PART 5 COMMUNION
What Did the Church Fathers Believe Concerning the Elements of Communion?
In this chapter, we will look at writings by the Church Fathers that relate to the elements of communion. This topic will be consolidated under the word transubstantiation, the doctrine which was formulated at the Council of Trent (a counsel of the Roman Catholic Church that defined church teachings between 1545-1563 AD) concerning the elements of communion. It stated that the substance of the bread and the wine changes into the substance of the body and blood of Christ. It is no longer bread and wine, but Christ really present under the appearance of bread and wine15.
Just who are these Church Fathers? They are those whose writings have preserved, to a certain extent, the history, doctrines, and traditions of the early church. These writers are grouped and named according to the time in which they lived. There are those who lived closest to the time of the apostles and presumably should hold to doctrinal beliefs that are similar to theirs.
Many believe that the last of the original apostles to die was the apostle John in about 95 AD. So, those writers who lived prior to 120AD will be included in this group and will be known as the Apostolic Fathers. There are two other groups of Church Fathers, those who lived from 120 AD to 325AD, and are called the Ante-Nicene Fathers, along with those who lived after 325 AD who are called the Post-Nicene Fathers.
Let’s take a look at some of these writers from each period of time. Sometimes, when reading their writings, it is difficult to understand what they were actually saying on this topic. However, what might help us in this understanding is what the opinions are of biblical scholars who have studiously tried to determine what each Church Father believed about transubstantiation.
The Apostolic Fathers (Before 120 AD)
Research reveals that there were five Apostolic Fathers, the names of whom are: Burnab (Barnabas), Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Hermas. Of these, I could only find one of them, Ignatius of Antioch who wrote about the elements of communion. His writings, however, on this topic are controversial.
Ignatius of Antioch
Those who adhere to the idea that Ignatius believed in Transubstantiation use his quote “that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ16”. On the other hand, those who think Ignatius did not believe in transubstantiation would claim that his words, “that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ17” were taken out of context, meaning these words have to be looked at in regard to why they were said in this manner.
The words of Ignatius were taken from an argument he had with Gnostic Docetists, who denied the true physical existence of our Lord; as such they also envied his death and resurrection. In his response to their claim he wrote, “They 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 again18.” The Docetists didn’t participate in the partaking of the Eucharist, because they denied the reality of Christ’s life.
Was Ignatius saying that the Eucharist is Christ’s literal flesh or merely symbolic of it?
There are two schools of thought on this. If we were to just look at the words, the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, it would seem appropriate to say that Ignatius believed that at communion the Eucharist turned into Christ’s literal flesh. However, when you look at these words and the ones that follow them, the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again, he could be saying that the Eucharist is the celebration of the passion and resurrection of our Lord. In this instance, I would say that conclusively no opinion can be reached.
What follows is a listing of some of the Church Fathers in whose writings contained reference to the elements of communion. They are listed in alphabetical order under one of two headings; either under the heading of those who believe in Transubstantiation or under the heading of those who didn’t believe in Transubstantiation. Also, next to each name are either the words Ante-Nicene (120 AD to 325 AD) or Post-Nicene (after 325 AD) which indicates during which time period they lived.
Will most of them believe in Transubstantiation? What do you think? Let’s find out.
A. Those Church Fathers Who Believe in Transubstantiation
Ambrose of Milan (Post-Nicene – after 325 AD)
"Then He added: 'For My Flesh is meat indeed, and My Blood is drink [indeed].' Thou hearest Him speak of His Flesh and of His Blood thou perceivest the sacred pledges, [conveying to us the merits and power] of the Lord's death, and thou dishonourest His Godhead. Hear His own words: 'A spirit hath not flesh and bones.' Now we, as often as we receive the Sacramental Elements, which by the mysterious efficacy of holy prayer are transformed into the Flesh and the Blood, "do show the Lord's Death.'" Ambrose, On the Christian Faith, 4, 10:125 (A.D. 380), in NPNF2, X:27819
"You will see the Levites bringing the loaves and a cup of wine, and placing them on the table. So, long as the prayers and invocations have not yet been made, it is mere bread and a mere cup. But when the great and wondrous prayers have been recited, then the bread becomes the body and the cup the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ...When the great prayers and holy supplications are sent up, the Word descends on the bread and the cup, and it becomes His body." Athanasius, Sermon to the Newly Baptized, PG 26,1325 (ante A.D. 373), in ECD.
