Its Historical Development and Roman Catholic Teaching

By William Webster


The Roman Catholic position on the Eucharist was first given dogmatic expression at the 4th Latern Council in 1215 A.D. when the Church formally set forth the teaching of transubstantiation as the official teaching of the Church. This was further affirmed by the Council of Trent which also dogmatically asserted the nature of the Lord’s Supper as being that of a propitiatory sacrifice for sin. So there are two primary elements of the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist that are of supreme importance—transubstantiation, which guarantees the real presence of Christ and the mass, in which Christ, thus present bodily, is re-offered to God as a propitiatory sacrifice. And the eucharist as taught and practiced by Rome is, according to Rome, necessary for salvation. The following are the authoritative statements from the Council of Trent:

Canon I. If anyone denieth, that, in the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, are contained truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ; but saith that he is only therein as in a sign, or in figure, or virtue; let him be anathema.

Canon II. If anyone saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the wine into the blood – the species only of the bread and wine remaining – which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation: let him be anathema.

Canon III. If any one saith, that the sacrifice of the mass is only a sacrifice of praise and of thanksgiving; or, that it is a bare commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the cross, but not a propitiatory sacrifice; or, that it profits him only who receives; and that it ought not to be offered for the living and the dead for sins, pains, satisfactions, and other necessities: let him be anathema (The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (Rockford: Tan, 1941, 1978), p. 149).

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that when the priest utters the words of consecration the elements of the eucharist are changed into the literal body and blood of Christ. He is then offered to God on the altar as a propitiatory sacrifice for sin. And the Church is quite explicit that this is a real sacrifice for the Council of Trent states that ‘in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner who once offered himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross…’ This is the Church’s teaching but it is quite evident that just as with the case of the other major doctrines of the Roman Church there is no such thing as a unanimous consent of the Fathers on the nature of the eucharist. Transubstantiation is a particular way of expressing belief in the Real Presence and the mass a particular way of expressing the nature of the eucharist as a sacrifice but these are not the only views that have been expressed in a consistent and dominant way in the history of the Church. It is true that from the very beginning the Fathers generally express their belief in the Real Presence in the eucharist in that they identify the elements with the body and blood of Christ. But this does not mean that they unanimously teach the concept of transubstantiation. They also refer to the eucharist as a sacrifice, but as with transubstantiation, this does not mean that their views are the same as those of the Council of Trent.

The fact is, there is much difference of opinion among the Fathers on the nature of the Real Presence and on the nature of the Eucharistic sacrifice. The early Fathers were far from unanimous in their teaching on the Lord’s Supper. The dogmatic statements of the 4th Latern Council and the Council of Trent took many centuries and much conflict before they were finally formulated in an authoritative way by the Roman Catholic Church. The impression given by some Catholic writers that the statements of the Council of Trent have been taught and believed by the Church from the very beginning with very little contradictory opinion cannot be supported by the facts of history. An objective analysis will reveal is that the views of the Fathers are very consistent with the differing views represented by the Roman Catholic Church and those of the Protestant Reformers. Some of the Fathers taught that the elements are symbols of the body and blood of Christ and that his presence is spiritual, while others maintained that the elements are changed into Christ’s body and blood and that his presence is physical. The writings of the Fathers of the first four centuries reveal this diversity of opinion.

The following statements by Church historians demonstrate that the Church’s views of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper did not find unanimous consent among the fathers and was a process of long historical development. Many of the most prestigious of the Fathers and at least one pope deny the teachings of the Council of Trent:

The Ancient Church produced no dogma of the Lord’s Supper. Two methods of presenting the subject are found side by side without any attempt at discrimination. They are commonly spoken of as the metabolic and symbolic views. Pope Gelasius I taught that ‘the substance or nature of the bread and wine does not cease to exist, although the elements, the Holy Spirit perfecting them, pass over … into a divine substance, as was the case with Christ himself. And certainly the image and likeness … are honored… in the observance … of the mysteries.’…The theologians of the Carlovingian period, as Augutinians, were fond of emphasizing the symbolical character of the ordinance, presenting it as a memorial and a symbol … On the other hand, as a result of the growing religious materialism, which found in visible miracles the characteristic trait of religion, and of the widening influence of the sacrificial idea, the conception of a transformation of the elements became more and more clearly defined (Reinhold Seeburg, Text-Book of the History of Doctrines (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1952), Volume Two, p. 34).

The doctrine of the sacrament of the Eucharist was not a subject of theological controversy and ecclesiastical action until the time of Paschius Radbert, in the ninth century … Hence the doctrine of the ancient church on this point lacks the clearness and definiteness which the Nicene dogme of the Trinity, the Chalcedonian Christology, and the Augustinian anthropology and soteriology acquired from the controversies preceding them. In the doctrine of baptism also we have a much better right to speak of a consensus patrum, than in the doctrine of the holy Supper (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), Volume 3, p. 492).

We now want to trace the development of the eucharistic teaching of the Roman Catholic Church through the writings of the Church Fathers on their views of the nature of the Real Presence and the sacrifice.

The Real Presence

All of the Fathers teach some concept of the Real Presence in that they identify the elements with the body and blood of Christ. But, as we have pointed out, there is conflicting opinion over the exact nature of the Real Presence. Some teach that the elements are symbols of the body and blood of Christ and that his presence is spiritual, while others teach that the elements are changed into Christ’s body and blood and that his presence is physical. These two views were the subject of two major controversies in the 9th and 11th centuries. But before dealing with these we want to trace the development of the doctrine through different writings and Fathers up to the time of Augustine and then look in detail at Augustine’s teaching. One cannot have a proper understanding of the controversies of the 9th and 11th centuries without a clear understanding of Augustine for his teachings had a major influence on those involved in both controversies and ultimately on those involved in the Reformation. The writings of the Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria span the first two centuries of the particular views of the Church during these centuries.

The Didache presents the eucharistic elements as bread and wine but refers to them as spiritual food and drink. There is no indication that the Didache views the elements as being transformed in any way. Ignatius, on the other hand, speaks in very realistic terms of the nature of the eucharist as the body and blood of Jesus and as that which communicates eternal life. Bethune-Baker gives the following statements:

To Ignatius the Eucharist is the one great bond of union of Christians with one another, but only so because it brings them into closest relation to the Lord. To partake of his one flesh and of the one cup of his blood is to live one life. It is this participation which really makes the whole Church one body. It is breaking one bread which is a medicine of immortality, a cure against death giving life in Jesus Christ for ever. So with the food of corruption and the pleasures of this life are contrasted the bread of God, which is the flesh of Christ, and his blood, which is love incorruptible (J.P. Bethune-Baker, An Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine (London: Methune, 1903), p. 398).

Justin Martyr refers to the Eucharistic elements as being more than common bread and wine in that when they are consecrated they become the body and blood of Jesus. And yet, in Trypho 70, he speaks of the elements as bread and wine which were inaugrated by Christ as a memorial and remembrance of his body and blood:

It is quite evident that this prophecy also alludes to the bread which our Christ gave us to offer in remembrance of the Body which He assumed for the sake of those who believe in Him, for whom He also suffered, and also to the cup which He taught us to offer in the Eucharist, in commemoration of His blood (Thomas B. Falls, The Fathers of the Church, Saint Justin Martyr (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University, 1948), Dialogue with Trypho 70, p. 262).

So while he speaks of a change in the elements, it seems that the elements still remain, in essence, bread and wine. Like Justin, Irenaeus clearly believes the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus at consecration, but he also states that the elements are composed of two realities, one an earthly and one a heavenly or a spiritual. And therefore he infers that the change he envisages is spiritual and that the presence of Christ is therefore spiritual. This thought is further amplified by Bethune-Baker:

At other times, in a different vein, Irenaeus could write of the spiritual character of the sacrifice offered in the Eucharist, which replaced for Christians the ancient offerings of the sanctuary. There is apparently in view the objection that it was itself a ‘Judaistic’ rite. ‘These offerings’, he says, ‘are not after the law (its bond the Lord blotted out and took away), but after the Spirit, for in spirit and in truth we must worship God. And for this reason the offering of the Eucharist is not fleshly but spiritual, and therein pure. For we offer to God the bread and the cup of blessing, giving thanks to him, that he bade the earth bring forth these fruits for our food. And then, when we have finished the offering (oblation), we invoke the Holy Spirit to proclaim this sacrifice, and the bread the body of Christ, and the cup the blood of Christ, in order that by partaking of these symbols we may obtain forgiveness of sins and eternal life. So then they who take part in these offerings in remembrance (or in the memorial) of the Lord do not follow after the ordinances of the Jews, but worshiping in spiritual fashion they shall be called sons of wisdom (J.F. Bethune-Baker, An Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine (London: Methuen, 1903), pp. 401-402).

Following Irenaeus we find that Tertullian speaks of the eucharist as being identified with the body and blood of Jesus and yet he expresses the concept of a sacramental though real presence. Tertullian, for example, when referring to the eucharistic elements uses terms such as figure, symbol and represent to express his concept of the eucharist. The following are his remarks:

But was it not because He had to be ‘led like a lamb to the slaughter; and because, as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so was He not to open His mouth,’ that he so profoundly wished to accomplish the symbol of His own redeeming blood? … 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 … In order, however, that you may discover how anciently wine is used as a figure for blood, turn to Isaiah, who asks, ‘Who is this that cometh from Edom, from Bosor with garments dyed in red, so glorious in His apparel, in the greatness of His might? Why are thy garments red, and thy raiment as his who cometh from the treading of the full wine press? … Thus did He now consecrate His blood in wine, who then (by the patriarch) used the figure of wine to describe His blood.
+++For so did God in your own gospel even reveal the sense, when He called His body bread; so that, for the time to come, you may understand that He has given His body the figure of bread, whose body the prophet of old figuratively turned into bread, the Lord Himself designing to give by and by interpretation of the mystery…. and that the taste of the wine was different from that which He consecrated in memory of His blood (Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), Volume II, Tertullian, Against Marcion 4.40, 3.19).

Tertullian over and over again speaks of the bread and wine as being symbols or figures which represent the body and blood of Christ. He very specifically states that these are not the literal body and blood of the Lord. When Christ said ‘This is my body’, Tertullian says Jesus spoke figuratively and that He consecrated the wine in memory of his blood. There are some historians who suggest that the ancient usage of the words ‘figure’ and ‘represent’ were often used differently from present day usage to describe the relation between the thing symbolized and the symbol. The suggestion is that the symbols in some mysterious way became what they symbolized. And the conclusion we are to draw is that a writer such as Tertullian meant more in his usage of the words ‘figure’ and ‘represent’ than the words would normally convey. They say, for example, says that the verb represent (representare) which Tertullian employs when speaking of the consecrated bread means ‘to make present’. But this argument simply does not hold for Tertullian uses the word in a number of places in which it means a symbolical representation without some mysterious meaning being attached. In the above mentioned quotes, for example, Tertullian says, ‘He represents the bleeding condition of His flesh under the metaphor of garments dyed in red…’ (Against Marcion 4.40).

When Tertullian speaks of the bread and wine as being figures and symbols which represent Christ’s body and blood, that is exactly what he means. In no way does he teach that there is some mysterious conversion of the elements into the body and blood of Christ. And this fact is placed beyond all doubt by the interpretation Tertullian gives of the Lord’s discourse in John 6 which he says is to be understood spiritually and figuratively rather than physically and literally. The following are his comments:

He says, it is true, that ‘the flesh profiteth nothing;’ but, then, as in the former case, the meaning must be regulated by the subject which is spoken of. 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 to 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. He also goes on to explain what He would have us to understand by spirit: ‘The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.’ In a like sense He had previously said: ‘He that heareth my words, and believeth on Him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation, but shall pass from death unto life.’ Constituting, therefore, His word as the life-giving principle, because that word is spirit and life, He likewise called His flesh by the same appelation; because, too, the Word had become flesh, 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 the memory of their forefathers, who had preferred the bread and flesh of Egypt to their divine calling. Then, turning His subject to their reflections, because He perceived that they were going to be scattered from Him, He says: ‘The flesh profiteth nothing’ (Ibid., On the Resurrection of the Flesh Chap. 37).

As with Justin and Irenaeus, Tertullian expresses the view that the eucharist is not common bread and wine but that there is to be a distinction maintained between the physical reality of bread and wine and the reality of the body and blood of Christ which the bread and wine represent.
Clement of Alexandria (150-211/216 A.D.) also called the bread and wine symbols of the body and blood of Christ, and taught that the communicant received not the physical but the spiritual life of Christ.

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. The food – that is, the Lord Jesus – that is, the Word of God, the Spirit made flesh, the heavenly flesh sanctified.
+++Further, the Word declares Himself to be the bread of heaven. ‘For Moses,’ He says, ‘gave you not that bread from heaven, but My Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He that cometh down from heaven, and giveth life to the world. And the bread which I will give is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.’ Here is to be noted the mystery of the bread, inasmuch as He speaks of it as flesh … But since He said, ‘And the bread which I will give is My flesh,’ and since flesh is moistened with blood, and blood is figuratively termed wine…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 fiauratively represented as milk. For is it not figuratively represented as wine? (‘Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1956), Volume II, Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book I, Chapter VI, pp. 219-222).

