Thursday, January 25, 2007

More John 6

Another round of debates has occurred about John 6 at Reformed Catholicism. Paul Owen began the discussion about why most Calvinists miss the Eucharistic point of John 6. I will respond to Dr. Owen, but his post provoked a response from James White, which contained some reasoned points, but far too many personal attacks. Kevnin Johnson defended Dr. Owen and his own comment about reading John 6 through the ‘mind of the church’.

I am going to wade into this debate because I do not believe that John 6 is about the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper if you prefer. However, I do not believe that John 6 is primarily about the decrees of God or predestination either, which is the false dilemma presented by Dr. Owen. I think the sense of the passage is about the necessity of believing in Jesus Christ, not about partaking of His meal. It is not about eating his flesh, but that was used to represent belief in Him. As he says in verse 63, It is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing; the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life. And as Peter rightly answers when asked if they will depart like the others in verse 68-69, The Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God. This is the main point of the passage, not the decrees, and not the Supper.

Dr. Owen does make a claim that Jesus is not talking of the eternally predestined in verse 37, and that verse 40 telling us that Jesus will raise them up on the last day is not about eternal glory but rather speaking about church membership and God’s desire to not see anyone perish. He attempts to reference 2 Peter 3:9, but does not show a strong connection. I would be interested in all of the talk about the mind of the church for Dr. Owen to bring someone out that actually made that argument before.

The crux of the debate seems to be to me whether or not one wants the meaning to be determined by the words of Jesus to his audience there in John 6 or the writing of John to his audience decades later. Dr. Owen and others argue that John’s audience would have been familiar with the Eucharist and would have ‘clearly’ seen the reference being made, and the fact that Jesus spoke these words to an audience prior to the institution of the Eucharist does not matter. Kevin Johnson argues that John had another ‘agenda’ in his gospel, supposedly one about the Eucharist. This idea I find hard to support. John’s gospel describes itself (John 21:31) as arguing for believing in Jesus unto eternal life (which is what I argue is the point of John 6), not some agenda about the Eucharist. If John has an agenda to make reference to the Eucharist, why is John’s the only gospel that does not have the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Instead, John includes the foot washing, but not the Supper. This problem is not discussed in either article.

Both articles including the commentors make a great deal about the history of interpretation. Commentor Mike Spreng on Kevin’s post, states,

Don’t you just love how he fires those shots without leaving a chance for anyone to comment on his site (not that anyone wants to interact with such a man)? What can be said about guys like this that only go as far back as Spurgeon, or at best Zwingly(sic)?

I have posted on that before, but people thought John 6 did not refer to the Eucharist long before Zwingli, Calvin, Luther, and Suprgeon (who all think John 6 is not about the Supper). Such early church lights as Basil, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria denied the link between the Supper and John 6. So perhaps the ‘mind of the church’ argument works against viewing John 6 as a Eucharistic reference.

Before departing I want to point out one other thing that needs to be said. Dr. Owen begins his piece by stating:

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.

His sixith point then reads:

6. Now none of this is to say that this passage in John 6 is incapable of a different interpretation.

Now unless, Dr. Owen means that it is possible to have an ‘anti-sacramental, non-churchly’ interpretation he is contradicting himself. He either thinks that denying the link between John 6 and the Supper is ‘folly’ that betrays a dislike of the church and sacraments, or he thinks it a legitimate possibility for an informed reading of the text. One cannot have it both ways.


Jonathan Bonomo said...


Obviously, I have differences about your understanding of the message of John 6. I would say it is fundamentally about eating Christ's flesh and drinking his blood, which is brought about through faith but not to be equated with it. This reality is realized in the Eucharist, and this is why I believe that John's purpose was to connect it to this rite for the Church of his day.

But all that aside, I primarily wanted to state that I greatly appreciate the tone of your post and your mediating position here. This is a clear, charitable, and level-headed response which those who disagree with you could glean from.

Blessings to you, brother.