“Use” Your Allusion: How Reformed Sacramental Theology Makes Sense Of Sacramental Language In John 3 And 6 -- By: Eugene R. Schlesinger

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 74:2 (Fall 2012)
Article: “Use” Your Allusion: How Reformed Sacramental Theology Makes Sense Of Sacramental Language In John 3 And 6
Author: Eugene R. Schlesinger


“Use” Your Allusion:
How Reformed Sacramental Theology Makes Sense
Of Sacramental Language In John 3 And 6

Eugene R. Schlesinger

I. Introduction

The numerous enigmatic phrases that issue from the lips of the Johannine Jesus frequently leave his interlocutors perplexed. These include: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God” (John 3:5); and “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:53–54). But the perplexity caused by these statements has extended far beyond their effect on Jesus’ original audiences. Do these pronouncements constitute references to the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist? If so, how are we to understand these references? What are we to make of their strong, even unyielding language? How should they affect (or be affected by) other doctrinal commitments such as justification by grace alone through faith alone?

In this article, I will first establish a basis for adopting a qualified sacramental reading of these passages, one that recognizes the presence of sacramental language and concepts while also recognizing that they may not be the main point. Having done this, I will demonstrate that a Reformed sacramental theology is particularly suited to these passages. It withstands the most common criticisms of sacramental interpretations of the passages. Further, it integrates the insights of non-sacramental interpretations within a sacramental framework. The resulting interpretation will, I hope, provide a more integrated view of each discourse as a whole.

II. Establishing A Sacramental Reading Of The Passages

Biblical scholars have had a difficult time ascertaining the Evangelist’s precise view of the sacraments. Is he anti-sacramental (as evidenced by the lack of institution narrative), or are there hidden sacraments waiting to be discovered in every word or act of Christ? Several options have emerged, ranging from anti-sacramentalism (e.g., Bultmann), to sacramental maximalism (Cullmann), with

stops all along the spectrum in between.1 Prudence dictates that before erecting the edifice of a sacramental interpretation of these passages, we first clear away the debris of objections to such a reading. The arguments against finding in John 3:5 and 6:25–59 references to baptism and the Eucharist respectively basically hinge on two p...

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