Reflections on a Christological Hermeneutic with a Glance Toward John 6
by Peter M. Berg
(This op-ed piece was originally published in July of 2005)
Ever since the inception of this journal its editors have been accused of promoting the Sacrament of the Altar at the expense of the preached Word. The accusation shows that the critics are either careless readers or, as we have sometimes found, have never read the journal, preferring to pass on gossip which they heard from someone else, who heard it from someone else, etc., etc. It’s the lazy man’s way of doing polemics. The published sermons alone should convince the unbiased reader that the editors have a high regard for preaching. We have not denigrated anything. What we have attempted to do, however, is to point out that it is the Supper which has been denigrated in large expanses of Lutheranism, to be sure, largely out of ignorance, but denigrated just the same. I suppose if the sermon had been treated the way that the Supper has been, and we were dealing with an every-Sunday celebration of the Supper but with “sermon Sundays” and “non-sermon Sundays,” that our advocacy of an “every-Sunday sermon” would be interpreted as promoting the sermon at the expense of the Sacrament. But then again no one said that life in the church would be fair or that it would make much sense. Sometimes there is nothing so unlike the church than the church, to quote Luther.
No, we have not denigrated the preached Word. In fact we are deeply concerned about the current state of preaching in the Lutheran Church. We don’t believe that it is an exaggeration to say that the situation is at the crisis stage if not already down the tubes. For those who think that this is an over reaction I offer this challenge: Randomly select three parish web sites from the WELS, ELS, or LCMS until you find three which publish the Sunday sermons preached there. The reaction which we and others of our ilk have had after a fair perusal of these sermons is that there is a great dearth of good preaching in Lutheranism. Perhaps no one now living is able to recall the pre-famine days. For all of the blither and blather about preaching the Word and getting our people into the Word, there is very little of the Word in all too many sermons and Bible courses. Of course there are exceptions and for that God is to be thanked. However, the exceptions are exactly that. It is not an anomaly to find sermons which do not mention Christ at all. Some have little relation to the text. The free-texting which we have frequently seen shows that many Lutheran pastors don’t understand the pericopal system (the Gospel of the day is always the sermon text). There is little Law which kills and all too little Gospel. The Gospel is often reduced to a “Gospel paragraph” or the simple assertion that “Jesus died for your sins,” and then this smidgen of Good News is negated by the formulaic Law/Gospel/Law preaching paradigm. Most of the sermons which we have read are simple to a fault, barely skimming the text. Egregious attempts at humor are also all too common place.
I further challenge our readers, especially those who claim that the MM denigrates the preached Word, to closely study the sermons offered on these pages. While we are troubled by our on-going feeble struggle to grasp the text and let it speak to our people, we assert (at risk of the accusation of arrogance) that these sermons are far superior to those which our readers will find on most web sites. We are ready to admit that this probably has more to do with the demise of good preaching than with the quality of our craft. All the more reason for concern.
The transformation which the editors of the MM have seen in their preaching borders on the radical. We pray that the change has been for the better and we believe that it is. If the reader doesn’t agree with the claim for superiority, he certainly has to admit that our sermons have quite a different feel than those commonly heard. In this same vein most Lutherans who attend the masses over which we and like-minded men officiate feel that they’ve entered another world, with most not a little discomforted. A thing largely due, we believe, to poor instruction in the theology of worship, which is the handmaid to evangelical preaching and a high sacramentology (three inseparable peas in a pod). Such transformations don’t happen over night. One evening, quite a few years ago, the chief editor of the MM telephoned me. He had been reading some of his old sermons. With a great deal of trepidation and shame he read excerpts over the phone. We laughed our tails off. Bad, bad preaching! Since I don’t produce a written manuscript of my sermons I was spared the embarrassment for my bad preaching, and for that I’m grateful. Amid the laughter was a sobering thought: Our poor people had endured a lot. How much they’re enduring on account of our current preaching is a question which nags the conscience. We, along with other like-minded friends, have pondered the reason for this poverty of preaching which impoverishes God’s people. We have come to the conclusion that the problem is not a matter of poor homiletics but rather of poor hermeneutics. And poor hermeneutics is a failure to find Christ. Curiously it is in the long-standing debate about the Eucharistic dimensions of John 6 in which issues pertaining to good preaching, hermeneutics and sacramentology all come together.
