Mountain Dew, Doritos and the Lord’s Supper

Recently, I was faced with the challenge of writing a short paper in which I was to “apply” insight that I have learned from the historical study of Calvin’s life and work to some contemporary situation. After lengthy deliberation, I concluded that it might be interesting to think about why Calvin would or would not be in favor of replacing the bread and wine used in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper with Mountain Dew and Doritos. In the interest of fun and collegiality, I thought that I would share it. Enjoy!

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).



Halden said…
Some friends of mine who were working on forms of intentional church community in the early 80's (before we all ended up in the church that we are together in now) took quite an innovative approach to the Lord's Supper, sometimes celebrating it with pizza and whiskey.

We decided that was a bit much.

Just thought I'd counterbalance the fundamentalist sensebilities you describe with a deidedly non-pietistic example from my own church history. :)

Thanks for that example! I must say that pizza and whiskey (particularly, scotch) sounds much better to me than Mountain Dew and Doritos, although it doesn’t (to my mind) posses the same kind of frivolity as does the latter.

I want to take this opportunity to note, further, how I would go about dealing with the demands of contextual ministry in connection with the Lord’s Supper. My own view is that the Supper should be rather formal (but not lifeless) and reverent (but not oppressive), celebrated as a weekly part of corporate worship through the use of bread and wine. However, I think that it might be helpful to tease apart two things that have collapsed too much into each other – the Lord’s Supper, and Jesus’ practice of table fellowship.

Jesus’ practice of table fellowship is vital to our understanding of the Lord’s Supper. It helps to provide a context for the Supper, as does a consideration of the Passover. But, Jesus’ practice of table fellowship has a significance that is independent of the Supper. It is this significance, which is taken up and included in the Supper that we should reclaim for contextual ministry apart from and in service to the Supper.

Things can be sacred without being sacramental. The sacraments are tied to the institution of Christ; they have a certain form because it is not we who are the primary actors in the sacraments. That which is sacred is that which has been set aside for spiritual use. This would apply to the Sabbath, etc. Of course, these things do not bind us unduly (the Sabbath was made for people not people for the Sabbath!), but they do provide for a special (but not sacramental) occasion for the expression of piety, by which I do not mean subjectivist “feeling”-centered religiosity, but prayerful participation in the church’s vocation – bearing witness to Jesus Christ.

This bearing witness to Jesus Christ must include bearing witness to Christ’s life, and that includes his table fellowship. I am personally of the opinion that churches do not eat together enough. What is eaten is not the important thing; bearing witness to Jesus’ practice of table fellowship by doing our best to echo it at a distance is what matters.

So, if you are a youth-group leader, get your teenagers together for a sacred meal. Use that meal to break down barriers, build community, etc. Help them to understand that meaning, which is an important part of what the Lord’s Supper means. Through this practice, not only will the fruits of Jesus’ table fellowship begin to be sown and reaped among your group, but they will gain a better understanding of the Supper in the process (what a teaching moment!) and come to participate in the Supper with increasing significance.
Shane said…

are you advocating a scot's form of communion? like where everyone is served the elements while sitting around a dining table?


I do prefer the Scot's form precisely because it makes clear the significance of Jesus' practice of table fellowship for the Supper. However, that's not what I was getting on about in my previous comment. I think that there is room to recover table fellowship practices in a meaningful way as something separate from the Supper, even if intimately related to and ultimately supportive of the Supper.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the interesting analysis of Calvin's possible position on this. I think Luther says somewhere that we should use white wine to emphasize the miracle not the host, but that is another question.

Personally, I have done a fair amount of work on this question as it relates to non-Western cultures where the primary food is not wheat, but say rice of fufu. Many African and Asian theologians, particularly R.C., have argued strongly for this. In that context, I recently gave a paper at AAR arguing for the suitablity of local staple food sources within the Eucharistic celebration and the symbolic, economic, and theological richness this provides. As for Mountain Dew and Chips, I would think that falls a bit outside the bounds, but it is an interesting conversation.
Anonymous said…
also, did you see the call to papers in the reformed theology and history group at next years aar in san diego? the will be talking about open/closed communion and i thought you might want to submit

Thanks for thinking of me! I'll check it out. It all depends on when the deadline is, and whether or not I know that I'll be in a PhD program by then.
JohnLDrury said…

I enjoyed this post a lot. Thanks. Historical note: the rise of grape juice substitute far far precedes the fundamentalist-modernist debates by about 50 years. And the progressives were the pro-grape juice people as a result of "science." Your analysis stands, but I thought I would mention this for later reference.

Anonymous said…
Two points: grape juice obviously falls under the "fruit of the vine" rubric. Even Rome admits this, allowing for its use under certain circumstances, most noteably when a priest, who is a recovering alcoholic, is celebrating.

Second, if it's a sin, it's a danger to society, and vice-versa.
Oso Famoso said…
wtm...quick question along this topic.

