[To understand what this blog is, read this first. If you’d rather just listen to audio, rather than read, skip to the bottom for links to audio.]
Here’s the next installment in the series, on the Eucharist, or communion. It seems that I’m writing a book here. I apologize in advance for the length, but I want to cover the ground thoroughly on this issue.
The Eucharist (which is a greek word meaning “thanksgiving”) is the central facet of Orthodox piety (or at least one of the most important). It was instituted by Jesus, and since it is believed to be a direct means of sharing in the life of Jesus it is held to be extremely important. The divine liturgy on Sunday morning is a 2-3 hour worship event that culminates in Christians partaking of the body and blood of Jesus, and not just in a metaphorical sense. I can certainly understand how from a Protestant stand point this seems odd at best, and some form of devotional cannibalism at worst, but after adjusting to the “reality” of the idea it has become my main point of longing for Orthodoxy. Having come to believe in the doctrine of the Eucharist as the literal Body and Blood of Jesus I now want very badly to join in. I now see the beauty of the idea. I can’t wait to enter the reality of it.
But that aside, let me lay out the “case” for the Eucharist for you. The basic understanding of the Eucharist is summed up, in the words of Jesus, as “This is my Body”, and “This is my Blood.” It’s very simple and straightforward. The Orthodox understanding is not identical to the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, but does share a belief in the reality of the elements as body and blood. The Orthodox understanding affirms that the bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of Jesus, but do not give any indication of the methodology used by God. The Eucharist is a miracle, and a mystery. It’s not necessary to understand the mechanics of how it works in order to affirm the truth of it, so I won’t address that any further unless it becomes necessary. The argument for the Eucharist doesn’t need to include those details in order to work. As Saint John of Damascus said, “If you inquire how this happens, it is enough for you to learn that it is through the Holy Spirit … we know nothing more than this, that the Word of God is true, active, and omnipotent, but in its manner of operation unsearchable.”
I am going to lay this Orthodox understanding along side the typical Evangelical Protestant understanding of communion as a symbolic only act. The actual lay of the land in Protestantism is slightly more complex of course, with Lutherans basically holding an understanding of the Eucharist very close to Orthodox and Catholic understandings, traditional Reformed/Calvinistic Protestants also being somewhat close but making it very spiritual, and then those who follow after Ulrich Zwingli and go with a symbolic only understanding. Since what I’ve mostly encountered is a Zwinglian understanding, that’s what I’m going to use as the counter position.
The argument for a literal Eucharistic understanding in a nutshell is two fold. First, the consistent and universal understanding of the Church has been that the body and blood in the Eucharist is understood literally, up to and including some of the early Protestant Reformers. Second, the straightforward and consistent reading of Scripture strongly supports a literal understanding of the Eucharist as the body and blood, rather than a symbolic understanding. I’ll unpack both of those to deal with specific passages in more depth, and illustrate the early understanding of the Church about the Eucharist to show how strongly the literal notion of the Eucharist is supported by Scripture and Tradition.
Of all the historians I’ve read or seen referenced, I’m not aware of any that would deny the Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist in the early church. This is important because I have frequently seen people make the bold assertion that the doctrine of the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist didn’t come about until the 9th century. This is completely wrong. The doctrine is clearly present from the very earliest stages of Church life as I’ll demonstrate. The first time the doctrine becomes an issue to be debated in the Church is in the ninth century, and in a very small way. This is the incident that spawns the references to the “generation” of the doctrine in the ninth century. Such a view of history just demonstrate ignorance, sometimes willful.
The first time their is widespread disbelief in the real presence is by the branch of the Protestant Reformation led by Ulrich Zwingli in the 16th century. I’ve read various apologists for the symbolic understanding of the Eucharist and not one can enlist the aid of the Church Fathers. Most will make only oblique references to the Fathers and mention that perhaps they weren’t all unanimous, but none can actually provide solid examples of non-unanimity in the Fathers. There’s a few proof text quotes, taken out of context and easily dismissed, but by and large the apologists are silent on the subject. Tellingly so, I believe. It’s fairly obvious why they don’t want to grapple with the early Church understanding of the Eucharist, because it is so strongly opposed to a merely symbolic understanding of the Eucharist. Now, this is not to say that the early Church holds ONLY a literal understanding of the Eucharist. It is understood in both literal and symbolic terms, without confusion, and without exclusion. The literal body and blood are always there, though, but sometimes the symbolic is also referred to.
Now some of these apologists will move the issue by agreeing that indeed, the Church Fathers understood the Eucharist to be the literal body and blood, but that the Fathers did not believe in the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation. Dr. James White (http://www.aomin.org/) takes this tack, and he’s a major player in the apologetics space. I’m fine with that tack. He cedes the point of the early, literal understanding while making his sticking point merely that the fathers didn’t hold to the fully realized doctrine of transubstantiation the Roman Catholic Church came out with at the Council of Trent in the 1500s. This does nothing to detract from the clear understanding of the early church in the literal presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements, or to refute the Eastern Orthodox understanding.
Another Protestant apologist, William Webster, in his book “The Church of Rome at the Bar of History”, p. 117 says:
From the beginning of the Church the Fathers, generally expressed their belief in the Real Presence in the eucharist, in that they identified the elements with the body and blood of Christ, and also referred to the Eucharist as a sacrifice…”
Before I throw out any of the early Church writings, here are statements from protestant historians that verify that I’m not just pulling quotes that present one side of the story. [I got this basic list from another site on the net. I have modified it by adding in some different quotes that I thought were better.]
1) Otto W. Heick, A History of Christian Thought, vol.1, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965, 221-222:
The Post-Apostolic Fathers and . . . almost all the Fathers of the ancient Church . . . impress one with their natural and unconcerned realism. To them the Eucharist was in some sense the body and blood of Christ.
2) Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., rev. by Robert T. Handy, NY: Scribners, 1970, 90-91:
By the middle of the 2nd century, the conception of a real presence of Christ in the Supper was wide-spread
3) Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, v.3, A.D. 311-600, rev. 5th ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, rep. 1974, orig. 1910, 492, 500, 507:
The doctrine of the sacrament of the Eucharist was not a subject of theological controversy . . . till the time of Paschasius Radbert, in the ninth century . . . In general, this period, . . . was already very strongly inclined toward the doctrine of transubstantiation, and toward the Greek and Roman sacrifice of the mass, which are inseparable in so far as a real sacrifice requires the real presence of the victim.
On p. 96: The Catholic church, both Greek and Latin, sees in the Eucharist not only a sacramentum, in which God communicates a grace to believers, but at the same time, and in fact mainly, a sacrificium, in which believers really offer to God that which is represented by the sensible elements. For this view also the church fathers laid the foundation, and it must be conceded they stand in general far more on the Greek and Roman Catholic than on the Protestant side of this question.
