Very Early Church Fathers on the Eucharist

My dad asked me last night for some resources showing the views of the Early Church Fathers on the Eucharist. A woman he does hospital ministry with had heard that the Church didn’t believe in transubstantiation until the 1200s. This is a common error: the Church defined the dogma in the 1200s, but only because before that, it was so well understood that there was no need to define it.  Similarly, you won’t see a lot of early Catholic writings (much less Church definitions) on gay marriage, just because taking a view other than the Catholic one was quite literally unthinkable.  It doesn’t mean the early Church was okay with (or even neutral on) the question of gay marriage – just that the topic wasn’t in serious controversy. In any case, I’ve decided to make an admittedly-incomplete list of writings from the early Church demonstrating a belief in the Real Presence.  Today, I’m only going to look at the time of the Apostles until the year 200 A.D.  Hopefully, sometime later this week, I’ll be able to tackle some of the really great resources we have from the period of 200 to about 400 A.D.

Let’s set the stage, historically.  By 200, there’s been no ecumenical Church Councils since the Council of Jerusalem — the Council of Nicea is still 125 years away.  While the Books which would later become the Bible are widely circulated and seem to have generally been understood to be inspired Scripture, there are still some disagreements over which books are canonical, and even what “canonical” implies: namely, do we read a given Book in Church only if it’s inspired?  Or is it okay if it’s uninspired, if it’s still an accurate source of information about the Faith? (In modern terms, it would be like wondering if the Catechism should be one of the Readings in Mass).  The first time we see the word “Trinity” used to describe God is in 181 A.D.  The reality is there, but crafting a precise philosophical language to capture these realities takes time.  In contrast to the kinks that the early Church was hammering out on everything from the Trinity to the Bible, their grasp of Eucharistic theology is almost shockingly clear.  Even though philosophical terms like transubstantiation are far in the future, we’re already seeing, by 200, terms like transmutation being used to describe what the words of consecration does to the bread and wine, and what the Eucharist does to our soul.

I. Didache (mid-first century)

The Didache is probably as old as the New Testament, and was in widespread use by the death of the Apostle John in 100 A.D.  Unlike the Scriptures, the Didache isn’t the work of a single author.  Rather, it’s something like an early Church catechism: outlining just the basics of Church practice.  Chapter 9 is on the Eucharist, and after proscribing some beautiful and simple pre-Consecration prayers, it instructs: “But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, ‘Give not that which is holy to the dogs.’”  In the next chapter, there’s a post-Communion prayer of thanksgiving, in which the Church prayed in part: “Thou, Master almighty, didst create all things for Thy name’s sake; You gavest food and drink to men for enjoyment, that they might give thanks to Thee; but to us You didst freely give spiritual food and drink and life eternal through Thy Servant.

II. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 103-107 A.D.)

Ignatius dealt with the first Eucharistic controversy in the Church: the Gnostics.  The Gnostics major heresy wasn’t denying the Real Presence: rather, they denied that Jesus was fully God and fully Man.  But as a result of this, Ignatius notes, they couldn’t affirm the Eucharist, and thus, we can’t commune with them.  This is from Ignatius’ letter to the Smyrnaeans, chapter 7:

They [the Gnostics] 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. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again. It is fitting, therefore, that ye should keep aloof from such persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the passion [of Christ] has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fully proved. But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils.

This same Ignatius, in his letter to the Ephesians, refers to the Eucharist as “the medicine of immortality.”

III. Justin Martyr (150-155 A.D.)

Justin Martyr clearly shows that from the beginning, the Church held that not only was the Eucharist the Flesh and Blood of Christ, it also wasn’t bread and wine after the consecration.  Here’s Chapter 66 of his First Apology:

And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. 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.

So once a certain prayer of His word is said, the bread and wine cease to be common bread and wine, and become spiritual Bread and Wine: namely, “the Flesh and Blood of that Jesus Who was made Flesh.”  The “prayer of His word” is the prayer of consecration, as Justin explains, quoting Christ at the Last Supper.  What’s translated there as “transmutation” is incredible.  The actual phrase is “kata metabolen,” and that metabolen is the root word of our word “metabolize.”  What Justin is actually saying is that by the Eucharist, our own body and blood is nourish and metabolized by Christ.  Just as when we eat bread and drink wine, we turn the elements into our body through metabolism, when we eat the Eucharist, Christ metabolizes us (so to speak) into His Body.  This is very much consistent with the view Scripture presents in places like 1 Corinthians 10:17.

