Tertullian of Carthage And The “Real Presence Doctrine”

 Tertullian was from Carthage, a city located near modern day Tunis Tunisia in Northern Africa. During Tertullian’s time, the culture of Carthage was distinctly Roman. The Christian church there was likely under the jurisdiction of the church in Rome because of its close proximity. The western churches during Tertullian’s day were inconsiderable next to the chief churches of Antioch and Alexandria where Clement resided. But Tertullian exemplifies the same passion, intelligence, and dedication as his eastern brother Clement did, but with a bit more bluntness and attitude. When one reads Tertullian’s work, one can appreciate the struggles of the early church, particularly with regards to living under constant threats from the pagan government.

I once heard a Catholic who was introducing a former Protestant speaker say, “The water runs clearer closer to the spring.” What he meant by that was that the early church fathers were closer to the apostles than we are, so we should listen closely to what they had to say. His reason for saying it, of course, was to introduce a speaker who was about to testify how studying the early church brought him into the Catholic Church. The funny thing was, the speaker never mentioned any early church reference that couldn’t be readily found on any Catholic apologetics website’s borage of out-of-context quotes – “So much for studying.”

The saying, however, certainly fits Tertullian. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church is not persuaded by Tertullian, who in his treatise on baptism strongly condemned the practice of baptizing infants and small children. It appears that the Catholic Church finds some of that clear water too bitter to drink. But whether one agrees with Tertullian or not, it can be shown that he, similar to Clement, demonstrates in his writings the absence of anything like the real presence doctrine existing during his time.

Tertullian wrote a work called “The Resurrection of the Dead” in which he expounded on the unique relationship of the soul and the flesh. Tertullian taught that the two were separate entities that worked together to serve God. Tertullian strives to produce several examples of the conjoined soul-flesh relationship which sometimes reveals his philosophical tendencies rather than solid biblical teaching. And it is one of these examples that Catholic apologist target for “real presence” support.

The flesh, indeed, is washed, in order that the soul may be cleansed; the flesh is anointed, that the soul may be consecrated; the flesh is signed (with the cross), that the soul too may be fortified; the flesh is shadowed with the imposition of hands, that the soul also maybe illuminated by the Spirit; the flesh feeds on the body and blood of Christ, that the soul likewise may fatten on its God. They cannot then be separated in their recompense, when they are united in their service. Those sacrifices, moreover, which are acceptable to God–I mean conflicts of the soul, fastings, and abstinences, and the humiliations which are annexed to such duty–it is the flesh which performs again and again to its own especial suffering.”

Exactly what Tertullian believed regarding the flesh and soul of Christians would no doubt make for interesting discussion. But the thing Catholic apologists really want to present here is the fact that Tertullian refers to the eucharist elements as the “body and blood” of Christ. But this is completely inadequate for their purpose. One would be hard pressed to find Christians who didn’t refer to the elements as the body and blood of Christ; even in the same way Tertullian did in his treaties on prayer where he said, “Will not your Station [day of fasting] be more solemn if you have withal stood at God’s altar? When the Lord’s Body has been received and reserved?

I think many Catholics are under the impression that only they refer to the eucharist in this way. The Lord instituted the memorial by saying, “this is My body” and “this is the cup of the new testament that is in My blood; do this in remembrance of Me.” It is profoundly Christian to refer to the eucharist as the body and blood of Christ because the eucharist is the celebration of the passion of our Lord. But that does not mean that the bread and wine used in the eucharist celebration are the literal body and blood of Christ.

Later, in chapter 13, Tertullian gives us a glimpse into his interpretation of the bread of life discourse (the biblical bases for the real presence doctrine) while expounding on the topic of flesh and soul.

For the soul-flesh, or the flesh-soul, is but one; unless indeed He [Christ] even had some other soul apart from that which was flesh, and bare about another flesh besides that which was soul. But since He had but one flesh and one soul,–that “soul which was sorrowful, even unto death,” and that flesh which was the “bread given for the life of the world,”–the number is unimpaired of two substances distinct in kind, thus excluding the unique species of the flesh-comprised soul.”

Notice the use of the past tense in the sentence “and that flesh which was the “bread given for the life of the world.” If Tertullian believed in a doctrine like the real presence, he would not have used the past tense. Rather Tertullian would have used the present tense, or perfect see which would have been translated “is the bread…” since the act of eating it is ongoing. Also, the flesh of Christ given for the life of the world is not the glorified body of Christ as the real presence doctrine asserts, but the flesh of Christ was that sin offering for the life of the world before He was received into glory.

The biblical support for the real presence doctrine relies on the interpretation that Jesus was referring to eating His physical flesh when He said, “and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” Since Tertullian referenced the event as having occurred in the past, he could not have believed that Jesus was saying He would give his flesh to be literally eaten, but rather that He gave His flesh sacrificially at the cross for the life of the world.

There are a few other places in Tertullian’s works that Catholic apologists like to use for support of the real presence doctrine. One quote often used is found in a work called “The Chaplet.” The quote used is often presented like this:

We take anxious care lest something of our Cup or Bread should fall upon the ground.”

The purpose is to convey the notion that Tertullian is imploring caution in the handling of the eucharistic elements because they are believed to be the actual body and blood of Christ. But if that were true, why does he call them cup and bread? Tertullian often refers to the elements as the body and blood of Christ, so why not here? Perhaps the problem is Catholic editing. Here is the same quote properly translated:

“We feel pained should any wine or bread, even though our own, be cast upon the ground.”

The context from which this quote is taken doesn’t even suggest that Tertullian is speaking of the eucharist.

We take also, in congregations before daybreak, and from the hand of none but the presidents, the sacrament of the eucharist, which the Lord both commanded to be eaten at meal-times, and enjoined to be taken by all alike.

As often as the anniversary comes round, we make offerings for the dead as birthday honors.”

We count fasting or kneeling in worship on the Lord’s day to be unlawful. We rejoice in the same privilege also from Easter to Whitsunday.”

We feel pained should any wine or bread, even though our own, be cast upon the ground.”

At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign.”

These things Tertullian is describing are unwritten customs that were practiced at the time. There is nothing to suggest he believed or even heard of real presence.

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