Cyprian (Ante-Nicene – 120 A.D. to 325 A.D.)
"We ask that this bread should be given to us daily - so that we who are in Christ and daily receive the Eucharist for the food of salvation, may not by the interposition of some heinous sin be prevented ...from partaking of the heavenly bread.... He Himself predicts and warns, `I am the bread of life which came down from heaven. If any man eat of My bread, he shall live forever; and the bread which I will give is My flesh, for the life of the world' [John 6:58]. When therefore He says that whoever shall eat of His bread shall live forever, as those who partake of His body and receive the Eucharist by the right of communion are living, so on the other hand we must fear and pray lest any one ...being withheld from communion and separated from Christ's body-should remain at a distance from salvation.21" (Treatises IV: 18, 251 AD)
Cyril of Jerusalem (Post-Nicene)
“Under the type of bread His body given unto thee, and under the type of wine His blood given unto thee.”
"He once in Cana of Galilee, turned the water into wine, akin to blood, and is it incredible that He should have turned wine into blood?" Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, XXII: 4 (c.A.D. 350), in NPNF2, VII: 152
"Having learn these things, and been fully assured that the seeming bread is not bread, though sensible to taste, but the Body of Christ; and that the seeming wine is not wine, though the taste will have it so, but the Blood of Christ; and that of this David sung of old, saying, And bread strengtheneth man's heart, to make his face to shine with oil, 'strengthen thou thine heart,' by partaking thereof as spiritual, and "make the face of thy soul to shine." "Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, XXII: 8 (c.A.D. 350), in NPNF2, VII: 15222
Gregory of Nyssa (Post-Nicene)
Rightly, then, do we believe that now also the bread which is consecrated by the Word of God is changed into the Body of God the Word…the bread, as says the Apostle, 'is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer'; …since the God who was manifested infused Himself into perishable humanity for this purpose, viz. that by this communion with Deity mankind might at the same time be deified, for this end it is that, by dispensation of His grace, He disseminates Himself in every believer through that flesh, whose substance comes from bread and wine, blending Himself with the bodies of believers, to secure that, by this union with the immortal, man, too, may be a sharer in incorruption…." Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism, 37 (post A.D. 383), in NPNF2, V: 505-50623
…refers to his [Christ’s] honored and undefiled body and blood24…
Iranaeus of Lyons (Ante-Nicene)
"He acknowledged the cup (which is a part of the creation) as his own blood, from which he bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of creation) he affirmed to be his own body, from which he gives increase to our bodies." Irenaeus, Against Heresies, V:2,2 (c.A.D. 200), in NE,11925
John of Damascus (Post-Nicene)
"The body which is born of the holy Virgin is in truth body united with divinity, not that the body which was received up into the heavens descends, but that the bread itself and the wine are changed into God's body and blood. But if you enquire how this happens, it is enough for you to learn that it was through the Holy Spirit, just as the Lord took on Himself flesh that subsisted in Him and was born of the holy Mother of God through the Spirit.
Wherefore to those who partake worthily with faith, it is for the remission of sins and for life everlasting and for the safeguarding of soul and body; but to those who partake unworthily without faith, it is for chastisement and punishment, just as also the death of the Lord became to those who believe life and incorruption for the enjoyment of eternal blessedness, while to those who do not believe and to the murderers of the Lord it is for everlasting chastisement and punishment.
