The real presence doctrine is probably the most important doctrine to Catholics today because it is the nucleolus of the Catholic mass. The doctrine insists that the eucharistic elements of bread and wine become the glorified body and blood of Christ when blessed by the priest. The doctrine further asserts that the substance of bread and wine are no longer present and only the accidents (characteristics or appearance) remain. Thus, the name derived from the explanation becomes transubstantiation (a change of substance). It is this belief that compels devout Catholics to worship the eucharistic bread (placed in a monstrance for the purpose of adoration) because they believe the bread to be the glorified Christ.
The doctrine also asserts that during the last supper where Jesus instituted the memorial of His passion, the bread, after being blessed by Jesus, became His literal glorified body. One major problem with this; Jesus was not yet glorified when he shared the Passover meal with His disciples. Proof of that is found explicitly in two places, John 7:39 and 17: 5. The doctrine makes no sense today, and it made no sense 2000 years ago, and the idea was unheard of in the early church.
This article will examine the writings of Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian of Carthage, Irenaeus of Lyons, Justin Martyr, Ignatius, and a contribution from Origen in order to show that the ancient church never believed, taught or even conceived any doctrine like the real presence dogma.
Many Catholics who read this will be very surprised by what they learn, especially with regards to the works of Clement and Origen. 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.
The primary purpose of this article is to challenge the barrage of quotes so often found on Catholic websites. I refute the catholic claims by examining the works of the early church fathers from which the quotes are taken. This way the context is not lost and the integrity of the works is not impaired.
Clement of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria flourished at the close of the second century when he succeeded Pantaenus in the catechetical school of Alexandria. It is believed by some that Clement compiled his “stramata” (miscellaneous writings) about the time he was 40 years old. If true, he would have been born while Justin Martyr and Irenaeus were still writing, and while Polycarp was still alive. As a teacher of Christian philosophy, Clement instructed Origen who wrote during the mid third century.
Among Clement’s writings are three books called, “Paedagogus” (The Instructor). In these works Clement goes far beyond simple explanations and examples. His thoughts build one upon another in a continuous development of Christian instruction. Such is the case in a well-used quote from Clement in which attempts are made for supporting the doctrine of real presence.
“Eat ye my flesh,” He says, “and drink my blood.” Such is the suitable food which the Lord ministers, and He offers His flesh and pours forth His blood, and nothing is wanting for the children’s growth. O amazing mystery. We are enjoined to cast off the old and carnal corruption, as also the old nutriment, receiving in exchange another new regimen, that of Christ, receiving Him if we can, to hide Him within; and that, enshrining the Savior in our souls, we may correct the affections of our flesh.” (Paedagogus 1:6)
Few, if any, who read this quote from Catholic apologetic websites will ever actually attempt to read the reference in context. When presented with a borage of other out-of-context quotes seemingly supporting the doctrine, Clement’s quote appears to fit right in. This is especially true in the Catholic’s mind because the words Clement quotes are from John, chapter 6, the Bread of Life Discourse. This discourse Jesus has with the Jews is where Catholics draw their biblical support for the real presence doctrine.
Those whose faith is built on the word of God, however, will notice that Clement presents the somewhat obscure metaphors in the first half of the quote, and then explains them in the second half. The explanation is consistent with Paul’s teachings about putting off the old man and putting on Christ. (Eph. 4:21-24, Col. 3:9-10) But even if Catholics were to read just a few lines further beyond the quote, they would find words that would challenge their assumptions.
“But you are not inclined to understand it thus, but perchance more generally. Hear it also in the following way. The flesh figuratively represents to us the Holy Spirit; for the flesh was created by Him. The blood points out to us the Word, for as rich blood the Word has been infused into life; and the union of both is the Lord, the food of the babes–the Lord who is Spirit and Word. The food- that is, the Lord Jesus–that is, the Word of God, the Spirit made flesh, the heavenly flesh sanctified…” (ibid)
The words of the Lord from the bread of life discourse “Eat My flesh and drink My blood,” is, according to Clement, figurative speech. Given Clement’s credentials and with regard to how much he was admired in the church, it is not at all likely he was out on a limb here. Clement was teaching orthodox Christian doctrine, widely understood in the universal church at that time.
