Coffee As A Means Of Grace A Sip of Theological Humor
Daniel B. Wallace*
The time has come for evangelicals to experience yet another great awakening! Though we have long overlooked a crucial means of grace,2 we have done so doctrinally, not practically.3 This all-but-ignored means of grace is about to have its day (or at least its early morning and late night)! Some could even say a new age is dawning.4 Surely, the age of the Spirit is about to be given a dramatic boost and the Church is certain to receive a timely wake-up-call as we grow to accept coffee as a means of grace.
This present work will survey many of the major biblical passages that discuss coffee as a means of grace, as well as a few corroborative arguments from experience5 and even historical theology.6 Of course, further study needs to be done on coffee as a means of grace, perhaps in future theses or dissertations by more progressive theologians.7 And although a number of passages could be piled one on top of the other to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that coffee is to be recognized as a legitimate means of grace,8 this paper will focus on a few key Scriptures first from the Old Testament and then from the New.9
Coffee As A Means Of Grace In The Old Testament
The first passages to be examined are found in Isaiah 51 and 52. Due to their close proximity to the omni-portant Isaiah 53 (to which most Christians’ Bibles open automatically when set on their bindings), we are forced by structural and contextual considerations alone to regard these prequel chapters as profoundly important. Thus, beginning at Isaiah 51:9 and repeated in 51:17 and 52:1 are the words “Awake! Awake!” In 51:9 it is added, “Put on strength!”
What is interesting is the development in 51:17. The text reads: “Awake, awake! Stand up, O Jerusalem, You who have drunk at the hand of the Lord, the cup … of trembling, and drained it out.” Here there are significant points to be made. God first calls His people to “Awake!” Surely this is a call to alertness. That He repeats the command three times in two chapters means He is dreadfully serious about this imperative. It is simply not God’s will that His people be tired and groggy!
Secondly, God seems to point out the means by which His people are to awaken. “You who have drunk at the hand of the Lord.” By drinking something the people are to be awakened. This beverage comes from God, and therefore must be received with thanksgiving. Since the Greek term for thanksgiving is ejucaristiva (eucharistia) and since “eucharist” is a sacramental term in theology, the beverage referred to in this passage is obviously regarded as a sacrament.
Finally, a very important clue in the text points to which specific beverage is being referred to. It is “the cup … of trembling.” All people know which type of popular beverage causes one to tremble after consumption. Only caffeinated beverages have this effect.
In sum, God’s will is for people to be awake and alert, not groggy and tired. The means which He provides for bringing about His will in the lives of His people seems to be the beverage that causes trembling. That is, coffee is seen here as the means of grace for accomplishing His divine will.
Later on in Isaiah 51:22-23, the effects of failing to acknowledge and utilize God’s gracious gift of coffee is clearly seen. This perhaps best describes the present condition of the church that does not incorporate coffee as a means of grace in regular worship. The Lord says, “See, I have taken out of your hand the cup of trembling … you shall no longer drink it.” This is an act of judgment against His people for not acknowledging His gracious provision (if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it!). He then says, “But I will put it into the hand of those who afflict you, who have said to you, ‘Lie down, that we may walk over you.’ Awake, awake!” The result of giving up the means of grace God has provided is that the ungodly utilize it to their profit and Christians, in turn, are taken advantage of.10 Surely, we must take God’s warning seriously!
From this point, a long list of Old Testament passages relevant to our topic could be exegeted with varying degrees of skill and persuasiveness. But this would take time and space which is not afforded here. It should be sufficient to simply “pearl-string” in rabbinical fashion a number of Old Testament verses, phrases, clauses, and words that seem appropriate to the issue at hand. There is no need for the reader to look up these references11 since they are merely corroborative in that my case has already been proven by the detailed exegesis of the above passage from Isaiah. However, when considering the further validity of coffee as a means of grace, one must not neglect the elusive (and illusory) passages in the Pentateuch, histories, and minor prophets.12 Also, when we reach the wisdom literature, we find a wealth of relevant passages, some of which follow:
My voice You shall hear in the morning, O Lord; In the morning I will direct it to you. (Ps 5:3)
He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. (Ps 121:3b-4)
O My God, I cry in the daytime … And in the night season. (Ps 22:2)
You prepare a table before me … My cup runs over. (Ps 23:5)
Consider and hear me, O Lord my God; Enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep (Ps 13:3)
How long will you slumber, O sluggard? When will you rise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep—so shall your poverty come on you like a robber. (Prov 6:10)
Of course, these passages could be multiplied until our cup runs over, but this taste should suffice to stimulate some thought on the subject and to demonstrate that the doctrine of coffee as a means of grace rests on strong Old Testament grounds. We can now filter our present theology through this new grid and, to avoid being burned, we can let the concept percolate in the back of our minds as we consider other streams of evidence. In the next section, we will examine coffee as a means of grace in the New Testament, which, in the progress of revelation, is the doctrinal cream of the cup and will certainly stir up critical thinking on this important issue.
