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In both Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism, the words of Jesus, "This is My body" and "This is My blood" referring to communion bread and wine, respectively, are taken literally, and transubstantiation is believed to occur. I know that many Protestants do not believe this. For non-literalist Protestants, this is not surprising. However, there are many Protestants, of course, who regard the Bible as the literal word of God. One might think that all of the literalist Protestants accept transubstantiation. But I think that is not true.

So my questions are:

  • Do all literalist Protestants accept transubstantiation? Do most of them? Do any of them?
  • For the ones who don't, how do they explain what appears to be the plain words of Jesus on this?
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To understand this answer, we will look at just two aspects.

One, Christ speaks literally about many things many times, yet no one believes He turned into a literal door or into a nebulous ghost of a concept like truth.

Two, Protestants disagree with transubstantiation not because they don't believe the bible, but because they believe that Christ's sacrifice was done once for all time.

Literalism

When Christ said, I am the way, life, truth, what did those three things look like? What ghost can one conjour to represent truth? Rather, they looked stedfastly at Christ who was clearly standing there in front of them.

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. John 14:6

When Jesus said, I am the door or you are a sheep, do you take this literally? Is He wood, rock, blanket, or what as that literal door?

Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep. John 10:7

So likewise when Jesus said this, did He disappear and become a loaf of bread?

And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body.

So, it is clear enough that Christ speaks specifically at all times, but that is not to say literally at all times.

Sacrificial

With lovely irony, when the bible does literally say Christ sat down as an offering priest because of His own one sacrifice, Protestants believe this, while Roman Catholics do not.

But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; Heb 10:12

There is no priest presuming to be Christ on earth who offers the "same" sacrifice that Christ did some 2,000 years ago.

Though time wouldn't permit, it is interesting enough to view this contrast between the two views of a literal piece of bread and a literal ongoing sacrifice done daily versus a metaphor and one sacrifice of Christ's body done once for all time.

So for Protestants, the plain words of Christ about this is My body and what it represents are clear enough.

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    "There is no priest presuming to be Christ on earth who offers the "Same" sacrifice that Christ did some 2,000 years ago." actually, the teaching of the Catholic Church is this: Every Priest acting in Persona Christi ( The Person of Christ) offers on earth the very same sacrifice that Christ offered 2,000 years ago. – Marc Oct 7 '18 at 14:20
  • @Marc I'll see about reworking my sentence (or just leaving this comment) because I understand as you say that there are those who teach that their priests who seem to do so; but, what I was saying is that it doesn't happen (the priest presumes it). The reason is because Christ sat down in heaven. Sacrifice on earth done once, never to be repeated. IOW, a priest standing and offering bread/wine presumes to be Christ (who is actually sitting as regards sacrifice) and presumes to offer the "same" (sans blood) sacrifice as Christ did 2,000 years ago. – SLM Oct 7 '18 at 21:45
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John 6:51-59, which contains one of the most compelling words that convince people of transubstantiation, is seen by literalist Protestants and similar non-denominationalists as not supporting transubstantiation, not because of a lack of literalist interpretation, but because of contraindicating statements for a literal understanding of Christ's flesh and blood in the context:

As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. John 6:57 KJV

Notice that there is an analogous statement there. It is absurd to suggest that Christ eats the Father; thus, you would not expect the believer's literal, physical eating of Christ to take part in any sort of spiritual life.

It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life. John 6:63 KJV

If what Christ is saying is "spirit," and "the flesh profiteth nothing," in immediate response to the statement of Christ's disciples in John 6:60, then eating Christ's actual flesh and blood is not profitable without the salvation of the soul by the Holy Ghost.

Moreover, a similar statement is provided later in John 7,

He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.) John 7:38-39 KJV

Clearly, no one has bellies actually flowing out rivers of any water; this is figurative. But the format is very similar to the statement following the oft-cited transubstantiation text of John 6. This reading does not undermine the general rule of literal interpretation, as John is also a historical narrative of the gospel. There are clear marks of comparisons in both of these passages; one in the form of a simile, and one in the form of a parenthetical statement.

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Speaking as a Protestant and speaking as someone who takes a lot of care with regard to the literal text of scripture, I would say that one of my main reasons for believing that the partaking of Christ is a matter of faith (and not digestion) is due to Paul's words in Galatians 4:19 :

My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you ...

τεκνια μου ους παλιν ωδινω αχρις ου μορφωθη χριστος εν υμιν

[Received Text - Stephens, Beza, Elzevir and Scrivener are all identical.]

The Douay-Rheims, translated from Jerome's Vulgate, has the wording :

My little children, of whom I am in labour again, until Christ be formed in you.

filioli mei quos iterum parturio donec formetur Christus in vobis

Christ will be 'formed' in the Galatian readers of the epistle if they hearken to the doctrine contained in the epistle.

Nowhere in the epistle does Paul speak of the memorial of bread and wine - he speaks to their faith and he speaks of the doctrine of the gospel.

The memorial is an outward recognition of what is (already) done spiritually and inwardly.

