Are we to consider the Lord’s Supper as rightly administered if it does not include bread and wine? This question is of vital importance within American evangelicalism, where grape juice is the regularly substituted for wine. Furthermore, if we are free to make substitutions in this way, why not celebrate the Lord’s Supper using elements that resonate more clearly with the experiences of contemporary popular culture? Why not celebrate the Lord’s Supper with Mountain Dew and Doritos? In what follows, we will sketch the arguments made in favor of these positions and will attempt to ascertain how Calvin may have responded to these arguments were he ever faced with them.
The substitution of grape juice for wine in the Lord’s Supper among evangelicals stems from their origins in the fundamentalism of the early 20th century. One important aspect of the fundamentalism of that day was its association with the prohibitionist movement. Somewhere along the way, this vast cadre of conservative Christians (along with many others) had become convinced that the consumption of alcohol, even in moderation, was not only a sin but also a danger to society. In light of this it was deemed necessary to substitute the wine of the Lord’s Supper with grape juice. Indeed, many churches still have by-laws in effect that prohibit the use of church funds to purchase alcoholic beverages of any form and for any purpose. Because fundamentalists generally held to a symbolic account of the Lord’s Supper, they did not see any problem with substituting one beverage derived from grapes for another. The two were closely enough linked (and some have even argued that the “wine” in the New Testament used for general consumption was so low in alcohol content as to be virtually the equivalent of grape juice) that the substitution was seen to be insignificant. American evangelicals have largely inherited this position.
However, if substitution of elements is justified because the substituted elemental form conveys the same meaning as the elemental form being replaced, what limits are there to be placed upon this substitution? Many younger evangelicals are beginning to ask this question. Since conveying meaning is primary, does it not make sense to substitute bread and wine or grape juice with products that are more associated with daily nourishment in contemporary popular culture? Why not celebrate the Lord’s Supper with Mountain Dew and Doritos? Those who ask this question tend to be youth workers, and they are rightly concerned with making the practices of the church intelligible to the youth under their care. This is an important question to ask, for even Calvin recognizes that the order “of the church ought to be variously accommodated to the customs of each nation and age,” although he also admonishes us “not to charge into innovation rashly” (ICR, 4.10.30). What might Calvin say about these substitutions?
That these kinds of questions had not been seriously entertained by Calvin is clear from his simple assumption of bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper (ICR, 4.17.1). This is not surprising, since Calvin lived in an age when the water supply was of questionable purity and when the safest beverages to drink were those containing alcohol. Nevertheless, there are three aspects of his work on the question of church order that bear directly on the likelihood of his accepting these “innovations.” These are first, his discussion of the frequency of celebrating the Lord’s Supper; second, his discussion of the use of images in worship; and third, his discussion of the deaconate. These three facets will be discussed briefly.
First, Calvin was convinced that the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated once a week. He does not make this clear in his Institutes (cf. ICR, 4.17.44) or in the “Draft Ecclesial Ordinances” of 1541 (cf. LCC, 66-7). However, in his “Articles Concerning the Organization of the Church and of Worship in Geneva” of 1537, Calvin clearly argues that it “would be well to require that the Communion of the Holy Supper of Jesus Christ be held every Sunday at least as a rule” (LCC, 49). What is missing in this instance is supplied in the Institutes, namely, the appeal to Acts 2.42 to support this frequency of celebration (cf. ICR, 4.17.44). Whereas the “Articles” could leave us with the notion that how one celebrates the Lord’s Supper is dependant upon theological arguments, the Institutes establishes that we must look to Scripture for the establishment of right worship. Our second consideration, Calvin’s rejection of images in worship, bears out this pattern as well. Throughout his discussion in the Institutes, he returns again and again to the second commandment, and other passages of Scripture (cf. ICR, 1.11). Calvin’s discussion of the deaconate, our third consideration, establishes this pattern beyond question. His division of the deaconate into two forms, administrators and caregivers, is a product of his exegesis and his attempting to account for passages of Scripture that assign the title of “deacon” to women (cf. ICR, 4.3.9; cf. also LCC, 64-6).
