Historically the Reformed churches have held to moderate use as their official position with respect to alcoholic beverages. Their doctrine is that moderate consumption of such beverages is allowed but excess, especially drunkeness, is forbidden. The American Presbyterian Church holds to a position of temperance, that is to abstinence from all alcoholic beverages. Since this an unusual position for a Presbyterian body, and since this is one of the distinctives of the Church, it requires both an explanation and a scriptural defense, since God alone is Lord of the conscience.
It is important to point out that the American Presbyterian Church’s position on temperance is not based on the traditional Fundamentalist arguments against the “saloon trade” and “Whiskey traffickers” etc. We realize that the abuse of anything is not an argument against its legitimate use. And we also acknowledge that the scriptures are to be our only rule of faith and practice. Our defense of abstinence from alcoholic beverages is therefore a Biblical defense and based upon our understanding of the will of God as revealed in scripture.
The whole issue ultimately boils down to an issue of semantics and Bible translation. Historically the word wine has been used to represent both the fermented and non-fermented juice of the grape. However in our day it has come to exclusively refer to fermented grape juice with alcoholic content. The scriptures however use over a dozen words that are translated in the English Bible by “wine” or “strong drink.” All these words, chosen for good and necessary reasons by the Holy Spirit, cannot and do not refer to the same thing, namely alcoholic wine. In fact the two main words used in the scriptures and translated as “wine” are actually generic in nature. Both “yayin” in the Hebrew and “oinos” in the Greek clearly refer to both the fermented and non-fermented juice of the grape. One Hebrew word translated as “wine” actually does not refer to grape juice of any kind whatsoever, whether fermented or fresh; it actually refers to the grapes themselves. With this kind of linguistic confusion it is clear that a thorough study of these words is required to come up with the correct Biblical doctrine concerning the use of alcoholic beverages. When this is done the testimony of the American Presbyterian Church is that the scriptures consistently condemn the social use of such beverages.
The scripture testimony concerning wine in the English Bible contains many apparent contradictions. The same object that is praised and allowed in one text is explicitly condemned in another. That which is presented as a gift of God’s gracious providence and the bounty of his creation is elsewhere warned against as an evil to be avoided. Can all these texts really be referring to the same thing? We think not. The historic way of attempting to resolve these apparent contradictions in the scriptural testimony concerning “wine” is to say that moderate use is allowed and it is only excessive use and the resulting drunkeness that is condemned. However many of these texts simply do not lend themselves to that kind of interpretation. It is the wine itself and not its excessive use that is frequently and explicitly condemned.
The American Presbyterian Church’s defense of temperance resolves these apparent contradictions in another way. It notes the generic nature of some of these words translated as wine. It notes that we have to determine from the context whether the blood of the grape being referred to is the fresh or the fermented, the alcoholic or the non-alcoholic kind. Then the scriptures are allowed to speak with a single voice and the trumpet gives a certain sound. And that sound is a consistent warning against alcoholic wine as well as a consistent testimony in favor of the unfermented blood of the grape. And that testimony is the testimony of the American Presbyterian Church with respect to the use of alcoholic beverages.