Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Early Church and the Eucharist - CoC vs. Catholic

On my board recently, a discussion was revived concerning John 6 and the question of whether or not Christ meant "this is my body" literally. The discussion eventually turned to the Early Church Fathers and what the most common belief regarding this was among them. Unfortunately the CoC participant felt he could no longer dialogue with us and had not yet been able to study what the Early Church's view was to be able to present evidence that supported the CoC view. So I was intrigued when, by a complete coincidence, I stumbled upon an article written by a CoC member concerning this very subject.

The author starts off explaining his view of the use of human history in the Christian faith.

"There is also human history to consider. Though it does not carry the same weight as Scripture, still, to consider how others responded to what God has done among us helps us, and the closer in time to the divine act the better."

The author mentions that the term Eucharist is often used among these early writers...the very term Catholics have used continually. He mentions that the "president" or "presider" was the one who led the "Lord's Supper" and equates it to the brother appointed to "head" the Lord's Table.

Seems to me to fit closer to a priest!

He says that Justin Martyr makes it clear that the Eucharist is to be taken every Sunday (which is also a Catholic belief.) He also mentioned that deacons take the "blessed" communion to those who couldn't come to receive it (also a Catholic practice, especially concerning the "blessed" part.)

The author claims that...

"The idea that the bread and fruit of the vine become literally the flesh and blood of Jesus, sacrificed anew [an incorrect representation of the Catholic belief] on the altar of the Presence [?] by the priest, is not found among these men. It is clear that they speak of commemoration and celebration, not transubstantiation."

I was intrigued to read this, looking forward to his evidence. More on that in just a bit.

Furthermore, he goes on to say...

"Yet there was a heresy at work that demanded of these church leaders (or so they thought) a stress on the reality of the symbol of Christ's presence at the Lord's Supper that some might consider today overreaching, or at least, extravagant."

Umm...I'm really not quite sure what it means to "stress the reality of the symbol." I think he's trying to account for the very literal language they use, but I'm disappointed to see such a claim without much evidence at all to support it.

"There seemed to be, at least among some, an invitation to confess sin offered by the president at every service; and this was to be done before the Lord's Supper was served, so that all might partake worthily."

Ring any bells, fellow Catholics? At the beginning of every mass, the priest leads us in calling to mind our sins and asking for forgiveness. "I confess to almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters...." Y'all know the rest I'm sure!

Now, I'm going to take a look at some of the quotes of the Early Church Fathers that were provided as support for the CoC view.

"And on the day called Sunday, there is a gathering together in the same place of all who live in a city or rural district...And, as I said before, when we cease from our prayer, bread is presented, and wine and water. The president in the same manner sends up prayers and thanksgivings according to his ability, and the people sing out their assent, saying the Amen. A distribution and participation of the elements for which thanks have been given is made to each person, and to those who are not present it is sent by the deacons," (Justin Martyr [ca. 156], Apology, 1, 67).

Once again, sounds very much like mass...where the wine and water are brought, and mixed, prayers are said, the people respond with Amen.

I found it interesting that on the CoC forum where this was being discussed, one person said:

"I am a little confused that one of the writers in the article said that during the communion they not only had the bread and fruit of the vine but also gave out water. I wonder if this was to assist in the need to drink something afterwards or if this was something added in addition, maybe as a result of the scriptures about being saved in Jesus through not only blood but also water, which we know is baptism but I am curious about this. Anyone know about this in any detail?"

If he were Catholic he would have known the significance of the water and wine right away!

But as for the quote from Justin Martyr, there's nothing contrary to Catholicism there, and from other writings of Justin Martyr we know that he did indeed believe in the real presence and was thoroughly Catholic.

Take the following quote (from here):

For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by Him, AND BY THE CHANGE OF WHICH our blood and flesh is nourished, IS BOTH THE FLESH AND THE BLOOD OF THAT INCARNATED JESUS. (First Apology 66)

Food that is "made into" the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer, a "change," food which IS the flesh and blood of Jesus...sounds like a belief transubstantiation/the Real Presence to me!

