One of the most controversial chapters in the whole of Scripture, when it comes to conversations between Evangelicals and any form of liturgical Christian – most notably Roman Catholics and Orthodox, is John 6. The chapter, while lengthy, larges relates Christ’s explaining to the gathering that in order to have eternal life one needs to eat his flesh and drink his blood. When this causes a great deal of scandal amongst his listeners, he merely reiterates the statement. This failure to clarify his statement has been understood throughout most of the history of the Church to be consistent with the received Tradition that the bread and wine of the Eucharist, in some way unknown to us, becomes the body and blood of our Lord during the Eucharist.
Since the time of the Reformation, and the advent of the notion of Sola Scriptura, this chapter came under scrutiny. Evangelical interpreters do not see this passage as clearly teaching the real presence of the Lord in the Eucharist. For the most part, it has never appeared that the Evangelical belief in a purely symbolic Eucharist was ever based on this chapter. Rather, this chapter has stood in the way of a symbolic interpretation. For the most part, the only defense against the historic interpretation of this passage has been reliance on passages elsewhere in the Gospels where Christ uses metaphoric language, and arguing that the same is going on here. Unfortunately, that is not terribly convincing, especially if you don’t accept the premise of Sola Scriptura. From a Sola Scriptura perspective, to be honest, the chapter is somewhat equivocal. If you couple the chapter with the accounts of the Last Supper (“take, eat, this is my body…”), then I would argue the evidence swings in favor of the real presence.
Needing one argument to close the books, if you will, what people turn to is one particular verse, where Jesus tells his disciples that the flesh profiteth nothing (John 6:63). They then take this to mean that Jesus’ flesh profits nothing, so clearly no reference to the real presence can be read into this passage. In fact, so the argument goes, this statement clearly contradicts a doctrine of the real presence.
There are some problems with this assertion, though. The first is that the teaching about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist dates back literally to the earliest days of the Church (For instance, in the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch in 110, Justin Martyr in the 160’s, and, of course, St. Paul. A fuller list can be found here). Although I realize this does little to satisfy someone looking for Scriptural guidance, it speaks to the fact that an interpretation of Scripture that says the Eucharist is not the truly the body and blood of Christ is fairly novel, and not in the mainstream of Christian thought over the past 2,000 years. The only historical group I could find that denied the real presence before the reformation were the docetists that St. Ignatius of Antioch was referring to, who believed that Christ’s body was an illusion. It also testifies to the fact that John 6:63 has never been interpreted, prior to the recent past, in the way mentioned above. As a matter of fact, we can look to the Blessed Theophylact, and his interpretation of this passage:
As we have pointed out before, the false disciples are offended because they understand Jesus’ words in a fleshly, superficial manner. Therefore the Lord now explains: “If you wish to profit from My words, understand them in a spiritual manner. The flesh – that is understanding My words in a fleshly manner – profiteth nothing and is a stumbling block. But the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit – meaning, they are spiritual – and they are life, conveying nothing carnal and bestowing everlasting life.”
Blessed Theophylact was an 11th century bishop who summarized the Patristic understanding of the Gospels, St Paul’s Epistles, and the minor prophets. Much of his work is drawn on the writings of St. John Chrysostom, but not excluively so.
The other major problem with the interpretation noted above is that it frankly represents poor exegesis. Frequently when the flesh is mentioned in the New Testament, it is mentioned in a negative light. We read about how the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. We understand that to walk according to the flesh is to walk after sinful passions. On and on, throughout the New Testament, this message comes through loud and clear. When people, then, come upon John 6:63, it is no wonder they believe that Christ is teaching in the same vein. However, it is important to stop and ask to whose flesh is he referring? If he is referring to the unsanctified flesh of the crowd, then he is being consistent with the rest of the New Testament. If, on the other hand, he is referring to his flesh, would he be consistent with the rest of the New Testament?
In St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we see a very different picture. It is through Christ’s flesh that the wall of hostility between the Children of God and the Gentiles is broken down. It is through his flesh that God and mankind are reconciled. To assert that in John 6, Christ is stating that his own flesh is of no profit asserts that St. Paul is incorrect. In fact, it raises a significant question about what the point of the Incarnation really was. In addition, it raises some significant questions about the resurrection, both Christ’s and ours. If the flesh is and remains always unprofitable, why would we ever want to be in the flesh again after our death?
One of the challenges of Protestantism is the avoidance of lapsing into heresy. The road of Christianity over the past 2,000 years is littered with much heresy that came from people seeking to divine the will of God separate from the very Church that is the pillar and ground of truth. In this case, as I noted above, certain evangelicals appear to be approaching some form of docetism, or at the least, gnosticism.