The Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation teaches that when a priest blesses the bread and wine of communion, they literally (though invisibly) become Jesus' actual flesh and blood. Accordingly, the bread and cup are literally the body of Jesus brought down from heaven by the priest each time the Mass is celebrated, and thus are proper objects of worship. To eat them is literally to eat Christ Himself, and is considered a vital means of receiving God's grace. One of the most important biblical arguments Roman Catholics make in defense of this teaching is from Jesus' words during the last supper when He first instituted communion, where Jesus says of the bread "this is my body" and of the wine "this is my blood." To the Roman Catholic, this seems as straightforward as it can get. In context, however, it is plain that Jesus did not intend us to take His words in such a flat, woodenly literal sense.
Can God use Metaphors?
One common point often touted in this discussion is that Jesus said that the bread is His body, He did not say that the bread represents His body. If Jesus wanted to make a comparison, He would not have chosen the word "is." This claim has always been vexing to me, as I recall learning about the different kinds of analogies back in early elementary school, and just assume that most any adult knows this basic information. One particular (and very common) type of analogy is that of a metaphor. The dictionary definition of a metaphor is:
"a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance, as in 'A mighty fortress is our God.'"1
By definition, a metaphor is a figurative way of speaking whereby the speaker represents one thing as another thing so as to make a point. Even the example given in the dictionary entry is instructive. The old hymn is obviously not claiming that God is literally a walled castle stronghold on a strategic mountain somewhere. To say that God is a mighty fortress is clearly saying something about God and His relationship to His people. It is not claiming that there is a fortress out there that has transubstantiated into God Himself. To interpret the hymn that way would just be silly. It is a metaphor. So to claim that Jesus could not have used the word "is" unless He meant to speak in a wooden, literal sense is to claim that God is inexplicably incapable of using metaphors, something even a mere human child does every day. The inspired word of God, however, is full of such metaphors. For example:
- Jeremiah 5:1-5, God tells Jeremiah to shave his hair and to weigh it on scales into thirds, then to burn a third, hack at a third with a sword, and then scatter a third in the wind. God then tells Jeremiah, "This is Jerusalem." God did not miraculously transform Jeremiah's hair into the city of Jerusalem or the flesh and blood of those living within the city. God said that the hair is Jerusalem, He did not say that it represents Jerusalem, yet it is clear that God was using this as imagery to represent His coming judgment on the city. God knows how to use metaphors.
- Matthew 5:13, Jesus says to His disciples, "You are the salt of the earth." He does not say that they are like the salt of the earth. He says that they are the salt of the earth. Obviously, Jesus did not mean to suggest that He had literally transubstantiated their human bodies into salt by pronouncing the blessings of the beatitudes over them. It is a metaphor.
- 2 Samuel 23:17, after some of David's "mighty men" risk their lives to fight their way into the enemy camp and bring back a cup of water for their thirsty commander, David states that the cup of water his men risked their lives to bring him is a cup of their blood. Obviously, he doesn't think that the water literally transubstantiated into the blood of his mighty men. He is speaking in a metaphor.
- Judges 7:13-14, a man has a dream about a loaf of bread that rolls into the Midianite camp and knocks over a tent. The interpreter says that the bread "is the sword of Gideon" who would destroy the Midianite camp. Obviously, this meant that the bread in the dream represented Gideon's "sword" (itself a figurative reference to his military force, not merely his own personal sword).
While it would be easy to multiply examples like this, these are enough to demonstrate:
- Just because God says that something "is" something else does not automatically mean we are supposed to take them literally
- Just because Jesus says that something "is" something else does not automatically mean we are supposed to take them literally
- Just because someone says that the liquid in their cup "is" someone's blood does not automatically mean we are supposed to take them literally
- Just because someone says that bread "is" something else does not automatically mean that it must we are supposed to take them literally
So the mere presence of the word "is" as opposed to a term like "represents" or "symbolizes" doesn't settle the matter. We have to look at the context. To start with, we must remember that Jesus was taking part in the memorial meal of the Passover in which everything on the table had come to symbolize things which pointed the participants back to one of God's greatest and most defining works of deliverance on behalf of His people. We must also remember that Jesus' literal body was still sitting at the table with His disciples, pointing to the bread and saying "this is my body." The most obvious meaning of these words to someone sitting there would be that Jesus was speaking figuratively. The burden of proof lies with the person claiming that Jesus was, in fact, revealing a mystical truth in which the bread and wine literally transformed into human flesh and blood while maintaining all the tangible qualities of bread and wine and while the man from whom the flesh came was still sitting at the table unharmed. Such an elaborate, invisible miracle would not have been impossible for Jesus, but it would not at all have been the obvious meaning of these words to anyone sitting there in this context. The most natural meaning would be a figurative one, and so it is fair to assume the symbolic interpretation of Jesus' words unless one can thoroughly demonstrate from the text that the Roman Catholic understanding is correct. The fact is, however, that the details from the relevant passages only further confirm that Jesus was speaking figuratively.
