I wrote this post quite some time ago about my misgivings concerning the term ‘spiritual eating’ to refer to the reception of the promise of Christ in faith. The Formula of Concord, the last of the Lutheran confessions, make this a key distinction, possibly following Martin Chemnitz (my education is patchy!). Luther refers to this, but as far as I know, it wasn’t a key idea in his system.
My problem with this kind of language is this: it creates far too much room for receptionism (both of the Anglican and the Lutheran types), and poses the danger of diminishing the importance of the physical eating of the physical sacrament.
Of course, there is a biblical root for the idea of spiritual eating: John 6. Jesus appears to use the language of eating as a metaphor for faith in him. And in the Lutheran exegetical tradition, the whole of John 6 has been understood as referring to faith in Christ rather than the sacrament, for a number of reasons which I won’t rehearse here.
However, there is a problem: the language of Jesus. For part of John 6, Jesus speaks of eating using the generic term esthiō. However, when the argument between Jesus and the Jews gets heated, he switches verbs to trōgō, which means to ‘chew, munch, masticate’. It’s physical, concrete, bodily activity.
52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat (esthiō) the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on (trōgō) my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live for ever.”
When things begin to fall apart and disciples begin to desert Him, Jesus has plenty of opportunities to correct the misunderstanding. “Hey, calm down, I was talking about spiritual eating.” But He doesn’t.
And the rule of thumb is: if Jesus says something, we should pay close attention. When the word is ‘munch’, teeth are involved.
(This is also why I have little time for the pious suggestion that it is irreverent to chew the host. Jesus didn’t seem to think so, and while I may be holier than thou, I don’t want to be holier than Him.)
Given that the notion of spiritual eating is a mainstay in classical Reformed teaching, and as such a method of writing out the spiritual benefit of the physical eating of the body and blood of the Lord, I really do think we do better to use more direct and unambiguous language.