My recent article on understanding John 6 was written, originally, as an unprepared email in response to a query from a Catholic convert. That is to say, I read though John 6 and systematically exegeted it without reference to commentaries or lexicons—just using what I could glean from the text itself. And I think that text is quite perspicuous and that my exegesis, while limited, is accurate. However, in preparation for further discussion I turned to some additional resources, including some articles by James White, but focusing largely on the expositions of Augustine, who wrote shortly before the turn of the fifth century. I found this to be an extremely worthwhile exercise, and below is reproduced a second email I wrote, engaging with Augustine’s discussion regarding the interpretation of Jesus’ sermon about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, and discussing the concept of the Real Presence. Again, slight and perhaps compulsive editing for readability has taken place:
As regards the doctrine of the Real Presence, I do not deny that the church, generally speaking, has always believed it in some sense. That much seems clear in history. However, how that Presence is manifested in the Lord’s Supper is far from a consistent, homogenous, undebated teaching. There is a sizable difference between the generic term “Real Presence” and the specific Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. This is why I find Catholic revisionist history so ridiculous. They take a doctrine like transubstantiation, and say that since the Catholic Church now defines the Real Presence in terms of transubstantiation, and since the early church believed in the Real Presence, the early church was therefore Catholic and believed in transubstantiation. But that is patently false: transubstantiation is just one view of the nature of the Real Presence; and a most unlikely one at that, as I have already contended.
Now, I have always been of the belief that the Lord’s Supper is symbolic (a memorial), but that it is also more than just a symbol, inasmuch as it is in some sense a means of grace. This is affirmed by both the Westminster and London Confessions of Faith (the latter of which I affirm in full). I have never been entirely clear on what precisely that implies; my view has evolved somewhat over the years. However, there is no denying that Scripture makes a great deal of the importance of the Lord’s Supper, and that partaking of it wrongly can have dire results (cf 1 Cor 11:30). So I am open to developing my understanding of this ordinance in light of Scripture, and with the understanding that it is indeed a means of grace.
Therefore, the idea of Real Presence is not intrinsically objectionable to me. In fact, if it turned out that the Roman Catholic understanding of the Real Presence is the one which best fits the scriptural evidence, I would be entirely willing to concede it; though it seems to me that it would make utterly no difference to my unequivocal rejection of various other Roman doctrines which are provably irrational or unscriptural. However, I do not see that the current Roman Catholic understanding of the Real Presence, as described in the doctrine of transubstantiation, is at all congruent with what Scripture teaches. On the contrary, the view taken by Augustine, Tertullian, and some fellow named Theodoret (of whom I don’t mind admitting I’ve never heard), is far more congruent with the biblical data. This view is aptly and perhaps ironically summarized by Pope Gelasius of Rome as follows:
The sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, which we receive, is a divine thing, because by it we are made partakers of the divine-nature. Yet the substance or nature of the bread and wine does not cease. And assuredly the image and the similitude of the body and blood of Christ are celebrated in the performance of the mysteries.
This is obviously speaking of a spiritual presence of Christ in the ordinance (or sacrament, if you prefer). It is teaching that the bread and wine remain bread and wine, though Christ is present spiritually in them, and they spiritually unite us to him. This contradicts the doctrine of transubstantiation, which states that the bread and wine become genuinely, physically Christ’s body and blood at the time of consecration. Though they appear still bread and wine to our senses, they are divinely and mysteriously converted into literal flesh and blood, ceasing to be bread and wine at all; and so we are eating Christ’s physical body. This understanding is certainly historical, but by no means uncontested in history. From early on there were those who held it, and also those who denied it by affirming that Christ was only spiritually present, and that the bread and wine remain bread and wine. Let me quote Augustine on John 6—
Wherefore, the Lord, about to give the Holy Spirit, said that Himself was the bread that came down from heaven, exhorting us to believe on Him. For to believe on Him is to eat the living bread. He that believes eats; he is sated invisibly, because invisibly is he born again. A babe within, a new man within. Where he is made new, there he is satisfied with food (I’m quoting from the CCEL’s online copy of Augustine’s commentaries, specifically from Tractate 26, which covers John 6:41-59 (http://www.ccel.org/ccel
This, so far, is the same interpretation I have given for the beginning of Jesus’ sermon. Let me continue:
For what does the soul more strongly desire than the truth? For what ought it to have a greedy appetite, with which to wish that there may be within a healthy palate for judging the things that are true, unless it be to eat and drink wisdom, righteousness, truth, eternity?
