Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Eucharist, John 6, and the early church

It has been asked of me to find some examples of the use of John 6 in the early church fathers, to see how they read this section.

It cannot be denied that some church fathers read John 6 as referring to the Eucharist. Cyprian stands as one clear example. But, did anyone ever read John 6 as not referring to the Eucharist, the answer is yes. Eusebius the Historian reads John 6 as referring not to the Supper, but to his words, which Eusebius holds to be the true food to the soul of believers (as quoted in Schaff History Vol 3. Pg. 495). Basil also ascribes the 6th chapter of John to the words of Jesus Christ (ibid., pg. 497). These men specifically relate John 6 to his words rather than the Eucharist.

Clement of Alexandria also seems to see John 6 as meaning something other than the Eucharist. He uses John 6:54, "Whosoever eateth my fles and drinketh my blood shall have eternal life" which he says, "describing distinctly by metaphor the drinkable properties of faith and promise" (ANF vol. 2 pg. 218). He does not seem to equate it with the Eucharist, and even when he quotes from John 6 and talks of the Eucharist, it involves more metaphors rather than a direct correlation.

Tertullian has a clear exposition of John 6 to mean one must believe in Christ and His words, and makes no mention of the Eucharist at all. His very nice summary of John 6 includes this idea "Constituting, therefore, His word as the lifegiving principle, because that word is spirit and life, He likewise called His flesh by the same appellation; because too the Word had become flesh" (ANF vol. 3 pg. 572).

This does not mean that everyone else believed that John 6 related to the Eucharist. Many of those properly called Apostolic Fathers did not directly quote John 6 nor explain it. However, Ignatius in his epistle to the Romans speaks of desiring the ‘bread of God’ and the ‘bread of life’ which he says is the flesh of Jesus Christ and then the drink he defines as ‘incorruptible love and life eternal.’ Here, it is unclear whether or not Ignatius is referring to John 6, but he is clearly speaking about the ‘bread of life’ in a non-sacramental manner, as this discussion appears in his reasons for wanting to die a martyr (Romans chapter 8). He is desiring the bread of life, which seems to be given to him when he dies, not here on earth. Such comments from Ignatius and the prior citations (for they are citations from leaders of the early church) seem to indicate that John 6 was not read ‘liturgically’ by the early church, at least a great many of them read John 6 as referring to Christ's words.

I was also asked to see if the early church fathers viewed the Supper as ‘anything more than a symbolic spiritual representation’. Why that wording is mine, it is clearly not the best wording. But, not wanting to back down from a challenge, I shall endeavor to show that the Zwinglian interpretation has precedent in the Church Fathers. Oecolampadius’s view is almost directly taken from Tertullian who claimed the bread and wine figured the body and blood. Cyprian too here favors a figurative interpretation with the focus on the "is" in the words of institution being figurative. Augustine followed those African fathers in teaching a symbolical theory of the Supper. He maintains a distinction between the outward sign and the inward grace, and maintains the figurative character of the words of institution. Of course still talking of spiritual feeding by faith (with which Zwingli agreed) in the Supper. From Augustine we can see his view disseminate throughout the church’s history. It can be easily seen in men like Facundus, Fulgentius, Isidore of Sevilla, the Venerable Bede, the Carolingian bishops, and finally Ratramnus and Berengar. Both Augustine (d.404) and Ratramnus (ca.944) each used John 6 to point to the Eucharist, but came out with Spiritual views of the Supper. Ratramnus’s book, which quoted liberally from Augustine, was republished by the Zwinglian Reformers as proof their position on the Eucharist was the historic position of the church. Other men who held this view during the 10th Century were Rabanus Maurus, Walafrid Strabo, Christian Druthmar, and Florus Magister, not to mention the book received royal endorsement from Charles the Bald. John Scotus Erigena appears to have written against a Real Presence view, but his work is lost, so we cannot be certain. The Eleventh Century saw Berengar agree with Ratramnus along with Eusebius Bruno (bishop of Angers) and Frollant (bishop of Senlis), but he was condemned for his views. Thus, the Zwinglian claim that the church held their beliefs about the Supper is not entirely without merit, nor then is my claim that a symbolic and spiritual view of the Supper is the position of the early church.


