[This portion of the blog post The Witness of the Church Fathers With Regard to Catholic Distinctives is re-posted with permission of Dave Armstrong. This material is also found in his book: The Church Fathers Were Catholic: Patristic Evidences for Catholicism]
IV. History of the Doctrine of the Eucharist
In the early second century (before 110 A.D.), St. Ignatius of Antioch held that “the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.” (61) In the middle of the same century, St. Justin Martyr distinguishes the Eucharist from “common” bread and drink and calls it “both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus.” (62) A little later, St. Irenaeus writes, “The bread over which thanks have been given is the Body of (the) Lord, and the cup His Blood.” (63)
In the third century, Tertullian says that Jesus at the Last Supper took bread “and made it into His body by saying: ‘This is My body.'” (64) Origen speaks of “receiving the Body of the Lord” and taking care “lest a particle of it fall.” (65) St. Cyprian believed that “Christ is our bread, we who touch His Body.” (66) Also, already in this period, ancient Christian liturgies, inscriptions and art (both eastern and western) bear plain witness to the Real Presence and even (in some fashion) transubstantiation.
St. Athanasius, in the fourth century, maintained that:
after the great and wonderful prayers have been completed, then the bread is become the Body, and the wine the Blood, of our Lord Jesus Christ. (67)
St. Cyril of Jerusalem makes an almost identical statement (68) and rebukes those who question the Real Presence “even though the senses suggest to you the other.” (69) St. Hilary of Poitiers deems the Eucharist “truly” Flesh and Blood, and suggests a connection between the denial of this and the rejection of the very Incarnation of Christ. (70) St. Basil the Great regards Communion as a “partaking” in the Body and Blood of Christ. (71) St. Gregory of Nyssa holds that
“The bread . . . has been made over into the Body of God the Word,” and that Christ in the Eucharist is “blending Himself with the bodies of believers.” (72) St. John Chrysostom speaks of the priest as the representative of God in the Mass, exercising solely His power and grace, in order to “transform the gifts” which “become the Body and Blood of Christ.” (73) Elsewhere he equates the Eucharist with Christ’s “blood-stained” Body, “pierced by a lance.” (74) St. Ambrose of Milan concurs in all these beliefs and refers to a transformation in which “even nature itself is changed.” (75)
In the early fifth century, St. Cyril of Alexandria likewise denies that the Eucharist is a “figure” (76) or “solely intellectual.” (77) Lastly, St. Augustine, the greatest of the Fathers, writes that “Christ was carried in His own hands, when, referring to His own Body, He said ‘This is My Body.'” (78) He expressly sanctions adoration of the consecrated Host:
He took flesh from the flesh of Mary . . . and gave us the same flesh to be eaten unto salvation. But no one eats that flesh unless first he adores it . . . we do sin by not adoring. (79)
St. Augustine repeatedly affirms the Real Presence and transubstantiation. (80)
Often, Protestants cite St. Augustine’s references to the Eucharist as a “sign,” thinking that thereby he denied the Real Presence. But this is merely a weak false dichotomy, as the quotes above prove. It is entirely possible for something to be both a sign and reality simultaneously, and this is most emphatically the case with the Eucharist, just as, for instance, Jesus referred to His actual Resurrection as the sign of Jonah (Matthew 12:38-40), or His Second Coming as the sign of the Son of man in heaven (Matthew 24:29-31). St. Augustine, understanding the richness of biblical and Catholic symbolic imagery as few have before or since, alluded to this with regard to the Eucharist, never for a moment denying or doubting the Real Presence. This “double significance” is fully in accord with Catholic teaching and biblical norms.
The first Christians of any note who denied the Real Presence were two French monks: Ratramnus (d.868), who deviated somewhat but not totally, and Berengarius (d.1088), who adopted a symbolic view which he later retracted. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Cathari and Albigensians, – heretical sects influenced by the earlier Gnostics, Manichaeans and Docetists, repudiated it. In response to this threat, the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 officially formulated dogmatically the fully-developed doctrines of transubstantiation, Real Presence, and the exclusive sacramental power of validly-ordained priests. John Wycliffe (d.1384) maintained a position on the Eucharist akin to that of Calvin – a “dynamic,” or “spiritual” presence only (known as the remanence theory).