Coffee As A Means Of Grace In The New Testament
The New Testament represents the cream and sugar of coffology. We will examine explicit references and allusions to coffee in the Gospels, Acts, the Pauline Epistles, and finally the Book of Revelation.
The Gospels and Coffee. Most New Testament scholars and coffee connoisseurs are unaware that there are a handful of places where the actual word “coffee” appears in the text of the New Testament. Most overlook these passages because the word appears only in the original Greek. Scholars with knowledge of Greek also pass over them because of their blinding presuppositions and reliance on faulty lexicons.
The Greek word kovfino” (kofinos) is defined in one brief dictionary as “basket (perhaps smaller than the stuvri”).”13 One place in the New Testament where we find this word is in the pericope of the feeding of the five thousand in Matthew 14:20. The passage is translated by the NKJV as: “So they all ate and were filled, and they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments that remained.” The word kovfino” (kofinos) is here translated “baskets.” There are several reasons why this is an inaccurate translation.
First, the normal word for “basket” is stuvri” (sturis). In fact, within the account of the feeding of the four thousand at Matthew 15:37, the statement “So they all ate and were filled, and they took up seven large baskets” uses the word stuvri” (sturis), not kovfino” (kofinos) as is found in Matthew 14:20. Why would Matthew use a totally different word unless he was referring to a totally different object? Placing the two Greek words side by side reveals to even the non-Greek scholar that they don’t even look the same:
Reading the words out loud also reveals the auditory distinctiveness between the two terms: “coffee-nos” versus “stu-ris.” How could two words that appear and sound completely different be referring to the same “basket?”.
Secondly, one must admit that the Greek word kovfino” (kofinos) sounds a lot like our English word “coffee.” This is because our English word, descended through the German “Kaffee,” originates from the Greek kovfino” (kofinos).14 This phenomenon of English words that sound like Greek words is not rare. From the word kardiva (kardia) we get “cardiology.” From a[nqrwpo” (anthropos) we get “anthropology.” From mwrov” (moros) we get “moron.” Thus, English borrowing from Greek is a common occurrence. In fact, the average American likely uses between five (5) and five hundred (500) Greek-derived words every day without even knowing it!15 Thus, the development of our English word “coffee” from the Greek word kovfino” (kofinos) provides convincing proof that the hot, black beverage is in view in Matthew 14:20.
Third, the entire context of Matthew 14:20 argues strongly that coffee, not baskets, is meant by the use of the term kovfino” (kofinos). In verse 19, the crowd enjoys a rather large meal of fish and bread. Verse 20 describes what they did after they ate: “They took up twelve coffees.” The NKJV and others translate this verse in the following way: “So they all ate and were filled, and they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments that remained.” However, the Greek text looks like this: kaiV e[fagon pavnte” kaiV ejcortavsqhsan, kaiV h an toV perisseu’on tw’n klasmavtwn dwvdeka kofivnou” plhvrei” (kai efagon pantes kai echortasthesan, kai eran to perisseuon ton klasmaton dodeka kofinous plereis). This can be literally translated, “And they all ate and were filled, and took up the remains of the fragments twelve coffees full.” This phrase can be rendered more smoothly in the following way: “And they all ate and were filled, and took up the remains from among the fragments—twelve full [cups] of coffee.” The “remains” refers not to the remains of the bread and fish, but the part of the meal that remains after the main course, that is, “the twelve full coffees.” Everybody knows that it is traditional to drink a nice hot cup of coffee after a big meal, especially when trying to promote fellowship. That these twelve coffees were limited to the twelve disciples is important in that it was a significant part of their sanctification. Why was Jesus himself excluded from partaking of the coffee? Because Jesus does not need grace. He is the spiritual source of that grace, just as he was the source of the bread and fish. The five thousand were excluded for a different reason. While they were allowed to drink of the common evangelistic elements of bread and fish, the sacramental coffee was reserved only for the confirmed believers, that is, the proto-Church. This again demonstrates that coffee ought to be regarded sacramentally.
Therefore, we can see from the three arguments above that the word “coffee” does, in fact, appear in the text of Scripture in plain language and it does so as a means of grace.