The bread and the wine are not merely figures of the body and blood of Christ (God forbid!) but the deified body of the Lord itself: for the Lord has said, 'This is My body,' not, this is a figure of My body: and 'My blood,' not, a figure of My blood. And on a previous occasion He had said to the Jews, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, ye have no life in you. For My flesh is meat indeed and My blood is drink indeed. And again, He that eateth Me, shall live." John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 4:13(A.D. 743), in NPNF2, IX: 8326
Theodorus of Mopsuestia (Post-Nicene)
He did not say, 'This is the symbol of My Body, and this, of My Blood,' but, what is set before us, but that it is transformed by means of the Eucharistic action into Flesh and Blood." Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentary on Matthew 26:26 (ante A.D. 428), in JUR, II:8127
”When [Christ] gave the bread he did not say, ‘This is the symbol of my body’, but, ‘This is my body28’
Theodoret of Cyrus (Post-Nicene)
Apparently in this section of writing on the elements of communion there is recorded a conversation between two people.
"Eran.-- You have opportunely introduced the subject of the divine mysteries for from it I shall be able to show you the change of the Lord's body into another nature. Answer now to my questions. Orth.--I will answer. Eran.-- What do you call the gift which is offered before the priestly invocation? Orth.--It were wrong to say openly; perhaps some uninitiated are present. Eran.-- Let your answer be put enigmatically. 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? Orth.--Christ's body and Christ's blood. Eran.-- And do you believe that you partake of Christ's body and blood? Orth.--I do." Theodoret of Cyrus, Eranistes,2 (A.D. 451), in NPNF1, III:20029
B. Those Church Fathers Who Do Not Believe in Transubstantiation
Augustine’s advice was, “to guard us against taking a metaphorical form of speech as if it were literal,” referring to the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist to illustrate this important principle.
“…our Lord Himself, and apostolic practice, have handed down to us a few rites in place of many (Old Testament rites), and these at once very easy to perform, most majestic in their significance, and most sacred in the observance; such, for example, as the sacrament of baptism, and the celebration of the body and blood of the Lord. And as soon as any one looks upon these observances, he knows to what they refer, and so reveres them not in carnal bondage, but in spiritual freedom. Now, as to follow the letter, and to take signs for the things that are signified by them, is a mark of weakness and bondage”. (On Christian Doctrine, Book 3)
That bread, which you can see on the altar, sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. That cup, or rather what the cup contains, sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ. It was by means of these things that the Lord Christ wished to present us with his body and blood, which he shed for our sake for the forgiveness of sins. If you receive them well, you are yourselves what you receive. You see, the apostle says, we, being many, are one loaf, one body (1 Cor. 10.17). That's how he explained the sacrament of the Lord's Table, “one loaf, one body, is what we all are, many though we be.” (Augustine, Sermons, 227)
Augustine believed that the elements are the body and blood of Jesus, and looking at the context it is clear that he is using figurative language. Just as he asserts that the bread is the body of Christ, he is equally emphatic that Christians are one loaf, one body. Clearly, he meant that the one Eucharistic loaf represents the unity among believers. Similarly, “by means of these things” (the bread and the cup) the Lord presents his people with his body and blood. The Eucharistic elements are the figure or sign of Christ, as Augustine asserts explicitly elsewhere in his writings:
The Lord did not hesitate to say: “This is My Body”, when He wanted to give a sign of His body” (Augustine, Against Adimant)
He [Christ] committed and delivered to His disciples the figure of His Body and Blood” (Augustine, on Psalm 3).
[The sacraments] bear the names of the realities that they resemble. As, therefore, in a certain manner the sacrament of Christ's body is Christ's body, and the sacrament of Christ's blood is Christ's blood” (Augustine, Letter 98, From Augustine to Boniface).
The elements of communion are the figure of the body and blood of Jesus, and since it represents the body and blood of Christ it is acceptable to call them His body and His blood. The bread resembles the body; therefore, it is called the body even though it is not the reality it represents. That is perfectly normal in figurative language.
