What If Protestants Are Right About the Eucharist?

Today’s my first time writing for Catholic Answers Magazine online, and the topic I chose to explore was “What if Protestants are Right About the Eucharist?

There are a great many intelligent Protestant Christians, well-versed in Scripture, faithfully seeking to know and follow the will of God, who have concluded that Jesus’ words about the bread and wine of the Last Supper becoming his body and blood are merely symbolic.

What if they’re right?

A bit later on in the post, I draw out some of the implications of this idea:

So why is this important? Because it means that these Protestants aren’t just saying, “I think Jesus’ words at the Last Supper are meant to be merely symbolic,” but “I think that the entire Church misunderstood one of the most basic aspects of Christianity for centuries.” Call this the “everybody got the gospel wrong” position.

At the Last Supper, Jesus said, “I will not leave you desolate” (John 14:18), a promise not to abandon the Church or to leave us as orphans. Specifically, Christ promised to preserve his Church by sending “the Spirit of Truth,” the Holy Spirit, to “teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:17, 26).  How is belief in this promise compatible with the idea that the whole Church lost the true meaning of the Last Supper, and that no Christians successfully followed his instructions to “do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:24)?

Read the whole thing, and then let me know your thoughts in the comments here.

43 Comments

  1. You are correct Joe, it is an epistemological nightmare if the modern Protestant position of the Eucharist is correct (or the position of the Reformers that the Eucharist is not a sacrifice is correct as well). If the whole Church got something wrong that early, then we have zero reason to trust any of the Scriptures that these men hand copied the manuscripts for us, nor their Canon. We devolved into liberalism, because then we have to pick and choose which “really” are the “true” epistles of Paul, the Gospels are not true, and then the doctrines there in (i.e. bodily resurrection) fall onto doubt. In the end, you are left with Sweden–churches headed by atheists.

    God bless,
    Craig

  2. BTW, I noticed you quoted Anglican scholar JND Kelly. Here’s a nice tidbit from him:

    It was natural for early Christians to think of the Eucharist as a sacrifice. The fulfillment of prophecy demanded a solemn Christian offering, and the rite itself was wrapped in the sacrificial atmosphere with which our Lord invested the Last Supper. The words of institution, ‘Do this’ (touto poieite), must have been charged with sacrificial overtones for second-century ears; Justin at any rate understood them to mean, ‘Offer this.’ . . . The bread and wine, moreover, are offered ‘for a memorial (eis anamnasin) of the passion,’ a phrase which in view of his identification of them with the Lord’s body and blood implies much more than an act of purely spiritual recollection (J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p. 196–7).

    1. Craig, thank you for quoting Kelly! His work has had a major impact upon my thinking in my limited experience in Patriatics.

      It is worth noting that my church (ELCA) has found agreement on the issue of the Mass as a sacrifice with the USCCB. Grace and Peace be with you all!

        1. Hello Craig,

          I found this statement from the document called “Declaration on the Way”
          It is a joint statement from the ELCA and the USCCB, http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/ecumenical-and-interreligious/ecumenical/lutheran/upload/Declaration_on_the_Way-for-Website.pdf

          “Eucharist as Reconciling Sacrifice of Christ and as Sacrifice of the Church’s Praise and Thanksgiving
          (29) Catholics and Lutherans agree that Eucharistic worship is the memorial (anamnesis) of Jesus Christ, present as the one crucified for us and risen, that is,
          in his sacrificial self-giving for us in his death and in his resurrection (Romans 4:25), to which the church responds with its sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

          Eucharistic Presence
          (30) Lutherans and Catholics agree that in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus Christ himself is present: He is present truly, substantially, as a person, and he is present in his entirety, as Son of God and a human being.” pg. 20

          Being in the ELCA is easy. We talk with other churches and seek Christ beyond our four walls. I grew up in the more conservative Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), which refuses to do any work with other churches and especially the Roman Catholic Church. I can fully agree to the quote above. Growing up, it would have been considered blasphemous.

