I’ve gotten tired of apologetics efforts against Protestants that offer “A million bazillion scattered quotes from the Church Fathers that clearly, obviously prove that they thought X.” Proof-text warfare is easy, but generally worthless, and the straw that broke the camel’s back for me was the issue of what the Fathers believed about the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. No more, please. That is not a respectful way to treat the Fathers on this or any subject.
Anti-Protestant apologists have been getting my attention lately, probably more due to my circle of friends than due to any real trends. Clicking on the link bait they lay and browsing through the articles they lead to can be a tiring exercise however. Reading an article along the lines of “150 reasons why I’m Catholic [but more importantly, why I’m not a Protestant]” that turns out to be 150 subtle variations on the same reason is hardly rewarding reading, nor is a list of hundreds of quotes from Church Fathers as proof that they all held doctrine X when the meaning of many of the quotations is in as much dispute as the doctrine itself.
One such example (and remember, I was only prompted to bring it up at all because of recent tiring bombardments) is the doctrine of the Eucharist. The Roman Catholic Church teaches the doctrine of transubstantiation: The substance of the bread and wine cease to exist, having been metaphysically transformed into the person of Jesus Christ, body, soul and divinity. To literally worship the Eucharist, then, is viewed, not as idolatry, but virtually mandatory. After all, we are supposed to worship Jesus aren’t we? It’s crucial to bear in mind, then, that “this is my body” doesn’t go far enough to describe this view, even if taken literally. In this view the bread is more than mere flesh, but an entire person, and a divine one at that. One of the ways that such apologists go about arguing for the truth of this position is by multiplying quotes from Church Fathers who are said to affirm it. Examples might include the following:
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. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do in remembrance of Me, Luke 22:19 this is My body;”
Justin Martyr, First Apology, chapter 66.
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, Sermon, 227, from Sermons 184-229Z, On the Liturgical Seasons trans. Edmund Hill OP (New York: New City Press, 1993), 254.
Or another from Augustine:
Christ was carried in his own hands when, referring to his own body, he said, “This is my body.” For he carried that body in his hands.
Augustine, Explanations of the Psalms, trans. Maria Boulding, ed. Boniface Ramsey (New York: New City Press, 1990), vol 2, 21.
We could look at numerous others, but they are all examples of the same thing: A Church Father speaks about the bread and wine of Eucharist, and says something to the effect of “it is the body and blood of Jesus,” and they may, as Justin did, quote Jesus’ words, “this is my body.” Once this sort of purported evidence has been reviewed, the reader is struck with a realisation: The apologists who are using these examples as proof texts actually think that “this is my body” all by itself makes their case. Thus, if any writer says that the bread is Christ’s body or that the wine is Christ’s blood, they think that this shows that the writer believes in transubstantiation, and if you do not believe in transubstantiation, then you do not believe that the bread and wine is Jesus’ body and blood at all, and you must deny that Christ is present. But this is a shockingly naïve error.
There is a parallel here with the “six day creationist” school of thought in its most stripped-down fundamentalist form: The Bible clearly says six days, and if you don’t believe that Genesis 1 is literal history then, so the allegation goes, you simply don’t believe that it’s true at all.
There is a parallel here with the “six day creationist” school of thought in its most stripped-down fundamentalist form: The Bible clearly says six days, and if you don’t believe that Genesis 1 is literal history then, so the allegation goes, you simply don’t believe that it’s true at all. As a rule Catholics have no trouble recognising that this is not the case (so please understand, again, that I am not attributing the kind of simplistic thinking that I talk about here to Catholic thinkers in general). However, some anti-Protestant apologists apply the same kind of reasoning when it comes to the Lord’s Supper: To say that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ just is to agree with transubstantiation, and unless you think that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ in the way that we say it is then you don’t believe that this is the body and blood of Christ in any sense.
… for all of their flaws, theologians who are not Roman Catholic are not simply illiterate and neither are they (usually) wicked.