Stated simply the debate has to do with the question as to whether or not John 6 is Eucharistic. To be more specific, does Jesus’ claim that He is the Bread of Life and His shocking logion about eating His flesh and drinking His blood refer to the Holy Supper? In general the catholic fathers believed that this was so, with Augustine being an exception. Luther can be quoted in the same vein. Yes, early Luther, but as we shall see a view unaffected by the pressures of the later Sacramentarian debate with the Reformed.1
Before we look at the issues pertaining to John 6 it might be wise to state the obvious, with this caveat that the obvious is not always so obviously obvious even when the obvious is wholeheartedly affirmed by those who think they get the obvious. The obvious is that the Bible is about Jesus - all of the Bible is about Jesus. Now all Lutherans would add a hearty “Amen” to that confession of faith; that is until they begin to understand what that truly means. Yes, all Scripture is about Jesus. Jesus said so. He said of the Old Testament scriptures, “They testify about me.” Not just a little bit, but in their entirety. As Luther said, “All of Holy Writ points solely to Him…” (AE 23:16) It’s not just that the so-called Messianic psalms are about Christ, the whole Psalter is about Christ. He is the Old Testament and everything written therein is about him. Yes, he is obviously the Passover Lamb. The New Testament corroborates this. And yet, the Old Testament believers did not need the New Testament to tell them this. The hermeneutical key was the proto-evangelium (Genesis 3:15). Here was warrant to search for and find Christ everywhere in the Torah, Psalms, and Prophets.
The question as to how clearly the Old Testament people saw the Christ in their scrolls remains open. However, the scribes who attended Herod could point to Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah without equivocation. We have the benefit of hindsight and two millennia of patristic exegesis. Therefore, we do not run amuck, for instance, if we see in the cruciform form of Samson, strapped to the pillars of the temple of Dagon, which he brought down upon the enemies of Israel, an intended image of the crucified Christ who stretched out his arms for the salvation of sinners.2 In similar fashion, while most catechesis about Aaron holding up the prophet’s arms has to do with the service of the laity (see CW 573.3), it is infinitely better to abandon works and point to grace. Moses’ salvific cruciform posture, supported by priestly aid, intentionally reminds us of Christ’s victory over our foes through his death on the cross, mediated by the priests of God. Intentionally, I say, because all of Scripture is nothing more or less than God’s and Mary’s Son (Luther).
We can go on and on. The Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are Christ. If they are not, then they are about us, which is no good at all, for in us is nothing but hell and damnation. The feeding of the multitudes, which sets the stage for Jesus’ later catechesis in John 6, is a dry run for the Lord’s Supper. The exegetical hints throughout the pericope should be enough to convince the unprejudiced reader. If, however, the account is handled as it normally is, then it is about Jesus’ mighty power to provide us with stuff and get us out of jams rather than His gracious sacramental provision, which is pardon for our lust for stuff and our predilection toward jams. As Luther often noted, there is no comfort in God’s power unaccompanied by mediated mercy. Only when Scripture is all about Christ can it be about us, and it is about us because it’s all about Christ who is Mercy. We have been mugged by sin, Law, conscience, Satan and God. Once revived by Baptism (oil) and the Supper (wine), in the Church (the inn), through the Pastor (inn keeper) we too become Samaritans, helping our neighbor in “every bodily need.” Yes, we get to do our little thing, but no shortcuts. One first has to be mugged and die to self before Christ can kerygmatically and sacramentally live through his people. (Gal. 2:20)
Such a treatment of the sacred texts, although common place among the catholic fathers (and Luther), brings the dreaded charge that one is allegorizing, a practice which we were duly warned about at the seminary, although one wonders how much time our teachers spent with patristics. If one reads the fathers it becomes evident that the accusation of gross allegorizing on their part is itself grossly exaggerated. Even when one disagrees with an occasional exegetical stretch, the interpretation is usually harmless. The Fourth Commandment adjures us to respect our elders, especially since they have such a rich exegetical trove to give us. To believe that we are the first to come upon the Word with no presuppositions is folly. As Christopher Hall notes,
Indeed, have Christians at any time and in any place ever read the Scriptures in a vacuum, hermetically sealed from all historical, linguistic and cultural influences that potentially blur or skew the Bible’s message?3
The modern ideal which places an NIV Bible in every hand for personal reflection and interpretation makes everyone a Baptist pope and leaves the laity, without proper hermeneutical tools, as castrated as the Ethiopian eunuch, in need of a Philip. The perspicuity of the Scriptures doth not a Bible interpreter make. We must allow for the fallen state of man, which would have him read his own ideas into every text. Better to have these ideas displaced by the presuppositions of the fathers.