But where will this be? There better, there more truly, there more fully. For here we can more easily hunger than be satisfied, especially if we have good hope: for “Blessed,” saith He, “are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness,” that is here; “for they shall be filled,” that is there. Therefore when He had said, “No man cometh unto me except the Father that sent me draw him,” what did He subjoin? “And I will raise him up in the last day.” I render unto him what he loves, what he hopes for: he will see what, not as yet by seeing, he has believed; he shall eat that which he hungers after; he shall be filled with that which he thirsts after. Where? In the resurrection of the dead; for “I will raise him up on the last day.”
So Augustine sees the filling, the sating, as eschatological in nature: not physical and temporal, but spiritual and eternal. This also is what I have argued, though perhaps less eloquently. He goes on, following this, in a discussion of what it means to be drawn by the Father; which discussion I found insightful and of great value, though not strictly relevant to the topic of the Real Presence; before commenting further on the relationship between manna and the Eucharist, and the physical and the spiritual:
For even we at this day receive visible food: but the sacrament is one thing, the virtue of the sacrament another. How many do receive at the altar and die, and die indeed by receiving? Whence the apostle saith, “Eateth and drinketh judgment to himself.” For it was not the mouthful given by the Lord that was the poison to Judas. And yet he took it; and when he took it, the enemy entered into him: not because he received an evil thing, but because he being evil received a good thing in an evil way. See ye then, brethren, that ye eat the heavenly bread in a spiritual sense; bring innocence to the altar. Though your sins are daily, at least let them not be deadly. Before ye approach the altar, consider well what ye are to say: “Forgive us our debts, even as we forgive our debtors.” Thou forgivest, it shall be forgiven thee: approach in peace, it is bread, not poison. But see whether thou forgivest; for if thou dost not forgive, thou liest, and liest to Him whom thou canst not deceive. Thou canst lie to God, but thou canst not deceive God. He knows what thou doest. He sees thee within, examines thee within, inspects within, judges within, and within He either condemns or crowns. But the fathers of these Jews were evil fathers of evil sons, unbelieving fathers of unbelieving sons, murmuring fathers of murmurers. For in no other thing is that people said to have offended the Lord more than in murmuring against God. And for that reason, the Lord, willing to show those men to be the children of such murmurers, thus begins His address to them: “Why murmur ye among yourselves,” ye murmurers, children of murmurers? Your fathers did eat manna, and are dead; not because manna was an evil thing, but because they ate it in an evil manner.
“This is the bread which cometh down from heaven.” Manna signified this bread; God’s altar signified this bread. Those were sacraments. In the signs they were diverse; in the thing which was signified they were alike. Hear the apostle: “For I would not that ye should be ignorant, brethren,” saith he, “that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and did all eat the same spiritual meat.” Of course, the same spiritual meat; for corporally it was another: since they ate manna, we eat another thing; but the spiritual was the same as that which we eat. But “our” fathers, not the fathers of those Jews; those to whom we are like, not those to whom they were like. Moreover he adds: “And did all drink the same spiritual drink.” They one kind of drink, we another, but only in the visible form, which, however, signified the same thing in its spiritual virtue. For how was it that they drank the “same drink”? “They drank,” saith he “of the spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.” Thence the bread, thence the drink. The rock was Christ in sign; the real Christ is in the Word and in flesh. And how did they drink? The rock was smitten twice with a rod; the double smiting signified the two wooden beams of the cross. “This, then, is the bread that cometh down from heaven, that if any man eat thereof, he shall not die.” But this is what belongs to the virtue of the sacrament, not to the visible sacrament; he that eateth within, not without; who eateth in his heart, not who presses with his teeth.
