The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament the administration of which has been influenced by the health of the culture at the time. This past summer, I interned at a church and attended meetings where the staff discussed how to administer the Lord’s Supper to the congregation in the safest way possible. Amid the current COVID-19 pandemic, many churches are adjusting and compromising communion practices to abide by state laws and health regulations. The discussion was initially centered around whether church members could take communion in private homes. The debate, however, moved to discussing prepackaged elements spread out across dozens of tables. At the onset of the pandemic, companies that sold pre-packaged elements quickly raised prices and still sold out.1 As one of two sacraments given to believers, it is important to administer the Lord’s Supper in a way that is biblical. Ministers who strive to administer safely communion in a pandemic are doing their best to care for the members that God has given them. It is important, however, not to compromise doctrine for practicality.
Communion practices vary and are grounded in tradition or scriptural interpretation. Many congregations take communion by first eating the broken bread, then drinking wine. There are many, however, that have adopted the practice of intinction, which is the method whereby the two elements are combined by dipping the bread into the wine and eating the wine-sopped bread. Intinction has slowly been creeping into Western churches in the modern period in the name of convenience, hygiene, or expediency. In this essay, I argue that intinction is a practice that historically has been condemned by the Reformed church and ought to continue to be discouraged based on biblical grounds.
Although the common belief is that intinction became popular in connection to the doctrine of transubstantiation, evidence from fourth century writings suggests it far preceded transubstantiation. Intinction was first mentioned in a writing of Julius I in AD 340, where he criticized the practice for being unbiblica.2 There is no consensus on why the practice was first introduced into the church. William Freestone posited that intinction was first practiced for the sake of the sick and elderly who had difficulty swallowing the bread.3 Another theory, argued by the a report adopted by the Ohio Presbytery (Presbyterian Church of America), is that intinction is linked to paedocommunion, again to make the bread easier to swallow.4 However it started, it is evident that the early western church condemned the practice, whereas the eastern church regularly practiced intinction.5 This contributed to the schism between the East and West. The opposition to the practice only increased with the advent of the doctrines of transubstantiation and concomitance circa 1054 AD.6 The practice of intinction effectually ended in the west early in the thirteenth century when Pope Innocent III declared the practice heretical.7
The practice reentered the Western church after a 600-year hiatus amid a sanitation movement in the United States. As denominations developed, communion practices reflected the different theologies and became varied over time. Debates focused not only on how to serve communion, but who could serve communion, what the elements specifically ought to be, and how often communion ought to take place.8 The main focus was on the common cup. The American Protestant church struggled to hold onto the practice of communion from a common cup with the advent of modern germ theory.9 Drinking out of a common cup was seen as orthodox and traditional by clergy, however, many scientists and physicians claimed this practice was primitive and unsanitary. Ministers argued amongst themselves over pastoral care for their congregations and many sought to prove or disprove the practice biblically. In the end, most agreed that the common cup was a nonessential doctrine, and therefore erred on the side of pastoral care for the physical health of the congregation.10 Various doctrinal statements and creeds reflected this new consensus.11 Two camps emerged, with some favoring the common cup and intinction to protect the health of the congregation, and others favoring individual cups for each member.
Roman Catholic practice has also evolved over time. The debate has been focused on whether it is necessary to receive both bread and wine. Roman Catholic laity received both bread and wine weekly until the Council of Lambeth (1218), where it was stated that the wine be received by the priest alone.12 This was not universally practiced, but was the general practice until Vatican II (1970). The current Roman Catholic Catechism states,
Since Christ is sacramentally present under each of the species, communion under the species of bread alone makes it possible to receive all the fruit of Eucharistic grace. For pastoral reasons this manner of receiving communion has been legitimately established as the most common form in the Latin rite. But the sign of communion is more complete when given under both kinds, since in that form the sign of the Eucharistic meal appears more clearly.13
For this reason, the cup has been withheld from the laity in the Roman Catholic church. There are some congregations that take communion under both species, however, with some adjustments. Those that do serve wine from a common chalice “for reasons of hygiene or convenience, recourse was had to a drinking straw or to ‘intinction.’”14 Rome, however, allows each congregation to decide whether to serve communion under one or two species, with the recognition that two species is preferable.
