I was reading Rowan Williams’ book Being Christian last night, and at a moment of mild exasperation in his chapter on the Eucharist tweeted the following:
This prompted a bigger flurry of responses than I’d been expecting. One person suggested this was a “biblical fundamentalist” hermeneutic (albeit reaching a conclusion rarely reached by “biblical fundamentalists”). Others drew my attention to Jesus’ frequent use of “figurative language” and metaphors. Another simply replied, “parables”.
Now, my aim in this post is not to argue for the Lutheran doctrine of the Supper over that of other Christians, but to address a narrower point from those two responses: does the Lutheran teaching – namely, that the Sacrament of the Altar is “the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and to drink, instituted by Christ himself” – depend on a “literalist” or “fundamentalist” reading of Scripture, one which ends up overlooking the metaphorical and figurative aspects of the text?
The discussion last night was helpful in clarifying my own thoughts on this issue. The question is, what type of statement is Jesus making when he says “this is my body”? Is he being metaphorical, as when he says “I am the door”? Or is he using figurative or parabolic language, as when he says “the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed”?
The answer, I think, is: none of the above. Let’s take a closer look at what Jesus said (as compiled in the Small Catechism):
“Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” … “Take this and drink of it, all of you. This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
The point is that Jesus isn’t just imparting information in these words; he is making a promise, above all a promise of “the remission of sins”.
When Jesus imparted information to people, then yes, he very often used figurative language – though even then, we are told he “explained everything in private to his disciples”. But when he was directly addressing God’s promises to people, especially the promise of the forgiveness of sins, he spoke in clear terms intended to create faith in the listener: “Your sins are forgiven; stand up and take your mat and walk”; “I am willing: be clean”; “According to your faith let it be done to you”; and so on.
The Lutheran belief is that when Jesus says “this is my body, which is given for you,” he is declaring a promise rather than merely imparting information. That is, “this is my body” is in the same category of statements as “your sins are forgiven” rather than statements such as “I am the gate of the sheep”. He wanted his disciples in the upper room, and wants us, to believe those words of promise; to take, eat and drink.
Not all Christians will share that understanding of Jesus’ words, and I don’t expect (though I can always hope!) to have changed many of their minds with this post, But I hope at least to have demonstrated why taking a “literal” view of Jesus’ words of institution (“‘is’ means ‘is’, on this occasion at least”) isn’t a rejection of metaphor generally, and doesn’t commit us to a flat, “literalistic” reading of Scripture as a whole.