Thursday, November 11, 2021

If Jesus was teaching a physical presence in the eucharist, why didn't he explain it better?

Advocates of a physical presence of Christ in the eucharist often suggest that he couldn't have made the concept much clearer than he did, that he should have made some other view of the eucharist clearer if he had some other view in mind, and so forth. For example, we'll be asked what could be clearer than what Jesus said in John 6. Or if Jesus wasn't teaching a physical eucharistic presence there, then why didn't he clarify that fact, especially after people expressed their opposition to such an interpretation of his comments (6:52, 6:60) and some abandoned him (6:66)? Or what could be clearer than Jesus' words at the Last Supper? And so on.

There are a lot of problems with that sort of reasoning. I'm not going to address all of those problems here, but I want to discuss some of them. The primary issue I want to address here is that a lack of clarification from Jesus is more of a problem for the physical presence view than for views of the eucharist not involving a physical presence.

It should be noted that the claim that Jesus didn't clarify himself in John 6 needs to be argued, not just asserted. Why think that comments like those in 6:35 and 6:63 aren't meant to clarify that he wasn't referring to physically eating his body? If we're told that coming to him and believing in him satisfy our hunger and thirst (6:35), then we have been given a clarification that something other than consuming the eucharistic elements is in view. Similarly, when Jesus says in verse 63 that the flesh profits nothing, which is reminiscent of his discouragement of seeking physical food earlier (verses 26-29), that's more naturally taken as a clarification that he's not referring to eating his flesh physically. You could take "flesh" to be a reference to human fallenness or sinfulness, and thereby reconcile Jesus' comments with a physical presence in the eucharist, but that's a less natural way to take the phrase in its context. The nearby context is more focused on flesh in the sense of Jesus' body, and it's not as though Jesus' critics were arguing that human fallenness or sinfulness is profitable. So, Jesus' comment in 6:63 is more relevant, and therefore makes more sense, under my view. If some people were inattentive to what he was saying or misrepresented it, that doesn't change the fact that Jesus did provide clarification. And since verse 66 is often cited in this context, we need to keep in mind that those comments are made just after Jesus' remarks in verses 61-65, which aren't about a physical presence in the eucharist even if we assume that he's referring to a physical presence earlier in the passage. Verse 66 could be referring back to Jesus' earlier comments, in part or in whole, but it need not be, and it's more naturally taken as referring primarily to the closer context of verses 61-65.

Aside from all of that, notice that if Jesus was teaching a physical presence in the eucharist, we'd expect more clarification. The eucharist not only wasn't being practiced yet at that time, but also hadn't even been explained in anticipation of a future practice. We don't see somebody like Peter or John asking Jesus for clarification about the means by which they'd consume his body, which is a clarification we'd expect them to want if they took him the way advocates of a physical presence in the eucharist are suggesting. We don't see them asking how his body could provide enough for every one of his followers to eat and drink, given the physical attributes of Jesus' body and how many followers the Messiah was expected to have. We don't see Jesus' disciples trying to bite off portions of his body, only to have it explained to them that they should only eat his flesh and drink his blood in the context of the eucharist. Instead, the disciples seem to take his comments much as they took similarly strong, but nonliteral language elsewhere (e.g., tearing out your eye that leads to sin, cutting off your hand that leads to sin, taking up your cross to follow him). We don't see the disciples asking how they can have spiritual life, as Jesus has told them they do (e.g., verse 70), when they haven't physically eaten his flesh and drunk his blood yet. If verse 53 meant that you had to have eaten Jesus' flesh and drunk his blood physically in order to have spiritual life, then where's the request for clarification from his disciples, and where did Jesus clarify that people could have spiritual life prior to the institution of the eucharist and that people could have spiritual life afterward without consuming a eucharistic physical presence (e.g., Protestants)? If coming to Jesus and believing in him are enough to satisfy your hunger and thirst (verse 35), then how can you not have spiritual life until you physically consume Jesus' body in the eucharist (verse 53)? A metaphorical reading of John 6 makes more sense of the text and context and involves less of a need for clarification than the alternative.