Moving onto some other quotes in the article...

No one is to eat or drink of your eucharist except those who have been baptized in the name of the Lord... Having earlier confessed your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure, come together each Lord's Day of the Lord, break bread, and give thanks, (The Teaching [ca. 110]).

This is from The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, otherwise known as the Didache.

Is this text, as a whole, closer to CoC or Catholic views? It's one of the earliest extra-biblical Christian texts we have! But what is this about a sacrifice? The CoC says that the sacrifice is over and done with and we simply remember it...but this text seems to talk about a recurring sacrifice. Here's another quote from the Didache that wasn't included above:

For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: "In every place and time offer to me a pure SACRIFICE; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations."

The mass is a sacrifice, it does not sacrifice Christ anew but taps into the ever-present, eternal, perpetual sacrifice that was made once and for all. Therefore, this text seems to support the Catholic idea of the Eucharist as a sacrifice rather than the CoC idea of simply a symbolic memorial.

Furthermore, the Didache definitely does not match up with the CoC view of immersion as absolutely necessary for baptism.

Chapter 7. Concerning Baptism. And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, POUR OUT WATER THREE TIMES UPON THE HEAD INTO THE NAME OF THE FATHER AND SON AND HOLY SPIRIT. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.

No CoC person worth his salt would accept pouring water on someone's head as a valid baptism!

It seems clear to me that the document taken as a whole appears to be Catholic, not CoC.

Moving onto the next quote...

Be careful, therefore, to employ one eucharist, for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup for unity with his blood, one altar, as there is one bishop with the presbytery and deacons, who are my fellow servants, in order that whatever you do may be done according to God, (Ignatius [ca. 112], Philadelphians, 4).

This is one that could apply to CoC or Catholic fairly equally, although I'd have to say that the mention of an altar and "one bishop" tips it a bit towards the Catholic view. Since the CoC doesn't present a sacrifice, they don't really have an altar, they have a table. And of course a plurality of elders is a must according to the CoC.

Furthermore, we know without a doubt that Ignatius was most certainly Catholic (his famous quote, "Where the bishop is, there let the people be, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church," is the first known instance of the term Catholic Church being used), and that he believed in the Real Presence, as can be seen in the following quotes:

I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the Bread of God, WHICH IS THE FLESH OF JESUS CHRIST, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I DESIRE HIS BLOOD, which is love incorruptible. (Letter to Romans 7:3)

They [i.e. the Gnostics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that THE EUCHARIST IS THE FLESH OF OUR SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his goodness, raised up again. (Letter to Smyrna 7:1)

[As a side note, the whole idea of having one bishop most certainly did not come wholly from St. Ignatius as claimed in the article, and his "proof" that people fought against having one bishop or thought it was wrong from the Shepherd of Hermas is not very convincing, to say the least. But for now I'd like to focus on the Eucharist and not get sidetracked with Church hierarchy.]

Moving on to the next quote...

How can they be consistent with themselves when they say the bread for which they give thanks is the body of their Lord and the cup his blood, if they do not say he is the Son of the Creator of the world?...Let them either change their views or avoid offering the bread and wine. But our view is in harmony with the eucharist, and the eucharist confirms our view, (Irenaeus [ca. 160], Against Heresies, vol. 4; ch. 18; 4, 5).

Honestly, I'm not quite sure what this quote is being used to support in the CoC view. So I'll just say that it's very clearly Catholic! Those who do not profess Christ as the Son of God are not being consistent when they say their bread is His Body and their cup is His Blood, it seems they're playing copy cat but not accepting the Whole Truth. Likewise, Catholics ARE being consistent, our view is "in harmony with the eucharist, and the eucharist confirms our view."

