The following quotation is on John 6 and if Jesus’ discussion there sheds any light on the eucharist. Here is what it says (citations omitted):
There can be no doubt that Radbertus and Ratramnus had their differences over the interpretation of the Lord’s Supper. Despite these differences, however, one striking similarity between them is their use of John 6. The use of this passage is striking because they both appeal to it, but for entirely different reasons. Radbertus appeals to John 6 as proof that his position is correct, while Ratramnus appeals to this passage in favor of his position. It seems prudent, therefore, to examine this passage since it is a portion of Scripture to which not only these theologians referred, but subsequent theologians have continued to refer even to our present day.
While many evangelicals and, more broadly, Protestants may be itching to correct Radbertus’s exegesis and to engage him in lively hermeneutical debate, it would behoove such to pause for a moment to consider an oft-neglected positive point that emerges from his writing. We observed earlier that Radbertus addressed the question of whether or not a Christian who did not believe in his theology of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist could still benefit from, let alone participate in, that Christ-appointed rite of the church. His answer was in the affirmative. How remarkable that a theological position that has divided Christians for centuries should be espoused and rigorously defended during the Middle Ages, but in such a way as to include rather than exclude those who disagree. Granted, there are many issues and concerns that must be addressed when approaching the question of who may be included in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Nevertheless, surely Radbertus gives the modern church something to ponder. Even when stridently disagreeing with his fellow monk Ratramnus, Radbertus does not deny him fellowship.
Radbertus opens his work with a citation of Jesus’ words in John 6:51 to support his real presence view. Jesus says there that His body is given for the life of the world. At first glance, this passage in John is an odd one. Jesus says quite plainly that He is the living bread from heaven, and anyone who eats this living bread, which is His flesh, will live forever. Could the Bible be any clearer? Surely, this is evidence enough to demonstrate that, in some mysterious though immutable way, the very body and blood of the incarnate Christ is ingested by His followers. How that might be expected to occur from the perspective of those listening in John 6 would have proven something of a puzzle, but one to which the answer is given by the end of the Gospel, with the Last Supper. Our desire here, however, is to stay close to the contours of John 6, so let us take stock of the content and context of this chapter alone in order to assist our appreciation and assessment of the credibility of Radbertus’s interpretation.
John 6 begins with an account of the feeding of the 5,000. The miraculous nature of what took place was not lost on the people, nor were their intentions missed by the Messiah. When the feeding had finished, Jesus withdrew to a mountain so that He might escape the crowd’s ambition to forcibly make Him their king. After a brief interlude in which Jesus walked on water to His disciples’ boat during the evening, the crowds became aware the next day that Jesus was not returning to the place where they were fed. Upon embarking in boats, they eventually found Him and began to inquire after His itinerary. It is as this point that Jesus turns the tables on the crowd.
Jesus informs the crowd that what matters most to them are their stomachs. Jesus fed them, and they wanted more food. Jesus warns the people not to work for the food that perishes, but to work for the food that endures into everlasting life. It is this food that the Son of Man provides. The obvious question here is what work is required to gain the food of everlasting life, to which Jesus replies that the work of God is to believe in the One God has sent. At this stage in the dialogue, the people clearly recognized that Jesus was speaking about Himself, and so they asked for a sign that He really is sent by God. Now, at first glance, such a request might sound ridiculous since Jesus had just fed them in a miraculous manner. What the people were requesting, however, is a sign that accords with the promise of eternal bread. In other words, they had already seen and accepted the sign that qualified Jesus as a prophet; now they wanted to see the sign that qualified Jesus to fulfill His promise that He was sent from God and had the very seal of the Father on Him. Moses gave our forefathers bread from heaven, what can you do?