          Thank you, Craig, for your comments and presence here!

          1. That was a lovely post, Reverend. Absolutely embodied the spirit of Luke 9:50.

            The evil one laughs at – indeed, provokes – the enmity in our dogmatic differences.

            If ever there were a time when Christians needed each other in friendship, it is now.

    2. During my travel to the March for Life, God fortuitously placed in the seat beside me a recent convert to Catholicism, an ex-Anglican priest. (He’d been raised Presbyterian.) He shared his thought: The INCARNATION. Extremely well read, he spoke about even Catholic bright lights who had strange ideas about how to unify: Teilhard,Schillebeckx, Richard Rohr, etc. He spoke about the problems with VCII decision on Mary as co-Redemptrix (or not).

      In this week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I share these stray yet inhering threads. Do Protestants need conversion of thought? How do we help Protestants transform Luther’s view of humanity as a rotting dung pile into Resurrected Divinized Humanity? By offering them the Incarnation: the Eucharist.

  3. From your article- Even more telling than the many Church Fathers teaching and preaching on the Real Presence of the Eucharist is the absence of Christian leaders either rejecting this Catholic position or teaching a contrary position.

    If a Baptist pastor got up on Sunday and declared that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, you could expect that there would be angry letters denouncing him as a heretic, or at least seeking to correct him. That’s because Baptists don’t believe in the Real Presence.

    Me – I used this line of reasoning when discussing praying to the saints.

    Great article!

  4. Interesting the position of “Fundamentalists” is that the early Church was one of a simple, pure Christianity that didn’t include all that extra “stuff’ imposed by, y’know, that scamp Constantine (cf. Dan Brown) at Nicaea in 325 AD. Trouble is, none of the corroborated extant record from the last Apostle supports any of these claims of forced syncretism between pagan Roman/Babylonian, and pseudo-Christian practice and liturgy as the antecedent of modern Catholicism. Especially, for example, the letters of both Ignatius of Antioch and Justin Martyr, which among other things extol the Eucharist as an exemplar of the real Presence.

    Of course, some dismiss these letters as…metaphors, and the fathers who wrote them as early apologists for sola whatever. I can also do likewise, and claim Jesus was a space alien…..with the same level of credibility.

    1. If Constantine was really as ‘scampy’ as they imply, he would not have called for an Ecumenical Council, but just made a Empire wide proclamation defining the Christian faith as he saw it and forcing people to follow his dictate. This is the normal way that scamps, dictators, führer’s, czars, etc.. have operated all over the world since the beginning of time. but, Constantine didn’t do this. And he wasn’t even baptized until very near his death. He had respect for the Church. Eusebius gives a good account of His life for any who what to take the time to Google it.

      1. Yeah, Al, the best I get is ‘Eusebius was a shill for Constantine.”Then when I ask, so where (according to the historical record) did you get the real truth of the matter? The invariable answer is, well, it just makes sense that Constantine did that…” A few of the better-read will refer to Alexander Hislop’s 19th century “The Two Babylons,”which has been disavowed as Dan Brown-quality “history” by Reformed contemporaries and later historians. The best, most readable treatment of the Constantine myth I have read so far is Rod Bennett’s “The Apostasy that Wasn’t: the Story of the Unbreakable Early Church.” Researching this book is what converted him from nondenom fundamentalist to Catholicism.

  5. Joe,

    I’m always drawn to what St. Bellarmine wrote about the Eucharist:

    Take and eat: This is My Body. Weigh carefully, dear brethren, the force of those words. . . .

    Suppose a prince promised one of you a hundred gold pieces, and in fulfillment of his word sent a beautiful sketch of the coins, I wonder what you would think of his liberality? And suppose that when you complained, the donor said, “Sir, your astonishment is out of place, as the painted coins you received may very properly be considered true crowns by the figure of speech called metonymy,” would not everybody feel that he was making fun of you and your picture?