To put it another way, for all of their flaws, theologians who are not Roman Catholic are not simply illiterate and neither are they (usually) wicked. They know quite well that Jesus said “this is my body,” and they know that Jesus said of the cup “this is the new covenant, which is made in my blood” (which is not precisely the same as saying “this is my blood,” but that’s a different issue that I’ll set aside for now). The difference between them and their Catholic counterparts is not that they reply to Jesus’ saying with “no Jesus, that is not true!” Where they differ with Roman Catholics is the sense in which the bread and wine are Christ’s body and blood. We all agree that the natural, literal sense is not the only sense that Jesus used, or that others used of him. John the Baptist said of Jesus, “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” In fact during the Mass, the priest says of the Eucharist that it is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, yet he plainly does not mean this to be understood literally. Jesus was truly human, not a sheep. Jesus said that he is the vine and his followers are the branches. Jesus said that he is the good shepherd and that his followers are his sheep. In none of these examples do the speaker (as far as we know) or the writer pause to warn the reader that the descriptions are not supposed to be taken literally. Instead they assume that our natural senses tell us perfectly clearly that these are not strictly literally true (and Protestants maintain that the same is true of Jesus’ words, “this is my body”). But they are true nonetheless, and people who interpret these sayings metaphorically should not be accused of just not believing what the Bible clearly says. It is unreasonable, then, for anti-Protestant apologists to use this type of argument when quoting Church Fathers who wrote about the Lord’s Supper, assuming that if they ever say that the bread and wine are Christ’s body and blood, then they must have meant this in a natural, literal sense, as though there is no other way to say those words and believe them.
We can all acknowledge with ease that there were Church Fathers who declared that the bread and wine of the Eucharist are the body and blood of Christ. Indeed, there have been Protestant theologians who said the same thing, but you have to bear in mind that when Protestants in history wrote on the subject, they were very often being very careful to explain how their view is not the same as the Roman Catholic view, so they will often emphasise what they are not saying. So when Calvin, for example, emphasised the real presence, he immediately qualified what he meant in a way that the Fathers did not need to, so as to distinguish his view from the medieval Catholic view (namely, transubstantiation). Nonetheless, if we pick carefully enough and avoid his references to symbols, we can find statements like this:
For these are words which can never lie nor deceive — Take, eat, drink. This is my body, Which is broken for you: this is my blood, which is shed for the remission of sins. In bidding us take, he intimates that it is ours: in bidding us eat, he intimates that it becomes one substance with us: in affirming of his body that it was broken, and of his blood that it was shed for us, he shows that both were not so much his own as ours, because he took and laid down both, not for his own advantage, but for our salvation. And we ought carefully to observe, that the chief, and almost the whole energy of the sacrament, consists in these words, It is broken for you: it is shed for you. It would not be of much importance to us that the body and blood of the Lord are now distributed, had they not once been set forth for our redemption and salvation.
Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion book 4, chapter 17, paragraph 3.
And there you have it: Christ’s body that was once broken and the blood that was once shed is now distributed to us – the very same body and blood! Were these words written by a Church Father, they would surely make the list of proof texts for transubstantiation. Of course, a few sentences later Calvin says that the bread is a symbol of the body of Christ, but as we will see, that kind of remark is also made by the Fathers.
The real question to ask of the Church Fathers is whether or not they ever said anything to give us clues as to what they meant when they said that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ. If they did not, then we cannot use them as witnesses for or against the Roman Catholic view of the Eucharist.
The truth is that when we – or the Church Fathers – are speaking literally, we do not usually say “now I mean this literally.” Similarly when we are speaking metaphorically or symbolically, we often do not pause to say “now I do not mean this literally, but metaphorically.” How can we tell, then, whether or not Augustine (for example) meant to call the bread and wine the body of Christ in a literal or metaphorical way? We certainly cannot settle the matter simply by quoting him stating that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ, for that would be to beg the question (i.e. to assume that he meant it literally when that is the very matter in question). But rarely, just every now and then, we find a remark in the Church Fathers that can give us a clue.1
In Augustine’s series of books On Christian Doctrine, in Book 3, he spends some time discussing the interpretation of Scripture, and the difference between things that should be taken literally and those things that are metaphors or signs. One key distinction is between a sign and the thing signified. A sign is a visible token of something – it represents something. The thing signified is the thing represented by that token. But before even getting into these matters, he prefaces himself (in chapter 5) by declaring that “It is a Wretched Slavery Which Takes the Figurative Expressions of Scripture in a Literal Sense.”
In the first place, we must beware of taking a figurative expression literally. For the saying of the apostle applies in this case too: The letter kills, but the spirit gives life. For when what is said figuratively is taken as if it were said literally, it is understood in a carnal manner. And nothing is more fittingly called the death of the soul than when that in it which raises it above the brutes, the intelligence namely, is put in subjection to the flesh by a blind adherence to the letter.
In chapter 6, Augustine talks about the usefulness of signs to the Jewish people prior to the coming of Christ. They were in bondage to only knowing the signs and not the reality, but their knowledge still benefited them. They did not know what the signs referred to, but they trusted God who gave them the signs anyway, and so, Augustine notes, St Paul calls the law a schoolmaster, bringing children to Christ. In chapter 7 Augustine said that the Gentiles were in another kind of bondage, one that does not help them, because even the things signified by their signs, namely false gods, are useless.