4) J.D. Douglas, ed., The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, rev. ed., 1978, 245 [a VERY hostile source!]:
The Fathers . . . [believed] that the union with Christ given and confirmed in the Supper was as real as that which took place in the incarnation of the Word in human flesh.
5) F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford Univ. Press, 2nd ed., 1983, 475-476, 1221:
That the Eucharist conveyed to the believer the Body and Blood of Christ was universally accepted from the first . . . Even where the elements were spoken of as ‘symbols’ or ‘antitypes’ there was no intention of denying the reality of the Presence in the gifts . . . In the Patristic period there was remarkably little in the way of controversy on the subject . . . The first controversies on the nature of the Eucharistic Presence date from the earlier Middle Ages. In the 9th century Paschasius Radbertus raised doubts as to the identity of Christ’s Eucharistic Body with His Body in heaven, but won practically no support. Considerably greater stir was provoked in the 11th century by the teaching of Berengar, who opposed the doctrine of the Real Presence. He retracted his opinion, however, before his death in 1088 . . .
It was also widely held from the first that the Eucharist is in some sense a sacrifice, though here again definition was gradual. The suggestion of sacrifice is contained in much of the NT language . . . the words of institution, ‘covenant,’ ‘memorial,’ ‘poured out,’ all have sacrificial associations. In early post-NT times the constant repudiation of carnal sacrifice and emphasis on life and prayer at Christian worship did not hinder the Eucharist from being described as a sacrifice from the first . .
From early times the Eucharistic offering was called a sacrifice in virtue of its immediate relation to the sacrifice of Christ.
6) Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971, 146-147, 166-168, 170, 236-237:
By the date of the Didache [anywhere from about 60 to 160, depending on the scholar]. . . the application of the term ‘sacrifice’ to the Eucharist seems to have been quite natural, together with the identification of the Christian Eucharist as the ‘pure offering’ commanded in Malachi 1:11 . . .
The Christian liturgies were already using similar language about the offering of the prayers, the gifts, and the lives of the worshipers, and probably also about the offering of the sacrifice of the Mass, so that the sacrificial interpretation of the death of Christ never lacked a liturgical frame of reference . . .
. . . the doctrine of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, which did not become the subject of controversy until the ninth century. The definitive and precise formulation of the crucial doctrinal issues concerning the Eucharist had to await that controversy and others that followed even later. This does not mean at all, however, that the church did not yet have a doctrine of the Eucharist; it does mean that the statements of its doctrine must not be sought in polemical and dogmatic treatises devoted to sacramental theology. It means also that the effort to cross-examine the fathers of the second or third century about where they stood in the controversies of the ninth or sixteenth century is both silly and futile . . .
Yet it does seem ‘express and clear’ that no orthodox father of the second or third century of whom we have record declared the presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist to be no more than symbolic (although Clement and Origen came close to doing so) or specified a process of substantial change by which the presence was effected (although Ignatius and Justin came close to doing so). Within the limits of those excluded extremes was the doctrine of the real presence . . .
The theologians did not have adequate concepts within which to formulate a doctrine of the real presence that evidently was already believed by the church even though it was not yet taught by explicit instruction or confessed by creeds . . .
Liturgical evidence suggests an understanding of the Eucharist as a sacrifice, whose relation to the sacrifices of the Old testament was one of archetype to type, and whose relation to the sacrifice of Calvary was one of ‘re-presentation,’ just as the bread of the Eucharist ‘re-presented’ the body of Christ . . . the doctrine of the person of Christ had to be clarified before there could be concepts that could bear the weight of eucharistic teaching . . .
Theodore [c.350-428] set forth the doctrine of the real presence, and even a theory of sacramental transformation of the elements, in highly explicit language . . . ‘At first it is laid upon the altar as a mere bread and wine mixed with water, but by the coming of the Holy Spirit it is transformed into body and blood, and thus it is changed into the power of a spiritual and immortal nourishment.’ [Hom. catech. 16,36] these and similar passages in Theodore are an indication that the twin ideas of the transformation of the eucharistic elements and the transformation of the communicant were so widely held and so firmly established in the thought and language of the church that everyone had to acknowledge them.
7) J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, San Francisco:Harper & Row, 1978, 440:
Eucharistic teaching, it should be understood at the outset, was in general unquestioningly realist, i.e., the consecrated bread and wine were taken to be, and were treated and designated as, the Savior’s body and blood.
On pg 196: [T]he Eucharist was regarded as the distinctively Christian sacrifice from the closing decade of the first century, if not earlier.
8) Carl Volz, Faith and Practice in the Early Church, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1983, 107:
Early Christians were convinced that in some way Christ was actually present in the consecrated elements of bread and wine.
9) Maurice Wiles and Mark Santar, Documents in Early Christian Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge, 1975, 173:
Finally, John Chrysostom and Augustine explore the social connotation of participation in the Eucharist: the body of Christ is not only what lies on the altar, it is also the body of the faithful.
When I discussed this with [my wife] she asked insightfully, “then why didn’t these historians believe in the real presence?” Well, to begin with, we don’t know that they didn’t. There’s more to being Protestant than a symbolic understanding of communion. Second, we can never know why men choose the things they choose. I recently heard of a Jewish rabbi with a doctorate in New Testament (go figure) who wrote a book defending the resurrection of Jesus. Why did he remain a Jew? He came to believe that Jesus was the messiah for gentiles. Who knows what goes on in men’s minds. Third, some historians did convert. I know that Jaroslav Pelikan, quoted above, who was an esteemed Lutheran historian became Orthodox before he died.
From that you can see that there’s a consensus by historians, protestant no less, that the early church held to a literal understanding of the Eucharist. Now with that backdrop, here’s some quotes from the early Church on the topic. I’m cherry picking to pull some quotes from various writers, and all before Constantine legalizes Christianity in the early 300s. There are more quotes that could be pulled on this subject, but given space I want to go shallow but broad, rather than deep with any particular writer. Now, in chronological order:
Didache, 9:2; 14:1, circa 90 A.D.:
Regarding the Eucharist … Let no one eat and drink of yourEucharist but those baptized in the name of the Lord; to this, too, the saying of the Lord is applicable: Do not give to dogs what is sacred.
On the Lord’s own day, assemble in common to break bread and offer thanks; but first confess your sins, so that your sacrifice may be pure. However, no one quarreling with his brother may join your meeting until they are reconciled; your sacrifice must not be defiled. For here we have the saying of the Lord: In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice; for I am a mighty King, says the Lord; and my name spreads terror among the nations.
This doesn’t speak directly to the literal body and blood of Christ, but it is the earliest (probably) non-Biblical reference to the Eucharist and it calls the Eucharist both “sacred” and a “sacrifice”. Neither of these fits very nicely with a symbolic only view of the sacrament. Not a slam dunk, but worth mentioning.
Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to Smyrnaeans, 7,1 (c. A.D. 110):
“Consider how contrary to the mind of God are the heterodox in regard to the grace of God which has come to us. … They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again.”.
