Irenaeus of Lyons
The primary thing Tom Nash did not do in his response to my article, was to explain anything. He completely relied on the mindset of Catholics to interpret excerpts from Irenaeus as they have been conditioned to do. In contrast I have provided context and explanations which I think are preferred by reasonable people.
Let’s start with a quote from Irenaeus that Mr. Nash considered to stand on its own in support of Catholic real presence:
He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own blood, from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own body, from which he gives increase unto our bodies. When, therefore, the mixed cup [wine and water] and the baked bread receive the word of God and becomes the Eucharist, the body of Christ, and from these the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they say that the flesh is not capable of receiving the gift of God, which is eternal life—flesh which is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and is in fact a member of him?”
To properly expound on this quote we need to take in context. However, not a lot of context is required in order to understand the point Irenaeus is trying to make. Just going back to the beginning of the paragraph (5.2.2) where the quote was taken helps a great deal. It starts with this sentence:
“But vain in every respect are they who despise the entire dispensation of God, and disallow the salvation of the flesh, and treat with contempt its regeneration, maintaining that it is not capable of incorruption.”
The heretics to whom he was referring were those who believed that the material world was evil including the flesh and blood of man. They saw the world as imperfect, flawed, and evil, not because of the fall of Adam and Eve, but because they believed it was created that way. They could not reconcile a perfect God creating an imperfect world. Their view of Jesus was that He was a mere man who became divine as a result of His spiritual virtue. They believed He became the manifestation of Christ at the moment of His baptism.
The Docetists were a version of Gnosticism that believed Jesus was never really in the flesh at all, but only appeared to be. We know from Ignatius that they abstained from the eucharist based on that belief. But there were others, like the ones Irenaeus was addressing, that had a slightly different view. These Gnostics claimed to have special knowledge that enlightened them to the awareness of a divine substance within themselves. Applying this so-called understanding to the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus produced a clear separation between Jesus the man and Jesus the divine.
Consequently, the Gnostics believed that the divine Christ “flew away,” as Irenaeus put it, prior to any suffering inflicted onto the man Jesus. Why then did they offer bread and wine in their rituals? Because the divine Jesus took bread and said, “This is My body,” and took the wine and said, “This is My blood,” enjoining His disciples to partake. To the Gnostics this meant that those elements taken from the creation, which they deemed evil and of a lesser god, were transformed into the spiritual body and blood of Christ by which their inner divinity would benefit. To them it was a special connection that only the enlightened could receive.
Given the Gnostic view, whatever they thought of the resurrection of Jesus, it was certain they did not believe that the Jesus who went into the tomb dead was the divine Jesus that shared His body and blood in the upper room. Therefore, as Irenaeus said, they “disallow the salvation of the flesh, and treat with contempt its regeneration.” Then he goes on…
But if this indeed do not attain salvation, then neither did the Lord redeem us with His blood, nor is the cup of the Eucharist the communion of His blood, nor the bread which we break the communion of His body. For blood can only come from veins and flesh, and whatsoever else makes up the substance of man, such as the Word of God was actually made. By His own blood he redeemed us, as also His apostle declares, “In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the remission of sins.”
Here Irenaeus points out the absurdity of Gnostic eucharistic understanding. It makes no sense for the bread and cup of the eucharist to be the communion of Christ’s body and blood if Christ is purely spiritual. These things come from the substance of man and Christ was fully man as well as God, and He poured out His blood for our redemption. He continues…
And as we are His members, we are also nourished by means of the creation (and He Himself grants the creation to us, for He causes His sun to rise, and sends rain when He wills). He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own blood, from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own body, from which he gives increase unto our bodies.
To contrast the idea that the elements are transformed into the spiritual body and blood of Christ, Irenaeus argues that those elements were of the creation when Jesus declared them to be His body. To drive home the point, Irenaeus says, “from which he gives increase unto our bodies.” The Gnostics would only understand this to mean that the material of the created bread gives increase to the created being who receives it; all of which to them is evil. In the Gnostic system there would be no increase to the body because they believed the eucharist elements were spiritual and only benefited the inner spirit. Irenaeus continued…
When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God, and the Eucharist of the blood and the body of Christ is made, from which things the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they affirm that the flesh is incapable of receiving the gift of God, which is life eternal, which [flesh] is nourished from the body and blood of the Lord, and is a member of Him?
