Just for Catholics

Church Fathers on Transubstantiation

Question: The early church fathers believed in the real presence in the Eucharist, as the following quotations confirm.

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 again. (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans).

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 are nourished, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus. (Justin Martyr, First Apology).

That bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the Body of Christ. That chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the Blood of Christ. (Augustine, Sermons, 227).

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:

If anyone says that in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denies that wonderful and singular change of the whole substance of the bread into the body and the whole substance of the wine into the blood, the appearances only of bread and wine remaining, which change the Catholic Church most aptly calls transubstantiation, let him be anathema.

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

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:

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 again.

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:

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 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

Justin Martyr (A.D. 151) writes:

For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Saviour was make 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 are nourished, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus (Justin Martyr, First Apology, 66).

“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.

Now it is evident, that in this prophecy [allusion is made] to the bread which our Christ gave us to eat, in remembrance of His being made flesh for the sake of His believers, for whom also He suffered; and to the cup which He gave us to drink, in remembrance of His own blood, with giving of thanks (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho).

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.

Augustine

Catholic authors often misuse Augustine’s figurative writings to support the doctrine of transubstantiation. The following example is a case in point:

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 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 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 which 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 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.

Further reading

The Doctrine of the Eucharist 

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