Those who have followed this blog over its two-plus years now know how often the topic of “The Gospel in Capernaum” has come up. I have reviewed a number of attempts to get around this tour de force of clear salvation teaching on the part of the Lord of glory, and all have crumbled to dust when the simple reality of the ordered flow of the text is allowed into the discussion. This is true whether the attempt is made by a hyper-dispensationalist, who seeks to make the text irrelevant to anyone but the Jews of the first century, or to the sacramental traditionalist. Context always exposes eisegesis.
Paul Owen has given us another glowing example of how not to handle the text of the Word of God here. Let’s note his words:
Nowhere do we get a clearer illustration of the folly of anti-sacramental, non-churchly Christianity than in John 6. Calvinists take a clearly Eucharistic passage and turn it into a treatise on predestination. It is not. I note:
Note the definition of “churchly” as “sacramental.” These words are written by a man who has moved from church to church to church, adopting, and abandoning, distinctive elements of faith, and ecclesiastical conviction. It is hard to take seriously his accusation that those who have seen in this text the clear proclamation of God’s sovereignty in salvation are somehow “non-churchly.” Obviously, if Owen’s “churchianity” is such that he thinks himself under the Pope, for example, that he has adopted baptismal regeneration, and is even willing to go so far as to think that the textual form prevalent in the last Greek-speaking area left in the world after the West went to Latin and the rest of the world become Muslim is somehow invested thereby as the “ecclesiastical” text, who knows what his “churchianity” will look like next year, or five years from now?
Now, let us ponder the claim enunciated here that this is a “clearly Eucharistic” passage. Why does Owen say this? Is it because this text refers to the institution of the Supper? No, it refers to Jesus’ teaching in the Synagogue at Capernaum. In fact, the Supper is not even mentioned, for, obviously, the text refers to a time frame well before anyone, including the Lord’s audience, could have comprehended the entire concept. So, how is it “clearly Eucharistic?” In the same way the Byzantine manuscript tradition is now proclaimed by Owen as the “canonical” form of the New Testament: in light of the particular version of tradition Owen chooses to associate himself with. It is not because the text demands it to be so: tradition has spoken, well, at least, the tradition to which Owen currently gives fealty.
1. This is a discourse about eating and drinking the body and blood of Jesus (6:32-33, 35, 41, 48, 51, 53-58), set in the context of the Passover feast (6:4). It is explaining how people find life through a believing participation in the Eucharistic meal, not how to distinguish God’s eternal decrees.
Here we have a truly classical example of tradition-bound eisegesis in terms that one would be hard pressed to differentiate from the most conservative Roman Catholic rhetoric. Notice how Owen completely misses the actual flow of argument because he has abandoned the text in favor of tradition: he takes an example, an illustration of the previously enunciated teaching, transports it out of the immediate context, drops it down in the midst of a later theological aberration and mutation, and voila! a “clear” meaning appears! Never mind that if you actually follow the conversation the focus is upon who Christ is, and the contrast between the surface-followers who disbelieve, and why this is the case. Never mind the fact that the text plainly and inarguably explains coming in faith (not partaking of a ritual) in light of the Father’s activity of drawing; never mind that you have the constant Johannine emphasis upon being raised up to eternal life, faith, and all that. Let’s just start out with how “plain” our conclusions are, and hope we can find a way to force them into enough of the text that no one will notice we are not reading our meaning out of the text.
2. It is therefore the case that the distinction between groups which is the concern of this text is not elect vs. reprobate, but those within the Church who enjoy the benefit of the sacrament of the altar vs. those outside the church who do not believe and thus do not partake of Jesus’ body and blood.
If you fail to see how this kind of teaching has even the most remote connection to the text, do not feel badly. It takes a great deal of effort to bend your mind this far. It is not meaningful exegesis that produces this kind of assertion, it is capitulation to external authorities in the form of “tradition.” The Lord is addressing unbelieving Jews about their unwillingness to see Him as the Bread from Heaven and so to have life through faith in Him. He is talking about coming to Him, believing in Him. He is not talking about altars or sacraments or being inside the church or outside the church or anything of the sort. But, when you no longer actually believe in sola scriptura you do not have to worry about the mundane details of what the text is actually saying. Flights of theological fancy become common place, and just how far you go will depend on which “stream of tradition” you happen to take a fancy to at the moment.
3. Those whom the Father “gives” to Jesus (6:37) are not to be equated with the eternally predestined elect (though they would be included), but refers to all who enter the Church and partake of the benefits conveyed through the Lord’s Supper.
Another wonderful example of how far from the text Owen stands. Note the actual words and what Owen ignores, or simply does not see, because his newly minted Anglican glasses of tradition get in the way:
John 6:35 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. 36 “But I said to you that you have seen Me, and yet do not believe.