Again, the “things” that give our flesh increase and support are that which make up the body and blood of the eucharist, which are the mingled cup and manufactured bread. That is the proper understanding of this text. The Gnostics believed the spiritual body and blood nourished (so to speak) the inner spirit, but Irenaeus argued the fleshed was nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, i.e., the bread and cup which became the eucharist. This becomes clearer in the next clause…
—even as the blessed Paul declares in his Epistle to the Ephesians, that “we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones.” He does not speak these words of some spiritual and invisible man, for a spirit has not bones nor flesh; but [he refers to] that dispensation [by which the Lord became] an actual man, consisting of flesh, and nerves, and bones,—that [flesh] which is nourished by the cup which is His blood, and receives increase from the bread which is His body.
Given the context and background we can establish the proper understanding when he says the flesh is nourished by the cup which is His blood and the bread which is His body. The nourishment comes from the created elements of bread and wine, which the Lord declared to be His body and blood. That being the case, he asks the question, how can they say the flesh [which is also from creation] is not capable of eternal life?
Additional insight is gained from Irenaeus’ book 4, chapters 17-18. Here the topic is oblations or offerings.
Again, giving directions to His disciples to offer to God the first-fruits of His own, created things…He took that created thing, bread, and gave thanks, and said, “This is My body.” And the cup likewise, which is part of that creation to which we belong, He confessed to be His blood, and taught the new oblation of the new covenant; which the Church receiving from the apostles, offers to God throughout all the world. (4.17.5)
It is evident from this alone, but much more so in the context of 5.2, that Irenaeus was not aware of any substantive change taking place in the bread and wine. What Jesus held in His hand at the last supper were substances of creation according to Irenaeus.
Regarding oblations Irenaeus methodically laid out an argument from the old covenant.
Moreover, the prophets indicate in the fullest manner that God stood in no need of their slavish obedience, but that it was upon their own account that He enjoined certain observances in the law. (4.17.1)
Irenaeus described at length from the prophets that God had no desire or need of oblations and sacrifices. Irenaeus quotes the Psalm of David saying,
“Offer unto God the sacrifice of praise, and pay thy vows to the Most High; and call upon Me in the day of thy trouble, and I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify Me;”
…rejecting, indeed, those things by which sinners imagined they could propitiate God, and showing that He does Himself stand in need of nothing; but He exhorts and advises them to those things by which man is justified and draws nigh to God.
Observances in the Law were for the benefit of drawing and keeping God’s people close to Him. Therefore Irenaeus points out:
And again, when He points out that it was not for this that He led them out of Egypt, that they might offer sacrifice to Him, but that, forgetting the idolatry of the Egyptians, they should be able to hear the voice of the Lord, which was to them salvation and glory, He declares by this same Jeremiah: “Thus saith the Lord; Collect together your burnt-offerings with your sacrifices and eat flesh. For I spake not unto your fathers nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices: but this word I commanded them, saying, Hear My voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be My people; and walk in all My ways whatsoever I have commanded you, that it may be well with you. But they obeyed not, nor hearkened; but walked in the imaginations of their own evil heart, and went backwards, and not forwards. (4.17.3)
Then Irenaeus points out what God actually desires instead of sacrifice…
He says, therefore, “Upon this man will I look, even upon him that is humble, and meek, and who trembles at My words.” “For the fat and the fat flesh shall not take away from thee thine unrighteousness.” “This is the fast which I have chosen, saith the Lord. Loose every band of wickedness, dissolve the connections of violent agreements, give rest to those that are shaken, and cancel every unjust document. Deal thy bread to the hungry willingly, and lead into thy house the roofless stranger. If thou hast seen the naked, cover him, and thou shalt not despise those of thine own flesh and blood (domesticos seminis tui). Then shall thy morning light break forth, and thy health shall spring forth more speedily; and righteousness shall go before thee, and the glory of the Lord shall surround thee: and whilst thou art yet speaking, I will say, Behold, here I am.
The offerings God desires are those that come from the heart. Compassion, benevolence, and obedience are the works that come from a broken heart and contrite spirit, which is the sacrifice God desires.
From all these it is evident that God did not seek sacrifices and holocausts from them, but faith, and obedience, and righteousness, because of their salvation. As God, when teaching them His will in Hosea the prophet, said, “I desire mercy rather than sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt-offerings. (4.17.4)
Again, giving directions to His disciples to offer to God the first-fruits of His own, created things—not as if He stood in need of them, but that they might be themselves neither unfruitful nor ungrateful. (4.17.5)
This references back to when he said of the Jews, “it was upon their own account that He enjoined certain observances in the law.” Irenaeus saw the offering of bread and wine as the first-fruits of creation so as to keep Christ at the forefront of our minds.