Origen (185-253/254 A.D.), likewise, speaks in distinctively spiritual and allegorical terms when referring to the eucharist.

So also the bread is the word of Christ made of that corn of wheat which falling into the ground yields much fruit. For not that visible bread which He held in His hands did God the Word call His body, but the word in the mystery of which that bread was to be broken. Nor did He call that visible drink His blood, but the word in the mystery of which that drink was to be poured out. For what else can the body of God the Word, or His blood, be but the word which nourishes and the word which gladdens the heart? Why then did He not say, This is the bread of the new covenant, as He said, ‘This is the blood of the new covenant’? Because the bread is the word of righteousness, by eating which souls are nourished, while the drink is the word of the knowledge of Christ according to the mystery of His birth and passion (Origen,Commentary on Matthew, Sermon 85. Taken from Darwell Stone, A History of the Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist (London: Longman’s, Green, 1909), Volume I, pp. 27-28).

Thus Clement and Origen express views which are consistent with Tertullian. Philip Schaff gives these thoughts regarding the teachings of Clement and Origen:

The Alexandrians are here, as usual, decidedly spiritualistic. Clement twice expressly calls the wine a symbol or an alllegory of the blood of Christ, and says, that the communicant receives not the physical, but the spiritual blood, the life, of Christ, as indeed, the blood is the life of the body. Origen distinguishes still more definitely the earthly elements from the heavenly bread of life, and makes it the whole design of the supper to feed the soul with the divine word (Opcit., Volume 2, p. 244).

The writings of Cyprian also identify the elements with the body and blood of Christ but, like Tertullian, he sees the elements as representative of spiritual realities. He specifically states that water alone cannot represent the blood of Christ, implying that water mixed with wine does represent his blood (Ep. 63.7). It is not a literal reality but representative of it. And he argues that when Christ called the bread and wine his body and blood he was using such language to figuratively represent the Church (Ep. 69.4). He says that cup contains both water and wine which are representative of two different realities. He says that just as water represents peoples in Scripture, so the wine represents the blood of Christ (Ep. 63.9-10) and the eucharist therefore represents the union between Christ and his Church. He says that just as in the Mystery of the eucharist the people of God are shown to be united, so in the wine the blood of Christ is also shown. He uses the same word to describe both realities demonstrating that the elements are a figurative representation of spiritual realities (Ep. 63.10). It is clear, therefore, that Cyprian did not view the elements as being literally changed into the body and blood of Christ anymore than he believed that the water was changed into literal people. And yet, he does speak of drinking the blood of Christ. For Cyprian the eucharist is a ‘spiritual’ sacrament in which the elements are not literally changed but one does partake spiritually of the body and blood of Christ.

As time goes on we find two schools of thought about the eucharist developing side by side with one another. On the one hand one finds clearer and clearer descriptions of the eucharist as consisting of a transformation of the elements into the literal body and blood of Christ. The literalist view is clearly represented in the writings of such fathers as Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzen, Chrysostom and Ambrose. Cyril of Jerusalem is representative:

Since then He Himself has declared and said of the Bread, This is My body, who shall dare doubt any longer? And since He has affirmed and said, This is My blood, who shall ever hesitate, saying, that this is not His blood? He once turned water into wine, in Cana of Galilee, at His own will, and is it incredible that He should have turned wine into blood? … Then having sanctified ourselves by these spiritual Hymns, we call upon the merciful God to send fo His Holy Spirit upon the gifts lying before Him; that He may make the bread the Body of Christ, and the Wine the Blood of Christ for whatsoever the Holy Ghost has touched, is sanctified and changed (A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic ChurchThe Catechetical Lectures of Cyril of Jerusalem, XXIL1-2, XXIII.7 (Oxford: Parker, 1842), pp. 270, 275).

Historians point out that these men use such terms as transformed, transelemented, converted, changed and transmuted when referring to the consecrated elements. And they speak in very literal and realistic terms of the reality of the elements becoming Christ himself. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, teaches that the eucharist is a perpetuation of the incarnation and Bethune-Baker mentions the following views held by Chrysostom:

The bread and wine become the very body and blood of Christ, ‘the body pierced with nails’. We bury our teeth in his flesh; by his most awful blood our tongue is reddened … Of the consecration he says, ‘Christ is present, and he who arranged the first table, even arranges this present one. For it is not man who makes the things which are set before us become the body and blood of Christ; but it is Christ himself, who was crucified for us. The priest stands fulfilling his part by uttering the appointed words, but the power and the grace are of God. ‘This is my body’ he says. this expression changes the elements; and as that sentence ‘increase and multiply’, once spoken, extends through all time and gives to our nature the power to reproduce itself; even so that saying ‘this is my body’, once uttered, does at every table in the Churches from that time to the present day, and even till Christ’s coming, make the sacrifice complete (J.F. Bethune-Baker, An Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine (London: Methuen, 1903), pp. 415-416).

At the same time there is a continuing representation by many Fathers of the eucharistic elements as figures or symbols of the Lord’s body and blood, though they also believe the Lord is spiritually present in the sacrament. We this, for example in the teaching of Eusebius of Caesarea (263-340 A.D.) He identified the elements with the body and blood of Christ but, like Tertullian, saw the elements as being symbolical or representative of spiritual realities. He specifically states that the bread and wine are symbols of the Lord’s body and blood and that Christ’s words in John 6 are to be understood spiritually and figuratively as opposed to a physical and literal sense:

But do you, receiving the Scriptures of the Gospels, perceive the whole teaching of our Saviour, that He did not speak concerning the flesh which He had taken but concerning His mystic body and blood… To this the Saviour answered, ‘It is not Moses that gave you the true bread out of heaven’. Then He adds, ‘I am the bread of life,’ and again, ‘I am the bread which came down out of heaven,’ and again, ‘The bread which I will give is My body…’, and He adds again, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, ye have not life in yourselves. He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood abideth in Me and I in him.’ When He had discussed these and such things more mystically, some of His disciples said, ‘The saying is hard; who can bear it?’ The Saviour answered them, saying, Doth this cause you to stumble? What then if ye should behold the Son of man ascending where He was before? The Spirit is the life-giver; the flesh profiteth nothing; the words I have spoken unto you are spirit, and are life.’ In this way He instructed them to understand spirituallv…the words which He had spoken concerning His flesh and His blood; for, He says, you must not consider Me to speak of the flesh with which I am clothed … as if you were able to eat that, nor suppose that I command you to drink perceptible and corporal … blood; but know well that ‘the words that I have spoken unto you are spirit, and are life,’ so that the words themselves and the discourses themselves are the flesh and the blood, of which he who always partakes, as one fed on heavenly bread, will be a partaker of heavenly life. Therefore, He says, let not this cause you to stumble which I have spoken concerning the eating of My flesh and concerning the drinking of My blood; nor let the offhand … hearing of what I have said about flesh and blood disturb you; for these things ‘profit nothing’ if they are understood according to sense …but the Spirit is the life-giver to those who are able to understand spiritually…(Eusebius of Caesarea, Demonstratio Evangelica VIII. 1.76-80. Taken from Darwell Stone, A History of the Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist(London: Longman’s, Green, 1909), Volume I, pp. 62-63).

In addition to Eusebius, as JND Kelly points out below, these non-literal views were also expressed by a view shared by Theodoret, Serapion, Jerome, Athanasius, Ambrosiaster, Macarius of Egypt, and Eustathius of Antioch. But, as we will see, this view found its strongest representation in Augustine. Seeburg, as quoted above, points out that pope Gelasius I, who reigned from 492 to 496 teaches that the bread and wine in substance at consecration do not cease to exist:

The sacrament which we receive of the body and blood of Christ is a divine thing. Wherefore also by means of it we are made partakers of the divine nature. Yet the substance or nature of the bread and wine does not cease to be. And certainly the image and likeness of the body and blood of Christ is set out in the celebration of the mysteries… Thus, as the elements pass into this, that is, the divine substance by the Holy Ghost, and none the less remain in their own proper nature, so they show that the principal mystery itself, the efficacy and virtue of which they truly make present (repraesentant) to us, consists in this, that the two natures remain each in its own proper being so that there is one Christ because He is whole and real (Pope Gelasius, On the Two Natures in Christ. Taken from Darwell Stone, A History of the Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist (London: Longman’s, Green, 1909), Volume I, p. 102).

J.N.D. Kelly points out that the literalist and symbolical views were both prevalent in the early centuries and he gives the following summation of the symbolical or figurative view held in the Church up to the time of Augustine. This is a long quote but very important in that it demonstrates the prevalence of the figurative view:

Eucharistic teaching, it should be understood at the outset, was in general unquestionably realist, i.e. the consecrated bread and wine were taken to be, and were treated and designated as, the Saviour’s body and blood. Among theologians, however, this identity was interpreted in our period (4th century) in at least two different ways, and these interpretations, mutually exclusive though they were in strict logic, were often allowed to overlap. In the first place, the figurative or symbolical view, which stressed the distinction between the visible elements and the reality they represented, still claimed a measure of support. It harked back, as we have seen, to Tertullian and Cyprian, and was given a renewed lease of life through the powerful influence of Augustine. Secondly, however, a new and increasingly potent tendency becomes observable to explain the identity as being the result of an actual change or conversion in the bread and wine.
+++As an example of the former tendency we may cite the Apostolical Constitutions, which describes the mysteries as ‘antitypes…of His precious body and His blood’, and speaks of commemorating Christ’s death ‘by virtue of the symbols … of His body and blood’. In the liturgy we give thanks for the precious blood and for the body, ‘of which we celebrate these antitypes’…Yet at the same time the formula at the communion is ‘the body of Christ’ and ‘the blood of Christ’. Serapion, while referring to the elements as ‘the body and the blood’, speaks of ‘offering this bread’ as ‘a likeness … of the body of the Only-begotten’, and ‘offering the cup’ as ‘a likeness … of the blood’. The theologians use the same language as the liturgies. So Eusebius of Caesarea, while declaring that ‘we are continually fed with the Saviour’s body, we continually participate in the lamb’s blood’, states that Christians daily commemorate Jesus’s sacrifice ‘with the symbols … of His body and saving blood’, and that He instructed His disciples to make ‘the image … of His own body’, and to employ bread as its symbol. His contemporary, Eustathius of Antioch, commenting on Prov. 9,5, says that ‘by bread and wine he (i.e. the author) refers prophetically to the antitypes of Christ’s bodily members …Marcarius of Egypt (* c. 390) speaks of bread and wine as being offered in the Church as ‘a symbol of His flesh and blood’. Athanasius, too, while not employing such terms as ‘symbol’ or ‘antitype’, clearly distinguishes the visible bread and wine from the spiritual nourishment they convey.
+++It must not be supposed, of course, that this ‘symbolical’ language implied that the bread and wine were regarded as mere pointers to, or tokens of, absent realities. Rather were they accepted as signs of realities which were somehow actually present though apprehended by faith alone.
+++It is not the case, (Theodoret) urged, that after consecration the oblations lose their proper nature: ‘they remain in their former substance, appearance and form, visible and tangible as before’. Since he admitted, however, that the bread was now called the body and habitually used realistic language of the sacrament, he was faced with the problem of explaining what the consecration effected. His explanation was that, while a change … certainly took place, it did not consist in the transformation of the substance of bread and wine into that of Christ’s body and blood, but rather in their being made vehicles of divine grace. As he put it, in designating them His body and blood Christ did not change their nature, but added grace to their nature …     The bread and wine were thought of both as remaining in their own nature and as being able to mediate the nature of the Lord’s body and blood.
+++In the West the conception of the eucharistic gifts as symbols continued in vogue in this period. The canon of the mass in the Ambrosian De sacramentis, which dates from the fourth century, may be taken as an illustration. This is an imitation of the Last Supper, in word and act, solemnly performed before God, and the repetition of the Lord’s words is regarded as establishing the sacramental association of the bread and wine with the divine realities they represent. So the oblation is ‘a figure (figura) of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ’. According to Jerome, the wine in the chalice is ‘the type (typus) of His blood’, and the eucharistic mystery is ‘the type of His passion’ … In the consecrated bread the Saviour’s body ‘is shown forth’ … by means of the elements He ‘represents … His body and blood’. Ambrosiaster similarly states that ‘we receive the mystic chalice as a type’ … of the divine blood…(J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978), pp.440-441, 445-446).

In his chapter on the Eucharist Karl Keating makes the following incredible statement:

Whatever else might be said, it. is certain that the early Church took John 6 and the accounts of the Last Supper literally. There is no record in the early centuries of any Christian doubting the Catholic interpretation. There exists no document in which the literal interpretation is opposed and the metaphorical accepted (Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988), p. 238).