What is the context provided by the Lord to His words in 6:37? The proclamation of Jesus’ centrality in salvation; the one coming, the one believing, finds in Him all he or she could ever desire. But in contrast to those who find in Christ their spiritual sustenance, those standing before Him He identifies as unbelievers. Those who believe, those who disbelieve. The difference? John 6:37 explains it: “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” Who comes and as a result finds in Christ eternal life? The one given by the Father to the Son. Why are some believers and others unbelievers? Altars, sacraments, or church membership? No, the sovereign purpose and will of the Father.
They are all who will come to the Eucharistic feast with faith in their hearts, to eat his body and drink his blood unto eternal life. It is probable that this number is not identical to those who are eternally decreed to glory, for we read of some of Jesus’ “disciples” who fall away shortly after this (6:66). The disciples are sharply contrasted in this narrative with the multitude of “the Jews” who rejected Jesus’ lofty claims (6:22-24, 36, 41, 52). The disciples (6:3, 16, 22) are distinctly the number of those who (unlike the unbelieving multitude) have “come” to Jesus (6:35, 37). It is clear that this is no guarantee of a permanent enjoyment of eternal life.
This disjointed paragraph makes precious little sense. All Owen and his kind today can offer are probabilities. Evidently the crowd was right: His words are hard, “who can hear them?” But in fact, the crowd was not right, and when one actually believes in the inspiration and consistency of divine Writ, its message can, in fact, be known. To come to Christ is not to attend unto some sacrament developed long after the encounter in Capernaum. To come to Christ is to believe in Him, to trust in Him, to find in Him all one longs for spiritually. Those who walked away after this incident had never come to Christ in this way in the first place, which is the point of the text, missed again, by Owen. They were seeking the outward, the fleshly, the physical, not the inward and spiritual. The number of those coming is identical to the number of those given by the Father, and this takes us right back to the topic Owen seeks to flush out of the text to make room for his sacramentalism and traditionalism. The facile assertion that “disciple” always has the same meaning, and hence, some can come, and be lost, once again completely misses the entire thrust of 6:37-40. We see again the difference in reading the flow and seeing the God-centeredness of salvation, and reading the text in disparate parts in a man-centered fashion.
Having completely misrepresented the context, missed the central point, and offered not a scintilla of meaningful exegesis (the ever-popular methodology of the defender of Rome), Owen then opines:
4. What then is 6:37 saying? The Father “gives” to Jesus a certain number of people whom he draws (6:44) by the work of the Spirit (6:63, 65). Those people, for whom the Spirit of God has made the true identity of Jesus transparent, then “come” to Jesus, and eat his body and drink his blood unto eternal life. Jesus guarantees that he will not “cast out” anyone who comes to him, meaning that they will not be turned away. It does not mean that they are necessarily predestined to eternal glory, or that they will certainly become permanent disciples.
Owen misses entire swaths of the text once again. Those given are coming to Christ in faith. One wonders how one is justified in Owen’s ever-evolving theology, but there was some point in his past when he believed it was by faith. In any case, Owen completely misses the function of the eating/drinking portion of John 6 as references to believing/coming. He violates, as Rome does, not only the flow that defines this in verse 35, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst,” but likewise the explanation Jesus Himself gives later in the text when he faults the listeners for confusing the physical and the spiritual. Next, note the unfounded assertion that “will not cast out” means “will not turn away.” Really? When did “cast out” (requiring the authoritative action of the one doing the casting, and likewise implying previous entrance, or how else could one be cast out?) become the same as “refused entrance”? See, the text makes sense only when read in a theocentric fashion. All the man-centered readings break down. Christ will not cast out the one coming because of verses 38 and 39, where, it is the Father’s will that the Son lose none of those given to Him. None of this makes the slightest bit of sense in Owen’s reading, and he well knows it, for he tries to find a way out of the man-centered trap his theology has forced him into:
5. But does the text not say that it is God’s will that of those whom the Father has given to Jesus, none will be lost (6:39)? Of course; just as 2 Peter 3:9 says that God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
What a startling mixture of contexts, especially from one who often reminds us of his high scholarly achievements. A passage specifically in answer to the reasons for faith and unbelief, specifically on the topic of the perfection of the work of the Son in losing none the Father gives Him, is paralleled with a statement about why the parousia has been delayed? Who is the “any” in 2 Peter? Does it not have the same referent as those given by the Father to the Son, if we are even going to ask of it such soteriological questions? But even then, are we not reading here Paul Owen saying what all men who promote man-based religions say? That while Christ wants to be a perfect Savior, He simply can’t pull it off without the cooperation of man? Can we possibly read 6:37-39 as nothing more than a general hope, a general wish of God, that does not come to fruition because in fact the Trinity is incapable of saving anyone outside of their cooperation?
God is benevolent toward all his children, and does not want any of them to be lost.
At times I wonder if Owen has really left his Mormon roots. This is how Mormonism speaks (universal fatherhood of God) but not how the Bible speaks. Those outside of Christ are called “enemies of God” (Rom. 5:10) and we become children solely by faith in Christ (John 1:12). Any other sense of “universal fatherhood” is creative in nature, not salvific or relational.
