Protestant scholar William Webster wrote The Eucharist and asserted that the Catholic teaching that whatever makes bread bread and wine wine is changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

He wrote,

The Roman Catholic doctrine of the eucharist was first given dogmatic expression at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, when the Church formally adopted the doctrine of transubstantiation as its official teaching. This was confirmed by the Council of Trent, which also asserted that the Lord’s Supper was a propitiatory sacrifice for sin. These are the two primary and supremely important elements of the Church’s teaching on the eucharist — transubstantiation and sacrifice.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that when the priest utters the words of consecration, the bread and wine are changed into the literal body and blood of Christ. He is then offered to God on the altar as a propitiatory sacrifice for sin. The Council of Trent explicitly states that ‘in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner who once offered himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross’. There are thus two aspects of the Roman doctrine: transubstantiation, which guarantees the ‘real presence’ of Christ; and the mass, in which Christ, thus present bodily, is re-offered to God as a sacrifice. This, however, is not the only view which has been expressed in a consistent way throughout the history of the Church. From the beginning of the Church the Fathers generally expressed their belief in the Real Presence in the eucharist, in that they identified the elements with the body and blood of Christ, and also referred to the eucharist as a sacrifice, but there was considerable difference of opinion among the Fathers on the precise nature of these things, reflected in the fact that the ancient Church produced no official dogma of the Lord’s Supper. Interpretation of the meaning of the eucharist in the writings of the Fathers must be done with great caution for it is very easy to take a preconceived theology of the eucharist and read it back into their comments and teachings.

What I believe an objective analysis will reveal is that the views of the Fathers are very consistent with the differing views represented by the Roman Catholic Church and those of the Protestant Reformers. Some of the Fathers taught that the elements are symbols of the body and blood of Christ and that his presence is spiritual, while others maintained that the elements are changed into Christ’s body and blood and that his presence is physical. The following examples from the writings of the Fathers of the first four centuries reveal this diversity of opinion.

The Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, as it is sometimes called, is included in the collection of works known as the Apostolic Fathers, and is one of the oldest documents from the immediate post-apostolic age that we possess. It is an early manual of Church discipline dated from between the late first century and 140 A.D., and it simply refers to the Lord’s Supper as spiritual food and drink. There is no indication that the elements are transformed in anyway. Ignatius of Antioch (martyred c. 110 A.D.), on the other hand, speaks of the eucharist as the body and blood of Christ which communicates eternal life.

Justin Martyr (100/110-165 A.D.) refers to the eucharistic elements as being more than common bread and wine, in that when they are consecrated they become the body and blood of Jesus; yet in his Dialogue with Trypho he wrote that the elements were bread and wine which were inaugurated by Christ as a memorial and remembrance of his body and blood. So while he spoke of a change in the elements, it seems that in his conception, the elements still remain, in essence, bread and wine.

Like Justin, Irenaeus of Lyons (140-202 A.D.) clearly believed the bread and wine became the body and blood of Jesus at consecration, but he also stated that the elements were composed of two realities — one earthly and one heavenly, or spiritual. He implied that at consecration, though the elements are no longer common bread and wine, they do not lose the nature of being bread and wine.

Tertullian (155/160-240/250 A.D.) spoke of the bread and wine in the eucharist as symbols or figures which represent the body and blood of Christ. He specifically stated that these were not the literal body and blood of the Lord. When Christ said, ‘This is my body,’ Tertullian maintained that Jesus was speaking figuratively and that he consecrated the wine ‘in memory of his blood’ (Against Marcion 3.19). Some theologians have claimed that the ancient usage of the words ‘figure’ and ‘represent’ suggested that the symbols in some mysterious way became what they symbolized. But Tertullian uses the word ‘represent’ in a number of other places where the word carries a figurative meaning. For example, in Against Marcion 4.40 he says, ‘He represents the bleeding condition of his flesh under the metaphor of garments dyed in red.’ His interpretation of John 6 similarly indicates that when he spoke of the bread and wine as figures and symbols of Christ’s body and blood, that is exactly what he meant.  He says that Christ spoke in spiritual terms when referring to the eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood and did not mean this literally. He holds that the eating of the flesh of Christ and the drinking of his blood means appropriating him by faith: ‘He likewise called His flesh by the same appellation; because, too, the Word had become flesh, we ought therefore to desire Him in order that we may have life, and to devour Him with the ear, and to ruminate on Him with the understanding, and to digest Him by faith.’ Clearly he did not teach the concept of transubstantiation.