    Now Our Lord promised to give us His flesh for our food. The bread which I shall give you, He said, is My flesh for the life of the world. If you argue that the bread may be looked on as a figure of His flesh, you are arguing like the prince and making a mockery of God’s promises. A wonderful gift indeed that would be, in which Eternal Wisdom, Truth, Justice, and Goodness deceived us, its helpless pensioners, and turned our dearest hopes to derision.

    That I may show you how just and righteous is the position we hold, let us suppose that the last day has come and that our doctrine of the Eucharist has turned out to be false and absurd. Our Lord now asks us reproachfully: “Why did you believe thus of My Sacrament? Why did you adore the host?” may we not safely answer him: “O Lord, if we were wrong in this, it was You who deceived us. We heard Your word, THIS IS MY BODY, and was it a crime for us to believe You? We were confirmed in our mistake by a multitude of signs and wonders which could have had You only for their author. Your Church with one voice cried out to us that we were right, and in believing as we did we but followed in the footsteps of all Your saints and holy ones . . .

    Taken from St. Bellarmine’s Controversies

  6. Liked the article.

    I feel like engaging a few of the claims of some protestants that certain Church Fathers teach a symbolic or spiritual-only view of the Eucharist could have improved it a bit. Even though their claims are not credible, they are worth engaging with, because, at first blush, a short list of out-of-context quotes from Church Fathers (emphasizing some of the symbolic aspects of the Eucharist) can seem convincing to the idea that the whole Early (Catholic) Church didn’t believe in the real presence.

  7. Your article is well written and defends your stance as seemingly indefensible. Surely though, you are aware that Protestants have not overlooked the points you make? There are equal amounts of writings by the Church Fathers to defend a Protestant position. Not the least of which is Ignatius penned his words against the Ebionites and Docetists who were teaching Jesus was not God and did not even die. Multiple statements by Ignatius actually seem to defend his belief that the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) is in fact a memorial, and not a necessity of real presence.

    This is where though that things get real for me. How does whichever approach change the lives of believers? Are those who take the Catholic stance or the Protestant stance more inclined to be changed to His likeness?

    All the arguments in the world will be of no benefit if lives are not changed. The world, which is growing much faster than Christianity, applauds our quibbles knowing well a kingdom is most easily defeated when it crumbles from within.

    1. HI Mtsweat,

      St. Ignatius said:

      They [i.e. the Gnostics] 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. (Letter to Smyrnians 7:1)

      I would say two questions jump out right away in reading this passage of Ignatius’, that seemingly render the Protestant position absurd:

      1.) Why does Ignatius say the Eucharist is the flesh of Jesus, saying it is the same flesh that suffered and was risen, if he does not believe it himself?

      2.) Of all the things he criticized the Gnostics for, in this passage he specifically says because they do not believe it is the flesh of Jesus. If, as the Protestants claim that Ignatius does not believe it literally is Jesus’ flesh, wouldn’t that make Ignatius the biggest hypocrite in the world for criticizing the Gnostics in this passage for not believing in something that he himself does not believe in?

    2. “There are equal amounts of writings by the Church Fathers to defend a Protestant position.”

      MT- an even cursory perusal of past blog threads here will reveal the indefensibility of that statement. Statements culled from early Fathers, in defense of Reformed positions (whatever those may be, there are so many of them) on Catholic dogma and practices such as the primacy of Rome, apostolic-episcopal succession, and as here, the Eucharist, are *invariably** cherry-picked out of context both of the document from which the quote was withdrawn and the overall theological tenor of that particular Father’s extent writings – and just as easily deflated.

      “Multiple statements by Ignatius actually seem to defend his belief that the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) is in fact a memorial, and not a necessity of real presence.”

      Case in point. Please refer to my 18 and 19 Jan posts on the “White Horse Blog.” The argument therein is, Ignatius used a metaphor once or twice in his writing…therefore everything he ever said is a metaphor. I suppose that logic works for some regarding both Ignatius and Jesus in John 6. Of course when Scripture somewhere states “faith alone”- the “alone” having been added by a fella named Luther at a somewhat later date – it means-exactly-that, word-for-word.