This assertion obviously flies in the face of the historical evidence that has been presented both from the primary sources as well as from the statements of well qualified historians. Keating goes on to mention in a very superficial manner the controversies of the 9th and 11th centuries and he attempts to paint the picture that the symbolical views held by Ratramnus in the 9th century and Berengar of Tours in the 11th were simply those held by a very small minority that was aberrational and opposed to the unanimous opinion of the ancient Church. But what Keating fails to mention is that the main authority for the views held by Ratramnus and Berengar was Augustine. Philip Schaff gives this historical background to these controversies:

The doctrine of the Lord’s Supper became the subject of two controversies in the Western church, especially in France. The first took place in the middle of the ninth century between Paschius Radbertus and Ratramnus, the other in the middle of the eleventh century between Berengar and Lanfranc. In both cases the conflict was between a materialistic and a spiritualistic conception of the sacrament and its effect. the one was based on a literal, the other on a figurative interpretation of the words of institution, and of the mysterious discourse in the sixth chapter of St. John. The contending parties agreed in the belief that Christ is present in the eucharist as the bread of life to believers; but they differed widely in their conception of the mode of that presence: the one held that Christ was literally and corporeally present and communicated to all communicants through the mouth; the other, that he was spiritually present and spiritually communicated to believers through faith … The spiritual theory was backed by the all-powerful authority of St. Augustin in the West…(Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), pp. 544-545).

Thus if we would properly understand the teachings of men like Ratramnus and Berengar and after them of men like Wickliff and those of the Reformation, it is essential that we look in detail at the teaching of Augustine for he had enormous influence upon them. He provided the most comprehensive and influential defense of the spiritual and symbolical interpretation of the Lord’s Supper. The following is a summation of the teachings of Augustine which are clearly figurative and spiritual in nature:

1) First of all Augustine teaches that the Sacraments, including the eucharist, are signs and figures which represent or symbolize spiritual realities:

He committed and delivered to His disciples the figure of His Body and Blood (Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, St. Augustin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Psalm 3:1).

This is the bread which commeth down from heaven.’ Manna signified this bread; God’s altar signified this bread. Those were sacraments … This, then, is the bread that cometh down from heaven, that if any man eat thereof, he shall not die.’ But this is what belongs to the virtue of the sacrament, not to the visible sacrament; he that eateth within, not without; who eateth in his heart, not who presses with his teeth … Just as we are made better by participation of the Son, through the unity of His body and blood, which thing that eating and drinking signifies. We live then by Him, by eating Him, that is, by receiving Him as the eternal life, which we did not have from ourselves (Ibid., The City of God 10.6.5; John: Tractate 26.12,19).

2) Secondly, Augustine gives very clear instruction and principles for determining whether or not a passage of Scripture is to be interpreted literally or figuratively. He says that passages of Scripture must always be interpreted in the light of the entire revelation of Scripture and he uses John 6 as a specific example of a passage that is to be interpreted figuratively:

The chief thing to be inquired into, therefore, in regard to any expression that we are trying to understand is, whether it is literal or figurative (Ibid., On Christian Doctrine 3.24.34).

If the sentence is one of command, either forbidding a crime or vice, or enjoining an act of prudence or benevolence, it is not figurative. If, however, it seems to enjoin a crime or vice, or to forbid an act of “prudence or benevolence, it is figurative. ‘Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man,’ says Christ, ‘and drink His blood, ye have no life in you.’ This seems to enjoin a crime or a vice; it is therefore a figure, enjoining that we should have a share in the sufferings of our Lord, and that we should retain a sweet and profitable memory of the fact that His flesh was wounded and crucified for us (Ibid., On Christian Doctrine 3.16.24).

3) Thirdly, Augustine makes a distinction between the physical, historical body of Christ and the sacramental presence. He says that Christ’s physical body cannot literally be present in the sacrament of the eucharist because he is physically at the right hand of God in heaven and will be there until comes again, though he is he spiritually present:

But in respect of the flesh He assumed as the Word, in respect of that which He was as the son of the Virgin, of that wherein He was seized by the Jews, nailed to the tree, let down from the cross, enveloped in a shroud, laid in a sepulchre, and manifested in His resurrection, ‘ye will not have Him always.’ And why? Because in respect of His, bodily presence He associated for forty days with His disciples, and then, having brought them forth for the purpose of beholding and not of following Him, He ascended into heaven, and is no longer here. He is there, indeed, sitting at the right hand of the Father; and He is here also, having never withdrawn the presence of His glory. In other words, in respect of His divine presence in the flesh it was rightly said to the disciples, ‘Me ye will not have always.’ In this respect the Church enjoyed His presence only for a few days: now it possesses Him by faith, without seeing Him with the eyes. In whichever way, then, it was said, ‘But me ye will not have always,’ it can no longer, I suppose, after this twofold solution, remain as a subject of doubt (Ibid., Letter 118.8-10).

The Lord Jesus, in the discourse which He addressed to His disciples after the supper, when Himself in immediate proximity to His passion, and, as it were, on the eve of depriving them of His bodily presence while continuing His spiritual presence to all His disciples till the very end of the world…(Ibid., John: Tractate 92.1).

4) Fourthly, because Christ is physically in heaven Augustine interprets the discourse in John 6 of eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood figuratively. He teaches that Christ is not talking about a literal eating and drinking of his body and blood but is employing figurative terms to describe what it means to spiritually appropriate him and his atoning sacrifice by faith. His presence is a spiritual and the sacrament is spiritual and not physical. He says that true eating and drinking means that a person abides in Christ and he clearly distinguishes this from partaking of the sacrament. If a person partakes of the sacrament but does not abide in Christ, he does not eat the flesh of Christ or drink his blood:

Our Lord Himself, when He was speaking in praise of this same earth, said, ‘It is the Spirit that quickeneth, the flesh profiteth nothing.’ … But when our Lord praised it, He was speaking of His own flesh, and He had said, ‘except a man eat My flesh, he shall have no life in him.’ Some disciples of His, about seventy, were offended, and said, ‘This is an hard saying, who can hear it?’ And they went back, and walked no more with Him. it seemed unto them hard that He said, ‘Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man, ye have no life in you:’ they received it foolishly, they thought of it carnally, and imagined that the Lord would cut off parts from His body, and give unto them; and they said, ‘This is a hard saying.’ It was they who were hard, not the saying; for unless they had been hard, and not meek, they would have said unto themselves, He saith not this without reason, but there must be some latent mystery herein. They would have remained with Him, softened, not hard: and would have learnt that from Him which they who remained, when the others departed, learnt. For when twelve disciples had remained with Him, on their departure, these remaining followers suggested to Him, as if in grief for the death of the former, that they were offended by His words, and turned back. But He instructed them, and saith unto them, ‘It is the Spirit that quickeneth, but the flesh profiteth nothing; the words that I have spoken unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.’ Understand spiritually what I have said; ye are not to eat this body which ye see; nor to drink that blood which they who will crucify Me shall pour forth. I have commended unto you a certain mystery; spiritually understood, it will quicken. Although it is needful that this be visibly celebrated, yet it must be spiritually understood (Ibid., John: Tractate 27.5,6)

‘Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man,’ says Christ, ‘and drink His blood, ye have no life in you.’ This seems to enjoin a crime or a vice; it is therefore a figure, enjoining that we should have a share in the sufferings of our Lord, and that we should retain a sweet and profitable memory of the fact that His flesh was wounded and crucified for us (Ibid., On Christian Doctrine 3.16.24).

Augustine makes an interesting statement regarding the response of the Jews to the preaching of the Apostles after Christ’s resurrection and ascension. He describes their response of faith to the preaching of the gospel as ‘drinking Christ’s blood’ which could only have a spiritual meaning:

For on the sending down of the Holy Spirit after the Lord’s passion, and resurrection, and ascension, when miracles were being done in the name of Him whom, as if dead, the persecuting Jews had despised, they were pricked in their hearts; and they who in their rage slew Him were changed and believed; and they who in their rage shed His blood, now in the spirit of faith drank it; to wit, those three thousand, and those five thousand Jews… (Ibid., John: Tractate 40.2).

These teachings of Augustine are clearly spiritualistic and figurative as opposed to the materialistic emphases which became more and more prevalent. J.N.D. Kelly offers this excellent summation of his teaching:

This leads us to the vital question of how he conceives of the eucharistic body. There is no suggestion in his writings of the conversion theory sponsored by Gregory of Nyssa and Ambrose…His thought moves, as we should expect, much more along the lines laid down by Tertullian and Cyprian. For example, he can speak of ‘the banquet in which He presented and handed down to His disciples the figure (figuram) of His body and blood.’ But he goes further than his predecessors in formulating a doctrine which, while realist through and through, is also frankly spiritualizing. In the first place, he makes it clear that the body consumed in the eucharist is not strictly identical with Christ’s historical body, and represents Him as saying, ‘You must understand what I have said in a spiritual sense. You are not going to eat this body which you see or drink that blood which those who will crucify me are going to shed.’ The historical body ascended in its integrity to heaven. In any case the eucharistic flesh is not like ‘flesh rent asunder in a corpse or sold in the meat-market.’ … Secondly, and more importantly, the gift which the eucharist conveys is a gift of life. This is a spiritual gift, and the eating and drinking are spiritual processes. The eucharistic body is not the sensible flesh; rather we receive the essence of this flesh, viz. the spirit which quickens it. Sometimes he carries this spiritualizing tendency to its limits, as when he says, ‘Why make ready your teeth and your belly? Believe, and you have eaten’; or again, ‘To believe in Him is to eat the living bread. He who believes eats, and is invisibly filled, because he is reborn invisibly.’ His real point, however, is that Christ’s body and blood are not consumed physically and materially; what is consumed in this way is the bread and wine. The body and blood are veritably received by the communicant, but are received sacramentally or, as one might express it, in figura (19J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978), pp.448-449).

These views of Augustine are obviously in direct opposition to those of the Council of Trent. In fact, his teachings on the eucharist have been anathematized by that Council. This highlights once again the lack of patristic consensus on the teaching of this major doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. The materialist views eventually win out but even to the time of the Scholastic age there were many prominent theologians such as Duns Scotus, Biel, Occam and Wessel who rejected the dogma of transubstantiation. Seeburg comments:

In regard to the Lord’s Supper, mention must be made of a theory which found many adherents. It is the view mentioned already, and not without sympathy, by Duns, i.e., that, even after the creation of the body of Christ, the substance of the bread is retained, and not merely the accidents …Occam calls attention to the fact, that the Scriptures do not contain the theory of transubstantiation. . .and he plainly intimates that the view, that the substance of the bread and wine remain, is ‘very reasonable:’ ‘Neither is the contrary to this contained in the canonical Bible, nor does it any more include any contradiction, that the body of Christ coexists with the substance of the bread, than (that it coexists with) its accidents, nor is it repugnant to reason’ … Nevertheless, out of regard for the Roman church, he will continue to hold transubstantiation.
Wessel also holds to both the presence of the body of Christ … and the continued existence of the bread, ‘which truly vivifies and refines alone by signifying … and by pious commemoration … The chief thing is that Christ ‘desired to be corporally near … to those longing for him’ … and that spirit and life are thereby brought to us (Reinhold Seeberg, Text-Book of the History of Doctrines (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1952), Volume 2, pp. 203-204).

The Eucharistic Sacrifice

The other major characteristic of the Roman Catholic position on the Eucharist is that it is a propitiatory sacrifice. It is not a mere memorial of the atoning sacrifice of Christ but a renewed perpetuation of that sacrifice every time the mass is offered. In the mass, Christ is physically present on the altar in the priestly consecration, and he then becomes, according to the Roman Church, the divine victim who is immolated on the altar. The word immolate specifically means to slay or kill. And this sacrifice is efficacious as a sin payment to satisfy God’s justice.


It is important that we carefully clarify the exact meaning of the authoritative teaching of the Curch of Rome as there are some present day Catholic writers who deny that the Roman Catholic Church teaches that the mass is the re-sacrifice of Christ or that he is slain again. But the words of the Council of Trent are quite clear in their meaning when it says:

For, having celebrated the ancient Passover, which the multitude of the children of Israel immolated in memory of their going out of Egypt, he instituted the new Passover (to wit), himself to be immolated, under visible signs by the Church through the ministry of priests, in memory of his own passage from this world unto the Father … In this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the mass, the same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner who once offered himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross … For the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different (The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Baker Book House (1919 ed.), Session XXII, Chapter II).

There are a number of important parallels between the sacrifice of the cross and the sacrifice of the mass set forth by Trent in these statements. Christ is physically present on the altar by the miracle of transubstantiation and just as he was the divine victim and was offered and immolated on the cross as a propitiatory sacrifice, so in the mass, which is a distinct sacrifice in its own right, he is also referred to as the divine victim who is offered and immolated as a propitiatory sacrifice. The only difference between the sacrifice of the cross and the sacrifice of the mass is that one is bloody and the other unbloody.

The key word to understand is ‘immolate’. This word comes from the Latin term immolare. An English dictionary defines the basic meaning of the word to mean to slay or to kill. However, this does not necessarily mean that this is the way the Latin word may have been used in the sixteenth century. The most recent research undertaken by the Oxford Medieval Latin Dictionary on the meaning of the word ‘immolate’ reveals the following meanings:

1) To offer a victim in sacrifice: in classical ritual; in Jewish ritual; in pagan ritual or witchcraft.

2) To offer a victim in sacrifice to God: with reference to Christ, especially his crucifixion; with reference to martydom.

3) To give a symbolic offering to God: with reference to the eucharist; with reference to Easter ritual.

4) To give (property) to the Church.

5) To devote; to dedicate.