Here is more from the same document by Irenaeus, Against Heresies, which clearly shows his belief in the Real Presence:

Then, again, how can they say that the flesh, which is nourished WITH THE BODY OF THE LORD AND WITH HIS BLOOD, goes to corruption, and does not partake of life? Let them, therefore, either alter their opinion, or cease from offering the things just mentioned. But our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, IS NO LONGER COMMON BREAD, BUT THE EUCHARIST, CONSISTING OF TWO REALITIES, EARTHLY AND HEAVENLY; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity. (4:18:5)

If the BODY be not saved, then, in fact, neither did the Lord redeem us with His BLOOD; and neither is the cup of the EUCHARIST THE PARTAKING OF HIS BLOOD nor is the bread which we break THE PARTAKING OF HIS BODY...He has declared the cup, a part of creation, TO BE HIS OWN BLOOD, from which He causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, HE HAS ESTABLISHED AS HIS OWN BODY, from which He gives increase to our bodies.

When, therefore, the mixed cup and the baked bread receives the Word of God and BECOMES THE EUCHARIST, THE BODY OF CHRIST, and from these the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they say that the flesh is not capable of receiving the gift of God, WHICH IS ETERNAL LIFE -- flesh which is nourished BY THE BODY AND BLOOD OF THE LORD...receiving the Word of God, BECOMES THE EUCHARIST, WHICH IS THE BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST... (5:2:2-3)

Seems pretty clear where he stood on the issue!

Ok, the last two quotes seem to be trying to prove that the early Christians did not believe the Eucharist to be the actual Body and Blood of Christ, but rather a "memorial" and nothing more.

The first quote is from Tertullian:

Taking bread and distributing it to his disciples, he made it his own body by saying, "This is my body," that is "a figure of my body." On the other hand, there would not have been a figure unless there was a true body. (Tertullian [ca. 200], Against Marcion, 4, 40).

At first glance, with our modern understanding, this would seem to imply that Tertullian does favor a symbolic view of the Eucharist.

However, the problem here is precisely the fact that we're reading into the words our modern understanding, rather than trying to understand what Tertullian meant.

In the text above, Tertullian is arguing against Marcion, who believed that Christ did not have an actual body, but was just spirit. Tertullian is using the Eucharist as proof that Christ did indeed have a body. After all, what kind of "figure" of Christ's body would the Eucharist be if Christ had no actual body?

First I'd remind everyone that Catholics DO believe that the Eucharist is symbolic. We simply don't believe it is merely or only symbolic, we believe it is both symbolic and actual, the way that we believe baptism is both symbolic and actual. So to begin with, even if Tertullian did mean to say, in the above quote, that the Eucharist is symbolic (in the sense that we mean it today), this would not be a contradiction to Catholic teaching, especially because, as we'll see in just a minute, elsewhere Tertullian definitely shows a believe in the Real Presence.

But the most important point is that "figure" in Tertullian's quote is not equivalent to our modern day idea of a mere symbol. This article goes into much more detail explaining the difference, but here is a short explanation:

"A scholar of great authority as to the meaning of early Latin documents has inferred from these facts that in Tertullian 'figura' is equivalent not to -schema- but to -charakter- [see Turner, Journal of Theological Studies, vii,596], that is, it would approach more nearly to 'ACTUAL and distinctive NATURE' than to 'symbol' or 'figure' in the modern sense of those terms.

"The question of the meaning of such words in connection with the Eucharist will recur again in a later period. It may be sufficient here to express the warning that to suppose that 'symbol' in Clement of Alexandria or 'figure' in Tertullian must mean the same as in modern speech would be to assent to a line of thought which is GRAVELY MISLEADING."
(Stone, vol 1, pg 31)

Now, another way to know whether Tertullian really meant the Eucharist is merely symbolic rather than both symbolic and truly the Body and Blood of Christ is to examine what he says about the Eucharist elsewhere. Let's take a look:

Likewise, in regard to days of fast, many do not think they should be present at the SACRIFICIAL prayers, because their fast would be broken if they were to receive THE BODY OF THE LORD...THE BODY OF THE LORD HAVING BEEN RECEIVED AND RESERVED, each point is secured: both the participation IN THE SACRIFICE... (Prayer 19:1)

The flesh feeds on THE BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST, so that the SOUL TOO may fatten on God. (Resurrection of the Dead 8:3)

It seems clear that Tertullian did indeed believe in the Real Presence from the above quotes.