      “All the arguments in the world will be of no benefit if lives are not changed. The world, which is growing much faster than Christianity, applauds our quibbles knowing well a kingdom is most easily defeated when it crumbles from within.”

      Could not agree with you more. And ‘crumbling from within” starts with division. Drove through a suburb of DC recently. Saw an Episcopal church with a rainbow banner and a ‘welcome and accepting’ sign at the door. Here in Colorado Springs, the little evangelical storefronts and big tents both proclaiming “man+woman=marriage in the eyes of God.” The DC dwellers look on the flyover evangelicals as intolerant, ignorant yokels, and the Springs fundamentalists see the coastals as lost, heretical and not Christian. Both absolutely can trace their common roots to a church door in Wittenberg in the year 1517, and that same fella named Luther. Seems to me the seeds planted that day were destined to produce fruit very much diminished in its potential to nourish souls.

      I however, can walk into either a great cathedral or basilica anywhere in the world, or a humble little adobe, no running water church in rural Mexico and get the same liturgy, the same Creed, and the same Eucharist.

      The ability to change lives on a sustainable basis starts, in my humble opinion, with truth, applied with consistency and unity.

  8. Joe,
    POWERFUL KNOCKOUT OF AN ARTICLE. The question you ask, if understood, ought to frighten some/many/most who practice sola fide in sola scriptura. Here are the very words of Christ from Scripture, the ‘meaning’ of which is denied. If grasped and if faced, the implication ought to bring them immediately falling to their knees and soon thereafter running to and knocking upon the nearest door of a Catholic Church.

    He does not leave us orphans. But many have left Him alone.

  9. Excellent post. I’ve still been trying to find a Protestant to explain away the meaning of Chapter 6 in John’s Gospel. Thank you for adding another quiver to the arsenal of all Catholics. While I am not one to follow the crowd in most things, I do find it hard to argue with the likes of the Church Fathers and other luminaries like St. Thomas Aquinas.

    1. Greg – regarding John 6, what I get from some of the more fundamentalist Reformed – something we’ve heard in the past, here, multiple times – is that John 6 is all metaphor, for faith, despite the clear English and even more emphatic Greek. The same goes for St. Ignatius of Antioch – there is one blogger, white horse, I believe, out there who specializes in walking the winding road of proof that the venerable Saint did not literally mean what he said in Duane’s post above. The ‘splanations, when offered, are usually so long-winded and convoluted as to strain both patience and credulity, leaving one to assume that acceptance requires a desperation level of confirmation bias.

      An even cursory study of the Church Fathers always blows these slapdash, crude attempts at revisionist apologetics, consigning them to the same theological rubbish bin as Dan Brown’s lucrative but Ipecac-worthy literary spewings.

        1. I suppose it makes sense to him and the folks who throw money at him.

          I mean, Ignatius describing the soldiers to whom he was chained as “leopards” and a few other such, absolutely justifies the leap to belief that Ignatius understood and communicated the Eucharist not as a Real Presence as metaphor.

          Of course the following quotes from Ignatius bear this out (note sarcasm)….:

          “Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is administered either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it.” — Letter to the Smyrnaeans, Ch 8

          Or:

          “Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God… 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. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes.” — Letter to the Smyrnaeans, Ch 6

          I put this out because, this – the metaphor apologetic, applied here as well as to John 6 – is the absolute best the anti-Eucharistic forces out there have to offer…and it-falls-flat….

    2. John 6 was written with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. The apostles were at a bit of loss in grasping just what Jesus was telling them at the time it happened, but they put their faith in Him despite what seemed to be unbelievable. John’s account pulls no punches in the light of what followed, particularly the Last Supper. By the time of the Ascension, the apostles knew that Jesus meant exactly what He said and what they were charged to do about it. That’s what was passed forward as reflected in the early Church and continues in the Catholic & Orthodox Churches today. If there had been any serious question about this hard teaching, it wouldn’t have survived even one generation.

