A Defense of the Eucharist Using “Sola Scriptura:” Part 1

Happy Thanksgiving week to my friends in the United States.  I have so much to be thankful for this year: my husband, my daughters, a healthy child on the way, our home…the list is lengthy.  This is my first Thanksgiving since our Catholic conversion and I’m so especially thankful this year for my place in the Church.  Before the craziness of the day gets underway, I’ll begin my day by going to mass and receiving Jesus.  I have more to be thankful for than ever in my life!

Thanksgiving is not a Church holiday, but Catholic Christians can incorporate the meaning of the holiday with the meaning of what we most celebrate: the Eucharist.  “Eucharist” is a Greek word (in English, eucharistia) that actually means “thanksgiving.”  The argument could be made that Catholics celebrate a form of Thanksgiving every day.  Pretty cool.

I’ll be using this week as a launching point for a post series I’ve had in the works for awhile.  I hope to provide a faithful explanation of Eucharistic theology with a focus on the sixth chapter of John.  I’ll be using the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, Second Edition RSV.  Much of what I’ll post will come from the study helps section of this most incredible learning tool.  I’ll also address counter-arguments found in the MacArthur Study Bible, a useful volume from one Protestant perspective.  I rarely read one without the other as I love to compare and contrast the interpretations.  My intention is to stick to a “scripture alone” approach in this particular post series.  As always, what I write remains subject to the authority of the Church.  If anything I say on this matter is incorrect or misstated in any way, I will gladly stand corrected.  Without further adieu, part one!

To begin, I’d like to take a look at what is known as the “bread of life discourse.”  It is found most specifically in John 6:35-58.  In this passage, Jesus makes some claims about himself that cause suspicion and even anger.  Theologians today argue among themselves as to whether Christ is speaking metaphorically or in sacramental terms.  Is this a simple invitation to faith, or is Christ really saying that he is substantially present under the appearance of bread and wine?  As a prospective Catholic convert, I assumed that Protestants were of the former opinion and Catholics were of the latter.  My assumptions were not completely correct.  While Protestants do hold to a metaphoric interpretation, Catholics believe that the bread of life discourse has both a metaphoric application and a sacramental one.  Ah, the good old “both/and.”  As has been the case so many times, the Catholic interpretation was a mere step beyond what I already believed to be true.

Catholics believe that the bread of life discourse can be neatly divided into two parts: verses 35-47 and verses 48-58.  To help illustrate this, I’ve separated the passage into two columns as a visual aid.  You may click the image to enlarge the text:

I’d never noticed the symmetrical division of the sermon into these two parts.  Once I did, I couldn’t believe I’d never spotted these most natural halves of text before.

Take a look at the passage in the first column.  It begins with “I am the bread of life.”  What follows is a series of invitations to believe in Jesus for salvation.  The metaphoric nature of this first section of the passage is so obvious that the Jews don’t even bother asking Jesus why he calls himself bread – they understand its a metaphor at this point.  Instead, they ask, “How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”  Jesus was speaking metaphorically in this section of the passage.  Jesus knew it, the Jews knew it, the Apostle John knew it when he penned the gospel , and Catholics know it today.

The second half of the sermon likewise begins with “I am the bread of life.”  This is followed by a series of invitations to eat the flesh of Christ and drink his blood.  As the metaphorical import was so obvious to the Jews in the first half of the sermon, the literal import is now obvious too, so obvious that the Jews ask aloud, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”  You can almost hear the dismay in their voices.  Jesus does not soften his rhetoric even a little.  Instead, he bolsters his words with even more emphasis on the literal, a point that causes many of his disciples to abandon him just a few verses later.

To conclude, Catholics note the obvious symmetrical division in the bread of life discourse.  This division gives shape to an understanding of Jesus’ words that are both metaphorical and sacramental.  To quote the commentary craftsmanship of Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch in the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, “If eating is believing in 6:35-47, then believing leads to eating in 6:48-58.”

In part two of this post series, I will further address the response of Christ in the second half of the passage as well as reactions from those who heard his words.  To the careful reader, what happens after the bread of life discourse is as equally convicting as the sermon itself.

