Church Fathers on Transubstantiation
Question: The early church fathers believed in the real presence in the Eucharist, as the following quotations confirm.
Answer: Some church fathers believed in the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist; others considered the elements as signs of the body and blood of Christ, and that His presence is spiritual. Paschasius Radbertus was the first to formulate the doctrine of transubstantiation in the ninth century. He was opposed by Ratranmus, a contemporary monk at the monastery of Corbie. Ratranmus wrote: "The bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ in a figurative sense" (De corpore et sanguine Christi). This controversy between two Catholic monks shows that both views were present in the Catholic church at least up to the eleventh century. The debate continued until the thirteenth century when the final decision was taken by the Lateran Council in 1215. Eventually Radbertus was canonized while Ratranmus' work was placed on the index of forbidden books. The Doctor of the Church, Duns Scotus, admits that transubstantiation was not an article of faith before that the thirteenth century.
It is misleading to speak about “real presence” as if the term is equivalent to “transubstantiation.” Christians, who consider the bread and wine as strictly symbolical, also believe in the real presence of the Lord among them. Jesus said: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). Surely Christ is present in the congregation of His people, as He promises, especially during the celebration of the Supper. His presence is real even though it is spiritual and not carnal.
The Roman Catholic doctrine is defined in the second canon of the thirteenth session of the Council of Trent:
In other words, the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ, and in the process the bread and wine cease to exist, except in appearance. The ‘substance’ of the bread and wine do not remain.
Catholic websites list quotations from the Fathers which supposedly prove the Catholic doctrine. When read superficially and out of context they seem to give clear evidence in favour of transubstantiation. In fact, they do not! I suggest we take as second look at the three quotations above (which are representative of many similar quotations), while keeping in mind Augustine’s advice “to guard us against taking a metaphorical form of speech as if it were literal.” Augustine refers 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).
It is wrong to interpret literal speech figuratively; it is equally wrong to interpret metaphorical speech literally. So, let’s see, did the early Fathers believe in transubstantiation, namely the substance of the bread and wine is changed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ?
Ignatius argued against the Gnostic Docetists. They denied the true physical existence of our Lord; thus they also denied his death and resurrection. Ignatius wrote:
The problem with the Gnostics concerned the person of Christ and not the nature of the Eucharist. The heretics did not participate in the Eucharist because they did not believe in what the Eucharist represents, namely the true, physical flesh of Jesus, who actually and really suffered on the cross, and who was really resurrected from the dead.
We do not have to take the phrase "the Eucharist is the flesh" in a literalistic manner. As in everyday speech, as well as in the Bible, it could simply mean that the Eucharist represents the flesh of Christ. To illustrate, take a similar argument by Tertullian. He is also using the Eucharist to combat Docetism:
Tertullian is even more emphatic than Ignatius. He says that Jesus made the bread his own body. But unlike Ignatius, 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 what it represents, namely the “veritable body” of our Lord.
Justin Martyr (A.D. 151) writes:
“The change of which our body and flesh are nourished” is not a reference to transubstantiation. According to Catholic author William A. Jurgenes, “The change referred to here is the change which takes place when the food we eat is assimilated and becomes part of our own body” (Jurgens W, The Faith of the Early Fathers, Volume I, p. 57).
Justin Martyn calls the Eucharistic bread and wine "the flesh and the blood" of Jesus. Justin believed in the physical presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. However Justin also believed that the bread and wine do not cease to be bread and wine. He speaks of their partaking "of the bread and wine" over which thanksgiving was pronounced. Elsewhere Justin calls the consecrated elements “bread” and “the cup.” They are the flesh and blood of Christ insofar that they are given in remembrance of his incarnation and blood.
Clearly, while Justin believed in the physical presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, he also believed that the elements remained bread and wine given in remembrance of Christ. Therefore Justin Martyr's view on the Eucharist is dissimilar from the Roman Catholic transubstantiation, and as such he is anathemized by the Roman Church.
Catholic authors often misuse Augustine’s figurative writings to support the doctrine of transubstantiation. The following example is a case in point:
Augustine believed that in a sense the elements are the body and blood of Jesus. “The bread…is the body of Christ…that cup…is the blood of Christ.” In what sense is he speaking? Is the substance of the bread changed into the body of Christ? Or is bread the body of Christ in a symbolic sense? We can readily discover the answer to this all important question.
First, looking at the context, it is clear that Augustine 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 means 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 Eucharist is the figure of the body and blood of Jesus. Since the bread and wine represent 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, which he defines in this manner: “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, something else comes to mind, namely, 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 bondage.
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