IV.Irenaeus (180 A.D.)

Irenaeus was faced with a second Eucharistic heresy: this time, the heretics were claiming that spirit was good, but flesh and blood were evil, and that we were simply souls trapped in our evil bodies.  Salvation, to these heretics, consisted of being liberated from flesh and blood.  Irenaeus, in Book V, Chapter 2 of Against Heresies, used the example of the Eucharist to show that the material world isn’t evil for three reasons: (1) material bread and wine, taken from the earth, become the Body and Blood of God; (2) the Eucharist is His physical Body and Blood, not some invisible spiritual “Body” [this point was assumed in Irenaeus’ time, but is very much in controversy now]; and (3) through the Eucharist, we’re promised that our bodies will, after death, be glorified in the same way the bread and wine are glorified.  That part is fantastic.  But there’s an even clearer passage.  In Book IV, Chapter 18, Irenaeus is dealing with the same heresy, and noting that these heretics still offer Mass.  His argument is simple: they should either base their theology off of the Eucharist, like Catholics, or stop offering Mass:

Then, again, how can they say that the flesh, which is nourished with the body of the Lord and with His blood, goes to corruption, and does not partake of life? Let them, therefore, either alter their opinion, or cease from offering the things just mentioned. But our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity.

This passage is also helpful in that Irenaeus mentions that the bread ceases to be common bread at the point it becomes the Eucharist.  It still has an earthly reality (we’d say “the accidents” of bread), but it’s not bread anymore.

V. Tertullian (c. 203 A.D.)

I should mention that Tertullian, while brilliant on many points, isn’t the most reliable Church Father.  He became a Montanist later in life, and may have even died outside the Church.  But we still can see quite clearly that he shares the same Eucharistic faith as those others we explored above.  One of the issues Tertullian addressed in Chapter 19 of On Prayer was whether we should receive Communion on fast days (called “Station” days).  He says yes, because it’s the Lord’s Body, and that’s Who we’re striving for.  He also notes, as many of the above Fathers before him noted, that the Eucharist is truly a Sacrifice offered to the Father:

Similarly, too, touching the days of Stations, most think that they must not be present at the sacrificial prayers, on the ground that the Station must be dissolved by reception of the Lord’s Body. Does, then, the Eucharist cancel a service devoted to God, or bind it more to God? Will not your Station be more solemn if you have withal stood at God’s altar? When the Lord’s Body has been received and reserved each point is secured, both the participation of the sacrifice and the discharge of duty.


Conclusion

As you can see, from the earliest days of the Church, we see the Church Fathers proclaiming unanimously that the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Christ, and that the Eucharist truly saves.  We also see them articulating that the bread and wine become the Eucharist at the prayer of consecration, and that once consecrated, the bread and wine cease to be common bread and wine. Christ doesn’t just mingle amongst the elements.  The elements cease to be, and become Christ instead, in what has been called transmutation, and would soon be called transelementation and eventually, transubstantiation.  The rest of theology was understood through this prism of the Eucharist: if your views caused you to reject the Eucharist, you were out.  The Christians would stop communing with you, and if you were a priest, you could no longer offer Mass in good faith. So this very Catholic understanding of the Eucharist  served as a benchmark for determining orthodox Christianity from the very beginning.

13 Comments

  1. Beautifully done. I appreciate, as always, the concise way in which you place the information right in our hands (or brains!). This is an excellent resource and one that I will share with my seniors in religious ed. Looking forward to Part II!

  2. Hi Joe,

    For a number of months now, I have been struggling with doctrine of the Eucharist, particularly, that the bread and wine LITERALLY become the body and blood of our Lord. With this in mind, the following you wrote ‘caught my eye’:

    >>This passage is also helpful in that Irenaeus mentions that the bread ceases to be common bread at the point it becomes the Eucharist. It still has an earthly reality (we’d say “the accidents” of bread), but it’s not bread anymore.>>

    Could you clarify/delve into this a bit more deeply for me, touching on the difference(s) between the “earthly reality”/”the accidents” and “form”. My difficulty concerning the “accidents” and “form” distinction(s) has nothing do with our ‘senses’ (e.g. sight, touch, smell, taste) but rather, with the atomic/elemental composition of the transubstantiated elements.