Giving a little context to the quote presented on Catholic websites, however, does little or nothing to sway a devout Catholic. When I presented the added context to one Catholic, he reacted with, “I admit I am completely bewildered by the Clement of Alexandria quotes you present I do not understand them and they seem to be very figurative, but they are not denying the real presence there either.” (Emphasis mine) Well, yes they do. If the doctrine hinges on Jesus’ words, “Eat My flesh and drink My blood” being literal, then Clement is indeed denying the real presence doctrine.
From a Catholic apologist at “StayCatholic.com” I received this:
“It looks like he is saying that he believes in the “Real Presence” but that he can also see some symbolism in it as well. Remember he said: “Hear it ALSO in the following way.” The word also obviously includes both views. This wouldn’t necessarily constitute a contradiction. Even in Scripture we have passages that have meanings on a number of levels.” (Emphasis his)
Obviously this apologist was trying very hard to compose a coherent response that shines brightly on the Catholic teaching, while acknowledging Clement’s obvious reference to the figurative language. I don’t know whether or not he bothered to read Clement’s Paedagogus Book 1, chapter 6, but if he did he would know that the entire chapter is an instruction on metaphors. And earlier in that chapter Clement said this:
“But we are God-taught, and glory in the name of Christ. How then are we not to regard the apostle as attaching this sense to the milk of the babes? And if we who preside over the Churches are shepherds after the image of the good Shepherd, and you the sheep, are we not to regard the Lord as preserving consistency in the use of figurative speech, when He speaks also of the milk of the flock?… Elsewhere the Lord, in the Gospel according to John, brought this out by symbols, when He said: “Eat ye my flesh, and drink my blood; ” describing distinctly by metaphor the drinkable properties of faith and the promise, by means of which the Church, like a human being consisting of many members, is refreshed and grows, is welded together and compacted of both,–of faith, which is the body, and of hope, which is the soul; as also the Lord of flesh and blood. For in reality the blood of faith is hope, in which faith is held as by a vital principle.” (ibid)
Clement continues his instruction that Christ is food with the metaphorical explanation.
“’I,’ says the Lord, ‘have meat to eat that ye know not of. My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me.’ You see another kind of food which, similarly with milk, represents figuratively the will of God. Besides, also, the completion of His own passion He called catachrestically “a cup,” when He alone had to drink and drain it. Thus to Christ the fulfilling of His Father’s will was food; and to us infants, who drink the milk of the word of the heavens, Christ Himself is food. Hence seeking is called sucking; for to those babes that seek the Word, the Father’s breasts of love supply milk.” (ibid)
And Clement concludes the chapter with this:
“Thus in many ways the Word is figuratively described, as meat, and flesh, and food, and bread, and blood, and milk. The Lord is all these, to give enjoyment to us who have believed on Him. Let no one then think it strange, when we say that the Lord’s blood is figuratively represented as milk. For is it not figuratively represented as wine? “Who washes,” it is said, “His garment in wine, His robe in the blood of the grape.” In His Own Spirit He says He will deck the body of the Word; as certainly by His own Spirit He will nourish those who hunger for the Word.” (ibid)
Clement reiterates his instruction in Book 2 and uses it to define the eucharist.
“For the blood of the grape–that is, the Word–desired to be mixed with water, as His blood is mingled with salvation. And the blood of the Lord is twofold. For there is the blood of His flesh, by which we are redeemed from corruption; and the spiritual, that by which we are anointed. And to drink the blood of Jesus, is to become partaker of the Lord’s immortality; the Spirit being the energetic principle of the Word, as blood is of flesh. Accordingly, as wine is blended with water, so is the Spirit with man. And the one, the mixture of wine and water, nourishes to faith; while the other, the Spirit, conducts to immortality. And the mixture of both–of the water and of the Word–is called eucharist, renowned and glorious grace; and they who by faith partake of it are sanctified both in body and soul. For the divine mixture, man, the Father’s will has mystically compounded by the Spirit and the Word. For, in truth, the spirit is joined to the soul, which is inspired by it; and the flesh, by reason of which the Word became flesh, to the Word.” (Paedagogus 2:2)
Clement explains the two-fold attribute of Christ’s blood. One aspect being the physical blood of His flesh that was shed for the remission of sins, and the other aspect being the Spiritual by which we receive Christ as our nourishment. To partake of the eucharist is far more than receiving communion. To partake is to receive Christ in the Spirit. The eucharist is a celebration and remembrance of the Lord’s passion to be observed by those who are born of the Spirit, for they alone are partakers of Christ’s immortality.
