Category Archives: Eucharist

Did Tertullian and St. Augustine Deny the Real Presence?

Many Protestant apologists claim we Catholics present a partial picture of the early Fathers with regard to the Eucharist. Both Tertullian and St. Augustine, they will claim, did not believe in the “Real Presence,” as Catholics refer to the teaching of the Church on Transubstantiation.

The examples they use are:

Tertullian, “Against Marcion,” Bk 4, chapter 40:

Then, having taken the bread and given it to His disciples, He made it His own body, by saying, “This is my body,” that is, the figure of my body. A figure, however, there could not have been, unless there were first a veritable body.

St. Augustine, “On Christian Instruction” (ca. AD 410), 3, 16, 24:

If a preceptive statement [in the Scriptures] forbids either vice or crime, or commands what is either useful or beneficial, it is not figurative. If, however, it seems to command vice or crime, or forbid what is either useful or beneficial, it is figurative. “Unless,” He says, “you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you.” It seems to command crime or vice; therefore it is a figure prescribing that there be communication in the Lord’s passion and a grateful and salutary treasured remembrance that His flesh was crucified and wounded for us.

Both of these men clearly teach the Eucharist to be “figurative.” So does this mean not all early Christians and Fathers of the Church believed in the Real Presence?

Moreover, it is argued, none of the Fathers used the term “transubstantiation.” Are Catholics claiming something to be true that is contrary to what at least these two famous early Christians believed?

The Catholic Response

Actually, the Fathers of the Church were clearly unanimous when it comes to the Real Presence. As far as Tertullian is concerned, there is some question as to whether or not he should be categorized as a true Church Father because of the fact that he died a Montanist heretic. But that doesn’t really matter for our purpose here, because he clearly did believe in the Real Presence anyway.

When Tertullian and St. Augustine use the term “figurative,” they do not mean to deny the Real Presence. In the texts cited, St. Augustine, for example, is warning against falling into the trap of believing the Lord was going to cut off parts of his body and give them to us. This would be cannibalistic and that is a definite no-no.

Indeed, both Tertullian and St. Augustine are emphasizing the fact that the Lord’s body and blood are communicated under the “appearances,” “signs,” or “symbols” of bread and wine. “Figure” is a synonym for “sign.” Even today the Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the terms “sign” and “symbol” to describe the Eucharist in paragraphs 1148 and 1412.

In the case of Tertullian, all we have to do is go on reading in the very document quoted above to get a sense of how he is using the term “figure,” and it is entirely Catholic. Notice what he goes on to say:

Then, having taken the bread and given it to His disciples, He made it His own body, by saying, This is my body, that is, the figure of my body. A figure, however, there could not have been, unless there were first a veritable body. An empty thing, or phantom, is incapable of a figure. If, however, (as Marcion might say,) He pretended the bread was His body, because He lacked the truth of bodily substance, it follows that He must have given bread for us. It would contribute very well to the support of Marcion’s theory of a phantom body…

Tertullian’s point here is that Marcion’s “theory of a phantom body” fits with Christ “pretend[ing] the bread was His body,” because Marcion denied Jesus had a body in the first place. But the Christian believes Christ “made it His own body, by saying, This is my body.” The transformation does not take away the symbolic value of bread and wine, it confirms it.

Tertullian makes clear in multiple places that he believed that Jesus communicated his true body and blood under the “figures” or appearances of bread and wine:

On the Resurrection of the Flesh (ca. AD 200), chapter 8:

The flesh, indeed, is washed, in order that the soul 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.

On Prayer, Of Stations (Fasting), chapter 19:

Similarly, too, touching the days of Stations, most think that they must not be present at the sacrificial prayers, on the ground that the Station (fast) must be dissolved by reception of the Lord’s Body. Does, then the Eucharist cancel a service devoted to God, or bind it more to God?

On Modesty, chapter 9:

He (the prodigal who comes back to Christ) receives again the pristine garment,–the condition, to wit, which Adam by transgression had lost. The ring also he is then wont to receive for the first time, wherewith, after being interrogated, he publicly seals the agreement of faith, and thus thenceforward feeds upon the fatness of the Lord’s body—the Eucharist, to wit.

