John 6 has been controverted within conservative Lutheran circles in recent decades, specifically verses 53-56:
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.
This portion of Scripture has been a hot topic of discussion because it is here that different understandings of the nature of Scripture come out most forcefully today. Older Lutherans, before the advent of historical criticism, did not wrestle with this text like we do currently. In fact, in my research, all orthodox Lutherans (before the rise of critical methods of biblical interpretation) took Luther’s position in saying that John 6 does not directly refer to the Sacrament of the Altar at all. That should tell us something. Some modern Lutherans want to correct Luther. But they approach Scripture and do theology differently—and with very different assumptions than Luther held.
Dr. William Weinrich’s enormous tome on the first six chapters of John tackles the issue from the modern, sacramental standpoint, so popular in the LCMS today. While the error, in itself, is not a fatal one, the reasons for defending it at all costs—and dismissing Luther’s, Chemnitz’, and Pieper’s words—are extremely telling for the future of Lutheranism. This modernist position on Jn. 6 illustrates what many pastors have been taught, since Dr. Weinrich has been teaching pastors, mostly at the Fort Wayne seminary, since 1975.
Above all, Scripture is complex, deeply-layered, and difficult to pin down to the modern academic interpreter of Scripture—the professional exegete. Every t-shirt Lutheran has to say that John 6 is not entirely about the sacrament, because of the scriptural context and doctrinal implications (not wanting to damn all those who have not received the Lord’s body and blood in the Supper, including the saints who died in faith before the Sacrament was instituted). In order to take a sacramental view, it has to be underneath the surface of John 6—lurking in the shadows. Scripture, especially the John of Gospel, is anything but simple and straightforward to the expert interpreter, making his expertise necessary to reveal what lies hidden in its depths. Though John wrote at approximately a 3rd grade vocabulary level, disguised themes and unspoken allusions lie imperceptible underneath the surface of the text to the modern academic.
John 6 is quite simple, and all Lutherans, for the first several hundred years after Luther, taught the latter part of John 6 as continuous with the former, with no change in subject matter or thought. Jesus elevates the eating metaphor to unbelieving Jews who simply wanted bread. They wanted Jesus to fill their bellies without work or price. Jesus’ response is not Gospel (like the Sacrament offers), but stern law for the Jews who would not accept the Savior in the flesh right before them offering them words of life.
Jesus, God in the flesh, is the true bread, without whom there is no life. We “eat” this bread, gaining life in Him, by believing in Him and His testimony. The words in verses 32-34 are plain and unambiguous: “Jesus then said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always’.” Christ Himself is the bread they should be seeking—not the physical loaves they had their fill of with the 5000. Jesus intensifies the contrast between earthly bread and Himself—to the point of great offense against delicate, especially Jewish, sensibilities.
John sets the teaching of faith forth in simplicity from the very beginning of his Gospel: John the Baptist “came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. … to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:7, 12). The Lord’s Supper would not have been offered to the unbelieving Jews, even if it had been instituted—that would be open Communion of the worst kind! But Weinrich takes the modern, critical, high-church view: “The Bread of Life Discourse (Jn. 6:26-58) is one of the most discussed and contested sections in the NT. It is a complex interweaving of various ideas and themes expressed through OT allusions and metaphor. A major difficulty is the question of the structure of this discourse, and this question too has received multiple answers” (662). How can the simple Christian hope to understand this so-called problematic text? Only by ditching the themes and confused scholars, simply letting Christ speak through His Word to convict by His Spirit.
By my count, there is 149 pages in this commentary on John 6, but very little of value to actually open up the text, as Luther so cogently does. Rather, it obscures the text. Weinrich starts by saying: “The feeding of the five thousand, with its eucharistic overtones, finds its ecclesial continuation after the resurrection in the communion meal” (635-36). The overtones are undefinable, mere reverberations in the reader’s mind. Much like interpreting art, these “tones,” not in the words, are subjective and not solid enough on which to basis any firm conclusions. So, we have arguments as to why John 6 is vaguely sacramental, but no substantial help in clarifying Jesus’s words. Even though the Greek Orthodox church uses John 6:53-54 as a proof-text for infant communion, denying justification by faith alone, Weinrich calls John 6:26-58 a “eucharistic discourse” (645). But, of course, he cannot go all the way and still maintain salvation by faith alone, so the Supper becomes only a slippery, secondary theme.
