Part II: Abstraction vs. Spiritual Reality
Previously I posted a response to the Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles. Michael received a “mailbag” question in Episode 75 asking what his best reason was for being Roman Catholic rather than Protestant, and Michael responded by saying that it made sense to him that Jesus, a “particular man” would have a “particular church.” Michael, of course, defended the notion that the Roman Catholic Church was the “particular” church established by Jesus.
In my response, I argued that Michael’s “particular man” argument fails because Jesus, in his role as “the Christ,” who is head of the Church, is not described in the New Testament in terms of his being a “particular man.” His role as the “particular man” relates to his being the promised Messiah and king of Israel, who are the real particular people of God. In his role as Christ, the Head of the Church, on the other hand, Jesus is described as the heavenly Man who has a direct, spiritual relationship with each and all of his people. He did not need to establish a “particular church” with a “particular clergy,” because his mode of interaction with this new, heavenly and spiritual people was by the spirit, rather than according to the flesh, as it had been with his earthly people, the nation of Israel.
In Episode 86, Knowles was asked a “mailbag” question which spoke directly to the points I made in my article. The questioner mentioned the distinction between Jesus’ role as the “particular man” who is the Messiah of Israel, and his role as “Christ, the universal Logos of the Universe” who is Head of the Church.
In his response to the question, Michael Knowles said that the questioner was making the mistake of turning Jesus into an “abstraction,” of “abstracting Christ from his incarnation.” Michael said:
“This is the temptation of Rationalism…Martin Luther wrote, ‘In matters of faith, each Christian is for himself pope and church.’ It is no coincidence that Rationalism rose out of the Protestant revolution. By ‘Rationalism,’ I mean that elevation of each man’s capacity to reason. Now, one man’s reason, his intellect, his will, are perfect. That man is Christ. But the rest of ours are not. We see the themes of emancipation and revolution running throughout modernity. But we should be careful when we overthrow in these revolutions what we emancipate ourselves from. So the Rationalist exercise continually distinguishes the symbol from the symbolized; it separates them. You can only comprehend abstract things, so the Rationalist thinks in ever more abstract terms. But Christ is not abstract. There is no separation between Jesus the man and Christ the Logos. Christ is that unity…The perfect junction of the symbol and the symbolized…”
Distinguishing Spiritual from Abstract
Abstract reasoning never was, nor indeed could it be, an important part of the Protestant project. Protestantism, for starters, would be better understood as a flowering of religious piety than as an ideological revolution. To be sure, abstract reasoning did play an important role in the Enlightenment which followed closely after the Reformation, but this was not because the two movements were ideologically akin, but simply because both movements, for their own reasons, shared a skepticism toward tradition. Most Enlightenment “isms” can be understood as secular answers to the question, “What should replace tradition as the proper source of authority?” Rationalism answered: Reason alone! Luther, by contrast, called Reason “the Devil’s prostitute” sent to seduce the faithful. He, and the rest of the Reformers with him, remained committed to Scripture Alone.
St. Thomas Aquinas’ synthesis of medieval theology and Aristotelian metaphysics had, by the sixteenth century, become an authoritative tradition within the Catholic Church. Medieval theology had tended to conflate Platonic forms and Aristotelian universals with the spiritual/heavenly realities mentioned in Scripture. Thomas' teaching regarding the Eucharist, which we will discuss further below, is perhaps the best example of this conflation. Luther himself preferred philosophical Nominalism, which rejected the independent reality of Greek abstractions entirely. Here, at least, Catholicism was on the side of abstract Reason against Protestant objections.
It was liberation from these medieval theological mistakes that enabled Protestants to look back to what I would view as the plain meaning of Scripture. The Scriptures do not describe these heavenly things as mere "abstractions," but as realities that have a spiritual existence, spiritual existence that is no less real for being incorporeal. For example, according to the Bible, God the Holy Spirit is not perceptible to the human senses in His normal mode of operation. Put another way, the Holy Ghost has no physical existence. But this does not mean that the Holy Spirit is any less a real person, nor that He is any more abstract than the physical, particular person Jesus of Nazareth.
The Eucharist and Spiritual Reality
Catholics believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Lord’s supper. According to Catholic categories of thought, in order for this presence to be real, it must also be physical. As Knowles said, anything less would be mere “abstraction” that “distinguishes the symbol from the symbolized.” In order to sustain this view in light of scientific evidence to the contrary (communion bread tastes like bread, for instance), Catholicism (largely through Aquinas) parsed Aristotelian categories (substance vs. accidents) to explain how something that truly is Jesus’ flesh could still appear to be bread. Even Luther himself, unsatisfied with Rome’s answer, still believed that the physical substance of Jesus is ingested along with the bread in the Eucharist.
According to Calvin and later Protestants, the Eucharist (later “the Lord’s Supper” or “Communion”) contains a spiritual reality, separate and apart from the physical elements. John Calvin charted this course, when he said:
“…the sacred mystery of the Supper consists of two things–the corporeal signs, which, presented to the eye, represent invisible things in a manner adapted to our weak capacity, and the spiritual truth, which is at once figured and exhibited by the signs.”
