Dan Popp
The early church, the bread, and the wine
A layman reads The Ante Nicene Fathers
By Dan Popp
October 29, 2009

Communion. The Lord's Supper. The early Christians most often called this cherished rite "The Thanksgiving" — which in Greek is "Eucharist." Instead of uniting believers in common fellowship, the sacrament now divides us. But surely it wasn't always so. What did the early church believe and practice regarding the Eucharist?

As you know, the doctrine that the bread and the wine turn into the physical body and blood of Christ is called transubstantiation. A similar view is that the bread, the body, the wine and the blood are there together; this is called consubstantiation. There are other theological formulations, too, like sacramental union, and impanation. Finally, the symbol view holds that the bread and the wine don't turn into anything.

As if that weren't enough to ponder, there might be yet another view suggested by some of the "Fathers." I'll group passages from their writings according to the perspectives they seem to support.


Here are some passages that could be read as endorsements of the Transubstantiation view.

Ignatius, writing in his Epistle to the Ephesians around AD 107, said: "Obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind, breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but which causes that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ." The short version of his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans contains this statement: "[Heretics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ...."

In Book 4 of Against Heresies Irenaeus counters the Gnostic tenet that Jesus was sent from a different God than the Creator-God of the Old Testament. He writes: "How could the Lord, with any justice, if He belonged to another father, have acknowledged the bread to be His body, while He took it from that creation to which we belong, and affirmed the mixed cup to be His blood?"

Those lines illustrate our difficulty in assigning many of these passages to a particular view. "He acknowledged the bread to be His body" seems on the surface to be a clear endorsement of Transubstantiation. But in what sense was it "His body?" — that's the very thing we want to know. If someone had written, "The moon is a silver boat," and we sought to learn whether the author was speaking literally, then the phrase "The silvery craft sailed the Milky Way" couldn't help us; it doesn't rule out the poetical sense. For the same reason, a statement like "We eat the body and drink the blood of Christ" by itself doesn't give us any clues as to whether the speaker is using metaphors.

Secondly, the phrase "mixed cup" in the passage from Irenaeus is a reference to the widespread early church practice of mixing the wine with water. That, it seems to me, raises an objection to the Transubstantiation view: if the bread turns into flesh and the wine turns into blood, what does the water turn into? The readiest explanation for the addition of water is that it represented the water that flowed from the Lord's side after death (John 19:34). But if it is a representation, then the other elements must also be symbols, not transmuted substances.

Later we'll look at more statements that you may wish to put in the Transubstantiation column.


The "Fathers" have also left us passages that can be read as supporting the Symbol view. Many refer to the early slander that Christians engaged in cannibalism, among other vile practices. Athenagoras writes:

    Three things are charged against us: atheism, Thyestean feasts [cannibalism], OEdipodean intercourse [incest]. But if these charges are true, spare no class: proceed at once against our crimes; destroy us root and branch, with our wives and children, if any Christian is found to live like the brutes. And yet even the brutes do not touch the flesh of their own kind.... (A Plea For the Christians, Chapter 3)

Unless you've read The Ante Nicene Fathers, or perhaps a work of Augustine's, you may have a difficult time conceiving how painstakingly the "Fathers" developed their arguments. Most of them had learned from the Greek philosophers to take apart their opponent's case not brick-by-brick, but almost molecule-by-molecule. It's unthinkable that a response to the charge of cannibalism would completely ignore the Eucharist — if indeed they believed they were consuming the physical body and blood of "the man Christ Jesus." (1 Tim 1:5)

Athenagorus, in Chapter 13 of his Plea objects "What have I to do with holocausts, which God does not stand in need of? — though indeed it does behove us to offer a bloodless sacrifice and 'the service of our reason.'"

In another treatise, titled On the Resurrection of the Dead, Athenagorus writes,

    If for men to partake of the flesh of men is a thing most hateful and abominable, and more detestable than any other unlawful and unnatural food or act...then can the bodies of men never combine with bodies like themselves, to which this nourishment would be against nature.... To expatiate further, however, on these topics, is not suitable; for all men are agreed in their decision respecting them — those at least who are not half brutes." (Chapter 8)

Again there are no asterisks for the Eucharist. Justin Martyr says that if Christians were man-eaters, they would defend it:

    For why did we not even publicly profess that these were the things which we esteemed good, and prove that these are the divine philosophy, saying that the mysteries of Saturn are performed when we slay a man, and that when we drink our fill of blood, as it is said we do, we are doing what you do before that idol you honour...? (Second Apology, Chapter 12)

Irenaeus narrates his denial:

    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 practised among the 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. ... 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)

Tatian likewise repudiates the cannibalism charge.

