Thursday, February 20, 2014

Thomas Aquinas on John 6:53 ("the flesh is of no avail")

The Bread of Life discourse in John 6 has Jesus emphasize over and over again that it is necessary for believers to "eat his flesh" and "drink his blood".

Is this passage about the Eucharist?

There are good reasons for thinking so. First, the imagery of "eating" Jesus' "flesh" and "drinking" his "blood" seems closely linked with the Last Supper, the only other place where such language is clearly used.

In addition, the sermon follows shortly after the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, a story that is clearly meant to be linked with the Last Supper in the Synoptic Gospels. In Matthew, for example, Davies and Allison find 9 parallels which occur in order in Matthew 14, the feeding of the five thousand, and the account of the Last Supper in Matthew 26[1] They conclude: “It seems to us evident that Matthew intended 14.13–21 to be closely related to the institution of the Eucharist.”[2] 

But what about Jesus' words at the end of the sermon: "it is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail"? 

The Zwingli, the Protestant Reformer, famously argued that these words make the eucharistic reading untenable. 

Thomas Aquinas, however, would not have been convinced. Here's his interpretation:
It is obvious that the flesh of Christ, as united to the Word and to the Spirit, does profit very much and in every way; otherwise, the Word would have been made flesh in vain, and the Father would have made him known in the flesh in vain, as we see from 1 Timothy [1 Tim 3:16]. And so we should say that it is the flesh of Christ, considered in itself, that profits nothing and does not have any more beneficial effect than other flesh. For if his flesh is considered as separated from the divinity and the Holy Spirit, it does not have different power than other flesh. But if it is united to the Spirit and the divinity, it profits many, because it makes those who receive it abide in Christ, for man abides in God through the Spirit of love: “We know that we abide in God and God in us, because he has given us his Spirit” [1 John 4:13] And this is what our Lord says: the effect I promise you, that is, eternal life, should not be attributed to my flesh as such, because understood in this way, flesh profits nothing. But my flesh does offer eternal life as united to the Spirit and to the divinity. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” [Gal 5:25]. And so he adds, The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life, i.e., they must be understood of the Spirit united to my flesh; and so understood they are life, that is, the life of the soul. For as the body lives its bodily life through a bodily spirit, so the soul lives a spiritual life through the Holy Spirit: “Send forth your Spirit, and they will be created” (Ps 103:30).
--St. Thomas Aquinas, Ion. 6.993


[1] (1) “And when it was evening” (14:14; 26:20); (2) “reclined” (14:19; 26:20); (3) “having taken” (14:19; 26:26); (4) “the bread” (14:19; 26:26); (5) “he blessed” (14:19; 26:26); (6) “having broken” / “he broke” (14:19; 26:26); (7) “he gave to the disciples” / “having given to the disciples, he gave to them (14:19; 26:26); (8) “they ate” / “eat” (14:20 26:27); (9) “all” (14:20; 26:27).

[2] W. D. Davies and Dale Allison, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (ICC; London: T&T Clark, 1991): 3:481.


Nick said...

I always thought Jesus was saying "Only God gives life; sin is of no avail; and the words I have been speaking to you are God's."

Unknown said...

Is it possible that, when He says "the flesh profits nothing", the Lord was distinguishing between "flesh" and "my flesh"? In John 6, He always refers to either "my flesh" or "the flesh of the Son of man" to refer to His own flesh. "The flesh profits nothing" is the only time He doesn't specify what flesh He refers to.

So it seems that a possible reading would be that by "flesh" there He addresses the typical NT usage of the word, the classic term used to describe the human state after sin, deprived of God's grace. In other words, He would be saying 'sinful flesh profits nothing, but the empowering Spirit that animates my flesh does'.

I know this reading somewhat differs from Saint Thomas there, but the dropping of "my" in that phrase seems to suggest so. And it really sounds a bit strange and off-note to hear the Lord mean "my flesh profits nothing" even with all the accompanying explanation provided by Aquinas.

So, has anyone ever heard this interpretation? Which explanation better fits the context?

Michael Barber said...

That's actually what Chrysostom says.

JohnE said...

I think I like Aquinas' interpretation better. With Chrysostom's interpretation, Jesus is talking about "my flesh" and then only at the end does he say "the flesh". The distinction would seem too subtle.

With Aquinas' interpretation, Jesus perhaps could be seen as saying that it is indeed his flesh, but not only flesh such as with cannibalism. The flesh is his very self that is not destroyed. But of course introducing the concept of transfiguration at this point would likely have gone nowhere either.

Anonymous said...

It like to think Jesus meant that our flesh... Bodily fleshy eyes ... Can only detect bread., only our spiritual sense can discern the body of
Christ. So the flesh, our eyes and optic nerve see only bread. the flesh in this way is to no avail and we will not believe.

Shane Kapler said...

Michael, wonderful post. Thank you. I feel like a heel mentioning this, but I think your title was meant to read "John 6:63," instead of 5:53.

Shane Kapler said...

Ha, typo in my comment! Meant instead of 6:53 - it's so easy for the finger to hit the wrong key.