Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Catholic vs. protestant interpretation of John 6

I had a debate four years ago with the resolution being, "John 6 is more consistent with a Catholic interpretation". It wasn't that great of a debate, but here's my opening.

The resolution reads that "John 6 [is] more consistent with [the] Catholic interpretation," and since "more" is a comparison word, I'll defend the reformed view against the Catholic view.

John 6 begins with the feeding of the 5000. The next day, the same crowd looked for Jesus who said, "You seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate the loaves, and were filled" (6:26), i.e. they just wanted more food. Jesus said, "Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life" (6:27). They asked what works they should do, and Jesus said, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent" (6:29). So believing in Jesus is what leads to eternal life.

The crowd asked for a sign, mentioning the miracle of bread from heaven. Jesus said the Father "gives you the true bread out of heaven," and "the bread of God" that comes from heaven "gives life to the world" (vs. 32-33). The crowd, requests this bread to always be given to them. Jesus responded, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst."

Jesus' use of the words, "hunger" and "thirst" do not refer to physical hunger and thirst, but rather the satisfaction of eternal life. "Come to me" and "believe in me" both mean the same thing. Jesus is telling them that those who believe in him will have eternal life, which is the consistent view throughout the New Testament (e.g. John 3:16). By calling himself the "bread of life," Jesus was telling them that he is the source of eternal life, and it is to Jesus that people must come in order to have it. So "eating the bread of life" means the same thing as "believing in Jesus." There is a strong parallel in John 4:14-15.

In verse 26, Jesus says that even though the crowd had seen him, they did not believe. Then he explains why. He says, "All that the Father gives me shall come to me" (6:37) The reason the crowd did not believe in Jesus is because they were not given to Jesus by the Father. If they had been given to Jesus by the Father, then they would come to Jesus.

Jesus says the reason he came down from heaven is to do the Father's will, which is that of all the Father gave to Jesus, Jesus lose none, but raise them up on the last day. In other words, Jesus' job was to give eternal life to all of those the Father gave him, and not lose any. Then he says, "For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in him may have eternal life; and I myself will raise him up on the last day" (6:40).

Jesus' meaning in these verses is plain. The Father gives some people to Jesus. Those people will come to Jesus and believe in him. Jesus will raise those people to eternal life. So the whole discourse about Jesus being the bread of life is simply saying that Jesus is the source of eternal life, and eating the bread of life means believing in Jesus.

The crowd objects to Jesus saying he came from heaven. Jesus responded by saying, "Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up on the last day" (6:44). Remember earlier that Jesus had explained their unbelief by saying all the Father had given him would come to him believing, and Jesus would raise them up on the last day. So the group of people given to Jesus in verse 37 are the same group of people drawn by the Father in verse 44. So Jesus is again explaining their unbelief. The reason they don't believe in Jesus is because the Father has neither given them to Jesus nor drawn them.

Now look carefully at what Jesus says from verse 47 to 51. He says, "Truly truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. . . I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh." Jesus is clearly equating "he who believes has eternal life" with "if anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever." So eating the bread of life is being used as a metaphor for believing in Jesus.

Again, the crowd objects to Jesus giving his flesh to eat. Jesus did not all of a sudden stop talking about believing in him for eternal life and begin talking about eating his flesh for eternal life. He just continues to use the metaphor. He says, "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day" (6:54). Remember that in verse 40 he had said that "everyone who beholds the Son and believes in him may have eternal life; and I myself will raise him up on the last day." The parallel between these two verses makes it plain that eating Jesus flesh and drinking his blood mean the same thing as beholding Jesus and believing in him. After all, they both result in eternal life, and Jesus will raise them up on the last day.

The crowd persists in grumbling because, no doubt, they mistake Jesus to be speaking literally about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. They have not understood what Jesus said about believing in Jesus for eternal life. They are hung up on Jesus' use of the eating metaphor.

Jesus then says, "It is the spirit who gives life the flesh counts for nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe" (vs. 63-64). If Jesus has meant that literally eating his flesh is what gives eternal life, he would not have turned right around and said, "the flesh counts for nothing." Jesus points to his words as being spirit and life and points out that there are some in the crowd who do not believe his words. So again, it is belief in Jesus that leads to eternal life, not literally eating him.

Next he says, "For this reason [i.e. since they don't believe in him, 6:64] I have said to you, that no one can one to me unless it has been granted him from the Father" (6:65). Again, Jesus is explaining their unbelief. This whole passage is about belief in Jesus for eternal life. The reason some come to Jesus for eternal life and others don't is because it is granted to some people by the Father, but it is not granted to others.

After Jesus had said these things, a lot of people walked away, and Jesus said to the 12, "You do not want to go away also, do you?" Jesus knew they weren't going to go away because he knew they believed in him. And Peter responded just as we would expect. He said, "You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God." Peter was interested in Jesus' words, and expressed belief in Jesus because he had been given and drawn to Jesus by the Father, and the Father granted that he should believe in Jesus.

Problems with the Catholic interpretation:

1. It destroys Jesus' flow of thought. From beginning to end, it is about believing in Jesus for eternal life and explaining why some do and some don't.

2. It makes nonsense of the claim that those who believe in Jesus will have eternal life and makes salvation about eating.

3. If taken literally, Jesus' statements would entail the reverse of what Catholics actually believe. Instead of bread turning into the flesh of Jesus, you'd have Jesus turning into a loaf of bread.

4. Even if taken literally, nothing Jesus said in this discourse could lead anybody to believe it had anything to do with turning bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus.

Pro makes two arguments for why we should understand John 6 in the Catholic way. First, she points out that Jesus switches from using phago to using trogo. A metaphor doesn't stop being a metaphor just because it becomes more graphic.

Second, she points out that Jesus didn't explain himself more clearly to the 12 after everybody else walked away. But Peter's response reveals that he already understood Jesus to be talking about belief in Jesus for eternal life.

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