Augustine believed that the bread and cup were signs that he defined as, “a sign is a thing which, over and above the impression it makes on the senses, causes something else to come into the mind as a consequence of itself” (On Christian Doctrine, 2, 1). Therefore, when we see the bread, we remember the body of Christ. The mistake of the modern Catholic Church is to confuse the sign with the reality it represents. Augustine rightly warns that, "to take signs for the things that are signified by them, is a mark of weakness and bondage" (On Christian Doctrine 3, 9). Augustine is here referring to the sacrament of baptism and the celebration of the body and blood of the Lord. Thus, to confuse the bread (the sign) for the body of Christ (the signified) is, according to Augustine, a mark of weakness and bondage30.
“If it be a fault (saith he) to translate the holy vessels (in the which is contained not the true body of Christ, but the mystery of the body) to private uses; how much more offence is it to abuse and defile the vessels of our body?” (11 homily on Matthew pg. 32-33) Notice that the words “true body” are not the same as the words “mystery of the body.”
“Before the bread be hallowed, we call it bread: but, the grace of God sanctifying it by the means of the priest, it is delivered now from the name of bread and esteemed worthy to be called Christ’s body, although the nature of the bread tarry in it still” (Chrysostom’s ad Caearium monachum, 34) So, the nature of bread remains in it, but because of its sanctification, the bread can receive the name of Christ’s body31.
Clement of Alexandria (Ante-Nicene)
“But you are not inclined to understand it thus, but perchance more generally. Hear it also in the following way. The flesh figuratively represents to us the Holy Spirit; for the flesh was created by Him. The blood points out to us the Word, for as rich blood the Word has been infused into life; and the union of both is the Lord, the food of the babes–the Lord who is Spirit and Word. The food- that is, the Lord Jesus–that is, the Word of God, the Spirit made flesh, the heavenly flesh sanctified…” (ibid)
The words of the Lord from the bread of life discourse “Eat My flesh and drink My blood,” is, according to Clement, figurative speech. Given Clement’s credentials and with regard to how much he was admired in the church, it is not at all likely he was out on a limb here. Clement was teaching orthodox Christian doctrine, widely understood in the universal church at that time.
If the doctrine hinges on Jesus’ words, “Eat My flesh and drink My blood” being literal, then Clement is indeed denying the real presence doctrine32.
"When the Lord calls bread which is combined by the union of many grains, His body - He indicates our people whom He bore as being united. And when He calls the wine which is pressed from many grapes and clusters and collected together, His blood - He also signifies our flock linked together by the mingling of a united multitude." Clearly, Cyprian is devoid of transubstantiationism. (Forty-second. Also, in his Epistle 75(69) to Magnus) 33.
Eusebius qualifies communion as, “Christ Himself gave the symbols of the Divine ceremony to His own disciples that the image of His own body should be made. He appointed to use bread as a symbol of His own body34.”
Justin Martyr, Justin of Caesarea (Pre-Nicene)
“And whether they perpetrate those fabulous and shameful deeds–the upsetting of the lamp, and promiscuous intercourse, and eating human flesh–we know not; but we do know that they are neither persecuted nor put to death by you, at least on account of their opinions.” (ibid, 26)
To put it in context, Justin first referred to the eating of human flesh a shameful deed; then he explained that the Eucharist celebration does not involve consuming human flesh in any way. The bread and wine mixed with water are symbolically the body and blood of Christ. The accusation that Christians ate human flesh was used to persecute Christians, while others who may have actually done that were not persecuted. The purpose of Justin’s explanation of the Eucharist was to counter the accusation that Christians ate human flesh35.
Even Origen acknowledges, “that they (bread and wine) are figures which are written in the sacred volumes; therefore, as spiritual not as carnal, examine and understand what is said. For if as carnal you receive them, they hurt, not nourish you36.”
Tertullian of Carthage (Pre-Nicene)
Tertullian uses the Eucharist to combat Docetism, which denies the true physical existence of our Lord; thus, also denying his death and resurrection.
Then, having taken the bread and given it to His disciples, He made it His own body, by saying, "This is my body," that is, the figure of my body. A figure, however, there could not have been, unless there were first a veritable body (Against Marcion, Bk 4).
