James White Responds to Tim Staples’ Article, “How to Explain the Eucharist” in the September, 1997 issue of Catholic Digest
Catholic apologists know the situation well. The Evangelical Christian has his Bible and is making waves at a family reunion. It’s a common situation since 1) Evangelicals are evangelical; that is, they share their faith, and few Catholics even view their faith as something that is “sharable”; and 2) evangelicals love and study the Bible, believe it, and seek to share its message with those around them. So the new breed of Catholic apologists have to find ways to get their followers into the “game” so to speak.
In the September, 1997 issue of Catholic Digest, Tim Staples, a former member of the Assemblies of God, attempts to provide Catholics with a way of replying in a “biblical” fashion so as to answer the question, “Why Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Christ.” In this little article, Staples provides “practical advice” on how to shut the mouth of the Bible-believer so as to promote the Roman Catholic position. But let’s look closely at what he says.
Our Protestant family member (named Mark) easily demolishes his compatriots until the Staples-trained Catholic apologist approaches to “show the literal basis in the Bible” of a belief in the Catholic viewpoint. The Protestant begins by pointing out that Jesus made statements such as “I am the door” or “I am the vine,” and asks, “Do you take Jesus literally there?” The prepared witness will be ready for Staple’s replies:
The fact is, everyone listening to Jesus speak that day (John 6: “My flesh is real food; my blood is true drink….”), took Jesus literally. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they asked one another.
In the cases of Jesus saying He is a “door” or a “vine,” we find no one asking, “How can this man be made of wood?” or “How can this man claim to be a plant?”
How might Mark reply to this witty response? Here’s a suggestion for our friend Mark:
“That’s quite true, as far as it goes, Tim. However, my point is that just because Jesus uses the terminology of flesh and blood doesn’t mean we are justified in forcing such terms into a wooden literality. Jesus used symbols to convey greater truths, and if the context of the passage indicates this is what He is doing, we have no reason at all to force Him into some absurd literality. And that is exactly what we have here. Those who walked away were the grumbling Jews who forsook Him and did not understand His message. Looking to them for guidance to the meaning of Jesus’ words is probably a very, very bad idea.”
But Tim is resolute. He informs us that in other instances, such as John 4:32, Jesus cleared up misconceptions in His disciples’ minds quickly (4:34). But Mark is ready with a response:
But that instance was in the presence of His disciples alone, not a crowd of would-be disciples who are actually unbelievers. You need to realize that in other instances, He specifically spoke in modes of speech meant to hide the truth from the very same kinds of crowds, as we see in Matthew 13:11. The fact remains that Jesus Himself defined His terms, as we can see by looking to the words He spoke just a matter of sentences earlier….
But Tim isn’t ready to move on quite yet. Instead, he introduces Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29, where Paul speaks of the Lord’s Supper. He insists, “St. Paul likewise emphasizes the Real Presence.” But Mark is ready:
It is very common, Tim, for Catholics to read back into Scripture doctrines and concepts developed hundreds, and sometimes more than a thousand years, after the writing of the New Testament, and that is what you are doing here. Paul speaks of the Lord’s Supper, a simple meal in which Christians proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes: not an ornate sacrament in which they “re-present” the one, sufficient, finished sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. The words of the passage do not speak to Aristotelian categories of “accidence and substance,” nor do they refer to such ideas as transubstantiation. When you say “Real Presence,” you need to realize that your idea of what that means continued to be a matter of substantial debate until the 4th Lateran Council in 1215. Importing such concepts back into the inspired text is a common error of Roman Catholicism.
But Tim is insistent:
How can one be “guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” if it’s merely a symbol? This Greek phrase for being “guilty of someone’s body and blood” (enokos estai tou somatos kai tou haimatos tou kuriou) is a way of saying, “guilty of murder.” If the Eucharist is merely a symbol of Christ, not Christ Himself, this warning would be absurd.
To which Mark is quick to reply:
Wait a minute, Tim, you are going way beyond the text here. Not only are you flying past the statement in verse 26 that we proclaim the Lord’s death, not re-present it (it is a finished act in the past, not something that is being re-presented as a propitiatory sacrifice in the Mass), but you have to import the entire concept of transubstantiation into a context that is utterly foreign, press a meaning it does not have to have (upon what basis do you insist this has to mean “guilty of murder?”), and in the process skip a major problem: how would unworthy participation in the Roman Mass qualify as “murder” under your terms? When hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholics go to Mass Sunday morning after a raucus Saturday night, unrepentant and unconcerned about spiritual things, are you seriously suggesting that this results in their murdering Jesus?
