When Christians discuss Christianity, it is common to ask where one goes to church. One person may say they go to a Baptist church, another the Methodist church, and yet another will say the Roman Catholic Church. Protestants and Catholics believe in the incarnation, the virgin birth, the crucifixion, and resurrection. This is great, and they must be believed, but when it comes to the Eucharist the tide of the conversation shifts. There are questions as to what the Eucharist is, and why the catholic church will not allow non-Catholics to partake of it.
Though we are all Christians, there is a line in the sand between Catholics and Protestants as to what the Eucharist is. Catholics hold that a miracle takes place and the bread and wine become the real body and blood of Christ. Many Protestants look at the elements as a symbol, and a memorial meal for us to remember the last supper. If the Catholic church is correct, then Protestants are missing a crucial aspect of Christian worship. If Protestants are right, then Catholics are guilty of the horrible sin of idolotry.
In this paper the church teaching of the Eucharist will be looked at in detail. This detail will include looking at sacred scripture, the catechism, the writings of early church fathers, church councils, and the first eucharistic controversies. Through it all this paper will shatter the myth that says that the catholic church started believing in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist after the Forth Lateran Council in 1215. The research will show that, not only is the Eucharist the real body and blood of Christ, but it was a constant teaching of the church since the time of the Apostles.
WHAT IS THE EUCHARIST?
When the liturgy of the Eucharist is happening every Christian, regardless of denominational affiliation, will recognize the words spoken by the priest. These words are scriptural and can be found in many places. One such place in Luke 22:19-20 which states, “Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (NRSV). The word Eucharist comes from the Greek word Eucharista which means thanksgiving.
The catholic church states that the bread and wine present on the altar become the real body and blood of our lord Jesus Christ. It is our participation in worship that is happening in heave, and our participation in the heavenly banquet on earth. As such the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the Eucharist as “The source and summit of our faith” (CCC 1324). It contains Christ himself and it his efficacious sign to be with us until the end of time and allows us to maintain unity with his people and church.
As previously states, Catholics believe that a miracle takes place when the bread and wine are consecrated. Within the Liturgy of the Eucharist this takes place in the section titled The Institution Narrative and Consecration (Liturgy of the Eucharist). In this institution narrative the priest says the words uttered by Christ on that fateful night in the upper room. Just as Christ gave his himself under the species of bread and wine the priest does the same in the liturgy of the Eucharist when he acts in persona Christi, or in the person of Christ. Regarding this the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops states, “that Sacrifice is effected which Christ himself instituted during the Last Supper, when he offered his Body and Blood under the species of bread and wine, gave them to the Apostles to eat and drink, and leaving with the latter the command to perpetuate this same mystery” (USCCB).
The quotation given above makes mention of the body and blood of Christ being offered under the species of bread and wine. The church has always taught this, but thanks to Eucharistic controversies that were becoming prevalent, the church had to formally define this miraculous change. At the Fourth Lateran Council the church formally defined this with a word known as transubstantiation, and this became a dogma and a definitive teaching that must be believed (Howell page 126).
Transubstantiation is the process by which the substance of the bread and wine vanishes in a way that makes room for the body and blood of Christ, and when this happens the appearance of bread and wine remains (Pohl & Preuss page 107). Since the appearance of the bread and wine remain this allows us to consume the sacrament. In short, the substance of the material has changed but the appearance stays the same. This understanding grew over the years as Aristotelian language became more mainstream and understood in a deeper way. In his magnificent work the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas started to define these terms even if the official word of transubstantiation had not yet been defined. Regarding the change that occurs with the elements Aquinas writes “The presence of Christ’s true body and blood in this sacrament cannot be detected by sense, nor understanding, but by faith alone, which rests upon Divine authority” (STIII q.75 a.1 resp.). He shows us his flesh, though it may be in an invisible manner, as a way to strengthen us for the journey of life and to perfect us in faith.
Though the word transubstantiation did not come about until 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council that does not mean that the church started teaching it then. Some protestants believe this, but history shows another story. Church history shows that from the time of the apostles until the ninth century that the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was unchallenged.