There are good Lutheran exegetes practicing today, yet they are the exception. Unfortunately there is a hostility toward their methodologies, even though much of their approach is patristic. Wisconsin Synod theologians, in particular, evidence this hostility. Here one is permitted to find Christ, his sacraments, his ministry and his Church in only those pericopes that specifically state that He is to be found there. One wonders if Peter had not pointed out the Christological/Sacramental meaning of the Flood, or if Paul had not pointed out the same in the Red Sea deliverance, that seeing what is so obviously there would be verboten by such a highly restricted hermeneutic. Perhaps if Lutheran pastors could move beyond Baptist proof-texting and into patristic thinking their preaching would be enriched along with their hearers. We cite Irenaeus,
If one carefully reads the Scriptures, he will find there the word on the subject of Christ – de Christo sermonem – and the prefiguration of the new calling. He is indeed the hidden treasure in the field – the field in fact is the world – but in truth, the hidden treasure in the Scriptures is Christ.4
If one has difficulty seeing Christ as the treasure buried in the field, or as the Good Samaritan, or as Moses with outstretched arms, then he will certainly not find the Sacraments, the Office of the Holy Ministry and the Church in these loci. It is not surprising that in churches where Holy Communion is an occasional added extra a kind of Nestorian separation occurs, on the one hand, between Christ, and on the other, between His Sacraments, His Ministry and His Church. Those open to patristic exegesis will see Baptism and the Supper in the two streams which flowed from the Savior’s riven side, but those with a proof-text mentality will see an unexplainable physiological phenomenon.
I am the Bread of Life
Space dictates only a brief look at the questions pertaining to John 6. Whether or not this chapter deals with the Lord’s Supper deserves a fresh look. I will summarize the arguments for and against a sacramental interpretation. At the outset it must be noted that both Luther and Martin Chemnitz argued against using John 6 in reference to the Supper. Along with Zwingli they both held to a metaphorical reading of the text. “Eating” becomes a metaphor for faith. Although it is always dangerous to speculate about the motivations of the sainted, please permit two thoughts: First of all, Luther’s supreme text used in the Eucharistic debates with the Reformed was that which contained the words of the Savior at table on the night He was betrayed. He would not let Zwingli and his crew wiggle away from est. On this little word Luther would break the necks of the Swiss. For the Reformer everything else tended to be extraneous. Secondly, Zwingli and the other Sacramentarians had found their text outside the upper room in their misinterpretation of Jesus’ saying, “…the flesh profits nothing.” (6:63) Since flesh (Jesus’ body) counts for nothing, Zwingli reasoned, then it would be of no use as sacramental food. Christ would be apprehended way up in the sky by faith, effectually spiritualizing away everything physical in John 6. Although flesh in John 6 refers to the true body of our Lord, in verse 63 Jesus moves to the more common meaning of the term as unbelief and turns it against His detractors and their unbelief. If the flesh of verse 63 means the body of Christ, then modern day deniers of the Real Presence need to realize that this verse can be used against the Incarnation. These Protestant deniers of the Real Presence stand condemned with their spiritual cousins of the first century.
However, what do we make of Luther’s position? Was the heavy reliance of the Sacramentarians on John 6, coupled with reformer’s Augustinianism, the reason why he took John 6 off the table? Who knows? Whatever the answer to the question might be a growing number of Lutheran theologians believe that the two Martins were wrong on this account. John Stephenson notes that the ranks broke sometime ago, “In the Lutheran tradition, John Arndt in the early 17th century, the churchly pietist Bengel in the 18th century, and Löhe in the (19th) century, reverently disagree with Luther by finding a Eucharistic dimension in John 6. Sasse very much followed Löhe in this….Löhe had understood them, as so to say, a ‘dry run’ for the words of institution. In his last writing, ‘Corpus Christi,’ on the Lord’s Supper, Sasse was a little more subtle and indirect. He finds John 6 to be suffuse with illusions to the Holy Supper.” 5
An argument invariably used against a Eucharistic interpretation of John 6 is that Jesus had not yet instituted the Supper, and therefore He couldn’t be speaking about something which had not yet been established, an argument which David Scaer calls both amusing and baffling. Those who use this argument fail to see that it can be turned against all of the Old Testament prophecies (see also 6:70, 71). It is also a failure to understand that John’s gospel served as catechetical instruction for an established church. His hearers already knew the end of the story. They knew the punch line, that is, they knew about the Supper. What may have been veiled to those who first heard Jesus’ words became clear to the Apostles and later catechumens. Revelation is often progressive (see 2:22). John’s enigmatic writing may also be attributed to the fact that the church was undergoing the first round of imperial persecutions. Enigmatic writing was understood by the initiated but not by the pagans. This was also the purpose of Jesus parables. Nor should we fail to understand that Jesus’ sayings are set in the context of the Passover (6:4), which during Holy Week would provide the context for the Institution, a contextual setting which would later dawn on catechumens as they read the Supper back into the text of the sixth chapter and its Paschal setting.
