Is the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6 about the Eucharist or not?

The Bread of Life Discourse seems a decision point. It is a fork in the road and the traveler must choose which path to follow because both cannot be walked. Commitment is initially trepidation because once a path is chosen one must follow wherever it leads.

512px-Erlebacher_Jesus_breaking_bread_Philly

By Smallbones (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

There seem to be two main views of the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6; a fork in the road. The two main, overall views are

  1. John 6 does describe the Eucharist.
  2. John 6 does not describe the Eucharist.

In short, does the Real Presence of Christ exist in the Eucharist?

For me, the decision between these two choices directly affects the overall perception of the Eucharist, and therefore Christianity in general, and leads down uncomfortable roads of thought.

For the moment let me lay that choice aside. First I am curious how many Christian traditions even connect the Bread of Life Discourse with the Eucharist.

There are four major traditions within Christianity that I will consider here; Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Church of England, and Protestantism/Reformed which is pretty much everyone else.

—-VIEW 1—-

Roman Catholicism

Roman Catholicism is easy; it connects John 6 with the Eucharist and needs no detailed references. Look up explanations of the Eucharist by Dr. Scott Hahn, Stephen Ray, Fr. Robert Barron, Catholic Answers, or more official documents like the Council of Trent or the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and you will find Catholics using John 6 to explain the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Eastern Orthodoxy

For the Eastern Orthodox, the study notes for John 6:51-59 in The Orthodox Study Bible say:

The Eucharistic significance of this passage is indisputable. Our Lord’s declaration that He is Himself the living bread that gives life reveals the Mystical Supper of the NT Church. John never reports the details of the Last Supper (such as the ‘words of institution’ recorded in Lk 22:19, 20); instead, he reveals the significance and truth of these events (events that were already known to his hearers) by reporting here Christ’s own words.[1]

In his book The Orthodox Church, Timothy Ware says:

As the words of the Epiclesis make abundantly plain, the Orthodox Church believes that after consecration the bread and wine become in very truth the Body and Blood of Christ: they are not mere symbols, but the reality.[2]

Though the Eastern Orthodox in general do not follow Roman Catholic theologians in attempting to nail down specifics on the change, they still believe there is certainly a change from bread and wine to Body and Blood of Jesus “in very truth” and they connect this belief to John 6.

(Side note: According to Ware, some Orthodox have even held to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation with its distinction between substance and accident. Interesting….)

Church of England

In general, Anglicanism has been agnostic about what it believes about the Eucharist. In fact, if Jaroslav Pelikan’s description[3] of the Church of England is correct it makes one wonder if, as a whole, it can really figure out and agree on much of anything.

However, there is a branch of Anglican theology known as Anglo-Catholicism which has a “High Church” view of ecclesiology and theology. Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1961-1974, was largely in line with this theology, though some claim[4] he was too liberal for it.

In his 1935 book The Gospel and the Catholic Church, Ramsey also connects the Bread of Life Discourse with the Eucharist saying Saint John “does not record the institution of the rite, but he unfolds its meaning in the discourses upon the Bread of Life in chapter 6.”

He also believes in the Real Presence, however that happens, and calls it a mystery.

Mystery means that Christ by His body and His blood feeds His people with Himself, and that the presence of His body and His blood is not the result of the individual’s faith, but, like the Incarnation itself, a presence of Jesus which faith may receive and which unfaith may reject. The gift is there, by the act of the Lord in His Church, just as Christ Incarnate was there in Galilee for men to receive or to reject. Such is the way of the Gospel of God.

Ramsey also says of the Eucharist,

It is visible, tangible, earthy; and the common, vulgar word for eating (τρώγειν) tells of its earthiness. Yet in this earthy action the truth of the eternal God is learned and is active to save the souls and bodies of men.

So at least the Anglo-Catholic version of Anglicanism believes in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist due to John 6.

Bonus Tradition – Lutheranism

I’ll throw in another tradition at the last minute; Lutheranism. I don’t know many details about Lutheranism but I know it is more sacramental in theology than the Reformed branch of Protestantism. And according to at least one Lutheran pastor, the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6 refers to the Eucharist, which suggests there are other Lutherans who feel the same.

Bonus Quote – Cyprian of Carthage

In my continued learning of the early church, I found that Cyprian of Carthage (A.D. 200-258) specifically connected the Bread of Life Discourse with the Eucharist. His Treatise on the Lord’s Prayer was written in A.D. 252 and in the section about “our daily bread” Cyprian says,

And we ask that this bread should be given to us daily, that we who are in Christ, and daily receive the Eucharist for the food of salvation, may not, by the interposition of some heinous sin, by being prevented, as withheld and not communicating, from partaking of the heavenly bread, be separated from Christ’s body, as He Himself predicts, and warns, “I am the bread of life which came down from heaven. If any man eat of my bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread which I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world.”

Sounds like Cyprian also has a “grave sin” outlook in mind which would render a person unworthy of receiving the Eucharist, much like modern Catholicism.

