The first written account of The Last Supper is found in 1 Cor 11: 20-34. The Synoptic Gospels also contain an accounting (Mt 26:26-28; Mk 14:22-24; Lk 22:19-20). In all these accounts we find the words “This is my body.” The meaning of this phrase was settled for more than 1500 years — Jesus was referring to his actual flesh and blood. Then came the Reformation; its hostility towards the Roman Catholic Church formed the basis for scriptural interpretation.
In general, Protestants claim a certain scientific basis for their individual interpretations of scripture. They claim to have principles of interpretation which, when applied correctly, provide the correct interpretation. Even the Lutherans, who accept the literal interpretation of Christ’s words, adopted explanatory wording which is problematic. In rejecting the ideas of Impanation (that Christ is imparted to the bread and wine), Consubstantiation (that Christ is next to the elements), and Transubstantiation (that the bread and wine are changed into the substance of Christ’s body and blood, while maintaining the appearance of bread and wine), the Lutherans adopted the position that Christ was present “in, with and under” the bread and wine. In attempting to reject rationalistic explanations for Christ’s Real Presence, Lutherans nonetheless created a dogmatic formulation that suffices for an explanation — the very thing they were trying to avoid.
At the Marburg Colloquy (1529), Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli attempted to resolve their theological differences. They came to an agreement on 14 of 15 articles, but the one point that divided them was the phrase hoc est corpus meum (this is my body). Luther accepted Christ’s words as written, while Zwingli could not accept that Christ could be locally present at the right hand of God the Father, and also be present at the Eucharist. Vincent Medina notes this argument is fundamentally about a difference in Christology. The problem is what happened at the Incarnation: did the Son divest Himself of certain attributes in order to be contained within a human body, or did the Son take humanity into Himself? How can the Son be always present and filling all things if He is circumscribed by human form?
Modern Protestants take their cue from Zwingli in rejecting the idea that the phrase “This is my body” is anything other than a symbol. They apply their supposedly scientific methods of interpretation to the text, trying to determine exactly what type of figure of speech Jesus was using, and which word is the symbolic portion of the statement. In this they cannot agree.
Hal Schee and E.W. Bullinger are two people who agree that the phrase “This is my body” is symbolic and that the important word is “is”. Yet they give very different explanations for why this is so. Hal Schee writes: “In Aramaic (as in Hebrew), the verb ‘to be’ in the present tense is implied, not explicitly stated; as such, when Jesus says ‘this is my body’ or ‘this is my blood’, his meaning should be taken as symbolic.” E. W. Bullinger’s explanation is more detailed, and seemingly more scientific. Bullinger acknowledges that Hebrew “has no verb substantive or copula answering to the Greek and English verb “to be”. …In the Greek, as we shall see below, whenever a Metaphor is intended, the verb substantive must be used; otherwise it is often omitted according to the Hebrew usage.” The preceding passage comes in the middle of the first four pages about the use of Metaphor in the bible. But when Bullinger gets to a discussion of the phrase “This is my body” his discussion takes on an entirely different and hostile tone.
“Few passages have been more perverted than these simple words. Rome has insisted on the literal or the figurative sense of words just as it suits her own purpose, and not at all according the laws of philology and the true science of language. …So the Metaphor, ‘This is my body,’ has been forced to teach false doctrine by being translated literally. …Luther himself was misled, through his ignorance of this simple law of figurative language. In his controversy with Zwingle, he obstinately persisted in maintaining the literal sense of the figure, and thus forced it to have a meaning which it never has. He thus led the whole of Germany into his error!”
