Did Augustine take John 6 literally, figutatively or both?

So I had a discussion here and I was interested in discussing Augustine’s interpretation of John 6, however there were many quotes of his belief in the Eucharist as well as the last supper.

I would like to clear my conscience here and read a quote by Augustine on John 6 as it relates to the last supper. What sparked my interest is that I’ve been reading “On Christian Doctrine” and I was thrown back by what he wrote:

“If the sentence is one of command, either forbidding a crime or vice, or enjoining an act of prudence or benevolence, it is not figurative. If, however, it seems to enjoin a crime or vice, or to forbid an act of prudence or benevolence, it is figurative. Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man, says Christ, and drink His blood, you have no life in you. John*6:53 This seems to enjoin a crime or a vice; it is therefore a figure, enjoining that we should have a share [communicandem] in the sufferings of our Lord, and that we should retain a sweet and profitable memory [in memoria] of the fact that His flesh was wounded and crucified for us.”

Augustine - On Christian Doctrine. Book 3 Chapter 16.

I was prepared to read many of Augustine’s beliefs on the Eucharist which were indeed quite Catholic but it does seem to me that he sees John 6 as figurative. So if anyone could find me a quotation by him on John 6 specifically as speaking of the Eucharist that would be great.

And as always, thank you.

Have you tried Jimmy Akin’s site:


And also, Augustine was not condemned or sanctioned for his belief in the RP, so he remained in his belief about the RP.

Hey; thanks.

Do you have a quote as it relates to John 6 specifically by Augustine? I understand his belief in the RP was very Catholic, but I’m looking for John 6 quotes.

I tried searching for Akin’s site, but had a hard time. Probably others should be able to provide a quote…:slight_smile:

Try this one:

Real Protestants such as Lutherans definitely hold to a real presence. I understand that Calvin was not symbolic only, believing in, I think, a dynamic or spiritual presence.

I think it was those of the Radical Reformation that went with a symbolic only view. I don’t even think of these types as being Protestants. Real Protestants kept some continuity with the historic, ancient Church. Most “protestants” of today have completely separated themselves from the ancient Church, retaining only the Trinity doctrine (Constantine’s God…lol).

Tell you what. I don’t even think that most modern “protestants” even believe that the Eucharist is SYMBOLIC of Christ’s body and blood. If they did, their service would be more like that of the Christian Church: acting as if it WERE Christ’s real presence.

Whether one believes that it is really Christ’s body and blood, or just pretends it is, the service should look the same.

St Augustine’s Tract 26 on John (John 6:41-59)

Thank you. :slight_smile:

I think Augustine saw it both ways. He saw it as figurative because Jesus was not speaking about them literally eating His human flesh, that was visible to all those who saw Him standing in front of them. But, he saw that it was real in the spiritual sense, that Jesus would teach them about at the Last Supper.

This is in Augustine’s own words:"**15. But that which they ask, while striving among themselves, namely, how the Lord can give His flesh to be eaten, they do not immediately hear: but further it is said to them, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, you will have no life in you.” How, indeed, it may be eaten, and what may be the mode of eating this bread, you are ignorant of; nevertheless, “except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, you will not have life in you.” He spoke these words, not certainly to corpses, but to living men. Whereupon, lest they, understanding it to mean this life, should strive about this thing also, He going on added, “Whoso eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, has eternal life.” Wherefore, he that eats not this bread, nor drinks this blood, has not this life; for men can have temporal life without that, but they can noways have eternal life. He then that eats not His flesh, nor drinks His blood, has no life in him; and he that eats His flesh, and drinks His blood, has life. This epithet, eternal, which He used, answers to both. It is not so in the case of that food which we take for the purpose of sustaining this temporal life. For he who will not take it shall not live, nor yet shall he who will take it live. For very many, even who have taken it, die; it may be by old age, or by disease, or by some other casualty. But in this food and drink, that is, in the body and blood of the Lord, it is not so. For both he that does not take it has no life, and he that does take it has life, and that indeed eternal life. And thus He would have this meat and drink to be understood as meaning the fellowship of His own body and members, which is the holy Church in his predestinated, and called, and justified, and glorified saints and believers. Of these, the first is already effected, namely, predestination; the second and third, that is, the vocation and justification, have taken place, are taking place, and will take place; but the fourth, namely, the glorifying, is at present in hope; but a thing future in realization. The sacrament of this thing, namely, of the unity of the body and blood of Christ, is prepared on the Lord’s table in some places daily, in some places at certain intervals of days, and from the Lord’s table it is taken, by some to life, by some to destruction: but the thing itself, of which it is the sacrament, is for every man to life, for no man to destruction, whosoever shall have been a partaker thereof.

  1. But lest they should suppose that eternal life was promised in this meat and drink in such manner that they who should take it should not even now die in the body, He condescended to meet this thought; for when He had said, “He that eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, has eternal life,” He immediately subjoined, “and I will raise him up on the last day.” That meanwhile, according to the Spirit, he may have eternal life in that rest into which the spirits of the saints are received; but as to the body, he shall not be defrauded of its eternal life, but, on the contrary, he shall have it in the resurrection of the dead at the last day.

