It should be observed that the reason intinction developed as a method for receiving the wine was the fear that the laity might spill the precious blood. It is intimately related to the doctrine of transubstantiation and therefore out of accord with both Scripture and the Westminster Standards.
Conservative Presbyterians love the Bible. In fact, sometimes they love it so much they forget there are other sources of information. Now for those of you who might be staring at your computer screens in horror, let me tell you what I don’t mean. I don’t mean that the Bible is an insufficient guide to faith and practice. What I do mean is that the Bible doesn’t speak definitively to every single issue that might arise in the context of the Church.
For example, when the minister stands to preach what should he wear? A suit perhaps, or a Geneva gown, or khakis and a polo (the de facto vestment in some parts of the PCA)? Assuming that he is intended to wear clothes, the question of exactly what manner of dress he is to affect is not covered in the scriptures. In His infinite wisdom, God has allowed for variety in expression. One manner may show considerable wisdom or cultural sensitivity where another does not but the point here is that sometimes scripture is silent on specifics. The current debate on intinction is one of these silent moments.
Nowhere in the Bible are we told exactly how to go about receiving the eucharist. Hence the diversity of posture found in the Reformed churches- some sit, some stand, some might even kneel (though Dr. Knox would have some harsh words to say here) and all of these methods of reception might be more or less appropriate given their historical context.
The manner of oral reception is largely a matter of wisdom rather than prescription. In the case of intinction, much time and effort has gone into producing committee reports on the history, theology, ecclesiastical implications, etc. of the practice. However, as is typical of Presbyterianism today, the most important question about intinction has remained unasked, namely, ‘Why was intinction practiced?’ Or, perhaps better put, ‘What does intinction mean?’ This is not a question that scripture can answer. It can only be answered by an examination of the development of liturgical expressions of eucharistic theology.
As Presbyterian seminaries are woefully lacking in liturgical instruction, I’m not surprised that the committee reports I’ve seen don’t address the question. Intinction has been addressed from the perspective of the Biblical understanding of the action of drinking, matters of conscience, the oneness of the eucharistic elements, etc., etc., etc. However its deeper meaning has remained undisclosed.
The Savannah River Presbytery is certainly right to observe that “intinction is a practice of the Eastern church that was not introduced into the Western church until the eleventh century, and then was condemned by the Council of Clement in 1095 and again by the Council of London in 1175.”
Likewise, the Ohio Presbytery’s comment that, “Historically, the practice of intinction may be an old tradition, but it is evident that it has been addressed in the past by the church and judged to be an unacceptable practice,” is also quite right. But the central point to be made regarding intinction fails to appear in the reports.
In all their careful research, the committees have failed to see the big picture: intinction came into the Church as a response to the doctrine of transubstantiation. Now, those of you with a mind for dates will chide me for calling transubstantiation a “doctrine” as it relates to intinction because the practice predates the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).
However, the widespread understanding of the real presence of Christ in the eucharist dates back at least to the 4th century (Ambrose, On the Mysteries) and reservation of the consecrated elements in hanging pyxes above altars was practiced in many places by the 9th century (see: The Life of St. Basil, Pseudo- Amphilochus).
This belief in the real (read: physical) presence of Christ in the eucharistic elements led to a number of practices including, in the late middle ages, non-communicating Masses. The elevation of the consecrated host (and later the elevation of the chalice as well) came to be the high point of the Mass. Actual grace was conferred by viewing the host; reception was not required. Naturally, the Reformers were keen to return both the bread and the wine to the people.
Intinction, as it is still practiced in the Roman and Anglo-Catholic churches, speaks to this understanding of presence. Intinction as a step in the withdrawal of the chalice from the laity came out of a fear that the Precious Blood might be spilled. So in the Histori des Sacramentstreits we find the statement, “When a little drop from the consecrated chalice spilled on the altar they went up with all reverence and saw to it that [the spilled wine] should not be trodden underfoot.” Not only was this a horrifying thought- that Christ’s blood might be desecrated- it also meant a lot of work for the priest. There were very strict rules related to the cleaning of cloths which had been touched by the Blood. By dipping the hosts in the chalice and placing them on the communicant’s tongue (this is the real method of intinction, not what is commonly practiced where the communicant dips the host into the chalice himself), the priest ensured that the Blood was safe.
Reformed eucharistic theology abhors the Roman position of transubstantiation. Why then would Presbyterians want to promote a form of oral reception that grew out of an understanding of the eucharist that is contrary to their own? Intinction cannot be reconciled with Calvin’s teaching on presence and it certainly does no favors to those former Roman Catholics who came out of Rome looking for authentic biblical teaching.
And here I return to the problem of Presbyterian scholarship. So keen are some to ensure their perspectives are biblical that they forget the existence of the Church. “The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, Having Been Given By Inspiration of God, Are the All-Sufficient and Only Rule of Faith and Practice, and Judge of Controversies” (as A.A. Hodge put it) is not in question here.
What is being noted is that the Scriptures were not intended to dictate liturgical action. God doesn’t tell us when to stand or sit or how to hold our hands in prayer. These things are questions of wisdom. When we ask whether intinction is appropriate we must ask why it came to be practiced. This is not a question the Bible can answer. It is only through knowledge of the Church – the whole Church and not just part of it – that we can know whether an action is suited to our theological tradition or not.
Perhaps one day Presbyterian seminaries will realize the necessity of instruction in the history of liturgy. If that happens, debates like this one will be made far simpler.
Evans McWilliams is a member of Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Lakeland, Fla., is an architectural historian, and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of York in the UK. This article appeared in his blog, Inscrutable Being, and is used with permission.
[Editor’s note: The link (URL) to the original article is unavailable and has been removed.]