The Witness of the Church Fathers With Regard to Catholic Distinctive’s : Part 5 Sacrifice of the Mass

[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]

V. History of the Doctrine of the Sacrifice of the Mass

From the earliest times, Christians freely applied the Old Testament terminology of sacrifice and gift to their Eucharistically-centered gatherings, and from the beginning, this language was established in the ecclesiastically-sanctioned liturgies.

St. Clement of Rome, writing around 80 A.D., refers to those in the priesthood “who blamelessly and holily have offered its Sacrifices.” (90) The Didache, an apostolic writing which has been dated as early as 60 to 80 A.D., or, in the most critical estimates, not much later than 150, cites Malachi 1:11,14 and instructs Christians to “gather together, break bread and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure.” (91)

In the second century, St. Justin Martyr, commenting on the same passage, refers to “the sacrifices offered to Him in every place by us, the gentiles, that is, of the Bread of the Eucharist.” (92) Likewise, St. Irenaeus believed that “He [Jesus] taught the new sacrifice of the new covenant, of which Malachias . . . had signified beforehand,” (93) and says, “There are sacrifices now, sacrifices in the Church.” (94)

In the third century, Tertullian alludes to “participation in the Sacrifice . . . when you receive the Body of the Lord.” (95) And St. Cyprian states very forthrightly:

In the priest Melchisedech we see the Sacrament of the Sacrifice of the Lord prefigured . . .Nor is the sacrifice of the Lord celebrated with a legitimate consecration unless our offering and sacrifice corresponds to the passion . . .

If Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, is Himself the Chief Priest of God the Father, and has first offered Himself a Sacrifice to the Father, and has commanded this to be done in commemoration of Himself, surely that priest discharges the office of Christ who imitates what Christ did; and he then offers a true and full Sacrifice to God the Father . . . The Lord’s Passion is the sacrifice which we offer. (96)

In the fourth century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem speaks of “the spiritual Sacrifice, the bloodless worship,” and the “propitiatory victim.” (97) St. Ambrose believed that “It is He Himself that is offered in sacrifice here on earth when the Body of Christ is offered.” (98) And later in that century, and early in the fifth, St. John Chrysostom writes:

Have reverence before this table, of which we all participate, before Christ, who was slain for us, before the sacrifice, which lies on the table. (99)Do we not offer daily? Yes, we offer, but making remembrance of His death; and this remembrance is one and not many . . . Since the Sacrifice is offered everywhere, are there, then, a multiplicity of Christs? By no means! Christ is one everywhere . . . So too is there one Sacrifice. (100)

The venerable St. Augustine taught that “Christ is both the Priest, offering Himself, and Himself the Victim.” (101) He applies Malachi 1:11 to the Mass, calling it the “Sacrifice of Christians,” and also cites the precedent of Melchizedek. (102) Referring to this priest-king of Salem in his famous work, The City of God (16, 22), he writes: “The sacrifice appeared for the first time there which is now offered to God by Christians throughout the whole world.”

And so the doctrine of the Catholic Church has remained down to our present time. The first serious challenge to it was put forth by Martin Luther, the Founder of Protestantism, who, although accepting a weakened form of the Real Presence, relegated the Mass (somewhat inconsistently) to the status of a mere memorial. As usual, he made a number of polemical remarks on the subject, calling the Mass “idolatry and a shameful abuse . . . twofold impiety and abomination,” (103) and “the abomination standing in the Holy Place.” (104) Luther’s successor Philip Melanchthon felt certain that “the cruel raging of the Turks is inflicted now as a punishment for the idolatry in the Mass.” (105)

John Calvin, arguably more influential for later Protestantism than Luther himself, unleashed his full fury against this long-standing Christian belief, and it is instructive to quote him at length in order to understand the historical background of the Reformation and the great repugnance with which many Protestants (largely out of miscomprehension) regard the Mass:

The height of frightful abomination was when the devil . . . blinded nearly the whole world with a most pestilential error – the belief that the Mass is a sacrifice . . . It is most clearly proved by the Word of God that this Mass . . . inflicts signal dishonor upon Christ, buries and oppresses his cross, consigns his death to oblivion, takes away the benefit which came to us from it . . .This perversity was unknown to the purer Church . . . It is very certain that the whole of antiquity is against them . . . Augustine himself in many passages interprets it as nothing but a sacrifice of praise . . . Chrysostom also speaks in the same sense . . .

