “Nature  never forms spirituous liquors; she rots the grape upon the branch, but it is art which converts the juice into (alcoholic) wine.”

Dr. Henry Monroe, in his Lecture on Alcohol, says: “Alcohol is nowhere to be found in any produce of nature; was never created by God; but is essentially an artificial thing prepared by man through the destructive process of fermentation.”

Professor Liebig says: “It is contrary to all sober rules of research to regard the vital process of an animal or a plant as the cause of fermentation. The opinion that they take any share in the morbid process must be rejected as an hypothesis destitute of all support. In all fungi, analysis has detected the presence of sugar, which during the vital process is not resolved into alcohol and carbonic acid, but after their death. It is the very reverse of the vital process to which this effect must be ascribed. Fermentation, putrefaction, and decay are processes of decomposition.” See notes on 1 Timothy 4:4.

Can it be seriously entertained that Christ should, by his miraculous power, make alcohol, an article abundantly proved not to be found in all the ranges of his creation? Can it be believed that he, by making alcohol, sanctions the making of it and the giving of it to his creatures, when he, better than all others, knew that it, in the past, had been the cause of the temporal and eternal ruin of myriads, and which, in all the ages to come, would plunge myriads upon myriads into the depths of eternal damnation?

The Rev. Dr. Jacobus says: “All who know of the wines then used, well understand the unfermented juice of the grape. The present wines of Jerusalem and Lebanon, as we tasted them, were commonly boiled and sweet, without intoxicating qualities, such as we here get in liquors called wines. The boiling prevents fermentation. Those were esteemed the best wines which were least strong.” – Comments on John 2:1–11.

This festive occasion furnishes no sanction for the use of the alcoholic wines of commerce at weddings at the present time, much less for the use of them on other occasions.[1]


So why does the Bible say to have a little wine to keep the infirmities away?

Here is the full answer from the book Bible Wines, pages 93-94:

Not given to wine. – The Greek is mee-paromon: mee, a negative particle, not; paroinon, compounded of para, a preposition governing the genitive (of, from, on the part of), the dative (at, by, near, with), the accusative (together, with, to, towards, by, near, at, next to); and oinos, wine. Literally, not at, by, near, or with wine. This looks considerably like total abstinence. It applies equally to private habits and public conduct. Notice the careful steps of the progress. He must be neephalion, abstinent, sober in body, that he may be sophrona, sound in mind, and that his influence may be unimpaired, meeparion, not with or near wine. We find in this passage no  countenance for the moderate use of intoxicating wine, but the reverse, the obligation to abstain totally.

“Not given to wine” is certainly a very liberal translation, and shows how the usages of the day unconsciously influenced the translators. “The ancient paroinos was a man accustomed to attend drinking-parties.” Thus the Christian minister is required not only to be personally sober, but also to withhold his presence and sanction from those assemblies where alcoholic drinks are used, endangering the sobriety of himself and others.

That both Paul and Timothy understood that total abstinence was an essential qualification for the Christian pastor, is evident from the compliance of Timothy. In this same letter, v. 23, Paul advises Timothy, “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.” The fact is plain that Timothy, in strict accordance with the direction, “not given to wine,” that is, not with or near wine, was a total abstainer. The recommendation to “use a little wine” is exceptional, and strictly medicinal. As there existed in the Roman Empire, in which Timothy traveled, a variety of wines, differing from each other in character, we cannot decide, ex cathedra, that it was alcoholic wine that Paul recommended. Pliny, Columella, Philo, and others state that many of the wines of their day produced “headaches, dropsy, madness, and stomach complaints.” – Nott Lond. Ed. p. 96. We can hardly believe that Paul recommended these. Yet these strikingly designate the effects of alcoholic wines. The same writers tell us that wines destitute of ail strength were exceedingly wholesome and useful to the body, salubre corporis. Pliny mentions a wine in good repute, aduminon – that is, without power, without strength. He particularly states that the wines most adapted to the sick are “Utilissimum vinum omnibus sacco viribus fractis,” which the alcoholic wine men translate, “For all the sick, wine is most useful when its forces have been broken by the strainer.” We do not object to this rendering, since the wine must be harmless when its forces, which is alcohol, are broken. The Latin word fractis is from frango, to break in pieces, to dash in pieces, which indicates the thoroughness of the work  done by the “sacco,” strainer or filter. That the force which the filter breaks is fermentation, is evident from the next sentence of Pliny. (See item “Filtration,” on page 33.) Horace, lib. i. ode 17, speaks of the innocentis Lesbii, innocent Lesbian, which Professor C. Smart renders “unintoxicating.” The Delphin Notes to Horace say, “The ancients filtered their wines repeatedly before they could have fermented. And thus the faeces which nourish the strength of the wine being taken away, they rendered the wine itself more liquid, weaker, lighter, sweeter, and more pleasant to drink.”

Again, Horace tells his friend Maecenas to drink an hundred glasses, without fear of intoxication. (See previous page in this volume.)

Athenaeus says of the sweet Lesbian, “Let him take sweet wine (glukus), either mixed with water or warmed, especially that called protropos, as being very good for the stomach.” – Nott, Lond. Ed. p. 96, and Bib. Com. 374.

Protropos was, according to Pliny, “Mustum quad sponte profluit antequam uvoe calcentur.” “The must which flows spontaneously from the grapes.” – Nott, Lond. Ed. p. 80.

Donnegan defines it, “Wine flowing from the grapes before pressure.”

Smith’s Greek and Roman Antiquities, “That which flowed from the clusters, in consequence of their pressure upon each other, to which the inhabitants of Mytelene gave the name protropos.”

Why not treat Paul with common politeness, not to say honesty, and, as he so emphatically required that a bishop should “not be with or near wine,” believe that when he recommended Timothy to “use a little wine” medicinally, he had reference to such wine as Pliny says was “most useful for the sick,” whose “forces have been broken by the strainer,” or filter? As the recommendation was not for gratification, but for medicine, to Timothy personally, a sick man, and only a little at that, it gives no more countenance for the beverage use of wine for any one, and especially for those in health, than does the prescription of castor-oil by the physician for the beverage use of that article.

The case of Timothy, a total abstainer, illustrates and enforces the inspired declaration that a bishop must be vigilant, that is, abstinent; sober, that is, sound in mind; and not given to wine, that is, not with or near wine If all who are now in the sacred office would follow literally and faithfully the requirements which Paul lays down, “NOT WITH OR NEAR WINE,” the number of total abstainers would be greatly increased, the cause of temperance would be essentially promoted, and the good of the community permanently secured; for, according to Paul, total abstinence is an indispensable qualification for a pastor.[2]


[1] Patton, W. (2004). Bible Wines (pp. 74–77). Redding, CA: Pleasant Places.

[2] Patton, W. (2004). Bible Wines (pp. 92–95). Redding, CA: Pleasant Places.

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