Herman C. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Item—Nearly 18 million adults in the U.S. are problem drinkers, according to the government’s latest report on alcoholism and alcohol abuse. More than 10 million of these drinkers are suffering from alcoholism. 

Item—Alcohol is a factor in nearly half of America’s murders, suicides and accidental deaths. In all, it claims at least 100,000 lives per year, 25 times as many as al1 illegal drugs combined. 

Item—Two of every 3 adults drink. But only 10 percent of the nation’s drinkers consume half of its beer, wine and liquor. 

Item—Two of every 3 high school seniors have drunk alcohol within the past month. Five percent drink daily. Forty percent of sixth-graders have tasted wine coolers. By age 18, a child will have seen 100,000 beer commercials. 

Item—The economic costs to society of alcoholism and alcohol abuse are estimated at nearly $117 billion a year—including $18 billion from premature deaths, $66 billion in reduced work effort, $13 billion for treatments. 

Item—One family in 4 has been troubled by alcohol—the highest incidence of problem drinking in a Gallup trend that dates back to 1950. But Gallup finds only 17 percent of Americans in favor of a return to Prohibition. 

These staggering and frightening statistics, which were reported in a recent (Nov. 30, 1987) issue ofU.S. News and World Report, show how widespread and serious the problem of drunkenness is in our country. And everyone knows that the church is not unaffected by the problem: the church has its own problems with drunkenness among its members. 

So serious does the world itself consider the problem that the issue of U.S. News and World Reportmentioned above devoted a feature article to the subject under the heading, “Coming To Grips With Alcoholism.” The article was no less than eight full pages long. 

A fairly large share of the article was devoted to the question of whether “alcoholism” is a disease or a moral wrong. The subject is important enough that certain parts of the article are worth quoting. This section of the article is introduced by a discussion of a case recently heard by the Supreme Court of our country, a case in which the court will have to decide on this question. It has to do with treatment of alcoholics and the rights of alcoholics to college benefits.

The question before the Supreme Court: Is most alcoholism simply a result of “willful misconduct,” as the VA (Veterans Administration, H.H.) contends, or is it a disease in which the victim is compelled to drink? 

Not only does the case jeopardize the premise upon which virtually every program in America’s $1 billion alcoholism treatment industry is based. It also gets to the heart of how society views people in the grip of alcohol. Among the perplexing questions that some see arising: If alcoholism isn’t a disease, will employers quit paying treatment costs for alcoholic workers and start firing them? If it is a disease, does it provide an appropriate defense against wrong-doing? Already, some critics of the disease concept are pointing a finger at Michael Deaver, the Former White House aide on trial for perjury, who now is telling the world that he’s an alcoholic. If Deaver can successfully argue that he should be excused for lying because he was sick, critics worry that alcoholism will be used to condone all sorts of illegal acts.

A bit later in the article, this subject is again brought up.

The idea that alcoholism is a sickness isn’t new. Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia physician who signed the Declaration of Independence, concluded that alcohol was a drug and habitual drunkenness involuntary. He saw only one cure: Total abstinence. But the view that alcoholics weren’t sick but sinful persisted in American society until well into this century. In 1957, a landmark resolution by the American Medical Association declared alcoholism a disease. Later came this definition from the AMA: “Alcoholism is an illness characterized by preoccupation with alcohol and loss of control over its consumption such as to lead usually to intoxication if drinking is begun, by chronicity, by progression, and by tendency toward relapse.” 

. . . A recent Gallup Poll found 87 percent of those interviewed endorsing the disease concept . . . .

The article goes on to say that many recent medical studies have not only tended to confirm the notion that alcoholism is a disease, but have even given some support for the idea that the disease is hereditary, i.e., that the disease gives evidence of a genetic defect. 

Some time ago a rather interesting article appeared in Christianity Today in which a medical doctor spoke of his experience with those who came to him with drinking problems (May 17, 1985). He speaks of the fact that when he first entered the medical profession, he treated those with drinking problems as he would any medical patient; i.e., he treated the physical problems which resulted from overdrinking without giving too much thought about the drinking itself. 

However, after several years he was converted and began to consider drunkenness in the light of Scripture. He took the position that drunkenness is a sin which must be confessed and repented of, which confession and repentance would lead (in his judgment) to a complete end to the problem. He tells his readers that, while he witnessed to many of his patients and even was instrumental in bringing some of them to repentance and confession, as well as membership in the church, he had absolutely no success in helping these people cease drinking. He could not even count one person who had stopped drinking as a result of this approach. 

Without entering into the controversy itself concerning the question of alcoholism being a disease or a sin, he said that only when he sought the help of professional counselors and organizations to work with drunks did he see some of these people overcome their habitual drunkenness. The gist of his story seemed to be that he finally learned that, at least in some respects, drunkenness is a sickness which requires professional as well as spiritual care. 

The question has many ramifications. To return to the article from U.S. News and World Report mentioned above, even unbelievers are concerned about the question.

“The disease concept is a wonderful cop-out for society,” says Robin Room, director of the Alcohol Research Group at the Medical Research Institute of San Francisco. “It says that there’s normal drinking and there’s alcoholic drinking and if you’re not an alcoholic you don’t have to worry.” The disease concept, argues Room, “was the compromise that the alcoholism movement in the 1940s and ’50s had to make to get any attention. They were saying, ‘Look, we’re not trying to dash the cup from your lips. We’re just trying to get help for alcoholics. “‘

One scholar who thinks this effort is misguided is Herbert Fingarette, an expert on addiction at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of an upcoming book, Heavy Drinking: The Myth of Alcoholism as a Disease. The government’s legal brief in the VA case often turns to Fingarette to back the view that alcoholism is a behavior problem. Scientific studies have yet to show, he says, that alcoholics cannot willfully quit drinking. “We have cultural beliefs about alcohol, and one is that if you drink, you become less responsible for what you are doing,” Fingarette says. “Alcoholism is a label and it shouldn’t be a blanket excuse for anything.”

If the issue has to be decided on scientific grounds, the question is obscure and all the evidence is by no means in. A decision will have to be postponed. But the Scriptures have a surprisingly lot to say about drunkenness, and certainly the testimony of the Scriptures on this question will have to be consulted. 

We are nearly out of space in this issue, and will reserve a further discussion of this question to next time. But a couple of remarks ought to be made by way of conclusion. 

In the first place, I hesitate to use the term alcoholism. It seems to be a loaded term which already presupposes that problem drinking is a disease. The Bible does not use the term and it may be one of those euphemisms which we are so fond of inventing, which are less direct words, which soften the harshness of a more direct term, but which often have implicit in them some sort of erroneous notion. Alcoholism is probably one such term. It is less direct than drunkenness; it takes some of the sting away when problem drinking is called alcoholism rather than drunkenness and when a person with such a problem is called an alcoholic rather than a drunk; but it also seems to carry the freight of presupposing that the whole problem is medical rather than moral; that it involves a disease rather than a sin. 

In the second place, if we must conclude (and on the basis of Scripture no alternative seems possible) that drunkenness is a sin, does this necessarily mean that repentance and confession are sufficient to free one from the sin and to bring one to complete and trouble-free sobriety? We shall have to take a look at that question in so far as we are able.