BIBLICAL EVIDENCE FOR THE EUCHARIST
Some claim that the doctrine of the Eucharist is not found in scripture, but this outlook is an indication of one reading scripture through a denominational lens. The last supper narratives all describe Jesus as saying “this is my body, this is my blood” in Matthew 26:17-30, Mark 14:12-25, Luke 22:7-20, and John 13:1-30. St, Paul also writes about the body and blood of Christ in the breaking of bread in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-29. Perhaps the strongest biblical evidence is from Christ himself in John 6:22-59 which is known as the bread of life discourse. In this discourse Christ loses follows because he is speaking literally about his body and blood.
To understand these verses fully we must look at some Old Testament passages because these New Testament verses employ a theological term known as typology. Typology studies events and institution that foreshadow something greater that is to come. Regarding this Dr. Scott Hahn writes, “The basis of such study is the belief that God, who providentially shapes and determines the course of human events, infuses those events with a prophetic and theological significance” (Catholic Bible Dictionary page 929). Understanding typology helps us understand salvation history as something fluid, and not as periods that are broken up independent of each other. God does not change, and the subtle clues that he gives us in the Old Testament find heir final fulfillment in the pages of the New Testament. With that said we see the beginnings of the Eucharist in the pages of the Old Testament, and there are two items that are significant for our purposes here. Those two things are the bread of the presence in the Temple and the manna in the desert.
The story of the manna in the desert takes place in the book of Exodus. Moses, through the grace of God, led the children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage. Though they were in bondage in Egypt they ate well. They roamed through the desert and they began to complain about how much better off they were in Egypt. In Exodus 16:2 we read, “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness” (NRSV). They were understandably afraid and did not know where the next meal was coming from because it was always provided in Egypt. Moses took their concerns before the Lord and the Lord responds. The says to Moses in Exodus 16:4, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not” (NRSV). This miraculous bread was brought down from heaven every morning, and the Israelites were to pick as much as they needed for the day. This is a foreshadowing of what Christ says in the Bread of life discourse in John chapter 6. In that discourse Jesus says that he is the true manna that came down from Heaven (Barber 65).
The bread of life discourse takes up most of John 6, but only a few verses will be covered so the relations between the manna and the Eucharist can be established. In John 6:32 Jesus tells the Jews that Moses was not the one that gave the bread from heaven, but the Father gives them “true bread” from heaven. Jesus is using present tense verbs, and not past tense if he were simply discussing what Moses did. The Jews long for the bread that Jesus describes, and he shifts the conversation from the manna that gave the Israelites life to the true bread. Jesus says in John 6:35, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (NRSV). In John 6:41 the Jews are complaining to Jesus because he said that he is the bread of life. When Jesus is encountered the Jews could not understand that they would be feeding on the living God (Benedict XVI para 53). Both John 6:41 and Exodus 16:2 state that he Jews started complaining. They both started complaining over something that they believed to be literal. The manna in the desert was a real event as was Jesus saying that his flesh must be eaten.
Though the Jews were complaining, just like the Israelites in the wilderness, he repeats himself. In John 6:51 Christ says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (NRSV). It is interesting to note that the Jews not only complained but became indignant. They asked among themselves How Christ could give his flesh to eat (John 6:52). This leads to a very important question that is at the heart of this research. If our Lord were speaking metaphorically why would the Jews take him literally? The question they asked among themselves is literal in nature.
Jesus understood their confusion and raised the ante again. In fact, with his next phrase he would erase all doubt and his audience would know exactly what he meant. In John 6:53 Jesus states, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (NRSV). In this verse Jesus uses a different Greek verb for the word “eat”. The verb used by Christ is the Greek word trogo and it means “to gnaw, munch, crunch” (Thomas #5176). This word is never meant as a literary metaphor in the Greek language and is always used in a literal fashion. At this saying many of those who were following Jesus left. They left because they knew what he meant, and that meaning was literal. He then turned to the twelve disciples in John 6:61 and asked if they were offended and wanted to leave. Many will say that Jesus also said that he was a door and a vine, and he did say those things. However, he never willingly lost followers over those statements. The comparison between Exodus 16 and John 6 shows that manna was a prefiguration of the Eucharist. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI states, “The mystery of the Eucharist reveals the true manna, the true bread of heaven: it is God’s Logos made flesh, who gave himself up for us in the paschal mystery” (Verbum Domini para 54).