At this point, Tim has a common assertion:
The Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist was a doctrine believed and taught unanimously by the Church since the time of Christ. And the Catholic “literal” sense was the only sense the early Christians understood.
Most Protestants are completely stumped when faced with such claims. And sadly, most Catholics really believe such sweeping, yet utterly untrue, statements. Mr. Staples has, in the past, claimed that every single early Church Father agreed with the Roman interpretation of Matthew 16:18 and the “rock” as well: a claim so transparently false it almost takes one’s breath away. This statement likewise partakes of the same kind of historical inaccuracy. Given that Tim has made a universal statement, a single counter example is all that is needed. When Augustine commented on this passage, he wrote:
“He that comes unto Me: this is the same as when He says, And he that believes on Me: and what He meant by, shall never hunger, the same we are to understand by, shall never thirst. By both is signified that eternal fulness, where is no lack.”
There is no literality in Augustine’s understanding. Note his further comments on the passage:
Let them then who eat, eat on, and them that drink, drink; let them hunger and thirst; eat Life, drink Life. That eating, is to be refreshed; but you are in such wise refreshed, as that that whereby you are refreshed, does not fail. That drinking, what is it but to live? Eat Life, drink Life; you will have life, and the Life is Entire. But then this shall be, that is, the Body and Blood of Christ shall be each man’s Life; if what is taken in the Sacrament visibly is in truth itself eaten spiritually, drunk spiritually. For we have heard the Lord Himself saying, It is the Spirit that gives life, but the flesh profits nothing. The words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and Life.”
Here are a few more just for the fun of it:
Augustine (Faustus 6.5): “while we consider it no longer a duty to offer sacrifices, we recognize sacrifices as part of the mysteries of Revelation, by which the things prophesied were foreshadowed. For they were our examples, and in many and various ways they all pointed to the one sacrifice which we now commemorate. Now that this sacrifice has been revealed, and has been offered in due time, sacrifice is no longer binding as an act of worship, while it retains its symbolical authority.”
Augustine (Faustus 20.18, 20): “The Hebrews, again, in their animal sacrifices, which they offered to God in many varied forms, suitably to the significance of the institution, typified the sacrifice offered by Christ. This sacrifice is also commemorated by Christians, in the sacred offering and participation of the body and blood of Christ. . . . Before the coming of Christ, the flesh and blood of this sacrifice were foreshadowed in the animals slain; in the passion of Christ the types were fulfilled by the true sacrifice; after the ascension of Christ, this sacrifice is commemorated in the sacrament.
Where is the literality? It is not there, which is why there were debates a thousand years after Christ concerning this very issue: and Augustine was one of the chief Fathers cited by those who opposed the absurdly literal interpretation that lead to transubstantiation. Note the words of church historian Philip Schaff:
In both cases the conflict was between a materialistic and a spiritualistic conception of the sacrament and its effect. The one was based on a literal, the other on a figurative interpretation of the words of institution, and of the mysterious discourse in the sixth chapter of St. John. The contending parties agreed in the belief that Christ is present in the eucharist as the bread of life to believers; but they differed widely in their conception of the mode of that presence: the one held that Christ was literally and corporeally present and communicated to all communicants through the mouth; the other, that he was spiritually present and spiritually communicated to believers through faith. The transubstantiationists (if we may coin this term) believed that the eucharistic body of Christ was identical with his historical body, and was miraculously created by the priestly consecration of the elements in every sacrifice of the mass; their opponents denied this identity, and regarded the eucharistic body as a symbolical exhibition of his real body once sacrificed on the cross and now glorified in heaven, yet present to the believer with its life-giving virtue and saving power.
We find both these views among the ancient fathers. The realistic and mystical view fell in more easily with the excessive supernaturalism and superstitious piety of the middle age, and triumphed at last both in the Greek and Latin churches; for there is no material difference between them on this dogma.703 The spiritual theory was backed by the all-powerful authority of St. Augustin in the West, and ably advocated by Ratramnus and Berengar…
Speaking of Radbertus’ and his promotion of a transubstantiation-like concept, Schaff notes:
His opponents appealed chiefly to St. Augustin, who made a distinction between the historical and the eucharistic body of Christ, and between a false material and a true spiritual fruition of his body and blood. In a letter to the monk Frudegard, who quoted several passages of Augustin, Radbert tried to explain them in his sense. For no divine of the Latin church dared openly to contradict the authority of the great African teacher.