And then in chapter 9, called “Who is in Bondage to Signs, and Who Not,” Augustine makes the point that I want the reader to see:
Now he is in bondage to a sign who uses, or pays homage to, any significant object without knowing what it signifies: he, on the other hand, who either uses or honors a useful sign divinely appointed, whose force and significance he understands, does not honor the sign which is seen and temporal, but that to which all such signs refer. Now such a man is spiritual and free even at the time of his bondage, when it is not yet expedient to reveal to carnal minds those signs by subjection to which their carnality is to be overcome. To this class of spiritual persons belonged the patriarchs and the prophets, and all those among the people of Israel through whose instrumentality the Holy Spirit ministered unto us the aids and consolations of the Scriptures. But at the present time, after that the proof of our liberty has shone forth so clearly in the resurrection of our Lord, we are not oppressed with the heavy burden of attending even to those signs which we now understand, but our Lord Himself, and apostolic practice, have handed down to us a few rites in place of many, 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; so to interpret signs wrongly is the result of being misled by error. He, however, who does not understand what a sign signifies, but yet knows that it is a sign, is not in bondage. And it is better even to be in bondage to unknown but useful signs than, by interpreting them wrongly, to draw the neck from under the yoke of bondage only to insert it in the coils of error.
To summarise Augustine: You’re in a kind of bondage if you use a sign without knowing that it’s a sign and what it signifies, but you’re not in bondage if you use a sign but you do know what it signifies. God has now removed most of the signs that were present in the Jewish law, and has given to use only a few rites, such as baptism and the celebration of the body and blood of the Lord (i.e. the Eucharist). And if we realise that these rites are signs – that is, we know what they refer to – then we are free. But if we take the signs themselves to be the things that they signify, then we are in bondage. Lastly, if we know that they are signs but we don’t know what they signify, that is still a bondage, but it is better than just taking the rites literally.
In the next chapter, Augustine refers back to what he said here in chapter 9, and recaps this rule “which guards us against taking a metaphorical form of speech as if it were literal.” It is interesting to see that he includes the Eucharist as an example where God has given us a “metaphorical form of speech,” which we should not take literally.
In regard to Augustine’s use of the word “sign,” he has attempted to clarify the meaning of this in the previous book, as follows:
[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: as when we see a footprint, we conclude that an animal whose footprint this is has passed by; and when we see smoke, we know that there is fire beneath; and when we hear the voice of a living man, we think of the feeling in his mind; and when the trumpet sounds, soldiers know that they are to advance or retreat, or do whatever else the state of the battle requires.
Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Book 2, Chapter 1, paragraph 1.
And lastly from Augustine (although a point made by using several quotations), a number of Catholic apologists today appeal to Jesus’ words in John 6 as though they supported the doctrine of transubstantiation, where Jesus said that he is the bread of life, and also says that his disciples must eat his flesh and drink his blood, otherwise they will have no life.2
But in one of the books already quoted, On Christian Doctrine book 3, Augustine explains how we can tell what should be taken figuratively and what should not. Look at one of the examples he uses:
If the sentence is one of command, either forbidding a crime or vice, or enjoining an act of prudence or benevolence, it is not figurative. If, however, it seems to enjoin a crime or vice, or to forbid an act of prudence or benevolence, it is figurative. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man,” says Christ, “and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” John 6:53 This seems to enjoin a crime or a vice; it is therefore a figure, enjoining that we should have a share [communicandem] in the sufferings of our Lord, and that we should retain a sweet and profitable memory [in memoria] of the fact that His flesh was wounded and crucified for us. Scripture says: “If your enemy hungers, feed him; if he thirsts, give him drink;” and this is beyond doubt a command to do a kindness. But in what follows, “for in so doing you shall heap coals of fire on his head,” one would think a deed of malevolence was enjoined. Do not doubt, then, that the expression is figurative; and, while it is possible to interpret it in two ways, one pointing to the doing of an injury, the other to a display of superiority, let charity on the contrary call you back to benevolence, and interpret the coals of fire as the burning groans of penitence by which a man’s pride is cured who bewails that he has been the enemy of one who came to his assistance in distress.
Augustine therefore insists that Jesus’ injunction to eat his flesh and drink his blood must be a figure that refers to us not only suffering for Christ, but retaining a remembrance of his own suffering, because to literally eat his flesh and drink his blood, says Augustine, would be a crime or vice.
