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"Wine" means wine

A summary defense of the use of wine in communion


by Tim Gallant

On the night He was betrayed, Jesus instituted a very simple rite. Two prayers, two elements: bread and wine. One would think that with such simplicity, we would have no problem following the pattern. But in truth, we do have a problem. We usually have one prayer instead of two, and in North America, wine is less likely to be served in most churches than grape juice.

Leaving aside the matter of one prayer rather than two, why do we employ grace juice instead of wine?

There have been two primary defenses of this move to grape juice. First, it is claimed by some that the original practice was grape juice, and that this is what the Bible is referring to when it speaks of "the fruit of the vine." Some go so far as to suggest that whenever wine is spoken of positively in Scripture, grape juice is being referred to.

Second, even among those who accept that wine was the original element in the Lord's Supper, there is a strong sense that the use of wine in communion is a grievous offense to those who have been alcoholics, and may well plunge them back over the abyss.

What follows is by no means an exhaustive treatment of this subject, but I do wish to address these points very briefly.

1. Wine Really Referred to Wine

The early Church practiced the Lord's Supper weekly. Paul implies that whenever the Corinthians came together as a church, their intention was to eat the Lord's Supper (1 Cor 11.18, 20). Similarly, Acts 20.7 refers to the customary practice in Troas: meeting together on the first day of the week "to break bread" - a reference to the celebration of the sacrament.

What does this have to do with whether wine was used in the Lord's Supper?

Well, it must be remembered that prior to the advent of modern preservation methods, it was literally impossible to have unfermented grape juice on hand at all times. It would spoil in short order. A year-round, available-weekly supply of wine could only be precisely that: a year-round supply of wine, real honest-to-goodness strong-drink-wine. The early Church, we should not forget, did not live in the days of Mr Welch.

Long before instituting the Supper, Jesus characterized Himself as the giver of wine. We are all familiar with the story from John 2: at a wedding in Cana, the wine ran out, and Jesus met the emergency by miraculously changing water of purification into fine wine. It is frequently objected that what Jesus made was new, and therefore unfermented. In short, it was grape juice. This, however, is not true to the text. The master of the feast was so delighted with Jesus' wine that he asked the groom why he had saved the best wine for last; the usual practice was the reverse. (This is because once some wine is consumed, the guests would already be pleasantly warmed and the tastebuds would be less discerning.) Now, as Jesus says elsewhere, no one drinks old wine and straightway desires new, because "the old is better" (Lk 5.39). There is no question of Jesus doing a half-job, turning water into unfermented grape juice. He made wine. That is how He characterizes Himself: He is the giver of wine.

2. Only Wine Can Be "the Fruit of the Vine"

As noted, some claim that "the fruit of the vine" is broader than wine, and therefore grape juice, being from the fruit of the vine, is at least an acceptable substitute to wine.

This ignores several facts, however:

  1. The New Testament does use the term "fruit of the vine" (which sounds more general), but it also explicitly uses the term "wine." Even if for no other reason than this, the specific governs the general. We can no more say that "fruit of the vine" can mean "grape juice" than we can say that "the Son of David" can mean "James the Lord's brother." If we may not worship James or Jude, neither may we substitute wine with grape juice.
  2. The term "the fruit of the vine" is used in parallel in each of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), where Jesus says He will not drink of this fruit of the vine. It is not used elsewhere to refer to the Lord's Supper. In other words, there is no general command instructing us to use "the fruit of the vine" in general. If the fruit of the vine Jesus was referring to was wine, we again have no mandate to broaden the referent to include grape juice.
  3. The phrase itself, "fruit of the vine," is borrowed from the Jewish thanksgiving for wine (see e.g. I. Howard Marshall, NIGTC Commentary on Luke, ad loc cit at Lk 22.18). We are not permitted to break down the parts of the phrase and make it mean anything that it possibly could mean. We must interpret it as it was actually employed.

3. Tinkering With the Form Alters the Meaning

One of the greatest afflictions under which the Church presently suffers is a sort of Gnosticism that treats matter - tangible things - as indifferent, as if everything important took place in the space between one's ears. Form is considered peripheral at best, and often, completely irrelevant. (Incidentally, it is this Gnosticism that underlies the other error mentioned at the beginning - one prayer instead of two. "Why pray over the bread and wine individually," we implicitly reason: "they are the same thing for our purposes." Ironically, the Baptists don't treat immersion in this way. And while I disagree with their idiosyncratic notion that baptism means immersion, I respect their insistence on performing the rite in a particular way.)

