A Personal Journey on Intinction

One of the issues I have shifted my views on since graduating seminary is intinction, the practice of administering the Lord’s Supper by dipping the bread into the wine rather than drinking of the cup. I was in seminary and on staff at a PCA church when the denomination was vigorously debating the issue. The PCA’s General Assembly had unexpectedly approved a constitutional amendment banning the practice, which a majority of presbyteries subsequently rejected. I was actually under care of the presbytery whose rejection of the amendment made it mathematically impossible for it to pass. This whole process left a deep impression upon me. My seminary context was confessionally ecumenical, with lots of people attending non-presbyterian churches. This left me inclined to be deferential on something like intinction, whose opponents initially appeared to me too doctrinaire. The PCA was also being roiled by the debate, and the possibility of a real conflict over a seemingly insignificant issue was shameful. A significant number of elders who were disinclined to practice intinction were still put off by the possibility of something of indifference being banned by overzealous partisans. A lot of elders I talked to during this time, or heard speak to the issue at presbytery, were outright dismissive of the concerns of those opposed to intinction, some even stating that the only motive for opposing it was from a controlling heart. I once suggested to a group of elders that while intinction was permissible, the discussion was worthwhile and its opponents admirable because anything touching the doctrine and administration of the Lord’s Supper was valuable. That suggestion was ridiculed. At the same time, a longtime friend who was a PCA minister oversees told me that he would never take the Lord’s Supper by intinction because he thought it was unauthorized worship of God, and therefore false and sinful worship. I once asked a group of elders whether it made sense to voluntarily ban intinction out of love for people like my friend, and they said no, on the grounds that doing so would be giving in to legalism.

My perspective at the time was that the necessary components of the Lord’s Supper included the words of institution, the elements of bread and wine, and their consumption in faith. Since both elements of the Supper were consumed in intinction then all the criteria for the sacrament were met. Arguments from intinction’s opponents that the commands of the Eucharist were to eat and drink as discrete actions seemed to me as deriving too much prescription from descriptions of what happened at the Last Supper. It was odd to me that people had a problem mixing the elements in advance of consumption when they would be mixed immediately after anyways. But due to cases like my friend’s, and the relatively recent introduction of intinction in the history of the western church, I could never think of reasons why I would administer the Eucharist that way, even if I had no doctrinal problem with it. Better to be more inclusive.

But the reactions of the elders who were indifferent to the practice did not sit will with me. This continued with my transition into the EPC. I once spoke with an elder whose church had left the RCA for the EPC at the same time that a neighboring RCA church had left and joined the PCA. I was surprised that his congregation had not also joined the PCA, as it seemed to be more consistent with some of his views. He cited the intinction debate as evidence that the PCA was too narrow, even if his congregation would not practice it. The insinuation that what separated the PCA from the EPC was our laissez faire tolerance of things that some people within our denomination might find unacceptable was troubling.

Several years ago I realized that I had changed my mind on the subject, and believed that intinction was an invalid form of sacramental administration and should be banned. There is a broad hermeneutic that informed my rationale, and which I think is generally shared by the confessionally reformed. This includes the conviction that in the corporate worship of God only that which he has commanded should be performed, and that which is performed should be done according to his commandment in scripture. This practice affirms God’s sovereignty, defers to his wisdom and glory, protects against idolatry, and prevents people from being subjugated to worship practices contrary to scripture. The sacraments are signs and seals of God’s covenant, and signify and seal the substance and terms of that covenant to his people. Therefore, they should only be administered in accordance with God’s commands as people do not have the right to alter the terms and representation of God’s covenant. More narrowly, based on the institution of the Eucharist in Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, and Luke 22:14-20, Paul’s affirmation of the normativity of the institution in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, and the Johannine commentary on the sacrament’s meaning in John 6:35-63 (52-56 especially), eating and drinking are distinct and specific actions with covenantal significance in the administration of the sacramental seal.

My older perspective was that the necessary components of the sacrament were the words of institution, the elements of bread and wine, and their consumption in faith. But I revised that, in line with what is actually happening in these passages, informed by my theological heritage (e.g. WLC 169), to: setting aside and blessing the elements with the words of institution, the elements being given and received, eating the bread, and drinking the wine.

So based on that, the reasons for rejecting intinction fell into several categories. In intinction there is not eating and drinking, only eating. A cookie dunked in milk is not drunk, but eaten, even if wet. Drinking is a necessary component of the sacrament since it was prescribed by God for his worship and is part of its covenant structure; the church does not have the right to delete an aspect of God’s covenant seal. The Lord’s Supper is also just that: a sacramental meal. While not an actual, full meal (Jesus did not make the whole meal the Lord’s Supper, and Paul instructed against treating the sacrament as an actual meal), the Eucharist is supposed to represent a meal in its form. Eating and drinking are universal actions in a meal, which is why they were included. No one eats bread by dipping it into wine as part of their meal. Intinction disrupts the communal meal form of the Supper.