Ignatius considers failure to see the Eucharist as the flesh of Christ as a distinctive mark of non orthodox (small o). There are other quotes from Ignatius that could be dropped in here. He also notably called the Eucharist the “medicine of immortality,” indicating his high respect for the effectiveness of the Eucharist as a means of God’s grace.
Justin Martyr, First Apology, 66 (c. A.D. 110-165):
“For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”
Justin was writing a somewhat “open letter” to the emperor in order to help him understand Christianity, and cease persecuting Christians. He describes many things about how Christianity works, including how they felt about the Eucharist. He’s clear that after being blessed by prayer the Eucharistic bread and wine is now the flesh and blood of Jesus.
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, V:2,2 (c. A.D. 200):
“He acknowledged the cup (which is a part of the creation) as his own blood, from which he bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of creation) he affirmed to be his own body, from which he gives increase to our bodies.”
Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, 2 (ante A.D. 202):
“For the blood of the grape–that is, the Word–desired to be mixed with water, as His blood is mingled with salvation. And the blood of the Lord is twofold. For there is the blood of His flesh, by which we are redeemed from corruption; and the spiritual, that by which we are anointed. And to drink the blood of Jesus, is to become partaker of the Lord’s immortality; the Spirit being the energetic principle of the Word, as blood is of flesh. Accordingly, as wine is blended with water, so is the Spirit with man. And the one, the mixture of wine and water, nourishes to faith; while the other, the Spirit, conducts to immortality. And the mixture of both–of the water and of the Word–is called Eucharist, renowned and glorious grace; and they who by faith partake of it are sanctified both in body and soul.”
Origen Homilies on Exodus 13,3 (c. A.D. 184-253):
I wish to admonish you with examples from your religion. You are accustomed to take part in the divine mysteries, so you know, when you received the body of the Lord, you reverently exercised every care lest a particle of it fall, and lest anything of the consecrated gift perish. You account yourselves guilty, and rightly do you so believe, if any of it be lost through negligence. but if you observe such cation in keeping His Body, and properly so, how is it that you think neglecting the word of God a lesser crime than neglecting His Body?
Look at how carefully the Christians treated the Eucharistic meal, and because it was the body of Jesus.
Tertullian, Against Marcion, 40 (A.D. 212):
“Then, having taken the bread and given it to His disciples,He made it His own body, by saying, ‘This is my body,’ that is, the figure of my body. A figure, however, there could not have been, unless there were first a veritable body…He did not understand how ancient was this figure of the body of Christ, who said Himself by Jeremiah: ‘I was like a lamb or an ox that is brought to the slaughter, and I knew not that they devised a device against me, saying, Let us cast the tree upon His bread,’ which means, of course, the cross upon His body. And thus, casting light, as He always did, upon the ancient prophecies, He declared plainly enough what He meant by the bread, when He called the bread His own body. He likewise, when mentioning the cup and making the new testament to be sealed ‘in His blood,’ affirms the reality of His body. For no blood can belong to a body which is not a body of flesh. If any sort of body were presented to our view, which is not one of flesh, not being fleshly, it would not possess blood. Thus, from the evidence of the flesh, we get a proof of the body, and a proof of the flesh from the evidence of the blood.”
I’ve seen this quote from Tertullian used by Dr. James White, but JUST the portion where he says “figure of my body”. White loves to use this truncated quote to “prove” that Tertullian did not actually believe in a literal presence of Jesus’ body, but reading the entire quote makes it clear that his using “figure” in no way indicates that Tertullian does not see a literal presence.
One other early writer that is sometimes thrown out as having a symbolic understanding is Eusebius of Caesarea. In one of his writings he refers to the Eucharistic wine and bread as symbols, but this is not unknown in the fathers. Many others also referred to them as symbols while also referring to them as literal. Their understanding encompassed both modes as is seen in their writing, and that is still the case today in the Orthodox Church. The elements are seen as symbols, while at the same time being real. It’s both/and, not either/or.
I’ve spent a lot of time building up this case for a “universal” understanding of the Eucharist as real, but I have to admit that the situation is slightly more complex than I’d like to portray it. I’m trying to make a strong case for a realist position, and it would be nice to say that every single time someone in the early church wrote about the Eucharist is was in astonishingly literal terms. That would be nice, but not the truth. Many times the writings are more ambiguous than those I’ve quoted, and in the case of Augustine there’s a LOT of language that works really well for the symbolic view because the Eucharist is referred to as a symbol.
It is very important to understand what the word “symbol” meant to the Fathers. In the Greek (which is how the majority of the Fathers would be using it), the word does NOT mean substitution or in place of. It is a compound word made up of sym (meaning together) and ballon (meaning to throw). Thus, a symbol is something where two unlike things are thrown together. Thus, the Eucharist is a symbol because the mundane bread and wine are thrown together with the divine presence of Christ. The eucharist is BOTH bread and wine AND the body and the blood of Christ. This is how it is a symbol.
The truth is that there’s a mix of both types of language, and honesty does require that proviso. Apologists for both sides will rarely admit that, but that’s what I see. I think it’s a mistake to take only some of these quotes and construct a view of the Eucharist that issimplistically allied with a literal only view, or only the symbolic, but doesn’t match what the Church actually believed. Truly they did believe in the real presence of the body and blood in the Eucharist, but they also simultaneously affirmed that there were “symbolic” meanings as well.
It’s also necessary to always keep in mind that any one particular writer is not the authoritative spokesman for the Church. This is not an Orthodox understanding of how the Church works, and so no one particular writer, even one as prominent as Augustine, can be used as the absolute yardstick for understanding the mind of the Church.
The quotes above are pretty much a who’s who of ancient Christian writings, prior to Constantine (nothing changes after him). I think that’s a pretty fair and widespread display of thought in the Christian community early on. Particularly Ignatius and Irenaeus demonstrate the early (within the first century of Christianity) and widespread (Ignatius in the far east and Irenaeus in the far west) belief in the literal presence. Certainly when I first started reading the patristic literature and ran up against these writings I had to squirm quite a bit. Like the first historian I quoted above said, the Fathers seem quite natural and unconcerned in their discussion of the literal presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Why did it make me uncomfortable, but to them it seemed quite natural and even necessary?
I’ve seen various apologists go halfway down the road and say that of course everyone believed in the presence of Jesus in communion. It’s real, but only spiritual. Certainly there is a spiritual truth to the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, but it’s quite clear from the various quotes above (buttressed by the understanding of the protestant historians) that what the Church taught was that Jesus’ body and blood were in the Eucharist, not just a “spiritual presence” that really doesn’t fit what they are saying.
What about the Reformers? I’m not going to go in depth into the Reformers except to say that in general, Luther held to a literal understanding of the Eucharist and John Calvin was close. Ulrich Zwingli is the source of the current symbolic only thinking. I understand of course that just because Luther supported a literal understanding doesn’t make it true, but certainly it demonstrates that a literal understanding is not necessarily a Protestant position. As an aside, you might remember from my Sola Scriptura letter that the Reformation only maintained an outward unity for 10 years. This was the issue that broke the unity.