In podcast episode #71, Michael Knowles was asked why Catholics take Jesus’ words about bread and wine literally, while they do not take his words to be literal in other places, as when Jesus mentions being “born again” in John 3. Michael answered by saying that Jesus’ command to “eat his flesh” and “drink his blood” is special, citing John 6 where Jesus said that his flesh was “real food” and his blood was “real drink.” Michael explained that there are times when Jesus said things in a metaphorical way (his parables, for instance) and others where Jesus clarifies that he is talking about something real.
In John 6 some of Jesus’ disciples approached him saying that Jesus’ message to the Jews was “a hard saying.” Michael and other Catholics understand the difficulty, here, to be an implication of cannibalism. But the context makes clear that there was a different sort of confusion. Jesus responds, “Does this stumble you? Then what if you should see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” This response seems to indicate that what troubled the Jews was not literalism, but the fact that Jesus declared himself to be the true bread from heaven. According to Jesus, the bread Moses gave in the wilderness was a mere picture of Himself, who is the true, spiritual food. How could he say such a thing?
It is true that the Jews did ask among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52). This was akin to Nicodemus, having been told by Jesus that he must be “born again,” asking, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb, can he?” (John 3:4) Both Nicodemus in John 3 and the Jews in John 6 recognized that taking Jesus to be describing physical reality would be to enter into the realm of the absurd, so naturally they inquired further as to what Jesus meant. To Nicodemus, who seems to have been inquiring in good faith, Jesus explained Himself: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but has eternal life” (John 3:16). The life to which Jesus referred was not physical, but spiritual. A new spiritual person has been born.
In John 6, Jesus explains to his disciples what he meant by “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood.” “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh profits nothing. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). It may seem strange that so shortly after Jesus commanded his hearers to “eat his flesh,” he explains that “the flesh profits nothing.” But Peter understood what Jesus meant. The breaking of physical flesh and the shedding of physical blood, in some spiritual way, gives life. When so many others had left Jesus’ side, Peter says:
“Lord, to whom will we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed and come to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68).
Notice that Peter did not say, “You will shortly offer us the Eucharist.” What distinguished the twelve who remained from those who left was not observation of a sacrament, but belief. What it means to eat and drink of the Lord himself is to believe him. That is how you become “born again” by the Spirit (John 3), and that is also how you “eat and drink,” meaning grow and get nourished in the Spirit (John 6). Believe!
Israel and the Church
As was mentioned in Part I of this analysis, the Jews were God’s particular people. To them pertained the promises of a physical Messiah, a physical kingdom, and a physical plot of land. Jesus affirmed that He fulfilled these promises, and promised further that He will physically return to the earth in order to rule from the particular city of Jerusalem. While there were certain promises to Israel that were spiritual in nature (Jeremiah 31:33), the bulk of the promises to them were physical. The calling of the nation of Israel was this-worldly, by following the Law of Moses, they would display God’s wisdom to the Gentile nations of the world.
While some promises to the church can be described as physical (2 Corinthians 5:2), most are spiritual in nature. The calling of the church is also a spiritual one. According to Ephesians 3:10, the Church is called to display God’s wisdom, not to the nations of the earth, but to “the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” In contrast to Israel, which often struggled against rival nations seeking to displace them from their physical promised land, the church is described as being at war against “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)
Israel had a particular clergy as well as a particular line of kings and a particular Law. Each of these particulars worked in conjunction with the earthly calling of the nation of Israel. With the Church and her more heavenly, spiritual calling, these particulars are conspicuously absent. Jesus gave spiritual authority to his church, to be sure, but there was no particular institution that defined it. The apostles’ admonition to “test” spiritual things (1 John 4:1), including prophecies (1 Thessalonians 5:20,21) and claims of apostolic authority (Revelation 2:2) makes little sense if spiritual authority comes from tangible ecclesiastic succession from Christ’s original twelve disciples.
The Church is a real, spiritual body of people with Christ as her Head. A lack of physical lineage to the apostles doesn’t mean the church is an abstraction any more than a lack of physical blood in the cup means Christ is absent from the Eucharist. As Peter understood, the church eats and drinks Jesus to its spiritual nourishment by believing what Jesus said about himself. Through Moses, God gave Israel physical bread, sustaining phyisical life; Jesus himself is spiritual bread, which brings eternal life.
The many dithering disciples of Jesus’ day, together with the myriad skeptics of our own day, say, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”
I’ll finish by asking you, reader, the same question that Jesus asked Martha in John 11:25,26:
“I am resurrection and life … Do you believe this?”
Listen to the question here.
Calvin, J. (2008). Institutes of the Christian Religion. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Inc. (p.901)
Listen to Michael’s answer here.
Michael actually erroneously claimed that Jesus himself said that the saying was hard. In fact quite the opposite is true. It was the disciples who were about to leave him who made the statement (John 6:60,66) and Jesus’ response to them was a rebuke, indicating that they ought not have found the saying to be so hard (John 6:61,62).
This is why the apostle Paul calls the believer in Jesus a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5;17).