—He took that created thing, bread, and gave thanks, and said, “This is My body.” And the cup likewise, which is part of that creation to which we belong, He confessed to be His blood, and taught the new oblation of the new covenant; which the Church receiving from the apostles, offers to God throughout all the world, to Him who gives us as the means of subsistence the first-fruits of His own gifts in the New Testament, concerning which Malachi, among the twelve prophets, thus spoke beforehand: “I have no pleasure in you, saith the Lord Omnipotent, and I will not accept sacrifice at your hands. For from the rising of the sun, unto the going down [of the same], My name is glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure sacrifice; for great is My name among the Gentiles, saith the Lord Omnipotent;”—indicating in the plainest manner, by these words, that the former people [the Jews] shall indeed cease to make offerings to God, but that in every place sacrifice shall be offered to Him, and that a pure one; and His name is glorified among the Gentiles.
The new oblation, Irenaeus says, is the means of substance God gives to us; the first-fruits of His own gifts. That is, the first-fruits of His creation (the bread and cup) which is a means of substance to our bodies and being God’s creation is a gift to us from Him. Along with this oblation are the incense and pure sacrifice…
Since, therefore, the name of the Son belongs to the Father, and since in the omnipotent God the Church makes offerings through Jesus Christ, He says well on both these grounds, “And in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure sacrifice.” Now John, in the Apocalypse, declares that the “incense” is “the prayers of the saints. (4.17.6)
Through Irenaeus’ elaborating on this topic, we can see the very simple and straightforward statement from Justin Martyr where he said, “Now, that prayers and giving of thanks, when offered by worthy men, are the only perfect and well-pleasing sacrifices to God.” Irenaeus says the oblation to God of the created elements is God’s own gift to us, and by their presentation we show gratitude toward God. The incense, he says, is the offering of prayers. The oblation of the church, according to Irenaeus, is as Justin said, “The bread which our Christ gave us to eat, in remembrance of His being made flesh for the sake of His believers, for whom also He suffered; and to the cup which He gave us to drink, in remembrance of His own blood, with giving of thanks.”
The oblation of the Church, therefore, which the Lord gave instructions to be offered throughout all the world, is accounted with God a pure sacrifice, and is acceptable to Him; not that He stands in need of a sacrifice from us, but that he who offers is himself glorified in what he does offer, if his gift be accepted. (4.18.1)
This harkens back to where he quoted Malachi where the Lord said, “For from the rising of the sun, unto the going down [of the same], My name is glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure sacrifice; for great is My name among the Gentiles, saith the Lord Omnipotent.”
Glorifying the name of the Lord and offering prayers and thanksgiving is the pure sacrifice of the church. It is the only sacrifice God is well pleased with. This is why Irenaeus continues with the contrast of the offering of the slave (speaking of the Jews under the Law) and that of the free man (speaking of the liberty we have in Christ). The Jews had their obligated tithes, but the free man gives freely from the heart the most valuable portion of his property.
Irenaeus is very clear about what constitutes pure sacrifice in the church. The people of Christ’s church are not bound by Law to offer gifts to God, but are free to express their love of God by their freely given gifts. He puts it this way…
Inasmuch, then, as the Church offers with single-mindedness, her gift is justly reckoned a pure sacrifice with God. As Paul also says to the Philippians, “I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things that were sent from you, the odor of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, pleasing to God. (4.18.4)
The gift is offered with single-mindedness and is therefore reckoned pure. The bread and wine of the eucharist are only a part of what is offered, and that for the benefit of the worshipers. The purity of the offering comes from the minds and hearts of those offering the gifts, as Irenaeus points out as he continues…
For it behooves us to make an oblation to God, and in all things to be found grateful to God our Maker, in a pure mind, and in faith without hypocrisy, in well-grounded hope, in fervent love, offering the first-fruits of His own created things. And the Church alone offers this pure oblation to the Creator, offering to Him, with giving of thanks, [the things taken] from His creation.
The bread and wine offered in their gatherings were from the people’s own resources. They not only offered gifts of charity for the poor, but also the supplies they needed to conduct their service. Those who could, gave of their most valuable resources in order that all could share in the unity of the eucharist celebration. They freely offered of their own resources with gladness, glorified the Lord with their praise, and offered thanks in remembrance of the Lords death and resurrection. That is what Irenaeus establishes as a pure offering.
He said the Jews do not offer a pure sacrifice because, “…their hands are full of blood; for they have not received the Word, through whom it is offered to God.” And of the Gnostics he said, “For some, by maintaining that the Father is different from the Creator, do, when they offer to Him what belongs to this creation of ours, set Him forth as being covetous of another’s property, and desirous of what is not His own.”