Eastern Orthodoxy maintains a firm belief in the Real Presence, although it is reluctant to attempt any explanation of the manner of the change, thinking that this is impious and unnecessary. (81) Likewise, many Anglicans (such as C.S. Lewis) accept the Real Presence, especially those who call themselves “high church” Anglicans or “Anglo-Catholics.” (82)
Martin Luther, while rejecting the Sacrifice of the Mass, nevertheless held tenaciously to the Real Presence in the form of “consubstantiation,” in which the two substances of bread and Christ’s Body are present simultaneously, rather than one substantially changing into the other. In fact, he regarded those who denied the Real Presence (such as Zwingli) as heretics and non-Christians, “out of the Church,” and applied to them some of the most graphic and scathing rebukes in his colorful linguistic repertoire. Even so, in his early period, around 1520, he himself was tempted to discard this view in opposition to Catholic dogma, (83) but found both the biblical evidence and the unanimity of Christian Tradition too unavoidable:
I am caught; I cannot escape, the text is too forcible . . . I wrestled and struggled and would gladly have escaped. (84)It is very dangerous to assume that the Church which had existed for so many centuries, and had been the instructor of the whole of Christendom, should not have taught the true doctrine of the sacraments. (85)
As late as 1543, Luther did not forbid anyone who believed in transubstantiation from joining his movement. (86) And, when asked whether Lutherans should do away with the Elevation of the Host in the liturgy, Luther consistently replied in 1544 (two years before he died):
By no means, for such abrogation would tend to diminish respect for the Sacrament and cause it to be undervalued . . . If Christ is truly present in the Bread, why should He not be treated with the utmost respect and even be adored?
Joachim, one of Luther’s friends, added:
We saw how Luther bowed low at the Elevation with great devotion and reverently worshiped Christ. (87)
For these beliefs, Luther was accused by fellow Reformer John Calvin of being “half-papist” and of committing idolatry:
He has sinned . . . from ignorance and the grossest extravagance. For what absurdities he pawned upon us . . . when he said the bread is the very body! . . . a very foul error. (88)
Zwingli, Bucer, Oecolampadius, and Carlstadt (all Protestant Reformers) jettisoned the doctrine of Real Presence, and adopted a purely symbolic, commemorative view. John Calvin (and eventually Luther’s right-hand man Philip Melanchthon) took an intermediate position, in which Christ is present in the Eucharist in some sort of profoundly spiritual and “dynamic” fashion, but not substantially, with Communion being efficacious only for the truly faithful, the elect, or the “predestined.” At times, however, Calvin sounds (like Luther) almost Catholic:
The Lord’s body was once for all so sacrificed for us that we may now feed upon it, and by feeding feel in ourselves the working of that unique sacrifice . . . We are therefore bidden to take and eat the body which was once for all offered for our salvation . . .In this Sacrament we have such full witness of all these things . . . as if Christ here present were himself set before our eyes and touched by our hands . . .
The Lord intended, by calling himself the “bread of life” . . . to teach . . . that, by true partaking of him, his life passes into us and is made ours . . .
Nothing remains but to break forth in wonder at this mystery, which plainly neither the mind is able to conceive nor the tongue to express . . . Christ’s flesh, separated from us by such great distance, penetrates to us, so that it becomes our food . . . the Spirit truly unites things separated in space . . .
If the Lord truly represents the participation in his body through the breaking of bread . . . he truly presents and shows his body . . . By the showing of the symbol the thing itself is also shown . . . When we have received the symbol of the body . . . the body itself is also given to us . . . (89)
It is remarkable and curious (from a Catholic perspective) that Calvin can conceive of and strongly espouse an ethereal supernatural impartation of Christ’s “flesh” to us, which supercedes natural laws of space, yet feel compelled to go to the greatest lengths to denounce transubstantiation – whereby God transcends (primarily) natural laws of substance and matter – as inherently “monstrous” and absurd. From a purely rational, theoretical standpoint, neither concept is a priori any more difficult to believe than the other. Either scenario is perfectly possible for an omnipotent God.