In the words: “This is my body,” the word “this” means the bread, and the word “body” the body which is put to death for us. Therefore the word “is” cannot be taken literally, for the bread is not the body and cannot be . . . “This is my body,” means, “The bread signifies my body,” or “is a figure of my body.”
(On the Lord’s Supper, 1526; in Bromiley, 225)
So basically, Zwingli says it can’t be the body of Jesus because God can’t do that?
Luther speaks directly to the symbolic understanding:
[S]ince we are confronted by God’s words, “This is my body” – distinct, clear, common, definite words, which certainly are no trope, either in Scripture or in any language – we must embrace them with faith . . . not as hairsplitting sophistry dictates but as God says them for us, we must repeat these words after him and hold to them.
(Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, 1528; in Althaus, 390)
Luther wrote on the same scriptural text as Zwingli and said:
[T]his word of Luke and Paul is clearer than sunlight and more overpowering than thunder. First, no one can deny that he speaks of the cup, since he says, “This is the cup.” Secondly, he calls it the cup of the new testament. This is overwhelming, for it could not be a new testament by means and on account of wine alone.
(Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments, 1525; LW, 40, 217)
In one of his other writings (not to Zwingli) regarding another theologian who removed the sacramental understanding of the Eucharist he said:
He [the theologian Karlstadt] thinks one does not see that out of the word of Christ he [Karlstadt] makes a pure commandment and law which accomplishes nothing more than to tell and bid us to remember and acknowledge him. Furthermore, he makes this acknowledgment nothing else than a work that we do, whilewe receive nothing else than bread and wine.
(Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments, 1525; LW, 40, 206)
I confess that if Karlstadt, or anyone else, could have convinced me five years ago that only bread and wine were in the sacrament he would have done me a great service. At that time I suffered such severe conflicts and inner strife and torment that I would gladly have been delivered from them. . . . But I am a captive and cannot free myself. The text is too powerfully present, and will not allow itself to be torn from its meaning by mere verbiage.
(Letter to the Christians at Strassburg in Opposition to the Fanatic Spirit, 1524; LW, 68)
“I have often enough asserted that I do not argue whether the wine remains wine or not. It is enough for me that Christ’s blood is present; let it be with the wine as God wills. Sooner than have mere wine with the fanatics, I would agree with the pope that there is only blood.”
(Luther’s Works, vol 37, page 317)
I wanted to set the stage with historical support so that as I’m talking through various Scripture passages you can see that what I’m arguing for as the normative or default reading of the Scripture is actually in line with what the early Church understood the Scripture to mean. If it comes down to just dueling interpretations it will be hard to accept so radical a difference as the real presence. But I believe that keeping to a straightforward and literal reading of Scripture, in addition to the consistent understanding of the early Church leads to a very strong position of believing in the literal presence of Jesus in the Eucharistic meal.
For the scriptural passages I’m going to be looking at Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-20, John 6:25-71, 1 Corinthians 10:14-18, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, and Hebrews 9:26. It’s also mentioned in Acts 2:46 and 20:7, but I won’t be talking about those passages. I think I’ll be spending most of my time in John 6, so I will deal with that last.
The Matthew, Mark and Luke passages are synoptic accounts of the Last Supper. I’ll take the Matthew passage as representative of the other two.
26 While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” 27 And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. 29 “But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.”
Mark is almost identical, while Luke includes additional detail. Before moving into a couple of objections made using these verses let me just point out that the language here is dangerously straight forward. “This is my body.” “This is my blood.” This is exactly the language that gave Martin Luther such fits, and which he found inescapable. In Mark it is identically straight forward. In Luke it is identically straight forward.
Did the wine change?
Now I included verse 29 from Matthew because it has been the point of some resistance by Protestant apologists. Some apologists say that since Jesus refers to the cup in v. 29 as wine, after he had blessed it, He indicates that no change has taken place. There are some problems with this. The account in Luke, which is the more detailed account, has that part moved to before the consecration. You can’t determine the exact chain of events from the passages, therefore, because they differ. Luke is the more detailed account, so certainly you could err on the side of Luke getting the order correct, or at least that it does not matter. Where this phrase was in the conversation could make quite a difference in understanding, though you don’t have to insist that Jesus means anything of the sort. If the phrase comes first then it most certainly does not refer to the Eucharistic meal, and in fact, that is the understanding of St Clement of Alexandria, who affirms the meaning implicit in the order of Luke (Clement, The Instructor, 2, 2).
Second, Luke indicates that the meal was already ongoing when Jesus blessed bread and wine, and thus the natural understanding of His statement in v29 is that Jesus is referring to the ongoing meal as what he would not enjoy again, since He was about to die. And we certainly know that Jesus did eat with His disciples following His resurrection, so this is plausible. In this case, why would Matthew (and Mark) mention the fruit of the vine at all? Clement says it is to make sure that we know that Jesus was drinking wine, so that we would know how to perform the Eucharist. If you look at Matthew 26 you can confirm that indeed there is no mention of wine prior to verse 29. Mark is identical. Regardless, you can’t force that statement to be a denial that the wine became His blood.
How could this be a true Eucharist if Jesus is still alive?
Another objection that is made by apologists is that both Orthodox and Catholics understand that Jesus isn’t just showing how the Eucharist should be done after His resurrection, but that this is in fact the first Eucharistic meal and a participation in his crucifixion, but that wouldn’t happen until the next day. All this time bending gives the apologists head aches, apparently, and so they say this proves that this wasn’t literally connected to Jesus’ actual body and blood, which had not yet been crucified. To that I merely have to say, do you limit God? Who are they to say God could not accomplish this sharing across time and space? James White raises this protest in his book The Roman Catholic Controversy (p. 176), but yet He has no problem with God being able to change bread and wine into body and blood (same book p. 165). So Dr. White believes God can do miracles. Just not all miracles. Time apparently is a barrier to Him.
The same objection in a different form says that this Eucharistic meal could not be the literal body and blood of Jesus, since He would then be holding in his hands his actual body. Body holding body. It seems fantastic, but again, how can we limit the mystery of God? This objection was anticipated by the writer Aphraates in the early 4th century, but apparently caused him no heart burn. He recognizes the difficulty and rests in God’s mystery.
Interestingly I’ve seen it said (and here I won’t claim any particular expertise) that the greek in these passages uses a present participle in verse 28 which means that it should correctly be translated as “this is My blood of the covenant, which is being poured out…” That would indicate the exact time bending that gives Dr. White such head aches. I don’t hang anything on this since I have no in depth knowledge of the language, but if so it’s an interesting indication of Jesus indicating the presence of His blood as sacrifice right at that particular time.