Clement expounds on these things elsewhere in his writings as well. One example is found among the stramata in Book 5, chapter 10:
“If, then, “the milk” is said by the apostle to belong to the babes, and “meat” to be the food of the full-grown, milk will be understood to be catechetical instruction — the first food, as it were, of the soul. And meat is the mystic contemplation; for this is the flesh and the blood of the Word, that is, the comprehension of the divine power and essence. “Taste and see that the Lord is Christ,” it is said. For so He imparts of Himself to those who partake of such food in a more spiritual manner.” (Stramata 5:10)
Clement comes nowhere close to supporting the real presence doctrine, and indeed utterly denies it through his instruction. Clement explicitly states that Jesus was speaking metaphorically when He said “eat My flesh and drink My blood.” Jesus told His disciples, “I have meat to eat you know not of …My meat is to do the will of Him who sent me, and finish His work.” Likewise, we desire the pure food of Christ as our nourishment and source for well-being and growth. Clement wonderfully instructs those younger in the faith on this intimate relationship between Christ and His church, things the carnal mind just can’t grasp.
The before mentioned apologist from StayCatholic.com also presented a bit of a disclaimer. He said, “The Church would have a problem with him [Clement] if he denied the “Real Presence.” And he hasn’t done that.”
Clement indeed does deny the real presence in his writings and the Catholic Church does have a problem with him. From the time the Catholic Church began to honor saints and martyrs with feast days until the 17th century, Clement was venerated as a saint. But Pope Clement VIII revised the Roman Martyrology and was persuaded to drop Clement of Alexandria from the calendar by Cardinal Baronius. Later in the 18th century, during the reign of Benedict XIV, a protest against the act emerged. But Benedict agreed with the removal of Clement from the martyrology on the grounds that Clement’s life was not well known and some of his doctrines were erroneous.
So what are the Catholic Church’s issues with Clement? According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Clement had faulty interpretations. What does that mean? According to a quote used by the encyclopedia from Tixeront (a 20th century Catholic scholar), it means (at least in part) that Clement “used allegory everywhere.” (Catholic Encyclopedia: Clement of Alexandria) In a nutshell, the Catholic Church has a problem with Clement’s use of metaphors and symbols.
The Catholic Church is in quite a predicament when it comes to Clement. They cannot accept his metaphorical teachings, and they cannot deny the evidence showing that he was orthodox. As previously mentioned, Clement was highly admired and praised as a great Christian teacher by prominent figures in the early church. If Clement’s teaching that the bread of life discourse was to be understood metaphorically was erroneous, why do we not find any protest against him by the ecclesiastical writers of the third and fourth centuries? What we do find is praise for his skill of teaching and his knowledge of Scripture.
From Schaff’s introductory note to Clement of Alexandria – After Clement’s death, Alexander, bishop of Jerusalem, said of him, “For we acknowledge as fathers those blessed saints who are gone before us, and to whom we shall go after a little time; the truly blest Pantaenus, I mean, and the holy Clemens, my teacher, who was to me so greatly useful and helpful.” Cyril of Alexandria referred to him as “a man admirably learned and skilful, and one that searched to the depths all the learning of the Greeks, with an exactness rarely attained before.” Jerome said he was the most learned of all the ancients. And Eusebius described him as an “incomparable master of Christian philosophy.”
Such admiration and praise could not been uttered for a man that was anything but orthodox.
It is interesting how easily Catholic apologists will discount any church father’s testimony if it doesn’t agree with Catholic doctrine. What is worse is that the Catholic Encyclopedia, which is supposed to be a respected source for this type of information, completely dodges Clement and Origen on the topic “The Sacrifice of the Mass.”
“Passing over the teaching of the Alexandrine Clement and Origen, whose love of allegory, together with the restrictions of the Disciplina Arcani [Latin term meaning discipline of the secret], involved their writings in mystic obscurity…” (Catholic Encyclopedia, Sacrifice of the Mass)
In plain English, the reason the Catholic Encyclopedia passed over Clement and Origen is because they both clearly taught that Jesus was speaking metaphorically when He said, “Eat My body and drink My blood.” And Origen specifically referred to the eucharistic bread and wine as symbolical.