Lane Keister said...

This is a great post, Lee. Thanks especially for all the patristic evidence for a non-sacramentarian view of John 6.

Lane Keister said...

This is a great post, Lee. Thanks especially for all the patristic evidence for a non-sacramentarian view of John 6.

Gomarus said...

I followed you here from a comment at Green Baggins. I know this post has been up a while, but I found it very interesting and a worthwhile read. Thanks.

C_MAT said...

Perhaps you need to look at the quotes on this page, because you are certainly not "quoting" the early church fathers:

C_MAT said...

Sorry here's the web-site again:

I broke it up

Lee said...


Thank you for the link. That is a nice collection of quotations.

First, I would like to point out that in the post I do concede that some church fathers held that the bread was the actual flesh.

Second, I do not think most of those quotes prove that the Bread becomes the Flesh. A few of them actually disprove what the blog owner intends them to prove. Take a look at Ignatius. The quote is, "I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible". He defines the blood as not real blood, but rather as love. He does not hold to a Lutheran interpretation of the Lord's Supper. There are too many quotes on that page for me to deal with one by one, but many of his quotes do not prove anything except that it is okay to call the bread the Body of Christ. It does not mean they think the bread is in, with, or under the body.

I would point out that calling it a sacrifice does not mean they beleive the body was actually in the Supper. Most of the patristics held it was a sacrifice of thanksgiving not any sort of sacrifice of Christ on the altar. Notice the Council of Ephesus quote, "we offer the unbloody sacrifice in the churches". The sacrifice is not in the bread it is in the participants, and it is unbloody, which precludes the idea of that wine actually containing blood at all because then it would no longer be an unbloody sacrifice.

I think the quotes are collection of quotes talking about the Lord's Supper, but many of them do not support the Lutheran position.

magmom24 said...

Lee, I came upon your page after coming upon a vicious anti-Catholic page (no Christian love evident there). Thank you for your intelligent commentary on John 6 and the early Fathers.
I am Catholic, and I believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. So, if I may, I offer a few comments on your commentary, some a paraphrasing from newadvent.org (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05573a.htm). Early Church Fathers, being under persecution, were not accurate in their terminology. Certain doctrines were for believers only. The allegorical interpretation versus the literal interpretation of Scripture need not be an either-or situation, but rather can be an and-and situation where the writings of one complements rather than contradicts the writings of another.
For me, the strongest quotes are from St. Ignatius in his letter to the Smyrnaeans, Chap. 7 :"They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again." and Justin Martyr's First Apology, Chap. 66, "And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist],...For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, 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."
All glory to God, through His Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ

Anonymous said...

Though unnecessary, let me preface this by saying I was raised in two reformed tradition churches and later drifted into agnosticism. In other words, I have no axe to grind. I do, however, maintain an interest in church history.

This blog entry is sufficiently wrong that it merits comment. Without exception, the church fathers believed in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist: this was treated as a received Apostolic tradition and one that was in line with the scriptures.

These examples do not show any contradiction to this fact (they're not even examples of discussions of the Eucharist, so it is difficult to understand what point you are actually making).

You veer from bad to worse quickly. The use of symbolic language does not preclude a literal view of the Eucharist, in fact, this should be understood as the normative approach of early Christian writers with respect to sacraments and scriptures. The "bloodless sacrifice" is a standard term employed to describe the Eucharist by those who believe in the later Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. You will find this language used also in the Liturgy of St. John Crysostom, as well as the affirmation that the communicates have experienced the real Body and Blood of Christ.