Prioritizing John’s Thinking over His Words
“The terminology of the Eucharist is employed” (648), we are told, but that is false because the words are hardly the same. Bread and fish are not bread and wine—the actual elements Jesus gave directly in the words of institution. Jesus prayed before both meals—but Jews, as Christians do now, prayed before most meals—even those not offering forgiveness. It is not the “words” themselves given in Scripture, but the philosophy of interpretation, which drives this thought: “it is baffling that the multiplication of loaves, which introduces the Bread of life discourse (Jn. 6:26-58), can be likened to an ‘ordinary’ meal” (by Theophylact)” (648-49). But the meal was not actually the Supper. We have no mandate or permission to use fish or substitute something for the wine. Weinrich calls this the “minimalist viewpoint.” But who are we to maximize and enlarge the meaning of Scripture, apart from what it actually says? The true meaning is fixed by Christ in the inspired words. Weinrich, like most modern scholars, disconnects the first part of John 6, which is patently not about the Supper, from the second part—destroying the unity of the inspired text. This is a primary assumption—the argument is not over the words of the text, but the doctrinal approach to God’s Word.
Even more, we must not confuse “body” with “flesh.” They are distinct words. “Body” (soma) is used in the four accounts of Jesus’ words of institution. It is not used in John 6 at all. “Flesh” (sarx) is a different word, not used of the Supper in Scripture. That does not stop Weinrich from using the later early church fathers to theorize: “The term [sarx], ‘flesh,’ could be used for the Eucharist and in fact was used by the fathers for the Eucharist” (711). That may be so after Scripture was written, but Lutherans don’t use later fallible human tradition to prove biblical meaning—that is completely backwards. The early church fathers were sloppy and imprecise when they did this, because they were not fully inspired by the Spirit in their words. The Scriptures—real words that we have been given by the Spirit—must prove it. This argument is very weak and shows a dependence on church tradition over God’s plain words.
The language of most translations in v53 sounds generally like that of the Supper. Laymen may be forgiven for hearing verbal similarities. But the scholar and pastor must be more astute, since the Bible was not written in English. Verse 54 (in the ESV) reads: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” The word “feed” in Greek (trogo) is to munch or chew, as a cow would. The metaphor of Jesus is heightened to the extreme. To eat Jesus’ flesh (he is following their crass, carnal, bread-munching unbelief) is most offensive to them.
The Supper, to the contrary, gives comfort and forgiveness of sins to the believer. But the unbelieving Jews in John 6 are driven away by thoughts of munching the very flesh of Jesus—cannibalism—whom they did not understand as the Savior. They did not see Jesus as divine food—God’s Son in the flesh—for faith, but merely a snack dispenser. Discarding the unique vocabulary of “munch” as “overinterpretation,” rather than just solid textual interpretation, Weinrich says it means the same as the more common word used for “eat” used of the Supper, even though they are completely different words in Greek (728).
Shockingly, Weinrich admits that the Lutheran confessions hold the view of Luther, but he disagrees with them, choosing to cite mainly his colleague and cohort Dr. David Scaer, who has made plain errors trying to defend an erroneously interpretation. “This view [of Martin Chemnitz] is also represented in the Formula of Concord: John 6 speaks of that eating ‘which occurs in no other way than with the Spirit and faith, in the preaching and meditation of the Gospel, although a spiritual eating can occur also in the Supper’ ” (747). This caviler dismissing of the straightforward confessional stance is revealing. This sloppiness in whimsically correcting the confessional standard pastors vow to uphold can only be satisfying to the expert viewing the Scriptures as a complex and flexible Rubik’s Cube, completely under his purview.
We are told: “The eucharistic overtones are explicit and intended” (669). But overtones are by definition not explicit or direct. No verse or actual words of Holy Writ are cited! As to their intention, this expert seems to claim that he knows John’s mind and intentions. But we have his words, not his intentions, to study. A claimed “intention” proves nothing at all!
Not all eating is the Supper and not all water in Scripture is baptism. To take this lazy sacramental tact only requires the “right sacramental assumptions”—one does not even have to read the text closely. “In our judgment, to understand the Gospel of John correctly one must take with utmost seriously the ecclesial dimension that lies within the story of Jesus. The story of the church is not a spiritual add-on that makes the story of Jesus into a mere historical past-tense narrative. The Christological, sacramental, and ecclesial dimensions are perichoretic in nature: in the one lies also the other (732).” But one is tradition outside of Scripture, merely assumed, which we do not have access to: the early church’s thinking. This makes Scripture to be unclear and unable to be comprehended simply from the words themselves. This is very far from Luther’s Scripture alone principle: “The passover allusions throughout John’s Gospel argue for a real eating and drinking in John 6” (743). Words actually convince and demand obedience, but allusions do not—which are likely just one’s own self-reflection and biases.
