Archive E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Sacred Doctrine

The Eucharist and Spiritual Eating

John 6.22ff. is a text that has long been used in various ways and to various ends in debates about the Eucharist. Christ himself gives a clue to its proper interpretation in v. 63: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (ESV). The focus on the Spirit–“the Lord and giver of life,” as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed has it–in relation to the flesh helps to orient the reader as to the true mode of eating and drinking in the discourse that precedes: one eats Christ’s flesh and drinks Christ’s blood by the Spirit, that is, spiritually, and therefore by faith. For, as Christ goes on to say of those who reject his words that are “spirit and life,” “But there are some of you who do not believe.”

Augustine recognized the controlling influence that the work of the Spirit and of faith must have in correctly interpreting the eating and drinking indicated by Christ’s words in John 6, and our taking notice of this is in turn salutary for proper hermeneutic procedure in interpreting Augustine’s own realist and/or physicalist language elsewhere. So much is manifest in his twenty-sixth Tractate on John’s Gospel, which treats vv. 41-59.

Jesus, Augustine remarks in the opening paragraph, claims to be the bread that came down from heaven. What does this mean to want this bread? It means to hunger and thirst after a righteousness that is not one’s own: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Those are the people who desire the bread that comes down from heaven. Those who seek to establish their own righteousness do not hunger for that bread. As Augustine puts it of those who grumbled against Jesus:

Of such were these who understood not the bread that comes down from heaven; because being satisfied with their own righteousness, they hungered not after the righteousness of God. What is this, God’s righteousness and man’s righteousness? God’s righteousness here means, not that wherein God is righteous, but that which God bestows on man, that man may be righteous through God.

And how do we get this bread? By believing:

Wherefore, the Lord, about to give the Holy Spirit, said that Himself was the bread that came down from heaven, exhorting us to believe in Him. For to believe in Him is to eat the living bread. He that believes eats; he is sated invisibly, because invisibly is he born again. A babe within, a new man within. Where he is made new, there he is satisfied with food.

And where do we do this? Spiritually, in the heart. Augustine goes on:

But believing is not a thing done with the body. Hear the apostle: With the heart man believes unto righteousness. And what follows? And with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. That confession springs from the root of the heart.

This description comes in the midst of a lengthy excursus on the meaning of the words “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” I pass over it here, but it repays close attention. I hasten on, however, to point out how all of this applies to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and the shared reality partaken of by faith–that is, spiritually–in the sacraments of the Old and New Testaments.

It is obvious that God’s people in the Old Testament were given signs by God that pointed beyond themselves. It is equally obvious that they are not the same signs as those instituted in the New Testament. Outwardly, they are different. And yet there is one Lord–one Lord of Moses and of the believers in Augustine’s own congregation. They had received the same promise of life and of resurrection from the dead. How, then, can their signs be different? Because the power, or virtue, of the sacrament is different from the sacrament itself. If I were to give one person a check for $20 and another a check for $50 dollars, the “sign” would be the same (a check), but the reality would be different. If I were to give one person a check for $20 and another a money order for $50, the “signs” would be different as well as the reality they point to. If, however, I were to give one person a check for $20 and another a money order for $20, the “signs” alone would be different, while the reality to which they attest would be the same. Thus Augustine explains:

Moses ate manna, Aaron ate manna, Phinehas ate manna, and many ate manna, who were pleasing to the Lord, and they are not dead. Why? Because they understood the visible food spiritually, hungered spiritually, tasted spiritually, that they might be filled spiritually. For even we at this day receive visible food: but the sacrament is one thing, the virtue of the sacrament another.


[T]hey ate manna, we eat another thing; but the spiritual was the same as that which we eat….

And just as Moses and Aaron “understood the visible food spiritually,” so are Augustine’s own hearers to do. He exhorts them:

See ye then, brethren, that you eat the heavenly bread in a spiritual sense….

For anyone who eats the bread in a spiritual way–believing–has life. Whoever consumes Christ will not die. Does this mean, then, that no one eats to their destruction, as Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians? No–some indeed do. But they do so by only eating the outward bread–the sign–while not partaking of its “virtue,” its reality.

As Augustine puts it:

How many do receive at the altar and die, and die indeed by receiving? Whence the apostle says, Eats and drinks judgment to himself. For it was not the mouthful given by the Lord that was the poison to Judas. And yet he took it; and when he took it, the enemy entered into him: not because he received an evil thing, but because he being evil received a good thing in an evil way.

What does it mean to receive “in an evil way,” or in an unspiritual way, for Augustine? We have already noted unbelief. But it is not just unbelief as such, as he describes it, but unbelief as manifested in an uncleansed heart that prays the Lord’s Prayer with fingers crossed. “You forgive, it shall be forgiven you: approach in peace, it is bread, not poison. But see whether you forgive, for if you do not forgive, you lie, and lie to Him whom you can not deceive.” Still, it is important to notice that such a disposition is a manifestation of a more fundamental unbelief; indeed, Augustine connects it directly to unbelief and murmuring against God. If one attempts to “eat the bread” while not relying wholly on Christ, while attempting to establish his own righteousness and superiority and thus violating the principle of “one body,” he eats only bread; and he dies.

But anyone who partakes of the reality together with the sign will not die, for he has Christ.

The sacrament of this thing, namely, of the unity of the body and blood of Christ, is prepared on the Lord’s table in some places daily, in some places at certain intervals of days, and from the Lord’s table it is taken, by some to life, by some to destruction: but the thing itself, of which it is the sacrament, is for every man to life, for no man to destruction, whosoever shall have been a partaker thereof.

To conclude: God’s working has always been at bottom the same among his people. At different times, there have been different signs: manna, the altar, the cloud and the sea, the rock. But the reality, the “virtue,” was always Christ. And whether the sign was manna or the rock, Christ was consumed inwardly, by the heart and not by the teeth:

“This, then, is the bread that comes down from heaven, that if any man eat thereof, he shall not die.” But this is what belongs to the virtue of the sacrament, not to the visible sacrament; he that eats within, not without; who eats in his heart, not who presses with his teeth.

Christ is the righteousness and eternal life we do not have of ourselves. To eat him spiritually is to receive him by faith as what he is in fact, as righteousness and life, apart from whom all is death.

He might have said in brief, He that believes in me has me. For Christ is Himself true God and eternal life….We live then by Him, by eating Him; that is, by receiving Himself as the eternal life, which we did not have from ourselves.1

  1. I bring together here statements from paragraphs 10 and 19.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

2 replies on “The Eucharist and Spiritual Eating”

Luther is another one whose “realist/physicalist” Eucharistic stance needs to be understood in terms of his larger focus on faith and the Word. Lutherans insisted on “oral partaking,” but here’s the Large Catechism on the subject:

“Since the treasure is presented entirely in words, it can be seized and appropriated only by the heart that trusts the words. A gift of this kind, an eternal treasure such as this, cannot be taken with the hand …. The body cannot grasp or appropriate the benefit that is given in the Sacrament. This can only be done by the faith in a heart that recognizes what the treasure is and desires to have it.”

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