With respect to the sacrifice of the cross immolare means to offer a sacrificial victim in death. John Hardon, in his Question and Answer Catholic Catechism, states that the sacrifice on the cross was a true sacrifice because Christ was immolated since he was put to death (Question 1262). He specifically defines immolation as being put to death.

Because the eucharist is not a symbolic offering according to Roman Catholic theology, since in the mass Christ is literally present on the altar, is literally sacrificed, is directly associated with the sacrifice of Calvary, is referred to as a victim, is offered in the mass the same way he was offered on Calvary, and is likened to the passover Lamb which was immolated, then the proper meaning to be applied to the word immolare as used by Trent would be that of offering a victim in sacrifice to God which specifically means death. This concept is further enunciated by Ludwig Ott when he states:

According to Gregory Nazianzus, the priest, uttering the words of consecration, ‘sunders with unbloody cut the body and blood of the Lord, using his voice as a sword’ (Ep. 171). Supported by the terminology of the Fathers, theologians speak of an unbloody or mystical immolation of Christ (immolatio incruenta, mactatio mystics) of the Divine sacrificial lamb … M. de la Taille places the essential sacrificial act in the oblation, but maintains that the immolation also (sacrificial slaying) is requisite for the sacrifice of expiation … Those theories of the sacrifice of the Mass are most probable which link together the sacramental slaying by the double consecration and Christ’s inward act of oblation … The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the self-sacrifice of Christ …(Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford: Tan, 1960), pp. 409-413).

Ott is obviously using the language of death to describe the sacrifice of the mass. Therefore, because the cross is a sacrifice in which Christ is immolated by being slain and the mass is proclaimed by Trent to be the same sacrifice as Calvary in which Christ continues to be immolated, then the immolation in the mass is the same as that of Calvary. Christ continues to be slain. Since Rome teaches that Christ is physically present in the elements, and that just as He was offered on the cross, so He is offered in the Mass, there is no other conclusion one can draw from the language of the Council of Trent, especially as it teaches that the mass is a propitiatory sacrifice.

The key point to understand in the Roman Catholic teaching of the eucharistic sacrifice is that Christ is truly being re-sacrificed for sin. The sacrifice of the cross is being reenacted, not as a mere memorial, but literally, only now it is unbloody. John Hardon makes these comments:

1265. What is the Sacrifice of the Mass?

The Sacrifice of the Mass is the true and properly called Sacrifice of the New Law. It is the Sacrifice in which Christ is offered under the species of bread and wine in an unbloody man­ner. The Sacrifice of the altar, then, is no mere empty commemo­ration of passion and Death of Jesus Christ, but a true and proper act of sacrifice. Christ, the eternal High Priest, in an unbloody way offers himself a most acceptable Victim to the eter­nal Father, as he did upon the Cross.

1266. How does the Mass re-present Calvary?

The Mass re-presents Calvary by continuing Christ’s sacrifice of himself to his heavenly Father. In the Mass, no less than on Calvary, Jesus really offers his life to his heavenly Father. This is possible because in the Mass is the same priest, Jesus Christ, who with his human will (united to the divine) offers himself; and it is the same victim, Jesus Christ, whose human life (united with the divinity) is sacrificed. The only difference is that, being now glorified, Christ cannot die a physical death as he did on the Cross. St. Paul writes of Christ’s self-offering: “Since men only die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, too, offers himself only once to take the faults of many on himself” (Hebrews 9:27-28).

1267. How is the Sacrifice of the Cross continued on earth?

The Sacrifice of the Cross is continued on earth through the Sacrifice of the Mass.

These words are unambiguous. Christ’s sacrifice of Himself is continued through the sacrifice of the Mass. In the Mass, no less than on Calvary, Christ continues to offer Himself in sacrifice for sin. Therefore the sacrifice of Calvary is continued on earth. Vatican II states:

Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, “the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross,” but especially under the Eucharistic species (pp. 140-141).

At the Last Supper, on the night when He was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic Sacrifice of His Body and Blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries until He should come again (p. 154).

There are those who object to the charge that what Trent meant by immolation is a renewed slaying of Christ. Historically, the word immolate had been used by Fathers and theologians of the Church to refer to the eucharist as a commemoration of the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ. Augustine, for example, used the word in this way. The meaning of the term as it was expressed by him was strictly that of a sacramental commemoration, it was not literal. However, Trent’s use of the term added a new dimension of meaning to the word which differs from that of Augustine for he did not view Christ as being physically present in the sacrament, nor the eucharist as a propitiatory sacrifice for sin. Augustine certainly did not teach that the sacrifice of the eucharist was the same as the sacrifice of Calvary.

But in Roman theology the eucharist is not merely the commemoration of a sacrifice, it is itself the same sacrifice as Calvary, and the immolation is literal. In the mass Christ is literally and physically present on the altar. He is referred to as a victim and is literally offered and sacrificed in the same manner as he was offered and sacrificed on the cross as an expiation or satisfaction for sin. One would seem to be justified in concluding that the Council of Trent understood immolare to refer to the offering of a victim in sacrifice to God, specifically in death, since this is how Christ was offered on the cross. The teaching of Trent on the nature of the mass is that it is a repetition of the sacrifice of Christ because he is offered again as a propitiation for sin.

While the exact meaning of the term immolare as employed by Trent may be disputed, there is no ambiguity about the fact that the Council teaches that the mass is a propitiatory sacrifice for sin. It was at this point that the Reformers universally challenged the Roman teaching. They charged that if the mass were truly a propitiatory sacrifice then Christ must die, which contradicts the clear statement of Scripture that Christ died once-for-all and can never die again (Rom. 6:9-10). And on the other hand, if Rome teaches that Christ does not die, its teaching that the mass is propitiatory for sin is false for it is not a true sacrifice. Vatican II says that the mass was instituted in order to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice through time. But if his death was once-for-all it cannot be perpetuated through time. Christ can never die again and therefore His sacrifice cannot be repeated or perpetuated. Additionally, Scripture teaches that the offering of His body as a sacrifice for sin was once-for-all and cannot be repeated (Hebrews 10:10). Consequently, the Roman Catholic teaching that in the eucharist Christ is made physically present and His body is again made an offering for sin is patently contradictory to the word of God. Full propitiation for sin was accomplished at Calvary once-for-all.

The propitiatory nature of the eucharist is the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and it claims that its interpretation and practice is a fulfilment of the prophecy of Malachi 1:11 that a pure and bloodless sacrifice would be offered throughout the world which was acceptable to God. Once again, however, we find this interpretation disputed by the vast majority of Fathers in the early Church. The Roman Catholic Church would lead us to believe that its particular teaching of the eucharistic sacrifice has been the view universally held in the Church from the very beginning. But, as with the teaching on the Real Presence, there is a parallel situation historically with the concept of the eucharist as a sacrifice. Some of the Fathers approach the Roman Catholic interpretation, but the majority do not. Their writings reveal that they viewed the Lord’s Supper as a memorial of thanksgiving and praise in commemoration or remembrance of Christ’s once-for-all atoning sacrifice, and not as a propitiatory sacrifice for sin. They referred to the prophecy of Malachi and taught that the eucharist was indeed a partial fulfilment of that prophecy, and even referred to it as a sacrifice, but they did not interpret this in the same way as the Church of Rome has done. The following comments by Eusebius are representative of this point of view:

Having then received the memory of this sacrifice to celebrate upon the Table by means of the symbols of His body and His saving blood, according to the laws of the new covenant, we are again taught by the prophet David to say: ‘Thou hast prepared a table before me in the sight of mine adversaries, Thou hast annointed my head with oil; and Thy cup cheering me, how good it is.’ Plainly then are here signified the mystic chrism and the solemn sacrifices of the Table of Christ, through which in our happy sacrificial rites … we have been taught to offer all life long bloodless and reasonable and acceptable sacrifices to the supreme God through His High priest, who is over all … These spiritual sacrifices … again the words of the prophet proclaim, saving in a certain place: ‘Sacrifice to God the sacrifice of praise; and pay thy vows to the Most High: And call upon Me in the day of trouble; and I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify Me.’ And again, ‘The lifting up of my hands the evening sacrifice.’ And again, ‘A sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit.’
+++All these things then, which were divinely foretold of old, are being celebrated among all the nations at the present time through the teaching of our Saviour in the Gospels, the truth bearing witness to the prophetic voice by which God rejecting the sacrifices of the law of Moses proclaims that which is to be among ourselves, saying, ‘From the rising of the sun even unto its setting My Name has been glorified among the nations and in every place incense is offered unto My name, and a pure sacrifice’. We sacrifice then to the supreme God a sacrifice of praise; we sacrifice the divine and solemn and most holy sacrifice- we sacrifice in a new a according to the new covenant of the pure sacrifice. ‘A contrite heart’ has been called ‘a sacrifice to God’. ‘A contrite and humbled heart God will not despise.’ And moreover we burn the incense spoken of by the prophet, in every place bringing to Him the sweet smelling fruit of the excellent theology, offering it by means of our prayers to Him. This also another prophet teaches in saving. ‘Let my prayer be as incense before Thee.’
+++We then both sacrifice and burn incense, celebrating the memory of the great sacrifice in the mysteries which He has delivered to us and bringing to God our thanksgiving for our salvation … by means of pious hymns and prayers, and also wholly dedicating ourselves to Him and to His High Priest, the Word Himself, making our offering … in body and soul. Our Saviour Jesus, the Christ of God, after the manner of Melchizedek still even now accomplishes by means of His ministers the rites of His priestly work among men. For as that priest of the Gentiles never seems to have used bodily sacrifices, but only wine and bread when He blessed Abraham, so our Saviour and Lord Himself first, and then all the priests who in succession from Him are throughout all the nations, celebrating the spiritual priestly work in accordance with the laws of the Church, represent … with wine and bread the mysteries of His body and saving blood (Eusebius, Demonstratio Evangelica I.x.28-38. Taken from Darwell Stone, A History of the Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist, Volume One, pp. 110-111).

The specific idea of the eucharist as a sacrificial sin-offering was first introduced in a somewhat obscure way by Origen, but particularly through Cyprian. This emphasis coincided with his heavy emphasis upon the sacerdotal nature of the priestly ministry which, in his view, was the New Testament counterpart to the Old Testament priesthood. Philip Scahff summarizes the views of the early Fathers:

The Lord’s Supper was universally regarded not only as a sacrament, but also as a sacrifice, the true and eternal sacrifice of the new covenant, superseding all the provisional and typical sacrifices of the old; taking the place particularly of the passover, or the feast of typical redemption from Egypt. This eucharistic sacrifice, however, the ante-Nicene fathers conceived not as an unbloody repetition of the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross, but simply as a commemoration and renewed appropriation of that atonement, and, above all, a thank-offering of the whole church for all the favors of God in creation and redemption. Hence the current name itself – eucharist; which denoted in the first place the prayer of thanksgiving, but afterwards the whole rite … Upon this followed the idea of the self-sacrifice of the worshiper himself, the sacrifice of renewed self-consecration to Christ in return for his sacrifice on the cross, and also in the sacrifice of charity to the poor (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), Volume 2, pp. 245-246).

Bethune-Baker gives the following description of the Lord’s Supper as depicted in the New Testament by the apostle Paul which is very useful in helping us to understand the sense in which the early Fathers viewed the eucharist as a sacrifice:

Another aspect of the rite as it presented itself to St Paul is shewn by the words, ‘Do this as a memorial of me’, and ‘As often as ye eat this bread and drink the cup, ye proclaim the death of the Lord’. It had not only union with Christ as its effect, but also the perpetuation of the memory of his death according to his own command. It was to be a memorial of him and of all that his death signified – the broken body and the shed blood; and it was to continue till his coming again. Such a commemoration was in its very nature also an act of thanksgiving, and thanks giving was always an essential part of the rite … The conception of the Eucharist as a sacrifice is not prominent in these early accounts, but the sacrificial aspect of the rite is sufficiently suggested. As the death of Christ was a sacrifice, to ‘proclaim the death of the Lord’ is to proclaim the sacrifice, or, in other words, to acknowledge it before men and to plead it before God. It was ‘on behalf of’ others that the body was given to be broken and the blood was poured out, and through the use of these words the Eucharist is unmistakeably the memorial of a sacrifice (J F. Bethune-Baker, An Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine (London: Methuen, 1903), pp. 29,31).

This description of the eucharist as a memorial of Christ’s sacrifice is, as Philip Schaff mentioned, the view held by the early Fathers of the Church. This is clearly seen in the writings of the Fathers of the first few centuries. First of all, the Didache makes mention of the eucharist as a believer’s sacrifce by which it means that it is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving and most probably an act of self­giving to the Lord. It in no way speaks of it as a propitiatory sacrifice that repeats the sacrifice of Christ. It is a memorial of thanksgiving and praise. Ignatius, though not directly describing the eucharist in sacrificial terms, nevertheless does allude to it as such by connecting the offering of the eucharist with an altar, but he does not identify this with the forgiveness of sins.