As an aside, I was taught at the Fort Wayne seminary (from 2003–2007) to read Scripture by asking “what was the (human) author thinking when he wrote this?” This is folly, and also a mild form of historical criticism. We can’t know the author’s mindset or exact earthly context. But we do have the author’s (which are truly God’s own inerrant) words—focus on them. We are not to psychoanalyze the human author, nor the divine. This is no way to approach divine revelation—like it’s a puzzle to manipulate. We are simply to submit to Scripture and take the words and their teaching as divine.
The undetectable “eucharistic theme of John 6 continues in the Epilogue of the Gospel,” which is called “a truncated eucharistic narrative” (744). But what does the eating of fish, yet again, in John 21 have to do with the Lord’s Supper? Making vague, unfalsifiable connections is not doing theology proper. This approach to God’s Word does not make salvation in Christ more certain, but undermines the foundation of all theological truths.
Here is another example of sloppy, unprovable exegesis: “Should the mention of ‘flesh’ and ‘blood’ in Jn. 6:53-56 suggest the Passover (as Jn. 6:4 makes explicit), it would be another indication that the ‘eating’ and ‘drinking’ which Jesus speaks of are not a metaphor for faith only, but are indicative of the oral eating and drinking of the Christian Pascha.” But Jn. 6:4 reads: “Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.” It gives real chronology about when this took place, but this historical fact is imbued with hidden theological meaning by Weinrich, though the text does not connect the time this event occurred to the subject matter at all. If the editor (“redactor” in critical terms) changed the words and time to fit his theological meaning, we have a historical falsification. All in the name of greater sacramental meaning! Yet, nothing is really said, in the end, adding to our understanding of the sacrament—either in John’s supposed sacramental allusions, or these 147 pages of commentary.
Weinrich seems to hold to two parallel (yet conflicting) themes as coexisting within the text of John 6: “Although Jesus’ words refer primarily to his sacrificial death, within these words one must hear as well a reference to the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood.” Remember that this position is a novelty within Lutheranism. In fact, his footnote for this statement cites Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687-1752), a pietist and one of the first Lutheran critical scholars of Scripture. But why must one hear what is not said and cannot be proven? Because that is the starting point for modern interpreters: the early Christians (including the Gospel writers) were sacramental, it is assumed, so the Scriptures must refer to such themes, even when they don’t explicitly say so in words. So, the assumed thinking of the evangelist (really the interpreter) takes precedence over Scripture’s words. After all, this account in John 6 is said to not be “a ‘pure’ historical event that lies encased in its own time and place” (710). This is the modern form of historical criticism—not saying the biblical events are false, but inferring that the history is not as important or plain as it was considered in pre-critical times. Facts and statements can’t just be true and inerrant—they must have been imbued with some theological allusions—even at the expense of the text’s actual words—for those with the right sacramental glasses.
Nevermind that Luther, the Confessions, and every orthodox Lutheran before the enlightenment did not hear sacramental overtones in John 6—we have William Weinrich and David Scaer to educate us on John’s thinking. But they refuse to deal directly and honestly with Dr. Luther’s, Martin Chemnitz’, and God’s actual words.
Weinrich tackles Augustine, who Luther basically followed in seeing John 6 as entirely about faith in the Savior, but he does not take on Luther himself. Instead, he dismisses Luther politely: “So, perhaps, Luther made a strategic choice and wished to move the discussion away from John 6 to the Words of Institution, which he thought less assailable” (758). Were Luther’s many sermons on John 6 mere strategy or politics? No, Luther based his teaching on the words of Scripture, and was willing to die for them, but Weinrich (as does Scaer) argues from Luther’s supposed cause the sacrament was not yet instituted, but even more because this passage itself and the sentences following plainly show, as I have already stated, that Christ is speaking of faith in the incarnate Word” (The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, 1520, LW 36:19).
Doctrine from Whence?
If Scripture is unclear, muddled with cascading themes and nondescript allusions, doctrine is implicitly assumed. But from where does doctrine come? Lutherans only have Scripture. Rome has tradition, liberal protestants have culture, but Lutherans lose the basis for all doctrinal authority, if they lose the clarity of Scripture. The words of the Bible must convict and give clear teaching for us to convict, reprove, and teach. Its meaning must be open and available to all to be an authority over all—even the scriptural experts.
