Question and Answer
Early Christians and the Eucharist
I'm trying to research the development of views of the Eucharist, and it's difficult because I continually find conflicting accounts of what the "first Christians" believed about its nature. From a study of Scripture and analysis of arguments, I believe I fall in line with an orthodox Reformed view that Christ's presence in the Eucharist is a real and present spiritual, but not physical, reality. I see it as a mystery that goes well beyond mere symbolism, but that does not involve any mystical changes in substance as believed by Catholic and (I believe) Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox.
My specific question is this: Does anyone really know what the early Christians believed regarding the nature of the elements? Did they all agree, or did they begin to debate and dissent very early? Did the church fathers differ on this issue? Most Catholic arguments I've read present the "real presence" as apostolic teaching that was universally accepted by Christians from the beginning. Most Protestant arguments obviously cite a different version of history. Both sides have armies of historians and professors to present the history, and frankly, I have no way of knowing whom to believe.
I understand the doctrine of Transubstantiation. I understand that it developed over the course of time, and became official doctrine in the middle ages. I also understand that it is based on Aristotelian reasoning about "substance" vs. "accidents" or "attributes." Did early Christians concern themselves about these sorts of philosophies? Did they see it as symbolic? Did they, as a Greek Orthodox site stated, "simply accept the present reality of Christ in the elements, and [we do not] make any attempt to explain the mystery."
Any knowledge you can give me will be appreciated. Thank you for taking the time to consider my question!
Thanks for your interesting email in which you say: "My specific question is this. Does anyone really know what the early Christians believed regarding the nature of the elements? Did they all agree, or did they begin to debate and dissent very early? Did the church fathers differ on this issue?"
I have in my library the 38 Volume edition of the Early Church Fathers and while I cannot claim to have read everything in these volumes I have read enough to be able to answer your three-part question. (1) In the writings of the early Church Fathers, which have been preserved, we do have some knowledge of what the early Christians believed regarding the elements of the Lord's Supper. (2) From these writings it is clear that they did not yet have complete agreement in their understanding. (3) And, therefore, there were differences in their way of speaking of the elements.
I cannot find any clearly defined affirmation of the doctrine of transubstantiation in the writings of the early church fathers. But neither can I claim that they had the clearly defined view that is set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which we believe to be an accurate summary of the teaching of the New Testament church, the "early Christians" before the "early church fathers."
Of the Lord's Supper
I. Our Lord Jesus, in the night wherein he was betrayed, instituted the sacrament of his body and blood, called the Lord's Supper, to be observed in his church, unto the end of the world, for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of himself in his death; the sealing all benefits thereof unto true believers, their spiritual nourishment and growth in him, their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto him; and, to be a bond and pledge of their communion with him, and with each other, as members of his mystical body.
II. In this sacrament, Christ is not offered up to his Father; nor any real sacrifice made at all, for remission of sins of the quick or dead; but only a commemoration of that one offering up of himself, by himself, upon the cross, once for all: and a spiritual oblation of all possible praise unto God, for the same: so that the popish sacrifice of the mass (as they call it) is most abominably injurious to Christ's one, only sacrifice, the alone propitiation for all the sins of his elect.
III. The Lord Jesus hath, in this ordinance, appointed his ministers to declare his word of institution to the people; to pray, and bless the elements of bread and wine, and thereby to set them apart from a common to an holy use; and to take and break the bread, to take the cup, and (they communicating also themselves) to give both to the communicants; but to none who are not then present in the congregation.
IV. Private masses, or receiving this sacrament by a priest, or any other, alone; as likewise, the denial of the cup to the people, worshiping the elements, the lifting them up, or carrying them about, for adoration, and the reserving them for any pretended religious use; are all contrary to the nature of this sacrament, and to the institution of Christ.
V. The outward elements in this sacrament, duly set apart to the uses ordained by Christ, have such relation to him crucified, as that, truly, yet sacramentally only, they are sometimes called by the name of the things they represent, to wit, the body and blood of Christ; albeit, in substance and nature, they still remain truly and only bread and wine, as they were before.
VI. That doctrine which maintains a change of the substance of bread and wine, into the substance of Christ's body and blood (commonly called transubstantiation) by consecration of a priest, or by any other way, is repugnant, not to Scripture alone, but even to common sense, and reason; overthroweth the nature of the sacrament, and hath been, and is, the cause of manifold superstitions; yea, of gross idolatries.
VII. Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive, and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.
VIII. Although ignorant and wicked men receive the outward elements in this sacrament; yet, they receive not the thing signified thereby; but, by their unworthy coming thereunto, are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, to their own damnation. Wherefore, all ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with him, so are they unworthy of the Lord's table; and cannot, without great sin against Christ, while they remain such, partake of these holy mysteries, or be admitted thereunto.
Jesus promised to lead his church into all truth (John 16:13). But it is clear, from the entire history of the Church, that this was accomplished through a process of study, controversy, and trial. The results of this process have been the great creeds and confessions of the church, such as the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed (these three are often called the Ecumenical Creeds of early church history) and such Reformation creeds as the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Westminster Standards. These later creeds were an urgently needed answer to the growing body of doctrines in the Roman Catholic Church that were not in line with the Bible as the early ecumenical creeds were.
So, in the final analysis it is not possible to arrive at final answers by going back to the "church fathers." It is interesting to do this. But final answers can only be found in the inspired foundational writings of the apostles and prophets. In this way, alone, can we really decide which views are really in accord with the Scriptures.
In my own spiritual pilgrimage I've found no creeds to equal the Westminster Standards for comprehensive and faithful adherence to the Bible. May the Lord guide us both more fully into the truth of his Word!
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