Acts and Coffee. In the book of Acts, the references to coffee as a means of grace are a bit more subtle. However, a few examples can be spotted by the alert student of Scripture. First, the reader is urged to note the language used in reference to the giving of the Spirit after Pentecost. In Acts 2:17, 18, Peter interprets the coming of the Spirit in the following way: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh… . I will pour out My Spirit in those days.” The verb “pour out” is the same used in Revelation 16:1 in reference to the wrath being “poured out” from the bowls of the seven angels. It is a reference to the dumping of a liquid. Certainly, the image of a drink being poured comes to mind. But notice carefully that it does not say that the Spirit will be poured out, but ejkcew’ ajpoV tou’ pneuvmatov” mou (ekcheo apo tou pneumatos mou), that is, “I will pour out from the Spirit of me.” What exactly is the thing poured out from the Spirit? It is not the Spirit himself, but he is the agent that does the pouring. This type of language reeks of sacramentalism. Certainly, whatever is “poured out” is seen as a means of grace. This same imagery is found in Acts 10:45, “The gift from the Holy Spirit had been poured out unto the Gentiles also” (my translation). Like baptism picturing the death, burial, and resurrection; and like communion picturing continued fellowship and partaking of the spiritual life of Christ, the pouring of and drinking from the cup of coffee pictures the spiritual reality of the pouring out from the Holy Spirit—it is, then, in itself, the means by which the Spirit sustains and energizes the Christian life.
The Pauline Epistles and Coffee. Probably the most important Pauline passage on coffee as a means of grace is found in 1 Corinthians 12:13. Most versions read: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks; whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.” There are two individual sacraments being discussed here. The first is clearly “baptism.” The second involves a drink that is closely associated with the Spirit. There is little doubt that Paul had the references to Acts 2:17-18 and 10:45 in mind (where “Jew and Gentile” are both seen as receiving that thing poured out by the Spirit).16
A very significant variant exists at this point as well. Rather than “Spirit” here, manuscripts 630, 1505, 1881, the Syriac version, and Clement all read “drink,” povma (poma). So, some manuscripts read “… and have all been made to drink one drink.” Although “Spirit” is most certainly original, the fact that later scribes changed “Spirit” to “drink” indicates that they understood the means by which the believers partook of this grace to be a beverage. What beverage is this? Our study so far has built up evidence that points to only one legitimate option: coffee.
The Apocalypse and Coffee. In Revelation we find the puzzling statement: “You are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth” (Rev 3:15-16). Although many suggest that the text is making reference to some sort of city plumbing system with aqueducts and underground pipes that allegedly existed in Laodicea at the time, this is highly unlikely.17 Most who read this book when it was originally written had never visited Laodicea, and for 2000 years since its original writing, most of the readers would not have known of this sewage system. Certainly, the transcendent, eternal, unchangeable God of the universe would never stoop to use such localized, limited, and archaic illustrations to which only a handful of readers in all of history could relate! Instead, the text must be referring to a more universal cultural form.
That this form is the caffeinated beverage (coffee, tea, soda, etc.) is probable for the following reasons. First, people love iced tea and hot tea alike. People also drink iced coffee and hot coffee. However, nobody likes lukewarm coffee or lukewarm tea! This image of desiring either hot or cold rather than lukewarm best fits coffee or tea as the referent.
Second, notice that “water” is not mentioned here. If Jesus wanted to refer to water, why didn’t he say so? The reason he doesn’t mention “coffee” specifically is that many caffeinated beverages would fall under this general description, and he didn’t want to limit this means of grace to simply one or the other.
Finally, since he is addressing the Laodiceans as thinking they were “rich,” and “wealthy,” and in need of nothing (3:17), is it really probable that they were only drinking hot and cold water? Who but poor people drink cold or hot water? Maybe cold bottled water, but plain hot water? Certainly, some beverage other than water must be in view, for wealthy, upper-class individuals would not limit themselves to simply water, especially the snobs living in Laodicea. The best option that fits the evidence is that coffee or tea or some other caffeinated beverage is in view.
We have seen that the concept of coffee as a means of grace is demonstrated clearly in both the Old and New Testaments. Coffee is associated with godly living and with the Holy Spirit. Although a much larger survey of passages could be possible, for the purpose of this paper these lines of biblical evidence should suffice for all but the most stubbornly orthodox readers.
Positive Spiritual Effects Of Coffee
This section will examine some of the spiritual effects of drinking coffee. Many more could be added, but the following will demonstrate that not only is the doctrine of coffee as a means of grace biblical, it is also historical and practical.