That does not mean that none of them will be lost. John 17:9, 12 makes it clear that Judas also was given to Jesus by the Father, yet in God’s secret decree, his apostasy was predetermined in order to fulfill biblical prophecy. Thus, when 6:40 says that Jesus will raise up on the last day all who believe in Jesus, it is a statement of the divine will for all of his children, but will only come to pass on the condition of their continued perseverance as true disciples of his Son.
This is surely one of the most common arguments offered by those who oppose the doctrines of grace, but it once again mixes contexts. There is no question that Judas was, “by God’s secret decree,” chosen for the role he played in accomplishing redemption, and is thusly marked out in biblical prophecy. His role and purpose is so clear that to even include him as one “given” by the Father to the Son for salvific purposes is to commit an obvious error. Even in the context of John 6, Judas is marked out and exempted as an unbeliever (John 6:64, 70). But to take the prophetic role of Judas and thereby introduce into the promise of Christ’s all-sufficient power to fulfill the will of the Father regarding those who are given by the Father to the Son is to set the text on its head. Owen has missed, again, the flow of the text. He assumes all are given by the Father to the Son, so the expression of the Father’s will for the Son becomes mere wishful thinking. But the text does not allow this. Those who are unbelievers are not thusly given, for the text is explaining their unbelief (John 6:35). This simple contextual fact removes the ground of Owen’s statement and once again demonstrates not only that he has completely missed the text due to his following external sources of authority, but, ironically, it likewise forces Owen to admit that the text is in fact addressing the very issues that he said it was not addressing in his earlier comments.
6. Now none of this is to say that this passage in John 6 is incapable of a different interpretation. Indeed, Calvin himself reads this text along the lines I am suggesting to be misguided (though he at least recognizes the anticipations of the Eucharist in Jesus’ language).
This seems to be Owen’s preemptive means of avoiding the observation that Calvin, and any host of other Reformed exegetes, have read the text in the very way he is decrying. But more to the point, it seems that from Owen’s viewpoint, the Bible just really isn’t capable of explaining its own meaning and teachings. That’s why you need a Pope. That’s why you need tradition. God just can’t speak clearly without these things, you see.
Paul Owen claims to be Reformed. He claims to be a Calvinist. Yet, he never misses a chance to oppose the very system he says he espouses. Wouldn’t it be much easier if he would just admit that he is not a Calvinist at all? That he no longer holds a sufficiently high view of the Scriptures to actually be a Calvinist? That would be the honest thing to do, wouldn’t it?
But the passage is hardly a slam-dunk proof-text for absolute predestination; more modest Arminian and Lutheran expositions of the doctrine of election are fully able to account for the language Jesus uses in this passage.
Ah, see, there are so many possible interpretations, depending on your tradition. The text is but putty in the hands, to be formed as your tradition seems fit. We can’t really tell what Jesus meant when He spoke in Capernaum—if He even spoke there at all! This is all just John’s interpretation anyway, right? Your opinion versus someone else’s opinion, and, as good scholars, we are to show equal respect for all opinions in this wonderfully post-modern age. The Arminian interpretation (which is just what again?) is equal to the Lutheran which is equal to the Roman which is equal to…whatever. Give up all hope of actually knowing, pick your poison, eat, drink, and be merry, for the Bible is unknowable.
The reality is that this text is clear and compelling. The only consistent thing I have found in those who come up with non-Reformed readings that strip the text of its message is this: they can’t start at the beginning, consistently work through the text, and end up at the conclusion using the same rules they started with. Hop, skip, and jump about they will; state their conclusions based upon their traditions at the start and then cram them into a verse or two here or there. But actually allow the text to speak for itself? In no way, as we have just seen.
Finally, a note written by Kevin Johnson in response to Owen’s blog should be read with sober reflection:
My belief is that context ought to be centered more in the concerns of the mind of the Church rather than the mind of the writer in the first place especially as we look to passages like John 6 where it is quite clear to me anyway that what is being presented is a whole lot more than just the arcane details of the miracles of Christ.
Consider what this means. The inspired text can no longer speak. The original meaning, the original context, is gone. Now the impossible-to-be-defined “mind of the Church” becomes the interpretive grid. I cannot help but be reminded of the end of my debate on sola scriptura with Fr. Pacwa in San Diego in 1999. I lugged a large metal bookbag to the podium and began unloading huge works of Roman Catholic theology, such as the Code of Canon Law, the documents of Vatican II, etc. I piled the books up high and then asked the audience just how it is that this pile of work in any way simplifies or clarifies the statement of Romans 5:1, “Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Obviously, they don’t. The obscure, obfuscate, complicate. They do not simplify. How can men like Kevin Johnson argue that something so nebulous, something so utterly beyond all possible definition, as “the mind of the Church” is to be the interpretive matrix of the Scriptures when the original context and grammar is insufficient? What utter folly! But this is the way of Romanism, and to be honest, it is easier to respect the person who has simply abandoned all pretense to acceptance of the great truths of the Reformation and holds firmly to Rome’s claims than it is the one who treads water in the Tiber but lacks the courage to swim to the other side.