The Evolution of the Sacrifice of the Mass: Part 2

April 7, 2009

In part one of “The Evolution of the Mass,” we explored the elucidation of second century apologist, Justin Martyr, concerning “sacrifice.” Justin had stated that the only perfect and well-pleasing sacrifices to God are prayers and giving of thanks offered by worthy men. So how did the church go from that understanding to the belief that Christ must be re-sacrificed in an un-bloody manner?

Justin plainly associates this only sacrifice of prayers and giving of thanks with the Eucharist of the bread and the cup saying, “which are presented by Christians in all places throughout the world, bears witness that they are well-pleasing to Him.1 When the context is brought to light it is easy to see that the sacrifice of the Eucharist is in the hearts of those participating in the giving of thanks (which is what eucharist means), not in offering the bread and wine.

Later in the same century, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, explained, “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.2

Irenaeus makes a clear connection to the thing being offered as the bread and wine of the Eucharist. But his very next words, which contrast Christian oblation with that of Jewish oblation, make it clear he did not mean that the bread and wine become Christ and are offered to God: “But the Jews do not offer thus: for their hands are full of blood; for they have not received the Word, through whom it is offered to God.3 That is to say, the true oblation to God is done only through Christ. It makes no sense to offer Christ to God through Christ. Nevertheless, the Eucharist, in a very short period of time, had become more focused on the elements yet remained pure in its meaning. Irenaeus undoubtedly directed his focus to the bread and wine because it was there that he found his strongest arguments against Gnosticism’s association with the Eucharist.

The great Christian philosopher, Clement of Alexandria, unmistakably understood Irenaeus’ distinction of the Eucharist sacrifice as a corporal worship of praise and thanksgiving. Clement, who in the late second century was the head of the catechetical school of Alexandria, taught that Jesus was speaking metaphorically when He said, “Eat My flesh and drink My blood,4 which is the quintessential biblical reference used to support the transubstantiationalist belief.

Moving into the early third century we find Tertullian commenting that prayer is the victim of the Christian sacrifice:

…Every institution is excellent which, for the extolling and honoring of God, aims unitedly to bring Him enriched prayer as a choice victim. For this is the spiritual victim which has abolished the pristine sacrifices… We are the true adorers and the true priests, who, praying in spirit, sacrifice, in spirit, prayer- a victim proper and acceptable to God, which assuredly He has required, which He has looked forward to for Himself! This victim, devoted from the whole heart, fed on faith, tended by truth, entire in innocence, pure in chastity, garlanded with love, we ought to escort with the pomp of good works, amid psalms and hymns, unto God’s altar, to obtain for us all things from God.5

However, touching on the subject from a Catholic apologetics standpoint, the Catholic Encyclopedia grossly misrepresents Tertullian’s exhortation to communion during fasting. The encyclopedia quotes Tertullian’s words, “participation of the sacrifice” claiming that he “speaks of a real, not a metaphorical offering up of sacrifice.6 What the encyclopedia fails to mention is that just a few sentences earlier Tertullian describes the sacrifice as, “sacrificial prayers.7

There is no doubt, apart from severely biased opinions, that Christians up through the third century understood the Eucharist to be a spiritual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving culminating in the participation of the Lord’s Supper. The next century, however, would bring about change that revolutionized the way Christians viewed the Eucharistic celebration. The conclusion of this three-part article will explore how and when the metamorphous of the Eucharistic observance took place.

1. Dialog with Trypho, 117
2. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4:18:4
3. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4:18:4
4. Clement, Paedagogus 1:6
5. Tertullian, On Prayer 27-28
6. Catholic Encyclopedia, Sacrifice of the Mass
7. Tertullian, On Prayer 19

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The Evolution of the Sacrifice of the Mass: Part 1

March 12, 2009

The most ancient writing depicting what early Christian gatherings looked like come from a work called the Didache, also known as “The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles.”

But every Lord’s day do ye gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one that is at variance with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice ; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations. (Didache, 14)

Catholic apologists often use this quote from the Didache to support the “sacrifice of the mass.” But what is meant by sacrifice and how are Christians supposed to offer it? On its own the text is ambiguous, so to further garnish support for their doctrine, Catholic apologists turn to the second century apologist, Justin Martyr, who, when taken out of context, seems to bolster their point of view in his dialog with Trypho the Jew:

My name has been glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure offering: for My name is great among the Gentiles, says the Lord: but you profane it. He then speaks of those Gentiles, namely us, who in every place offer sacrifices to Him, i.e., the bread of the Eucharist, and also the cup of the Eucharist, affirming both that we glorify His name, and that you profane [it]. (Dialog with Trypho, 41)

The two quotes put together provide enough evidence to reasonably conclude that early Christians believed the sacrifice referred to by Malachi to be the bread and cup of the Eucharist. But does that mean they believed they were offering Christ as an un-bloody sacrifice? Catholic apologists would like for us to believe that, but that is not what the early Christians believed. In the same dialog, Justin comes around to this subject again. This time Justin explains the sacrifice much more clearly in a portion of the dialog Catholic apologist will never provide because it puts their assumptions to shame.

Accordingly, God, anticipating all the sacrifices which we offer through this name, and which Jesus the Christ enjoined us to offer, i.e., in the Eucharist of the bread and the cup, and which are presented by Christians in all places throughout the world, bears witness that they are well-pleasing to Him … Now, that prayers and giving of thanks, when offered by worthy men, are the only perfect and well-pleasing sacrifices to God, I also admit. For such alone Christians have undertaken to offer, and in the remembrance effected by their solid and liquid food, whereby the suffering of the Son of God which He endured is brought to mind, whose name the high priests of your nation and your teachers have caused to be profaned and blasphemed over all the earth. (ibid, 117)

“That prayers and giving of thanks, when offered by worthy men, are the only perfect and well-pleasing sacrifices to God.” From Justin’s explanation we can make better sense of the former quotes. We can now see that Justin was saying that Christians offer the Eucharist i.e., thanksgiving, in the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup. His explanation also helps us to understand what the author of the Didache quote meant by “Break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.” In other words, do not offer thanksgiving (Eucharist) until you have confessed your sins so that your sacrifice (thanksgiving) may be pure.

Even without the explanation, a description of a typical Sunday gathering of Christians in Justin’s time illustrates this point.

On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president [Bishop] verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. (First Apology, 67)

This description solidifies that the fact that the early church considered the sacrifice to be the giving of thanks over the elements that represent Christ’s atoning sacrifice at Calvary, and participation in that sacrifice by partaking of those elements. As Justin said, “That prayers and giving of thanks, when offered by worthy men, are the only perfect and well-pleasing sacrifices to God.”

To be continued…


1 Mal. 1:11
2 Mal. 1:10-12