—-VIEW 2—-

The second view, that John 6 does not signify the Eucharist, seems the standard Protestant/Reformed view of this passage. For example, the notes in the Zondervan NASB Study Bible say:

Jesus’ absolute statement that ‘unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves’ (v. 53) precludes a direct reference to the Lord’s Supper. He clearly does not teach that receiving that sacrament is the one requirement for eternal life or that it is the only ordinance through which Christ and His saving benefits are received. In this very discourse He emphasizes faith in response to testimony (see vv. 35,40,47,51). Flesh and blood here point to Christ as the crucified One and the source of life. Jesus speaks of faith’s appropriation of Himself as God’s appointed sacrifice, not—at least not directly—of any ritual requirement.

This statement fits the view held by Protestant apologist Norm Geisler who says,

Jesus equated ‘eating’ his flesh with one who ‘believes in him’ and thereby ‘has eternal life’ (cf. Jn. 3:16, 18, 36).[5]

A devotional on Ligonier Ministries, the ministry of R.C. Sproul, sort-of-kind-of says John 6 references the Lord’s Supper but it still falls within View 2 because they believe the true eating is “faith” in Jesus and that there is no “Real Presence.”

Jesus tells us that He is the bread of life who fully satisfies our hunger and thirst (John 6:35). He does this through our faith in Him, for He says that we gain eternal life only as we look on Him and believe in Him (v. 40)….we benefit from the Supper because we trust in the Savior. We receive grace and strength to help us persevere as we believe that Jesus endured the breaking of His body and the shedding of His blood for us. Our souls are sustained unto eternal life as we affirm that Jesus will never cast us out if we come to Him in faith and repentance (v. 37).

SO WHICH IS IT?

Is the Bread of Life Discourse connected to the Eucharist or not? I suppose that is a decision each person must decide for themselves. One must take the fork in the road; to the left or to the right.

It is intriguing that such a large segment of Christianity (the majority in fact) connect the Bread of Life Discourse with the Eucharist, that a Real Presence of Christ of some sort exists in the Eucharist, and that the Eucharist is a really big deal for Christians because it is where Jesus feeds us with Himself.

Majority opinion does not prove the connection correct, but it does put more weight on the minority party to show why they believe no connection exists at all, especially against the simple Biblical reasoning:

“I am the bread of life.” → “Take, eat; this is my body.” → “The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”

———————————

Disclaimer – This blog post is just that: a blog post with my personal thoughts. I am not a Catholic apologist or theologian. What I say here is not official doctrine of the Catholic Church. I am still learning and am susceptible to error. Don’t take anything here as Gospel. Don’t be stupid. Do your own research and learn for yourself what the Church teaches.

Catholics: if my understanding of Catholic doctrine needs adjustment, please point out my error.

[1] Bishop Kallistos Ware was on the Overview Committee.

[2] Timothy Ware is now Bishop Kallistos Ware.

[3] Pelikan describes the Church of England as “Lutheran in its intellectual origins, Catholic in its polity, Reformed in its official confessional statements, Radical in its Puritan outcome, and, according to the old saw, ‘Pelagian in its pulpit, but Augustinian in its prayer book’” – Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700)

[4] Anglicanism: A Very Short Introduction by Mark Chapman

[5] This quote came from an article downloaded from Norm Geisler’s website which has recently been updated and now I cannot find the article for citation. Perhaps the new site is still in development and will be fully updated soon with links to all articles.

The Church: visible or invisible

It has been a while since I’ve posted anything so here is one hastily written.

One of the key disputes between Catholics and Protestants is the idea of the Church; what is it? Is it a visible, institutional Church? Or is it an invisible, non-institutional community of all Christians?

If there is only one institutional Church established by Christ Himself, then it means membership in that Church is necessary in order to be called “Christian” and membership is expected of us by Christ Himself. On the other hand, if the Church is not a specific church but rather an invisible entity, then simply by being a Christian one is a member of the Church and there is no need to be a member in a specific church. It hardly needs comment that Catholicism holds the former view while Protestantism holds the latter.

This is a serious issue and requires wrestling from anyone wishing to remain where they are or considering conversion. For my part, the view of the early church on this issue is very important and must be factored in. Here are two quotes from non-Catholic patristic scholars; a Lutheran and an Anglican respectively.

Jaroslav Pelikan from The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600)

“For both Ignatius and Cyprian, moreover, the bishop was the key to authentic unity, and schism was identified as party spirit in opposition to him. Therefore the efforts to superimpose upon the second or third centuries the distinction made by Augustinism and especially the Reformation between the visible and invisible churches have proved quite ineffectual, even in interpreting the thought of Origen, whose dichotomy between the heavenly and the earthly churches might seem to have tended in that direction; but on earth there was only one church, and it was finally inseparable from the sacramental, hierarchical institution.”

J.N.D. Kelly from Early Christian Doctrines

“What these early fathers were envisaging was almost always the empirical, visible society; they had little or no inkling of the distinction which was later to become important between a visible and an invisible Church.”

It seems a visible unity was very important to the early Christians, and a visible unity seems to demand an institutional church. A visible unity seemed to be very dear to Jesus too, in His prayer for the Church.

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” John 17:20-23

Within a couple verses, Jesus prays for Church unity three times and twice equates that unity with converting the world. Maybe the first step of evangelization is being part of a Church that is one, visible, and institutional.

“Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.” Matthew 12:25