Similarly, St. Augustine also believed in the Real Presence. For example:

Sermons 234, 2 (ca. AD 400):

The Lord Jesus wanted those whose eyes were held lest they should recognize Him, to recognize Him in the breaking of the bread. The faithful know what I am saying. They know Christ in the breaking of the bread. For not all bread, but only that which receives the blessing of Christ, becomes Christ’s body.

Explanations of the Psalms (ca. 400) 33,1,10:

Here, St. Augustine comments on Psalm 119:109 in the Vulgate. The modern translations will more accurately say I hold my “life,” or my “soul” in my hands, or, “my life is at risk.” The Vulgate says, “And he was carried in his own hands.” This is the text St. Augustine would have known. He comments:

“And he was carried in his own hands.” But, brethren, how is it possible for a man to do this? Who can understand it? Who is it that is carried in his own hands? A man can be carried in the hands of another; but no one can be carried in his own hands. How this should be understood literally of David, we cannot discover; but we can discover how it is meant of Christ. For Christ was carried in His own hands, when, referring to His own Body, He said: “This is My Body.” For He carried that Body in His hands.

As far as the term transubstantiation is concerned, it is true that the term was not used authoritatively by the Church until the famous “Definition of Faith” of the 4th Lateran Council in AD 1215. And it would be infallibly defined by the Council of Trent. However, this is simply the term the Church used to define a belief that goes back to the inspired words of Christ himself. It describes the biblical belief that the “substance” or “nature” of bread and wine at the Liturgy are transformed into the body and blood of Christ, while the “accidents” or “appearances” of bread and wine remain. The Fathers used multiple ways to communicate this truth even if they did not use the term “transubstantiation.”

Here are just two examples among the many I could cite:

Notice these Fathers plainly declare the nature of the bread to have been changed into the body of Christ. That is the essence of what transubstantiation means.

You’ll also notice, especially with St. Cyril, that the term “figure” will be used as a synonym of “sign” just as we saw with Tertullian and Augustine while the context makes clear that he believes in the Real Presence.

St. Hippolytus:

The Apostolic Tradition (ca. AD 215), 21:

And then (after new converts have been baptized) the deacons immediately bring the oblation to the bishop; and he eucharists the bread into the antitype of the Body of Christ; and the cup of mixed wine, for an antitype of the Blood, which was shed for all who believe in Him; and milk and honey mixed together for the fulfillment of the promise made to the fathers, which spoke of a land flowing with milk and honey, that is, the very flesh of Christ which He gave and by which they who believe are nourished like little children . . .

St. Cyril of Jerusalem:

Catechetical Lectures (ca. AD 350), 22 (Mystigogic 4), 1-3, 6:

For Paul proclaimed clearly that: “On the night in which He was betrayed, our Lord Jesus Christ, taking bread and giving thanks, broke it and gave it to His disciples, saying, ‘Take, eat, This is My Body.’ And taking the cup and giving thanks, He said, ‘Take, drink, This is My Blood.’” He Himself, therefore, having declared and said of the Bread, “This is My Body,” who will dare any longer to doubt? And when He Himself has affirmed and said, “This is My Blood,” who can ever hesitate and say it is not His Blood?…

Let us, then, with full confidence, partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. For in the figure of bread His Body is given to you, and in the figure of wine His Blood is given to you, so that by partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, you might become united in body and blood with Him. For thus do we become Christ-bearers.

Do not, therefore, regard the Bread and the Wine as simply that; for they are, according to the Master’s declaration, the Body and Blood of Christ. Even though the senses suggest to you the other, let faith make you firm. Do not judge in this matter by taste, but–be fully assured by the faith, not doubting that you have been deemed worthy of the Body and Blood of Christ.

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Is the Eucharist Cannibalism?

Miriam-Webster defines cannibalism as:

1. The usually ritualistic eating of human flesh by a human being.
2. The eating of the flesh of an animal by another animal of the same kind.

