Baptists, Eucharist, and History 20 – St. Cyprian on the Necessity of Wine

We continue today with St. Cyprian’s letter on properly preparing the Cup of our Lord. I find it likely my reflections on this letter will need to be broken into several posts. Concerning the necessity of wine, St. Cyprian writes the following.

Know then that I have been admonished that, in offering the cup, the tradition of the Lord observed, and that nothing must be done by us but what the Lord first did on our behalf, as that the cup which is offered in remembrance of Him should be offered mingled with wine. For when Christ says, “I am the true vine,” the blood of Christ is assuredly not water, but wine; neither can His blood by which we are redeemed and quickened appear to be in the cup, when in the cup there is no wine whereby the blood of Christ is shown forth, which is declared by the sacrament and testimony of all the Scriptures.

Notice how St. Cyprian explicitly outlines the interpretation of John’s Gospel he was traditioned. When Christ calls himself the true vine, he is connecting his life (which as the Holy Scriptures say is in the blood) to the wine of the cup. As such, if there is no wine, Christ’s blood cannot appear in the cup. That would be a very odd thing to write if those to whom he was writing did not believe we drank Christ’s blood in the Eucharist for our healing and to receive life.

While I don’t believe we have any instances today in which anyone uses water in the Eucharist, I know my own tradition uses grape juice rather than wine. Of course, St. Cyprian would have had a hard time conceiving of unfermented grape juice preserved for any significant length of time past the harvest. But if he had been posed with that question, do we honestly think his answer would have been significantly different? I tend to doubt it. It’s not what the Lord used. It’s not what he taught. And it’s not what the Apostles taught.

Of course, when you don’t believe that the ritual of the Eucharist actually accomplishes anything in reality, then I suppose it doesn’t matter all that much how you do it or what you use for the elements. I’ve even heard of an Eucharist performed with Dr. Pepper and Oreos! Nevertheless, the replacement of wine with grape juice was a 19th century innovation in the practice of the faith. It incidentally made the Welches quite wealthy as they cashed in on the temperance movement. Unfermented grape juice is a technology enabled innovation in the practice of the Eucharist. It wouldn’t have even been possible before we learned how to safely preserve unfermented grape juice for extended periods of time.

It’s also a good illustration of the manner in which we innovate at will today. This contrasts sharply to the ancient church which here we seeing resisting innovation. As I wrote yesterday, I think we tend to project ourselves into the place of the ancient church and assume they must have done what we would have done in their place. But I don’t find that the evidence supports that conclusion. Rather, under sometimes tremendous pressure and persecution, they clung to the traditions, practices, and interpretations of the Holy Scriptures they had been given. I tend to think that many times the sort of gentle reproof we find in this letter was all that was necessary to correct an errant practice.

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