He then spends some time dwelling upon this eating and drinking, in the verbose style which has thankfully been superseded in modern times through the invention of electronic editing. He interprets the eating and drinking of the body of Christ, so as to become one with the body of Christ, as the faith which we confess, by which partake in fellowship with each other and become one with the visible church. He summarizes Jesus’ teaching thus:
In a word, He now explains how that which He speaks of comes to pass, and what it is to eat His body and to drink His blood. “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.” This it is, therefore, for a man to eat that meat and to drink that drink, to dwell in Christ, and to have Christ dwelling in him. Consequently, he that dwelleth not in Christ, and in whom Christ dwelleth not, doubtless neither eateth His flesh [spiritually] nor drinketh His blood [although he may press the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ carnally and visibly with his teeth], but rather doth he eat and drink the sacrament of so great a thing to his own judgment, because he, being unclean, has presumed to come to the sacraments of Christ, which no man taketh worthily except he that is pure: of such it is said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
In other words, to eat the flesh of Christ and drink his blood is not the same as to take the sacrament of the Eucharist; but the eating and drinking is spiritual, and done through the sacrament, by faith. He then again goes into some discussion, and continues into Tractate 27, from which I will now quote in large part, because much in it is of great value to the current topic:
We have just heard out of the Gospel the words of the Lord which follow the former discourse. From these a discourse is due to your ears and minds, and it is not unseasonable to-day; for it is concerning the body of the Lord which He said that He gave to be eaten for eternal life. And He explained the mode of this bestowal and gift of His, in what manner He gave His flesh to eat, saying, “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.” The proof that a man has eaten and drank is this, if he abides and is abode in, if he dwells and is dwelt in, if he adheres so as not to be deserted. This, then, He has taught us, and admonished us in mystical words that we may be in His body, in His members under Himself as head, eating His flesh, not abandoning our unity with Him. But most of those who were present, by not understanding Him, were offended; for in hearing these things, they thought only of flesh, that which themselves were. But the apostle says, and says what is true, “To be carnally-minded is death.” The Lord gives us His flesh to eat, and yet to understand it according to the flesh is death; while yet He says of His flesh, that therein is eternal life. Therefore we ought not to understand the flesh carnally. As in these words that follow:
“Many therefore,” not of His enemies, but “of His disciples, when they had heard this, said, This is a hard saying; who can hear it?” If His disciples accounted this saying hard, what must His enemies have thought? And yet so it behoved that to be said which should not be understood by all. The secret of God ought to make men eagerly attentive, not hostile. But these men quickly departed from Him, while the Lord said such things: they did not believe Him to be saying something great, and covering some grace by these words; they understood just according to their wishes, and in the manner of men, that Jesus was able, or was determined upon this, namely, to distribute the flesh with which the Word was clothed, piecemeal, as it were, to those that believe on Him. “This,” say they, “is a hard saying; who can hear it?”
“But Jesus, knowing in Himself that His disciples murmured at it,”—for they so said these things with themselves that they might not be heard by Him: but He who knew them in themselves, hearing within Himself,—answered and said, “This offends you;” because I said, I give you my flesh to eat, and my blood to drink, this forsooth offends you. “Then what if ye shall see the Son of man ascending where He was before?” What is this? Did He hereby solve the question that perplexed them? Did He hereby uncover the source of their offense? He did clearly, if only they understood. For they supposed that He was going to deal out His body to them; but He said that He was to ascend into heaven, of course, whole: “When ye shall see the Son of man ascending where He was before;” certainly then, at least, you will see that not in the manner you suppose does He dispense His body; certainly then, at least, you will understand that His grace is not consumed by tooth-biting.
