I have admired the Church Fathers for a long time, since my first serious introduction to them some eight years ago in Dr. G’s History of the Christian Church. I conducted my first study of them in depth five years ago. And yet through all that time and reading, my own bias never occurred to me, until just a couple of weeks ago. “What have I been thinking?” it hit me with a start. I had been honoring these men, for their faith, their erudition, their devotion; and yet I was discounting and dismissing most of what they believed.
Did I somehow consider myself above their “superstitious,” “archaic” beliefs? Did I believe that in this age of science, we had adopted a more “rational” view of faith? Did I suppose that we moderns were too “reasonable” to subscribe to such “foolish” doctrines as the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist?
Yes, reasonable like believing that the very Son of God would be born of a Virgin in a backwater Palestinian town? That he would make blind eyes see and the lame walk, with the power of his healing hands? That he would be crucified for the sins of humanity, and rise again from the dead in glory, to judge the living and the dead at the end of the age? That the Holy Bible is the written Word of God? If we believe all of this in faith, how is it any more “unreasonable” to believe that the bread and wine of our Eucharist become for us Christ’s Body and Blood? This is what Christ told us; this is what St. Paul affirmed; this is what every one of the Church Fathers believed.
One can (and has) written extended doctrinal treatises expositing this idea in Scripture and patristic thought; I don’t have time to go there, and you don’t have time to read it. So a few examples will suffice.
The key passage in the Gospels is in John 6. Jesus tells his listeners in the synagogue at Capernaum that he is the Bread of Life come down from heaven; that in eating him there would be eternal life. The Jews were incredulous, and wanted to take his words metaphorically; but rather than clarifying his statement, Jesus insisted:
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So 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. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true [some translations, truly, indeed] food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. (St. John the Evangelist, The Gospel according to St. John 6:52-55, ESV)
Many of his own disciples were confused and troubled by these claims — certainly outrageous, taken literally. “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (v. 66). But still he made no effort to correct them.
Similarly, at the Last Supper, Jesus spoke unambiguously:
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (St. Luke, The Gospel according to St. Luke 22:19-20, ESV)
St. Paul, in describing the Eucharist, certainly understood it to be something more than a symbol:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (St. Paul, First Epistle to the Corinthians 11:27-29, written ca. A.D. 56)
There is no doubt that the earliest Fathers of the Church believed the bread and wine of the Eucharist were the actual Body and Blood of Christ. St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing to the Church at Smyrna, ca. A.D. 110:
[Speaking of those with “heterodox opinions”] They abstain from the Eucharist and prayer, since 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 raised up again in his kindness. (St. Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrneans 7)
St. Justin Martyr, in his First Apology (ca. A.D. 150), explains the Eucharist at length:
We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration and is thereby living as Christ has rejoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made 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 blood of that incarnated Jesus. (St. Justin Martyr, First Apology 65)
St. Cyril of Jerusalem, writing in the middle of the fourth century, declares:
Do not, therefore, regard the Bread and Wine as simply that; for they are, according to the Master’s declaration, the Body and Blood of Christ. Even though the senses suggest to you the other, let faith make you firm. Do not judge in this matter by taste, but be fully assured by faith, not doubting that you have been deemed worthy of the Body and Blood of Christ. (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catecheses 22, 6).
These are just a few of many, many examples I could have cited. From the very earliest witnesses, though the Middle Ages, the Real Presence was an accepted fact of the Christian religion. It was never seriously questioned until the Protestant Reformation. Since then, evangelical Protestants have insisted, with little justification, that the Eucharist is only a symbol or memorial. Most do not even consider that theirs is the new, unfounded doctrine, without scriptural or historical support.
[Sources for patristic quotations: Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on “Romanism” by “Bible Christians” (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988), 237-238; St. Ignatius quote supported by consultation of, and slight emendation from, Bart Ehrman, ed. and trans., The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 1, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003), 302-303]