It is also incorrect - and you do correctly note differences among the fathers - to argue that the early Church believed in transubstantiation. This is a medieval Roman Catholic Scholastic innovation that attempted to use Aristotelian terms to "explain" how the miracle of the Eucharist occurred.

In other words, both Catholic and Reformed commentators are trying to imprint later doctrines and inventions on the early Church. Catholic doctrine may be closer to the mark but it is also an abuse of facts to argue ex post facto that it represents the real views of the fathers.

Anonymous said...

While I can't claim to be an expert on Eusebius or his views on the Eucharist, I find him an odd choice for a champion on either side: an Origenist, then a supporter of Arius, he essentially denied that Christ was God. What possible merit would his position have on either side of the argument here? He also felt that the book of Revelation was a fraud, which ought to make the Sola Scriptura crowd a bit nuts - though since Luther tried to slice and dice the New Testament, who knows...

Anonymous said...

You write: "Notice the Council of Ephesus quote, "we offer the unbloody sacrifice in the churches". The sacrifice is not in the bread it is in the participants, and it is unbloody, which precludes the idea of that wine actually containing blood at all because then it would no longer be an unbloody sacrifice."

Please note this is the same language used by the Council of Trent to affirm transubstantiation!

Lee said...

Thank you for your comments, but I am afraid I have to disagree with you.
First, the opening section of this post is about John 6 and how people read that passage, and is different than the second half that looks at the Eucharist itself.

Second, you simply state "without exception the church fathers believed in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist: this was treated as a received Apostolic tradition and one that was in line with the scriptures." You do not back up that very Roman Catholic-ish statement. It is a statement without any proof.

Third, I have to disagree with some of your logic. You stated, "the use of symbolic language does not preclude a litera view of the Eucharist." Well, actually I think it often does. When Tertullian explains the bread and wine are figures of the body and blood it means he does not think the body and blood are literal there. When Cyprian states the "is" in "This is my body" is figurative, then it means he does not think it is literal.

Fourth, I think you commit a Post Hoc type of fallacy when you state that because Trent uses "unbloody sacrifice" or the "bloodless sacrifice" that it therefore means the early church fathers using those terms had a similar understanding of the same phrase. I think Trent probably used the phraseology of the Early Church Fahers and then said, "Look they agree with my doctrine". The Early Church fathers are fairly clear they believe the sacrifice is not in the bread or the wine or on the table or alter. Rather the sacrifice is within themselves. They are making a sacrifice of thanksgiving. That is the unbloody sacrifice. So, the mere fact Trent uses that language has little bearing on what the early fathers meant by that phrase.

Thanks again for your comments. I do hope you stop by and make some more.

Anonymous said...

"[T]here is not a soul that can at all procure salvation, except it believe whilst it is in the flesh, so true is it that the flesh is the very condition on which salvation hinges. And since the soul is, in consequence of its salvation, chosen to the service of God, it is the flesh which actually renders it capable of such service. The flesh, indeed, is washed [in baptism], in order that the soul may be cleansed . . . the flesh is shadowed with the imposition of hands [in confirmation], that the soul also may be illuminated by the Spirit; the flesh feeds [in the Eucharist] on the body and blood of Christ, that the soul likewise may be filled with God" (The Resurrection of the Dead 8 [A.D. 210]).

Now granted I plucked this from a Catholic site out of laziness (1)- I despise proof texting as much as anyone - but it is sufficient to make the point that Tertullian's expressed views are bit different than that the Eucharist is merely symbolic. But I would urge readers to consider that this need not nor should it be read as an either/or distinction: pay attention to the fathers enough and you will see this as a normative model - sign and signified to steal phraseology from structuralism (or even modern writers on related subjects - Schmemann's The Eucharist discusses a similar perspective at length - I confess that I do not know enough about Orthodoxy to know how retroactive his interpretative framework can be understood to apply).