Jesus seized on this reference immediately. First, He clarified for the people that it was not Moses who gave the people bread from heaven, but God. More important than that, however, is the point that while Moses’ bread was given some time ago (note the past tense in v. 32a), the true bread which the people need to eat is currently available (note the present tense in v. 32b). How is it that eternal bread is currently available to the people? It is available because the true bread of God, the true bread given from heaven, is Jesus who says, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). Jesus then states clearly in the succeeding verses that anyone who comes to Him and believes in Him will no longer be hungry or thirsty. In line with Ratramnus’s interpretation of this passage, what is taught here is that the desire to satisfy hunger is achieved by believing in Him.
Jesus’ deft use of the people’s reference to food from heaven has resulted in His appropriation of that reference into a metaphor. In spite of this, v. 51 raises a question that, to some, has been lurking in the depths if not simmering under the very surface of the text. With all of the language of eating and drinking the body or flesh of Christ, not to mention the focus on His blood that comes in the ensuing verses, surely Radbertus was right to see a reference here to the Eucharist. Are not the words of our Lord, “This is my body” echoed in Jesus’ final statement that “I will give my flesh . . . for the life of the world” (John 6:51)? Certainly, it may be argued that there are echoes here, but it is difficult to sustain the notion that there are more than echoes here. Consider, for example, that in all the accounts of the Lord’s Supper in the NT it is, particularly, the Lord’s body that is mentioned and not His flesh. Had John wanted to make a clear connection between this part of Jesus’ teaching and the Lord’s Supper, choosing different diction at a crucial juncture is not the way to go about it. But wait, we might hear Radbertus retort, what about the statements regarding the drinking of blood in addition to the eating of flesh in John 6:53–54?
Again, this is not the place to enter into an extended discussion, but several comments will suffice. First, it is worth remembering the context in which John 6 is taking place. There was no way for the original audience to conceive of Jesus’ words referring to what the church would later call the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. For them, the only way Jesus’ teaching could be understood against the backdrop of OT law forbidding cannibalism would be to understand that Jesus was using a metaphor. Were His disciples and the Jews at large not inclined to interpret Jesus’ words in this way, their response would not simply have been to walk away grumbling that this is difficult teaching. The only appropriate response would have been to usher Jesus into the courts and to try Him for inciting people to break the law. This is a perspective that Radbertus, along with like-minded theologians, appear to forget.
Second, the reader would do well to pay attention to the force of Jesus’ statement in v. 54. Jesus says there that whoever eats His flesh and drinks His blood has eternal life and will be raised on the last day. Here is a startling promise that is given without reservation or condition. Can we believe that Jesus would have promised salvation to those who partake in the Lord’s Supper, as though it is the eating and drinking that bring salvation? This countermands the very foundation of Jesus’ gospel, not to mention the immediate context of these verses. As we have already seen, the idea of believing in the Son of God is paramount in this pericope. The work of God is to believe (v. 29). The desire of the people is to believe in Jesus on the basis of a sign (v. 30). The one who believes in Jesus will never thirst again (v. 35). The one who believes in the Son will have eternal life and be raised up on the last day (v. 40). He who believes has eternal life (v. 47). Most profoundly, at the end of the chapter, Peter tells Jesus that the disciples will not desert Him, for Jesus alone has the words of life and they believe that Jesus is the Holy One of God (v. 69). Everything in this chapter points toward Jesus’ words being understood metaphorically, the crowd grasping the great cost of the salvation that comes through the Son of Man, and the disciples becoming all the more aware of the necessity of believing in Jesus. Truly, the Holy One of God descended to take on flesh that He might give Himself, in His flesh, for the life of the world, and having done so to ascend to where He was before as a demonstration of what lies ahead for those who believe.
In sum, then, while John 6:51 may at first appear to lend support to Radbertus’s idea that the body, the very flesh of Jesus, is somehow present in the eucharistic elements, a careful consideration of the context of that passage does not lend itself to the same conclusion. This passage denies a real presence view and its later development in transubstantiation.
Schreiner, Thomas R.. The Lord’s Supper (New American Commentary Studies in Bible & Theology) (pp. 138-142). B&H Publishing. Kindle Edition.
So what do you think? I find it to be a pretty poor argument against a real presence view.