(Jn. 6:53) Does this passage support transubstantiation?

CLAIM: Roman Catholic theologians argue that the bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper literally become Jesus’ body and blood. They use the term transubstantiation to describe this event (trans means “to change” and substantiate means “substance”). Jesus himself said, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves” (Jn. 6:53). At the last supper, Jesus offered the bread and said, “Take, eat; this is My body” (Mt. 26:26). In its 13th session in 1551, the Roman Catholic Council of Trent declared:[1]

(Canon 1) If anyone denies that in the sacrament of the most Holy Eucharist are contained truly, really and substantially the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ, but says that He is in it only as in a sign, or figure or force, let him be anathema.

(Canon 2) If anyone says that in the sacred and, holy sacrament of the Eucharist the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denies that wonderful and singular change of the whole substance of the bread into the body and the whole substance of the wine into the blood, the appearances only of bread and wine remaining, which change the Catholic Church most aptly calls transubstantiation, let him be anathema.

(Canon 8) If anyone says that Christ received in the Eucharist is received spiritually only and not also sacramentally and really, let him be anathema.

More recently (1994), the Catholic Catechism states,

The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: “The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.” “And since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and offered in an unbloody manner… this sacrifice is truly propitiatory.”[2]

Should we affirm the doctrine of transubstantiation?

RESPONSE: If Jesus is referring to the Lord’s Supper (i.e. communion), then he is saying that eternal life is contingent on eating the bread and drinking the wine. This doctrine—combined with the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation—historically replaced Christ with human priests. If we need the Eucharist to have eternal life, and priests are the only ones permitted to dispense the Eucharist, then this makes coming to a priest necessary for salvation. However, Paul taught that there was only “one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Needless to say, our interpretation of this one verse could yield a massive impact on our faith and practice.[3]

What does Jesus mean by eating and drinking his flesh?

Jesus often spoke in metaphorical language. He called the religious leaders “blind guides” (Mt. 23:16), he called Herod a “fox” (Lk. 13:32), and he called himself a “door” (Jn. 10:7) and a “vine” (Jn. 15:1). In fact, the literalistic meaning of John 10 is that Jesus died for sheep (not humans!). None of these symbols should be pressed literalistically. Likewise, in this passage, we know that Jesus was speaking metaphorically, because he later says, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” (Jn. 6:63). Furthermore, Jesus contrasts the literal bread (v.34) with the spiritual bread of his body (v.35). He clearly isn’t speaking about literal bread or literal flesh in this chapter.

Moreover, Jesus uses parallelism in this discourse to equate believing with eating his flesh. Note the parallel between verse 40 and verse 54:

(Jn. 6:40) “For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.

(Jn. 6:54) “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.

According to this parallel, beholding and believing (v.40) are equated with eating and drinking Christ’s flesh (v.54). This is further paralleled by verse 35:

(Jn. 6:35) I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.

(Jn. 6:54) “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

To “hunger” and “thirst” and parallel to the one who “eats” and “drinks.” But note what Jesus says satisfies our hunger: “he who comes to Me… he who believes in Me.” Jesus isn’t speaking about his literal flesh and blood any more than he is speaking about literal bread (Jn. 6:35) or literal water (Jn. 4:10-14). This is why Augustine of Hippo wrote regarding this passage: “Believe, and you have eaten.”[4]

Problems with the transubstantiation interpretation

The explanation given above is a clear and straightforward reading of the text, which follows the rules of grammatical, historical hermeneutics. By contrast, the transubstantiation reading breaks several rules of hermeneutics:

(1) GRAMMATICALLY, this cannot refer to transubstantiation. The terms “eat” and “drink” are in the aorist tense—not the ongoing tense (Jn. 6:53).[5] Of course, the Lord’s Supper is a repeated act—not a once-for-all sacrament. Thus the grammar of the passage is incompatible with the Roman Catholic practice of the Lord’s Supper.

(2) HISTORICALLY, this cannot refer to transubstantiation. This teaching in John 6 occurred at least a full year before the Last Supper (Mt. 26:26). Thus, it is anachronistic to claim that Jesus is referring to the Lord’s Supper here. His original audience would have had no idea what he was talking about if this were the case. Moreover, if transubstantiation is true, then Jesus was transubstantiating the elements before his sacrifice on the Cross. Jesus uses the present tense (“eats” “drinks”) throughout verses 54-57. Can we really believe that the elements were transformed over a year before he died on the Cross?