  10. I’ve heard JND Kelly quoted elsewhere in support of a Catholic viewpoint in early church history. My question then is always, if this man recognizes Catholic doctrine in these early sources, why isn’t he Catholic himself?

    1. Because he disagrees with papal authority. I know of many a Protestant that agrees with just about everything the Catholic Church teaches, yet cannot get over the papal authority hurdle. Or like Alister McGrath, who has written that the doctrine of sola fide cannot be found anywhere in the Church for fifteen hundred years, but he believes the doctrine is correct.

    2. A lot of these guys end up Orthodox. Pelikan became Orthodox and apparently so did James R Payton who was a Lutheran scholar who wrote, “Light From the Christian East.”

      For the record, rejecting the Papacy in my mind is not grounds for Orthodoxy. But the mystical Lutheran types tend to end up Orthodox while the logical, calculating Anglicans end up Roman Catholic. As for Kelly, he was probably more of a scholar than a spiritual man I would guess, sort of like NT Wright.

      1. I have seen some of my Assembly of God friends end up in the Anglican Church and are leaning toward Orthodox. There is something for Anglicans ending up Roman Catholic given how their “Reformation” was much more political than theological.

        There are few mystical Lutherans left, but there are plenty of us stubborn German Lutherans around!

        1. The conservative finnish Lutherans are pretty much becoming Orthodox in theology. I think a lot of the division is really ethnic, which in 100 years, is going to be pretty hard to imagine. I do not think conservative Protestantism will still be around to be honest.

  11. AK said:

    The argument therein is, Ignatius used a metaphor once or twice in his writing…therefore everything he ever said is a metaphor. I suppose that logic works for some regarding both Ignatius and Jesus in John 6.

    Haha, you make me laugh. I was thinking the exact same thing as I ate a wet burrito last night. If I said: “My brother is a bulldog,” and later said: “I loved to eat burritos,” by their logic I really don’t love to eat burritos, because based on me using a metaphor earlier, I really don’t believe burritos are real food. I only love to eat them symbolically (hmmmm, would he a great way for me to lose some weight).

    If, you look at the context of John 6, it is all about eating real food. First the miracle of the Loaves and Fish. Then talking how they ate manna, again real food, in the desert. If you take most Protestant’s view of the Eucharist, how is Jesus not a liar when He said this:

    55 For my flesh is true food,

    ?

    If Jesus is metaphorically speaking, how is His flesh true food?

    1. Spot-on again, Duane.

      As an addendum, I have heard John 6 analogized as a parable, in this case flesh as food and blood as drink are likened to Prodigal Sons or Lost Sheep metaphors for faith – and voila, another incontrovertible (?) Scriptural proof for sola fide. Only fly is, everytime Jesus speaks in parables it is pretty clearly identified in preface as a parable…when Jesus means something literally He says “truly, truly I say to you….” as if He darn well **knew** someone someday would try a confusing convolution of His parables and His clear commands, and He made sure to put in an unquestionable differentiation.

      Ignore that ‘truly, truly’ folks….along to the planet sola, nothing to see here….

      I suppose it works with some folks….won’t stop us from pointing it out, in the spirit of St. Bernadette’s “inform, not (necessarily) convince…”

  12. Folks; Luther wanted an Ecumenical Council to reinterpret the New Testament. He not only disagreed with Pope Leo-X, he disagreed with the early Church Fathers, all the way back to the Apostle John. When he first translated the Bible into German, he also tossed seven books from The New Testament, of which he called the Letter of James, an Epistle-of-Straw. Back in-the-day, straw was used to clean the stables of animal waste. Read The Marburg Colloquy – Articles of 1529. This was Luther and Zwingli’s council.

    1. Your statement is not true. Luther never “tossed” any books from the Bible. All of the books you listed were translated and included in the New Testament. Luther’s statements were part of his on-going theological debate, but he never removed these books from the Bible. I also like to note here that Luther included the Deuterocanonical Books in the back like St. Jerome.

