The “Flesh” and the “Blood” – Transubstantiation


They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again.

– St. Ignatius of Antioch, The Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 7

A central doctrine the Catholic Church, and of central disagreement with many Protestants, is the doctrine of the Eucharist. Protestants tend to believe that the bread and wine are merely a symbolic representation of the body and blood of Jesus, while those of in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy view it as actually being his body and blood, though some Protestants accept that Jesus is “present.”

A major basis for our doctrine of transubstantiation is taken from the words of Jesus in John 6 when he speaks of himself being “the bread of life.” Especially when we read verse 55 when he says “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” The counterargument then is to accuse the citation here as taking the Bible out of context, but to seriously examine their own biblical usage is to expose the either/or fallacy, which is prominent in many anti-Catholic apologetics.

In his arguments against Transubstantiation, Richard Deem makes the following arguments:

  1. He cites John 6:29,36,40 arguing that Jesus is actually speaking about belief, not eating.
  2. He argues that in verse 35, Jesus “declares the metaphor” when he says “whoever believes in me will never thirst, and backing it up with verse 63 which contrasts the spirit from “the flesh” which is “of no avail.”
  3. He cites Acts 21:25 which prohibits the eating and drinking of blood, saying that if transubstantiation is true, then it’s a sin to take communion.
  4. He objects to the Mass being a sacrifice because Jesus is the final sacrifice given once and for all. (John 19:30, Romans 6:10, etc.)
  5. He cites St. Augustine as who calls the sacrament was to be “commemorated.”
  6. Finally, he objects to the idea that Christ is only present in the Eucharist, citing Matthew 28:19,20.

Fortunately for us, Richard Deem does accept Catholics as fellow Christians, though on his usually useful website, he does list the doctrine of transubstantiation as “aberrant theology.” This is the only Catholic doctrine he lists, which makes me wonder why he chose this one and not something more divisive such as the communion of the saints and Mariology. But I digress. Now for my responses to Deem’s objections as I have outlined them:

Catholicism doesn’t deny that belief in what Jesus says is a necessary component. In fact, it would be wrong for me to take communion while disbelieving in Jesus. There is no profit in taking the Eucharist in such a state. In fact, given St. Paul’s warnings about receiving it in an unworthy state, it would be detrimental as he says, “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. A person For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgement on himself. That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying.” (1 Corinthians 11:27,30) This is quite the dire warning for a metaphor. We affirm the bread and wine as being the real body and blood of Jesus, we have never denied belief. Such a denial would contradict our theology.

We do not deny that Jesus speaks metaphorically in some sections of John 6, but as stated, the passages Deem cites here only affirm belief in Jesus is necessary for eternal life which no Christian -whether Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox- can deny. In his book Not By Bread Alone, Robert Sungenis demonstrates that in verses 1 to 47, Jesus is in fact speaking symbolically, and by using grammatical evidence in the original Greek he points out that in verses  48 to 58, Jesus is now using non-symbolic language. That is, John uses two words for eating; phago and trogo, the latter of which, used in verses 54, 56, 57 and 58,  denotes a literal mastication while phago is only sometimes used symbolically.

Another matter has to be brought up about Deem’s citation of verse 63 which says:

It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.

He doesn’t elaborate his premise here, so I can only speculate based on what other objectors say based on this particular passage. Nobody objects to Jesus’ words being “spirit” in opposition to “the flesh,” but this is certainly the case whether Transubstation is true or false.  But in saying that this cements the metaphor, it appears that he equates the word “spirit” with “metaphor,” which is what other protestant commentators do here, though when the Bible contrasts “the spirit” with “the flesh” it uses an idiom to show a contrast between the ways of the divine against human tendencies (Romans 8:4; Galatians 5:17). Certainly if we were to consistently equate “spirit” and “metaphor” throughout scripture, we would be lead to theological nonsense, as well as heresy. 1 Peter 3:18 says that Christ was put to death in the flesh, and “he was brought to life in the spirit.” However this certainly doesn’t mean that the resurrection was a symbolic metaphor, though there are some who would do as such. Even so, when Jesus says “My words are spirit” (notably not “my flesh is spirit”) in contrast to the flesh which avails nothing, he isn’t affirming a symbolic definition of his words or the Eucharist as much as he is contrasting his teachings on spiritual/divine matters against those of fleshly/human tendencies.