Elsewhere, Augustine comments on the meaning of eating him, the bread of life:
Wherefore, the Lord, about to give the Holy Spirit, said that Himself was the bread that came down from heaven, exhorting us to believe in Him. For to believe in Him is to eat the living bread. He that believes eats; he is sated invisibly, because invisibly is he born again. A babe within, a new man within. Where he is made new, there he is satisfied with food.
Augustine, Tractate 26 on the Gospel of John, paragraph 1.
Let’s move on to another Father. Some anti-Protestant apologists use the following argument (my summary): “St Ignatius condemned the teachings of the Gnostics. They denied that the Son of God really had a body, and so they do not believe that the Eucharist really is (literally) Christ’s body, so they don’t take part in the Eucharist.” If this is what our minds are prepared to find, then yes, we may find this. Ignatius wrote:
They 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.
Ignatius, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, chapter 7.
But it is evident that Ignatius is not explicit here about what he means. Sure, he says that the bread of the Eucharist is the body of Jesus. But this says nothing about whether the expression should be understood absolutely literally or not.
Another Church Father, Tertullian, made a similar argument. He argued that Christ’s institution of the Eucharist showed that he had a body. Why else would he say “this is my body”? But notice the way that Tertullian worded the argument when writing against Marcion:
When He so earnestly expressed His desire to eat the passover, He considered it His own feast; for it would have been unworthy of God to desire to partake of what was not His own. 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. An empty thing, or phantom, is incapable of a figure. If, however, (as Marcion might say,) He pretended the bread was His body, because He lacked the truth of bodily substance, it follows that He must have given bread for us. It would contribute very well to the support of Marcion’s theory of a phantom body, that bread should have been crucified! But why call His body bread, and not rather (some other edible thing, say) a melon, which Marcion must have had in lieu of a heart!
Tertullian, Against Marcion, chapter 40.
Tertullian’s argument was simple: Why would Jesus give us a figure of his body in the bread unless he actually had a body in the first place?
But what did Tertullian mean by “figure”? In context there can be no doubt. In the same book (chapter 13), Tertullian used the word “figure” to describe a metaphor, namely the name of Peter, which means rock, a term that was applied to Christ as a “figure,” that is, a name that was an appropriate metaphor for Christ but not literally true (neither Peter nor Jesus is literally a rock). Or in Chapter 22, Tertullian wrote that Zechariah saw Moses and Elijah symbolically represented using the “figure” of two olive trees. In chapter 25 Tertullian spoke of God concealing truths in the Old Testament by way of “allegories and figures.” He uses the term numerous other times in the same book to refer to symbols. So yes, Tertullian said that the bread is the body of Christ, and like others, he meant this figuratively, not literally.
Theodoret, too, appealed to the fact that we have symbols of the body and blood of Christ:
Orth.— But our Saviour changed the names, and to His body gave the name of the symbol and to the symbol that of his body. So, after calling himself a vine, he spoke of the symbol as blood.
Eran.— True. But I am desirous of knowing the reason of the change of names.
Orth.— To them that are initiated in divine things the intention is plain. For he wished the partakers in the divine mysteries not to give heed to the nature of the visible objects, but, by means of the variation of the names, to believe the change wrought of grace. For He, we know, who spoke of his natural body as grain and bread, and, again, called Himself a vine, dignified the visible symbols by the appellation of the body and blood, not because He had changed their nature, but because to their nature He had added grace.
Eran.— The mysteries are spoken of in mystic language, and there is a clear declaration of that which is not known to all.
Orth.— Since then it is agreed that the body of the Lord is called by the patriarch robe and mantle and we have reached the discussion of the divine mysteries, tell me truly, of what do you understand the Holy Food to be a symbol and type? Of the godhead of the Lord Christ, or of His body and His blood?
Eran.— Plainly of those things of which they received the names.
Orth.— You mean of the body and of the blood?
Eran.— I do.
Orth.— You have spoken as a lover of truth should speak, for when the Lord had taken the symbol, He did not say this is my godhead, but this is my body; and again this is my blood and in another place the bread that I will give is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world.
Eran.— These words are true, for they are the divine oracles.
Orth.— If then they are true, I suppose the Lord had a body.
Theodoret, Dialogue 1 (between Orthodoxos and Eranistes)
Theodoret here almost seems to have directly denied transubstantiation, saying that the nature of the bread and wine remain unchanged. His point was that since Christ symbolically referred to the bread and wine as his body and blood, it must have been true that he had a body, which is a point like that made by Tertullian.
It is no good, in fact it is painfully naive, to imagine that just by quoting somebody who says that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Jesus, that you have therefore proved that they believed in transubstantiation.