He states emphatically concerning the Jews that the offering is through Christ whom they do not receive. Meaning of course that the offering itself cannot be Christ as the Catholics maintain. With regard to the Gnostic heretics, he stresses that the element in the offering are of God’s own creation, thus what is offered belongs to God for that reason. Again the Catholic claim is refuted.
But how can they be consistent with themselves, [when they say] that the bread over which thanks have been given is the body of their Lord, and the cup His blood, if they do not call Himself the Son of the Creator of the world, that is, His Word, through whom the wood fructifies, and the fountains gush forth, and the earth gives “first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear.
He criticizes them for denying that the creation is God’s yet calling the bread and wine of creation the body and blood of Christ. They were being inconsistent with themselves. Notice that the argument Irenaeus makes is not about bread and wine being the actual body and blood of Christ, but rather that they are elements of creation, making the Gnostic practice inconsistent with their own beliefs about the material world. Continuing with the Gnostics he says…
Then, again, how can they 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. (4.18.5)
What Irenaeus refers to as the body and blood of the Lord is firmly established in the context of his treatise as the created bread and wine. The flesh is nourished by the created elements of the eucharist which the Gnostics say is the body and blood of the Lord. Why then do they say the body goes to corruption and not later partake of life through the resurrection? He contrasts their belief and inconsistencies with that of the opinion of the Christians…
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.
This is the culmination of this and the previous chapter on offerings and oblations. “We offer to Him His own…” that is of His own creation. “…announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit.” Not denying the Lord’s creation and receiving it as the body and blood of Christ, which is inconsistent, but rather consistently through the pure offering of God’s own created things. Again, the pure offering is freely giving of the first-fruits of His created things, glorifying God, and the giving of thanks.
The two realities: earthly and heavenly; offering the created elements (earthly) and praise and giving of thanks (heavenly). Therefore, the opinion is consistent with Christ since He became a man and actually died for our salvation, unlike what the heretics maintain. It’s the heavenly aspect of the eucharist, the offering of praise and thanksgiving that God deems an acceptable sacrifice. “Offer unto God the sacrifice of praise, and pay thy vows to the Most High; and call upon Me in the day of thy trouble, and I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify Me.” (Psa. 1:14-15, A.H. 4.17.1)
So when the eucharist is received with thanksgiving in remembrance of our Lord’s suffering, death, and resurrection, we show forth His death till He comes having the hope of the resurrection to eternity. When Irenaeus speaks of our bodies no longer being corruptible, he is referring to the body’s corruption as being a temporary thing. In another place he talks about the body going to corruption then being resurrected.
The other point of confusion is thinking that Irenaeus means that the act of receiving the eucharist provides one with the hope of the resurrection. To see it this way is to either ignore or not understand the context of the two chapters.
In his semi-conclusion on offerings, Irenaeus identifies what it is that sanctifies the elements of the eucharist…
Now we make offering to Him, not as though He stood in need of it, but rendering thanks for His gift, and thus sanctifying what has been created.
It was not, as the Catholics claim, the words of institution, that is, “This is My body,” but rather it was the rendering of thanks over God’s created things that sanctify the elements. It’s a clear picture of what Irenaeus meant by the heavenly aspect of the eucharist.
Irenaeus believed we should render the oblation of the bread and wine for our own benefit as a way of showing gratitude to God. He makes a connection between the oblations under the Law and that which Jesus instituted at the Last Supper. He repeatedly illustrated that God was not desires of the Jew’s burnt-offerings, but desired that they know Him and glorify Him. This is the key to what Irenaeus describes as the pure sacrifice. It is the oblation of God’s created things with the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. The earthly and heavenly!
Irenaeus sums it up pretty well in the last paragraph of Book 4, Chapter 18:
As, therefore, He does not stand in need of these [services], yet does desire that we should render them for our own benefit, lest we be unfruitful; so did the Word give to the people that very precept as to the making of oblations, although He stood in no need of them, that they might learn to serve God: 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.” (4.18.6)
Irenaeus presents no evidence at all that Christ was called to “make present” His sacrifice, or that the created elements changed into the substance of Christ. There is a complete disconnect between God and those who think that Christ Himself must be offered in order to establish a pure sacrifice. That is not what God desires! As Irenaeus pointed out, God was quite clear in the written word what He established as a pleasing sacrifice from us. We cannot offer Christ over and over, He offered Himself for us once. We offer ourselves in that we surrender our will to His. In doing so we freely offer praise and thanksgiving for the completed work of Christ – the pure sacrifice of the eucharist!