Faith - not ritual works - is that whereby Christ is formed within me. This is my personal experience. Ritualism did me no good. Works brought down a curse.

every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: (Hebrews 10:11)

as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse (Galatians 3:10)

But by the 'hearing of faith', Galatians 3:2, and by that alone, 'Christ is formed within'.

This is my Protestantism and this is my Orthodoxy - the gospel of God concerning his Son Jesus Christ, which gospel was delivered in about 140,000 Greek words in 27 volumes by nine writers, inspired by the Holy Spirit and authorised personally by Jesus Christ, himself, from the throne of his Father.

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The larger context of John chapter 6 is where a literalist may go to refute the notion of transubstantiation.

v.1-15 Jesus miraculously feeds a huge crowd

v. 25-26 The crowds find him and he chastises them for coming to get their bellies filled again rather than responding to the miracle.

v.27 Don't work for perishable food but for eternal food

v.28 What work avails us of eternal food?

v.29 Belief in Jesus is the work

Starting here the crowd begins to push back, asking for a sign to prove what Jesus has just said, even though the sign was just performed and Jesus had just chastised them for ignoring it.

So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” - John 6:30-31

v. 32-33 Jesus then indicates that manna was a figurative type and He is the anti-type; the true bread.

Now again Jesus indicates the means by which one may partake of the true bread:

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. - John 6:35

Starting at verse 36 Jesus begins to make clear that the unbelief represented in the crowd is not due to lack of proof but is rooted in human will and the providence of God:

But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. - John 6:36-37

v. 40 Jesus emphasizes belief focused toward Himself again.

The Jews in the crowd now begin to grumble about how it is Jesus can say He comes down from heaven:

So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” - John 6:41-42

v. 43-45 Don't grumble. You can't come to me on your own. If you haven't learned from the Father you won't come.

v. 47 Again the only emphasis is on belief.

v. 49-51 The contrast is drawn again between the results of eating Manna and eating True Bread.

v. 52 Disputes ensue

v. 53-57 Jesus puts more focus on the aspects of his teaching that are causing strife among the unbelieving:

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. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” - John 6:55-58

Notice in the above passage that AS Jesus lives because of the Father SO whoever feeds on Jesus will live because of Him. It is unlikely that Jesus consumes the Father and more likely that Jesus is drawing spiritual sustenance from the Father as we are to draw on Jesus.

This is confirmed following verse 60 where the disciples say, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”. In response Jesus declares:

It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. - John 6:63

Summary:

In true parabolic fashion Jesus is addressing the root cause of unbelief and the benefits of belief. As resistance to His saying increases so Jesus makes His words more offensive and difficult for those who are already bent towards unbelief. This is the entire purpose of parabolic teaching:

This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: “‘“You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” For this people's heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’ - Mat 13:13-15

The teaching at the beginning, prior to the mounting resistance, is the most clear. Whoever comes will not hunger and whoever believes will not thirst. It is stubborn unbelief that results in the offensive proclamation to eat flesh and drink blood.

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There are many ways to interpret scripture. In Medieval times, according to Saint Thomas, there were at least four:

  • literal/historical - the plainest meaning of the words
  • tropological - the moral meaning of a passage
  • allegorical - an invisible action is signified or represented by a visible action
  • anagogical - an invisible action is revealed by a visible action. For example, Jesus tells a man that his sins are forgiven, then heals the man to show that he has the authority to do so. You cannot "see" forgiveness, but you can see healing.

Many literalist Protestants today use the grammatical/historical method. The literary type of the passage is a key to how to interpret it.

  • Historical events - will be interpreted literally, but often a moral meaning will be derived, and possibly a Christological type applied
  • Prophecies - in almost all prophecies, the details will be figurative. For example the seven fat and seven sickly cows in Pharaoh's dream. Figurative and literal language may be mixed together, as in Revelation where a lampstand is presented, then interpreted as churches and angels, or a beast is described, then associated with a tyrannical kingdom.
  • Parables - the characters and actions have a moral meaning, but also sometimes a prophetic meaning as well.
  • Psalms - are poetic, but some contain prophecies. Hyperboles, metaphors and similes abound, as well as many anthropomorphisms of God.
  • Genealogies
  • etc.

Thus when you turn to the statements where Jesus says that you must eat his body and drink his blood, you need to decide which of the many literary types is being used. Prophets like Ezekiel (see Ezekiel 4, for example) performed symbolic actions that had prophetic signifigance. The entire Jewish sacrificial system is symbolic and has elements that point to Jesus, so they are all metaphors or anagogs themselves. Jesus at the Last Supper was formally identifying what was about to happen to him with the Jewish sacrificial system and regulations concerining Passover.

The symbolic actions (Jewish ceremony and sacrifice) point to the true sacrifice (Jesus on the Cross). Passover was always a symbolic action (blood on doorposts symbolizing the blood of Christ), so the eating of bread and drinking of wine which was symbolic remains symbolic, but the symbol is now being clarified as pointing to Jesus. The difference is not a mystical transformation of bread into body or wine into blood, it is a change in the interpretation of the symbols.

"Do this in remembrance of me." We remember what happened in the past when Jesus died on the Cross. It is a celebration, not a continuation of a sacrifice, a repeat of it, or an extension of it.

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