Catholic apologist, Karl Keating, authored an article titled, “Catholicism and Fundamentalism — The Eucharist,” which can be read here: http://catholiceducation.org/articles/apologetics/ap0003.html. The subject of the article was John chapter six, the bread of life discourse.
Mr. Keating has a fair amount of respect among Catholics who visit my blog, which is why I want to address his article here. He is the champion of using early church writings out of context, avoiding context within Scripture, and using references of which he seems to have little familiarity to support his arguments. It was his plethora of out-of-context quotes published on his website, Catholic Answers, that inspired me to write a lengthy contextual article on the early church view of the eucharist. Here I just want to respond to some of his arguments on the bread of life discourse. I want to pick up where he commented on why Jesus didn’t go after His departing disciples.
In his article, Karl Keating said this:
“There was no attempt to soften what was said, no attempt to correct “misunderstandings”, for there were none. His listeners understood Him quite well. No one any longer thought He was speaking metaphorically. If they had, why no correction?” (Karl Keating)
The short answer is this:
“If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
These words were spoken by Jesus to Nicodemus. Nicodemus facetiously asked Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Likewise, the false disciples responded, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” They even concluded, “This is a hard saying, who can understand it?” Yet Mr. Keating insists that “His listeners understood Him quite well.” No, they did not understand Him quite well; didn’t the Apostle John make that abundantly clear? Neither Nicodemus nor the unbelieving disciples at the discourse understood what Jesus was saying.
Mr. Keating further asserts that these disciples left Jesus because of a doctrinal disagreement.
“This is the only record we have of any of Christ’s followers forsaking him for doctrinal reasons … Both the Jews, who were suspicious of Him, and His disciples, who had accepted everything up to this point, would have remained had He told them He meant no more than a symbol.”
By saying this, Mr. Keating is asserting that these disciples believed in Jesus up to this point, but were turned away by His new doctrine, but that is not what we read in the bread of life discourse. What we read in the discourse is that they already did not believe in Him, and that fact couldn’t be clearer.
Prior to ever mentioning anything about eating His flesh, Jesus told them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen Me and yet do not believe.” Why would He tell them they do not believe prior to saying anything about eating His flesh if eating His flesh were the reason they disbelieved? Clearly this was not a doctrinal issue as Mr. Keating would like his readers to believe.
The fact that these disciples did not believe in Jesus is reason enough for Him to let them walk away. But why didn’t they believe, and since they didn’t believe why were they following Him? Two things must be understood in order to answer these questions. 1) What did all the disciples have in common with regards to how they viewed Jesus? 2) What did some disciples know differently about Jesus that enabled them to have enough faith such that they were not offended by Jesus’ words?
What all the disciples had in common was the same as all the Jews had in common, and that is they all shared the same messianic expectations. It’s the reason the crowds were excited and chanted, “Hosanna” when Jesus entered Jerusalem; it’s the reason the Pharisees wanted Jesus dead; it’s the reason some of the disciples argued over who would be greater in His kingdom; and it’s the reason the unbelieving disciples tried to take Him by force to declare Him king! They all had the expectation that when Messiah comes He will free them from the oppression of the Romans and establish a kingdom that will never fall.
What they didn’t have in common was the revelation within themselves whereby they could know that Jesus is the Son of God. Both times in the discourse where Jesus told the unbelieving disciples that they do not believe, He followed it with 1) “All that the Father gives me shall come to me; and him that comes to me I will in no wise cast out.” 2) “Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father.” So when the true disciples were asked if they too would leave, Peter responded, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that You are that Christ, the Son of the living God.”
The true disciples understood who Jesus is and believed in Him; the false disciple were only interested in what He might do for them. If Mr. Keating understood this he wouldn’t be asking why Jesus didn’t go after them. Why would He go after the unbelievers? How would they possibly understand? If they couldn’t understand that they must believe in Him to receive eternal life, how were they going to understand what He meant by eating His flesh?
Mr. Keating attempted to strengthen his argument by saying this:
“Twelve times He said He was the bread that came down from heaven; four times He said they would have “to eat my flesh and drink my blood”.”
Actually it was only six times He said He was the bread that came down from heaven and three time He said to eat His flesh and drink His blood. But it was seven times that He said to believe in Him and receive eternal life – a statistic that Mr. Keating apparently wanted to hide.