Drinking Coffee Prepares the Flesh for Suffering. According to the New Testament, suffering is an honor, a virtue, and a means of sanctification. We are to endure it with joy. Drinking coffee helps our sinful flesh to prepare for joyful suffering. It upsets the stomach and has a diarrheic effect on the digestive system. It can irritate ulcers and causes a jittery nervousness. Withdrawal from long coffee binges causes dreadful headaches that no amount of medication can relieve. Besides this, any honest coffee drinker will admit that coffee is a horrid beverage. If the brew is too weak, it tastes like dirty water; if it is too strong, it tastes like motor oil. To temper the inherent and unavoidable nastiness, one must add cream, milk, sugar, blue stuff, pink stuff, clumps, lumps, drops, syrups, froth, or foam. The whole ordeal can cause mental or emotional anguish to the indecisive and possibly separation anxiety when a failed mix of coffee and condiments must be poured down the drain.
In short, coffee drinking is suffering.
However, it is also joy. It stimulates the body and the mind. It acts as an anti-depressant and creates a bond of fellowship and community among consumers. A hot, steamy cup warms the heart on a frosty day; a cold, icy glass cools the soul when it’s hot. It wakes us up and keeps us alert. It gives us something to hold firmly in our hands and sip soothingly with our lips for peace and security in uncomfortable and stressful times.
Drinking Coffee Prepares the Body for Prayer. We are told to pray without ceasing; to offer up prayers of every kind to God. However, there is always an obstacle that seems to separate us from true, heart-felt prayer to God: the weak flesh. On the night he was betrayed, our Lord instructed his disciples to be alert and to pray, lest they fall into temptation (Matt 26:40-45; Luke 22:45-46). Unfortunately, on three occasions he returned to find his disciples asleep!
Until I accepted coffee as a means of grace, I struggled both internally and externally with the entire concept of waking up early in the morning to seek the Lord in prayer. Internally, I could never believe the tales of people who said they woke up at 4:00 a.m. and prayed for hours. I thought, “How could anybody get up that early and then stay awake that long?!” Externally, whenever I attempted to follow this model, I ended up asleep using my folded hands as a pillow. No, certainly there had to be an answer to this difficult question.
When one factors in coffee as a means of waking up the believer and then keeping him or her alert, all of the practical problems with rising early and seeking the Lord are solved. Coffee has a very positive effect on the prayer life of the believer. In some cases, it is indispensable.
Drinking Coffee Contributes to the Edification of the Church. A story was once told to me about Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary. The story goes that early in his career Dr. Chafer was morally opposed to the consumption of coffee, believing its effects were detrimental to the spiritual life of the believer. He avoided all forms of caffeine.
However, as he began to work on his magnum opus, his multi-volume Systematic Theology, he began to tamper with the beverage: a sip here, a taste there. Surely, the experience tried his conscience, but slowly the Spirit led him out from under his self-imposed spiritual bondage to a legalistic view of coffee consumption. In no time, Dr. Chafer was drinking coffee every day. It is said that without his coffee throughout the day, Dr. Chafer could never have completed his Systematic Theology and the Church would have never benefited from his work.18
Coffee In The Life Of The Church
Although no hymns have been written about the glories of coffee, the Lutheran composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, came extremely close with the following praise of coffee found in an Aria of Lieschen in his famous “Kaffeekantate.”
Ei! wie schmeckt der Kaffee süe,
Lieblicher als tausend Küsse,
Milder als Muskatenwein.
Kaffee, Kaffee mu ich haben,
Und wenn jemand mich will laben,
Ach, so schenkt mir Kaffee ein!19
(Svigel’s [loose] translation):
Oh, the coffee’s so delicious!
Better than a thousand kisses!
Milder than a frothy beer!
Coffee, coffee, make it snappy,
If you want to make me happy,
Give me coffee now, my dear!
Of course, Bach’s Cantata never made it from the coffee houses and into the churches, thus extending the ancient breach between the secular and sacred uses of the praise-worthy beverage by at least two centuries.20
In recent years several steps have been taken to re-incorporate coffee into Christian worship. While almost every evangelical church serves coffee prior to adult Sunday School classes, one Bible Church in Texas has a CC’s Coffee shop right in the main church facility!21 To my knowledge, however, no evangelical church has had the courage to actually place a pot of coffee on the altar. Yet in many churches one can find a cup of coffee on or behind the pulpit for use during the delivery of the sermon. And since Protestants have placed the preaching of the sermon at the center of Christian worship, there is a sense in which coffee already challenges the Eucharist as the energizing power of evangelical worship.
Besides the advancement of coffee into the local churches, there are also several parachurch ministries centered around coffee in the form of “Christian Coffee Houses.”22 In fact (though this should be no surprise to anyone), there is even a Northern California Christian Coffeehouse Coalition,23 perhaps established in part to balance the right-wing lunacy of the Christian Coalition with an equally corny band of West Coast Christian leftists.
