Is there scriptural support for Holy Communion being "only symbolic"?


#1

To adherents of sola scriptura:

Since protestants insist that communion is only symbolic and wasn’t meant to be literaly Christ’s true body and blood, and since protestants live by sola scriptura, then you surely must be able to show from scripture that communion is only symbolic. Please enlighten us of the scriptures that implicitly or explicitly state that communion is only symbolic. Thanks.


#2

I don’t mean this to be flip, but as a serious response to give you a sense of how some Protestants may be inclined to respond to that question. In that vein, I would respond by asking whether you can provide any scriptural support for the idea that when Jesus said that He was the “good shepherd” in John, He was not claiming to be a literal shepherd? We would say the situations are analogous – of course there is nothing in scripture that says, “And Jesus wasn’t really claiming that He herded sheep for a living.” It just seems clear from context that this is the same as all the other places where Jesus was making an obvious metaphor. Was Jesus really offering the Samaritan woman water for her to drink that would make her never thirsty again? The context is clear that He is using a metaphor to drive home a deeper point. The usual Protestant treatment of the communion passages is just in accord with the way everyone treats all these similar claims throughout scripture.

At least that’s the way I would respond. Again, I mean this as a serious answer, not as sarcastic or to demean the question.

Regards,

CThomas


#3

This is the response I was expecting to see. Mental Gymnastics.:rolleyes: My point is, protestants live by scripture alone until there is actually no scriptural support for their doctrine or for their rejection of Catholic doctrine. They want to stick to literal interpretation until it works against them and then they start doing mental gymnastics as you demonstated. Todays scripture reading comes to mind when protestants can’t use the literal interpretation of scripture to disprove catholic doctrine:

*This is why I speak to them in parables, because
they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.
Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says:

You shall indeed hear but not understand,
you shall indeed look but never see.
Gross is the heart of this people,
they will hardly hear with their ears,
they have closed their eyes,
lest they see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their hearts and be converted
and I heal them.*Matt. 13:13-15


#4

Well, I’m open to a contrary argument (I wasn’t even a Christian until a few years ago and I tried to carefully consider Catholicism as well as Protestantism with relatively few preconceptions about which would be right). But I have tried to make a substantive point here, which is that Jesus routinely spoke in non-literal terms and at least on first appearances this sure looks a lot like all those other cases. If we met someone who really believed that Jesus was offering the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well a magical water we would be polite but we would suppress a giggle.

Another textual cue that it’s non-literal is that He instructs us to do this “in rememberance of me.” If it did literally become Christ, it wouldn’t be merely in rememberance of Him, of course. But that’s really subsidiary to my main point, which is that this looks indistinguishable on the surface at least from a host of other cases of non-literal speech on the part of Christ in the Gospels. If that’s “mental gymnastics,” I apologize but it’s my sincere view of the situation based on my best attempt to work through the issue.


#5

It might be considered noteworthy that it was of this particular action, and not other metaphorical statements, that he said “do this in memory of me.”

He didn’t ask us to re-enact him being a shepherd, or a door, or living water, or a vine, or a gate, in perpetuity. He did ask that his Church continue what he did at the Last Supper. And later Paul warns the Corinthians not to receive the Eucharistic bread unless they recognize in it the body of Christ, lest it be received to their destruction. Sounds much more serious than an ordinary metaphor.


#6

There is definitely a pattern to the way Jesus spoke in the parables.

John 6:51-58 is to be interpreted literally and is one of the strongest passages that testify to the Real Presence in the Eucharist. In the Gospel of John, there is a certain pattern that helps to shed light on John 6. Whenever Jesus makes an ambiguous statement, it is usually followed by a misunderstanding/question, and this, in turn, is followed by a clarification either by Jesus or the Evangelist. So, this is the basic outline of this pattern:

1) Ambiguous Statement by Jesus
2) Misunderstanding/ Question
3) Clarification

Now here are some examples from the Gospel of John:

John 2:19-21

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 you will raise it up in three days? But He was speaking of the temple of His body."