The Eastern Orthodox churches have a more consistent history of intinction. The first instance is noted in the story of St. Sophronius (560—638).15 In the account, the monk received the eucharist of bread immersed in wine, consecrated together. The practice has been most consistently practiced by the Eastern Orthodox church since the ninth century.16 Currently in the Eastern Orthodox church, the bread is crumbled into the wine and is given to the laity on a spoon sometimes called a cochlear.17 They state that this practice was instituted by Christ himself, and that it is essential to take “communion under both kinds.”18 This is in contrast to the Roman Catholic who take communion under one kind, the bread. The Eastern Orthodox church does not have a general catechism or creed, so it is difficult to say how universal these practices and beliefs are; however, it seems that they generally agree on two elements combined.
Although the Reformed Confessions do not explicitly contradict the practice of intinction, they do affirm taking the Lord’s Supper in two kinds. The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) discusses the Lord’s Supper in questions 75–82. Question and answer 79 are especially helpful when addressing intinction. Question 79 states, “as bread and wine nourish the temporal life, so too his crucified body and poured-out blood are the true food and drink of our souls for eternal life.”19 This statement is primarily addressing the blessings imparted to us through communion, however, it is clearly stated that there is bread that is food, and wine that is drink.20 There is a separation of the elements, there is broken body and there is shed blood. The Catechism consistently lists the two elements as unique blessings with different meanings: the bread representing the broken body, and the wine representing the shed blood of the sacrificial lamb.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) again, does not address intinction directly, but instead uses language that emphasizes the significance of the individual elements. Chapter 29 expounds on the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, and specifically section 3 is helpful when discussing how we are to receive the elements. The confession directs the appointed minister, “to take and break the bread, to take the cup, and […] to give both to the communicants.”21 The bread is first to be broken, then the cup given, as separate and distinct actions from the minister towards the communicants. The Westminster Confession of Faith states that both the wine and the bread both be set apart and blessed by the minister before the administering of the elements, preventing private masses and the incorrect taking of the sacrament.22 The primary concern for the authors of the Confession was papal practices, and the doctrine therefore addresses many of the incorrect practices of the Romanist church.
The Westminster Larger Catechism expands on the supper more fully, and addresses receiving the Lord’s Supper in Question 169. Question and answer 169 states,
Q. 169. How hath Christ appointed bread and wine to be given and received in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper?
A. Christ hath appointed the ministers of his word, in the administration of this sacrament of the Lord’s supper, to set apart the bread and wine from common use, by the word of
institution, thanksgiving, and prayer; to take and break the bread, and to give both the
bread and the wine to the communicants: who are, by the same appointment, to take and
eat the bread, and to drink the wine, in thankful remembrance that the body of Christ was
broken and given, and his blood shed, for them.23
In this statement, the catechism describes the key actions involved in the administration of the supper. First, the minister consecrates the bread and wine. Then he takes and breaks the bread. Next, he gives the broken bread and wine to the communicants. The communicants (and minister) then eat the bread. Then they drink the wine. The key to understanding is in the verbs the authors of the catechism use. Break the bread. Give the elements. Eat the bread. Drink the wine. There is a clear and intentional method for administering communion that does not involve dipping.
Some key Reformed theologians who have written against intinction include John Owen (1616–83), Herman Witsius (1636–1708), and Charles Hodge (1797–1878).24 Owen connects the Lord’s Supper with Old Testament sacrificial practices. He wrote that it is necessary for the wine to be separated from the bread, just as, “the blood was let out with the hand of violence, and so separated; and then the body was burned distinct by itself.”25 For Owen, the Lord’s Supper is a meal in remembrance of the violent sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This sacrifice mirrors, and is indeed, the final atoning sacrifice. In his account of the supper, violence is a repeated adjective. By placing the blood back into the body, by dipping the bread into the wine, Christians lose the imagery of violent separation of life from body and the connection to the Old Covenant sacrificial system.
Witsius made a different case against intinction, namely, that Christians ought to practice the sacrament in the way that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. He argued that the Christian ought 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.”26 Although Witsius alluded to the importance of the sacrificial imagery, the primary defense against intinction is the institutional narrative found in scriptures, where Jesus serves his disciples both the bread and the wine separately and distinctly.
Hodge took yet a different approach to arguing against intinction practices. In his Systematic Theology, he wrote that it is against the nature of the sacrament for the elements to be combined. His main argument against intinction is rooted in the history of the practice. Intinction is a niche practice that was initially used in specific circumstances yet has somehow become the norm for the Roman Church and the Eastern Orthodox church.27 He states that the practice transferred from East to West and was a, “[great] departure from the Scriptural rule.”28 For Hodge, the history of the practice shows that it ought not be entertained by the church at large, and instead was an unfortunate compromise that developed into a doctrinal practice founded in tradition rather than scripture.