Neither of these objections to the power of God to achieve His will merits any consideration in my mind.
How many times must Christ be crucified?
Let me now jump over to Hebrews 9:26, since this bears on the objections above. The passage says:
26 Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.
Protestant apologists point to this verse as an obvious objection to the daily/weekly Eucharistic sacrifice. How could the Eucharist be a sacrifice and the actual presence of Jesus’ body and blood if Hebrews says He was crucified once, and suffered once, not many times? This objection only demonstrates a misunderstanding of what the Eucharist is by Protestants, not an actual impediment. The Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist isn’t that it is a new sacrifice of Jesus, but rather a joining of the present time/space to the one time sacrifice of Jesus accomplished 2,000 years ago. The crucifixion is in some sense brought into the here and now, or we are brought to it, or both. A connection is made, and we partake of the body and blood and the sacrifice of Jesus. However, this is not a new crucifixion taking place.
Isn’t this all cannibalism?
One objection is that believing in the literal presence of Jesus in the Eucharist makes Christians into cannibals. This is a valid objection, and one that did give me pause. Certainly understanding the Eucharist in literal terms, or looking at the various Eucharistic passages in literal terms does seem to call for actions that are without precedent in the Old Testament moral code. (Actually reading over the reasoning that God gives for some of His commandments on blood in the OT is very interesting and somewhat germane. It’s likely that the injunction against drinking blood in Leviticus 17:10 may only apply in non-sacrificial circumstances.)
Now, is it actually cannibalism? I’ll offer a few thoughts. First, cannibalism involves eating the dead. Jesus is living. Second, cannibalism is a sinful activity. How could we attribute a command of God to eat and drink as sinful? Eating the Eucharist does nourish the Christian’s body and soul, but does not diminish Christ’s body at all. The Eucharist is non-violent. It doesn’t seem to match up to cannibalism.
Also, this situation where two commands from God are apparentlypitted against each other is not unique. The most obvious example of a similar situation is from the Old Testament. God instructs the Israelites that they are not to kill. He then proceeds to send them on a very long campaign of war with instructions to kill men, women, children, and livestock. This seeming dichotomy is in the same time frame as the OT laws against killing, so it’s not even just a culture drift over time. Apparently there’s a contradiction, but upon reflection I don’t believe that there is. God’s first command is a general one, and is indeed consistent with the moral tone of the entirety of Scripture, Old and New. It isn’t a good thing for people or nations to go around killing people for their own purposes. However, in some cases it is necessary, such as in the case of self-defense (personal or national), or when God deems it necessary for whatever inscrutable reason. The situations are not the same, and sometimes God’s specific command can cause a person to do something that God’s general command would not allow. Certainly God in His amazing wisdom and purity is much more capable than we are of determining proper moral course in a situation.
Given the precedent we can see that Jesus may have good reason for instructing us to ingest Him. The act brings life (“the life is in the blood”) and is not morally reprehensible when done with God in the same ways it WOULD be when done with a human being. This philosophical objection here then requires some personal judgment to decide how it should be viewed, but given the preponderance of other evidence I think I am justified in dismissing this thought.
Interestingly, by making this objection the person is somewhat solidifying the case against a symbolic understanding. An early charge against Christians by the Roman government was that they were cannibals. This was most likely due to a misunderstanding of the Eucharistic meal (and got horribly botched in translation, but there you go). So this is certainly not a new accusation, but it’s interesting to note that the original source of this objection is from non-Christians against Christians.
Just a memorial?
Ok, back to Luke 22. One other interesting addition in Luke 22 is the phrase “do this in remembrance of Me.” Protestants will argue that this means that partaking of bread and wine (crackers and grape juice?) is merely a means of publicly unifying in remembrance of Jesus’ crucifixion. The problem is in the “merely”. The phrase is clearly indicating that the Eucharist is a memorial, or remembering. That does not, however, say anything about what else it is. You can have a remembrance that is strictly mental and emotional, or one that is based around a physical object or action. Either is possible and both could be indicated. Which is meant in Luke 22? The most we can say is, from that phrase alone, we can’t tell. It doesn’t tell us anything one way or another, because while it talks about “remembrance”, we can’t forget that it also says “do this”, which is the central point of that phrase. The remembrance is just the “why”.
Orthodox theologians will say that the greek word that is translated as “remembrance” (anamnesis) is more active than merely mentally recollecting. I can’t say for sure if this is the case. The same word is used in the NT in only two other situations as far as I can see. It’s used in 1 Corinthians when it quotes Luke 22 (no help there) and in Hebrews 10:3. I’m not sure it’s appropriate to draw any conclusions from that verse, but you can do with it what you will. Perhaps its use there indicates a more active remembrance, though the object of remembrance is opposite what the Eucharist is remembering.
Eucharist creates unity
Now I want to take a look at 1 Corinthians 10:14-18 which says:
14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to wise men ; you judge what I say. 16 Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ ? 17 Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body ; for we all partake of the one bread. 18 Look at the nation Israel ; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar?
First I’d point out that that again there is very straight forward language in verse 16 saying that the wine is the blood of Christ and the bread is the body of Christ. Beyond that it says that by partaking we are sharing in the blood and body, showing that we actually take it in and are nourished by it.
Second, note that in 17 Paul identifies the Eucharist as a means (baptism is also elsewhere seen as a means) of creating the unified body of Christ out of the individual members. It is because there is one Body, shared by all the Christians in the Eucharist, that we are one Body. I find this interesting. It also bears out a certain practical proof in that the Orthodox, who have an understanding of a literal Eucharist also display an amazing degree of unity. Food for thought.
So, here you have strong language indicating the literal presence!
Skipping ahead to the next chapter of 1 Corinthians I want to take a look at chapter 11 verses 17-34. It’s a bit long so I won’t quote it all here. You can open the link in a window and just look at the text there.
Paul lays into the Corinthians in the first section because they were eating the love feast together (and getting crazy) to the point where some didn’t eat the Eucharistic meal, and apparently some were so drunk they couldn’t even tell when the Eucharist was given to them. He reiterates the words of Jesus from the last supper, again with very straight forward language that the body and blood were literally present. Then he indicates the seriousness of the Eucharistic meal by saying that if you partake unworthily you are guilty of the body and blood of Christ? Why? Because it is symbolic? No, because it IS the body and blood of the Lord? In all the new testament there’s only a handful of things that are handled this severely. Paul says that some people have died because of this practice of the Corinthians!
Another interesting thing happens in verse 29. Paul says that the judgment of God comes from the Corinthians not judging the “body” rightly. Could this possibly mean that the Corinthians were getting drunk and unable to tell when the food they were eating was actually the Eucharistic body of Jesus? Perhaps. The only nearby mention of a “body” is the body of Jesus in verse 27. However, it could be that the judging is tied to the judging mentioned in verse 31 and so refer to judging their own bodies. I can’t tell for sure, and merely mention it as a possibility. However it is intriguing.
