While many Reformed writers, especially recently, make the scriptural case for wine, our question is specifically one of polity: how have Presbyterian Churches used grape juice without running afoul of the Westminster Standards and their respective Books of Church Order? Was the change in American Presbyterian polity merely a matter of disobedience?
In the first 1,800 years of the New Testament church, there was no shortage of debate over the elements of the Lord’s Supper. There have been debates over mixing water with the wine, use of leaven in the bread, and the denial of the cup to the laity.
Yet, through all those debates, the contents of the cup primarily included fermented wine from grapes (even if Eastern and Western Christians were divided on whether that wine needed to be white or red). Wine was considered so essential to the work of Christian missionaries that some scholars attribute the global spread of wine over the past two millennia to the work of Christian missionaries who traveled to new lands with Bibles and grape vines. Missionaries frequently introduced the drinking of wine alongside Christianity in regions previously untouched by the gospel, inaugurating significant cultural change to local societies.
The uninterrupted Christian tradition of wine in communion was challenged in 1869 when Thomas Bramwell Welch—a Methodist supporter of the Temperance movement—applied Louis Pasteur’s process of pasteurization to grape juice to halt fermentation, thereby founding Welch’s Grape Juice.
Before Welch’s process, the only way to acquire unfermented grape juice was by drinking it immediately after squeezing the juice from the grape. This is due to the fact that the natural yeasts that grow on the grape immediately initiate the fermentation process of converting sugar to alcohol. Only this freshly squeezed juice could be considered “grape juice” while fermented juice is referred to as ‘wine’ in Scripture. The Hebrew word for wine comes from a root that means “effervesce” or to bubble, meaning that unfermented wine would be an oxymoron.
Cup or Wine in the Standards?
This leads to a perplexing question in the history of Presbyterian polity. While the words “cup” or “fruit of the vine” are used Scripture, the Westminster Standards interpret that reference to be indicating “wine.” This is not merely in one or two places but in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), which includes both the Westminster Standards as adopted by the PCA and the Book of Church Order (BCO) the word “wine” is used in the following places:
- The BCO describes the element representing Christ’s blood as wine: “58-5: The table, on which the elements are placed, being decently covered, and furnished with bread and wine, and the communicants orderly and gravely sitting around it (or in their seats before it), the elders in a convenient place together, the minister should then set the elements apart by prayer and thanksgiving. The bread and wine being thus set apart by prayer and thanksgiving…”
- The Larger Catechism defines the Lord’s Supper as “bread and wine” in the answers to questions 168, 169, and 170.
- The Shorter Catechism defines the Lord’s Supper as “bread and wine” in the answer to question 96.