All this that the Lord spoke concerning His flesh and blood;—and in the grace of that distribution He promised us eternal life, and that He meant those that eat His flesh and drink His blood to be understood, from the fact of their abiding in Him and He in them; and that they understood not who believed not; and that they were offended through their understanding spiritual things in a carnal sense; and that, while these were offended and perished, the Lord was present for the consolation of the disciples who remained, for proving whom He asked, “Will ye also go away?” that the reply of their steadfastness might be known to us, for He knew that they remained with Him;—let all this, then, avail us to this end, most beloved, that we eat not the flesh and blood of Christ merely in the sacrament, as many evil men do, but that we eat and drink to the participation of the Spirit, that we abide as members in the Lord’s body, to be quickened by His Spirit, and that we be not offended, even if many do now with us eat and drink the sacraments in a temporal manner, who shall in the end have eternal torments. For at present Christ’s body is as it were mixed on the threshing-floor: “But the Lord knoweth them that are His.” If thou knowest what thou threshest, that the substance is there hidden, that the threshing has not consumed what the winnowing has purged; certain are we, brethren, that all of us who are in the Lord’s body, and abide in Him, that He also may abide in us, have of necessity to live among evil men in this world even unto the end. I do not say among those evil men who blaspheme Christ; for there are now few found who blaspheme with the tongue, but many who do so by their life. Among those, then, we must necessarily live even unto the end. But what is this that He saith: “He that abideth in me, and I in him”? What, but that which the martyrs heard: “He that persevereth unto the end, the same shall be saved” How did Saint Laurence, whose feast we celebrate to-day, abide in Him? He abode even to temptation, abode even to tyrannical questioning, abode even to bitterest threatening, abode even to destruction;—that were a trifle, abode even to savage torture. For he was not put to death quickly, but tormented in the fire: he was allowed to live a long time; nay, not allowed to live a long time, but forced to die a slow, lingering death. Then, in that lingering death, in those torments, because he had well eaten and well drunk, as one who had feasted on that meat, as one intoxicated with that cup, he felt not the torments. For He was there who said, “It is the Spirit that quickeneth.” For the flesh indeed was burning, but the Spirit was quickening the soul. He shrunk not back, and he mounted into the kingdom (http://www.ccel.org/ccel
If the great African doctor interpreted the Real Presence in such overtly spiritual terms, confuting the suggestion that the bread and wine are anything other than bread and wine at any point; but rather affirming that they profit nothing in and of themselves, but that it is the spiritual act of believing in Christ unto fellowship with his church that constitutes the eating of his flesh, it hardly seems appropriate to conflate the doctrine of the Real Presence with the doctrine of transubstantiation, and then claim an unbroken and uncontested tradition to this doctrine. I agree that the doctrine of the Real Presence has been generally accepted since the inception of the church—but the nature of this Presence has not, and it seems from the reading I’ve done that the only reason transubstantiation became the accepted dogma was that it fit better into the superstitious, mystical tendencies of the middle ages, when an official ruling was finally given.
My exegesis of John 6 was done off the cuff, simply working systematically through the passage and deducing the analogy and its various components from what information Jesus presented. It was by no means as complete or comprehensive or developed or refined as Augustine’s commentary, and it neglected to place any great emphasis on the spiritual significance of the ordinance of the Eucharist—a spiritual significance which is by no means to be under-emphasized. It certainly seems clear from Scripture that there is something special in particular about the Lord’s Supper. Christ does seem to be genuinely present in some special way. But it is by no means clear that this Presence is physical; indeed, the contrary seems obviously to be the case, because a wooden literal translation first of all ignores and ultimately denies the metaphor Jesus is using in John 6; secondly creates what seems at least to me to be quite a bizarre doctrine; and thirdly renders absurd other relevant verses if they are interpreted consistently with this principle of literalness (the cup in 1 Corinthians 11, for example, is clearly not a literal covenant). So, whatever form this Presence takes, it is spiritual; not physical. As Christ himself said in John 14, he comes to us in Spirit, for his physical presence is now departed from earth to be in heaven.
Rudimentary as it was, I find my impulsive exegesis of John 6 to be pleasantly congruent, even if childlike compared, with Augustine’s rather more detailed explication. Certainly Augustine has a better understanding of the passage and surrounding theology than I do; but if my own interpretation is straining the text, then at least I am in good company. The Eucharist is indeed a symbol: a commemoration representing the work of Christ, the new covenant he has created, and our participation in it. It is by no means unimportant; quite the contrary. It unites us in Christ in some spiritual way that normal fellowship does not. Therefore, unworthy or unfaithful participation in it constitutes no less than a profaning of the covenant; thus a profaning of the fellowship we have in that covenant; thus a profaning of the work of Christ upon which that fellowship is founded; thus a profaning of the object of faith, the work of Christ; thus a profaning of the faith itself; and thus certainly such participation invites judgment. As Hebrews 6:6 says of permanent apostasy, so we can say of those receiving the Eucharist with an apostate heart: “they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.”
Again, I see only absurdity in the literal, wooden interpretation of Christ’s words. It is incongruent with our understanding of all the other occasions of his highly figurative use of language; indeed, language of the exact same sort, such as describing himself as having living water of which we must drink (John 4:10-11, 7:37-38). It makes the metaphor Jesus uses confused, and ultimately not a metaphor at all—instead of clear and meaningful. And it ignores linguistic precedent in Scripture (cf Proverbs 9:4-6) and associated writings (cf Sirach 24:21), and the parallelism in John’s writings themselves—which sheds significant light on how the apostle understood Jesus’ teaching.