Sacred Scripture is not a divine riddle; nor a Rubik’s Cube to figure out. There is a place for exegesis and theology is good. However, twenty centuries later, or even fifteen, the faith once delivered is well-established. I might accept or reject it, but picking over it, taking what I like and leaving the rest, is not a valid option.
In Until we have real feet I discussed how C.S. Lewis helped me see the reality of the Eucharist. However, my own interpretation of John Chapter 6 does not make it so. How do we distinguish truth from fine-sounding fiction?
“[The boy Jesus] went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart.” (Lk 2:51*)
“He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said, ‘Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.’” (Mt. 18:2-3).
From Antioch to Smyrna
Image the year is A.D. 107. I am in the church of Smyra. The last of the Lord’s apostles died in Ephesus seven years ago. These are turbulent times. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, has been arrested and is being escorted to Rome. They say the bishop is destined for the wild beasts of the Coliseum. Ignatius wrote a letter to the faithful in Smyrna, to be read aloud today when we meet for the breaking of bread.
As the reading unfolds, Ignatius reminds us about the heretical Docetists. They do not believe in the Incarnation. Like the Gnostics who deny “the Word was made flesh”, Docetists say our Lord only seemed to have lived and died. Rejecting the reality of the Incarnation, Docetists do not receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. As Ignatius’ words are read aloud,
“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. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes.” Letter to Smyrna.
For the sake of the story, pretend by A.D. 107 the canon of Scripture has been defined. More incredible, imagine I have a copy. In my diligent study of Scripture, I improved upon the Docetist’s denials, not rejecting the Incarnation outright, but interpreting John Chapter 6 in a way that made more sense to me. I come up with an interpretation like you find in the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message:
“The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate His second coming.”
As I muse about my novel, satisfying interpretation, I hear the lector drone on with Ignatius’ grating words:
“But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils.
. . .
“See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God.
. . .
“It is well to reverence both God and the bishop. He who honours the bishop has been honoured by God; he who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop, does [in reality] serve the devil.” Letter to Smyrna.
There he goes again, Ignatius the extremist. Why must he associate division with the devil? Who died and made this bishop king? Isn’t division the only real way to guard the truth? Why can’t I read my Bible and interpret it my own way? Doesn’t “Lord’s Supper” sound better than “the Eucharist”? Not as flesh-and-bloody. Who’s to say my merely symbolic interpretation is wrong? And how else to show my high view of Scripture than separate from backward literalists?
A witness from wisdom’s ranks
Fast-forward to A.D. 165. I haven’t left the church, yet. I’ve put up with the mystical literalists long enough. Having outgrown my merely symbolic interpretation of the Lord’s Supper, I graduated to a more spiritual-sounding negation of John Chapter 6. The rationalistic side of my mind comes up with another interpretation of this ancient rite:
“The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ’s appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, The Shorter Catechism at Q&A 96).
By mid-second century, able to stomach the Church’s interpretation of the Eucharist no longer, I must separate. Who cares that Ignatius learned the faith from John the Evangelist. Who cares that a come-lately philosopher named Justin stands up to Caesar, explaining:
“And this food is called among us eucharist . . . For we do not receive these things as common bread nor common drink; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior having been incarnate by God’s logos took both flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food eucharistized through the word of prayer that is from Him, from which our blood and flesh are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who became incarnate.” (St. Justin Martyr, The First and Second Apologies, translated with introduction and notes by Leslie William Barnard, Paulist Press, 1997; The First Apology at 66, emphasis added).
What does it matter that Justin passed along what he had been taught? Real philosophers are thinkers. Justin should use his God-given powers of reason. Has he never heard of exegesis? Didn’t Ignatius know? No one told Justin? The Bible alone is the basis for all things pertaining to faith and morals; nothing outside the four corners of Scripture. Never mind Ignatius and Justin witnessed to the truth with their blood. Never mind Revelation’s Fifth Seal and the cries of the martyrs. (Rev. 6:9-11). Anyone with a high view of Scripture must be the final arbiter of its interpretation. Separate! The truth demands it.
Heretics discover “unadulterated truth”
Martin Luther’s revolt of 1517 was not the beginning of break-away sects. That began in the first century: “They went out from us, but they were not really of our number; if they had been, they would have remained with us. Their desertion shows that none of them was of our number.” (1 John 2:19). Saint Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, writing around the year A.D. 180, battled Gnostics of his day with words fitting for our own:
“. . . [T]he Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth.” (Against Heresies, Chap. X, Kindle Edition, Location 570).
“But, again, when we refer [heretics] to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth.” (Id. at 3569).
“It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about.” (Id. at 3580).
“[W]e do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops.” (Id. at 3589-90).
“In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.” (Id. 3608).
The Truth two thousand years later
Saint Augustine, the fifth-century Church Father who Protestants and Catholics alike claim as their own, continued to hand down the truth of the Eucharist: “The bread which you see on the altar is, sanctified by the word of God, the body of Christ; that chalice, or rather what is contained in the chalice, is, sanctified by the word of God, the blood of Christ.” (Sermo 227; on p.377). And, “Christ bore Himself in His hands, when He offered His body saying: “this is my body.” (Enarr. in Ps. 33 Sermo 1, 10; on p.377). And Augustine’s bishop, Ambrose: “Do you wish to know how it is consecrated with heavenly words? . . . Before it is consecrated, it is bread; but when Christ’s words have been added, it is the body of Christ. . . . And before the words of Christ, the chalice is full of wine and water. When the words of Christ have been added, then blood is effected which redeemed the people.” (The Sacraments 4.5.21-23, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, 1-2 Corinthians at p. 110).
By what authority did I deny this teaching of the Catholic Church? Two millennia later, the Catholic Church continues proclaiming the Mystery of Faith:
“At the heart of the Eucharistic celebration are the bread and wine that, by the words of Christ and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, become Christ’s Body and Blood.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church at 1333; CCC internal citations omitted throughout). The richness of the Catechism shows the truth and beauty of the Sacrament from Holy Scripture, going back to the Passover of Exodus, the mysterious king-priest Melchizedek with bread and wine, and the Creator of bread and wine. Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes foreshadows “the superabundance of this unique bread of his Eucharist.” (CCC 1335). “The sign of water turned into wine at Cana already announces the Hour of Jesus’ glorification. It makes manifest the fulfillment of the wedding feast in the Father’s kingdom, where the faithful will drink the new wine that has become the Blood of Christ.” (Id.).
The Cross is not the only stumbling block. Many, upon hearing our Lord’s proclamation of the Eucharist, turned away. (Jn. 6:66; CCC 1336). “’Will you also go away?’: The Lord’s question echoes through the ages, as a loving invitation to discover that only he has ‘the words of eternal life’ and that to receive in faith the gift of his Eucharist is to receive the Lord himself.” (Id.).
Suffer the little children
Abundant evidence proves the claims of the Catholic Church. Once convinced, I could submit to Her authority, or reject it. The faith is not mine to re-write, whether in the twenty-first century or the sixteenth. The boy Jesus was under authority. We, His servants who must become like children, are not greater than our Master.
AS FOR ME, I KNOW THAT MY VINDICATOR LIVES, AND THAT HE WILL AT LAST STAND FORTH UPON THE DUST. THIS WILL HAPPEN WHEN MY SKIN HAS BEEN STRIPPED OFF, AND FROM MY FLESH I WILL SEE GOD: I WILL SEE FOR MYSELF, MY OWN EYES, NOT ANOTHER’S, WILL BEHOLD HIM: MY INMOST BEING IS CONSUMED WITH LONGING. JOB 19:25-27
*All Scripture from the New American Bible Revised Edition.