      1. Hi Rev. Dark Hans,

        There are major differences between what Luther and St. Jerome did. While Luther did include those seven books after his OT, he made it clear they were not inspired Scripture. St. Jerome on the other hand, made it clear that though he had his doubts (based on a mistaken view of Jews during his time), that he was not the final authority. After the councils of Hippo and Carthage, I do not believe you will find St. Jerome calling into question the Deuterocanon. I know the count is over fifty, where he quotes from the Deuterocanon as inspired Scripture.

        Furthermore, St. Jerome’s early views can be given the benefit of the doubt based on whether the OT canon had been settled when he wrote about his doubts. The same cannot be said for Luther. For over a thousand years, the OT canon had been settled for the Western Church before Luther was born. The canon promulgated by the Council of Rome would have been binding on the Western Church from the fourth century on. The same Western Church, that Luther was a member of.

      2. Hello Rev. Dark Horse, and Peace Be With You. Oh yes he did! His first translation, he omitted 7 New Testament Books. I believe it was the year 1529, wherein his 2nd translation, he put them back, under pressure from the other reformers. You are correct, however, concerning the Old Testament Books. God Bless. Jim and Emily…..

        1. Grace and Peace to you, Jim and Emily. I am always open to new research, so please share if you have found a credible source for your assertion of Luther’s removal of these books from the NT. All of my reading and research on Luther describe him translating the entire NT while hiding/captivity in Wartburg castle and publishing the NT as a whole shortly thereafter.

          Luther had strong opinions, but he was still very traditional at the end of the day, which was something that surprised me about him when I started reading Luther for myself.

          1. “traditional” except when it came to:
            –Accepting the Church as the authority for Christian dogma/doctrine
            –Accepting that the Church had the authority over individual believers (like him) to determine which OT books were inspired.
            –Accepting that we are NOT justified by faith alone
            –Accepting the teaching that only an ordained priest can perform a valid consecration of the Eucharist
            –Believing that he had the authority to decide what was traditional.

            Yeah, other than those (and probably other) ‘minor’ details, Luther was pretty traditional.

      3. Rev Dark Hans: There are many “credible” sites. Try the Library of Congress. There, you will find everything you want, or don’t want to know about Martin Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Wesley, any of the early church fathers or any of the 266 successors of Saint Peter. We will not likely visit this site anymore. God Bless. Jim and Emily……….

  13. As they say in West Virgina, “it’s all relative.” Of course you see how he does not fill in the box of what you see as “traditional” as a Catholic. I see him as very “traditional” because I grew up in a conservative German Lutheran church. Luther prayers the rosary every day until he died and venerated Mary and her mom Ann. That is quite “traditional” and very Catholic in the church that I grew up in.

    He was not radical like the Anabaptists or peasent revolt. He did not like Zwingli or the Reformed branch of the Reformation because they did not believe in the real presence (which is what your original post was all about in the first place). As I look around Protestantism today, I can easily describe Luther as “traditional” in full sincerity.

    1. Hi Rev.Hans,

      Yes, Luther is a traditional Lutheran. Of that there can be no argument. Luther would never be considered a traditional catholic by any Catholic that has even a smattering of catechesis and knowledge of Church history. I always hear the claim of how traditional Luther was, from non-Catholics.

      He held fast to the devotions of the Church. That is good. But the dogmas, which any real traditionalist Catholic accepts, he rejected.

      1. Duane and Rev. Hans,
        Sorry for the confusion. This “Joe” is just your average Joe.
        Not Joe H., the author of the blog – who is not average by any measure!

        (Probably should change my posting name to “not THE Joe”.)

        Anyway, Duane said it best. Luther didn’t reject ALL the “traditional” Christian teaching of his time. But he sure rejected some biggies (listed above) which would have labeled him anything but “traditional” by his Christian peers.

        Considering him traditional today -by any means – illustrates just how far we have strayed from the Apostolic teaching of the first 1500 yrs of Christian history.

        Peace,
        Joe

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