Prima Facie Evidence Against Intinction

Intinction is the practice of administering the Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion) by dipping the bread into the wine rather than by giving the cup directly to the laity. It is not in itself a denial of the cup but arguably it is a step in that direction, as it has been in the history of the church. It is a practice that has grown in popularity within the NAPARC world and particularly among churches in the largest NAPARC body, the PCA. It is a practice with a long history, though it is not a practice that has been adopted by the Reformed churches. As Lane Keister notes, we first see the practice of intinction emerging in the mid-4th century. This is was a period of liturgical innovation and even corruption, so it should not surprise us that intinction appeared then too. Notably, Leo I and Gelasius both condemned intinction in the 5th century. There is no evidence that the earliest post-canonical church practiced intinction.

The Reformed theologian Herman Witsius (1636–1708) objected to intinction on the grounds that it departs from the evident institution of our Lord:

Next follow the actions of the disciples, and consequently of the other guests. And these, according to Christ’s appointment, are three: first, to receive both the bread and the cup; but each separately: for so Christ distributed them: in this manner he commanded his people to take them: thus the body of Christ, as broken for us; his blood as poured out of his body, are more distinctly represented: and in fine, as a complete entertainment requires both meat and drink, so this most complete spiritual repast, which we have in Christ, is thus most excellently represented. And therefore we cannot so well approve of that custom which prevailed in Cyprian’s time, to give a piece of bread dipt in wine, to infants and the sick: which was the practice in some places, about the year of Christ 340, in the public and ordinary celebration of the sacrament. The same judgment we are to pass on the custom of the Greeks, who crumble the consecrated bread into the wine, and take it out with a spoon (Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, translated by William Crookshank (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1990, trans. orig. pub. 1822) vol 2, pp. 454–55; cited by Keister, ibid)./blockquote>

This morning, as our preacher (Bob Godfrey) was taking us through Matthew’s narrative of the institution of the Supper, I noticed two things in this regard. There was intinction and there was drinking of the wine but one belonged to the Passover and the other the Supper.

When it was evening, he reclined at table with the twelve. And as they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” And they were very sorrowful and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?” He answered, “He who has dipped (ἐμβάψας) his hand in the dish with me will betray me (Matt 26:20–23; ESV)

Our Lord celebrated the Passover meal prior to the institution and celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Notice that there is dipping of the bread  (likely in oil) as part of the Passover. We can confirm this from the parallel in John 13:26, “So when he had dipped the morsel” (ESV) and Mark 14:20.

The Passover was a part of the shadowy, typological administration of the covenant of grace. The function of the Passover was to point to the final, perfect, spotless Paschal (Passover) Lamb, Our Lord Jesus. Thus, John the Baptist declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Jesus is the glorious Lamb who is standing though he has been slain (Rev 5:6). We need not draw inferences. Paul says: “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7; ESV).

In the institution of the Supper, however, there is no dipping of bread.

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”  And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt 26:26–29; ESV).

The are four liturgical actions relative to the cup: the taking (λαβὼν), the blessing (εὐχαριστήσας), the giving (ἔδωκεν), and the drinking (πίετε). Each of these is deliberate. Note that our Matthew used an imperative: “drink” (not dip).

As Bob noted this morning, the Matthew juxtaposes the Old Covenant anticipation of Christ’s death in the Passover with the New Covenant sacrament of the realization of Christ’s death, the Lord’s Supper. According to Luke 22:20, Christ said, “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood” (τοῦτο τὸ ποτήριον ἡ καινὴ διαθήκη ἐν τῷ αἵματί μου). This cup, which Christ gave to his disciples and commanded all of them to drink.

In other words, redemptive history has moved on from promise to fulfillment. The Passover was appropriate for the types and shadows but the reality has come. In the sacrament of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood (not in the blood of lambs and bulls but in the blood of the Lamb of God) the cup is taken, blessed, given, and drunk. The institution is very clear. There is no intinction. There is no withholding of the cup from the disciples. There is a giving of the cup and a drinking from the cup.

The great question is then, on what basis does a session (or consistory) take a half-step toward withdrawing the cup from the laity by our Lord’s liturgical actions (taking, blessing, giving,  and drinking) with intinction, in which there is no taking, giving, or drinking? The fundamental principle at stake in the debate over intinction is the magisterial authority of God’s Word.  According to Scripture and our confession, we do in worship only what is commanded. We know what is commanded. It is clear in the gospel narratives and in Paul’s recounting of the institution of the Supper (1 Cor 11:23–26). There Paul notes a taking (ἔλαβεν), a thanking (εὐχαριστήσας), a breaking (ἔκλασεν) of the bread. Paul says simply “likewise” (ὡσαύτως) the same sort of liturgical actions occurred relative to the cup. Paul uses an imperative: “this do” (τοῦτο ποιεῖτε). There is our authority.

We have no authority to dip the bread in the wine as part of the administration of the Supper. We have authority to take, bless, give, and drink. The departure, in some NAPARC congregations, from the pattern instituted by our Lord in the Supper is indicative of a broader departure from the rule of worship (Calvin) instituted by our Lord. This ought to trouble all of us, even if we might think that intinction is, in itself, no great matter. If we may set aside our Lord’s institution and the Apostolic injunction here, why not elsewhere? As our Lord said, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much… (Luke 16:10).

Ps. Here is a discussion of some of these issues with the Presbycast.

4 comments

  1. Hi Dr. Clark, I’ve been thinking about this argument for a while since some of our sister churches do practice intinction (we do not). Here is my question: Based on this argument, how do we (or can we) justify a hundred plastic cups? The Gospels say we should use The Cup (singular)? How do we escape using a single cup and wiping the edge (or not) like the RCC? Thanks!

    • Rob,

      With individual cups (glass, which are may be re-used, or plastic) all the liturgical acts (listed above) are performed.

      The common cup is the traditional the most likely mode. It was the traditional Reformed mode. It was the practice when I was ordained. So, it’s not only RCC practice.

      As far as I am concerned, this is a relatively minor question. What I do know is that intinction is contrary to the biblical narrative and injunction.

    • Larry,

      Ideally wine ought at least to be available. Grape juice is a modern invention. It certainly is not in view in the institution narrative nor in Paul’s recounting.

      That said, I am well aware that some struggle with alcoholism and that the use of wine might present a significant problem. Thus, I have often administered communion where non-alcoholic substitutes are available (e.g., grape juice). In defense of its use I note that both come from grapes and all the same liturgical acts are present, in distinction from the practice of intinction.

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