The final quote in the article is, I suppose, an attempt to show that the Early Christians did not consider the Eucharist to be really the Body and Blood of Christ because it is not "another sacrifice" but a "memorial."

It is evident to those educated in divine things that we do not offer another sacrifice, but we perform the memorial of that one saving sacrifice, (Theodoret [ca. 440], Interpretation of Hebrews, 8:4, 5).

The problem is that, once again, this reveals an underlying assumption that something cannot be a memorial and also real, as well as a fundamental misunderstanding of the Catholic teaching about the Eucharistic sacrifice. Indeed, the above quote fits exactly with the Catholic understanding that we do NOT re-sacrifice Christ on the altar, rather, the Once and for all sacrifice is re-presented, made present again for us on the altar. It is a true memorial, a memorial which does not just bring to mind the event celebrated, but also makes it truly present.

Once again, if we look at other writings of Theodoret, we can see he did indeed believe in the Real Presence.

From a dialogue he wrote:

Eran.—What do you call the gift which is offered before the priestly invocation?
Orth.—Food of grain of such a sort.

Eran.—And how name we the other symbol?

Orth.—This name too is common, signifying species of drink.

Eran.—And after the consecration how do you name these?


Eran.—And do you believe that you partake of Christ's body and blood?

Orth.—I do.

Eran.—As, then, the symbols of the Lord's body and blood are one thing before the priestly invocation, and after the invocation are changed and become another thing...

Orth.—...even after the consecration the mystic symbols are not deprived of their own nature; they remain in their former substance figure and form; they are visible and tangible as they were before. But they are regarded as what they are become, and believed so to be, and are worshipped as being what they are believed to be. Compare then the image with the archetype, and you will see the likeness, for the type must be like the reality.

This describes our understanding of the substance and accidents of the Eucharist and the change that takes place, and only makes sense if they are speaking of the Eucharist and the Real Presence, not if they're speaking of a merely symbolic "Lord's Supper" in which no change takes place, and no consecration exists.

So among the quotes presented, we see that where they support the CoC view, the CoC is in agreement with the Catholic Church. We see that none of the quotes contradict the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, in fact they fit right in with it. Furthermore, in cases where the specific quotes presented from certain Early Church Fathers could be interpreted either way, we can see from their other writings that they did believe in the Real Presence, and so these quotes must be interpreted in light of that belief.

The author of the article ends by saying:

"No one should build his faith or religious practice on the words of mere men. But using the Bible as the standard, drawing our conclusions only from there, we then turn to the words of later saints to hear their understanding. When we find ourselves in such concert, over so many centuries, it can only thrill and strengthen the faithful in Christ. For it is obvious we and all who follow the apostolic pattern are the one and the same church of Christ."

Indeed, it is thrilling to see Christians through the ages who profess the same beliefs as we do today. Unfortunately for the author, none of the early Christians he quoted do profess exactly the same faith as the CoC, and certainly not concerning the Eucharist, as I've shown. And in general, members of the CoC are not content to affiliate themselves with those with whom they only partially agree, nor should they be. But to be consistent, they can't claim these Early Church Fathers as their own any more than they can claim members of various modern denominations as their own just because they happen to agree on some issues.

The same Church of Christ that these early Christians belonged to is not the one that came from the restoration movement. It is clearly the Catholic Church.


elizabeth said...

Hello, fellow convert!! Thank you for your post! St. Ambrose's writings from the 4th century are especially compelling when it comes to Transubstantiation (I might post the excerpt, or a link to it, on my blog). It is from an address he made to the newly baptized, exhorting them to endure in the faith.