  2. “For my flesh,” says He, “is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.” For while by meat and drink men seek to attain to this, neither to hunger nor thirst, there is nothing that truly affords this, except this meat and drink, which does render them by whom it is taken immortal and incorruptible; that is, the very fellowship of the saints, where will be peace and unity, full and perfect. Therefore, indeed, it is, even as men of God understood this before us, that our Lord Jesus Christ has pointed our minds to His body and blood in those things, which from being many are reduced to some one thing. For a unity is formed by many grains forming together; and another unity is effected by the clustering together of many berries.**"
    You can read the whole thing, here.

DOH!! You beat me to it! :stuck_out_tongue:

Thanks for making the distinction. I would mention, however, that Zwingli was a contemporary of Luther’s, and did not confess the real presence.


I think the point you are missing is that the formal definition of the change that occurs in the bread at the consecration (the Doctrine of Transubstantiation) by which we, today, understand the Eucharist did not happen until well after Augustine’s time. Therefore you will not find Augustine nor anyone else of his time using the terminology in the formal definition as we do today. The same is true of the Doctrine of the Trinity and the Immaculate Conception. No church writer used those formal definitions before the time that the church made them. What we find in all these cases is that these early writers sort of stumbling around trying to express their beliefs.

In addition, the early church writers used some words differently than what we do today. Language is not static but rather dynamic and words do change in their meanings over time. The best thing to do is to take the totality of someone’s (like Augustine) writings and thus view the context of his beliefs. I can assure you that Augustine was very Catholic and as proof I offer this quote from Augustines Sermon # 227:

" I promised you [new Christians], who have now been baptized, a sermon in which I would explain the sacrament of the Lord’s Table, which you now look upon and of which last night were made participants. You ought to know what you have received, what you are going to receive, and what you ought to receive daily. That bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the Word of God, is the body of Christ. That chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice, having been sanctified by the Word of God, is the blood of Christ…. What you see is the bread and the chalice; that is what your eyes report to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the body of Christ and the chalice is the blood of Christ" (Sermons 227).

And that quote is very much in lockstep with the Doctrine of Transubstantiation.

Hi Dronald,

From the same source as above, also look at tractate 27. Especially enlightening is this verse from paragraph 11:

“–let all this, then, avail us to this end, most beloved, that we eat not the flesh and blood of Christ merely in the sacrament, as many evil men do, but that we eat and drink to the participation of the Spirit,…”

merely and participation seem to imply that he holds the Bread and Wine to be the actual Body and Blood of our Lord. And that more than just that carnal eating needs to be done.

In addition, in your passage from Augustine’s work, where he says the saying must be figurative, he is actually in line with current Catholic teaching. For thought the Body and Blood can be chewed, the last act of physical eating, physical assimilation of the food to ourselves, cannot be done. For when the accidents of the Bread and Wine are lost, the Body and Blood of our Lord no longer remain.

Thus a spiritual eating is necessary, as Augustine says. We must be disposed to receive and without serious sin.

So while Augustine actually believes the Body and Blood are present, he does not believe they can be fully eaten physically, only fully eaten in a spiritual sense. Thus his “It is a figurative command”. The physical chewing and ingestion of the Body and Blood is the representation of the spiritual nourishment which occurs (or should occur) with the physical outward sign.


One obvious place to start is Augustine’s Tractates on John.

In Tractate 26, 18 covering John 6 he writes:
In a word, He now explains how that which He speaks of comes to pass, and what it is to eat His body and to drink His blood. “He that eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, dwells in me, and I in him.” This it is, therefore, for a man to eat that meat and to drink that drink, to dwell in Christ, and to have Christ dwelling in him. Consequently, he that dwells not in Christ, and in whom Christ dwells not, doubtless neither eats His flesh [spiritually] nor drinks His blood [although he may press the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ carnally and visibly with his teeth], but rather does he eat and drink the sacrament of so great a thing to his own judgment, because he, being unclean, has presumed to come to the sacraments of Christ, which no man takes worthily except he that is pure: of such it is said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

One should read 26,15-18 for the full exposition.

Bear in mind that Augustine is also dealing with the long-standing objection that the doctrine of the Eucharist involves cannibalism: Jesus commanded us to munch on His arm in His earthly ministry.

This is clear also in another passage commenting on Jn 6:
I turn unto Christ, since I am herein seeking Himself: and I discover how the earth may be worshipped without impiety, how His footstool may be worshipped without impiety. For He took upon Him earth from earth; because flesh is from earth, and He received flesh from the flesh of Mary. And because He walked here in very flesh, and gave that very flesh to us to eat for our salvation; and no one eats that flesh, unless he has first worshipped: we have found out in what sense such a footstool of our Lord’s may be worshipped, and not only that we sin not in worshipping it, but that we sin in not worshipping. . . . But He instructed them, and says unto them, “It is the Spirit that quickens, but the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” (Jn 6:63) Understand spiritually what I have said; you are not to eat this body which you see; nor to drink that blood which they who will crucify Me shall pour forth. I have commended unto you a certain mystery; spiritually understood, it will quicken. Although it is needful that this be visibly celebrated, yet it must be spiritually understood.
[St. Augustine, *Ennarationes in Psalmos, 99, 8]

“Spiritually” means, as in the Tractates, sacramentally, i.e., not the flesh and bones of his earthly life that could feed our temporal life, but rather the risen Lord present sacramentally that feeds our spiritual life uniting us with Christ and His body, the Church.

I’m heading off for a family wedding out of state–my niece. Will be back Monday to pick up the discussion.

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