Cannibalism implies the actual chewing, swallowing, and metabolizing of flesh and blood either after or during the killing of an animal of the same species; or, if we stick to definition #1, the killing and eating of a  human being by another human being.

Catholics do not do any of this in the Eucharist. Though Christ is substantially present—body, blood, soul and divinity—in the Eucharist, the accidents of bread and wine remain. Here it becomes essential to define terms. When the Church teaches the bread and wine at Mass are transubstantiated into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ, we have to understand what this means. The word, transubstantiation, literally means “transformation of the substance.” “Substance” refers to that which makes a thing essentially what it is. Thus, “substance” and “essence” are synonyms. For example, man is essentially comprised of body, soul, intellect, and will. If you remove any one of these, he is no longer a human person. The accidents or accidentals would be things like hair color, eye color, size, weight, etc. One can change any of these and there would be no change in the essence or substance of the person.

In the Eucharist, after the priest consecrates the bread and wine and they are, in fact, transubstantiated into the body, blood, soul and divinity of our Lord, our Lord is then entirely present. Neither bread nor wine remains. However, the accidents of bread and wine (size, weight, taste, texture) do remain. Hence, the essential reason why Catholics are not guilty of cannibalism is the fact that we do not receive our Lord in a cannibalistic form. We receive him in the form of bread and wine. The two are essentially different.

To dive a bit deeper into this, I would suggest there are at least six reasons why the Eucharist and cannibalism are difference as a matter of essence.

1. In cannibalism, the person consumed is, generally speaking, killed. Jesus is not killed. We receive him in his resurrected body and we do not affect him in the least. In fact, he is not changed in the slightest. He changes us! This is far from cannibalism.
2. In cannibalism, only part of the victim is consumed. One does not eat the bones, sinews, etc. In the Eucharist, we consume every bit of the Lord, eyes, hair, blood, bones, etc. But again, I emphasize that we do so under the appearances of bread and wine. This is essentially different than cannibalism, which leads to our next point:
3. In cannibalism, the accidents of blood and flesh are consumed. One must tear flesh, drink blood, etc. In the Eucharist, we only consume the accidents of bread and wine. This is not cannibalism.
4. In cannibalism, one only consumes a body, not a person. The person and the soul of the victim would have departed. In the Eucharist, we consume the entire person of Jesus Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity. One cannot separate Christ’s body from his Divine Person. Thus, this is a spiritual communion as well as a physical consuming. We become one with Christ on a mystical level in this sacrament. This is far from cannibalism.
5. In cannibalism, one only receives temporal nourishment that is fleeting. In the Eucharist, we receive the divine life of God through faith and receiving our Lord well-disposed, i.e. we receive everlasting life (cf. John 6:52-55). This is essentially different than cannibalism.
6. In cannibalism, once one eats the flesh of the victim, it is gone forever. In the Eucharist, we can consume him every day and, as mentioned in #1, we do not change him one bit. He remains the same.

Final Thoughts

One always has to be careful when applying terms and concepts to God. Many people miss the mark with regard to the faith because they make the mistake of applying terms in a human way to God who is infinite. We could speak of Mormons who claim God, the Father, has a physical body because the Scriptures speak of God’s “back parts,” in Exodus, or “the hand of Lord,” the “eyes of the Lord,” etc. You’ve probably heard the classic rejoinder to these Mormon claims: “Psalm 91 refers to God’s ‘feathers and wings’. Does this mean God is some sort of bird?”

The error here, of course, is rooted in interpreting texts that were not intended to be used in a strict, literal sense, as if they were. “Back parts” have to mean “back parts,” right?

When it comes to the Trinity, some who deny this essential teaching will claim Christians are teaching God to be “three beings” because we say God is “three persons.” However, person, as it relates to God, does not mean there are three beings. There is an essential difference between “person” as it relates to God, and “person” as it relates to men and angels.

We could cite a litany of examples containing similar problems.

