Irenaeus of Lyons and the Real Presence Docrtine

Irenaeus was the bishop of Lyons France (Gaul) in the mid second century. He wrote his Against Heresies around 180 A.D. an invaluable work that details Gnostic practices and beliefs and furthermore soundly and biblically refutes them. In addition to Against Heresies, there are several fragments extant that mostly come from Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History.There are many aspects of gnosticism Irenaeus labored to refute, but for the purpose of this article I will highlight one. Gnostics believed that humans were divine souls trapped in a material world created by evil entities. Irenaeus contended that the world and everything in it was divinely created by God. And it was elements of the creation that Christ commanded to be received as His body and blood for a memorial of His sacrifice.Bread and wine are created things that nourish our created bodies. These elements of creation, Irenaeus taught, are established as the body and blood of Christ whose blood was shed truly and physically. The Gnostics maintained that Christ’s body was not created like ours denying His human nature. Therefore, it did not make sense to them that the body could be eternally saved; but Irenaeus asserts that the body will be resurrected incorruptible.This is the context in which Irenaeus describes the eucharist. Irenaeus likens the rebirth of the believer to the eucharist and vise verse.

  “Then, again, how can they [the Gnostics] 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.”  

Again, the context is the resurrection of the believer. Irenaeus is speaking of Christians when he said, “the fleshed nourished with the body of the Lord and with His blood.” That is, those who believe on He who was crucified for their sins are nourished with the body and blood of the Lord. Their bodies will not remain in corruption because they will be resurrected. For we offer to Him His own, that is of His own creation. But offerings in the flesh are only pleasing to God when the flesh is united with the Spirit. The flesh united with the gift of the Holy Spirit offers to God the praises of thanksgiving. Flesh void of the gift of the Holy Spirit cannot offer anything to God.

Irenaeus transfers this reality to the bread of the eucharist by claiming that the bread, which is of God’s creation, receives a Spiritual aspect upon receiving the invocation. The bread, he states, is “no longer common bread, but the eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly.” Earthly, because it is bread which is of the creation, and heavenly, because it is blessed and received by those who themselves are both earthly (in the flesh) and heavenly (born of the Spirit).

Irenaeus clearly denies the notion held by the Catholic Church that the bread is no longer bread; he calls it, “no longer common bread.” Compare this to what the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said in an answer to a relevant question.

Does the bread cease to be bread and the wine cease to be wine?Yes. In order for the whole Christ to be present-body, blood, soul, and divinity-the bread and wine cannot remain, but must give way so that his glorified Body and Blood may be present. Thus in the eucharist the bread ceases to be bread in substance, and becomes the Body of Christ, while the wine ceases to be wine in substance, and becomes the Blood of Christ. As St. Thomas Aquinas observed, Christ is not quoted as saying, “This bread is my body,” but “This is my body” (Summa Theologiae, III q. 78, a. 5).” (Emphasis mine)Irenaeus said the bread was no longer common bread, thus maintaining its status as bread; and the Catholic bishops say it is no longer bread at all. The earthly aspect of the bread from the Irenaeus quote is acknowledgment that the bread is of the creation. The spiritual is attached to the eucharist itself, which is the celebration of the passion of the Lord and the unity of the body of Christ. The Catholic Church is in opposition to Irenaeus’ understanding of the eucharist elements.Not only does Irenaeus deny the change in substance in the bread and wine, he also illustrates in the following quote that the universal church recognized that the alter whereby we offer our gifts to God is in heaven. And heaven is where our adoration is directed, not towards the eucharistic elements.

  “Thus is it, therefore, also His will that we, too, should offer a gift at the altar, frequently and without intermission. The altar, then, is in heaven (for towards that place are our prayers and oblations directed); the temple likewise [is there], as John says in the Apocalypse, “And the temple of God was opened: ” the tabernacle also: “For, behold,” He says, “the tabernacle of God, in which He will dwell with men.”  

There is also a fragment extant from Irenaeus that sheds a bit more light on the question of the eucharistic bread’s substance. Apparently during the persecutions at Lyons, one of the accusations placed upon Christians was the charge of cannibalism. This charge was made because the non-Christians heard that the Christians ate the body and blood of Christ. This fragment from Irenaeus shows that the Christians indeed did not consider that the eucharist was the literal body of Christ.

  “For when the Greeks, having arrested the slaves of Christian catechumens, then used force against them, in order to learn from them some secret thing [practiced] among Christians, these slaves, having nothing to say that would meet the wishes of their tormentors, except that they had heard from their masters that the divine communion was the body and blood of Christ, and imagining that it was actually flesh and blood, gave their inquisitors answer to that effect. Then these latter, assuming such to be the case with regard to the practices of Christians, gave information regarding it to other Greeks, and sought to compel the martyrs Sanctus and Blandina to confess, under the influence of torture, [that the allegation was correct]. To these men Blandina replied very admirably in these words: ‘How should those persons endure such [accusations], who, for the sake of the practice [of piety], did not avail themselves even of the flesh that was permitted [them to eat]?‘”  

             (Fragment 13)

The slaves had heard from their masters that the eucharist is the body and blood of Christ and so confessed it to be. But Irenaeus clarifies for us that the slaves confessed in ignorance by saying they imagined it was actually flesh and blood. Irenaeus’ point is made even clearer in Blandina’s reply to the Greeks’ attempt to make he and Sanctus confess the same. The slaves themselves would not even eat the meat that was permitted them to eat much less the literal flesh of Christ. To Irenaeus the idea of real presence in the eucharist as believed by Catholics today was ridiculous.


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