    What injury do we inflict upon you, O Greeks? Why do you hate those who follow the word of God as if they were the vilest of mankind? It is not we who eat human flesh — they among you who assert such a thing have been suborned as false witnesses. (Address to the Greeks, Chapter 25)

Theophilus wrote in Chapter 4 of his Epistle to Autolycus, "Godless lips falsely accuse us...what is most impious and barbarous of all, that we eat human flesh." Again in Chapter 15 of that letter we read,

    Consider, therefore, whether those who teach such things [as we do] can possibly live indifferently, and be commingled in unlawful intercourse, or, most impious of all, eat human flesh.... For if one should speak of cannibalism, in these spectacles the children of Thyestes and Tereus are eaten.... But far be it from Christians to conceive such deeds....

The prolific Tertullian turns the indictment back on the pagans: "Blush for your vile ways before the Christians, who have not even the blood of animals at their meals of simple and natural food...." (Apology, Chapter 9)

Agreeing, and following a tradition going back to Acts 15, Minucius Felix retorts, "So much do we shrink from human blood, that we do not use the blood even of eatable animals in our food." (The Octavius, Chapter 30)

All of these are unflinching denials where we should expect to find defenses or explanations, had the early Christians believed in transubstantiation. But, as I hinted, there are other evidences for the Symbol doctrine as well.

Several writers refer to The Thanksgiving as a memorial meal, which seems to preclude Transubstantiation — either I am remembering something, or it's happening now. In his Dialogue with Trypho Justin mentions "The bread of the Eucharist, the celebration of which our Lord Jesus Christ prescribed, in remembrance of the suffering which He endured...." (Chapter 41)

In Chapter 71 of the same book he repeats: "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."

Tertullian's Treatise on the Soul speaks in Chapter 18 of the wine "...which He consecrated in memory of his blood."

Cyprian often refers to the Eucharist as a "memorial meal" or a "commemoration."

Another passage that seems to logically rule out the literal view was written by Ignatius en route to his martyrdom.

    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 the incorruptible love and eternal life. (Epistle to the Romans, both versions, Chapter 7)

Isn't this evidence for the Transubstantiation view? Remember that Ignatius is talking about the attractions of heaven. He is longing for something he does not have in this life, which clearly doesn't apply to the Eucharist. And if the bread and the wine become the physical presence of Christ, why would he expect to partake of them when he is before the throne of Jesus Himself? Clearly he means the flesh and blood of Christ to signify spiritual communion with Him.

Irenaeus writes (in Against Heresies Book 5, Chapter 36.3) that Jesus "promised that He would have the mixed cup new with His disciples in the kingdom." Besides the question of the water in the "mixed cup," we're confronted with the picture of Jesus drinking His own blood, if the wine turns into blood.

Fortunately there are some passages that seem to take on the question directly. In Fragment 37 Irenaeus equates the literal view with Judaizing.

    The oblation of the Eucharist is not a carnal one, but a spiritual; and in this respect it is pure. For we make an oblation to God of the bread and the cup of blessing, giving Him thanks in that He has commanded the earth to bring forth these fruits for our nourishment. And then, when we have perfected the oblation, we invoke the Holy Spirit, that He may exhibit this sacrifice, both the bread the body of Christ, and the cup the blood of Christ, in order that the receivers of these antitypes may obtain remission of sins and life eternal. Those persons, then, who perform these oblations in remembrance of the Lord, do not fall in with Jewish views, but, performing the service after a spiritual manner, they shall be called sons of wisdom.

Clement of Alexandria, in Book 1, Chapter 6 of The Instructor writes:

    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....

Then later in that same chapter he explains the sacrament this way:

    "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 Saviour in our souls, we may correct the affections of our flesh.

    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.

And hear once more from Book 1, Chapter 6 of The Instructor:

    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?

In Book 2, Chapter 2 of The Instructor Clement writes:

    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, 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 [the energetic principle] of flesh.