“Now, if ‘everything that entereth into the mouth goes into the belly and is cast out into the drought,’ even the meat which has been sanctified through the word of God and prayer, in accordance with the fact that it is material, goes into the belly and is cast out into the draught, but in respect of the prayer which comes upon it, according to the proportion of the faith, becomes a benefit and is a means of clear vision to the mind which looks to that which is beneficial, and it is not the material of the bread but the word which is said over it which is of advantage to him who eats it not unworthily of the Lord. And these things indeed are said of the typical and symbolical body. But many things might be said about the Word Himself who became flesh, and true meat of which he that eateth shall assuredly live for ever, no worthless person being able to eat it; for if it were possible for one who continues worthless to eat of Him who became flesh. who was the Word and the living bread, it would not have been written, that ‘every one who eats of this bread shall live for ever.’” (Origen, Commentary on Mathew 11:14)
And leading up to this explanation, Origen expounded in more detail:
“‘For if any one should turn to the Lord, the veil is taken away, and the Lord is the Spirit.’ Now some one when dealing with the passage might say, that just as ‘not that which entereth into the mouth defileth the man,’ of even though it may be thought by the Jews to be defiled, so not that which entereth into the mouth sanctifieth the man, even though what is called the bread of the Lord may be thought by the simpler disciples to sanctify. And the saying is I think, not to be despised, and on this account, demands clear exposition, which seems to me to be thus; as it is not the meat but the conscience of him who eats with doubt which defiles him that eateth, for ‘he that doubteth is condemned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith,’ and as nothing is pure to him who is defiled and unbelieving, not in itself, but because of his defilement and unbelief, so that which is sanctified through the word of God and prayer does not, in its own nature, sanctify him who uses it, for, if this were so, it would sanctify even him who eats unworthily of the bread of the Lord, and no one on account of this food would become weak or sickly or asleep for something of this kind Paul represented in saying, ‘For this cause many among you are weak and sickly and not a few sleep.’ And in the case of the bread of the Lord, accordingly, there is advantage to him who uses it, when with undefiled mind and pure conscience he partakes of the bread. And so neither by not eating, I mean by the very fact that we do not eat of the bread which has been sanctified by the word of God and prayer, are we deprived of any good thing, nor by eating are we the better by any good thing; for the cause of our lacking is wickedness and sins, and the cause of our abounding is righteousness and right actions; so that such is the meaning of what is said by Paul, ‘For neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we eat not are we the worse.’” (ibid)
There are several reference from Origen that demonstrate his understanding of the eucharist and the bread of life discourse, and none of them agree with Catholic doctrine. However, it is not uncommon for Catholic apologetics sites to use references from Origen that are used to support the real presence doctrine. These references, however, are far from their context and taken from writings of doubtful authenticity known as Origen’s homilies. Unable to rely on the homilies for the topic of real presence in the eucharist, it’s no wonder the Catholic Encyclopedia decided to pass over Clement and Origen.
Tertullian of Carthage
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.
Nothing in Tertullian’s works, however, is more clearly opposed to the Catholic understanding than what he specifically stated about the discourse on the bread of life.
They thought His discourse was harsh and intolerable, supposing that He had really and literally enjoined on them to eat his flesh, He, with the view of ordering the state of salvation as a spiritual thing, set out with the principle, It is the spirit that quickens; and then added, The flesh profits nothing — meaning, of course, to the giving of life. He also goes on to explain what He would have us to understand by spirit: The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life. In a like sense He had previously said: He that hears my words, and believes in Him that sent me, has everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation, but shall pass from death unto life. Constituting, therefore, His word as the life-giving principle, because that word is spirit and life, He likewise called His flesh by the same appellation; because, too, the Word had become flesh, We ought therefore to desire Him in order that we may have life, and to devour Him with the ear, and to ruminate on Him with the understanding, and to digest Him by faith. (On the Resurrection of the Flesh 37)
The entire Catholic interpretation of John, chapter 6, is dismantled in these few words from Tertullian. When Jesus said, “eat My flesh,” Catholic apologists like to point out that the Greek word used in John’s gospel for eat is trogo, which means to chew or gnaw. They insist that there is no way that word could be taken any other way but literal. But notice that Tertullian understood the Lord as speaking metaphorically, et devorandus auditu, to devour Him with the ear.
