I am of the mind that the Bible as a whole should be interpreted literally (an interesting topic in itself - perhaps a topic for later posts). This is a standpoint from which Catholic apologists often mount their defense of transubstantiation. However, let us not disregard that there are many times when the Bible does use symbolism and symbolic language. (This is not to say that you and I get to decide when the Bible uses symbolic language – the Word interprets itself in this matter!)
Jesus clearly utilized symbolism when teaching in parables. He also refers to Himself specifically using symbolic language; “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35, 48); “I am the gate” (John 10:9); “I am the vine” (John 15:5). Reading these passages in context, it is clear Jesus never means He is literally a piece of bread, a gate, or a vine. Those would be unnatural assertions. In like fashion, if I were to hand you a photograph and say “This is my family” it would be unnatural for you to assert that I mean that the photo itself is literally my kin. Rather, it is understood to be representative. I believe it is clear that the same is true when Christ says “This is My body” in reference to the bread. Consider the words of J.C. Ryle, a widely-respected English pastor from the 19th century:
- Does the New Testament authorize men to say that the Lord's Supper was ordained to be a sacrifice, and that in it Christ's literal body and blood are present under the forms of bread and wine? Most certainly not! When the Lord Jesus said to the disciples, "This is my Body," and "this is my Blood," He clearly meant, "This bread in my hand is an symbol of my Body, and this cup of wine in my hand contains a symbol of my Blood." The disciples were accustomed to hear Him use such language. They remembered His saying, "The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one" (Matthew 13:38). It never entered into their minds that He meant to say He was holding His own body and His own blood in His hands, and literally giving them His literal body and blood to eat and drink. Not one of the writers of the New Testament ever speaks of the Lord's Supper as a sacrifice, or calls the Lord's Table an altar, or even hints that a Christian minister is a sacrificing priest. (J.C. Ryle, The Lord’s Supper)
Continued next post...