    Grace and peace,

    David

  3. it is interesting that there is no spiritual empowerment in this activity– where if you are baptised in the presence of the spirit there is a real presence.but it does make you feel “warm and fuzzy”
    as it is a man made reproduction of the sadar pass over feast

  4. Presbyterians teach the real presence, but that of the Spirit of Christ in the bread, and not that the bread literally takes on the fleshy quality of flesh. From what I have been told, the interpretation is based upon the Council of Chalcedon pertaining to Christ being fully God and fully man. Being that His flesh is from His human nature and He was resurrected in His body, how can His body be in more than one place at once without violating His human nature?

    Thanks!

      1. I was wondering if you have ever looked into the question, “who can take the Eucharist?” I tried following but I think that after Contastine there is no mention on the subject as if it was stablished that only those that are baptized. let me know please

  5. Though, I don’t believe this, thanks for enabling me to understand a bit more about ‘The Real Presence’.

    However, we are saved by Grace alone and Christ’s Sacrifice ‘Once and for all’ as mentioned in Hebrews.

    No hard feelings and I wish you all a Blessed Christmas and New Year.

    God Bless,
    Annette an Evangelical Christian and ex-Catholic.

    1. Annette,

      I think one thing all Christians could agree on is that Truth doesn’t change. Therefore, the Truths of Christianity that is taught today should be the same Truths that was taught by the Christians in the first century. What may have gone unrecognized in the article above in the section, Ignatius of Antioch (c. 103-107 A.D.), is that St. Ignatius of Antioch was a Disciple of St. John the Apostle. You could re-read what the author of the article was pointing out but I would encourage you to read the whole letter of St. Ignatius in it’s entirety. It has several chapters but each chapter only takes about 1-3 minutes to read. As a student of St. John, hear what he has to say. If you don’t desire to read it all, at least read Chapters 7-9. It should only take about 10 minutes. As you read the link below think to yourself if this is the same Truth you believe today that Ignatius learned from the Apostle John.

      http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0109.htm

      As for me, I believe whole heartedly what he wrote and accept it as the Truth. There is a lot that was addressed in this letter but what I am going to present to you is an alternative perspective on the Eucharist. It may appear to be lenthy but I’m hoping to shed new light to your view on the Eucharist.

      Although you are correct to state that, “we are saved by Grace alone and Christ’s Sacrifice ‘Once and for all’ as mentioned in Hebrews”, the Eucharist does not contradict His Salvific Grace. Rather, the Eucharist is an instrument in which He imputes His Grace upon us. He can Save us with or without the Eucharist simply by His Grace alone but let us re-examine the broad picture.

      A reasonable question one can ask is, “Why did Jesus command us to partake in the Lord’s Supper at all? Evangelicals have great explanations to the allegory of the Lord’s Supper that Catholics totally agree with. However, all that they would explain would be totally valid even without consuming the the bread and wine and unnecessary. Other than following His command, the action is just symbolic in an Evangelical perspective. However, there is more going on here. What we can’t loose focus on is the Sacrifice of the Lamb.

      When we accept the Lord as our Savior and His Sacrifice for the atonement of our sins, then by this act of Faith we are actually offering up Christ as the Sacrificial Lamb for the atonement of our sins. Since Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill them (Mat 5:17) then according to the laws written all throughout Levitcus regarding sin offerings, the sacrifice has to be eaten. That would indicate that without the consumption of the offering, the atonement would not be complete. Furthmore, it was a must to be consumed in the sanctuary (Lev 10:17).

      Let us call to mind that when the Passover was first instituted, not only was a lamb to be sacrificed it was commanded that it had to be eaten (Exodus 12:8). If the lamb was sacrificed but not eaten, what would happen to their first born son in the morning? He would have no life in him. Could God have saved them by His Grace alone? Yes, but He chose for the sacrifice of an unblemished lamb (as well as for it to be eaten) as the instrument of their salvation.

      Likewise, as explained in John 6:53-58, Jesus calls us to His Supper as the instrument of our Salvation and explains that without it we would have no life in us yet those who do consume it would have eternal life. This call to His Supper fulfills the requirements of the old exodus and, therefore, becomes a requirement for the New Exodos. Jesus knows that He is the Sacrificial of Lamb of God so that’s why He calls us to eat the Lamb in order for death to pass us by.

      “53So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; 54he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.
      56He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. 58This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”.

      But does this answer the question as to whether or not Jesus was speaking symbolically or literally?

