It Was Wine – No Doubt About It

a look at Lutheran liturgical practice by John W. Berg

(This article was originally published in October of 2005.)


Oscar Wilde once quipped that “the English have a miraculous power of turning wine into water,” a dubious honor, it seems, shared by some who exhibit the equally miraculous power to turn wine into grape juice.


Nineteen hundred years of careful pastoral practice for those struggling with fears and addictions, physical, spiritual and mental, which demons caused pious souls angst about receiving the Blessed Cup of our Lord sacrificially filled with his holy precious blood under “the fruit of the vine” was wiped away in a moment by an abstinent, abstemious Methodist dentist by the name of Thomas Welch who, by applying the tortuous techniques of Louis Pasteur to the grape, successfully prevented this lovely fruit of the vine “from achieving it’s God ordained destiny” and concocted a brew that remained safely, permanently nonalcoholic, a beverage fit for the breakfast table, but not for the Lord’s. Mon Dieu!


Welch’s son, Charles, said that this novelty was born “out of a passion to serve God by helping his church to give its communion as the ‘fruit of the vine’ instead of ‘the cup of devils.’” A temperate drink for a burgeoning temperance movement abetted by a temperance theology brought this dry beverage into a non-Sacramental church with no use for the Feasts of feasts, the wedding banquet of the Son with his Holy Bride, the Church, celebrated with the finest of wines, the blood of Christ. With it came the equally intrusive individual cups so now their symbolic supper could be celebrated with this sterile and joyless drink without any evil intrusions such as germs, otherwise inhibited by the evil element of alcohol, lest these unchecked microbes turn what the ancients called “medicine of immorality” into a mortal cup.  And the Lutheran church bit and got bit.


Now, that the fruit of the vine our Lord used was grape wine, not grape juice, any scholar this side of the Rhône knows. And grape juice is not the fruit of the vine, wine. There is a difference. Give samples to and then ask any child of seven years old who will tell you. However, asking some theologians may get you a different answer. An example of this can be found on the pages of the defunct Northwestern Lutheran, July 1995. In a bit of a schizophrenic explanation, a Wisconsin Synod seminary professor, John Brug, expounds


Because grape wine was used at the Passover, the church has used wine for the Lord’s Supper. Scripture, however, does not specify wine,” but “fruit of the vine” as the element used. It has, therefore, been the Lutheran practice that only grape wine should be used.


After clearly showing the cup of the Lord contained grape wine, he remarkably concludes,


If, however, certain communicants are convinced they cannot use any alcohol, we do not have to refuse them, since Scripture does not specify that wine must be used.


First of all, thank you, Mr. Brug, for noting that the use of grape juice is not a “Lutheran practice.” And it is not, nor Scriptural. Now, no serious scholar outside of the Baptist tradition would make the case that the cup of the Lord which our Lord bids us to drink was not grape wine. Check out any of the modern day hatchet wielding prohibitionists’   websites to see the ridiculous arguments used to do so including the one Brug uses. One is tempted to go Pauline on them and say, “Why don’t you go all the way and use water, like the Mormons!”


But serious Lutheran scholars should examine the text. Although it is but a jot and a tittle, our Lord, in speaking of the cup said that “this (tou'to) is the blood of the New Testament” and that he would not drink from “this (touvtou) fruit of the vine” until he drank it anew with his disciples in his Father’s kingdom. What? “This.” Not “any” or “a,” as the above theologian writes, but “this” fruit of the vine. Indeed, one hesitates to introduce the blasphemous list ending with “zucchini” of all that is “a” fruit of the vine. Grape jelly (Schmuckers [sic], of course) on a Ritz “qualifies” under this kind of Biblicism.


However, this “this” is the demonstrative adjective which qualifies this “fruit of the vine.” “This” fruit of the vine was wine, grape wine. The disingenuous defense that “if the Lord wanted us to use the fruit of the vine, grape wine, then why didn’t he say ‘wine’” borders on silliness. Why did Jesus refer to Herod as a “fox” and not a sneaky chap? Yes, he did mean grape wine for that is what he used and that is what he referred to for he said, “this fruit of the vine” and that is what he invites us to drink for “this” is his blood shed FOR YOU (Luther’s use of the majusche).


This argument that since our Lord did not use the word “wine” but “fruit of the vine,” and so one can use “any fruit of the vine,” let alone without the restrictive qualifier “this,” is an example of what I call “theology by concordance” which, in more scholarly circles, is known as “illegitimate totality transfer.” James Barr, quoted by Fr. Robert Schaibley, explains that this illegitimate totality transfer “obsurs[es] the value of a word in a context by imposing on it the totality of its uses” (Logia Vol. II, 4 p.  51).


But more than that, the “why didn’t he say wine” argument evinces a gross ignorance (a well from which I have drunk heavily) of the role of the vine/vineyard/wine and the “cup theology” of the Scriptures. See the excellent treatment of this by Chad Bird in his “The Cup of the Lord: Sacrificially Drained of Wrath and Sacramentally Filled with Blessing” delivered at the 2000 Exegetical Symposium at the Fort Wayne seminary, a study I cannot do justice in summarizing.


What guides us here is not the law but Christ’s gracious Gospel invitation to eat and to drink, for this (bread) is his body and this cup (this fruit of the vine) is his blood. What is at stake is faith, the faith needed to receive this worthily, the faith strengthened by this gift. That the question of whether substitutes are allowed is often asked is an clear indication of doubt, doubt either in the wisdom of our Lord - that he would use this intoxicating fruit of the vine and so offer it to those who may otherwise have had a physical/ mental/ spiritual difficulty with its non-Sacramental use – or doubt that this substitution makes for a valid sacrament. Doubt is antithetical to a Sacrament. A doubtful Sacrament is no Sacrament. The Apology reminds us that


The ceremony [the Eucharist] is like a picture of the Word or a “seal,” as Paul calls it [Rom. 4:11], that shows forth the promise. Therefore just as the promise is useless unless it is received by faith, so also the ceremony is useless unless faith, which really confirms that the forgiveness of sins is being offered here, is added. Such a faith encourages contrite minds (XXIV 70).


Doubt, injected into the Sacrament destroys the Sacrament and contrite minds. Dr. Luther warns


God’s promise and the Sacraments allow no suspension; for they are deeds and words of God directed toward us. He Himself wants to perform them if we accept them. There it is a sin to dispense with or modify something in them or to change them, as the pope did when he withheld the chalice in the Lord’s Supper (AE 2 p. 338).


This is not a matter of the law, for love trumps the law.  This is a matter of the Gospel and of faith. Sensitive and common sense pastoral care and practice can alleviate any concerns and minimize the fears of the frightened communicant who under this fruit of the vine receives an inestimable blessing, the blood of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and there should be no doubt about it.  §


The Reverend Father John W. Berg resides in northern California and thus regularly enjoys the non Sacramental use of this fruit of the vine (especially that for which the lovely and robust cabernet sauvignon gives its life). The blessed Sacrament is celebrated in every service at Hope Lutheran (LCMS), the writer’s parish.