The same is true of a nonliteral reading of Jesus' comments at the Last Supper:

"That the bread 'is' his body means that it 'represents' it; we should interpret his words here no more literally than the disciples would have taken the normal words of the Passover liturgy, related to Deuteronomy 16:3 (cf. Stauffer 1960:117): 'This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate when they came from the land of Egypt.' (By no stretch of the imagination did anyone suppose that they were re-eating the very bread the Israelites had eaten in the wilderness.) Those who ate of this bread participated by commemoration in Jesus' affliction in the same manner that those who ate the Passover commemorated in the deliverance of their ancestors....M. Pesah. 10:6 uses the Passover wine as a metaphor for the blood of the covenant in Ex. 24:8" (Craig Keener, A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999], 631, n. 27 on 631)

Since Jesus was speaking in that nonliteral Passover context, it would be a literal meaning of his words that would need clarification, not a nonliteral meaning. If Jesus' body was physically present in multiple locations simultaneously, sort of like the reports of bilocation we read about in the paranormal literature, that sort of scenario would require more clarification than a nonliteral interpretation of Jesus' words would. Since Jesus was physically beside his disciples, handling the eucharistic elements, how could those eucharistic elements be his body? It's the literal interpretation of Jesus, not the nonliteral one, that should have been clarified further if that literal interpretation was what Jesus had in mind and/or how he was initially understood. Furthermore, why weren't Jesus' comments in Matthew 26:29 and/or Paul's comments in 1 Corinthians 11:26 clarified? How could Jesus speak of drinking this fruit of the vine in the coming kingdom after the consecration of the elements (Matthew 26:29) if the eucharist is only meant to continue until his return (1 Corinthians 11:26)? Why refer to his blood as fruit of the vine? And since drinking wine is a common theme in discussions of celebration, eschatology, and such, why refer to the communion cup in that way if you don't want people to think they're drinking wine, but instead want them to think they're drinking blood? These are some examples of how the literal interpretation of Jesus' words makes less sense of the text and context and involves more, not less, of a need for clarification.

Or what about the many New Testament passages about Jesus' physical absence until the second coming? Those make more sense under a nonliteral reading of passages like John 6 and the Last Supper. See here for further details. Yet again, it's the literal interpretation of Jesus' words in John 6 and at the Last Supper, not a nonliteral one, that's in more need of clarification.

And what about the fact that the communion elements still look, feel, smell, and taste like bread and wine, not flesh and blood? Wouldn't that need clarification from Jesus and his earliest followers writing in the New Testament? And what precedent do we have for an alleged miracle like transubstantiation? When Jesus did something like change the water into wine at the wedding in Cana in John 2 (which isn't far from John 6), did the material in the pots still look, feel, smell, and taste like water? Did he change water into wine under the appearance of its remaining water? I'm not aware of any precedent for performing a miracle that's supposed to involve a physical transformation, yet doesn't involve any physical evidence of such a transformation. Even if there is some precedent, it has to be rare, which would make it a less likely scenario and one that, once again, would need further clarification. It's remarkable that advocates of a physical presence often ask how Jesus could have made their view of the eucharist any clearer when they're the ones arguing that a physical transformation has occurred under the appearance of its not having occurred. One way a physical presence could have been made clearer is if that presence would be physically discernable.

A common argument for the supposed obviousness of the physical presence reading of John 6 and the Last Supper is that the passages were interpreted that way by every Christian, were so interpreted by almost every Christian, or some such scenario prior to the Reformation. In addition to not adequately addressing what the earliest sources said, that claim about the history of eucharistic beliefs is false. Surveys of the history of eucharistic doctrine frequently address the variety of views that existed before the Reformation, including views that didn't involve a physical presence. For an example you can access for free online, see section 69 in Philip Schaff's church history here and section 95 here. See, also, the last paragraph in the post here.

1 comment:

  1. Good points: another helpful clarification would have been how those in the crowd who may have died before the institution of the Lord's Supper could have satisfied the requirements of a literal consumption from the time Jesus spoke until their death.