Wine plays a specific function within Scripture, and it cannot be replaced by grape juice. In Scripture, wine is symbolic of many things: potency, joy, celebration, bounty, banqueting. Grape juice shares none of these biblical associations.

Since we are Gnostic and think all the activity is in our heads, at least allow me to attempt to tackle this issue by appealing to the intellectual implications of wine versus grape juice. Even if we say that the elements are merely and only symbolic, they still must be symbolic of some thing. They don't refer back to themselves.

One of the common errors is to suppose that the point of the element is the colour, which reminds us of Jesus' blood. Now, I do not deny that the colour is probably intended to be part of the association between wine and Christ's blood. But it at least begs the question whether colour is the only intended association. Otherwise, cherry Koolaid or some other red beverage would be equally appropriate.

Our problems with our theology of the Supper and our disputation with the original form of the Supper are interrelated. Because we see the Supper as principally a time to sit around, close our eyes, and visualize the blood dripping from Jesus' body, and feel deeply mournful/moved/whatever - because of that, grape juice is no hindrance. If anything, it is an improvement over wine. Less distracting. No buzz.

But what if? What if our practice is reinforcing a wrong conception of the sacrament to begin with? What if Jesus intends us to see His blood, not as something to mourn about and feel "moved" regarding - but as life, abundant life? That, after all, is what He indicates in John 6, where He ties life, eternal life - the life of the world - to eating His flesh and drinking His blood.

Isaiah 25.6 has a glorious prophecy regarding the time of the Messiah. "And in this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all people a feast of choice pieces, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of well-refined wines on the lees." Is it so strange to think that the wine of the Lord's Supper is intended to evoke and embody such a promise? Is it so strange to think that we are (as we claim to be doing) to celebrate the Lord's Supper, rather than to engage in a wake?

4. Christ's Wine is Healing

What then are we to say to the common objection that if we use wine in communion, we will lay a stumbling block before alcoholics?

We are to deny such to be the case.

We have drunk deeply (pardon the pun) in the anti-gospel of modern diagnosis. I cannot go far into that here. But I will say some things that I think are manifestly true from Scripture.

First, the Bible does not know of something called "alcoholism." The sin that it deals with is drunkenness. The notion of alcoholism largely functions to fuzz the boundaries between illness and sinful deeds.

Second, the sins most commonly associated with drunkenness in Scripture are sins of indulgence and lack of self-control, such as gluttony. The biblical resolution to gluttony, by the nature of the case, is not abstinence from food. Rather, indulgence is treated by way of a Spirit-led self-control.

Third, the sin of drunkenness is much older than our culturally-driven diagnosis regarding alcoholism. It has been a prevalent problem in most ages, and certainly was well enough known in Israel and the early Church to be addressed by both the Old Testament prophets and by the apostles in their letters. And yet, despite this, Jesus chose to institute the Church's feast with wine. The notion that we are more pastorally sensitive than Christ Himself is repugnant and arrogant beyond belief.

What we need to recognize above all else is that the Supper is not our institution. It is not something we designed to aid our symbolic imaginations or to nurture a spiritual emotional life. It is Christ's gift to us, where He gives us Himself.

There are numerous implications to this. One is that we should be very cautious about giving free rein to our own tinkering, on the basis of our own wisdom. But more specifically, it is a reminder that Christ the Healer (for that is a key idea in the word Saviour) comes to us here to make us whole. The notion that Christ's feast as He instituted it could be a cause for sin reflects an unbelieving approach to the Lord's Supper. Rather than looking at this wine as a possible downfall to an alcoholic, we should view it as Christ in His mercy giving back His good gifts to the sinner who has abused them in other contexts. Christ is the Healer, and He teaches us gratitude through the celebration that He mandates in His own presence.

Thus, to remove wine from the Supper is to emasculate it, to rob the needy - yes, to rob those who struggle with alcohol addictions - of the gift of healing life which Christ gives.

Wine means wine.

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