Friday, March 23, 2012

The Reformers' Understanding of Beer

"Historians Will and Ariel Durant have written in The Story of Civilization: The Reformation that at the time of Luther, 'a gallon of beer per day was the usual allowance per person, even for nuns.' This may help to explain why beer figures so prominently in the life and writings of the great reformer (Martin Luther). He was German, after all, and he lived at a time when beer was the European drink of choice. Moreover, having been freed form what he considered to be a narrow and life-draining religious legalism, he stepped into the world ready to enjoy its pleasures to the glory of God. For Luther, beer flowed best in a vibrant Christian life.

It is important to know that Luther's hometown of Wittenberg was a brewing center, that his wife, Katie, was a skilled brewer at her convent before she left it to marry him, and that in his day every occasion of life from weddings to banking was graced by the presence of beer. This was only good news to Luther. Inviting a friend to his wedding, he once wrote, 'I am to be married on Thursday . . . Katie and I invite you to send a barrel of the best Torgau beer, and if it is not good, you will have to drink it all yourself!' This is typical of his playfulness, his boldness, and his passion for good German beer.

Having wrestled his soul out of its harsh theological constraints, Luther tried to understand the world afresh in a consistently biblical light. He reexamined, reapplied, and, where necessary, reformed according to a fiery biblical worldview. And he spared no one, from the pope to nuns and priests, from extremist Protestants to those who wouldn't live life fully in the love and grandeur of God. He did not suffer fools lightly and could barely stand those who feared moral excess and so retreated from everything that might tempt them in the world. 'Do not suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object which is abused,' he once wrote. 'Men can go wrong with wine and women. Shall we then prohibit and abolish women?'

Luther spent much of his life in the taverns of Wittenberg and not just because he loved to drink beer. He often mentored his students there, studied there, met important visitors there, and, upon occasion, even taught classes there. The time he spent in taverns and inns gave him a chance to look out into the world as it was in his day, to experience and to observe. . . . The tavern was where Luther learned of the world he was called to reform with the gospel of Christ.

These hours of learning from life around beer must have led him to his famous definition of intoxication. 'Drunkenness,' he wrote, is 'when the tongue walks on stilts and reason goes forward under half a sail.' This definition posed no challenge to Luther, though, for he is never described as drinking to excess. Instead, he viewed drink as good for the body, an aid to social life, and a gift of God. 'If God can forgive me for having crucified Him with Masses twenty years running,' Luther once boomed, 'He can also bear with me for occasionally taking a good drink to honor Him.'

John Calvin, Luther's fellow reformer, felt very much the same way, though this is contrary to the image of him that has come to us through time. Perhaps we should have known better. In his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin wrote, 'We are nowhere forbidden to laugh, or to be satisfied with food . . . or to be delighted with music, or to drink wine.' The great Genevan reformer also wrote, 'It is permissible to use wine not only for necessity, but also to make us merry.'

Like Luther, Calvin worked hard to hammer out a consistently biblical worldview. He wanted all of his life to be submitted to the rulership of Jesus Christ and yet he did not want to miss some grace or provision of God because of flawed theology or religious excess. He and Luther had seen too much of that in their pre-Protestant lives. 'The use of gifts of God cannot be wrong, if they are directed to the same purpose for which the Creator himself has created and destined them,' he insisted. In his little classic, The Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life, Calvin developed the case that God has 'made the earthly blessings for our benefit, and not for our harm':

If we study . . . why he has created the various kinds of food, we shall find that it was his intention not only to provide for our needs, but likewise for our pleasure and for our delight . . . . For, if this were not true, the Psalmist would not enumerate among the divine blessings, ‘the wine that makes glad the heart of man, and the oil that makes his face to shine.’

This robust Reformation theology, which taught enjoyment of God's creation and doing all that is not sinful to the glory of God, filtered into the centuries that followed the reformer's work. This likely comes as a surprise to those who confuse biblical Christianity with the antisaloon leagues and prohibitionism of later history. The truth is that most post-Reformation Christians believed as their first-century fathers did- that drunkenness is sin but that alcohol in moderation is one of the great gifts of God.

Thus, John Wesley drank wine, was something of an ale expert, and often made sure that his Methodist preachers were paid in one of the vital currencies of the day- rum. His brother, Charles Wesley, was known for the fine port, Madeira, and sherry he often served in his home; the journals of George Whitefield are filled with references to his enjoyment of alcohol. At the end of one of his letters, he wrote, 'Give my thanks to that friendly brewer for the keg of rum he sent us,' and in another, 'I believe God will take Georgia into his own hands. Its affairs have lately been before the House of Commons,' where, thankfully, 'the use of rum was granted.' The revered colonial American pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards viewed alcohol in much the same way. According to biographer Elizabeth D. Dodds, Edwards grew up in a home of a father who 'turned out a locally famed hard cider in the orchard behind his house.' Though he was not known to drink much at a time, Edwards was famous among his friends for nursing a glass of punch throughout an evening with family or while preparing sermons at night.

Clearly, then, though the Reformation diminished the production of beer temporarily by closing many of the European monasteries where beer was brewed, it also served the cause of beer and alcohol well by declaring them gifts of God and calling for their use in moderation. This, in time, led to a restoration of beer brewing and even gave it a noble purpose- offering beer to the world as an alternative to hard liquor that so often meant destruction in human lives."

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