Clement of Rome has often been used as a support by Roman Catholic writers of their sacrificial conception of the eucharist. There is one sentence that has been translated to give the impression that the bishops offered the eucharist as a propitiatory sacrifice. However, the original language will not allow for that interpretation of his writings. The sentence in question is found in I Clement 44.4 and is translated by some to read: ‘For it will be no light sin for us, if we thrust out those who have offered the sacrifices of the bishops office unblameably and holily.’ But the greek word which they have translated sacrifices in this sentence is not the word sacrifice. It should be translated by the English word gifts, for the greek word is doran. Therefore the sentence should read, ‘For it will be no light sin for us, if we thrust out those who have offered the gifts of the bishop’s office unblameably and holily.’ If Clement had meant to convey the idea of sacrifice he could easily have done so for in I Clement 41 he uses the term sacrifice when describing the ministry of the Old Testament priesthood. The offering of gifts is a totally different idea from that of the Roman Catholic view of a propitiatory sacrifice. The term gifts as used by the early church would cover a broad range of different applications including the offering of the eucharistic elements. But this did not include the concept of a sin-offering. Seeburg comments:

In earlier times, the virtues and prayers of believers had been called gifts … particularly the eucharistic prayer … Thus also the presentation of the elements of the Lord’s Supper before God (Reinhold Seeburg, Text-Book of the History of Doctrines (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1952), Volume 1, p. 196).

Augustine makes mention of the altar and gifts in Christian worship, just as Ignatius and Clement, and he gives the following interpretation to these terms:

And so we may interpret the altar spiritually, as being faith itself in the inner temple of God, whose emblem is the visible altar. For whatever offering we present to God, whether prophecy, or teaching, or prayer, or a psalm, or a hymn, and whatever other such like spiritual gift occurs to the mind, it cannot be acceptable to God, unless it be sustained by sincerity of faith, and, as it were, placed on that fixedly and immoveably, so that what we utter may remain whole and uninjured. For many heretics, not having the altar, i.e. true faith, have spoken blasphemies for praise…(Philip Scahff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume VI, Saint Augustine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Sermon on the Mount, Book I, Chapter 10.27).

The altar, says Augustine, is not used for a literal sacrifice but for spiritual offerings or gifts of service and worship which come from a heart that is imbued with true faith.

Justin Martyr speaks in very clear terms of the eucharist as memorial or commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice. He does refer to it as the sacrifice which Gentiles now offer to God in fulfilment of the prophecy of Malachi. But this sacrifice is a spiritual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. This is evident from his comparison of the Jewish sacrifices and rite of circumcision with the spiritual sacrifices and spiritual circumcision that results in the heart of those who truly know Jesus Christ:

God has therefore announced in advance that all the sacrifices offered in His name, which Jesus Christ commanded to be offered, that is, the Eucharist of the Bread and of the Chalice, which are offered by us Christians in every part of the world, are pleasing to Him … Now, I also admit that prayers and thanksgivings, offered by worthy persons, are the only perfect and acceptable sacrifices to God. For Christians were instructed to offer only such prayers, even at their thanksgiving for their food, both liquid and solid, whereby the Passion which the Son of God endured for us is commemorated … But there is not one single race of men – whether barbarians, or Greeks, or persons called by other name, nomads, or vagabonds, or herdsmen dwelling in tents – among whom prayers and thanksgivings are not offered to the Father and Creator of the universe in the name of Christ Jesus (“Thomas B. Falls, Saint Justin Martyr (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University, 1948), The First Apology 70; Dialogue with Trypho 41, 117).

The thoughts of Irenaeus move very much along the same lines as those of Justin. He too refers to the eucharist as the fulfilment of Malachi’s prophecy and characterizes it as a thank offering to God. However he is much more explicit in suggesting that the true sacrifice intended in the eucharist are the prayers of true believers which come from pure hearts that are wholly yielded to God and undefiled by sin. He also mentions the offerings of one’s possessions which are a pure and acceptable sacrifice to God so long as it is given from a right heart. It is very evident that the memorial of the Lord’s Supper is to promote thanksgiving and praise and a spirit and disposition of self-giving to God in light of Christ’s sacrifice for the believer.

Tertullian says that the true sacrifices offered to God are not carnal, physical sacrifices but the spiritual sacrifice of a broken and a contrite heart before God. It is the sacrifice of spiritual praise and worship. This, he says, is the fulfilment of the prophecy of Malachi which is pure and acceptable to God and which will be offered throughout the world among all the Gentiles and which will bring glory to God’s name:

‘Bring to God, ye countries of the nations’ – undoubtedly because ‘unto every land the preaching of the apostles had to ‘go out’ – ‘bring to God fame and honour; bring to God the sacrifices of His name: take up victims and enter into His courts.’ For that it is not by earthly sacrifices, but by spiritual, that offering is to be made to God, we thus read, as it is written, An heart contribulate and humbled is a victim for God;’ and elsewhere, ‘Sacrifice to God a sacrifice of praise, and render to the Highest thy vows.’ Thus, accordingly, the spiritual ‘sacrifices of praise’ are pointed to, and ‘an heart contribulate’ is demonstrated an acceptable sacrifice to God. And thus, as carnal sacrifices are understood to be reprobated – of which Isaiah withal speaks, saying, ‘To what end is the multitude of your sacrifices to me? saith the Lord’ – so spiritual sacrifices are predicted as accepted, as the prophets announce. For, ‘even if ye shall have brought me,’ He says, ‘the finest wheat flour, it is a vain supplicatory gift: a thing execrable to me;’ and again he says, ‘Your holocausts and sacrifices, and the fat of goats, and blood of bulls, I will not, not even if ye come to be seen by me: for who hath required these things from your hands?’ for ‘from the rising sun unto the setting, my Name hath been made famous among all the nations, saith the Lord. But of the spiritual sacrifices He adds, ‘And in every place they offer clean sacrifices to my Name, saith the Lord’ (Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Tertullian (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), An Answer to the Jews, Chapter 5).

Like Tertullian, Origen sees the real meaning of the eucharistic sacrifice as the self-surrender of the soul to God. J.N.D. Kelly gives the following teaching of Hippolytus on the eucharist as a sacrifice:

Hippolytus is a little more definite, speaking of it as the new sacrifice foretold by Malachi, ‘the sacrifice and libation which are now offered’. In his eyes it commemorates the Last Supper and the passion; the bread and cup are offered in it, but only after the celebrant has recalled the Lord’s words and actions at the Supper. The whole is ‘the oblation of the holy Church’, its object being that Christians may praise and glorify God through His incarnate Son (J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978), p.214).

These Fathers of the first two centuries are unanimous in their description of the eucharist as a memorial or commemoration of the sacrifice of Christ. It is a sacrifice in the respect that it involves the prayers and praise of God’s people, the self-surrender of themselves to God from broken and contrite hearts, and the giving of material offerings to the poor. Many of them refer to the prophecy of Malachi and the eucharist as the fulfilment of that prophecy, but they all, with one accord, speak of the offerings prophesied by Malachi in the spiritual terms just described. There is no mention of the eucharist as the literal and renewed sacrifice of Christ as a propitiatory sin-offering. The Roman Catholic Church also claims the prophecy in Malachi to support its particular view of the sacrificial nature of the eucharist but the interpretation of the early Fathers of that prophecy is opposed to that claimed by the Roman Church.

Though the early Church unanimously viewed the eucharist in spiritual terms, there began to emerge the concept of a literal sacrifice in the eucharist. Nearly all historians agree that this change first began with Cyprian. The Church at this time was moving farther and farther away from the true spirituality of the apostolic age and was beginning to lose the distinctiveness and purity of the gospel as the concept of human works to gain merit for sins committed after baptism through peanace, asceticism and good works began to be set forth. Thus, the eucharist as a sacrifice began also to be looked upon as a means of propitiating God for sins committed after baptism. Men began to see the priest and Christian ministry as being parallel to priesthood and ministry of the Old Testament. And though the analogy had been set forth by Fathers earlier, they always emphasized that New Testament ministry had displaced the carnal sacrifices of Judaism with the spiritual sacrifices of the Church on the basis of the completed sacrifice of Christ. But now the analogy lost its spiritual character. More and more Christianity begins to lose its true spirituality to materializing and externalizing influences. With a materialistic view of the elements in the eucharist there now began to develop through the influence of Cyprian, with his view of the sacerdotal nature of the priesthood, the concept of the eucharist as a literal sacrifice, even though Cyprian himself still retains to a large degree the idea that this sacrifice is a commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice. Jaroslav Pelikan is representative of the historians in these comments on Cyprian:

One of the most ample and least ambiguous statements of the sacrificial interpretation of the Eucharist in any ante-Nicene theologian was that of Cyprian, who is also one of the earliest authorities for the sacerdotal interpretation of the Christian ministry. In the course of a discussion of liturgical problems, Cyprian laid down the axiom: ‘If Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, is himself the chief priest of God the Father, and has first offered himself a sacrifice to the Father, and has commanded this to be done in commemoration of himself, certainly that priest truly discharges the office of Christ who imitates that which Christ did; and he then offers a true and full sacrifice in the church to God the Father, when he proceeds to offer it according to what he sees Christ himself to have offered.’ This was based on the belief that ‘the passion of the Lord is the sacrifice which we offer.’ The sacrifice of Christ on Calvary was a complete offering; the sacrifice of the Eucharist did not add anything to it, nor did it ‘repeat’ it, as though there were more than the one sacrifice. But as the sacrifice of Melchizedek the priest ‘prefigured the sacrament of the sacrifice of the Lord,’ so the eucharistic sacrifice of the church was performed ‘in commemoration’ of the sacrifice of Good Friday and in ‘celebration with a legitimate consecration.’ In other liturgical discussions, too, Cyprian made it clear that ‘sacrifice’ was an appropriate way of speaking about the Eucharist; but he also insisted that ‘the sacrifice of a broken spirit’ was ‘a sacrifice to God equally precious and glorious’ (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A history of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1974), Volume 1, pp. 168-169).

Though Cyprian seems to think of the Eucharist in the traditional terms of a memorial he introduces the concept, as Kelly puts it, of a sacramental re-enactment of the original sacrifice of Christ. In his mind the eucharist is a sacrifice in the sense that it sets forth as a memorial, the original sacrifice. But it is only a short step, given the materializing influences within the Church, to embracing the view that the eucharist is more than a sacramental re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice in commemoration of him, to the idea that Christ is truly and literally immolated on the altar. This view began to be embraced and was promoted by such fathers as Cyril of Jerusalem, Chrysostom and many others. Note the following realistic language of Chrysostom:

‘The bread which we break, is it not a communion of the Body of Christ?’ …But why adds he also, ‘which we break?’ For although in the Eucharist one may see this done, yet on the cross not so, but the very contrary. For, ‘A bone of Him,’ saith one, ‘shall not be broken.’ But that which He suffered not on the cross, this He suffers in the oblation for thy sake, and submits to be broken, that He may fill all men’ (Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Volume XII, St. Chrysostom, Homilies on First Corinthians, Homily 24.4, pp. 139-140).

Kelly further emphasises this point in referring to the teaching of Hilary and Jerome:

Hilary…describes the Christian altar as a ‘table of sacrifice’ and speaks of ‘the sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise’ which has replaced the bloody victims of olden days, and of the immolation of the paschal lamb made under the new law. According to Jerome, the dignity of the eucharistic liturgy derives from its association with the passion; it is no mere empty memorial, for the victim of the Church’s daily sacrifice is the Saviour Himself (Opcit., p. 453).

The Fathers who hold this view of the eucharist speak in very realistic terms of the sacrifice of Christ on the altar, indicating that they view this as a literal sacrifice. We have already seen that the Council of Trent speaks of Christ being immolated in the offering of the mass and the theologians of the Scholastic period reiterate constantly that a real immolation of Christ takes place. Seeburg represents the prevalent views of that time by the statements of a number of prominent theologians:

Peter Lombard…regarded the effect of the sacrament as consisting in the forgiveness of venial sins and in the perfection of virtue … Finally, he considers the Lord’s Supper under the aspect of a sacrifice. It is a daily sacrifice: ‘But he is daily immolated in the sacrament, because in the sacrament there is a commemoration of that which was once done.’ The sacrifice is repeated on account of our daily sins. ‘Christ was both once offered and is daily offered; but then in one way, now in another’ … But, side by side with this effect of the sacrament, stands its sacrificial character. The body of Christ is really offered up: ‘There is not only a representative … but a real immolation…’ And this sacrifice is of operative effects similar to those which the sacrifice upon the cross itself produced’ (Biel) (Reinhold Seeberg, Text-Book of the History of Doctrines (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1952), Volume 2, pp. 78, 134).

Philip Schaff gives the following vivid illustration of the literal interpretation of the eucharistic sacrifice of Christ given by Radbert during the 9th century:

He (Radbert) supports his doctrine by the words of institution in their literal sense, and by the sixth chapter of John. He appealed also to marvellous stories of the visible appearances of the body and blood of Christ for the removal of doubts or the satisfaction of the pious desire of the saints. The bread on the altar, he reports, was often seen in the shape of a lamb or a little child, and when the priest stretched out his hand to break the bread, an angel descended from heaven with a knife, slaughtered the lamb or the child, and let his blood run into a cup (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), Volume 4, p. 548).

Even though the Church was leaning more and more towards the concept of the literal sacrifice of Christ in the eucharist, the old view of the memorial of Christ’s sacrifice was still very prevalent and continued to be so for many centuries as the controversies of the 9th and 11th centuries testify. This is due again, to the influence of Augustine. As with the figurative interpretation of John 6 and the spiritual view of the Lord’s Supper which had such an impact on later centuries, so Augustine’s teaching that the eucharist was a memorial of Christ’s sacrifice had equal influence. His teaching is very similar to that of Tertullian. According to Augustine the Lord’s Supper is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, a commemoration of Christ’s passion done in memory of him. It is not Christ who is offered in this memorial but the Church herself offers herself to God through Christ as a living sacrifice from a broken and a contrite heart. This, he says, is the fulfilment of the prophecy of Malachi. The following statements from Augustine affirm these conclusions and are representative of his overall teachings:

So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another, having gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us.’ This is the sacrifice of Christians: we, being many, are one body in Christ. And this also is the sacrifice which the Church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar, known to the faithful, in which she teaches that she herself is offered in the offering she makes to God.
For we ourselves, who are His own city, are His most noble and worthy sacrifice, and it is this mystery we celebrate in our sacrifices, which are well known to the faithful … For through the prophets the oracles of God declared that the sacrifices which the Jews offered as a shadow of that which was to be would cease, and that the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun, would offer one sacrifice (Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Saint Augustine, City of God 10.6.5-6, 19.23).

There are some statements of Augustine which, when taken out of context, can be made to appear to support the Roman Catholic interpretation of the ongoing nature of the sacrifice of Christ in the mass. The following is one example:

Was not Christ once for all offered up in His own person as a sacrifice? and yet, is He not likewise offered up in the sacrament as a sacrifice, not only in the special solemnities of Easter, but also daily among our congregations … (Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Volume I, Letter 98.9, Ad Boniface, p. 410).

If one reads this statement in the context in which it is given it is clear that Augustine does not teach that Christ is literally sacrificed as a propitiatory sacrifice in the Lord’s Supper, but that he is sacramentally celebrated in the sacrament. The reality of Calvary cannot be repeated. The eucharist is simply a sacramental way of remembering Christ’s once for all sacrifice. Thus, the sacrament is called a sacrifice only because it is identified with Calvary as a memorial of that unique sacrifice. This is clear from the context of the above statement:

You know that in ordinary parlance we often say, when Easter is approaching, ‘Tomorrow or the day after is the Lord’s Passion,’ although He suffered so many years ago, and His passion was endured once for all time. In like manner, on Easter Sunday, we say, ‘This day the Lord rose from the dead,’ although so many years have passed since His resurrection. But no one is so foolish as to accuse us of falsehood when we use these phrases, for this reason, that we give such names to these days on the ground of a likeness between them and the days on which the events referred to actually transpired, the day being called the day of that event, although it is not the very day on which the event took place, but one corresponding to it by the revolution of the same time of the year, and the event itself being said to take place on that day, because, although it really took place long before it is on that day sacramentally celebrated. Was not Christ once for all offered up in His own person as a sacrifice? and yet, is He not likewise offered up in the sacrament as a sacrifice, not only in the special solemnities of Easter, but also daily among our congregations; so that the man who, being questioned, answers that He is offered as a sacrifice in that ordinance, declares what is strictly true? For if sacraments had not some points of real resemblance to the things of which they are the sacraments, they would not be sacraments at all. In most cases, moreover, they do in virtue of this likeness bear the names of the realities which they resemble. As, therefore, in a certain manner the sacrament of Christ’s body is Christ’s body, and the sacrament of Christ’s blood is Christ’s blood, in the same manner the sacrament of faith is faith (Ibid., pp. 409-410).

The symbolical character of the Lord’s supper as a commemoration of the sacrifice of Christ is clearly stated in these words of Augustine:

With all this, you venture to denounce the sacrifices of the Old Testament, and to call them idolatry, and to attribute to us the same impious notion. To answer for ourselves in the first place, while we consider it no longer a duty to offer sacrifices, we recognize sacrifices as part of the mysteries of Revelation, by which the things prophesied were foreshadowed. For they were our examples, and in many and various ways they all pointed to the one sacrifice which we now commemorate. Now that this sacrifice has been revealed, and has been offered in due time, sacrifice is no longer binding as an act of worship, while it retains its symbolical authority … Before the coming of Christ, the flesh and blood of this sacrifice were foreshadowed in the animals slain; in the passion of Christ the types were fulfilled by the true sacrifice; after the ascension of Christ, this sacrifice is commemorated in the sacrament (Ibid., Volume IV, Reply to Faustus the Manichaen, Book VI.5, p. 169; Book XX.21, p. 262).

Augustine’s spiritual/figurative interpretation of the eucharist and the Lord’s Supper greatly influenced the centuries which followed and proves that for many centuries there was no unanimous consensus within the Church on the nature of the eucharist. The controversies of the 9th and 11th centuries highlight this fact and reveal the ongoing conflict which existed between the spiritual and the materialist views. Philip Schaff summarizes the eucharistic controversy of the 9th century between Paschius Radbert and Ratramnus:

Paschius Radbertus (from 800 to about 865), a learned, devout and superstitious monk, and afterwards abbot of Corbie or Corvey in France, is the first who clearly taught the doctrine of transubstantiation as then believed by many, and afterwards adopted by the Roman Catholic church. He wrote a book ‘on the Body and Blood of the Lord,’ composed for his disciple Placidus of New Corbie in the year 831, and afterwards reedited it in a more popular form, and dedicated it to the Emperor Charles the Bald, as a Christmas gift (844). He did not employ the term transubstantiation, which came not into use till two centuries later; but he taught the thing, namely, that ‘the substance of bread and wine is effectually changed … into the flesh and blood of Christ,’ so that after the priestly consecration there is ‘nothing else in the eucharist but the flesh and blood of Christ,’ although ‘the figure of bread and wine remain’ to the senses of sight, touch, and taste. The change is brought about by a miracle of the Holy Spirit, who created the body of Christ in the womb of the Virgin without cohabitation, and who by the same almighty power creates from day to day, wherever the mass is celebrated, the same body and blood out of the substance of bread and wine. He emphasizes the identity of the eucharistic body with the body which was born of the Virgin, suffered on the cross, rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven … He assumes that the soul of the believer communes with Christ, and that his body receives an imperishable principle of life which culminates at last in the resurrection. He thus understood, like several of the ancient fathers, the words of the Saviour: ‘He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day’ (John 6:54) … The book of Radbert created a great sensation in the West, which was not yet prepared to accept the doctrine of transubstantiation without a vigorous struggle.
+++The chief opponent of transubstantiation was Ratramnus, a contemporary monk at Corbie, and a man of considerable literary reputation. He was the first to give the symbolical theory a scientific expression. At the request of Charles the Bald he wrote a eucharistic tract against Radbert, his superior, but did not name him. He answered two questions, whether the consecrated elements are called the body and blood of Christ after a sacramental manner … or in a literal sense; and whether the eucharistic body is identical with the historical body which died and rose again. He denied this identity which Radbert had strongly asserted; and herein lies the gist of the difference. He concluded that the elements remain in reality as well as for sensual perception what they were before the consecration, and that they are the body and blood of Christ only in a spiritual sense to the faith of believers. He calls the consecrated bread and wine figures and pledges of the body and blood of Christ. They are visible tokens of the Lord’s death, that, remembering his passion, we may become partakers of its effect. He appealed to the discourse in the sixth chapter of John, as well as Radbert; but like Augustin, his chief authority, he found the key to the whole chapter in verse 63, which points from the letter to the spirit and from the carnal to the spiritual understanding … It is consistent with this view that Ratramnus regarded the sacrifice of the mass not as an actual (though unbloody) repetition, but only as a commemorative celebration of Christ’s sacrifice whereby Christians are assured of their redemption (Opcit., Volume 4, pp. 546-551).

There was another conflict in the 11th century between Berengar of Tours and Lanfranc, but this is simply a reenactment of the controversy that occurred in the 9th century. The materialist view eventually wins dogmatic sanction which is a renunciation of the teachings of Augustine and that of many of the early Fathers. But all through the centuries leading up to the Reformation, Augustine continued to have great influence as seen in the example of Wickliffe and finally the Reformers.

This historical survey reveals the emptiness of the claims of the Church of Rome to a teaching which is apostolic in origin and handed down through the succession of bishops to the Church. It is quite clear that the authoritative dogma of the Church concerning the Eucharist cannot find unanimous support from the major fathers of the early centuries. The early Church certainly taught the concept of the Real Presence, but the theory of Transubstantiation can claim no patristic support for at least the first three hundred years. And the concept of the eucharist as a sacrifice, as the Roman Church perceives it, is completely lacking in patristic teaching until well after the time of Cyprian. And these issues were debated for many centuries in the Church with the theologians and Fathers expressing contrary opinions. But in addition to the lack of patristic consensus, the teaching of the Church also cannot claim biblical support. These teachings of the Church of Rome are contradictory to Scripture and are therefore not apostolic. It is to the biblical teaching that we now want to turn our attention.

The Biblical View

The fact that the eucharistic dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church are contrary to Scripture is seen first of all with respect to its teaching that the eucharist is a propitiatory sacrifice in which Christ is immolated on the altar for sin. But according to the Scriptures this simply cannot be true. The word of God teaches that the sacrifice of Jesus was a once for all sacrifice which cannot be repeated. It teaches that his sacrifice has completely dealt with the penalty of sin and that there is now no more sacrifice for sin. There is an important Greek word which is used to describe both the death and the sacrifice of Christ. That word is ephapax which means ‘once for all.’ Romans 6:9-10 clearly states that Christ can never die again because his death was ‘once for all.’ But the exact same Greek word which is used to describe Christ’s death is also used to describe his sacrifice in Hebrews 7 and 10 when it tells us that Christ cannot be sacrificed daily, that his body is offered ‘once for all’ and that because this once for all sacrifice has brought complete forgiveness of sin there is therefore no more offering or sacrifice for sin. Note the following Scriptures:

Who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all (ephapax) when He offered up Himself (Heb. 7:25).

By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (ephapax) (Heb. 10:10).

But He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God (Heb. 10:12).

For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified (Heb. 10:14).

Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no more offering for sin (Heb. 10:18).

Over and over again Scripture emphasizes that just as the death of Christ is once for all and can in no way be repeated or perpetuated through time, so the sacrifice of Christ is also once for all and can in no way be repeated or perpetuated through time. But the Roman Catholic Church teaches that Christ is transubstatiated on the altar and his body is literally offered in immolation as a sacrificial victim which is propitiatory for sin. This clearly is contradictory to Scripture for Hebrews 10:10 says that Christ’s body was offered once for all meaning that it would never be offered again, just as he would never die again. Neither the offering of his body nor his sacrifice can be repeated. The need for sacrifices was completely done away with the death of Christ, for he is the perfect fulfilment of the Old Testament system. All that the animal sacrifices and human priesthood signified, Christ has fulfilled, and consequently God has abolished the priesthood and all sacrifices. The Roman Church attempts to get around the obvious contradiction of its teaching to Scripture by saying that the sacrifice of the Mass is not a different sacrifice from that of Calvary, but is the same sacrifice perpetuated through time and that it therefore is not the re-sacrifice of Christ, even though it is a real sacrifice. It will talk about the fact that because God is beyond time that the sacrifice of the cross is always present with him and therefore the sacrifice of the Mass is the same sacrifice as that of Calvary. But this kind of logic is nothing more than a semantical smokescreen. The sacrifice of the cross was an historic space-time event which occured once and can never be repeated and therefore it cannot be perpetuated through time.

Christ is the God-man and though he is truly God he is also truly man and as such is not outside of time. The sacrifice of the cross is indeed perpetually present to God but as a completed work. The application of the Lord’s sacrifice goes on through time in terms of men appropriating the benefits of his finished work, and the commemoration of his sacrifice as a memorial goes on through time, but the sacrifice itself cannot be perpetuated or continued through time. Therefore, to teach that Christ is continually immolated on the altar in the sacrifice of the Mass is to teach that Christ is re­sacrificed. The book of Hebrews warns its readers against apostasizing from the faith by returning to the Jewish sacrificial system. That system had to do with the sacrifice of animals but Hebrews is dealing with more than just animal sacrifices. It is dealing with the whole principle of sacrifice and is saying that there are no more sacrifices for sin of any kind whatsoever. Christ’s one sacrifice has dealt with all sin for all time. But in its teaching that the eucharist is a propitiatory sacrifice for sin the Roman Catholic Church distorts the biblical teaching of the atonement of Christ and therefore of the nature of the forgiveness of sins.

John Stott, the Anglican author and pastor, makes these comments about the nature of Christ’s sacrifice and the eucharistic teachings of the Council of Trent:

The unique finality of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is indicated by the adverb hapax or ephapax (meaning ‘once for all’), which is applied to it five times in the letter to the Hebrews. For example, ‘Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself’ (Heb. 7:27).
+++There are three particularly obnoxious elements in… statements of the Council of Trent and subsequent papal encyclicals, which need to be clarified. The implications are that the sacrifice of the mass, being a daily though unbloody immolation of Christ, (1) is distinct from his ‘bloody’ sacrifice on the cross, and supplementary to it, (2) is made by human priests and (3) is ‘truly propitiatory’. By contrast the Reformers insisted, as we must, that the sacrifice of Christ (1) took place once for all on the cross (so that it cannot be re-enacted or supplemented in any way), (2) was made by himself (so that human beings cannot make it or share in making it), and (3) was a perfect satisfaction for sin (so that any mention of additional propitiatory sacrifices is gravely derogatory to it) (John R.W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1986), pp. 262-263, 265).

Biblical Atonement

Scripture teaches that the Lord Jesus has made a complete atonement for sin in which he has borne all the judgment and punishment that is due to sin in our place. He has completely satisfied God’s justice. The debt has been fully paid and all those who come to God through Jesus Christ are completely forgiven for all their sins and delivered from ever having to render any satisfaction to God in the sense of enduring his wrath or punishment against sin. There is no further expiation for sin that needs to be done to satisfy the justice of God. But the Roman Catholic Church teaches that having sins forgiven does not mean that the punishment due to them is completely dealt with, and, therefore, it sets forth the distinction between the eternal and the temporal punishment due to sin. Roman Catholic writers such as Karl Keating make a distinction between the work of Christ in atonement and expiation. He teaches, for example, that no one can enter heaven who has not completely expiated his sins. And by this he means that sins must not only be forgiven, but that the individual must personally satisfy the justice of God by suffering for them and thereby experience cleansing from them. He explicitly states that having one’s sins forgiven is not equivalent to having the punishment for sin also dealt with. But this is a complete denial of what Scripture teaches about the atonement of Jesus Christ, for the meaning of expiation is embraced by the term atonement. In other words, to make expiation for sins is to make an atonement, and to make atonement is to make expiation. In fact, there is no Hebrew or Greek word used in the Bible specifically for the English word ‘expiation.’ The words atonement, propitiation, sacrifice, redemption and satisfaction are represented by specific Greek and Hebrew words but not the word expiation. But the concept of expiation is expressed in what is accomplished in atonement.

The word atonement is used in both the Old and New Testaments and signifies in a general sense the whole work of God in reconciling man to himself. Sometimes the word reconciliation is actually used as a synonmn for atonement. But in a strictly technical sense atonement is the means to the ultimate end or goal of reconciliation. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia gives the following background on the meaning of the word ‘atonement’ as it is used in the Old and New Testaments:

The root meanings of the Heb words … are, to ‘cover,’ hence expiate, condone, cancel, placate; to ‘offer,’ or ‘receive a sin offering,’ hence make atonement, appease, propitiate; ‘effect reconciliation,’ i.e. by some conduct, or course of action. Of the Gr words the meanings, in order, are ‘to be,’ or ’cause to be, friendly’; ‘to render other,’ hence to restore; ‘to leave’ and with prep. to leave off, i.e. enmity, or evil, etc., ‘to render holy,’ ‘to set apart for’; hence of Deity, to appropriate or accept for Himself. The most frequently employed Heb word, kaphar, is found in the Prophets only in the priestly section … where EV has ‘make reconciliation,’ m, ‘purge away.’ Furthermore it is not found in Dt, which is the prophetic book of the Pent (Hex).
+++This indicates that it is an essentially priestly conception. The same term is frequently tr by ‘reconcile,’ construed as equivalent to ‘make atonement’ (Lev 6.30; 8.15; 16.20; 1 Sam 29.4; Ezk 45.15,20; Dan 9.24). In this latter sense it connects itself with hate’. In 2 Ch 29.24 both words are used: the priests make a sin offering (hats) to effect an atonement (kaphar). But the first word is frequently used by metonymy to include, at least suggestively, the end in view, the reconciliation; and, on the other hand, the latter word is so used as to involve, also, doing that by which atonement is realized.
+++All the symbols, doctrine and examples of atonement in the OT among the Hebrews find their counterpart, fulfilment and complete explanation in the new covenant in the blood of Jesus Christ (Mt 26.28; Heb 12.24). By interpreting the inner spirit of the sacrificial system, by insisting on the unity and holiness of God, by passionate pleas for purity in the people, and especially by teaching the principle of vicarious suffering for sin, the Prophets laid the foundation in thought-forms and in religious atmosphere for such a doctrine of atonement as is presented in the life and teaching of Jesus and as is unfolded in the teaching of His apostles (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), pp.321, 323).

Baker’s Dictionary of Theology makes this statement regarding the biblical concept of atonement:

If we are faithful to the New Testament data, we cannot deny that the atonement of Jesus Christ has a penal aspect. He became the object of retributive justice and hence bore our punishment (Baker’s Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), p. 77).

Thus the concept of atonement means to make sacrifice for sin by bearing its just punishment; to satisfy the justice of God; to remove the guilt and condemnation of sin and thereby to effect reconciliation between God and man. The idea of expiation is more narrow in meaning than atonement, but it is quite clear from the definitions cited above that expiation is a concept that is inherent in the whole work of atonement. This is also clear from the following dictionary definition of expiation:

The act of atoning for a crime. The act of making satisfaction for an offense, by which the guilt is done away and the right or necessity of punishing the crime is cancelled; atonement; satisfaction.

Note it says that expiation is part of atonement and it means that the full punishment for sin has been executed thereby cancelling the necessity for further punishment. Since the Lord Jesus Christ has made a full atonement for sin he has also made a full expiation and has borne the full punishment for all our sin in his own body on the cross. Thus, this teaching that Christ has made atonement but not a full expiation is nonsense.
Contrary to the teachings of the Roman Church cleansing and forgiveness for sin is found in the blood of Jesus Christ alone, and never in the works or sufferings of man, for the Law demands death as a penalty for sin. The only thing that can satisfy the justice of God is a life forfeited in death and that is what Christ has done for man. The significance of the reference to blood with respect to the work of Christ is that it signifies a life given over in death as a substitute for man as a payment for his sin. It is because a full atonement has been made that a full forgiveness can be offered. 1 John 1:7 states, ‘The blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.’ And Ephesians 1:7 says, ‘In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace.’ All penal punishment for sin which has completely satisfied the justice of God was borne by the Lord Jesus Christ as man’s substitute and all cleansing for sin is found in the efficacy of his blood.

The Scriptures nowhere teach that men must suffer the temporal punishment for their own sins to render satisfaction to God, and thereby atone for their own sins, either in this life or in the life to come. All punishment for sin was borne by Christ. Thus, the forgiveness that God offers not only involves forgiveness but also release from all punishment due to the sin as well. This is why the word of God teaches that ‘there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Rom. 8:1). The Scriptures do teach that God disciplines believers for sin but this has nothing to do with making atonement or expiation. The discipline of God is remedial rather than punitive (Heb. 12:4-13).

In its teaching on the eucharist the Church of Rome has violated a fundamental principle of Scripture interpretation. Augustine states that all interpretation must be subject to the overall word of God. The principle is that Scripture, being inspired, will never contradict itself. Therefore, if a particular interpretation is given to a passage of Scripture which is contradictory to the clear teaching of other Scriptures, then one can know that interpretation is incorrect. These are his words:

When, again, not some one interpretation, but two or more interpretations are put upon the same words of Scripture, even though the meaning the writer intended remain undiscovered, there is no danger if it can be shown from other passages of Scripture that any of the interpretations put on the words is in harmony with the truth. And if a man in searching the Scriptures endeavors to get at the intention of the author through whom the Holy Spirit spake, whether he succeeds in this endeavor, or whether he draws a different meaning from the words, but one that is not opposed to sound doctrine, he is free from blame so long as he is supported by the testimony of some other passage of Scripture (Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, St. Augustin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), On Christian Doctrine 3.27).

It is this principle which the Roman Church violates in its interpretation for in saying that the eucharist is a propitiatory sacrifice it contradicts the clear teaching of the New Testament that there is no more sacrifice for sin, and that Jesus’ sacrifice is once for all. The particular interpretation of the Church of Rome is, as Augustine puts it, contrary to sound doctrine.

It is true that Scripture does speak of the eucharisitic sacrifice. The word eucharist literally means thanksgiving and in Hebrews 13:15 the eucharist is associated with Sacrifice. That verse says, ‘Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of the lips that give thanks to His name.’ This verse speaks of the giving of thanks and praise to God as a sacrifice. This is a eucharistic sacrifice. And Scripture also speaks of other sacrifices the believer is to offer to God. Hebrews 13:16 says, ‘And do not neglect doing good and sharing; for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.’ There is also the giving of ourselves continually to God as living sacrifices as a response to the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus for us: ‘I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship’ (Rom. 12:1). These are the sacrifices enjoined in the New Testament but they have absolutely nothing to do with expiation for sin. That was accomplished by the Lord Jessus Christ on the cross of Calvary.

The Church of Rome has long taught that the sacrifice of the Mass is the fulfilment of the prophecy of Malachi 1:11 which states: ‘For from the rising of the sun to its setting, My name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense is going to be offered to My name, and a grain offering that is pure; for My name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.’ The Roman Church teaches that the Mass or the eucharistic sacrifice is the pure grain offering mentioned in this prophecy. But this cannot be true because the offering that Malachi mentions, the minchah or meat offering, has nothing to do with sacrifice for sin. There are five major categories of offerings mentioned in Leviticus and the grain or meat offering is described in Leviticus 2. These offerigs are called sacrifices but they are not sin offerings or propitiatory sacrifices, whereas the eucharist is supposedly a propitiatory sacrifice. The meat offering represents the surrender of all that a person possesses and all that he is to the Lord and Leviticus calls it a memorial, just as it calls the Passover a memorial. And secondly, God says that even under the old dispensation the true gacrifices were not the physical animal sacrifices but the spiritual sacrifices which come from the heart. This is what the animal sacrifices were supposed to lead to in the life of the worshipper, as the grain offering indicates. Psalm 51:17 says, ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.’ Malachi 1:11 speaks of this prophecy being fulfilled among the Gentile nations which could only refer to the New Testament dispensation. Therefore, what Malachi is speaking of are the spiritual sacrifices mentioned above of praise, thanksgiving, self-surrender and service which are offered to God from a broken spirit and a contrite heart in response to the all sufficent, once for all sacrifice of Christ. John Calvin gives these helpful comments on the meaning of sacrifice in the Old and New Testaments:

We must therefore make a distinction, yet in such a way that this distinction may bear an analogical interpretation, from the sacrifices of the Mosaic law, under the shadows of which the Lord willed to represent to his people the universal truth of sacrifices. But although these were of various forms, still they can all be referred to two classes. For either an offering was made for sin by some kind of satisfaction, by which guilt was redeemed before God; or it was a symbol of divine worship and an attestation of religion – sometimes, in the mode of supplication, to ask God’s favor; sometimes, of thanksgiving, to testify gratefulness of heart for benefits received; sometimes, of the exercise of simple piety, to renew the confirmation of the covenant. To this latter sort belonged burnt offerings, libations, oblations, first fruits, and peace offerings.
+++Let us accordingly divide ours into two kinds; and for the purpose of teaching let us call one ‘a sacrifice of praise and reverence,’ since it consists in veneration and worship of God, which believers both owe and render to him; or, if you prefer, ‘a sacrifice of thanksgiving,’ since it is given to God only by those who, laden with innumerable benefits from him, pay back to him their whole selves and all their acts. Let us call the other ‘a sacrifice of propitiation or of expiation.’
+++The sacrifice of expiation is that which is intended to appease God’s wrath, to satisfy his judgment, and so to wash sins and cleanse them that the sinner, purged of their filth and restored to the purity of righteousness, may return into favor with God. The sacrificial victims which were offered under the law to atone for sins (Ex. 29:36) were so called, not because they were capable of recovering God’s favor or wiping out iniquity, but because they prefigured a true sacrifice such as was finally accomplished in reality by Christ alone; and by him alone, because no other could have done it. And it was done but once, because the effectiveness and force of that one sacrifice accomplished by Christ are eternal, as he testified with his own voice when he said that it was fulfilled (John 19:30); that is, whatever was necessary to recover the Father’s favor, to obtain forgiveness of sins, righteousness, and salvation – all this was performed and completed by that unique sacrifice of his. And so perfect was it that no place was left for any other sacrificial victim.
+++Under the second class of sacrifice, which we have called that of ‘thanksgiving,’ are included all duties of love. When we embrace our brethren with these, we honor the Lord himself in his members. Also included are all our prayers, praises, thanksgivings, and whatever we do in the worship of God. All these things finally depend upon the greater sacrifice, by which we are consecrated in soul and body to be a holy temple to the Lord (1 Cor. 3:16, etc.). For it is not enough for our outward acts to be applied to his service; but first ourselves and then all that is ours ought to be consecrated and dedicated to him, so that all that is in us may serve his glory and may zealously aspire to increase it.
+++This kind of sacrifice has nothing to do with appeasing God’s wrath, with obtaining forgiveness of sins, or with meriting righteousness; but is concerned solely with magnifying and exalting God … But this is so necessary for the church that it cannot be absent from it. Therefore, as already appeared above from the prophet, it will continue forever, so long as God’s people shall abide. For in that sense we may understand the prophecy: ‘From the rising of the sun, even to its setting, my name is great among the nations; and in every place incense will be offered to my name among the nations, says the Lord’ (Mal. 1:11, cf. Vg.)…Thus Paul bids us ‘offer our bodies a living sacrifice, holy acceptable to God, a reasonable worship’ (Rom. 12:1; cf. 1 Pet 2:5-6). He spoke very meaningfully there when he added that this is ‘our reasonable worship’; for he had in mind the spiritual manner of worshipping God, which he tacitly contrasted with the carnal sacrifices of the Mosaic law. Doing good and sharing are called sacrifices that are pleasing to God (Heb. 13:16). Thus the generosity of the Philippians in relieving Paul’s poverty is a fragrant sacrifice (Phil 4:18); and thus all the good works of believers are spiritual sacrifices (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), Book IV, Chapter 18.13,16).