Nevertheless, you have strong language indicating the literal presence of the body and blood here!
I’ve seen people object that Paul still refers to the wine and blood as wine and blood in verse 27, after it has been blessed. Shouldn’t he now refer to it as body and blood. Certainly that would have been nice, but not necessary. The majority of the language is quite clear, and the same verse even says that ingesting unworthily makes you guilty of Jesus’ body and blood. I think that’s clear enough.
Dr. James White complains about this passage that you don’t see the Roman Catholic transubstantiation language here, but just a reference to the Lord’s supper which obviously indicates that this is just a simple meal. Nothing more. He chastises Catholics for putting medieval doctrines back into early Scripture. I’d chastise him for the same. He’s reading it in the EXACT same manner by insisting that doctrinal language somehow make its way back 1,200 years to Paul to be written into this section of Scripture. Paul isn’t debating the issues of the 1,200s. He’s telling the Corinthians to take the Eucharist seriously. We are left with a passage that isn’t a dogmatic statement about the Eucharistic meal but that has oblique information about it. White shouldn’t ask more than is reasonable for the time and purposes of Paul. He won’t get a definitive statement to the issues we’ve only created in the last few centuries.
John 6: The Main Event
Ah, the moment we’ve all been waiting for. This is the central Eucharistic passage in the Bible. If there is a battle ground passage, this is it. It’s got something to offer everyone, but before I get into John 6 let me quickly recap what I’ve tried to demonstrate so far. Historically the Church has understood all of these passages to indicate a literal presence of the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist. I’ve given you Protestant historians, Church Father quotations, and even Protestant Reformers to back up that claim. I’ve also run through three gospel accounts of the last supper and two references from Paul to the last supper, ALL of which include strong and straight forward language demonstrating the literal presence of Jesus’ body and blood. So far so good I think!
On John 6 Martin Luther said:
All right! There we have it! This is clear, plain, and unconcealed: “I am speaking of My flesh and blood.”
(Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 6-8, 1532; LW, 23, 133-135)
No pressure, right? 🙂 Again, this text is quite long, so I won’t try and quote it here. Instead I’ll merely link to it and let you have it up in a browser window to reference.
In reviewing various arguments on chapter 6 I was again reminded of how often I saw argumentation by declaration in regards to this subject. Over and over I see people just repeating the assertion that John 6 (and the others) must not be taken literally. The reasons given are usually small to none, but the declarations are constant. I hope to do a little better job in the other direction.
Getting the big picture.
This is such an interesting passage to read through. It’s quite a lot of back and forth, and it builds and builds into verse 58. Jesus had just done a miracle to feed the 5,000 (related earlier in chapter 6), he walks across water to escape the crowd who want to crown Him as king and comes to the other side of the sea, and then the people he fed follow and find him over there. Jesus says they are just following him around because He can feed them, not because they really believe in His message. That’s interesting, but in that culture a man who can produce food miraculously is quite an asset. The Jews reference God feeding them through manna (perhaps they are looking for another free ride), but Jesus takes a hard turn and starts the conversation on another path.
In verse 27 He tells them there’s food that produces eternal life. They ask Him how they can get some. He tells them to believe in Him. They circle right back around to where they started and ask for food again, through the hint of manna. Jesus clarifies for them that the manna came from God the Father, and that He sends the bread out of heaven. They ask for some, still thinking of the full bellies from the earlier feeding I believe (v34). Then it starts getting weird for the Jews.
Jesus says that He is the bread of life (v35) sent by the Father, for those who come to Him and believe (36-40). The Jews start getting angry because Jesus says that God is His father, but they “know” that His parents are Mary and Joseph. He didn’t come from heaven. At least they weren’t still worried about getting hand outs. Now they are concerned that Jesus is overreaching in his theological statements into the territory of blasphemy. Jesus tells them to stop grumbling, and that God will teach them the truth, that they must believe (v 43-47). What is it they must believe? That Jesus is the bread of life (v 48. In v 47 many major versions omit the “in me” since it is missing in some manuscripts). He clarifies that the bread from heaven isn’t manna, which a person can eat and then still die, but if they will eat the bread of life (which He said was himself) they will live forever (v 51), oh and by the way it’s His flesh.
Now the Jews go even more nuts. They aren’t worried about his origins now. This man is telling them they are supposed to eat his flesh (v 52)! Crazy! The Jews take Him literally. Now, what you would expect at this point is that Jesus would back up and correct their obvious misunderstanding, right? They are taking him literally, but He doesn’t correct them. Instead, he makes it even clearer what they must do.
53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. 54 “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 “For My flesh is true food, and My blood istrue drink. 56 “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. 57 “As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. 58 “This is the bread which came down out of heaven ; not as the fathers ate and died ; he who eats this bread will live forever.”
Talk about your all time clarification. Not only does he not say, “No wait! I meant that metaphorically.” he says “truly, truly, unless youeat the flesh and drink the blood you have no life in you.” Before when he talked about eating he said to eat the bread. Now he’s straight out saying “eat My flesh”. And he goes one further and adds in “drink My blood.” Much more direct. Much more clear. It’s also interesting to note that during the conversation prior to verse 53 the greek verb used by everyone is a generic verb phago. It’s a form that just generally means to ingest something, and can be used figuratively. When Jesus cranks up the literalness in verse 53 He also cranks up the greek verb to a new one, trogo, starting in verse 54 that means to “gnaw” and “crunch”. It’s much more physical, and not seen in a symbolic sense in the rest of the NT (unless you’re going to insist that He’s using it symbolically here and then there’s only one instance).
You can feel the crescendo in what Jesus is saying. He continues with about as unequivocal a statement as you could hope for in verse 55 when He stresses to His listeners that His flesh is true food, and His blood true drink. He clearly wants to leave no room for doubt or error. Not only is He the bread of life, in a metaphoric sense, but He very clearly tells his listening crowd (some of whom are His disciples) that they must eat Him in a literal sense.
This clearly left his audience stunned. He was in a synagogue talking to his many disciples when He delivers this stunning bit of teaching, and they are indeed stunned. In verse 60 they say, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?” Indeed. Jesus knows that they are grumbling and discomfited. Does He finally relent and let them off the hook? Does He tell them that it was all just a symbolic statement and they obviously didn’t understand Him correctly? No, He does not. He just asks (v 61) if they will let this teaching cause them to stumble? Such an interesting thing. He is watching them all deal with the reality of the harsh teaching, knowing that many are only following Him because He can feed their bellies. He knows they will not believe, and consequently many of his disciples left Him (v 66). He is left with the 12. He asks them if they want to leave as well, but they stay with Him. Who else has the words of life, Peter asks. Unfortunately (or fortunately) those words include the command to eat His flesh.
I don’t believe there is anything paralleling this in the entire rest of the gospels. Jesus delivers a hard teaching and drives it home with ever more literal language. It’s quite startling in the straight forward language of it, and the results. Now let’s consider various arguments used against a literal understanding of John 6.