A seemingly convincing argument against seeing the Supper in Jesus’ words is His saying, “…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” (6:63) These words seem to imply that one cannot gain eternal life apart from the Supper. Here Lutherans who oppose a sacramental understanding of Jesus’ words become extremely inconsistent. The inconsistency occurs with Jesus’ identical phrasing in chapter 3, “…unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (3:5) Lutherans have argued that while baptism is necessary for salvation it is not absolutely necessary. There is great grace for exceptions, with the thief on the cross often cited (though we shouldn’t do theology based on exceptions). Lutherans have rejected the absolute necessity for Baptism, a meaning which some have forced on chapter 3:5, while stoutly defending an exegesis which finds Baptism in John 3. Why many cannot do the same in regard to the Supper and chapter 6 is truly baffling.
David Scaer also notes that if the John 6 audience is largely compromised of believers, as verses 64 and 66 indicate, then Jesus urging those who already believe to believe seems curious6. It seems here that the Savior is leading His disciples into a fuller incarnational/ sacramental understanding of the Gospel. As He leads his followers along the catechetical path the scandal that is the Incarnation, with its later implications for the Supper, becomes all the more scandalous and, “…many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.” (v 66) It seems to this author that the Lord in His eternal omniscience said from all eternity to those offended by what they determined to be grotesque, “Are you offended at my saying, ‘Eat my body and drink my blood’? Then I will pronounce a judgment on your unbelief and do exactly what repulses you. I will give my body for eating and my blood for drinking, thereby damning your fleshly reason.”
Another argument against seeing the obvious in John 6 deals with vocabulary. In recording the words of institution the Synoptic gospels use the word “body” in recording the Institution, whereas John in chapter 6 uses the word “flesh”. For some exegetes this militates against a sacramental understanding. It should be noted that there are more linguistic similarities than differences between the fourth gospel and the first three. Also, the concept of flesh takes on special force in John’s work. Throughout Scripture flesh has a negative connotation. However, John elevates flesh. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us….” (1:14) Human flesh has been sanctified and elevated in the incarnation of God’s Son. It is not surprising that John would substitute “flesh” for “body” to make this point, especially in view of his battle against the Gnostic deprecation of God’s gift of created bodily things, especially the Incarnation. This flesh is good - take and eat! There is a very pungent “in your face” feel to John’s words. Pungent, yes, but also very comforting. How very comforting to know that in our eating and drinking of divine flesh and blood all our woes and hopes are “hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:3) Everything, all wrapped up safe and sound, both the good and the evil.
Finally, it is unfortunate that these two interpretations have been pitted against each other, for they are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, both ideas can stand side by and side and must. There is no benefit in a mere physical eating and drinking of the Supper apart from faith. Indeed, one might argue that “eating” and “drinking” in John 6 can be taken both spiritually and physically. These are levels of meaning which mutually and necessarily support one another.
It has been rightly observed that John’s gospel is the most sacramental of the four. From Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus to the Pool of Bethesda and on to the Pool of Siloam the gospel drips with baptismal references. Therefore it would seem strange if the fourth gospel did not reference the Supper. For those Lutheran pastors who have no problem denying their people the Supper on half of the Sundays of the church year this will not seem curious, but for those who take these matters seriously such an omission seems odd. However, there is no omission. Just as John has not omitted Holy Baptism (chapter 3), so he has not omitted Holy Communion (chapter 6), nor Holy Absolution (chapter 20). In fact, chapters 3, 6, and 20 ought to be read together for they inform one another. With these insights we Lutherans have another powerful testimony to the Real Presence, one long enjoyed by the church catholic.
It is unfortunate that the stringencies of the Sacramentarian debate probably made Luther turn from his former sacramental view of John 6. We would not be his true heirs if we blindly followed his lead on this point. The former monk freed his followers from any ill informed vows of loyalty to him. The sixth chapter of John deserves closer scrutiny. However, there is a larger hermeneutical issue at stake. The failure to find the Lord’s Supper in John 6 is symptomatic of the failure to find Christ, His Sacraments, His Ministry and His Church wherever the sacred writers have placed them. Failure to see this is a failure to see the Gospel. The opinio legis is always willing and able to amply fill the vacuum, and it has. This fact explains a lot about the current state of preaching in the Lutheran Church. Kyrie eleison.
The Reverend Fr. Peter M. Berg is a rostered pastor of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.
1 See AE 42:56-57.
2 Fortunately our hymnists have been bolder than many of our exegetes. Consider: “Like Samson Christ great strength employed and conquered hell, its gates destroyed.” “’Tis He whom David did portray when he did strong Goliath slay.” (TLH 211) “Now our heavenly Aaron enters with His blood within the veil, Joshua now is come to Canaan and the kings before Him quail. Now He plants the tribes of Israel in their promised resting place. Now our great Elijah offers double portion of His grace.” (TLH 218)
3 Christopher Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1998), page 14.
4 Ibid, page 192.
5 Dr. John Stephenson, Holy Supper, Holy Church (paper presented at the Sasse Symposium at St. Catherines, Ont. in 1995).
6 I’m deeply indebted to Dr. David Scaer for many of these insights into the text of John 6.