I’m not going to multiply further examples. The point is just this: It is no good, in fact it is painfully naive, to imagine that just by quoting somebody who says that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Jesus, that you have therefore proved that they believed in transubstantiation. A number of those same Fathers show elsewhere that when they say that the Lord’s Supper is his body and blood, what they mean is that they are symbols or figures of his body and blood. Yes, I am aware that Catholics also say that there is a symbolic element to the bread and wine of the Eucharist. However, context is important. When we read through the context of the books that these Fathers wrote, we can see that and the language of figures, symbols or metaphors is well established as referring to things that are not literally true (and Augustine’s claim that to literally eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood would be a “crime” or a “vice” certainly shows what he thought of the possibility of the bread being both symbolically and literally Christ’s body). And even if that were not the case, it would still have been demonstrated that we cannot assume that they meant to be taken literally when they stated that the bread and wine are the body of Christ, because they fact that they elsewhere spoke of the bread and wine as symbols shows that their claims may be interpreted symbolically. We would need additional evidence that they never intended this when calling the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ. To just assume that they must be interpreted literally or else we’re not taking them seriously is to engage in the sort of fundamentalism described at the outset.
My point is not primarily doctrinal (I have not argued here for my own view on the Lord’s Supper). My point, rather, is methodological. In short, don’t just snip out short sayings from the Church Fathers where they make statements that amount to “the bread is the body of Christ.” That is not a matter of much dispute at all. Here’s what you need to do:
- Read more, and read out of interest. Read the book because you want to get to know what the author had to say, not because you’re hunting for something.
- Read in context. Try to see what the author is doing here. Why did he write that one sentence you are quoting? In other words, understand him.
- Read all of what a Father had to say about the subject, and not just the verses that you find quoted on anti-Protestant apologetics websites (or anti-Catholic websites, of course!). make sure that you’re not interpreting him in a way that doesn’t fit easily within his overall point of view.
The reality is that when somebody just starts spitting out quotes from the Fathers, one after the other, saying “the bread is the body of Christ,” I lose motivation to interact. Either they imagine Protestants lining up to just say “wrong, Jesus! It’s not your body!” Or they have never read what Protestants themselves say about the real presence, or else they just haven’t read the Fathers they are quoting, other than insofar as they read and copied a quote from that Father off an anti-Protestant apologetics website. None of these scenarios is a healthy one for somebody who wants to engage in discussion on the subject. Sorry to sound like a snob, but I don’t need to waste my time on lazy arguers who just want a good ecclesiastical brawl. I mean apologetics ministry. I mean… what’s the difference between the two things for them anyway?
Of course I have not argued here that the doctrine of transubstantiation is false. I could never do that just by showing that there are a number of Church Fathers who probably did not believe it. But hopefully I have done something, even if only a little, to urge for caution in using the Fathers on matters of doctrine.
- I am not including the example of Pope Gelasius I here, simply because I have not been able to obtain a copy of the work to read for myself, and I don’t like the practice of simply reproducing quotes from apologetics websites (indeed, this is exactly the issue I have with many of the self-appointed warriors for the Catholic Church). Nevertheless, the quote reads as follows:
Sacred Scripture, testifying that this Mystery[ie. The Incarnation] began at the start of the blessed Conception, says; ‘Wisdom has built a house for itself'(Prov 9:1), rooted in the solidity of the sevenfold Spirit. This Wisdom ministers to us the food of the Incarnation of Christ through which we are made sharers of the divine nature. Certainly the sacraments of the Body and Blood of Christ that we receive are a divine reality, because of which and through which we ‘are made sharers of the divine nature’ (1 Pt 1:4). Nevertheless the substance or nature of bread and wine does not cease to exist. And certainly the image and likeness of the Body and Blood of Christ are celebrated in the carrying out the Mysteries.
Gelasius I, Tract on the two natures against Eutchyes & Nestorius, sourced from a Catholic apologetics site here.
The author at that website alleges that contrary to all appearances, Gelasius was simply not concerned with describing the Eucharist at all, but just hastily making an analogy in order to help explain the Incarnation. Without being able to see the context in which Gelasius was writing, it is hard to evaluate this conjecture. We can, of course, agree with the author that Gelasius is affirming in some sense the “real presence” (as did John Calvin for example), for in all appearances he was denying that Christ is really present because of transubstantiation, meaning that if he is really present, it must be in some other way. It is significant that a Pope of the late fifth century was able to so easily make this claim unopposed. [↩]
- Here are a couple of examples: “Eat my body (John 6): Why Jesus was being literal,” “John 6 (Eucharist): the Plausibility of Literal Interpretation, Based on Extensive Analogical Cross-Referencing and Insufficient Counter-Arguments” [↩]