      To answer this question we have to apply the sacrificial terms to the first passover. Let’s assume the family didn’t like lamb and chose to eat steak in symbolic of the lamb? What would happen to their first born son in the morning? He would have no life in him. In order for the angel of death to pass over their house they would have to eat the lamb. Therefore, when Jesus proclaims that unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood you have no life in you, it would then require that what He is offering us in the Eucharistic Celebration is His true Flesh and Blood. Nothing symbolic of His Flesh and Blood would have any Saving Grace.

      If you read the entire Bread of Life discourse you will notice that the context of this discourse is Jesus repeatedly stating over and over again what He is telling them is the Truth. The best way to read the Bread of Life discourse is to read it while thinking to yourself, “Is Jesus trying to get them to believe what He is saying is just a symbolic metaphore? Or, is He trying to get them to believe what He is telling them is the Truth?” Even when everyone abandoned Him, He stuck to His claim. Yet, just like Peter’s humble admonition, this is a hard saying to accept. Like Paul’s stance that you are Saved by Faith, the Apostles demonstrated true Faith when they continued to follow Jesus in the midst of doubt and lack of understanding.

      On more than one occasion Jesus offers to do something so that others would believe. For example, Jesus made the paralytic able to walk to prove that He had the power to forgive sins. In the same manner, Jesus offers them proof. To summarize John 6:62, Jesus knows that His Apostles were struggling to understand the Bread of Life discourse which entails accepting that His Flesh and Blood is true food and drink. So He offered them a proof. He tells them, “Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before?”. In other words, what Jesus is saying is, “If you were to see Me ascend, would you believe Me then?”. In Acts 1 we see Him doing just that in front of His Apostles. He posed the question as a proof for them to believe Him…and He did it.

      Now there’s still an issue of understanding how the elements of the bread and wine become His Flesh and Blood. Well… that’s a mystery too complex for our finite minds to comprehend. However, it may help in light of how God reveals Himself in other ways.

      God revealed Himself in the burning bush. He revealed Himself in a pillar of fire and cloud of smoke. God, the Holy Spirit, revealed Himself in the form of a dove that rested on the shoulder of the revealed God the Son. How God is able to take upon multiple forms is a mystery to us but we shouldn’t be perplexed by this is if we understand the power of the Word of God:

      When He said, “Let there be light”, there was light.
      Genesis 1:3.

      When a great storm arose, He rebuked it and it became calm. Matthew 8:26.

      When Peter wanted Jesus to call him out onto the water, He replied to the Apostle, “Come” and Peter walked on the water.
      Matthew 14:28-29.

      When two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met Jesus, out of fear that He was there to torment them, they begged Him to cast them into a nearby heard of swine. Jesus said, “Go” and they went into the swine.
      Matthew 8:31-32

      When the centurion told Jesus, “Just say the word and my servant will be healed.” Jesus said, “Go, let it be done”, and his servant was healed at that very moment.
      Mathew 8:13.

      When Jesus entered the room of a little girl who had just recently died, He grabbed her by the hand and told her, “Arise” and she got up.
      Mark 5:41

      When Jesus stood outside of the tomb and yelled out in a loud voice, “Laz’rus come out!”, he came out.
      John 11:43-44

      When on the night Jesus was betrayed and an armed band of soldiers came to arrest Him, they asked if He was Jesus. He then unleashed the power of His Divine name simply by uttering it, “I Am”, and the soldiers all fell to the ground.
      John 18:6

      Wow! His words are mighty indeed, and they should not be taken lightly. The Word of God is so powerful that whenever He says so, it is so. Therefore, it goes to reason that when the GREAT I AM says, “This is my Body and this is my Blood”…IT IS.

      Annette,

      You are right that we are Saved by Grace alone but the Grace of the life saving Eucharist shouldn’t be undermined. It’s a hard concept for people to understand that eternal life can come through eating. However, it was by eating that was the source of our death. It only seems reasonable that since eating a fruit caused damnation, the fruit of redemption would also come by eating it as well.

      In the Garden of Eden people know all too well of the tree of knowledge but they pay little attention to the other tree in the garden – the Tree of Life. That was the tree that Satan didn’t want Adam and Eve to eat from and that’s the same tree he keeps good Christians from. Annette, Satan doesn’t want you to eat from the Lord’s True Supper but I would like to extend you an invitation back to the table. I pray that you open your heart to research what the Catholic Church teaches. Not through the perspective of non-Catholics or from the Gospel according to the Book of YouTube, but from an authoritative Catholic source. I pray that you better understand the Faith and that you find your way back home to the Catholic Church.

      Your brother in Christ,

      Mark A. Rivera

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *