How The Early Church Viewed The Eucharist

Eucharist window

In a recent post I summarized my Faith journey into the Orthodox Church. I wanted to include a section in that post on the very important topic of the Eucharist in order to highlight maybe the most striking difference between what I grew up believing and what  classical Christianity teaches. I didn’t include it in that post because it would have made it much too long, but I did save what I had written about it. That section is what follows here:

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Perhaps the most alarming and important difference I found between the early Church and my own Baptist tradition was the belief about the Lord’s Supper. It was the absolute universal belief of the early Church that in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper the very presence of Jesus’ body and blood is present to us. It was not merely a symbol or occasion to remember Christ’s sacrifice; it was rather Christ’s one sacrifice made present, such that the flesh and blood on the cross enters our bodies when we eat the bread and wine, and joins our bodies to Christ’s body. There is a spiritual element to the meal, but there’s also a physical element. Or rather, the spiritual and physical are joined together, and our spiritual union with Christ becomes physical as well. The evidence that this was the earliest and universal belief for over 1500 years is overwhelming. Not until Ulrich Zwingli in the 16th century started promoting the idea that the Eucharist was merely a symbol did that innovation start to get any traction, and at the time only among certain new Protestant groups — early Baptists among them.

Why had I never known this? Why was I told the Catholic Church invented the idea of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist long after the early Church had died off? Why did no one ever show me the words of St. Justin, a Christian martyr of the Roman Empire, writing around 153 A.D.:

“And this food is called among us Eucharistia [Thanksgiving], 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 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.” – (First Apology, 66)

A simple jaunt into Church history reveals that the idea of the Lord’s Supper as merely a symbol is the recent innovation, and that the reality of Christ’s real presence is the ancient, universal teaching. This has serious implications.

First, it means that God apparently makes himself present in physical matter. That shouldn’t be too much of a surprise if we already believe in the Incarnation, in which the Word of God put on real flesh. More broadly, God invented physical nature and called it good in Genesis. He has always used physical things to accomplish his work in this world: the burning bush; his tabernacling presence in the ark, the tent, and the Temple; the waters of the river to cleanse Naaman; and in the New Testament even the shadow of Peter and handkerchiefs from Paul. If all of these are believed and taken seriously, then the presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine of the Eucharist becomes very consonant and harmonious with that principle. But then so does Baptism as a real spiritual cleansing and not merely a symbolic action. And marriage, not just as a legal contract, but as a sacramental union. The examples go on.

But another implication is that placing authority in “Scripture alone” is really just putting authority in personal interpretation. Who has the authority to say what the nature of the Eucharist is? Zwingli defended his idea that the Eucharist should only be a memorial meal with Scripture: “This do in memory of me” (Luke 22:19). Other Reformers, such as Calvin and Luther, however, rebutted that in that same verse Jesus says, “This is my body”, not “This represents my body.” They also pointed to John 6, in which Jesus says, “Unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man, you have no life in you…For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink.” (John 6:53-54). Who was right? They were all operating by the new principle of using Scripture alone on which to base faith and practice, as opposed to relying on the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church of their day. The trouble, of course, with relying on Scripture alone is that you soon have a multiplicity of interpretations from different people; and these different interpretations were soon the cause of a multiplicity of different denominations.

The principle of Sola Scripture led to all sorts of innovations of Christian practice that had never been known in 1500 years of Christianity, including a radical de-sacramentalization of the Faith. Despite the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church, like its sale of indulgences and the radical power invested in the Pope, it had at least maintained the sacramental life and practices of the early universal Church — practices that were also maintained by the Orthodox Church (though the Orthodox have never had much use for the Roman Catholic language of transubstantiation, preferring simply to accept the mystery of Christ’s miraculous real presence). Even many of the first Protestant entities –like the Anglicans and Lutherans– maintained a belief in the real presence. Over time, however, Zwingli’s radical anti-sacramentalism has come to be a feature of the majority of Protestant denominations, a reality that ironically is seldom questioned by many of them, not because of some obvious perspicuity in Scripture, but because it has become a tradition unto itself.

For 1500 years the unanimous account of all Christians, East and West, was that in the Eucharist Christ is present in his body and his blood. Even today, the vast majority of Christians in the world, East and West, still believe in Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist, and thereby perpetuate the tradition that was handed down by Christ and his Apostles.

 

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