I arrived at Aberdeen University on a frigid January afternoon in 2004 and headed straight to the secretary’s desk to receive the keys to my new office. This is where I’d spend the next three years, hammering out my PhD dissertation and seeking to keep warm on the Scottish coast—both seemed impossible at the time. “Here are your keys, sir,” muttered the secretary. Not knowing the campus, I asked where exactly my office was located. “Let’s see. Down the street, on the right hand side. It looks like you’re in The Old Brewery.”
I immediately couldn’t wait to tell my friends back home that I would be spending the next three years studying the Bible in a building called “The Old Brewery.” So much for the old seminary library back home.
I later found out that the name reflected the building’s original function. Aberdeen University used to be a school that trained monks for ministry. Up the cobblestone street stood the old hospital, where the students would heal the sick and feed the poor. A hundred yards south was the chapel, and at the end of the street stood the brewery, where the monks would brew vast quantities of Scottish Ale. Monks were the conservative fundamentalists of the day, and yet bread and beer were rationed out at mealtime. And here I am, studying the New Testament between the walls of the malted sanctuary, where Bible College students of medieval Britain once clapped mugs together in an act of worship.
Showing up every day (and many evenings) to the “Old Brewery” connected me with my roots. Throughout Church history, alcohol was rarely a taboo as it is in some circles today. The most legendary leaders drank freely, though I want to assume they didn’t get drunk. Calvin had a stipend of 250 gallons of wine per year written into his ecclesial contract. Luther’s wife was a famed brewer of beer—one of the character traits that won Martin’s heart instantly—and she liberally supplied the reformer with his favorite ales. Luther himself is well known for heralding the absurdity of abstaining from alcohol. Centuries later, the legendary Guiness family, prominent for their Irish stout, began brewing beer as an act of faith. “My family started their brewery as a statement of moderation,” says Os Guiness, the great evangelical theologian and descendent of the original Guiness brewer. “The water was contaminated,” says Os, “and hard-alcohol was consumed by drunkards. So my forefather started to brew his malty Stout out of reverence for Jesus.” You may have heard (though it’s debated) that on route to religious freedom, the pilgrims aboard the Mayflower halted at Plymouth Rock because they ran out of beer. “We could not now take time for further search,” wrote one pilgrim in his diary, “our victuals [= provisions] being much spent, especially our beer.” Once landed, the pilgrims tapped into the vast supply of maize and built a brewery.
From Bordeux to Berlin, wine and beer have always been part of church tradition. But the Bible goes further than admitting that it’s simply allowed. Saying that it’s okay to drink in moderation is true, but it’s theologically flat. The production and consumption of beer and wine are organically tethered to the covenant drama of the Old and New Testaments.
From the plains of Moab, Deuteronomy announces the blessings and curses of the covenant, and wine is often cataloged as a premier blessing (Deut 7:13; 11:14), while the absence of wine is a curse (28:39, 51). As history unfolds, Israel becomes progressively wicked and ends up breaking the covenant (Jeremiah 11) and finds themselves in exile. Yet God, in His love and grace, promises to restore them and flood them with the blessings that they couldn’t receive under their own strength, and frequenting the list is the blessing of wine. Amos envisions wine flowing from the mountaintops (Amos 9:14; cf. Joel 3:18). Joel looks ahead to vats brimming with fresh wine (Joel 2:19, 24). And Isaiah imagines a great messianic banquet, where God will lay a spread of rich foods and “well-aged wine” (Isaiah 25:6). Throughout the Old Testament, wine was intended to “gladden the heart of man” as a blessing from God (Psalm 104:14-15), and Old Testament saints lived with the hope that one day, salvation would burst forth from the heavens and wine would be harvested in abundance from the hills.
And that harvest was inaugurated on Calvary. In the upper room, when Jesus sanctified a cup of wine as “the new covenant in my blood,” He not only infused a common drink with theological meaning, but tapped into the Old Testament narrative, rich with connotation (Luke 22:14-23). Jesus was claiming that through His death, He would deliver the covenant blessings anticipated by Moses and promised by the prophets. He wasn’t just drinking fermented grape juice; Jesus was boldly claiming that “all the promises of God find their yes in Him” (2 Cor 1:20). Three years before, Jesus anticipated this cruciform blessing when he miraculously produced an over-abundance of wine from water (John 2:1-10). And if we merely wrestle with the ethical implications—is it okay that Jesus made 150 gallons of wine?—we miss the point. Theologically, the wedding at Cana was a foreshadowing of the ridiculously abundant goodness that God unilaterally showers upon us through the cross of Christ. This is why John says that the miraculous wine “manifested His glory” (John 2:11)—the glory that would be showcased on Calvary (John 12:28).
The full consummation, of course, will come when Christ comes back and prepares the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev 19:6-8), satisfying the curious vision of Isaiah (Isa 25:6-8). If Amos, Joel, and Isaiah are correct, then this banquet will be served with well-aged wine—the stuff I only notice on the top shelf but can never afford—and for theological reasons it will be served, as at Cana, in abundance. Its full-bodied presence, enjoyed by resurrected martyrs, persecuted pastors, cannibalized missionaries, and callused knee prayer warriors, will not be served merely to quench our thirst or give us a buzz. It will be, as it was always intended to be, an experienced symbol of God’s overabundant goodness, purchased by the saving blood of Jesus.
Drinking wine and beer, therefore, serve as persuasive reminders of where we stand in the eschatological age. On the one hand, we look back upon the blood of Christ that has inaugurated the kingdom. We also look forward to the second coming of Christ, when that kingdom will be fully realized and the prophetic word, including the covenant blessing of wine, will be consummated.
Practically, then, abstaining from alcohol has its place if done for the right theological reason. If trumpeted as the wiser, more spiritual path, then you’ve missed the point. Yet partaking alcohol without celebrating the cross and kingdom is theologically anemic. Abuse of alcohol leading to drunkenness or enslavement mocks the blood of Christ and is an affront on God’s holiness. But moderate, intentional, celebratory, and reflective drinking of wine and beer—especially the Belgium Trippel Ale, the queen of all drink—which contemplates the cross and anticipates our future glory, is theologically rooted in the counter intuitive grace rained down from Calvary.