Should I, a non-pastor/priest, be allowed to celebrate communion with my friends? Why or why not?

I would say No, but not primarily because you aren't ordained (although that is involved). The Lord's Supper is tied to ecclesial identity, and I would say that it is rightly practiced only within a group of people who are joined by ecclesial identity.

So, if you and your friends are a house church of some kind, then we can probably see our way clear to this sort of practice (you would then be ordained for this act in a certain sense). But, if you ar members of various churches or a church whose government regulates the celebration of the Lord's Supper, then this is probably out of bounds.
Oso Famoso said…
Interesting. So then...what makes a church?

It can kind of just be me and several friends in a house? If we say "We're a church" I am ordained as a minister?
Unfortunately, in a practical sense here in the USA, that is basically all it takes. :-)

Theologically speaking, the church is a creature of the Word. I tend to think that wherever a group of Christians comes together and constitutes themselves as a church, and where in this fellowship the Word is properly preached and heard, and the sacraments rightly administered, a church of God exists.

Now, presumably, someone preached to these people and they were converted on that basis, so that there is a tie to the church in history. This tie should be respected, and this new fellowship should seek to be in fellowship with that church according to some formal organizational principles. But, this is not always the case, and I don't want to make any formal organizational principles esse ecclesia, although I do hold them to pertain to the church's bene esse.

But, we don't need to get into a big discussion of polity here. :-)
Oso Famoso said…
You said:

"I tend to think that wherever a group of Christians comes together and constitutes themselves as a church, and where in this fellowship the Word is properly preached and heard, and the sacraments rightly administered, a church of God exists."

Who decides if the word is being "properly preached" and who decides if the sacraments are "rightly administered?"
Its an ecumenical judgment, on the one hand, and its dependent upon the work of the Spirit on the other.
Anonymous said…
I found this blog quite interesting in that it raises a lot of questions concerning religious compromise. I noted that most all the posters of comments seem to be and are presumably theology students. I commend you for youe life committment to the Lord and your choice to serve Him. However I am surprised at the lack of knowledge of early Biblical languages. As any scholar can tell you in the Greek the word used for grape juice and wine is the same word. Question here then is: Which came first, the Chicken or the Egg! The article makes the assumption that fundelmentalist religions have taken it upon themselves to have changed the wine (alcholic), to wine (grape juice); when Bibically the destinction cannot be assertained by examining the original languages. But certainly there are many places in the Old and New Testaments that warn of drinking the wine when it has turned red (fermented). One mother even extolled her young son who was King in Proverbs 31 that it didn't make sense for the King to cloud his judgement with the use of wine (presumably alcoholic {can not be assertained by the Hebrew, because like Greek the language makes no distinction}, but that if any should use wine that it should be given to the poor to help them forget their misery. Another note of consieration is that historically it is recorded that often a final act of mercy accorded to crucifixion criminal victims that vinegar was offered a form of mild sedative to relieve the sufferings at the cross. I find it interesting that Christ refused this comfort at the cross in order as to keep His mind clear in His last hour of temptation being goaded by the crowds to come down off the cross, but yet it is somehow ecclsiastical for priests and ministers to get together privately and becloud their minds? Some may retort but Jesus turned the water into wine (grape juice or alcoholic), and yes he did. He always meets us where we are! He pleads with us, "Come let us reason together." Can that be done more easily with unbeclouded minds? Is it maybe one of the reasons that we have such diversity in religious thought from our theologians is that they are coming out of their private communions with less than clear minds?
Dear Anon,

Thank you for stopping by and leaving such a lengthy comment. I have heard the linguistic arguments about the lack of distinction between alcoholic and non-alcoholic grape beverages. However, I find them unconvincing simply because it is clear that alcoholic beverages are consumed in the biblical text. Even if they weren't always drinking alcoholic versions, they did in fact do so on many occasions, and it is likely (with specific reference to the Lord's Supper) that they would have at a high feast like Passover. I think that it is likely because of the following passage:

Deuteronomy 14.22-26: "You shall surely tithe all the produce from what you sow, which comes out of the field every year. You shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God, at the place where He chooses to establish His name, the tithe of your grain, your new wine, your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and your flock, so that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. If the distance is so great for you that you are not able to bring the tithe, since the place where the LORD your God chooses to set His name is too far away from you when the LORD your God blesses you, then you shall exchange it for money, and bind the money in your hand and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses. You may spend the money for whatever your hear desires: for oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your heart desires; and there you shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoince, you and your household."

As to Christ denying the 'sour wine' durring the crucifixion: Matthew 27.48 and Mark 15.36 both have Jesus drinking it; Luke 23.36 and John 19.29 don't say either way.

It seems as though you have an operative assumption underlying your comment which assumes that anything that clouds one's judgment is to be avoided. I simply cannot support that. With Calvin, I stand by the dictum of moderation in all things.

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