While it is true that Calvin was open to “innovation” or change in the practices of worship based upon the differing traditions and customs of varying cultures, it is abundantly clear that Calvin thought it to be of utmost importance to follow the directions of Scripture on those matters to which it spoke. Calvin elucidates how he understands the relation between these two concerns when he writes that
because [God] did not will in outward…ceremonies to prescribe in detail what we ought to do (because he foresaw that this depended upon the state of the times, and he did not deem one form suitable for all ages), here we must take refuge in those general rules which he has given, that whatever the necessity of the church will require for order and decorum should be tested against these (ICR, 4.10.30).What God has indicated concerning proper worship in Scripture is binding upon us, even as we have freedom to shape our worship in ways suited to the culture around us with reference to those things upon which Scripture is silent. Insofar as the biblical texts dealing with the Lord’s Supper plainly indicate that bread and wine are the symbols of Christ’s body and blood, it is very likely that Calvin would reject the substitution of Doritos and Mountain Dew. But, is the matter so cut and dry on the question of substituting grape juice for wine?
One of the arguments put forward in favor of substituting grape juice for wine is that the taste of wine may provide temptation to a recovering alcoholic. Grape juice should be substituted, as per this argument, on the principle of Scripture’s teaching on care for those fellow Christians who are weaker than we. This line of argument finds deep resonance within Calvin’s theology. In his discussion of innovation in church order, Calvin argues that “if we let love be our guide, all will be safe” since “love will best judge what may hurt or edify” (ICR, 4.10.30). The same sentiments are to be found in Calvin’s teaching on Christian freedom.
Calvin argues that there are three kinds of Christian freedom. First, Christians are free from the law in the sense that we are saved without being required to fulfill it perfectly; second, Christians are free to obey the law without being required to do so for salvation; third, Christians are free in those things which are “indifferent” (cf. ICR, 3.19.2, 4, 7 respectively). What Calvin seeks to guard against here is the danger that Christians would become concerned that their salvation is tied up with self-denial. On the contrary, Calvin argues that “God’s gifts” should be used “for the purpose for which he gave them to us, with no scruple of conscience, no trouble of mind,” provided that these indifferent things “are used indifferently” (ICR, 3.19.8, 9). Despite the energy with which Calvin argues for this form of Christian freedom, he no less energetically exhorts his readers to be ready to use or restrain their freedom, depending on what will most benefit their neighbors. Indeed, Calvin notes that we “must at all times seek after love and look toward the edification of our neighbor” (ICR, 3.19.12). On the basis of this deep concern for the well-being of the neighbor, it is conceivable that Calvin would accept the substitution of grape juice for wine. This is not a radical substitution, for both wine and grape juice are the “fruit of the vine” (Luke 22.18). Still, Calvin was a wine connoisseur and it is doubtful that he would approve of a complete substitution of grape juice for wine in the Lord’s Supper. In fact, Calvin mentions wine in passing during his discussion of Christian freedom, and it is clear from this reference that Calvin is not opposed to the enjoyment of “sweet wine” (ICR, 3.19.7).
The conclusion of our study is that, although Calvin is open to “innovation” and accommodation of aspects of Christian worship to the various cultures within which the church finds itself, he is also very concerned to follow the guidance of Scripture on whatever aspects of worship that Scripture discusses. Thus, celebrating the Lord’s Supper with Mountain Dew and Doritos is out of the question for Calvin. However, we have also found that it is possible that Calvin would not be altogether opposed to the substitution of grape juice for wine, provided that this is not a complete substitution. It is likely that he would favor the mediating position occupied by many mainline churches, where both wine and grape juice are offered but distinguished so that those communicating may take account of their own weaknesses, and those of their neighbors.
ICR = John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion (J.T. McNeill, ed.; F.L. Battles, trans.; LCC 20-21; Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1960).
LCC = John Calvin, Calvin: Theological Treatises (J. K. S. Reid, ed.; LCC 22; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1954).