When it gets down to brass tacks, the nay-sayers who reject the Eucharist, and most specifically, those who accuse us Catholics of cannibalism because we say we “consume” the Lord in the Eucharist, body, blood, soul, and divinity, fail to understand what we actually mean by consuming the Lord. They end up objecting just as the unbelieving “Jews” of John 6:52, who said, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

If you are thinking about a cannibalistic blood-meal, he can’t. But if you understand, as Jesus said, “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail, the words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life,” then you understand. The Eucharist represents a miracle confected by the power of the Holy Spirit.

God can do that.

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John 6 and the Eucharist

 

In my 2011 debate with Dr. Peter Barnes, a Presbyterian minister and apologist in Australia, the topic was the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and it centered on Jesus’ famous words in John 6:53: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” After about three hours of debate, I could sum up Barnes’s central objection in one sentence—a sentence which just happens to be found in the New Testament:

How can this man give us his flesh to eat? (John 6:52)

Dr. Barnes could not, and would not, deny the Lord said what he said in Scripture. His only recourse (as is the case with all who deny the real presence), ultimately, was to claim Jesus was speaking “metaphorically.” And after all, he had to be… right? I mean, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” In other words, his ultimate objection to the Catholic and biblical position is not so much rooted in the text as it is in a fundamental incredulity when it comes to the words of the text.

I argued in that debate, and I will again in this post, that if we examine the text carefully, not only is there nothing in it that indicates Jesus was speaking purely metaphorically, but the text itself actually points in the opposite direction.

Here are the Facts

First, everyone listening to Jesus’ actual discourse 2,000 years ago believed him to have meant what he said. That is significant. This is in stark contrast to other places in the gospel where Jesus did, in fact, speak purely metaphorically. For example, when Jesus spoke of himself as a “door” in John 10, or a “vine” in John 15, we find no one to have asked, “How can this man be a door made out of wood?” Or, “How can this man claim to be a plant?”

Compare these to John 6. Jesus plainly says, in verse 51, “I am the bread come down from heaven and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (vs. 51). The Jews immediately respond, as I said above, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” They certainly understood him to mean what he said.

Moreover, when people misunderstand Jesus, he normally clears up the misunderstanding as we see in John 4:31-34 when the disciples urge our Lord to eat and our Lord responds, “I have food to eat which you do not know.” The disciples ask each other if anyone had brought any food because they thought our Lord was saying he had to bring his own food because they had forgotten to do so. They misunderstand him. But our Lord immediately clears things up saying, in verse 34, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.”

A Real Barnes Burner

In our debate, Dr. Barnes had a very interesting rejoinder to this point. He claimed, in essence, that in at least some cases when his listeners misunderstood our Lord, he purposely made no attempt to clear up the misunderstandings. And Dr. Barnes then cited three more examples claiming this to be a pattern in the gospels.

1. In John 3:3-4, Dr. Barnes claimed, Jesus left Nicodemus in the dark when after he declared to him, “… unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God,” Nicodemus responded, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

Response: Even a brief perusal of John 3 and John 6 shows a substantial difference between the two. In John 6:52-53, the Jews were “disputing among themselves and saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” That is the context in which Jesus then appears to confirm them in their thoughts and reiterates, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

No matter how one interprets Jesus’ response to Nicodemus beginning in John 3:5, he doesn’t come close to saying anything like, “Amen, amen I say to you, unless you climb back into your mother’s womb a second time and be born anew, you cannot have eternal life.” He says you must be “born of water and spirit… the wind blows where it will, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (vs. 5-8).” This seems to me to be clarification that he is not speaking about climbing back into a mother’s womb. Being “born anew” is a spiritual experience that transcends literal birth from a womb.

2. In John 4:7-15, Dr. Barnes claimed, Jesus left the famous “Samaritan woman at the well” in her misunderstanding when she thought Jesus was offering her literal, physical water. But is that really what we find in the text?

Response: When Jesus asked this Samaritan woman for a drink in verse seven, she was most likely not only shocked that a Rabbi would speak to a Samaritan woman in public, but that any Jew would ask an “unclean” Samaritan to draw water for him. But in verse 10, Jesus answered her,

If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.

The woman then responds, in verse 11, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water?” To which, Jesus responds, in verse 13-14,

Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

In verse 15, the woman then begs our Lord, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.”