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.
Irenaeus of Lyons
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 God divinely created the world and everything in it. 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 altar 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 would have been ridiculous.
(Justin the Martyr, also known as Justin of Caesarea) (100 – 165)
Of Justin’s extant writings, three are referenced here: the first and second portions of his apology written to Emperor Antoninus (138-161), referenced as first apology and second apology, and Justin’s Dialog with Trypho the Jew.
In Justin’s first apology, he gives a rather detailed description of the celebration of the Eucharist for the purpose of contrasting it with certain pagan distortions of truth.
“But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to genoito [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion. And this food is called among us eukaristia [the eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.” (First Apology, 65-66)
Earlier in his apology Justin defended against accusations that Christians partake of human flesh and blood. Here, in his description of the eucharist, he is making it clear that Christians do not partake of flesh and blood in any carnal way, but rather bread and wine mixed with water: “to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water.” Justin then asserted that though Christians partake of bread and wine, it is not common bread or common wine, but that the bread and wine are connected to Christ who became incarnate and was sacrificed at Calvary for those who believe. This food, i.e. bread and wine mixed with water, which by transmutation nourishes the body, is what the Christians call the flesh and blood of Christ. Justin therefore, refutes the accusations that Christians partake of human flesh and blood.
Justin gives an example of what the pagan government did tolerate and even honor, while persecuting Christians for what appeared to them to be a similar behavior. Among them were certain men who performed evil magic and were honored and revered by the pagan leaders. Justin even names some of these men: a Samaritan named Simon for whom they erected a statue in his honor with the inscription, “To Simon the holy God.” Another was Meander, a disciple of Simon who persuaded his followers that they would never die. Marcion also, who, among other heresies, denied that God was the creator of the universe.
All these, Justin explained, are called Christians. But the authorities only persecute the true Christians who hold the apostolic teachings. And in summing this up, Justin wrote:
“And whether they perpetrate those fabulous and shameful deeds–the upsetting of the lamp, and promiscuous intercourse, and eating human flesh–we know not; but we do know that they are neither persecuted nor put to death by you, at least on account of their opinions.” (ibid, 26)
To put it in context, Justin first referred to the eating of human flesh a shameful deed; then he explained that the Eucharist celebration does not involve consuming human flesh in any way. The bread and wine mixed with water are symbolically the body and blood of Christ. The accusation that Christians ate human flesh was used to persecute Christians, while others who may have actually done that were not persecuted. The purpose of Justin’s explanation of the Eucharist was to counter the accusation that Christians ate human flesh.
Justin continues to make his point in his second apology. Here Justin shows that feasting on human flesh is contrary to the Christian mindset.
“For what sensual or intemperate man, or who that counts it good to feast on human flesh, could welcome death that he might be deprived of his enjoyments, and would not rather continue always the present life, and attempt to escape the observation of the rulers; and much less would he denounce himself when the consequence would be death? This also the wicked demons have now caused to be done by evil men. For having put some to death on account of the accusations falsely brought against us, they also dragged to the torture our domestics, either children or weak women, and by dreadful torments forced them to admit those fabulous actions which they themselves openly perpetrate; about which we are the less concerned, because none of these actions are really ours, and we have the unbegotten and ineffable God as witness both of our thoughts and deeds.” (2nd Apology, Chapter 12)
Justin thoroughly refuted the claim that the Eucharist is literally flesh and blood in his apologies. In a debate with a Jew named Trypho, Justin deals directly with the Eucharist as he did in his first apology. To Trypho he wrote about many Old Testament types and how they pointed to Christ and His church. With regards to the Eucharist, he said:
“And the offering of fine flour, sirs, ‘I said,’ which was prescribed to be presented on behalf of those purified from leprosy, was a type of the bread of the eucharist, the celebration of which our Lord Jesus Christ prescribed, in remembrance of the suffering which He endured on behalf of those who are purified in soul from all iniquity, in order that we may at the same time thank God for having created the world, with all things therein, for the sake of man, and for delivering us from the evil in which we were, and for utterly overthrowing principalities and powers by Him who suffered according to His will.”
This is the very definition of the Eucharist – a celebration of the remembrance of the Lord’s passion in which Christians offer thanks and prayer. The offering of fine flour was part of what the cleansed leper was required to offer. Justin tells Trypho that this offering was a type of the bread of the Eucharist. He goes on to explain what the bread of the Eucharist represents, thus by similarity, what the fine flour presented by the leper represented.