Dominus Flevit Church, Jerusalem

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6 responses to “A Defense of the Eucharist Using “Sola Scriptura:” Part 1

  1. Might I ask then (as an interested Anglican(ish)) which protestants don’t believe Jesus was speaking literally? As far as I can see, the falling-out between Anglicans and RCatholics comes between transubstanciation (which occurs when the priest says his ritual words in Mass) and consubstanciation (which occurs on partaking, according to the faith of the individual, so deemed by God).

    • Hello! Almost all Protestants hold to a metaphorical interpretation of the bread of life discourse. Exceptions exist, however. Some Anglicans do believe in transubstantiation (divisions exist within Anglicanism as a whole. Catholics do not believe the Anglican Eucharist is valid due to a break in apostolic succession. Lutherans believe in the substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but their doctrine is one of consubstantiation, which differs from transubstantiation in some critical ways. Beyond these two Protestant groups, I can’t recall any other sects which accept the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

  2. This is an interesting entry. Is the MacArthur Study Bible the only Protestant commentary you’ve consulted on this passage? My husband uses the Reformation Study Bible and you can actually find its textual commentary on BibleGateway.com. When you look up a passage on there, click “show resources” on the right side of the page and the commentary will be displayed. It’s pretty neat.

    I’ve never considered the “symmetrical division” interpretation of this passage. Yet I don’t quite see it in the same way. When the Jews give their first objection in vv. 41-42, I think they’re more focused upon Christ’s claim to divinity (“come down from heaven”) than they are in His passing reference to Himself in v. 35 as the bread of life. As it’s been noted before, this is the first of His “I am” statements in which He’s drawing people’s attention to who He is. That statement is going to be more shocking and warrant far more attention than the simple statement that He’s the bread of life.

    He Himself fully realizes this, and so in vv. 43-51 He turns their attention back to the point He was trying to make earlier. In their unbelief, they do not understand and so they stumble over His words. Given the context of this entire section, they are focused entirely on the physical (the things of this world) rather than the spiritual. They came back for more of the physical food He had to offer and weren’t concerned with the spiritual realities. They marvel at His statement that He came down from heaven because they know only of His physical family and origins.

    Their second objection in v. 52 underscores this context as they can’t discern the spiritual realities in the things He was telling them. What He’s telling them is that they must have intimate spiritual communion with Him (what it means to be in Christ) in order to have eternal life. This intimate communion is communicated through the metaphors of eating His flesh and drinking His blood. The textual commentary in the RSB makes this point:

    Though some see here a reference to the Lord’s Supper, a mention of that sacrament at this point would have been incomprehensible to Jesus’ listeners. This passage is best understood as pointing to the spiritual reality the Lord’s Supper also signifies—union with Christ and all the benefits of salvation received through Him.

    I think that’s correct. It wouldn’t make sense at this particular point in time to assume that He’s giving a thorough teaching on the Lord’s Supper. Rather, He’s pointing them forward to the “mystical union” which is enjoyed by those who partake of the Supper by faith. That’s my Reformed two-cents. :)

    • Hey Hollie! Thanks for the comment. I actually do have a Reformation Study Bible but had no idea I could find the commentary online. That certainly makes things easier when I’m writing away from the house. Thanks! I usually refer to the MacArthur Bible for John 6 commentary because it is pretty representative of my earlier framework for understanding the chapter. It also contains Shannon’s notes from his studies in high school and college. It looks like MacArthur agrees with much of what R.C. Sproul et al. have to say on the passage, which is expected considering their somewhat similar Calvinist leanings.

      I wanted to reiterate that Catholics totally agree that the Jews are primarily focused on Christ’s claim to divinity in verses 41-42. After all, it’s not the concept of bread that makes them balk; they are incredulous that Christ could claim to have “come down from heaven.” Where Catholics and most Protestants differ comes later in the passage. The interpretation you provided from the Reformed perspective relies on the assumption that Christ’s intention was to make a metaphorical statement about strictly spiritual matters. To be perfectly honest, I do see the logic behind this method of unpacking Christ’s words. However, I find the Catholic interpretation from the text alone to be very convincing based on some other factors that I plan to outline in the next installment in this blog post series. In the meantime, it appears that Catholics and Protestants see the same division in the text and can point to where we theologically part ways later in the passage. I think that’s important! :)

  3. Pingback: A Defense of the Eucharist Using “Sola Scriptura:” Part 2 | The Recovered Catholic

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