Where’s the metaphor?
Probably the most common objection to a literal understanding in John 6 is that Jesus constantly uses metaphor in His teaching throughout the gospels. Is it so hard to see that John 6 is just a very elaborate and drawn out metaphor? I can grant that Jesus commonly uses metaphor, and metaphor is a possibility in Scripture. That is not the same as saying that John 6 in fact IS metaphor. Possible, but unproven. You can read John 6 literally as well. That is also a possibility.
Considering the way Jesus reiterates the truth that His body and blood must be eaten over and over in very straight forward language, it seems that the default understanding would be one that underscores the literal understanding of the Eucharist. Apologists are quick to say, “prove that it’s literal.” That can just as easily be turned the other way to say, “you prove that it’s metaphor.” Considering that the early Church apparently understood John 6 literally, it seems the burden of proof is on those who would understand it symbolically.
Can we know that John 6 is metaphorical or literal? There are significant differences in John 6 from other metaphoric passages that make it clear to me that John 6 is meant literally.
Let’s consider other passage in the same book, John, that are commonly accepted as metaphoric. In 10:7 Jesus says that He is a gate. In 10:9 He is a door. In 15:1 He calls himself a vine. You find similar statements in 8:12, 11:25, and 14:6 with the same structure, but in those the meaning is usually taken literally. Judging strictly by the wording structure used by John you can’t just declare a statement as metaphor or literal statement since the same phraseology is used by Jesus in both contexts.
Jesus is a door… and a vine…and a gate…
Considering the text in chapters 10 and 15, which I would agree are metaphorical, you see that whenever Jesus uses metaphor he always includes His listeners in on the metaphor. If Jesus is a gate, the people are sheep. If Jesus is the vine, the people are branches. They are included in the metaphor and so the metaphor serves to clarify the relationship of the listeners to Jesus. In other words, the metaphor is inclusive. Compare that to the ones in 8, 11, and 14. These passages follow the same verbal pattern without being metaphors, and Jesus does not include the listeners. There is no metaphorical extension. Now look at the chapter 6 text again. There also the listeners are not included in the potential metaphor of bread and wine, so it doesn’t match the other metaphorical mechanism Jesus used in 10 and 15. If it’s metaphor he’s breaking the pattern of his wording in 10 and 15. I am the vine and you are the branches. It’s very clear. I am the gate and you are the sheep. Again, clear. In chapter 6, not clear.
You also have Jesus breaking out of the parable almost entirely after the Jews demonstrate confusion in verse 52. This also breaks the pattern of the other two clearly metaphoric passages. Once they appear confused his language changes entirely (away from metaphorical I would sa
y). It appears that he is clarifying the confusion, but in the wrong way. He makes it more clear. “Truly, Truly, I say. My flesh is true food. My blood is true drink. He who eats me…” Not very metaphoric language.
Another thing to consider is that in chapter 10 and 15, when Jesus uses metaphor, there’s absolutely no indication that his disciples thought Jesus was going to sprout leaves, or need his hinges oiled. They didn’t appear to understand those literally at all. The case is quite different in chapter 6. There all the listeners quite clearly understood him literally. We can’t say that they were unaware of metaphor, or incapable of understanding it. Clearly they did in other cases. So they saw something different in this occasion.
Jesus was intentionally vague
One apologist (Dr. James White) I saw argued that Jesus was intentionally vague often times, especially when in the presence of unbelieving Jews, and that was why he was being super metaphorical in John 6. You can see this in action in places likeMatthew 13:11. This is true. Is this the case here? I’d have to say no for two reasons. One, Jesus certainly had plenty of opportunity to clarify with the disciples privately, but he doesn’t appear to have. He repeats this language almost verbatim in the upper room, with just the disciples present. Surely He would clarify right before His death if He cared to. Second, the same apologist claims that Jesus is using clear words in the first section (26-40?), before he starts asking people to eat him. If that’s the case, then the objection is self defeating. If Jesus is clear in the early section, then He is still clear in the later section.
Truly, Truly I say…
Jesus had a peculiar phrase (at least, peculiar to our 21st century ears) that he liked to say. “Truly, truly.” John liked to put the double emphatic on some statements. In the other gospels its just a single, but I love the double in John because it’s special. It’s special because when John whips out the double “truly”, Jesus is about to come out with the bottom line. It’s going to be straight talk. It’s not going to be pretty and happy, but it WILL be true. It also doesn’t ever appear to be used as a prelude to metaphor. I looked at all the instances in John (about 30 or so), and only in one instance does it appear that it might be used inside a metaphor. That is in John 10 (sigh), which we looked at just above. Just one time out of about forty, and even in chapter 10 when he uses it, he is emphasizing the truth of the statement it contains. One is obliquely metaphoric (v 1) and the other is when He is explaining the early metaphor. In chapter 6 He uses the double truly to emphasize that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood. And there’s no follow up clarification. I think this is indicative that Jesus is calling attention to the bottom line in chapter 6.
Jesus loses disciples over a misunderstanding?
Looking back at the ending of the chapter 6 passage you see Jesus losing many of his disciples, perhaps most, over his teaching. Jesus knows that they are having trouble with His teaching, and that they would leave Him. If they had misunderstood Him in such a horrible way as to turn a fairly innocuous teaching that they just needed to believe in Him into a cannibalistic instruction, wouldn’t He have just corrected them? No correction is given. The listeners walk away from Jesus and into likely damnation.
From this we can say that the listeners understood Him to be teaching literally, as did the disciples. They don’t indicate that they understand a secret symbolic meaning of His words (and John didn’t insert one in as the author), but rather that there was no where else to go when asked if they would leave. All the listeners heard a literal message, and Jesus left it at that.
Think back over what happened in John 6, culminating in the loss of so many disciples, and consider it from the viewpoint of a metaphoric understanding. In that scenario what Jesus was trying to get across was that his disciples needed to believe in Him. This was the important thing. This wasn’t the first time Jesus had asked people to believe in Him. He talks about belief extensively in the preceding chapters. This isn’t new material. Why then does Jesus let a misunderstanding about His words in chapter 6 cause so many to desert him if it was all a big misunderstanding? To me that doesn’t make sense.
Maybe Jesus just didn’t want to correct the carnal Jews that were listening? Perhaps, but then why doesn’t He make the disciples. At the end He merely asks if they will desert Him too. In any case, if the message was “just believe in me”, Jesus was being quite clear enough at the beginning. There was no need to leave everyone in such a quandary.
Did Jesus ever explain Himself when listeners misunderstood His teachings?