The point at which Jesus began to use the metaphor of eating His flesh and drinking His blood was after He told the Jews, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (v51)
Jesus was not referring to eating His flesh when He said this, but He knew exactly how the Jews would understand it. Jesus was referring ahead to His sacrifice on the cross for the life of the world. He was going to give up His body, and His blood would be spilled for the sake of many who would believe in Him. But those false disciples who refused to hear the plain and simple plea, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes has everlasting life,” were at last confounded in their carnal thinking while trying to process the spiritual meat of these words, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.”
Jesus took their own carnal discerning and used it to deliberately offend them. It was expedient that Jesus separate from these unbelievers. He escaped their grasp the day before, but when they caught up with Him across the sea He made them see that they were not truly His disciples, causing them to leave on their own.
The point of the discourse is only realizable within its full context. To eat His body and drink His blood is to believe in Him. To believe in Him is to consume Him spiritually. This is the true teaching of the bread of life discourse. So what is Mr. keating’s response to this?
“But there is a problem with that. As John A. O’Brien put it, ‘the phrase ‘to eat the flesh and drink the blood’, when used figuratively among the Jews, as among the Arabs of today, meant to inflict upon a person some serious injury, especially by calumny or by false accusation. To interpret the phrase figuratively then would be to make our Lord promise life everlasting to the culprit for slandering and hating Him, which would reduce the whole passage to utter nonsense.’ Christ would be saying, “He that reviles Me has eternal life.”
How’s that for a twist? Rather than addressing the challenge, Mr. Keating summons the words of a priest who in the same book said that God bows in submission to the priest during the mass. Notice that O’Brien approached the issue through carnal understanding to the point of relying on modern Arabs to explain a Gospel precept. The logic of O’Brien hinges the meaning of the entire discourse on one single word, and Mr. Keating is happy to conclude the same. The total disregard for context is blatant.
Karl Keating’s website is also a place where many Catholic go to read strings of out-of-context quotes by early church writers, arranged such that Catholic doctrine “appears” to be validated in them. But how fluent is Mr. Keating in his knowledge of those writings?
He once wrote a tract on the necessity of baptism where he quoted from the thesis of a second century theologian, Tertullian. But in another tract he stated that no one argued against infant baptism until the reformation. Had he actually read Tertullian’s thesis, from which he quoted in the first tract, he would have known that Tertullian himself argued vehemently against the practice. It’s right there in the same document!
So with regards to the bread of life discourse, Mr. Keating insists, “There is no record in the early centuries of any Christian doubting the Catholic interpretation.” He grabbed a few quotes from his website as a sample of how the early church understood the discourse; problem is none of the quotes he offered were directly or indirectly related to the discourse. All he offered were quotes that he believes supports transubstantiation, which I thoroughly address in my article, “Early Church Evidence Refutes Real Presence.” But regarding the bread of life discourse he provided nothing. Whether he is aware I do not know, but Tertullian referenced the discourse directly. If he knows about it he doesn’t mention it in his article or on his website and for good reason. Tertullian refutes Mr. Keating’s entire premise regarding the departing disciples. Here is an excerpt:
“They thought His discourse was harsh and intolerable, supposing that He had really and literally enjoined on them to eat his flesh, He, with the view of ordering the state of salvation as a spiritual thing, set out with the principle, It is the spirit that quickens; and then added, The flesh profits nothing — meaning, of course, to the giving of life. He also goes on to explain what He would have us to understand by spirit: The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life. In a like sense He had previously said: He that hears my words, and believes in Him that sent me, has everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation, but shall pass from death unto life. Constituting, therefore, His word as the life-giving principle, because that word is spirit and life, He likewise called His flesh by the same appellation; because, too, the Word had become flesh, We ought therefore to desire Him in order that we may have life, and to devour Him with the ear, and to ruminate on Him with the understanding, and to digest Him by faith. (On the Resurrection of the Flesh 37)”
Tertullian hit the nail on the head! (For those unfamiliar with American figures of speech, it means he got it exactly right!) He tied in Jesus’ conclusion that the flesh profits nothing and the spirit gives life, directly to the context of the discourse. Karl Keating on the other hand, awkwardly stumbled through it by divorcing it from the discourse. But Mr. Keating did get one thing right. He said that Jesus was not referring to His own flesh when He said the flesh profits nothing (or is to no avail), and that is true. But the part that escapes him is that we profit nothing by eating anything physically; we must consume Him spiritually through His word. Tertullian understood that; Christians, who Mr. Keating flippantly calls, “fundamentalists,” also understand that; so why doesn’t he?