The bread represents what Jesus offered in the past, that is, His suffering flesh, which He endured for the sake of those who believe on Him. According to Justin, the fine flour presented by the leper pointed forward to the same thing. But the Catholic Encyclopedia does not agree. Under the topic of “The Sacrifice of the Mass,” they say this:
“A heated controversy had raged round the conception of Justin Martyr (d. 166) from the fact that in his “Dialogue with Tryphon” (c. 117) he characterizes “prayer and thanksgiving” (euchai kai eucharistiai) as the “one perfect sacrifice acceptable to God” (teleiai monai kai euarestoi thysiai).”
Unwilling to accept Justin’s definition, the Catholic encyclopedia continues with an objection: “Did he intend by thus emphasizing the interior spiritual sacrifice to exclude the exterior real sacrifice of the eucharist? Clearly he did not, for in the same “Dialogue” (c. 41) he says the “food offering” of the lepers, assuredly a real gift offering (cf. Leviticus 14), was a figure (typos) of the bread of the eucharist, which Jesus commanded to be offered (poiein) in commemoration of His sufferings.”
The problem with this reasoning is Jesus never commanded the bread to be offered, but rather taken or received (lambano); “Take, eat, this is My body.” He then commanded His disciples to do this (poiein) in remembrance of Him; that is, to break bread in remembrance of Him and offer the sacrifice of prayer and thanksgiving, not offer the bread as a sacrifice. The encyclopedia article continues to become more desperate as it continues on:
“He [Justin] then goes on: ‘of the sacrifices which you (the Jews) formerly offered, God through Malachias said: ‘I have no pleasure, etc’. By the sacrifices (thysion), however, which we Gentiles present to Him in every place, that is (toutesti) of the bread of eucharist and likewise of the chalice eucharist, he then said that we glorify his name, while you dishonour him.’ Here ‘bread and chalice’ are by the use of toutesti clearly included as objective gift offerings in the idea of the Christian sacrifice.”
You know you are in trouble when you have to resort to defining common Greek words like toutesti (that is). Perhaps the Catholic quire will believe it, but certainly not anyone seeking the truth. Justin continues to develop his point as the dialog progresses. Justin makes his point even more clearly in chapter 70 where he connects a prophecy of Isaiah with the Eucharist.
“They [the words of Isaiah] are these: ‘Hear, ye that are far off, what I have done; those that are near shall know my might. The sinners in Zion are removed; trembling shall seize the impious. Who shall announce to you the everlasting place? The man who walks in righteousness, speaks in the right way, hates sin and unrighteousness, and keeps his hands pure from bribes, stops the ears from hearing the unjust judgment of blood closes the eyes from seeing unrighteousness: he shall dwell in the lofty cave of the strong rock. Bread shall be given to him, and his water[shall be] sure. Ye shall see the King with glory, and your eyes shall look far off. Your soul shall pursue diligently the fear of the Lord. Where is the scribe? where are the counselors? where is he that numbers those who are nourished,–the small and great people? with whom they did not take counsel, nor knew the depth of the voices, so that they heard not. The people who are become depreciated, and there is no understanding in him who hears.’ Now it is evident, that in this prophecy[allusion is made] to 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.”
Justin explicitly stated that bread (not the flesh) is given by Christ in remembrance of His flesh, and that the cup is in remembrance of – not is – His own blood. If Justin believed in transubstantiation i.e. the real presence, he would have certainly stated it here, instead he refutes it.
In ending his exhortation to Trypho on the subject of sacrifice, Justin affirmed the definition of true Christian sacrifice in this statement:
“Ezekiel says, ‘There shall be no other prince in the house but He.’ For He is the chosen Priest and eternal King, the Christ, inasmuch as He is the Son of God; and do not suppose that Isaiah or the other prophets speak of sacrifices of blood or libations being presented at the altar on His second advent, but of true and spiritual praises and giving of thanks.” (ibid, chapter 118)
Truly it is as Justin said, “giving of thanks, when offered by worthy men, are the only perfect and well-pleasing sacrifices to God.” (ibid, chapter 117)
Ignatius of Antioch
Ignatius of Antioch wrote seven letters that are extant. The situation Ignatius was in while composing his seven epistles is unique to say the least. Showing his love for Christ and His church, Ignatius selflessly and voluntarily presented himself before the Emperor Trajan as a Christian bishop and was subsequently charged and condemned to death by wild beasts.