It seems historians do not share Tim’s viewpoint, and for good reason. We could cite from Tertullian and Theodoret and many others, but the most embarrassing for the Roman apologist who makes such claims has to be these words from Pope Gelasius of Rome in his work against Eutyches and Nestorius:
The sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, which we receive, is a divine thing, because by it we are made partakers of the divine-nature. Yet the substance or nature of the bread and wine does not cease. And assuredly the image and the similitude of the body and blood of Christ are celebrated in the performance of the mysteries.
Of course, it is easier to make universal claims about history that are inaccurate than it is to provide a meaningful and truthful response. Most don’t carry around notes with quotations from patristic sources so as to be ready for such claims. How one handles such a claim in a situation such as a family reunion will depend on the circumstances. A basic, “Such claims go far beyond the facts” might be appropriate.
Tim has another suggestion for the Catholic who seeks to provide a response to Mark the Evangelical. He claims that even if the words of John 6:53 are metaphorical, Mark’s position still “falls apart.” Why? He says,
The phrases “eat flesh” and “drink blood” did indeed have a symbolic meaning in the Hebrew language and culture of the time. You can demonstrate this by quoting Psalm 27:1-2, Isaiah 9:18-20, 49:26….In each case, we find “eating flesh” and “drinking blood” used as metaphors to mean “to persecute,” “to do violence to,” “to assault,” or “to murder.” If Christ were speaking metaphorically, the statement would be absurd: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you do violence to Me and kill Me, you shall not have life within you.”
At this point Mark can be succinct: “You are right, Tim: it is quite obvious that Jesus is not using those terms in that fashion, nor do I know anyone who suggests He is. The Lord Himself provided the context of what it means to feed on the bread of life, and it had nothing to do with such concepts. Let’s look to John 6:35….”
But Tim holds up his hand and says, “Wait, I’ll get to that in a moment. First, Protestants are always quoting John 6:63 where Jesus indicates that the spirit gives life while the flesh profits nothing. His words are spirit and they are life.” “Yes,” Mark replies, “Augustine said the same thing.” Tim, looking annoyed, presses on: “The word spirit (Greek: pneuma) is nowhere used in Scripture to mean ‘symbolic.'” Mark smiles, “Agreed: no one claims it does. The point is that Jesus here makes reference to the difference between the merely physical and fleshly food, and the spiritual nourishment that brings life to which He has been referring. His words make no sense, if your interpretation is correct: but when we allow Jesus to define His own terms, as I’ve been trying to say, by going back to John 6:35…..” “Ok, ok,” Tim says, “let’s deal with that.”
Mark opens up the Scriptures and reads:
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.” Just as Augustine himself said, coming to Christ is the same as believing in Him. If these result in the satiation of our hunger and our thirst, obviously, Jesus is establishing the metaphor He will use throughout the sermon there in the synagogue: coming, believing, eating, drinking—all of these lead to eternal life. They are not different things but the same thing. Jesus is directing those who were seeking merely physical benefits from Him to the fact that He does not promise such things: He promises spiritual nourishment to all who come to Him and Him alone as their source. The person that looks to Christ alone will find Him an all sufficient Savior. Just as “hungering and thirsting after righteousness” in the Sermon on the Mount does not refer to physical pangs of hunger or thirst, so too Jesus here establishes that He is speaking of a greater reality than the loaves and fishes these would-be disciples had eaten on the previous day. To force Jesus out of this mode of speaking that He introduces in 6:35 is to completely miss His point.
But Tim is ready for even this. “Of course coming to Christ and believing in Christ are definite requirements! But that doesn’t change the fact that Christ repeatedly spoke of His flesh as real food and His blood as real drink.” But Mark can see Tim has no real response at this point. “That’s not a reply, Tim. To be honest, that’s a dodge. Jesus established His own context: it is His context that you are ignoring, and hence, the Roman position cannot honestly deal with the text of Scripture at this point.”
The Protestant who is used to seeing the Catholic run at the sight of a Bible needs to be aware that folks like Tim Staples are doing their best to provide arguments for Catholics traditions and dogmas. Their arguments go past the standard one or two passages that many have come to rely on. In reality, the arguments provided are inconsistent and fairly easily refuted, but if you are not prepared for a response, they can ruin a wonderful opportunity of witness. The main thing to remember is that we must know the Word in its own context, not merely proof-texted arguments. If we are truly students of the Word, we will be ready at all times to give a testimony.