I have been able to verify that the Greek word pneuma used for “spirit” can indicate something figurative in certain contexts. However, Sungenis points out “…the New Testament never uses ‘Spirit’ in a symbolic sense, either in referring to the ‘Holy Spirit’ or to anything else designated as ‘spirit.'” (Pgs. 190-1) Indeed, the uses of the term in John’s Gospel -when not speaking of the Holy Spirit or the Father- demonstrate that he uses the term in the sense of divine tendencies and spirituality, not symbolism (John 3:6,7,8; 4:23,24).  This being the case, it wouldn’t be appropriate for a Bible Translation Committee to translate this passage as “My words are metaphor.”  Had Jesus wished to indicate his statements were symbolic, a better term to use probably would have been allegoreo which St. Paul uses in Galatians 4:24.

Interpreting “the flesh” in this passage as the same flesh described by Jesus before – as some may wish to do- would also be illogical considering what he said earlier. Consider the following combo of verses 54 and 63:

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day… the flesh is of no avail.

Obviously the flesh of Christ (v.54) and “the flesh (v.63) cannot be one and the same, since it would be equivalent to saying that eternal life is worthless. This can only demonstrate, as is affirmed, that verse 63 is simply contrasting human tendencies with the divine, while the passages which speak about Jesus’ flesh and blood being true food and drink are speaking about a different matter.

Deem cites verse 52 in which the Jews argue about how Jesus could give them his flesh to eat, and then says:

This is an obvious giveaway that the Jews had no spiritual discernment and weren’t “getting it.” The whole time, Jesus had been comparing Himself as spiritual food for eternal life and they are still thinking about their stomachs!

Of course Jesus’ listeners didn’t have necessary spiritual discernment-a point mentioned by some of the Apostolic Fathers. But if Deem’s understanding is indeed the intended view, then Jesus didn’t help the matters by what he said next:

Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats* my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. (John 6:53,55)

As pointed out earlier, this passage uses trogo which wouldn’t bode well if Jesus simply was speaking symbolically. It also would be self-contradictory for Jesus to say “my flesh is true food, but it’s only a symbol,” especially since he is using a term in Greek which is translated as to gnaw, crunch and to chew. (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, pg. 631) Now of course someone may object that Jesus is using a term that has a literal meaning in a symbolic manner, but if that were his intention, then he would have been better served using the alternative term phago that was used symbolically on occasion rather than the one which never was used in such a manner.

Next, in his use of Acts 21:25 to argue that we sin by taking communion if it truly becomes Christ’s body and blood. In fact, the prohibition on eating blood -which is based on Leviticus 17:8,14- actually works as an argument for the Catholic interpretation because it explains why the Jews were so offended at Jesus’ statement:

Then many of his disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, “Does this shock you?” (John 6:60,61)

In the Jewish perspective, given the Mosaic law, what was a “harder saying,” to say that the eating of Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood was a symbolic statement, or to eat and drink it literally? The answer is painfully obvious. Furthermore, the continuous Protestant resistance to such a view only emphasizes that.

With the background of the Mosaic law in mind,  it becomes helpful to revert a bit. To further contradict the suggestion by Protestant exegetes mentioned earlier that verse 63 is a clarification that Jesus is speaking symbolically, all one needs to do is read only three verses later where it is pointed out that many of his disciples left him over this teaching. It’s hardly a credible to suggest that the Jews simply couldn’t register that Jesus was speaking symbolically when such a desertion of him could only be explained by their revulsion to a statement advocating something they obviously would have thought was a violation of the Mosaic law. It makes even less sense if dissident exegetes are correct in their assertions that Jesus clarified he was speaking symbolically, not just once, but several other times during that occasion. A metaphor is not worth losing disciples.

If, as Deem insists, Jesus was simply instructing his listeners with a mere metaphor to believe in him as a means to eternal life, then that would make both their offence and abandonment of him unjustified -even from a Jewish perspective- because belief and obedience to God, and the one God has sent, as a means to eternal life was part of Judaism, as can be seen from Daniel 12:2. The Pharisees taught this as well, as pointed out by Josephus (Wars of the Jews 2:162-3). Strictly speaking, if such was Jesus’ intention, there would have been nothing unorthodox about it. At worse he would have just been using an inadvisable method of making his point which could have been easily remedied; at best, if he had clarified himself as is claimed, there should have been no issue.