All seven letters were written while Ignatius was a Roman prisoner in rout to Rome where he was to be killed. Four of the letters were written during a stop in Smyrna where Pollycarp was bishop; they consist of his letter to the Ephesians, the Magnesians, the Trallians, and the Romans. The remaining three letters to the Philadelphians, the Smyrnaeans, and Polycarp were written from Troas where they tarried a few days.
The works of Ignatius can be somewhat confusing because of what are called, long recensions. The long recensions are longer versions of Ignatius’ letters that were created in the late fourth or early fifth century. Even the authenticity of the short (or shorter) recensions is in question by some scholars. Nevertheless, I will treat the short recensions as authentic because they are generally believed to be authentic, and I have found a clear reference to one of them in the writings of Irenaeus.
From Ignatius’ letter to the Smyrnaeans, there is a quote that has become somewhat famous in Catholic apologetic circles. The quote has been credited for convincing many former Protestants that the Catholic Church is Christ’s true church, not that any of these people needed Ignatius to help them get there; they were headed there anyway. But the quote is believed to be quite powerful in persuading Catholic leaning inquisitors. Here is the quote:
“They abstain from the eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again.” (From Chapter 7)
As always, in order to understand the quote, the context must be considered. Who are “they?” Why do they not confess the eucharist to be the flesh of Christ? And what does Ignatius mean by “Eucharist and prayer?”
Who was Ignatius referring to? Prior to making the above statement, Ignatius identified the heretics in a couple of different places. “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.” (ibid, Chapter 2) And, “For what does any one 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.” (ibid, Chapter 5)
The they Ignatius was talking about are Dosetists (Greek: dokesis). The word means, “to seem.” Docetism claimed that Christ did not exist in human form. And, as Ignatius points out, they claim He only seemed to suffer, to which Ignatius replied, “They only seem to be Christians.”
They do not confess the Eucharist to be the flesh of Christ because they didn’t believe he truly suffered. And the Eucharist itself, Ignatius describes, is: “our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again.” In other words, the Eucharist is the celebration of the passion and resurrection of our Lord. Ignatius goes on to say this:
“Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again. It is fitting, therefore, that ye should keep aloof from such persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the passion [of Christ] has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fully proved.”
It is utterly criminal what the catholic apologists have done to the compassionate work of Ignatius. They attempt to make it look as though the Dosetists objected to the Eucharist because they didn’t believe the bread and wine used to celebrate it to be the literal flesh and blood of Christ. That simply isn’t true; rather, Ignatius conveys that the gift of God is eternal life made possible by the sacrifice of Christ. That sacrifice is what the Eucharist is all about. It is the sacrifice and suffering of Christ the Dosetists spoke against and, therefore, abstained from celebrating the Eucharist in which thanksgiving is offered for Christ’s passion.
There is absolutely no contextual support for claiming that Ignatius was referring to the Eucharist bread as being the literal flesh of Christ. That is merely assumed by those who already believe it. We should also keep in mind that Ignatius was about to be martyred, and this letter to the Smyrnaeans was written to exhort the church to keep the unity in truth, obeying the Gospel of Christ, and to be aware of heresies like Docetism. If there had been anything like the sacrifice of the mass or Eucharistic adoration existing during that time, Ignatius would have certainly included something about it in this letter.
In his letter to the Philadelphians, Ignatius wrote, “If any one walks according to a strange opinion, he agrees not with the passion [of Christ.]. Take ye heed, then, to have but one eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth] the unity of His blood.” (Letter to the Philadelphians, Chapters 3 and 4)
There is only one sacrifice for sin, one flesh of Christ, and one altar in heaven, and one truth which is in Jesus Christ. He exhorted the Philadelphians to come together to give thanks and praise, to celebrate the passion of Christ in unity and love. This exhortation is echoed in His letter to the Ephesians where he said,
“Take heed, then, often to come together to give thanks to God, and show forth His praise. For when ye assemble frequently in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and the destruction at which he aims is prevented by the unity of your faith. Nothing is more precious than peace, by which all war, both in heaven and earth, is brought to an end.” (To the Ephesians, Chapter 13)
Notice, he didn’t exhort them to come together to participate in offering up Christ in an un-bloody sacrifice.
