Catholic apologetics is more robust today than it has been in the recent past. Since Rome has given more freedom of exploration and discover along with the encouragement for Catholics to study the Scriptures, there have been many Catholic apologists preparing Catholics to defend the faith. Despite our temptation in today’s world to let bygones be bygones, the engagement between Protestants and Catholics must go on for the differences are still relevant.
One of the key differences between Protestants and Catholics through the years is the view of the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. Catholics, along with the Orthodox Church, have traditionally believed that the Eucharist represents the centerpiece of our worship to God. Catholics call the celebration of the Eucharist “Mass.” They believe that when properly administered, the bread and the wine literally turn into the body and blood of Christ. This is called “transubstantiation” because the “substance” of the elements “transform” into Christ’s body and blood. Most Protestants rejected this view of the Eucharist opting for either a memorial view or a spiritual view of the Lord’s supper (Lutherans believe in a somewhat mediating position called “consubstantiation”).
Why is this important? Because historic Protestantism has often charged the Catholic church with idolatry, believing that they have turned God into an idol of bread and wine, worshiping the elements without, indeed, contrary to, a scriptural basis. Catholics, on the other hand (and this is important), have elevated the celebration of the Mass and the belief in Transubstantiation to an essential of Christianity. In other words, according to Catholic dogma, if you do not celebrate the Mass as they believe it to be understood, you are in great danger of the fires of Hell, since missing Mass without a valid excuse is a mortal sin.
With the recent rise of modern Catholic apologetics, Catholic lay people are being trained to answer some of the more difficult objections to their faith that Protestants bring forward. The two primary areas that Catholic apologetics is centering on are issues with the canon of Scripture and the doctrine of Transubstantiation. We are focusing on Transubstantiation here. Not only this, but I want to focus on one particular argument that is being put forth more and more in defense of Transubstantiation that comes form John 6.
Here is the passage:
John 6:48 “I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 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 you. 54 Whoever feeds on 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 is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on 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 whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not as the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum. 60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? . . . After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.”
The Basic argument is this: If Christ was not speaking literally when He said, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day,” why did they respond by saying: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” If Christ was only speaking symbolically about feeding on His flesh and drinking His blood (as most Protestants believe), then it is not really a “hard saying,” just a misunderstood saying. According to the Catholic apologist, if Christ was speaking symbolically, Christ could have—indeed would have—corrected them and said, “This is not really hard. You must understand I am only speaking symbolically of eating my flesh and drinking my blood.” But He did not. He let them walk away. The Catholic apologist will often emphasis this fact and declare it to be incontestable evidence that Christ was speaking literally about eating and drinking His flesh and blood. Thus, this becomes a primary defense of transubstantiation and the necessity of partaking in Mass for eternal life.
Karl Keating, a popular Catholic Apologist and President of Catholic Answers, says:
“There was no attempt to soften what was said, no attempt to correct misunderstanding, for there were none. His listeners understood him quite well. No one any longer thought he was speaking metaphorically. If they had, why no correction? On other occasions, whenever there was confusion, Christ explained what he meant. Here, where any misunderstanding would be catastrophic, there was no effort to correct. Instead, he repeated what he said” (Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, [San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988], 233-234).
While I respect and appreciate the attempts of some very fine Catholic apologists to defend difficult positions and believe this to be a good argument on the surface, I believe it is seriously flawed. I believe that it is taken out of the context of the entire book of John and bears a burden that it cannot sustain on exegetical and theological grounds.
Why? For two primary reasons:
1. Jesus is always being misunderstood. John rarely records Jesus’ correcting the misunderstanding of people.
The people in John 6 were looking for Christ to provide for them like Moses did and they were not interested in His talk about belief and eating his flesh. Some naturally thought that he was being literal about his statements. It is true, Christ did not correct them. But this is a common theme in the ministry of Christ. As Peter demonstrates, it is only those who stay with him that get the answers for eternal life (John 6:68). Often Christ would speak in parables and not tell any but those who were His true followers (Luke 8:10). The rest He let go in their ignorance since he knew all men and he was not committing himself to them.
John presents this side of Jesus more than any other of the Gospels when he says: John 2:24-25 “But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.” He did not entrust himself to his listeners. Why? I suppose some wanted a king who would provide literal food for them like Moses did in the wilderness and they left when it became clear that He was not going to do the same. Some thought that He was speaking about actually eating his flesh and blood, I violation of the Mosaic Law, and they left. But why didn’t He simply correct their misunderstanding in this case? For the same reason He does not throughout the book of John. He often says things that are open to misinterpretation and then leaves His listeners in their confusion. Notice these examples
a. John 2:18-21 “The Jews then said to Him, ‘What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?’ But He was speaking of the temple of His body.”
Notice, Christ was not being literal here yet He did not correct the misunderstanding. This misunderstanding eventually leads to His conviction and death.
b. John 3:3-4 “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?”
Notice again, Jesus does not correct Nicodemus’ misunderstanding (although, like in John 6, it is obvious to the reader that this is not to be taken literally).
c. The disciples want Jesus to eat: “Rabbi, eat” (John 4:31). Jesus answers: “I have food to eat that you do not know about” (4:32). “So the disciples were saying to one another, ‘No one brought him anything to eat, did he?’” (John 4:33).
This time Jesus does correct his disciples, but in frustration because they cannot see the symbolism behind it. In other words, they should know enough by now to interpret His words symbolically since this is the way He always spoke.
Now we come to John 6. John’s readers should know by now that Christ speaks symbolically in such statements as these. We should understand by now that Christ is always being misunderstood by “outsiders.” They also know that sometimes Christ corrects the misunderstanding (especially with true followers) and sometimes he does not. Therefore, it would be irresponsible for the reader to take Christ literally in John 6.
Would Christ have corrected the misunderstanding of unbelievers whose heart he already knew?
“For judgment I came into the world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind” (John 9:39).
“For this reason they could not believe, for Isaiah said again, ‘He has blinded their eyes and he hardened their heart, so that they would not see with their eyes and perceive with their heart, and be converted and I heal them’” (John 12:40).
It does not seem so. This was not His modus operandi.
2. Another important factor that Keating and other Catholic apologists fail to take into account is that John does not even record the central events of the Last Supper at all. Obviously if we took the Catholic interpretation of John 6 and believed John included this passage to communicate that believers must eat the literal body and blood of Christ in order to have eternal life, you would expect John to have recorded the events that it foreshadows. You would expect John to have a historical record of the Last Supper, the inaugurating meal of the Eucharist. But John does not. What an oversight by John! In fact, John is the only Gospel writer that did not record the Last Supper. Therefore, it is very unlikely that in John’s mind, a literal eating and drinking of Christ body and blood are essential for salvation. Remember John wrote the only book in the NT that explicitly says it is written for the purpose of salvation and he does not even include the Lord’s Supper.
John 20:30-31 “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”
Why did they walk away? Because, like all other unbelievers, they expected something of Jesus that He did not come to provide and they misunderstood His teachings and intentions. A very common theme in John and a very common mistake today.
In short, before you start paddling across the Tiber, set an anchor and think seriously about the exegetical and theological viability of the Catholic interpretation of John 6.