As for the objection to the Mass being a sacrifice because Jesus is the last sacrifice, I would be curious as to see what he has to say about Malachi 3:1,4 which is an obvious messianic prophesy, and yet it describes the acceptance of sacrifice after:

Now I am sending my messenger— he will prepare the way before me; And the lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple; The messenger of the covenant whom you desire— see, he is coming! says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand firm when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire, like fullers’ lye. He will sit refining and purifying silver, and he will purify the Levites, Refining them like gold or silver, that they may bring offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will please the LORD, as in ancient days, as in years gone by.

Back when I was a Protestant, I had a debate with a religious Jew about Jesus’ messiaship. When this passage came up, he pointed out to me that this would be problematic because in Christianity, Jesus is the last sacrifice, and yet this scripture indicates that after the Messiah’s arrival, sacrifice continues. I didn’t want to admit at the time that he had a point. In Catholicism and Orthodoxy, this apparent problem disappears, though it remains in Protestantism due to an either/or approach often taken by their exegetes.

Let’s be clear here: Jesus is the final sacrifice once and for all given for us; we don’t deny this theological point. What Deem and other Protestants don’t understand is that we consider the offering of the Eucharist to be the very same moment  that Christ was sacrificed for us. We are participating in that very same sacrifice in that very same moment in time. This is possible because God is transcendent to time. “Whibly wobbly timey whimey,” to make a Doctor Who reference.

The Church Fathers do not deny Christ is the final sacrifice, and yet they affirm sacrifice. St. Clement of Rome equates the Christian leaders as “High Priests” and “Levites,” also saying:

…it behooves us to do all things in [their proper] order, which the Lord has commanded us to perform at stated times. He has enjoined offerings [to be presented] and service to be performed [to Him]… (1 Clement 40)

Also St. John Chrysostom makes rather forward statements on the Eucharist:

For when you see the Lord sacrificed, and laid upon the altar, and the priest standing and praying over the victim, and all the worshippers empurpled with that precious blood, can you then think that you are still among men, and standing upon the earth? Are you not, on the contrary, straightway translated to Heaven, and casting out every carnal thought from the soul, do you not with disembodied spirit and pure reason contemplate the things which are in Heaven? (On the Priesthood 3:4)

Next in his attempt to show that the Church Fathers disapprove of the Catholic teaching, Deem quotes St. Augustine as referencing John 6:63, but then adds another reference claiming, “Augustine also indicated that the sacrament was to be commemorated, but not relived.” Here is the quote as he provides it:

Augustine (Faustus 20.18, 20): “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.

It is also to be pointed out that St. John Chrysostom -while speaking of the Eucharist as a sacrifice- also on occasion that it is done in commemoration (Homily on the Hebrews 17:6). Nobody disputes this. Of course we take Holy Communion in commemoration of the sacrifice, as it is even pointed out at every Mass. But what is conspicuously absent from Deem’s citation of St. Augustine is a negation of the teaching. If, by “not relived,” Deem means the sacrifice of Christ doesn’t happen again, we fully agree. As said, it isn’t “relived” because it is the same event. Though, it goes without saying that any Catholic with a firm grasp on our view of the Eucharist would also notice that not even Deem’s misconception is contradicted by his citation. Though interestingly, having looked in the reference, St. Augustine speaks of “the sacred offering and participation of the body and blood of Christ.” (Contra Faustum 20:18)

Some other objectors cite a different passage from Augustine saying that they “imagined that the Lord would cut off parts from His body, and give unto them,” but that is was to be “spiritually understood.” (Psalms 99:8) However, if Augustine disbelieved the Orthodox Catholic teaching, he has an odd way of showing it. He himself affirmed:

And was carried in His Own Hands: how carried in His Own Hands? Because when He commended His Own Body and Blood, He took into His Hands that which the faithful know; and in a manner carried Himself, when He said, This is My Body. (Exposition on the Psalms 34:1)

He follows St. Ambrose of Milan, who baptized him:

Then He added: For My Flesh is meat indeed, and My Blood is drink [indeed]. You hear Him speak of His Flesh and of His Blood, you perceive the sacred pledges, [conveying to us the merits and power] of the Lord’s death, and you dishonour His Godhead. Hear His own words: A spirit has not flesh and bones. Now we, as often as we receive the Sacramental Elements, which by the mysterious efficacy of holy prayer are transformed into the Flesh and the Blood, do show the Lord’s Death. (Exposition on the Christian Faith 4:125)

One may find references to many other Church Fathers being used as an attempt to show that at least some rejected the Catholic doctrine based on misunderstandings of what the Fathers are actually intending to say. St. Cyril of Jerusalem may be quoted as saying about John 6: “They not having heard His saying in a spiritual sense were offended, and went back, supposing that He was inviting them to eat flesh.” (Catechetical Lecture 22:4) Notably, this statement is similar to an earlier mentioned statement by Augustine; but as shown, spirituality is not symbolism, and Jesus was certainly not inviting them to walk up and take a bite out of him.