A Closer Look at Jesus' Words
Jesus' words regarding the practice of communion come down to us from four different New Testament authors. Note the various ways the authors explain Jesus' words about the wine:
- "This is My blood of the covenant," (Matthew 26:28).
- "This is My blood of the covenant," (Mark 14:24).
- "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood," (Luke 22:20).
- "This cup is the new covenant in My blood," (1 Corinthians 11:25).
If we only looked at Matthew and Mark, and restricted ourselves to this one phrase alone, we might interpret it either way. "This is my blood" could be figurative or literal. In Luke and Paul, however, the words are clearly metaphorical. Jesus does not say that the cup is His blood, but rather that it is the new covenant in His blood. It might make sense to talk about the substance of water physically transforming into the substance of blood. This happens elsewhere in scripture (though always visibly). It does not make sense, however, to talk about water physically turning into of a covenant because a covenant is not a physical substance! Since even Roman Catholics agree that there is no contradiction between the words of Matthew & Mark and the words of Luke & Paul, we have to go with the interpretation of Jesus' meaning that makes sense in all four contexts. The idea that Jesus is speaking figuratively is by far the best fit.
Perhaps even more crucial, however, are Jesus' explicit words regarding the purpose of communion. He said:
- "Do this in remembrance of Me," (Luke 22:19).
- "Do this in remembrance of Me," (1 Corinthians 11:24).
- "Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me," (1 Corinthians 11:25).
- "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes," (1 Corinthians 11:26).
The purpose of the Supper is to remember Christ and proclaim His death. Compare this to what was said of the unleavened bread when the Passover was first established:
- "Remember this day in which you went out from Egypt, from the house of slavery; for by a powerful hand the Lord brought you out from this place. And nothing leavened shall be eaten," (Exodus 13:3).
- "Seven days you shall eat with it unleavened bread, the bread of affliction (for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste), so that you may remember all the days of your life the day when you came out of the land of Egypt," (Deuteronomy 16:3).
- "Unleavened bread shall be eaten throughout the seven days; and nothing leavened shall be seen among you, nor shall any leaven be seen among you in all your borders. You shall tell your son on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ And it shall serve as a sign to you on your hand, and as a reminder on your forehead," (Exodus 13:7-9).
The bread was already a memorial element of a feast that symbolically points back to God's great work of deliverance. It was also already meant as a way of proclaiming that great work to the next generation. Jesus' death became our greater Passover, and so now the bread is to symbolize His own sacrifice and call us back to that even greater moment! Jesus was not creating some esoteric, mystical doctrine unheard of before His time and inadequately explained by His words. Instead, He was drawing on something that was already quite clear: the bread is a memorial and proclamation as part of a feast before the LORD. Jesus gave that bread new meaning, however, by attaching it to the sacrificial death of the God's only begotten Son rather than the death of the sacrificial lambs and the firstborn children of Egypt. So the figurative understanding of Jesus' words fits perfectly with His own stated purpose for communion as well as its connection to the biblical purpose for the unleavened bread of Passover in the first place.
Finally, Jesus Himself clearly regarded the wine as wine and not as literal blood. After they had partaken of the cup, Jesus says:
"I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom," (Matthew 26:29).
Jesus calls the drink He just shared with them the "fruit of the vine." The cup still contained a beverage made from grapes, not the fruit of Jesus' veins. It is celebratory wine that He looks forward to drinking with His disciples in His Father's kingdom, not His own blood. Therefore, Jesus regarded the cup as literally wine and only symbolically His blood (and the new covenant it established.) There is nothing in these words or their context that points to transubstantiation.
- 1. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/metaphor?s=t (accessed 1/26/17)