Thus, we can see from these very few—though potent—examples that although the notion of coffee as a means of grace is officially and doctrinally rejected by the evangelical church, as a practical matter it has been very much embraced.
This paper has demonstrated that not only is coffee clearly a means of grace according to both the Old and New Testaments, but the utilization of coffee as God intended has practical benefits not only in this life, but also in the life to come. Certainly, one would be hard-pressed to disprove all of the arguments presented in this paper.
This thesis is presented to the evangelical community at large for thoughtful debate. If, after examining my arguments in detail, you wish to dialogue with me concerning the reasoning or conclusions in this paper, please feel free to contact me. Perhaps we can discuss your ideas over a fresh, hot cup of coffee.
1 This paper, which belongs to the genre of theological humor, was originally presented to the Southwest Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 21, 2003, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas. As such, it marks the beginning and end of Michael J. Svigel’s career as a respectable theologian.
2 Although some may prefer the term “means of sanctification” or “sacrament,” this paper will consistently use the term “means of grace” to indicate those various means that God has given to the Church to affect sanctification. Other more popular means of grace are: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, the Word of God, and possibly Christian rock concerts and those Left Behind books.
3 This will be explicated below.
4 If you happen to be of a more dispensational persuasion, you may even call it a new dispensation. The recent cut-back on dispensations from seven to three or four leaves plenty of space on charts to add a new one.
5 While many evangelicals regard experience as the caboose of theological formulation, in the case of this paper experience plays the role of the engine or at least the coal car.
6 “Historical Theology” is the study of how everybody misinterpreted the Bible until we came along.
7 Or by those who are not bound by any doctrinal statements, since this view tends to be perceived as heterodox.
8 As we all know, the best way to prove a doctrine is to string together as large a number of improbable interpretations as possible.
9 The arguments here may be equally appropriate for both Judaizers and Marcionites alike (or their modern day counterparts, Old Testament or New Testament scholars).
10 A cryptic reference to Starbucks Coffee may be in view here. Not only do they use a pagan symbol as their trademark, they also charge a damnable amount of money for their coffee.
11 And it is perhaps better if you don’t.
12 Many of these are so obvious that they need not be cited here. For the sake of conserving space and preventing embarrassment, the reader is left to him or herself to look up these verses. For a complete list see Martin Luther, Kaffeetrinken und Theologie (Wiener: Tassen-Druck, 1553), 21-76.
13 Barclay M. Newman, Jr., A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), 103.
14 Cf. Richard C. Darlsburrough, “The Etymology of Everyday Thirst-quenchers: A New Analysis,” Journal of Culinary Linguistics (1982):24.
15 Maxwell R. Feinebruegger, “It’s Greek to Me! Studies in the Use of English Words with Greek Etymologies in Vernacular Speech,” Linguistics of Life (1975): 25-29. Also see the blockbuster Hollywood film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, for several other examples of English words derived from Greek.
16 Since Acts comes two books before 1 Corinthians in the Bible, Paul would have had only to flip back a few pages from where he was writing.
17 See Plumbing: The Arteries of Civilization, Modern Marvels Series (video recording, The History Channel).
18 Whether this anecdote is true or not makes no difference, since its truth transcends its historicity. Instead, it serves as an excellent example—a good myth, if you will—of the spiritual benefits of coffee.
19 English and German text of Bach’s “Coffee Cantata,” a.k.a. “Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht,” is available online at http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/lutheranism/90337. NB: This is a real Bach Cantata with the Libretto written by Christian Friedrich Henrici, composed between 1732 and 1734 for performance by Bach’s Collegium at Zimmerman’s Coffee House, Leipzig. Cf. also http://www.jsbach.org/ bwv211.html.
20 Just another failure of the German Reformation.
22 These include, inter alia, Cup o’ Joy Christian Coffee House in Green Bay, WI (http://www. cupojoy.com); Solomon’s Porch Christian Coffee House in Edgewater, MD (http://www.newhopechapel. org/solomonsporch); Copey’s Christian Coffee House in Easton, PA (http://copeys.port5.com); Paradise Found Christian Coffee House of Santa Rosa, CA (http://www.churchofsonomacounty.org/santa_rosa/ Paradise_Found_Christian_Coffee_House.htm); and The Catacombs Christian Coffee House in Carmel, IN (http://www.catacombscoffee.com). Also, a rather lengthy listing of Christian Coffee Houses by state can be found at http://www.bcpl.net/~musicman/ coffee.htm.