The bead of the presence is also a foreshadowing of the Eucharist in the Old Testament. According to Exodus 25:30 this bread was to be continually before the Lord. This bread stood as a reminder to al who saw it that God was continually present. The bread was placed on a golden table outside of the Holy of Holies, and every Sabbath new bread would be placed, and priests would eat the old (Hahn 929). Four times per year, on major feast days, the bread of the presence was shown to the people to remind them that God was with them.
The bread of the presence reaches its fulfillment in Christ who institutes it in the Eucharistic celebration as it is Christ who sustains our spiritual life. The connection between the bread of the presence and is not lost on our Protestant brethren. Protestant biblical scholar Paul Karleen states, “The specially made bread that lay on an ornate table in the Holy Place in the Tabernacle; pictures Christ as the one who sustains (spiritual) life” (Karleen 359). The bread consisted of twelve loaves for the twelve tribes of Israel. In the New Covenant Jesus has twelve disciples to represent the same. As the Priests in the Old Testament lifted the bread to show the people that God was with them, Jesus does the same at the last supper. Using the principles of typology and what Jesus stated in John chapter 6 we see Jesus, in his role as high priest, offer himself to be eaten by his disciples. This is done every day in the celebration of the Eucharist at Holy Mass.
This far two Old Testament preludes to the Eucharist have been detailed, but what about the New Testament? For this we will look to the last supper narratives in the New Testament, but specifically the Gospel of Matthew. The sequence of events is familiar as Jesus takes the bread as says in Matthew 26:26 “Take, eat; this is my body” (NRSV). The word “is” is a crucial component of the study of the Eucharist. The Greek word used is esti which is a third person singular verb which means “to be” (Thomas #1510). What is even more interesting, as far as this word is concerned, is its origins. The word esti has its root in the present infinitive Greek verb einai “to be, to exist, to be present” (Thomas #1510). In Matthew 26:27 Jesus then states, “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (NRSV).
A study of the Greek language is a good stating point, but it has a very real connection to Passover. The Gospels are clear, and state that the Jesus and the disciples gathered to celebrate the Passover. The Passover meal was done to remember the exodus event and was a sacrificial meal in its own right. Prior to Passover a lamb would be slaughtered and the whole lamb had to be consumed. The Passover was a community feast and parallels the gathering that we see with Jesus and the disciples. During the meal the head of the table would make comments and was ritualistic in nature. There was a formula that was followed. Jesus did not follow the prescribed formula and said the words mentioned above in Matthew 26:26-27. He also commanded the disciples to follow his lead and to do this act in the future. There are a couple other ways in the which last supper deviate from the traditional Passover meal. Conspicuous in its absence is the roasted lamb. This is important because Jesus took the place of the Passover lamb (Zizoulas 5). When Christ said the words of institution the bread and wine that were present became his body which was the sacrifice of the New Covenant given for the sins of the world. Regarding the connection between the Passover and the Eucharist John Zizoulas writes, “To understand the remembrance in this way makes the Eucharist not only a re-presentation of the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, but also a foretaste of the Kingdom to come” (Zizoulas 5).
EVIDENCE FROM THE EARLY CHURCH FATHERS
In the previous paragraphs a very brief look at scripture shows that Jesus was being literal, and that Christ is the Pasqual lamb that died for the sins of the word. What did the earliest Christian followers believe? Did the early church believe that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ? To answer this question the writings of the following four early church fathers will be discussed: St. Ignatius of Antioch who lived from approximately 35-108 A.D., St. Justin Martyr who lived from 100-165 A.D., St. Irenaeus who lived from 130-202 A.D., and St. Augustine who lived from 354-430 A.D. There are many more who write about the subject, but this is a small sampling.