But I observe that the ancient writers also misinterpreted this memorial . . . because their Supper displayed some appearance of repeated or at least renewed sacrifice . . . I cannot bring myself to condemn them for any impiety; still, I think they cannot be excused for having sinned somewhat in acting as they did. For they have followed the Jewish manner of sacrificing more closely than either Christ had ordained or the nature of the gospel allowed . . .

The Mass . . . from root to top, swarms with every sort of impiety, blasphemy, idolatry, and sacrilege. (106)

It was to be expected, therefore, that anti-Catholicism is now (and always has been) so scandalously and tragically prevalent among so many Protestants (but not all, by any means). How can one consider another a Christian “brother” when that person’s weekly worship is regarded as “abomination,” “blasphemy,” and “idolatry”? The Catholic cannot help but be frustrated over the abysmal disinformation which so often circulates among non-Catholics. Calvin even errs on the plain facts of early Church history, as indisputably demonstrated in the proofs from the Fathers just presented above. With all due respect to Protestants and Calvin, the evidence of Scripture and the facts of Christian history, once revealed and discovered, strongly contradict the Genevan Reformer.

Some Anglicans (mostly “Anglo-Catholics” or “High Churchmen”), contrary to the norm in Protestantism, believe in the Sacrifice of the Mass. (107) Most Anglicans, however, probably regard the Catholic Mass in the same way as does Article 31 of the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles (its creed):

. . . The sacrifices of Masses, in the which it was commonly said, that the Priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits. (108)

The view of Eastern Orthodoxy regarding the sacrificial nature of the Mass (“Divine Liturgy”), is in all essentials identical to that of the Catholic Church. (109)

FOOTNOTES (Sacrifice of the Mass)

90. Letter to the Corinthians, 44, 4. From Jurgens, William A., ed. and tr., The Faith of the Early Fathers (FEF), 3 volumes, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1970, vol. 1, 11.
91. Didache, 14:1,3. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 4.
92. Dialogue with Trypho, 41. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 60.
93. Against Heresies, 4, 17, 5. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 95.
94. Ibid., 4,18,2. Jurgens, ibid. In the same context (4,18,4-5; 4,33,2), St. Irenaeus discusses the Eucharist, thus making clear the meaning of his talk of “sacrifice.”
95. De Oratione, 19. From Conway, Bertrand L., The Question Box, NY: Paulist Press, 1929, 267.
96. Letter to Cecil, 63:4,9. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 232; Conway, ibid., 268.
97. Catechetical Lectures, 23,8,10. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 1, 363.
98. Commentaries on Twelve of David’s Psalms, 38,25. Jurgens, FEF, v. 2, 150.
99. Homilies on Romans, 8,8. In Ott, Ludwig, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, tr. Patrick Lynch, Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, 1974 (orig. 1952 in German), 406.
100. Homilies on Hebrews, 17,3. See also The Priesthood, 3,4,177; Homilies on 1 Corinthians, 24,2. Citation from Jurgens, FEF, vol. 2, 125.
101. City of God, 10,20. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 99.
102. Sermon Against the Jews, 9,13. See also Questions of the Hepateuch, 3,57. Jurgens, FEF, vol. 3, 168. City of God citation from Ott, ibid., 403.
103. From Grisar, Hartmann, Luther, tr. E.M. Lamond, ed. Luigi Cappadelta, 6 volumes, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1917, vol. 4, 507.
104. Against Henry VIII, (1522); referring to Daniel 9:27. Grisar, ibid., v. 4, 511.
105. Melanchthon, Philip, Loci Communes, 1555 ed., chapter 22. From tr. of Clyde L. Manschreck, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1982 (from Oxford Univ. Press ed. of 1965), 221.
106. Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559 ed., Book 4, chapter 18, sections 1, 9-11, 18. From tr. of Ford L. Battles (ed. John T. McNeill), Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 2 volumes, 1960, vol. 2, 1429-30, 1437, 1439-40, 1446.
107. See Johnstone, Verney, The Anglican Way, London: Mowbray, 1948, 30-31.
108. The Book of Common Prayer, (1801 American ed.), NY: Seabury Press, 1979 ed., 874.
109. Ware, Timothy (Kallistos), The Orthodox Church, NY: Penguin Books, rev. 1980, 292-294.



About Rob Brock

A Catholic convert with a fire for discipleship, catechesis, and formation that leads to transformed lives in Christ. View all posts by Rob Brock

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