John 3:3-5

**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? **Jesus answered, “Truly Truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

John 8:31-34

So Jesus was saying to those Jews who believed in Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” **They answered Him, "We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, “You will become free.” **Jesus answered them, "Truly, Truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.

Now let’s look at John 6:51-53 and see if it fits the Ambiguous Statement/Question/Clarification pattern:

“I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, "How can this man give us His flesh to eat? 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 yourselves.

So, following the established pattern, verse 53 is a clarification of verses 51-52. If he were merely speaking figuratively, then we would have expected the literal meaning of the “figurative” langauge he used, as it happens in the verses I gave above and in many other places in the Bible. Instead, what we see in verse 53 is a reaffirmation of what the Jews understood Jesus to mean. So the clarification is that Jesus was speaking literally, not figuratively. If he were speaking figuratively, He would have indicated that in verse 53.


#7

Welcome to the family my brother!

But I have tried to make a substantive point here, which is that Jesus routinely spoke in non-literal terms and at least on first appearances this sure looks a lot like all those other cases. If we met someone who really believed that Jesus was offering the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well a magical water we would be polite but we would suppress a giggle.

You are exactly correct. The true underlying issue is:
*** By what authority do we decide if a given passage of scripture is literal or figurative? How can we be certain whether or not first appearances are correct?***

To answer this question we need to examine the reliability of the available authorities. For Catholics it is a matter of two millennia of consistent teaching. For Protestants, who are under no obligation to believe anything but what they teach themselves, it is a matter of what they choose to believe at any given moment.

Another textual cue that it’s non-literal is that He instructs us to do this “in remembrance of me.” If it did literally become Christ, it wouldn’t be merely in remembrance of Him, of course. But that’s really subsidiary to my main point…

The Greek word anamnesis (remembrance) in Luke 22:19, is used for the idea of literally re-enacting an event. It does not mean a mere intellectual exercise of the squint your eyes and try to mentally recall something, type. So inclusion of the term “remembrance” is in actuality a textual cue that Jesus is speaking literally rather than the other way around.

Peace,
+N


#8

John 6:63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. The food is Spiritual, not physical reality.

Joh 6:27 - Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval."
28 Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” 29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

35 Then Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. T
he metaphor here is mixed, coming to Him/Believing = never going hungry or thirsting.

40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." This is literal, next verse metaphor. Notice same end result, being raised up on the last day.

54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day

1 Cor 10:3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.

Eating and drinking is Spiritual many times.

John 4:34 “My food,” said Jesus, "is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.

Again a spiritual reference to Food, not real eating.

56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.

**Just as Jesus Lives because of His spiritual food from the Father so the one who spiritually feeds from Jesus will also live.

If we eat the literal body and blood of Jesus, does Jesus is literally eat chunks of the Father so He can live?**


#9

Hi, CT

Here’s the difference. When Christ said he was the good shepard, he also said that we were the sheep. Now we know that humans are not literally sheep, so based on that knowledge we know that Christ was not speaking literally.

And when Christ said that he was the door, again he said that we were the sheep, so same argument, see above.

And when Christ said that he was the vine, he also said that we were the branches, but we know that humans are not literally branches. See above.

And when Christ spoke of the living water, he said that the water would well up inside of us, but we know that Christians don’t really have springs of water welling up inside of them. See above.

But nothing Christ said about the Eucharist ever said something that was literally untrue about humans. He said we must eat and drink, and humans most certainly do literally eat and drink.


#10

Thanks, IrishMac. That’s an interesting point. But at least one issue jumps out at me as an initial matter with relying too heavily on this point. First, the pattern you dscribe doesn’t seem uniform. Jesus speaks non-literally in many other instances without any follow-up question and clarification. For example, the “good shepherd” passage. Clearly not meant to claim that Jesus literally tended sheep for a living. But it’s not followed by any misunderstanding/question or clarification.