It is only after this verbal onslaught that Bullinger adds to his description of Metaphor. “The whole figure, in a metaphor, lies, as we have said, in the verb substantive ‘IS’; and not in either of the two nouns; and it is a remarkable fact that, when a pronoun is used instead of one of the nouns (as it is here), and the two nouns are of different genders, the pronoun is always made to agree in gender with that noun to which the meaning is carried across, and not with the noun from which it is carried, and to which it properly belongs. This at once shows us that a figure is being employed; when a pronoun, which ought, according to the laws of language, to agree in gender with its own noun, is changed, and made to agree with the noun which, by metaphor, represents it. Here, for example, the pronoun, ‘this’ (τοϋτο, touto), is neuter, and is thus made to agree with ‘body’ (σώμά, soma), which is neuter, and not with bread (άρτος, artos), which is feminine.” Bullinger goes on for six pages building his case that the phrase “This is my body” is a Metaphor or Representation — “A Declaration that one Thing is (or represents) another; or, Comparison by Representation.”
I find Bullinger’s hubris astounding. He claims to have finally discovered the truth in 1898, a truth that had been hidden for nearly 1,900 years. All biblical scholarship throughout history was dismissed out of hand, to be replaced by Bullinger’s ideology. I also find it interesting that instead of defining the undergirding philology at the beginning of his nine page article on metaphors, he buries this until he comes to the passage “This is my body”. Now it is true the preceding three pages mostly covered Old Testament metaphors, and only now are we dealing with Greek texts. However, the proper place for this discussion would have been immediately upon beginning with the New Testament, not waiting until a specific passage was in view. Moreover, once Bullinger begins dealing with the phrase “This is my body”, he abandons all pretense of working his way through the New Testament metaphors, but devotes the rest of his article to proving that “This is my body” is a metaphor.
Bullinger, like many Protestants, abandons the principles of Protestant Hermeneutics when it comes to this passage. There are many different formulations of these, but here are a few.
- Interpret scripture in harmony with other scripture. (Protestants usually fail to deal with John’s gospel, which does not contain an account of the Lord’s Supper, but instead provides its theological rationale. For example: “Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.” (Jo 6:53-56.)
- Interpret the unclear in light of the clear. (Once again, Jesus’s meaning is clear when taken in context with His other discourses.)
- Derive normative theological doctrine from didactic passages that deal with a particular doctrine explicitly. (This expands upon the previous two principles. It is not enough that a passage be clear, but that it be didactic. The discourses of Jesus are exceedingly clear, while the parables are intentionally obscure.)
Using the Protestant’s own principles of biblical interpretation, it should be clear that Jesus’ meaning was not symbolic — that Jesus was not using figurative language. The Jesus repeated references to himself as the bread of life, and to the eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood make this abundantly clear. Instead, Protestants impose their own prejudices and preconceived notions upon this passage, rejecting its literal interpretation in harmony with other passages of scripture. In the case of Bullinger, his hostility towards Roman Catholicism colors not only his treatment of the passage, but his treatment of those Reformers with whom he disagrees.
- Why then are there so many different denominations, each claiming to rightly interpret scripture? ↑
- Luther’s Small Catechism uses the phrase “in and under” the bread and wine. Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s friend and theological confidant, preferred “in and with” the bread and wine. The Formula of Concord, written after both Luther and Melanchthon died, uses the phrase “in, with and under”. ↑
- Note that Zwingli’s position assumes that God the Father exists in a locality; that the Father is in a place, that place has a throne, and that God is has a spatial presence in such a manner as to have a right and a left, a front and a back, a top and a bottom. ↑
- The problem is that the New Testament texts are in Greek, not Hebrew, so his argument does not apply. ↑
- J. Edwin Hartill defines Metaphor as follows: “Words are taken from their literal meaning and given a new and striking use. The figure is a distinct affirmation that one thing is another which it resembles. The two nouns must always be mentioned. The figure lies in the verb. ‘IS’ is equivalent to ‘REPRESENTS’.” Hartill’s examples are from the Old Testament: “flesh is grass” (Isa 40:6) and “sheep of his pasture” (Ps100:3b). J. Edwin Hartill says the metaphor must have two proper nouns, and does not allow for the use of pronouns. ↑
- E. W. Bullinger does not use the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament. ↑
- A simple Google Search for “Principles of Hermeneutics” returns almost 500,000 results. I looked at a number of them, and while they often have something in common, there are significant differences. Thus the supposed rationality of their systems is exposed as nothing more than personal preference. ↑