(3) CONTEXTUALLY, this cannot refer to transubstantiation. Jesus was not referring to the Passover—but the manna in the wilderness. In fact, Jesus opens and closes this section by referring to the manna—not the Passover (vv.49-50, 58). While John earlier states that “the Passover… was near” (Jn. 6:4), the immediate context of this passage refers to the manna in the wilderness (Ex. 16:4ff).

(4) INTELLIGIBLY, this cannot refer to transubstantiation. Such a reading would contradict Jesus’ earlier statements. Up until this point, Jesus claimed that the only qualification for salvation was faith—not works (Jn. 6:29, 35, 40, 47). If Jesus was adding the Lord’s Supper as necessary for salvation, then this would contradict everything that he said up until that point. Carson writes, “The language of vv. 53-54 is so completely unqualified that if its primary reference is to the Eucharist we must conclude that the one thing necessary to eternal life is participation at the Lord’s Table. This interpretation of course actually contradicts the earlier parts of the discourse, not least v.40.”[6]

OBJECTION #1: Didn’t the church fathers universally interpret this passage to refer to transubstantiation?

Not at all. The early church fathers had multiple interpretations of this passage. Geisler and MacKenzie write, “Even Catholic scholars admit, the Fathers were by no means unanimous in their interpretation… But some Fathers clearly opposed the idea of taking literally the phrase ‘this is my body.’ Second, many of the Fathers simply supported the idea of Jesus’ real presence in the communion, not that the elements were literally transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ. So the later dogma of transubstantiation cannot be based on any early or unanimous consent of the Fathers which Catholics claim for it.”[7] For instance, regarding this passage, Clement of Alexandria (AD 200) writes, “Elsewhere the Lord, in the Gospel according to John, brought this out by symbols, when He said: ‘Eat my flesh and drink my blood,’ describing distinctly by metaphor the drinkable properties of faith.”[8]

OBJECTION #2: If Jesus was thinking purely in terms of manna, then why does he bring up blood here?

Most likely, Jesus incorporated the concept of blood to show that his “manna” would not be a painless gift (like the white wafers descending from heaven), but a bloody sacrifice that would cost him his life. By mentioning blood, Jesus is pointing forward to the Cross—not to the Lord’s Supper.

Blood was an image with which this Jewish audience were familiar. The priests and worshippers would eat the sacrifice, but they would never drink the blood. Leviticus explains, “I [God] will set My face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev. 17:10-11; c.f. Gen. 9:3-4). By drinking the blood of the sacrifice, an observant Jew would be thinking that an animal could actually atone for his sins, but God wanted to be clear that these couldn’t actually give them spiritual life (Heb. 9:22). By contrast, Jesus is saying that the blood of his Cross will actually pay for humanity’s sins (1 Pet. 1:19-20; Heb. 9:11-12; 10:1).

OBJECTION #3: If Jesus was speaking metaphorically, why did his audience take him literally?

Catholic apologist Tim Staples writes, “If Jesus was speaking in purely symbolic terms, his competence as a teacher would have to be called into question. No one listening to him understood him to be speaking metaphorically.”[9]

In response to this objection, we need to remember that Jesus’ audience was “grumbling” before he made the claim about eating his flesh (v.41). They were “grumbling” over the fact that he said, “I have come down out of heaven” (v.42) Moreover, when Jesus heard his disciples grumbling, he corrected their interpretation by saying, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” (v.63). The problem wasn’t with Jesus’ teaching, but rather with the fact that the audience left before he finished his teaching.

[1] Session XIII—The third under the Supreme Pontiff, Julius III, celebrated on the eleventh day of October, 1551.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1367.

[3] There is a certain irony in interpreting Jesus to refer to the ritualism of transubstantiation, because John’s book was written to be a direct attack against formalism.

[4] Augustine, In Johan, Tract. xxvi. 1. Cited in Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991. 297.

[5] Morris writes, “Both ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ are aorists, denoting once-for-all action, not a repeated eating and drinking, such as would be appropriate to the sacrament.” Morris, L. (1995). The Gospel according to John (p. 335). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[6] Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991. 297.

[7] Geisler, Norman L., and Ralph E. MacKenzie. Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995. 263.

[8] Clement of Alexandria, 2.219. Cited in Bercot, D. W. (Ed.). (1998). Eucharist. In A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide to More than 700 Topics Discussed by the Early Church Fathers (p. 258). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.

[9] Staples, Tim. “What Catholic Believe About John 6.” This Rock. Volume 21. Number 6. 2010.