The cup and drinking from it has particular significance lost in intinction. Drinking the cup of God’s wrath is symbolic in the Old Testament of his judgment against sin (Isaiah 51:17, Jeremiah 51:7, Zechariah 12:2), with the Isaian passage saying that it is to be drunk to the dregs. In Mark 10:35-40 (cf. Matt. 20:20-23) Jesus asks James and John if they are able to drink of the cup that he is going to drink or handle the baptism that he is about to undergo; the sacraments are signs pointing to the reality of Christ’s work. In his death, Jesus drinks the cup of God’s wrath to the dregs, which is sacramentally represented by his people drinking the Eucharistic cup. With intinction, James and John are able to get out of drinking the cup of Christ.

The separation of body and blood in the sacrifice of Christ has symbolic significance for the total destruction and death of Jesus. Leviticus 17:10-14 discusses the symbolism of life being in blood and the connection to the sacrificial system. Jesus fulfills what these sacrifices represent in his death, which the Lord’s Supper signifies. The separation of body and blood in death, and the elements being separated in the covenantal signifiers of God’s redemption in that death, are not arbitrary, but purposefully represent the church’s receiving of life from the blood separated from the body of Christ (cf. John 19:34). This argument was made by both John Owen and Herman Bavinck. Intinction muddies that symbolism by reuniting body and blood in its administration. Some have argued that intinction captures the sense of Jesus’ body being bloodied in his death, but the symbolism of the sacrament should be derived from scripturally prescribed imagery, not creative alternatives.

There are several historical reasons for banning intinction, some of which are summarized here by Terry Johnson. Intinction was introduced relatively late in the church’s practice, with the earliest possibility being in the 340s, when Julius I condemned it as inconsistent with gospel practices. It was not present in the eastern church until the 7th century. In both east and west, it seems like the practice was to make the bread easier to swallow for either infants, the elderly, or the sick, not a general practice for the whole church. While the practice increased and continued in the east, the Council of Brage (675) used the same words as Julius to condemn the practice, a prohibition which was repeated by the Council of Claremont in 1090. By the 12th century intinction disappeared from the western church and was not reintroduced until the 19th century by the Tractarian movement in England as part of a compromise to get closer to the Roman Catholic practice of withholding the cup from the laity. So intinction does not have an historic pedigree of any value. My (non-Tractarian) Anglo-Catholic friends despise it for that reason: It seems traditional without being anything of the sort.

The historical motivation for its initial return highlights one of its other problems: it moves back towards the practice of withholding the cup from the church. This was one reason intinction disappeared in the first place, and there’s no reason to move backwards on reformational principles on this point. While intinction was not practiced during the Reformation in the west, it was not unknown, and was addressed and rejected by several Reformers for all the above reasons. Intinction has never been introduced to the church on the grounds that it is the biblical form of administration, and that alone should be reason for it to be suspect. The cup should not wet the bread, but be drunk deeply by the people.

The reasons I provided, along with pro-intinction objections and responses, can be found in greater detail in Walter Taylor’s irenic and forceful article ‘The Administration of Communion among Presbyterians’ and Lane Keister’s excellent paper on the history of practice along with a biblical and theological analysis.

Now what? This is where I have struggled. I am of the conviction that intinction is invalid, but belong to a denomination where it is sometimes practiced. And I’m not quite sure what to do. I had decided that I was not going to take the sacrament if it was administered via intinction since I did not believe that was biblically prescribed worship. But as I was recently visiting a Lutheran congregation, and it came time to receive the Supper, I realized as I was standing in front of the priest that it was being administered by intinction. I took the elements. My thinking then was that there is a different standard for the church and myself. For myself, I was guest, and not acting as an elder as I would be in my own denomination. For the church, the Lutheran tradition has a different approach to the validity of worship practices than the Reformed, so it is unrealistic to hold it to my Reformed standard, especially since I was a guest there. The problem with this is that it shifted the burden of acceptability in worship to the consciences of the people involved, not the divine ordination of worship.

WCF 20.2 says,

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also (emphasis added).

To do something that is contrary to scripture in order to preserve your conscience (such as being polite at a church you are visiting) is sinful. It makes me so mad to have to be in this position, and I sympathize deeply with my old friend from the PCA. The Lord’s Supper should be a time of fraternal communion in godly comfort, not agonizing about whether you’re sinning by following your conscience over your convictions in submission to scripture. Intinction should be lovingly banned to protect people from this problem, although this doesn’t solve my dilemma about what to do when confronted with it.

There is a difference between intinction being an invalid administration of the Eucharist and being an invalid reception of the sacrament. In intinction the bread is still given, the cup withheld. This is a deficiency on the part of the person administering the Eucharist, not the person receiving it. For the recipient, taking the bread is part of the biblically prescribed worship of God, but dipping it into the cup is not, even if that feels rude or awkward. This where I currently am in my reasoning, though I am not sure if I am satisfied with it.