St. Ignatius of Antioch is an individua who has several distinctions in Church history. He learned the faith directly from St. John, but he also was the second bishop of Antioch after St. Peter (Johnson 46). While he was being led to Rome for his eventual martyrdom he wrote seven letters to a series of Christian communities. At the time he wrote these letters there was a dangerous heresy known as Docetism that was gaining steam. This dangerous error taught that Jesus was not really a human, and what people saw only seemed to be human. In many ways it was similar to Gnosticism in it view of who Jesus was. St. Ignatius warned against this false teaching in a very strong manner. One of the ways he refuted this teaching was in the Eucharist. In his letter to the Smyrneans St. Ignatius writes, “They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again” (Ignatius of Antioch 89). To defend the orthodox teaching of who Christ is he states that the Eucharist is the body of Christ who suffered for our sins. If it was a just a symbol, then this teaching on the Eucharist would have meant nothing to combat the Docetic heresy.
In his letter to the Philadelphians, St. Ignatius writes about the importance of unity. He writes about union with the Bishop, avoiding schism, and how there is only one Eucharist. Regarding the Eucharist St. Ignatius writes, “Take ye heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons” (Ignatius of Antioch 81). Here we see a bold claim, at least in today’s world, that there is one true Christian church and that the Eucharist is at the center of its sacramental life (CCC 1407). St. Ignatius also sees the Eucharist as not only the body and blood of Christ, but as a connection to him (Stone 73). In addition to being the true body and blood of Christ, the Eucharist is a source of unity and strength to continue the Christian journey. For St. Ignatius, the grace given through the God in the Eucharist helped him to proceed to his eventual martyrdom. The sacramental worldview involves seeing God work through ordinary things, and through his grace the Eucharist becomes what Christ says it is and helps us through life.
Another church father that taught that the Eucharist is the real body and blood of Christ is St. Justin Martyr. St. Justin was a philosopher by trade, and the first of the layman apologists. In his First Apology, St. Justin writes to the emperor to defend Christianity from misconceptions that were spreading in the Roman empire (Kreider 233). In this apology he lays out the order of mass in striking detail and addresses the charge of cannibalism that was often levied against Christians. He states that no one can receive the Eucharist unless they believe what the church teaches and only after baptism. Regarding the Eucharist St. Justin states, “For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh” (Justin Martyr 185). The charge of cannibalism was serious offense on the Roman Empire, and Justin clarifies what the Eucharist is to eliminate doubt. However, he still says that it is the flesh and blood of Jesus.
In the early church the Gnostic heresy was a big problem and had become popular. St. Irenaeus of Lyons was concerned for the souls which he was responsible for. He wrote an excellent treatise titled Against Heresies in which he took the teaching of Gnosticism to task. The Gnostics taught that all matter was evil and that the true teaching of Christ was past down in secret, and salvation can only be attained by attaining this secret knowledge. To combat this heresy, he said that all true churches have a rule of faith that was passed down via apostolic succession. Essentially, he stated that all bishops can trace their lineage to the Apostles. This is still the teaching of the Catholic church today. Another was he defended the church was in relation to the Eucharist. St. Irenaeus the sacrament allowed the Lord to shine through the follies of human weakness and strengthen us on the road to heaven, or immortality as he called it. He argues that Jesus was real person with flesh and bones, and he gave his flesh to nourish the body and soul of his followers. Regarding this St. Irenaeus writes, “He does not speak these words of some spiritual and invisible man, for a spirit has not bones nor flesh; but [he refers to] that dispensation [by which the Lord became] an actual man, consisting of flesh, and nerves, and bones,—that [flesh] which is nourished by the cup which is His blood, and receives increase from the bread which is His body” (Irenaeus 528).
The last church father to be discussed regarding the Eucharist is the great St. Augustine of Hippo. St. Augustine was familiar with the gnostic movement as he was a member of the gnostic movement known as Manichaeism (Hitchcock 91). He understood the gnostic movements teaching of all material matter being evil. He probably had a deeper appreciation of the sacraments and of the sacramental worldview. St. Augustine was a prolific writer and homilist, and as such he said and wrote much about the Eucharist.
In one of his sermons he was instructing a group that had just received the sacrament of baptism. Augustine had promised to explain the nature of the Eucharist after they had been washed from the stain of original sin and received the seal of the Holy Spirit in confirmation. Regarding the Eucharist St. Augustine states in sermon 227. “The bread you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. The chalice, or rather, what is in the chalice, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ” (Akin 297). Augustine goes on to say that our eyes see ordinary bread and wine, but when they are consecrated our faith obligates us to believe that they are the true body and blood of Christ.