Yes, He did. In John 3 you see this happening with Nicodemus over being born again. In many ways this isn’t actually a metaphor so much as it is a spiritual understanding of reality that is deeper than the merely natural, but Nicodemus doesn’t understand. Jesus takes time to give him more and more information to help him understand. Look at John 4:31-38. Jesus is using a food metaphor, so this is definitely germane! There’s confusion on the part of the disciples, so Jesus explains what He means. There’s a similar situation in Matthew 16:6-12 but I’m sticking to the book of John. Look at John 11:11-15. His disciples don’t understand when Jesus says Lazarus is sleeping. Again, not so much a metaphor as Jesus just understanding things so much more deeply than we do, but He doesn’t leave the disciples in confusion. He clarifies. Sometimes John as the author clarifies for Jesus, as he does inJohn 2:21-22 and 7:39. Back in chapter 6 neither Jesus nor John clarify that the body and blood were metaphoric.
But the important part of what He was saying was about belief
Jesus does talk a lot about belief in chapter 6. No matter how you slice it what He was saying required huge belief from the Jewish audience. It was nothing like what they expected. And noting that the passage places a strong emphasis on the belief of the audience does do anything to speak to whether the talk of body and blood is metaphorical or not. I don’t see this as adding anything to the discussion. What is interesting is if you consider verse 47 without the “in me” that some translations have. Many major translations, like the New American Standard, omit that since it is missing in some manuscripts, and can be translated without it even when the greek words that make up that phrase are present. Certainly it gives a different meaning to WHAT it was the Jews were to believe. No one will deny that Jesus requires belief.
The flesh profits nothing
Some apologists will point out verse 63, where Jesus says, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” It seems that Jesus is back tracking here. But is He really? If what Jesus is saying there is in relation to his repeated (repeated, repeated) assertions to eat His flesh, then isn’t that quite schizophrenic? “Eat my flesh! It will profit you nothing!” No, that certainly makes no sense. So what is He saying?
If you read the context you can see that Jesus’ directions about eating his flesh and blood end at verse 58. Most translations will demonstrate that understanding by adding a section header or spacing break at verse 59 and another after 65. This later section is Jesus dealing with the after effects of His teaching. He’s done, and now it just remains to see whether people will leave Him over this hard teaching. It seems to me that Jesus is clearly talking in verse 63 about the listener’s ability to accept the truth of what He was saying, through the power of the Spirit. The New American Standard even capitalizes spirit at the beginning of verse 63, but not at the end. It appears they agree with me. 🙂 I think Jesus is saying the exact same thing that Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 2:14-16 and 1 Corinthians 3:1-3. I wonder where Paul got his material?
It’s also important to note here a very subtle Protestant bias that flavors this text. Note that nowhere does Jesus say “symbolic” in the text of verse 63. He talks about spirit, but when Protestants read this text they typically understand the words as if they implied that the text of verses 54-58 should be interpreted “spiritually”, meaning symbolically. Spirit vs flesh is not the same as symbolic vs real. The verses should be read in a “spiritual” way, as in 1 Corinthians 2:14-16, but that doesn’t mean read them as symbols. If I’m going to take anyone’s word for whether to read this passage as symbolic or not, it seems that the right people to make that call would be those closest in time and culture to the apostles who wrote it down, and they understood it literally.
Chapter 6 brings a posse
Another big difference between John 6 and the metaphoric passages in 10 and 15 is the repetition you find in the rest of Scripture. Not only is this material repeated verbatim in the other Gospels in the Last Supper narratives, but you also see it repeated in 1 Corinthians 10-11. The fact that this material is used over and over in very serious ways indicates that the intended understanding is most likely a literal one.
And the Fathers?
Well, one thing that I enjoy doing is looking at what St John Chrysostom says on a passage. The advantage of looking at Chrysostom is that in his preaching he favored verse by verse expository style, so we have a lot of his thoughts on the New Testament in something like commentary form. They were actually just sermons that were written down. Anyway, if you care to see what Chrysostom says on John 6 for additional fun reading look here and here. I find his discussion on verse 52, 55, and 63 particularly apropos.
In summation on John 6, Norman Geisler in his book Roman Catholics and Evangelics says that “Jesus’ words need not be taken in a literal sense” here (p. 261). To that I reply, “says who?” The words give every indication of being meant to be taken literally. The direct listeners all took it seriously. The author John didn’t interject a correction to the obvious literal meaning, though he does elsewhere in the same book. Jesus didn’t interject a correction either, despite watching disciples walk away. The material is repeated all over Scripture in a serious way. The early understanding by Christians is a literal one.
I know this has been very long. Perhaps longer than the huge letter on Sola Scriptura. Hopefully you were able to make it through without losing track of everything. To help put it all back in perspective, here’s my high level summation of what I attempted to show.
The understanding of the Eucharist as the literal presence of the body and blood of Jesus is one of the most venerable and central teachings of the Church historically. Historians recognize the universality and antiquity of the idea. It goes back to the beginning of the Church, and was held universally as far as we can tell. It was believed without exception by the Church entire up through the Protestant Reformation, where the splinter group led by Ulrich Zwingli pioneered the first major and sustainable break with that unbroken tradition. Even Martin Luther held to a real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and this formed the first schism within the Protestant community. So historically the real presence seems virtually unassailable.
Biblically the real presence is strongly supported with many passages. The literal and straightforward reading of Scripture is most easily supported internally with other Scripture, and makes the most logical sense of what is written. It also matches up perfectly with the historical understanding present in the writings of the early Church.
If there was one doctrinal difference between Protestantism and Orthodoxy that is most clear cut I think it is this one. I’ve read a lot of books, listened to debates, read articles and watched videos to try to hear all the possible angles and support for the various sides, and I found the weight of evidence for the historic doctrine of the real presence of the body and blood in the Eucharist to be overwhelming. I am completely confident in the truth of it.
I find this to be very motivating in my desire to join the Orthodox church, and one of the clearest pictures to me of the danger inherent in the Protestant mindset that puts each individual in the position of determining doctrine for themselves without submission to the Body. When the Church becomes just a collection of people that think like me then it ceases to have much value to me, and when it ceases to have value it also ceases to have influence and authority on what it means to be a Christian. Whenever I’m in a protestant service now and we take communion, and I think about what this was intended to be it makes me very sad. The Eucharist is supposed to be a direct participation in the life of Christ. It is meant to be a means of sustaining your life, in all possible meanings, as a Christian. It is supposed to be a great unifier to the Body. Instead it’s just another way for us to experiment and play with reinventing Church.
This is just another plank in the bridge that led me over to Orthodoxy, but it’s a big one. By it I gained trust in the Orthodox Church, and a clearer picture of the issues with Protestantism. My course over the last few years hasn’t been over a single issue, but many issues like this one that I slowly worked through and gained confidence in. I’ve already detailed my issues with Sola Scriptura, which is another major plank in the bridge. Hopefully over time I’ll be able to demonstrate the rest of the issues in a way that is convincing and makes sense.
I’m glad that you and dad are finding the writings of Ignatius to be interesting and useful. Keep your eye out for his mention of the Eucharist!
Here’s some audio for those that would rather listen: