The Real Presence

The Four Doctors of the Western Church

The Four Doctors of the Western Church: Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome.

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)

Eucharistic adorationThere 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]

7 thoughts on “The Real Presence

  1. Pingback: The Body and Blood of Christ « The Lonely Pilgrim

  2. Pingback: Eat my flesh and drink my blood: A crucial passage, the Catholic Eucharist, and bad Protestant commentary « The Lonely Pilgrim

  3. I just came upon your blog while looking for information about where Augustine talks about how we ought to enumerate the Ten Commandments (thanks for that, by the way). And I got caught up reading about your journey to Catholicism. It’s compelling reading! (You’re keeping me from doing the work I had set for myself today.) I really appreciate the honesty with which you address the issues that you confronted.

    That said, I have a small (pedantic?) quibble with your claim that the doctrine of the Real Presence “was never seriously questioned until the Protestant Reformation.” I view the statements of Cyril, and especially Ignatius, that you quoted above as strong evidence that the doctrine was seriously questioned, even disputed and rejected, by some significant groups of people claiming to be Christian. Else, there would be no reason to raise the issue at all. But importantly, the objections were refuted, and the Real Presence affirmed, by the Church Fathers. Of course, the Church Fathers may have been wrong, but if they were, how can we, who know of Christianity only through them, know better. (Some claim confirmation through their direct experience of God–with your charismatic background, perhaps you know many such people–but I have never experienced such confirmation.)

    Anyway, this reply to a long since written post is as much an excuse to say “Thank you for writing” and “Please keep it up” as it is to quibble about a minor, but nonetheless important, point that sullies your otherwise clear argument.

    • Victor, thanks so much for the kind and encouraging comment. What is your faith background? Are you on this journey as well?

      I’ve heard the argument you make before, or ones along the same lines, and I admit I might have “fudged” what I wrote a little, and I’m not sure I would have written the same thing if I wrote it today. Certainly Ignatius and Cyril and others do allow that there were those who questioned the Real Presence. But my (possibly pedantic) distinction is, should we consider these voices (most of which don’t actually survive as “voices,” except in the evidence that they existed) to be “significant”? We know nothing about the number or strength of these groups, only that they were enough of a concern to be mentioned — and that the Fathers were certain enough of the truth, even at the early date of Ignatius, to reject their opinions vehemently.

      There’s a strain of thought that’s common in academia that “orthodoxy” is only the post-hoc descriptor of the victors of early doctrinal battles, that in the beginning there were “many Christianities” and no single, established truth. But this makes extravagant assumptions that are rooted more in postmodern relativism and pluralism (which are themselves fruits of the Protestant Reformation) than in anything ancient. Where is the evidence that such “other Christianities” existed and were significant? Where are the sources? Proponents of this way of thinking argue that the “orthodox” church eradicated any documentary trace of opponents — but such is not a convincing answer, given the ample evidence that survives of various Gnostic groups, most of which are too late for the claim of “many Christianities in the beginning.” The fact is, there was only one Jesus and only one truth that He revealed; and if we presume that His revelation was so ineffectual as to result in “many Christianities” by the end of the first or second generation, then I don’t know how anyone can make a claim to the truth. Clearly in that case, His words that the Holy Spirit would guide His people into all truth have no meaning. Such thinking is necessarily rooted in the assumption that the whole Christian project was a purely human and not a divine endeavor.

      The modern, post-Protestant assumption is that “every interpretation is valid” and essentially that there is no one, solid ground for the truth. But authors such as Ignatius demonstrate that even from the beginning, the bishops of the Church had a solid grasp of what we today call Christian orthodoxy, and spoke strongly against heterodox opinions. Then as now, the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” was the Church, and the truth of the Church was manifest in the bishops as visible successors of the Apostles. Irenaeus underscores this point throughout his work Against Heresies. There is no evidence that the bishops of the Church were ever in anything but uniform agreement on the truth of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. If any sect apart from the bishops of the Church dissented, they were, per Ignatius’s and Irenaeus’s arguments, outside the Church, and by definition not significant.

      Another way I admittedly fudged the statement is in saying “no one before the Protestant Reformation.” That is only true if one extends the umbrella of the Protestant Reformation to cover such earlier figures as Wycliffe and Hus.

      Thanks again for reading, and for the thoughtful and thought-provoking comment. God bless you and His peace be with you!

      • Hi Joseph,

        I just finished reading the “My story” blog posts–beautiful stuff, and I’m glad that you don’t seem to have any long-term problems stemming from your accident (it would have been a nail-biter except that, since you’re obviously writing coherently now, I knew it would come out okay).

        I’m a “cradle Catholic”, though one who has flirted a lot with evangelicalism: I was, for example, actively involved with the InterVarsity group at college and grad school for many years, and many of my best friends are from that group. My own natural preferences are, I think, rather opposite to yours in style (I’m decidedly “low church”, or at rather, I like the more informal style of worship, though I recognize the attraction and power of “high” liturgy), but perhaps similarly to you, doubt and questioning–epistemological issues, if you like–are at the heart of my faith (though I wish it weren’t so). I long for the emotional experience, but I distrust it.

        I perhaps wasn’t clear about my quibble: I don’t disagree with the orthodox position on the Real Presence. But the fact that Ignatius, for example, bothers to address it (or rather those that reject it) strongly suggests that it was “seriously questioned”, and it’s important that we are acknowledge this. (If it were only a small disagreement involving a few people, why bother writing a letter about it?) Indeed, although allowing that there were dissenters might seem to open the door to those objections today, I think it ultimately strengthens the case for orthodoxy and the importance of Church authority: it shows that the position wasn’t simply unconsidered at the time, but that it was actually refuted by the leaders of the early Church. It’s dangerous to read the lack of writings supporting that position as saying that it wasn’t widely held, because we know that the Church (rightly and successfully) suppressed those teachings (though obviously not as successfully regarding the Gnostics). And of course, “history is written by the winners.” Which is precisely why Church authority is so important, and crucially, that that authority ultimately rests on Jesus’s promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church and on the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, so that as you say above,the Christian project is “a divine endeavor”. (I recognize that I am “preaching to the choir”, or rather to the minister, because you’re a historian and I’m not, and the question of authority is a recurring theme of your blog posts.)

        As for the question of whether there were “many Christianities” in the first few generations after Christ: It’s clear even from Acts and the epistles that there were groups of people calling themselves Christian with divergent views, hence the need, for example, for the Council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15. Whether they should be considered “different Christianities” or merely different factions within the early Church depends on how you depends on how you define the term. We could ask the same question today: Is the Church or Latter-Day Saints a “different Christianity”? (Mormons claim to be Christians.) Are the various Protestant denominations “different Christianities” from each other and from Catholicism and the Orthodox Churches? Are the various rites (e.g., Latin vs. the various Eastern Rites) within the Catholic Church “different Christianities”? (Oh, and by the way, the Eastern Rites enumerate the Ten Commandments differently than the Latin Rite.) What about different orders within the Latin Rite, with their different charisms and emphases? I’m not sure where to draw the line, and I’m not sure it’s important (though it may have a significant impact on reunification, which is important). For example, it seems that Christians generally accepted Peter and James’s ruling, so we might say they were not a separate sect, but one Christianity. But Marcion and his followers in the middle of the second century (contemporary with Justin Martyr) clearly did not. I would say that Marcion was wrong and thus a heretic (as the Church excommunicated him), and that Marcionism was outside Christianity, but it seems Marcionites considered themselves Christian.

        Sorry, I didn’t mean to go on so long about that. I hope it’s clear that I’m not trying to cast doubt on the authority of the Church–indeed, as I said, I think this ultimately makes it clear why that authority is so important–but I do think it is important to not get distracted by terminology (I’m reminded about your lengthy exchange with some commenter about the meaning of “pray”) as opposed to substance. Marcion’s view of the Old Testament was wrong, just as Protestant’s rejection of Church authority is wrong. (I’m not suggesting that these errors are equal in gravity–just that they are both false teachings about important matters of the Christian faith.) I’m not interested in determining whether that makes Marcionites and Protestants not Christians, but rather, how we can call them back to a correct understanding.

        May God’s peace be with you also.

  4. I’ve decided myself that I can have a fairly high view of the Real Presence, but my stumbling block is priesthood. It’s one thing for humans to mediate the law – God ordained this – but to have a priestly caste necessary to activate the Real Presence is a burden too great for fallen man. The Real Presence of Christ is activated by the faith of the whole church and of the believer, not by a “priest.”

    • Nonetheless, the rite of the Eucharist involves somebody presiding over it, somebody to speak the words and repeat the actions of Christ. “The whole church” can’t do that at once. Thus we have someone operating in a ministerial role. There’s nothing fundamentally different between a priest and a layperson — merely one has a calling to be such a minister, and the other doesn’t.

      Check out my series on the priesthood if you haven’t. I’d be interested in your opinion.

      Thanks for the comment!

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