Most of Ignatius’ letters were exhortations to peace, unity, and vigilance, but his letter to the Romans was quite different. The thing that troubled Ignatius most was the potential hindrance of his martyrdom by the Christians in Rome. Ignatius wanted to make clear to the church in Rome his desire to be martyred. Fortunately for us, doing so provided opportunity for him to expound a bit on his understanding of the bread of Christ.
“I am the wheat of God, and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of God.” (Letter to the Romans, Chapter 4)
Ignatius identifies himself as wheat and bread of God. This comes from the biblical understanding of the Eucharist celebration. The Apostle Paul said, “For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.” (1Cor. 10:17) That bread representing not only the body of Christ that was broken for us, but also our oneness with him. And, the Lord promises we too will suffer persecution because if we are one with Him, the world will hate us as it does Him. A better explanation is found in the words of Irenaeus who referenced Ignatius’ words:
“And therefore throughout all time, man, having been moulded at the beginning by the hands of God, that is, of the Son and of the Spirit, is made after the image and likeness of God: the chaff, indeed, which is the apostasy, being cast away; but the wheat, that is, those who bring forth fruit to God in faith, being gathered into the barn. And for this cause tribulation is necessary for those who are saved, that having been after a manner broken up, and rendered fine, and sprinkled over by the patience of the Word of God, and set on fire [for purification], they may be fitted for the royal banquet. As a certain man of ours said, when he was condemned to the wild beasts because of his testimony with respect to God: “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.” (Irenaeus Against Heresies, 5:28)
By calling himself the wheat of Christ and the pure bread of heaven, Ignatius identifies himself to be in union with Christ’s passion. And this is what Ignatius wanted more than anything, to partake of the bread of God; that is, to be martyred for his faith and live forever more with Christ. He eloquently explained to the church in Rome that he desired the ultimate prize: eternal life made possible by the flesh and blood of Christ.
“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 liveth and speaketh, 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)
Ignatius speaks of the Spirit of God within him (there is within me a water) beckoning him to come. He had no delight in corruptible food such as earthly bread, but rather the living bread come down from heaven, namely, the flesh of Christ that was sacrificed for the sins of the world. And for drink he desired not corruptible wine, but the incorruptible blood of Christ shed for the remission of sins. Ignatius was about to encounter his Lord face to face!
Attempts to use Ignatius’ words here to support transubstantiation are nothing short of ridiculous. It is incomprehensible to think that anyone could ignore the obvious context of this letter (or any of Ignatius’ letters) just to promote their agenda. Unfortunately it will continue to be the case. But for those who truly desire truth and are willing to take the time, the agendas of some will not prevail over truth.
The church of the first three centuries, indeed, did not possess a real presence doctrine; the writings of the church fathers from that era certainly portray that. In particular, Clement of Alexandria and his student Origen explicitly deny that such a doctrine could have existed. But it has been demonstrated in this article that even clearly explicit references from authentic sources denying the notion of transubstantiation is not enough to convince devout Catholics that their beloved doctrine is false.
While researching this article, I asked the Catholic website, “The Real Presence Association” to do the right thing and remove their out-of-context quote from Clement from their borage of other quotes used to support their cause. I did this specifically to get their reaction, knowing they would not actually remove the quote. I was trying to gather a collection of responses to Clement’s statement that the eating of the flesh of Christ was a metaphor from various Catholic websites. Few responded to my requests. But The Real Presence Association did respond, and I was a bit surprised by their defensive posture. Here is the response:
The Real Presence Association’s comments originally appeared here but were removed on their request.
Responses to strong evidence that refutes Catholic dogma will always draw sharp criticism from those who dearly love the Catholic Church. But for those who are willing to listen to the evidence and evaluate for themselves what is true, compelling evidence against Catholic doctrine will be heeded.
The real presence doctrine of the Catholic Church was, in fact, unheard of in the early centuries of the Christian church. It is interesting to think about how central the sacrifice of the mass is in Catholicism, and yet nowhere in early church do we find direct reference to it; only obscure evidence that, when taken in context, proves to be evidence to the contrary.
Test all things; hold fast that which is good. 1 Thessalonians 5:21