Tertullian goes on to clarify what he meant. Rather than saying that the bread ceases to exist, he calls it the “the figure” of the body of Christ and maintains a clear distinction between the figure and its representation of the “veritable body” of our Lord.
“Christ, having taken the bread and given it to His disciples, made it His body by saying, “This is my body’, that is, the figure of my body37.”
Theophilus of Antioch (Pre-Nicene)
Theophilus rebukes the "godless lips [which] falsely accuse us who are worshippers of God and are called Christians...that we eat human flesh." However, if it had then been their teaching that in the Eucharist the bread and wine cease to exist by getting transubstantiated into human flesh and blood - Theophilus could not here have resented the false accusation of the Pagans that Christians are cannibals, as being "most barbarous and impious" as he here indeed does38. (Twenty-eighth. Also, the A.D. 180 Theophilus in his Letters to Autolycus 111:4)
That was interesting. As we can see there were 10 Church Fathers who believed in Transubstantiation and 9 who didn’t believe in Transubstantiation with one being inconclusive. I’m sure there are some biblical scholars who might dispute these findings. However, what we can safely say is there wasn’t an overwhelming majority of the Church Fathers who believed in Transubstantiation. Am I surprised? I would say, yes. Based on what my fellow colleague said, it sounded as if this was a slam dunk. While these findings don’t necessarily support or not support the doctrine of Transubstantiation what it does reveal is that this topic was controversial to say the very least.
In the next chapter, we are going to look at the subject of spiritual growth. According to those who believe in Transubstantiation they would say the more frequent a person partakes of communion the more he/she will experience an increase in spiritual growth thus producing fruit (i.e., a lessening of racial and national prejudices or neighborhood resentments, and an increase in neighborliness, compassion, patience, and forbearance towards others). Do the scriptures provide another explanation as to how a believer grows spiritually? If they do, this would be another reason to reconsider as to whether the elements of the bread and wine turn into Christ’s literal body and blood at communion.
15The Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, 3 March 2013
16Joseph A. Gallegos. “Did the Early Church Fathers believe in Transubstantiation?” 2000, 9 March 2013 ˂www.greenspun.com>.
17“Did the Early Church Fathers believe in Transubstantiation?”
18“Did the Early Church Fathers believe in Transubstantiation?”
19“Did the Early Church Fathers believe in Transubstantiation?”
20“Did the Early Church Fathers believe in Transubstantiation?”
21Dr. Francis Lee. “FIFTY-FIVE THESIS AGAINST TRANSUBSTANTIATION” 2000, 10 March 2013 ˂ http://fivesolas.com>.
22“Did the Early Church Fathers believe in Transubstantiation?”
23“Did the Early Church Fathers believe in Transubstantiation?”
24Bernadeane Carr. “The Real Presence” 2004, 13 March 2013 ˂ http://catholic.com/>.
25“Did the Early Church Fathers believe in Transubstantiation?”
26“Did the Early Church Fathers believe in Transubstantiation?”
27“Did the Early Church Fathers believe in Transubstantiation?”
28“Christ in the Eucharist” 2004, 13 March 2013 ˂ http://catholic.com/>.
29“Did the Early Church Fathers believe in Transubstantiation?”
30Dr. Joe Mizzi. “Church Fathers on Transubstantiation”: 13 March 2013 ˂www.justforcatholics.org>.
31Steven Wedgeworth. “Nicholas Ridley and the Fathers Against Transubstantiation”: 2008, 14 March 2013 ˂ http://wedgewords.wordpress.com˂
32“Early Church Evidence Refutes Real Presence” 13 March 2013
33“FIFTY-FIVE THESIS AGAINST TRANSUBSTANTIATION”.
34David. E. Lister “A Closer Look at Transubstantiation”: 2002 2, 15 March 2013 ˂ http://moriel.org>.
35“Early Church Evidence Refutes Real Presence”.
36“A Closer Look at Transubstantiation”.
37“A Closer Look at Transubstantiation”.
38“FIFTY-FIVE THESIS AGAINST TRANSUBSTANTIATION”.
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