In the chapter "Mysteries" he specifically addresses his newly baptized who are having doubts, such as 'I see something else; how do you tell me that I receive the Body of Christ?' In response, he says "[We shall prove] that this is not what nature formed but what benediction consecrated, and that the power of benediction is greater than that of nature, because even nature itself is changed by benediction."

He goes on to use a myriad examples from the Old Testament to show this power of benediction through Moses. "But if the benediction of man had such power as to change nature, what do we say of divine consecration itself, in which the very words of our Lord and Saviour function? For that sacrament, which you receive, is effected by the words of Christ."

Then he continues with the example of Mary, basically pulling out all the stops, and then continues with a beautiful illustration of the Church as the Bride of Christ being fed on the sacraments, quoting from Song of Songs: "Arise, O northwind, and come, O southwind, blow through my garden and let my ointments flow down. Let my brother go down into his garden and eat the fruit of his apple-trees." He continues with quotes from Acts, the Psalms, and everywhere else. I highly recommend. :)

jdavidb said...

Maybe you can answer two of my questions:

* Why must the Catholic Church be dogmatic about transubstantiation, i.e., why does it not allow for its members to harmoniously hold different opinions on the subject?

* With what justification does the Catholic Church claim that transubstantiation does not occur during the Lord's Supper of other Christians? No, seriously: I've believed and taught for over a decade that even though some Christians believe the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is figurative and not literal, that they are nevertheless still literally indwelt by the Holy Spirit who I understand literally indwells Christians (along with the Father and Son, as well, according to the Gospel of John). Their lack of understanding does not mean that they do not have the Holy Spirit. (I knew some people who were very pompous and prideful because they thought they were nearly the only ones who believed the indwelling was literal, and thus that they were nearly the only ones to have the Holy Spirit. :( ) If I were to come to conclude that the Lord's Supper were literal, I would simply conclude that all along I had been consuming the actual body and blood of Christ, not mere bread and wine. It wouldn't cause me to spontaneously decide that only some Christians with special knowledge and special authority were permitted to observe a correct Lord's Supper.

elizabeth said...

Hello, jdavidb,
I want to apologize for pride amongst Catholics. To receive Our Lord in Holy Communion is a grace. There is nothing we have done to deserve it. Priests who celebrate Mass are not "able" to consecrate the Eucharist through any human ability of their own. It is a divine grace conferred through Ordination. The graces conferred at Ordination are part of an unbroken succession- Apostolic Succession- that can be traced all the way back to St. Peter, and this is simply the means Our Lord chose to manifest Himself among us.

That Holy Communion is an Objective Grace, not subjective, is a Biblical teaching. We know that Our Lord did not choose "just anyone" to lead His people throughout salvation history, but specifically set apart Abraham, Moses, etc. All the miracles, the parting of the Red Sea, the water from the rock, the changing of the rod into a serpent-- occured through the WORDS of BENEDICTION that He gave to the particular leader He chose. In a fuller sense, He continued this objective blessing through words of benediction through His Son, and His Son likewise passed along this grace to His apostles, who continued this grace through the Church, and the succession of apostles continues today!

It is, and has always been, the Church's business to protect her traditions and the teaching of Scripture from heresy- EVEN if it's just a tiny little thing. That Jesus Christ deigns to live amongst us under the appearance of bread is one of the most precious realities that Our Lord granted the Church. This must be protected at all costs, for it is not a teaching that BELONGS to us. It is a gift that has been given to us, and like all treasures, we must protect it, and be good stewards of it. Unfortunately, it is a historical fact that Luther broke away from this teaching, and instead adopted the doctrine of consubstantiation. How devastating it is that modern Protestants have inherited this component of faith- that to be a Protestant is by definition to "protest" against the tradition of the Church instituted by Christ, as revealed in the Scriptures. There is a richness, depth, mystery, and beauty in the Catholic Church that is only in skeletal form in Protestant Churches. It is devastating, but it is a fact. The Scriptures are unapologetic and quite clear when it comes to the Eucharist, especially in John 6.