An unlikely place to begin, perhaps the best place to start is in Leviticus 17. If, as Owen proposed, the importance of the blood and body being separated is rooted in the analogous relationship between The Lord’s Supper and Old Testament sacrifices, then the chapter on blood laws is salient. Leviticus 17:11 states, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.”29 Blood was believed to be the life of the animal, so separating the blood from the body was taking the life from the creature. The blood, the life, therefore, of the animal, was the price for atonement. Death was the penalty for sin, pronounced at the garden. Lives had to be taken, and blood was the efficacious representation of the atonement.30
In this same chapter of Leviticus, there are strict commands not to drink the blood. These are commands that the disciples would have been familiar with, and so when Jesus instituted the supper, and invited them to drink of the cup, afterwards claiming it was his blood, there would have been several shocked expressions.31 The symbolism, though, expresses the sacrifice in the blood of the new covenant. The Lord’s Supper both harkens back to the Old Testament sacrificial system that was marked by the pouring out of blood, and also recognizes that this is a new covenant where partakers sit at a table, are offered the blood, and gladly drink the new life that was spilled on behalf of the new covenant believers. Just as the blood had to be poured out from the body of the sacrificial animal, so the blood must be served and offered separate from the body.
In all three institution narratives it is apparent that there were separate actions of eating, then drinking. It would be impossible to prove the orthodoxy of intinction from the institution narratives alone. The primary argument here returns to the doctrine of a common cup: did all the disciples drink out of one cup, or did they have individual cups. If there was a common cup that all the disciples drank from, then intinction could be a defender of this imagery; however, those who support intinction value the imagery of the common cup over the symbolism of a separation between blood and body. For intincters, a common cup is more important than the significance of the separate actions of eating and drinking. There has been no consensus between commentators on the question of the common cup in the three accounts of the institution of the supper.32 What is clear in these passages, namely the eating and drinking, ought to determine the practice, not what is unclear.
The final relevant scripture is 1 Corinthians 10–11. It must be noted that these passages are primarily about idolatry and participation in feasts to idols, not necessarily direction on how to administer the Lord’s Supper.33 Nevertheless, the purpose of this connection is to illustrate how participation in the Lord’s Supper creates solidarity and allegiance to God; participating in feasts to idols aligns the believer with those idols.34 This passage particularly illuminates the unique union that Christians experience with Christ when they participate in the Lord’s Supper. In 1 Corinthians 11:17–34, the repeated verbiage is “eats and drinks.”35 There are two distinct unions that are occurring with Christ in the sacrament: “the cup is a communion with Christ’s blood (not his body). The bread is a communion of Christ’s body (and not his blood).”36 The passage in 1 Corinthians echoes the institution narratives, and through describing the meaning, emphasizes the importance of the distinct actions.
Response to the Opposing Views
Something that occurred to me while researching that I did not find in the secondary literature was the symbolism involved in the verbiage. By speaking the words of institution and praying, Christians are breathing, which is necessary for preservation. By eating the bread, Christians are acknowledging that they are dependent on God for our life-sustaining food. By drinking the wine, Christians are reminded that we need drinking to live. These three actions encompass all that is necessary for life in a beautifully holistic way. The Lord’s Supper reminds believers of our physical and finite nature, and our needs. In addition, it reminds us that Jesus is all sustaining. If the elements are combined, and there is just eating involved, Christians who are participating are not being reminded of the total sustaining nature of the Lord’s Supper for us as finite creatures with physical needs.
Roman Catholics who withhold the chalice and Eastern Orthodox who soak the bread are unfortunately, among other things, serving their congregations an incomplete sacrament. The sacrament is not only about the physical elements, but also about the symbolic actions; Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have instead minimized the sacrament to receiving bread and wine in the most convenient way possible. Modern Protestants who compromise, either for the sake of a common cup (by using a straw) or for the sake of expediency, are also cutting essential corners and are robbing the congregation of the beautiful symbolism of the Lord’s Supper as it was instituted in scripture. Almost just as unfortunately, Protestant pastors who serve the Lord’s Supper without any explanation or interpretation are also guilty of stealing from the sheep whom they are supposed to be leading and for whom they are supposed to be caring. The Scriptural commands concerning the sacraments are some of the most explicit commands for church worship, yet they are sometimes the first to be dismissed due to timing, confusion, avoidance of controversy, or laziness. The right administration of the Lord’s Supper is a sign of the true church, and therefore ought to be frequently explained and celebrated as scripture has commanded.