I mention the language of the Council of Trent only as a point of irony: since the liturgical language of the early church reflects the same language as the councils, while affirming the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and even putting aside any knowledge of the modern literature on the development of Christian doctrine, I don't see how it could possibly be argued in good faith that the "unbloody" sacrifice excludes a transformative view of the Eucharist.

I frankly don't have a "side" in an argument here: I just have a problem with reconstructing the history of ideas to try to make them conform to contemporary belief systems. I spent an inordinate amount of time reading the fathers and I would advise others to do the same - rather than rely on single quotes or one off commentary from anyone, myself included.

(1) http://www.corpuschristiparish.net/Catholic_Q_A/Q_A_Euch_ECF.htm

Anonymous said...

Some more proof texting to help help illustrate why Augustine was not a died in the wool Zwinglian:

"Christ was carried in his own hands when, referring to his own body, he said, ‘This is my body’ [Matt. 26:26]. For he carried that body in his hands" (Explanations of the Psalms 33:1:10 [A.D. 405]).

"I promised you [new Christians], who have now been baptized, a sermon in which I would explain the sacrament of the Lord’s Table. . . . That bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. That chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ" (Sermons 227 [A.D. 411]). ...

"What you see is the bread and the chalice; that is what your own eyes report to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the body of Christ and the chalice is the blood of Christ. This has been said very briefly, which may perhaps be sufficient for faith; yet faith does not desire instruction" (ibid., 272).

Lee said...

I agree with you that one should not appropriate history to fit modern day categories, and I do not mean to imply that anyone of these old fathers of the church is a “dyed in the wool” anything. I also agree with you that reading the fathers can be very profitable.

That said, I do think we are having a bit of a misunderstanding because I am not saying that Christ is no where to be found in the Eucharist. Nor am I saying that these fathers thought he was no where to be found. What I am saying is that they think he is there by faith, not locally in the bread. The bread is a symbol as is the wine, which we by faith understand. Augustine’s last quote, provided by you, says as much. I think he is not alone in asserting that Christ is symbolized in bread and wine and thus it is through faith we lay hold of Christ. This is more Calvinistic than Zwinglian (although modern day Memorialism has little connection to Zwingli), but I do not think I was ever arguing for Zwinglianism.

You stated that all the Fathers believe in the presence of Christ, and I took this to mean they believed in some sort of literal physical presence. Obviously no one believes that Christ has nothing to do with the meal. Not even Zwingli would state that. Augustine is generally acknowledge to be the first person to explain the difference between the sign (the bread) and the thing signified (the body), which is still the confessional language of the Reformed churches today. At the very least I have a hard time seeing how we can lump Augustine in the camp of an actual and literal presence when he has such clear language against it. It hardly seems as if I am appropriating history for my purposes since Calvin took his language from Augustine and credits him for it.

I do fully acknowledge that many of the fathers did believe the bread was the body and assert a local presence of Christ in it. My original point in the debate with the first posted link was simply the same objection I have with your point: not every one believed the physical presence. The debate also was about the particular exegesis of John 6. Still, I do not believe it is right to affirm that the fathers of the church rejected the basic interpretation that Calvin and the Reformers put on the Supper. In fact, they had a great deal of support among the fathers. Many fathers such as such as Marcus the Elder knew only of a spiritual eating of Christ’s flesh, and never a physical eating. With him stood such fathers as Theodoret, Augustine, Tertullian, and others.

If you are taking the Zwinglian-Reformed tradition to be that the Lord’s Supper is not linked to Christ in anyway and is just a ceremony, then you are right that the Fathers rejected such an idea. However, then you would be wrong as to what Zwingli and the Reformers say about the Supper. If you think the Zwinglian-Reformed doctrine of the Supper teaches the “real presence” of Christ is there by faith and thus only the faithful receive benefit and that the bread and wine are types, signs, or symbols, then many of the Fathers agreed with this view.

I look forward to more continued interaction. Thanks again.