More importantly, it seems at first glance that even when there is a non-literal statement by Jesus followed by a misunderstanding or question, Jesus’s response is not always in the form of a clarification of the sort you describe. Take the woman at Jacob’s well. He tells her about the magic water. She does ask a misunderstanding question (“What are you going to draw the water with? Where is this living water?”) Yet His response to her repeats the metaphor – “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I given them will never thirst.” He wasn’t literally offering her water, but if we applied the (metaphor/misunderstanding question/clarification) model you describe uncritically, we would have to conclude that this one was meant literally, too. So Jesus’s responses to misunderstanding questions don’t seem to always be in the form of statements literally clarifying what He meant the first time. Sometimes it seems that He responds by repeating and elaborating upon the metaphor.

But I give you credit in that you make a reasonable textual argument that certainly seems worthy of thought and investigation.

Best regards,

CThomas


#11

VociMike, thanks as always for the reply. I always respect your arguments, and I appreciate the force of this one – everybody knows that people aren’t sheep (for example). But to me, the very same thing is true of the bread. Jesus’s body wasn’t made of bread, and the bread He was holding obviously wasn’t really His body, any more than His followers are literally sheep. So it seems most reasonable to assume that He was speaking metaphorically. To me, it seems about as plausible to say that when we become Christians we literally become sheep in some deep, mystical sense that is undetectable to science. That seems no more intrinsically plausible or implausible to me as saying that the bread literally becomes Jesus’s body in some empirically undetectable sense. In both cases, it seems more reasonable for me to assume that Jesus was speaking metaphorically.

CThomas


#12

frnate, thanks, my friend. I have full respect for a Catholic who says, in effect, “Look, I think Catholicism is correct. Catholicism says that the thing is literal. So it’s literal. End of story.” That’s a perfectly respectable view, and if I became convinced that Catholicism was correct, that would be my view of this passage. But in the absence of Church authority on this point, I think the better reading is that it looks like a metaphor. Out of curiosity, would you agree that if the Church and its history had been completely silent on this point, a non-literal reading would be more plausible?


#13

I’m sorry, but you are mistaken. In the “Woman at the well” scenario, Christ does go from ambiguous statement to greater clarity. It is understood by His response to the woman’s question that Jesus was not speaking of literal water. The point is that when Jesus is speaking figuratively, either Jesus Himself or the Gospel writer explains what He means. He often uses progressive revelation as a teaching method, going from ambiguity to greater clarity. There are numerous examples of this in the 4 Gospels. Here are some more:

John 4:10-14

**10Jesus answered and said to her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water."
11She said to Him, "Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water?
12"You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself and his sons and his cattle?"
13Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again;
14but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” **

John 8:56-58

**56"Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad."
57So the Jews said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” 58Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.” **

John 10:1-10

**1"Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter by the door into the fold of the sheep, but climbs up some other way, he is a thief and a robber.
2"But he who enters by the door is a shepherd of the sheep.
3"To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
4"When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.
5"A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers."
6This figure of speech Jesus spoke to them, but they did not understand what those things were which He had been saying to them.
7So Jesus said to them again, "Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.
8"All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them.
9"I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.
10"The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. **

John 7:38-39

38"He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’"
39But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive

Matthew 16:6-12

6 Then Jesus said to them, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.” 7 And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “It is because we have taken no bread.”
8 But Jesus, being aware of it, said to them, “O you of little faith, why do you reason among yourselves because you have brought no bread?[a] 9 Do you not yet understand, or remember the five loaves of the five thousand and how many baskets you took up? 10 Nor the seven loaves of the four thousand and how many large baskets you took up? 11 How is it you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread?—but to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12 Then they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

This does not happen in John 6.