Intinction is an unbiblical method for administering communion. The practice symbolically puts the blood back into the sacrifices and causes a muddling of the symbolism involved in the holy meal. In addition, the narratives contained in scripture do not affirm this practice. Instead, communion is to be served in two separate elements to Christians, and ought to involve both eating and drinking. Ministers are responsible to carry on the administration of the communion to the covenant community as Christ has instructed and teach the congregation the rich symbolism involved in eating the bread and drinking the wine. In this season where the church is taking a second glance at the Lord’s Supper due to the pandemic, ministers ought to value this holy sacrament, administer it well, and teach it well.
©Amy Warren. All Rights Reserved.
1. Parija Kavilanz, “Easter is Here, and So Are Disposable, Pre-Filled Communion Cups,” CNN Business, (New York, NY), Apr. 7, 2020.
2. Original Latin for the text is found in Patrologia Latinae, 8.970. The English translation by Jonathan G. Lange is found in, “Do This in Remembrance of Me,” an article presented to the Spring Pastor’s conference of the Wyoming District, May 5, 2008.
3. William H. Freestone, The Sacrament Reserved (Milwaukee, WI: Mowbray & Co., Ltd., 1917), 144.
4. See the “Ohio Presbytery Intinction Committee Report,” February 2012.
5. Robert F.Taft, “Communion Via Intinction,” Studia Liturgica 26 (1996): 229. Intinction was condemned as a sacrilege by two western Popes, Leo the Great (440–61) and Gelasius I (492–96).
6. Freestone, The Sacrament Reserved, 152.
7. Freestone, The Sacrament Reserved, 164–5.
8. Daniel Sack, Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 31–32.
9. Sack, Whitebread Protestants, 33–34. Sack argued that initially, the individual cups were denied especially in the south because individual cups would put an end to the necessity of segregating congregations (43). In addition, he also stated that intinction was directly linked to the AIDS epidemic, and the fear that accompanied an unknown disease (52–54).
10. Sack, Whitebread Protestants, 44.
11. In 1948, the Anglican church made a formal resolution during the Lambeth Conference on intinction. The resolution stated, “there is no objection to administration of both kinds by the method of intinction where conditions require it, and that any part of the Anglican Communion by provincial regulation according to its own constitutional procedure has liberty to sanction administration by intinction as an optional alternative to the traditional method, and that the methods of intinction to be adopted or permitted should not be left to the discretion of individual priests.”
12. Mansi, XXIV, 405.
13. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1390.
14. Robert Cabié, The Eucharist, vol 2, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1986), 119. Specific instruction and allowances are listed in General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 245–46. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states, “The Blood of the Lord may be received either by drinking from the chalice directly, or by intinction, or by means of a tube or a spoon.” (245).
15. Taft, “Communion via Intinction,” 226.
16. Taft, “Communion via Intinction,” 227. 17.
17. Hugh Wybrew, The Orthodox Liturgy: the Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite (Yonkers, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1990), 9.
18. Ernst Benz, The Eastern Orthodox Church (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2008), 39.
19. Heidelberg Catechism, 79.
20. The separation and acknowledgement of the specific meaning of each of the elements is seen throughout the entire treatment of the Lord’s Supper in the Heidelberg Catechism. See also 75, 76, and 77.
21. Westminster Confession of Faith, 29.3.
22. Westminster Confession of Faith, 29.3. 23. Westminster Larger Catechism, 169.
24. Given the constraints of the essay, it is sufficient for the purposes of this essay to let John Owen represent seventeenth-century England, Witsius, seventeenth-century Netherlands, and Hodge, nineteenth-century United States.
25. John Owen, “Sermons Published 1760,” in The Works of John Owen, vol. 9, ed. William H Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 525.
26. Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, vol. 2, trans. William Crookshank, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1990), 17.25.
27. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol 3., (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 620. 28. Hodge, Systematic Theology, 620.
29. ESV Lev 17:11.
30. Walter A. Kaiser, Jr., The Book of Leviticus, Vol 1, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), 1120.
31. Derek Tidball, The Message of Leviticus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 209. See Matt 26:27; Mark 14:23–24.
32. Particularly on Matt 26:17–30, see John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005).
33. Keister, “Intinction: An Historical, Exegetical, and Systematic-Theological,” 170.
Lane Keister, “Intinction: An Historical, Exegetical, and Systematic-Theological Examination,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 29 (2018): 169. This article has been immensely helpful in writing this paper and was foundational in my research.
34. David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 476.
35. See 1 Corinthians 11:22, 26, 27, 28, 29.
36. Keister, “Intinction: An Historical, Exegetical, and Systematic-Theological,” 170.
©Amy Warren. All Rights Reserved.
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