Clement of Alexandria (150-211/216 A.D.) also called the bread and wine symbols of the body and blood of Christ, and taught that the communicant received not the physical but the spiritual life of Christ.  Origen (185-253/254 A.D.), likewise, speaks in distinctively spiritual and allegorical terms when referring to the eucharist.

Eusebius of Caesarea (263-340 A.D.) identified the elements with the body and blood of Christ but, like Tertullian, saw the elements as being symbolical or representative of spiritual realities. He specifically states that the bread and wine are symbols of the Lord’s body and blood and that Christ’s words in John 6 are to be understood spiritually and figuratively as opposed to a physical and literal sense.

As time passed clearer descriptions of the eucharist as the transformation of the elements into the literal body and blood of Christ emerged in the writings of Fathers such as Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzen, Chrysostom and Ambrose. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, taught that the eucharist was the perpetuation of the incarnation and similarly Cyril of Jerusalem adopted a highly literal approach:
Since then He Himself has declared and said of the Bread, This is My body, who shall dare doubt any longer? And since He has affirmed and said, This is My blood, who shall ever hesitate, saying, that this is not His blood? He once turned water into wine, in Cana of Galilee, at His own will, and is it incredible that He should have turned wine into blood? . . . Then having sanctified ourselves by these spiritual Hymns, we call upon the merciful God to send forth His Holy Spirit upon the gifts lying before Him; that He may make the bread the Body of Christ, and the Wine the Blood of Christ; for whatsoever the Holy Ghost has touched, is sanctified and changed.’

At the same time, there was a continuing representation by many Fathers of the eucharistic elements as figures or symbols of the Lord’s body and blood, although they also believed the Lord was spiritually present in the sacrament. Pope Gelasius I (492-496A.D.), for example, believed that the bread and wine in substance at consecration did not cease to be bread and wine, a view shared by Eusebius, Theodoret, Serapion, Jerome, Athanasius, Ambrosiaster, Macanus of Egypt, and Eustathius of Antioch.

However, the theological giant who provided the most comprehensive and influential defence of the symbolic interpretation of the Lord’s Supper was Augustine.  He gave very clear instructions and principles for determining when a passage of Scripture should be interpreted literally and when figuratively. Passages of Scripture must always be interpreted in the light of the entire revelation of Scripture, he concluded, and he used John 6 as a specific example of a passage that should be interpreted figuratively.

Augustine argued that the sacraments, including the eucharist, are signs and figures which represent or symbolize spiritual realities. He made a distinction between the physical, historical body of Christ and the sacramental presence, maintaining that Christ’s physical body could not literally be present in the sacrament of the eucharist because he is physically at the right hand of God in heaven, and will be there until he comes again. But Christ is spiritually with his people. Augustine viewed the eucharist in spiritual terms and he interpreted the true meaning of eating and drinking as being faith: ‘To believe on Him is to eat the living bread. He that believes eats; he is sated invisibly, because invisibly is he born again.’

These views of Augustine are obviously in direct opposition to those of the Council of Trent. In fact, teachings such as his on the eucharist were anathematized by that Council. This highlights once again the lack of patristic consensus on the teaching of this major doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. The view of the transformation of the elements into the literal body and blood of Christ eventually triumphed within the Church but not without consistent opposition. There were two major controversies in the ninth and eleventh centuries between the literal and more spiritualistic views and even in the Scholastic age there were many prominent theologians who rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation.

In an attempt to give the impression that there has been a unanimous consent throughout the history of the Church to the Roman Catholic interpretation of the eucharist Karl Keating makes the following statement:
Whatever else might be said, it is certain that the early Church took John 6 and the accounts of the Last Supper literally. There is no record in the early centuries of any Christian doubting the Catholic interpretation. There exists no document in which the literal interpretation is opposed and the metaphorical accepted.

In light of the facts given above we can see that such a claim is erroneous. The truth of the matter is that the views of the early Church on the meaning of the eucharist and its relationship to the person of Christ are very similar to those one finds today and in the days of the Reformation when one compares the different Protestant and Roman Catholic views.

There is the literal view of transubstantiation which could be that expressed by Chrysostom; the Lutheran view of consubstantiation, which could be that taught by Irenaeus or Justin Martyr; the spiritual view of Calvin, which is closely aligned with Augustine; and the strictly symbolic view of Zwingli, which is similar to that expressed by Eusebius.

A similar lack of consensus existed on the other major characteristic of the Roman Catholic position on the eucharist — that this sacrament is itself a propitiatory sacrifice. According to this teaching, in the mass Christ is physically present through the priestly consecration and he then becomes the divine victim who is immolated on the altar. The word ‘immolate’ specifically means ‘to slay’ or ‘to kill’ and this sacrifice is efficacious as a sin payment to satisfy God’s justice.


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