God Bless,
Michael


#14

Here are some more:

John 12:32-33

**32 And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” 33 This He said, signifying by what death He would die. **

John 21:18-19

**18 Most assuredly, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.” 19 This He spoke, signifying by what death he would glorify God. **

John 11:11-14

11 These things He said, and after that He said to them, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.”
12 Then His disciples said, “Lord, if he sleeps he will get well.” 13 However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep.
14 Then Jesus said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.

John 21:18-19

**18 Most assuredly, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.” 19 This He spoke, signifying by what death he would glorify God. **

God Bless,
Michael


#15

But Catholics don’t claim that his body was made of bread.

and the bread He was holding obviously wasn’t really His body, any more than His followers are literally sheep.

Why is that obvious? The difference in what I said and in what you said is that we humans have limitations and we know them very well, but God has no limitations. Why couldn’t the bread he held have been his body? Because it didn’t look like his body? That’s no reason at all. Heck, he didn’t look like God, but he was.

We cannot claim to know the ways and mind of God, other than what he reveals to us. We cannot say X is impossible for God. That is the difference between us as sheep and God under the appearances of bread.

So it seems most reasonable to assume that He was speaking metaphorically. To me, it seems about as plausible to say that when we become Christians we literally become sheep in some deep, mystical sense that is undetectable to science. That seems no more intrinsically plausible or implausible to me as saying that the bread literally becomes Jesus’s body in some empirically undetectable sense. In both cases, it seems more reasonable for me to assume that Jesus was speaking metaphorically.

CThomas

I won’t discuss levels of reasonableness, but I will acknowledge that a certain reading of the scriptures can arrive at the no Real Presence position. So what then? Is the faith really about battling bible verses and battling intellects?

The fact is, all of the important stuff in the bible is subject to alternative understandings. People even use the bible to prove that there is no Trinity, or that Jesus was not divine.

Here is where the witness of Christian history and belief must come in to play. Christians have always believed that the “bread” and “wine” actually became Christ in some myserious (the original meaning of the word) but real way. The bible did not just turn up in a cave one day in 1517, and it cannot be read as though it did. Catholics and Orthodox have always believed in the Real Presence. Did they all get it wrong for 1500 years?

Clearly we cannot arrive at truth by flesh and blood. We need divine guidance. And the fact that all Christians believed in the Real Presence for 1500 years (and that most still do) should make one at least suspect divine guidance in this case.


#16

Hi, CThomas,

My husband and I were evangelical Protestants for over 40 years before converting to Catholicism.

Jesus often used symbolism: “I am the Door.” “I am the Good Shepherd.” “I am the Light.” “I am the Bread of Life.” etc.

But He never,ever pointed to or held up any of these things and said, “This Door is Me.” “That Shepherd is Me.” “That Light is Me.”

Except…at the Last Supper. He said, “This Bread is Me.” “This Wine is Me.”

My husband made this observation once while reading the Scriptures. We didn’t get this from a Catholic apologist or preacher, or from CAF. We got it from the Bible. And it made us both think real hard about “True Presence” vs. “symbol.”


#17

#18

One likely reason for this lack is that the role of a shepherd and their relationship to the sheep was very clear and that there wasn’t anything particularly challenging to there current understanding of their relationship with God. In contrast, the “bread of life” teaching seemed to be in direct opposition of their current understanding.


#19

Thanks to all for the further responses. mikeledes, I confess that on first reading the passages you cite don’t appear to me as clear as they do to you in the pattern you describe. I see Jesus frequently repeating the initial metaphor and elaborating it. But I will give these passages another careful read and see if I can find the pattern you describe.

VociMike, I don’t question that God could make the bread into Christ’s body if He wanted to, but I don’t see why He couldn’t also turn us into sheep when we become Christians if He wanted to. The situations still seem parallel to me. But your broader point about the need to follow the uniform consensus of the Church is certainly a “big issue” that I’ll need to reflect on further.

CThomas


#20

Cat, awesome, thank you for sharing that.

VC


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