Proof that Cyril didn’t take the Eucharist symbolically is demonstrated shortly within this same short lecture:

Consider therefore the Bread and the Wine not as bare elements, for they are, according to the Lord’s declaration, the Body and Blood of Christ; for even though sense suggests this to you, yet let faith establish you. Judge not the matter from the taste, but from faith be fully assured without misgiving, that the Body and Blood of Christ have been vouchsafed to you. (Catechetical Lecture 22:6)

Having learned these things, and been fully assured that the seeming bread is not bread, though sensible to taste, but the Body of Christ; and that the seeming wine is not wine, though the taste will have it so, but the Blood of Christ; and that of this David sung of old, saying, And bread strengthens man’s heart, to make his face to shine with oil, strengthen your heart, by partaking thereof as spiritual, and make the face of your soul to shine. (Catechetical Lecture 22:9)

St. Cyril closes the lecture with this last passage which affirms bluntly that the bread and wine are not truly bread and wine, but in reality the body and blood of Christ, in spite of one’s senses to the taste that they contain. Notably, in this last passage, while speaking of the physical sacrament, he speaks of partaking it as “spiritual” food, putting to rest any possible notion that he could have equated the term “spiritual” as indicating anything symbolic which, if he had, would have resulted in an obvious absurd, internal contradiction within only a few words. It is clear from St. Cyril’s lecture: the physical sacrament is not a symbol, but the real body and blood of Christ, and yet it is also called our spiritual food.

So what is a take-away from two respected Church Fathers such as Saints Cyril of Jerusalem and Augustine affirming both the physical element being the actual body and blood of Christ, and yet that it is to be understood spiritually as well? Obviously this does away with a seemingly unspoken premise among Protestant exegetes that the two are to be assumed mutually exclusive. No good Catholic would deny the spiritual aspect of it as it is affirmed in the Mass itself.

A final point against the view that Jesus was speaking symbolically about eating his flesh comes from the social Jewish context. In the Scriptures, there is a symbolic usage for eating and drinking human flesh and blood, and it is always in a manner which indicates enmity and hatred; never in a positive sense (See: Psalm 27:2; Micah 3:1,4; Isaiah 9:18,20). With that in mind, Jesus’ statement in John 6:54, if intended symbolically, would have been equivalent to nonsensically saying “Whoever despises me has eternal life,” which would be a blatant contradiction of his teachings elsewhere (Matthew 10:37,39). It would do no good to argue that this is the one time in the Bible that such a metaphor was used in a positive sense because such an affirmation would only presuppose what it sets out to prove.

So what of Deem’s claim argument that Jesus is not present only at the Eucharist? We agree. In fact, I could hardly believe this was even an objection. Christ is omnipresent, being God himself. Jesus is spiritually -not symbolically *wink*- and truly present with us even now. In the Eucharist he is physically present as well.

In the end, Richard Deem’s arguments, though perhaps well intended, commit the same fallacies that other protestant apologetics fall into, such as forcing a dichotomy and a lack of understanding of Catholic theology which doesn’t deal with Either/Or logic, but rather Both/And on many subjects. Spiritual understandings to Jesus’ statements on the Eucharist do not negate the literal understanding either, as it has been seen that the Church fathers affirm both. To say that Christ is present in the Eucharist is not to deny that is present elsewhere and always.

I can certainly understand resistance to the doctrine of Christ actually physically being the Eucharist itself on a superficial level, but I cannot fathom why they would wish to deny themselves the idea of being physically in contact with him while taking holy communion. Of course Christ is always here, but it is also something special, comforting and intimate to know you have in actually touched the body of Christ with your own physical essence. In the end, my attitude is the same as that of Flannery O’Connor in a conversation she recounted: “If it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”