Weinrich observes: “It is claimed that a sacramental interpretation of Jn. 6:53 makes the eating and drinking of the Eucharist necessary for salvation and so compromises the sufficiency of faith and implies the condemnation of any who do not partake of the Sacrament. It is fair to note that this objection does not arise from an exegetical consideration of the text but from practical, pastoral concerns” (749-750). But the text says outright: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” This eating Jesus says is necessary. In fact, without it there is no life at all in a person. So this eating is salvation. To call a direct proposition from the inspired text a “pastoral concern” is not taking the text very seriously. If we are not getting meaning from the text itself, meaning has to be dumped into the text—but that cannot be from Christ’s Spirit.
Are all non-communed infants damned? This is not a theoretical question, but a serious doctrinal one that must be answered on the basis of Christ’s Word. To call what the text demands in clear words merely “pastoral,” but not also “exegetical,” is a cop-out. This concern was also part Luther’s exegetical reasoning: salvation cannot be in the work of receiving the Supper, since some receive it to their condemnation (1 Cor. 11).
In this supposed elevating of the Supper, Baptism is made to be somewhat worthless, since if Jesus means the Supper in His words, every baptized person is damned without also physically eating and drinking. But the Supper does not offer His flesh to munch and digest crassly like a piece of raw meat—only His body to eat, hidden under the bread in a unique sacramental union. This misreading of John and all of Scripture is heinous and unwarranted. We must expect more of those who teach our pastors.
If everything in Scripture is shadowy symbolism, unspoken assumptions, and hopelessly multifaceted—nothing is concrete and real. Doctrine has no divine basis, if Scripture is not rock solid in meaning and unambiguously direct. To treat Scripture as unclear, or claim that it says two contradictory things at once (as in “John 6 is kind of sacramental, but not really fully about the Sacrament”), is to imply that all Christian teaching is uncertain and up for grabs.
Assuming doctrine might work OK for a generation or two, but we are now seeing the fruits in the LCMS of not grounding pastors solidly in the actual words of Scripture. We might think we have the themes of the apostles, but we are really getting the minds of the current experts who are elevating their own thoughts above the inspired words. As history shows, students are less careful and guarded than their teachers. Errors become magnified. So, we must “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). To be a real, certain authority, we must hold to the clearness of God’s inspired words and actually submit to them.
While the outward ceremonies, reputations, and proclivities at the two seminaries differ, the distance apart on the nature of Scripture is very small. James Voelz, of the St. Louis Seminary (and before that Fort Wayne) starts a paper with these words: “The problem of the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper in John’s Gospel is a large problem—it can and should cover John 6, John 13, John 2, John 19, not to mention John 21 (“The Discourse on the Bread of Life in John 6: Is It Eucharistic?,” Concordia Journal, 1989). Voelz tried to modify the Gospel of Mark, in his own wisdom. But if all Scripture is assumed unclear in meaning, that is a far worse error.
Weinrich theorizes (what is commonly known as “redaction criticism”): “it is possible that the evangelist has adapted the homily of Jesus for his own purposes and with his own terminology,” though that would make John a forger by changing Jesus’ words—making Him say something He did not actually say. Here we have a bad assumption which demands needless complexity and interwoven thematic strands in the biblical text. The sacramental view of John 6 is basically neutered and useless, in the final analysis, amounting to: “The sacraments are good and should be discussed and read into John’s inner thoughts—it is assumed by us, so it must be true, even if the words don’t say it.” But nothing definite can be said ultimately.
While Scaer and Weinrich make much of the fact that John 6 is used in the Lutheran teaching of Christ in reference to the power of the Supper and Lutheran piety, they have it all backwards. John 6 deals with Christ, who gives His body and blood in the Supper for forgiveness—to be received in faith (the eating of John 6). Of course, they are related, but not because John 6 says anything about the Supper—rather, it speaks forcefully and directly about the divinity and sacrificial death of Christ Himself. This power and life is received only in one way: by faith, not by munching the Supper, or Jesus’ flesh, as a cannibal eats his victim’s big toe.
The weak theological arguments to promote a hazy, mild sacramentalization of John 6 miss the point entirely. The Supper is about Christ, who is the subject of John 6—His whole person and how we abide in Him. Not by bare eating and drinking (even in the Supper) do we have salvation, but by faith in Him—including when we eat and drink the Supper rightly, in accord with God’s own Word. —ed.