Later in that same chapter he adds,

    And He blessed the wine, saying, "Take, drink; this is my blood" — the blood of the vine. He figuratively calls the Word "shed for many, for the remission of sins" — the holy stream of gladness. ... And that it was wine which was the thing blessed, He showed again when He said to His disciples, "I will not drink of the fruit of this vine, till I drink it with you in the kingdom of my Father." But that it was wine which was drunk by the Lord, He tells us again, when He spake concerning Himself, reproaching the Jews for their hardness of heart: "For the Son of man," He says, "came, and they say, Behold a glutton and a wine-bibber...."

In Against Marcion, Book 4, Chapter 40 Tertullian seems to leave no doubt as to his view: "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 His body." Later in that same chapter he writes, "In order, however, that you may discover how anciently wine is used as a figure for blood...."

But he goes further and rebuts the material interpretation of Jesus' pronouncement in John 6:52ff:

    Now, because 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 quickeneth;" and then added, "The flesh profiteth nothing," — meaning, of course, to the giving of life. ... 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. Now, just before (the passage in hand), He had declared His flesh to be "the bread which cometh down from heaven," impressing on His hearers constantly under the figure of necessary food.... (On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Chapter 37)

In Book 8 of Origen's Against Celsus he explains The Thanksgiving this way: "And we have a symbol of gratitude to God in the bread which we call the Eucharist." (Chapter 57)

In Epistle 75, Part 6 Cyprian gives us this:

    For when the Lord calls bread, which is combined by the union of many grains, His body, He indicates our people whom He bore as being united; and when He calls the wine, which is pressed from many grapes and clusters and collected together, His blood, He also signifies our flock linked together by the mingling of a united multitude.

Those from the Symbol perspective agree that Jesus is "really present" in the sacrament — but spiritually, not physically. Isn't this what Irenaeus is saying in Against Heresies, Book 4, Chapter 18.6?

    For we offer 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 and eternity.

Another View?

When reading The Ante Nicene Fathers another variation occurred to me: The bread and the wine (and the water, if you like) make up a symbolic, commemorative meal, just like the Passover; but they become physically the "body of Christ" when the members of His "body" take them into ourselves. In other words, the transformation occurs when they nourish your body, as part of His body. In the final analysis, this outlook must fall into the Symbol category because, even though the Eucharist has become part of each of us in the physical sense, we collectively are the "body of Christ" in the metaphorical sense.

Here are some passages that may support that view, or at least illustrate what I mean. Justin's First Apology contains a chapter explaining the Lord's Supper to nonbelievers — Chapter 66.

    And this food is called among us 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 enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these...

That phrase, "not as common bread and common drink" is sometimes used as evidence for the Transubstantiation view; but a closer reading requires that, while the elements are not common bread and drink, they are still bread and drink. The "drink" is wine mixed with water, as Justin says twice in the preceding chapter. Resuming the quote:

    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 our flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.

In Against Heresies (Book 5, Chapter 2.2) Irenaeus uses the Eucharist to defend the Christian hope of bodily resurrection. In opposition to heretics who asserted that Jesus was a mirage, Iranaeus is arguing that Christ had a real, physical body.

    But if [our flesh] indeed do not attain salvation, then neither did the Lord redeem us with His blood, nor is the cup of the Eucharist a communion of His blood, nor the bread which we break the communion of His body. For blood can only come from veins and flesh, and whatsoever else makes up the substance of man, such as the Word of God was actually made. By His own blood he redeemed us, as His apostle declares, "In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the remission of sins." And as we are His members [metaphorically], we are also nourished by means of the creation [physically] (and He Himself grants the creation to us, for He causes His sun to rise, and sends rain when He wills). He has acknowledged the cup (which is part of the creation) as His own blood, from which He bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of the creation) He has established as His own body, from which He gives increase to our bodies.

This was Irenaeus' counter to a different argument. It may be too much to ask that some of these citations mentioning the Eucharist could be stretched to answer our question. Each reader must decide for himself what the Scriptures teach, and whether the "Fathers" came to the correct conclusions, even as we may struggle to understand both. I hope that, despite my personal biases on the subject, I've presented a fair survey of the relevant material.

At the very least you're now inoculated against cherry-pickers pretending that all the "Fathers" unambiguously endorsed their particular view of the bread and the wine.

And the water.

Click here to discuss this article.

© Dan Popp


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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