The Meaning of the Lord’s Supper

If there is no more sacrifice for sin what is the meaning of the Lord’s Supper? The Roman Church teaches that Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper in which the bread and wine are transubstantiated into his literal body and blood in order to perpetuate his sacrifice. But since there are no more sacrifices, this cannot be the correct interpretation of this sacrament.

The Supper was established by the Lord Jesus as a memorial of thanksgiving and praise of his atoning sacrifce by which believers were to spiritually commune with him and Also to proclaim his death until he comes again. The bread and wine, as Augustine points out, were given as figures or visible symbols of his body and blood and therefore are figurative expressions of his self sacrifice and visible reminders to his people of what he has done on their behalf. When the Lord says, ‘This is my body,’ he is speaking figuratively and not literally. In fact, in Matthew 26:29, Mark 14:25 and Luke 22:16,18 Christ refers to the wine after consecration as the fruit of the vine indicating that it was still wine. And Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11:23-27, twice refers to the consecrated bread as bread. The elements do not change in any way. They are identified with Christ’s body and blood in a symbolical sense. We know this to be the true interpretation for the following reasons. In John 6 when Jesus refers to himself as the bread of life and says that men must eat his flesh and drink his blood, he makes it clear that his words were to be interpreted spiritually and figuratively when he says, ‘The flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life’ (Jn. 6:63). The whole discourse of John 6 is a presentation of Jesus as the atoning sacrifice for the sin of the world in the giving of his flesh and blood and how men are to appropriate the benefits of that sacrifice. Jesus says in this discourse that it is those who believe who experience the benefits of his work and he likens faith to eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Augustine says that to eat and drink is to believe. And he applies this to those in the book of Acts who responded to the preaching of the gospel by Peter. They drank Christ’s blood when they believed, and that obviously is independent of the eucharist. They experienced the spiritual appropriation of his sacrifice by faith. So in John 6 Jesus is defining the nature of saving faith as the appropriation of his very person into one’s heart. Biblical faith is more than mere assent to truth about Christ. John Calvin comments:

We are quickened by the true partaking of him; and he has therefore designated this partaking by the words ‘eating’ and ‘drinking,’ in order that no one should think that the life that we receive from, him is received by mere knowledge. As it is not the seeing but the eating of bread that suffices to feed the body, so the soul must truly and deeply become partaker of Christ that it may be quickened to spiritual life by his power … In this way, the Lord intended, by calling himself ‘the bread of life’ (john 6:51), to teach not only that salvation for us rests on faith in his death and resurrection, but also that, by true partaking of him, his life passes into us and is made ours – just as bread when taken as food imparts vigor to the body (Ibid., Book IV, Chapter 17.5).

The words of Jesus in John 6 and in Matthew 26 with the institution of the Lord’s Supper are to be taken figuratively and spiritually rather than literally and physically for, as Augustine also points out, the physical historical body of Jesus is in heaven and cannot be on earth or in more than one place at a time. As to his human nature he is limited to one place and, according to Scripture, he will not be back on the earth physically until he comes again at the Second Coming. To teach that the man Jesus can be physically in heaven and physically on earth in several different places at the same time is to so emphasize his deity that one does violence to his humanity. As R.C. Sproul points out, this kind of teaching is a direct contradiction to the Council of Chalcedon. That Council made the following statements concerning the nature of Christ:

Therefore, following the holy Fathers, we all teach that with one accord we confess one and the same Son … our Lord, acknowledged in two natures without mingling, without change, indivisibly, undividedly, the distinction of the natures nowhere removed on account of the union, but rather the uniqueness of each nature being kept and uniting in one person and one substance, not divided or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son, only begotten God Word, Lord Jesus Christ…(Henry Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma (London: Herder), Translated by Roy Deferrari, pp. 60-61).

The Roman Catholic Church would do well to heed the words of Saint Augustine:

When we say that Christ is the Son of God we do not separate his humanity from him, nor when we say that the same Christ is the Son of Man do we lose sight of his divinity … We are not to think that he is everywhere present. We must beware of building up the divinity of the man that we destroy the reality of his body. It does not follow that what is in God is in him so as to be everywhere as God is..God and man in Him are one Person, and both are the one Jesus Christ who is everywhere as God, but in heaven as man (“Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), St. Augustin, Letter 118.8-10).

The Church of Rome and numerous Fathers liken what they call the miracle of transubstantiation to the miracle of Christ’s changing the water to wine at Cana of Galilee. There is a perfect example they say of what Christ did at the Last Supper and ordained should continue to be done through time until he comes again. However the analogy completely breaks down for when the water was changed to wine it was a true miracle in that there was no question that it was real wine. Its substance had literally been changed and it was not something people had to take by faith. But the Church of Rome would have one believe that a miracle takes place in which the very substance of bread and wine is changed into the body and blood of Christ except it cannot be perceived by the human senses. To all appearances the elements appear to be bread and wine. This is because they are still bread and wine, not because the Lord lacks the power to effect such a miracle, but simply because this was never his intent to begin with, for he is to remain physically in heaven until he comes again.

Jesus said that the Supper was to be done in remembrance of him. It is a memorial which commemorates his once for all sacrifice for sin through thanksgiving and praise and the self-giving of the communicant to the Lord who is spiritually present. It is pot an altar of sacrifice but a table of remembrance and spiritual communion with Christ by his Spirit. It is highly significant that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated at the time of the Jewish Passover and, in fact, Jesus identifies the Supper directly with it when he says, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer’ (Lk. 22:15). What exactly was the Passover? It was an annual feast established by God in which the Jews would remember the day in which God delivered them from the land of Egypt and the angel of death ‘passed over’ those families which had applied the blood of the lamb to their door posts (Ex. 12:1-13). And he commands that the day be memorialised, ‘Now this day will be a memorial to you, and you shall celebrate it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations you are to celebrate it as a permanent ordinance’ (Ex. 12:14). This was a ‘memorial’ to a specific act of God in redeeming his people from bondage and death. What exactly does the Bible mean by the word memorial? The primary Hebrew word is zawkar and it is translated in concert with its derivatives 24 times as memorial. However, it is also translated as remember, remembrance and memory some 209 times. Thus the primary idea behind the Old Testament usage of the word is to bring to remembrance or memory an important event by means of a memorial to commemorate the event. The event is a completed action in the past which cannot be repeated but which can be kept vivid in the memory through some physical representation of the event. Thus it was with the Passover. The feast was not a literal reenactment of the event but a reminder of God’s mercy and goodnes, his faithfulness and love, and what he had done for his people.

At the Lord’s Supper Christ is instituting a New Testament Passover. When he says the bread is to be eaten and the wine drunk in remembrance of him, he is employing the same language as that of the Old Testament. The Greek word that Jesus uses is anamnesis which means ‘to call to mind.’ This is a form of the word mimnesko which is the primary root for mnemosunon, the word translated as ‘memorial’ in the New Testament and the Septuagint. Thus what Jesus is doing is what God did in the Old Testament when he inaugurated the Passover. he is instituting a memorial by which his people will call to mind and remember, through the visible elements of bread and wine which represent his body and blood, the redemption which he has effected for them in delivering them, as the sacrificial lamb of God, from bondage to sin and Satan and from death. Christ is the fulfillment of what the Passover spirtually signified. But just as with the Passover, the memorial is not a literal reenactment of the event, so the Lord’s Supper, as a memorial of Christ’s sacrifice, is not a literal reenactment of that sacrifice but a remembrance and commemoration of what he has accomplished once for all. The sacrifice cannot be repeated or literally perpetuated any more than the Passover could be. Some Roman Catholic writers suggest that the word memorial or remembrance in Scripture can actually mean in some way to make present the event that is being memorialised. But such an assertion cannot be justified from the words themselves. They are never used in that way. One can only draw such a meaning by reading a preconceived theology into them in an attempt to justify the theory of transubstantiation.

By understanding the memorial aspect of the Lord’s Supper we can properly understand the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:16 where he says, ‘Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread we break a sharing in the body of Christ?’ By commemorating the sacrifice of Christ through the visible signs of bread and wine, we call to mind and remember his atoning work which has accomplished our redemption and are brought into a spiritual identification with his body and blood. The physical elements signify spiritual realities and through the Lord’s Supper one meditates in a special way on the significance of the body and blood of the Lord Jesus.

Veneration of the Host

There is one final element of the Roman Catholic teaching on the eucharist that needs to be addressed which has to do with worship. Rome teachesd that because Christ is physically present in the eucharist in the fulness of His humanity and divinity that tyhe eucharistic host is to be worshipped with worship of latria, that is, with the worship that is due to God alone. The Council of Trent comments:

There is, therefore, no room for doubt that all the faithful of Christ may, in accordance with a custom always received in the Catholic Church, give to this most holy sacrament in veneration the worship of latria, which is due to the true God. Neither is it to be less adored for the reason that it was instituted by Christ the Lord in order to be received. For we believe that in it the same God is present of whom the eternal Father, when introducing Him into the world, says: And let all the angels of God adore him; whom the Magi, falling down, adored; who, finally, as the Scriptures testify, was adored by the Apostles in Galilee.

Can. 6. If anyone says that in the holy sacrament of the Eucharist, Christ, the only begotten Son of God, is not to be adored with the worship of latria, also outwardly manifested, and is consequently neither to be venerated with a special festive solemnity, nor to be solemnly borne about in procession according to the laudable and universal rite and custom of holy Church, or is not to be set publicly before the people to be adored and that the adorers thereof are idolaters, let him be anathema (The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (Rockford: Tan, 1941, 1978), pp. 76, 79).

I realize that the Roman Catholic Church seeks to circumvent the charge of blasphemous idolatry by suggesting that because it teaches that Christ is literally present in the eucharist that the worship rendered to the host is not being rendered to a piece of bread but to the Lord of glory. However, since the bread is not literally changed into the body and person of Christ, that means the host is just literal bread and the worship rendered is therefore truly idolatrous because one is worshipping God under the form of a physical image which is strictly forbidden. There are millions of sincere people throughout the world who believe they are worshippinhg the true God when they are involved in idolatry. Their sincerity does not mitigate the offense. God has spoken and revealed Himself very clearly in His word.

Men in sincerity can believe certain things to be true. But if they are in fact not true, then their faith is in vain. In the Old Testament, after the split between the Northern and Southern kingdoms, Jeroboam set up temples in the Northern kingdom as an alternative to the temple worship in Jerusalem. This was strictly forbidden by God, but he placed the images of calves in the places of worship and called them Jehovah. The people then worshiped before these calves. They were not worshiping, in name, a false god, since they retained the name Jehovah, but they were not worshiping God in the way he specifically commanded the people to worship him. And no matter how sincere they were or how loudly they might protest that they were worshiping Jehovah, they were, in fact, not worshiping him.


The Roman Catholic teaching that its dogmas on the eucharist and the Mass find support in the unanimous consent of the Fathers is simply untrue. The dogmas of Roman Catholicism relative to the eucharist are the result of centuries of historical development that involved a diversity of opinion among the church fathers and later among the theologians of the middle ages. The teaching of the Protestant reformers finds much support in the patristic understanding of the eucharist, but most importantly, in the teaching of Scripture on the work of Jesus Christ and the nature of salvation.
The Roman Catholic dogmas of the Eucharist are a serious departure from and perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The devastating results of this teaching to people spiritually is incalculable, for it distorts the gospel and deceives men regarding the nature of salvation. It leads people to believe that by partaking of the Eucharist they are literally partaking of Christ, receiving eternal life, forgiveness of sins and are abiding in Christ and he in them because they have supposedly physically injested him. But this is a total perversion of the biblical teaching. The discourse of Jesus in John 6 is an invitation for men to respond to the gospel of his saving work by receiving him into their lives spiritually, by faith, and thereby become united to him. The result of this is an abiding relationship with Christ, the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. And the Lord’s Supper is the commemoration of that work and a time of spiritual communion with the Lord.

Salvation is the result of a sovereign work of grace in which an individual receives the person of Christ into his life by repentance and faith alone, in response to the message of the finished work of salvation that Christ has accomplished. But the Roman Catholic Church has perverted the teaching of repentance and faith and the eucharist in such a way as to invalidate the Word of God about the nature of salvation. The eucharist and the mass have displaced the finished work of Christ and have perverted the spiritual meaning of union with Christ and abiding in Him by materializing and externalizing vital biblical truths. These dogmas are not consistent with the Word of God and the eucharist, as taught by Rome, is not necessary for salvation.