You might look into the Catechism to clarify exactly what the Catholic Church teaches on the Eucharist, Apostolic Succession, Holy Orders, etc. My words are proving inadequate, and I hope I didn't come across in a negative way, because I sincerely hope you may understand with clarity the teachings of the Catholic Church. I know that many Protestant communities are vibrant with the presence of the Holy Spirit and I thank you as your sister in Christ for asking meaningful questions about the faith. The search for truth is the most noble quest humans can embark on, for our ability to reason is the Imago Dei, or image of God, revealed in us. God bless you!

Anonymous said...


The Catholic church is dogmatic about substantiation because we believe Christ meant what he said when he said "This IS my body..." and "This IS my blood..."

Why don't other groups have a valid Eucharist? Only those groups who can trace their authority back to the apostles have a valid Eucharist. Hence the reason the churh is "apostolic."


Stephanie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stephanie said...

Thanks for your input, Elizabeth! Great stuff from St. Ambrose!

jdavidb, good questions! Sara pretty much summed up the answers.

If you were to ask Catholics to pinpoint one doctrine that was absolutely central to their faith, it would be the Eucharist hands down. This is a divinely revealed truth, the most important doctrine, the most Blessed Sacrament, the height and pinnacle of every mass. So why are we so dogmatic about it? Because it is SO VERY important, SO VERY central to the Catholic faith!! We believe that Christ told his disciples repeatedly "This IS my body," and when some couldn't handle it and walked away, he didn't stop them and say "But it's ok if you don't want to believe that...." and nor do we. It is the core of our faith, so yes indeed we are dogmatic about it! It's up there with believing Christ died on the cross, that's not something as a Christian that you can just agree to disagree on, it's at the heart of what it means to be Christian.

With what justification does the Catholic Church claim that transubstantiation does not occur during the Lord's Supper of other Christians?

A very important question indeed!

To answer it in depth you have to understand the importance of apostolic succession, as well as what it takes to be able to procure a valid sacrament. A sacrament doesn't happen on accident, it must be intentionally done with the proper form and matter.

In the case of the Eucharist, the requirements for validity are very simple and can be dealt with under the headings of minister, intent, matter, and form.

There must be a validly ordained minister, whose intent is to perform the consecration, using the proper matter (wheat bread and grape wine), and the proper form (the words used at the consecration, i.e. - "Take this all of you and eat it. This is my Body, which will be given up for you,").

Now, even if the CoC and other bible-based Christian groups had the proper form and said the Eucharistic prayers, and had the proper intent to actually bring about a change in the communion species, and the proper matter (and the grape juice used is questionable), they would still be lacking the necessity of a validly ordained minister.

I agree with you about the Holy Spirit...but the procurement of sacraments is slightly different. Whether the Holy Spirit indwells in us, more precisely in our souls, is pretty much kept on the spiritual side of things. A sacrament has to do with using physical means to receive some kind of spiritual grace. The Eucharist especially is the ultimate combination of physical and spiritual...thus, some physical requirements are absolutely necessary, and one of those, we believe, is a validly ordained priest, which is why apostolic succession is so important.

Ken said...


Good post and rebuttal, especially your quotes of St. Ireneus. The quotes you provided show that the central differance between the apostolic Eucharist and the CoC "Lord's Supper" is that the Eucharist is an offering to God. It shows that the Catholic Church has held to the apostolic teaching "whether by epistle or word of mouth."

With regards to argument that "it can't be a sacrifice because it's a memorial" one only has to read Leviticus 2 which declares that the grain offering is simultaneously a memorial and THE MOST HOLY OF SACRFICES. This is especially evident in the Septuagint translation.


Stephanie said...

I wasn't aware of that verse, Ken, thanks for pointing it out!