There is no doubt the Samaritan woman has it wrong here. But far from leaving her in her error, our Lord responds most profoundly, beginning in verse 16, “Go, call your husband…” And when the woman responds, “I have no husband,” in verse 17, Jesus reads her soul and tells her, “You are right… for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband.”

He now has her attention, to say the least. And he then turns the conversation to what he was really speaking about in terms of the “living water” he came to give that would “well up to eternal life.” In verse 23, he declares,

But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. [24] God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

When the woman then responds, in verse 25, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things,” Jesus then tells her plainly, in verse 26, “I who speak to you am he.”

It seems clear that the woman then understood that Jesus’ words were metaphorical concerning the “living water,” because she immediately “left her water jar,” went back to her fellow countrymen and urged them to, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ” (verses 28-29)? And according to verse 39, “Many Samaritans… believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” Notice, she did not go and say, “You’ve got to meet this man that will give us a limitless supply of water!” She came to realize Jesus was about much more than filling war jars.

3. Dr. Barnes also claimed that when Christ said “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees” in Matthew 16:6, the apostles thought he was speaking literal, which is true. But Matthew 16:11-12 could hardly be plainer that Jesus did not leave them in their ignorance:

How is it that you fail to perceive that I did not speak about bread… Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Spirit vs. Flesh

There is much more about the text of John 6 and the greater context of the New Testament in general that make a “Catholic” understanding of John 6:53 unavoidable. In our debate, Dr. Barnes and I grapple with many of those texts.

But John 6:63 is probably the most important of all to deal with as a Catholic apologist. This is a verse that is set within a context where not only “the Jews” who were listening, but specifically “the disciples” themselves were struggling with what Jesus said about “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood.” “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it” (verse 60)? It is in this context that our Lord says to the disciples: “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

The Protestant apologist will almost invariably say of this text, “See? Christ is not giving us his flesh to eat because he says ‘the flesh is of no avail.’”

There are at least four points to consider in response:

1. If Jesus was clearing up the point here, he’s a lousy teacher because he didn’t get his point across. According to verse 66, “many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” immediately after this statement. They obviously still believed his earlier words about “eating [his] flesh” to be literal because these “disciples” had already believed in and followed him for some time. If Jesus was here saying, “I only meant that you have to believe in me and follow me,” why would they be walking away?

2. Jesus did not say, “My flesh is of no avail.” He said, “The flesh is of no avail.” There is a big difference! He obviously would not have said my flesh avails nothing because he just spent a good portion of this same discourse telling us that his flesh would be “given for the life of the world” (John 6:51, cf. 50-58).

“The flesh” is a New Testament term often used to describe human nature apart from God’s grace (see Romans 8:1-14; I Cor. 2:14; 3:1; Mark 14:38).

3. That which is “spiritual,” or “spirit” used as an adjective as we see in John 6:63, does not necessarily refer to that which has no material substance. It often means that which is dominated or controlled by the Spirit. For example, when speaking of the resurrection of the body, St. Paul writes: “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body” (I Cor. 15:44). Does this mean we will not have a physical body in the resurrection? Of course not! Jesus made that clear after his own resurrection in Luke 24:39:

See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.

The resurrected body is spiritual and indeed we can be called spiritual as Christians inasmuch as we are controlled by the Spirit of God. Spiritual in no way means void of the material. That would be a Gnostic understanding of things, not Christian.

4. In verses 61-62, Jesus had just said, “Do you take offence at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before?”

Jesus wants to ensure the apostles do not fall into a sort of crass literalism that would see the truth of the Eucharist in terms of gnawing bones and sinew. It is the Holy Spirit that will accomplish the miracle of Christ being able to ascend into heaven bodily while also being able to distribute his body and blood in the Eucharist for the life of the world. A human body—even a perfect one—apart from the power of the Spirit could not accomplish this.

Thus, Jesus words, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail” refers to the truth that it is only the Spirit that can accomplish the miracle of the Eucharist and it is only the Holy Spirit that can empower us to believe the miracle.