An article recently appeared on the Catholic.com website that responds to my article, “Early Church Evidence Refutes Real Presence.” The article was written by Catholic apologist, Tom Nash, who posted it in the website’s online magazine section. Here is a link to the article: The Early Church Believed in the Eucharist
My article, “Early Church Evidence Refutes Real Presence” is a contextual approach to the early church writings. The article was written in 2009. I am currently working on a new revision to the article that will provide more background on the writers, an even more comprehensive look at what they believed about the eucharist, and a couple additional works that lend well to the topic, but carry with them a level uncertainty as to their dates, which of course will be fully disclosed.
It is my opinion that Mr. Nash did an inadequate job of refuting the conclusions of my article since he failed on every point to incorporate any context. Essentially, Mr. Nash relied on isolated quotes to suggest to his readers that what these quotes say sounds very Catholic. On that point I agree. It’s the reason why Catholic Answers lists strings of them without contextual support. But to me context is everything, and I am certain that every other fair-minded individual out there would agree.
There are four things that are vitally important about early church study. The first thing is to read the works. Sounds kind of obvious, but a lot folks think they understand these writings simply because they have seen quotes. The second thing is to learn all you can about the authors. Get to know their style, passions, and influences. Much of this can be ascertained from reading their works. Third, learn about the period in which they lived and wrote, and most importantly, learn about the heresies they were addressing. This goes a long way in understanding what they are trying to convey. Finally, develop a strong biblical foundation and keep an open mind. The early ecclesiastical writers wrote for various reasons, but none wrote Scripture and none were infallible.
It didn’t take long for Mr. Nash to completely mischaracterize my view of the early church works. He stated that I argue Ignatius and other church fathers held a “merely symbolic view of the eucharist and that their words should be understood figuratively.” What I actually said was, “Within these writings are clear references to the flesh and blood of Christ in the eucharist being symbolical, and the words, ‘Eat My flesh and drink My blood’ spoken by Jesus in the bread of life discourse as being metaphorical.”
I simply told my readers what they should expect to find in my article. I never imposed a symbolical view onto any of the authors, much less all of them. The idea of the article was to let the evidence speak for itself. I don’t offer a great deal of commentary and I only used the word symbolical or symbolically three times. Every time I used it was to simply reiterate what the evidence itself was revealing.
My article is broken into sections, one for each of the ecclesiastical writers. Mr. Nash chose to respond to the three closest to the time of the apostles: Ignatius, Justin, and Irenaeus. This response will address his commentary on Ignatius of Antioch. I will follow with responses on Justin Martyr and Irenaeus in the weeks to come.
Regarding Ignatius, Mr. Nash provides the all-important crème de la crème of early church quotes as far as most Catholics are concerned.
They [the Docetists, early Christological heretics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 [A.D. 110]).
Mr. Nash remarks that my opinion is at odds with the plain meaning of Ignatius’ words. I don’t know what opinion he is referring to since I never offered one. What I offered was context and facts. However Mr. Nash seems to think that Ignatius accused the Docetists of abstaining from the Eucharist because they denied that the flesh of Christ was truly present in the “elements” of the Eucharist.
Eucharist is a word that means thanksgiving. The bread and cup are the food of the eucharist and often referred to as the Eucharist, much like the our November feast is referred to as Thanksgiving.
The Ignatius quote I provide above is from Mr. Nash’s article and it includes a bracketed comment that identifies who Ignatius is referring to and it says, “the Docetists, early Christological heretics.” I wonder how many of his readers understand the significance of that insertion and how it being there actually invalidates his opinion of the quote. Put simply, people who did not believe that Jesus suffered and died in the flesh would not abstain from the Eucharist because they objected to the idea He was truly present, they abstained because the whole idea of it was ridiculous to them. They didn’t believe the bread was the body of Christ and the cup His blood, because they objected to the idea that Jesus possessed a body; that’s what Ignatius meant when he said they do not confess the Eucharist to be the flesh of Christ.
Ignatius went on to say that the flesh they deny is “our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his goodness, raised up again.” The next thing he says is crucial to understanding what he meant, “They who deny this gift of God are perishing in their disputes.”
Ignatius’ criticism of the Docetists culminates in these words, “They who deny this gift of God.” We agree on who they are, the Docetists, what we disagree on is what they denied. We know from the quote that they denied the flesh of Christ in the Eucharist. What we do not get from the quote is whether Ignatius was referring to a denial of real presence or a denial of Christ’s physical existence. But if we read the whole letter we will discover that Ignatius himself provides the clear answer.
In chapter two of the letter, Ignatius said this:
He [Jesus] suffered truly, even as also He truly raised up Himself, not, as certain unbelievers maintain, that He only seemed to suffer, as they themselves only seem to be Christians.
And in chapter five he said this:
For what does anyone profit me, if he commends me, but blasphemes my Lord, not confessing that He was [truly] possessed of a body? But he who does not acknowledge this, has in fact altogether denied Him, being enveloped in death.
Then, finally, in the sixth chapter:
They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.
There are no references to Ignatius criticizing the Docetists for not believing in real presence because such criticism would not make sense. The misunderstanding of Ignatius by many Catholics stems from an improper notion of the Eucharist. Any reference to the bread and cup as the body and blood of Christ triggers a conditioned response to interpret it as a literal true presence. It’s unfortunate that some are so limited and narrow-minded in their thinking. Mr. Nash gives a prime example in a second Ignatius quote. Here is how he presented it:
I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible (Letter to the Romans 7:3 [A.D. 110], emphasis his).
Mr. Nash emphasized certain phrases that seem to tell him everything he needs to know. All he hears is that Ignatius desired the flesh of Christ and to drink His blood. Damn the context I guess. What did Ignatius mean? Here is how the quote is presented in my article:
For though I am alive while I write to you, yet I am eager to die. My love has been crucified, and there is no fire in me desiring to be fed; but there is within me a water that lives and speaks, saying to me inwardly, Come to the Father. I have no delight in corruptible food, nor in the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards of the seed of David and Abraham; and I desire the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life. (To the Romans, Chapter 7)
Expanding the quote just a little gives us a better picture of the circumstance. From this quote we can see that Ignatius had something much more profound in mind than the eucharist. The larger context is that Ignatius was a prisoner of the Romans and was being transported to Rome to be placed in the arena, which meant that he would suffer death by being exposed to wild beasts. The purpose of his letter to the church in Rome was to ensure that they did not intercede in his martyrdom. He praised them for their love, but did not want that love to prevent his end goal.
If we go to chapter (paragraph) six, the one just prior to the quote above, we see a key statement. Ignatius said, “Permit me to be an imitator of the passion of my God.” Add to this a quote of his found in the writings of Irenaeus, “I am the wheat of Christ, and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of God.” The context make abundantly clear the motivation and desire of Ignatius. It was not the eucharist he was after, rather it was to be an imitator of our Lord and to go to Him in the most profound way.
Taking words from quotes and drawing ideological conclusions not only dishonors the works, it dishonors the author of the works.
Next time I will address Mr. Nash’s response to my article’s section on Justin Martyr.