St. Augustine wrote much more about the Eucharist, but from the quotation above we can deduce two things. Firstly, he strongly believed that the Eucharist was the literal body and blood of Christ and it was something that must be believed. Secondly, that the ordinary elements are transformed when God sanctifies them. God uses ordinary elements, infuses his grace, and takes material things that cause us to sin and transforms them to become a cause for our sanctification.
WHEN DID THE TEACHING OF THE EUCHARIST BEGIN TO BE CHALLENGED?
Thus far we have seen the testimony of sacred scripture and four fathers of the church in regard to the Eucharist. The language used by all the great early church theologians spoke in literal terms. In fact, the teaching that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ would go unchallenged until the 9th century. It was then that a monk by the name of Ratramnus wrote a book titled On the Body and Blood of the Lord, and in that book he wrote that Christ was present in the Eucharist only “in a spiritual sense to the faith of believers” (Schaff 550). In the view of Ratramnus, the Eucharist is a spiritual reality and is not a physical one. In doing so he was the first to deny the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Ratramnus had a monk who was his superior by the name of St. Paschasius. St. Paschasius also wrote a book titled On the Body and Blood of the Lord, and it was published before Ratramnus’s work. St. Paschasius held to the orthodox teaching of the real presence and for a time the view of Ratramnus was no longer a threat. That us until Berengar of Tours revitalized the controversy in 1050.
Berengar of Tours was a skilled scholar who had real concerns about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist in the cases of sacrilege and automatic salvation (Radding & Newton 7). Is it proper for Christ to pass through the digestive system? What if a mouse got into the tabernacle and ate the consecrated hosts? Berengar of Tours also had the false assumption that all one had to do was to consume the Eucharist and one would be automatically saved. If this were the case, then there would be no need for faith.
Around this same time Aristotelian language was starting to be understood more, and this led to an opportunity for the church to clarify Eucharistic language. The church works on the language at the regional Council of Vercelli in 1050. It was here that the views of Berengar of Tours was condemned. He did recant, but later fell back into his error (Thein 101). In 1054 he signed another profession of faith in which he recanted of his error. Berengar of Tours would pass to his eternal reward in communion with the church in 1088.
As is often the case, the church does not formally define something at a council until a controversy arises. Though the error of Ratramnus and Berengar of Tours were handled correctly, the error regarding the Eucharist continued with other groups such the Waldensians, Albigensians, and Cathars. The Fourth Lateran council met, and it was at this council that the word transubstantiation was used to describe what happened when the bread and wine are consecrated and does so in philosophical categories (Armstrong 54). This formal definition answered the question how the bread and wine maintain its physical appearance and taste and how they can be transformed.
At the beginning of sacred scripture, we read about man be tempted with physical matter by Satan. It was through material matter that sin entered the world, and through the longing for it that most problems in the world are present. God knows that we are physical being and need to see things to comprehend and remember their significance. In this regard he established the seven sacraments to infuse grace and help get us to heaven. This where the sacramental worldview begins to take shape, especially in regard to the Eucharist. At the words of consecration, the physical element of bread and wine are infused with the grace of God.
In the sacrament we are declaring are unity with each other, unity with the church, and that Christ is fully present in the sacrament. It is something bigger than us and is a reminder about his death and resurrection that redeemed us all. We consume Christ and he changes us from the inside out and conforms us more to his image.
The question being answered in this paper is if the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ or a mere symbol? The conclusion is that that it has been the constant teaching of the church, since apostolic times, that the Eucharist is the body and blood or Christ. This has been demonstrated using examples from writings of four church fathers. There are several more quotations about the Eucharist from the fathers that were quoted. However, there are many more writings from other fathers not mentioned that describe the Eucharist as the body and blood of Christ.
Sacred scripture was also utilized to show how the manna in the desert and the bread of the presence prefigured the Eucharist. The last supper was discussed, and scripture shows how Christ is the fulfillment of the Pasqual lamb. Lastly the bread of life discourse in John chapter 6 was detailed. In particular was the literal language that Christ used in the Greek. Is the protestant view of the Eucharist being a symbol the view of the early church? Not at all. That view did not come about until the 9th century, and even then it was condemned.
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