Calvin’s theory is no more plausible, all things considered, than the traditional Catholic view. Yet at the same time Calvin (consciously or not) approximates many of the same dynamics of thought. His position might legitimately be regarded as inconsistent and illogical (especially given the above biblical proofs), yet whatever one thinks of it, the praiseworthy reverence and awesomeness which Calvin clearly retains must be respectfully acknowledged.
Most Protestants today, especially evangelicals, pentecostals, and non-denominationalists, are inclined to accept the symbolic view, as first expounded by Zwingli, while many others (particularly Anglicans and Lutherans) fail to comprehend or accept the ostensible official creedal teaching of their own denominations. Thus, it is helpful for all Christians to freshly approach the Scriptures in order to objectively determine our Lord’s teaching on this very important matter, which Catholics regard as the central purpose of Christians gathering together, the “Blessed Sacrament.”
61. Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 7,1. From Jurgens, William A., ed. and tr., The Faith of the Early Fathers (FEF), 3 volumes, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1970, vol. 1, 25.
62. First Apology, 66,2. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 55.
63. Against Heresies, 4,18,4 / 4,33,2; cf. 4,18,5. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 95,97.
64. Against Marcion, 4,40,3. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 141.
65. Homilies on Exodus, 13,3. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 205-206.
66. De dominica orat., 18. From Ott, Ludwig, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, tr. Patrick Lynch, Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, 1974 (orig. 1952 in German), 377.
67. Sermon to the Newly Baptized. From Keating, Karl, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988, 238.
68. Catechetical Lectures, 19,7.
69. Ibid., 22,1; 22,2; 22,6. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 360-361.
70. The Trinity, 8,14.
71. Letter to a Patrician Lady Caesaria, 93; Liturgy of St. Basil the Great.
72. The Great Catechism, 37. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 2, 49.
73. Homilies on Judas, 1,6. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 2, 104-105.
74. Homilies on 1 Corinthians, 24,4. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 2, 118.
75. The Mysteries, 9,50-51; cf. The Sacraments, 4,4,14. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 2, 174-176.
76. Commentary on Matthew (26:27). Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 220.
77. Commentary on John, 10,2 (15:1). Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 223.
78. Explanations of the Psalms, 33,1,10. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 16.
79. Ibid., 98,9. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 20.
80. E.g., Sermons, 227; 234,2; 272.
81. See Ware, Timothy (Kallistos), The Orthodox Church, NY: Penguin Books, rev. 1980, 290.
82. See F.C. Cross & E.A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 1983, 476; Johnstone, Verney, The Anglican Way, London: Mowbray, 1948, 30-31.
83. Original Luther source: Letter to the Christians of Strassburg, December 14, 1524. Luther states with characteristic brashness: “I could thus have given a great smack in the face to Popery.” From Grisar, Hartmann, Luther, tr. E.M. Lamond, ed. Luigi Cappadelta, 6 volumes, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1917, vol. 4, 492.
85. De Wette, M., Letters of Luther, Berlin: 1828, 5 vols., vol. 4, 559-60 / Letter to Philip Melanchthon in 1536.
86. Ibid., vol. 5, 568 / Letter to the Evangelicals at Venice, June 13, 1543. From Grisar, ibid., vol. 3, 382.
87. Luther, Martin, Table Talk, ed. Mathesius, (Leipzig ed., 1903), 341. From Grisar, ibid., vol. 4, 239-240.
88. Letter of Calvin to Martin Bucer, January 12, 1538. From John Calvin: Selections From His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1971, 47.
89. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4: chapter 17, sections 1, 3, 5, 7, 10.
From tr. of Ford L. Battles, ed. John T. McNeill, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 2 volumes, 1960, vol. 2, 1361-2, 1365, 1367, 1370-1371.