The Church Fathers on Transubstantiation
This article is intended to be a resource showing the support for the doctrine of Transubstantiation in the Church fathers, and not a robust defense of the doctrine as defined by the Council of Trent.1 The Church fathers did not believe in a mere spiritual presence of Christ alongside or in the elements (bread and wine). This can be shown by three different types of patristic statements. The first and most explicit type is a statement that directly affirms a change in the elements. The second type, is a simple identification of the consecrated species with the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Because unconsecrated bread is not called the Body, and consecrated is called the Body, this directly implies a belief that a supernatural change has taken place at the point of consecration. The third and final type is a statement which attributes or demands extraordinary reverence for the consecrated species itself, and not merely the solemnity of communion in this sacrament.
We will summarize the significance of each type of statement and add some light commentary where expedient. The appendix will contain a few brief responses to anticipated objections as well as some scholarly support for early Christian belief in this doctrine and suggestions for further reading.
The claim that the Church fathers believed in Transubstantiation is not a claim that any particular father commanded a precise understanding of the doctrine as formulated by Trent. Any given Church father could no sooner express this doctrine precisely in its developed form than could any given ante-Nicene father express the Niceno-Constantinoplitan doctrine of the Trinity. Yet this does not mean either that they did not believe it, or even that it existed in mere “seed form.” The Nicene doctrine of the Trinity can be detected not only in the early Christian writings and in the New Testament, it is an unavoidable development. That is, anything other than the Niceno-Constantinopolitan doctrine of the Trinity would be contrary to the Tradition of the Church. Likewise, the affirmations that the fathers made about the Eucharist were not only compatible with Transubstantiation, they were incompatible with anything less.
Statements that directly affirm a change in the species clearly indicate that the speaker believed in what we now call Transubstantiation. The word ‘transubstantiation’ comes from the Latin trans (across) and substantiare (substantiate). 2 It simply means a change of substance. There are only two types of changes, substantial and not-substantial (i.e. accidental). That is to say, if a thing changes, it either changes into another substance (into another thing) or some non-essential feature of it changes. But if a non-essential feature of something changes, we continue to refer to it in the same way. When a man gets a hair cut, we continue calling him a man; but when a log is burnt, we begin calling it a pile of ash.
In some rare cases we do change a name for something after it undergoes an accidental change. But we only do this when the name is associated with the thing accidentally. Thus we no longer call a bachelor a bachelor after he marries (an accidental or relational change). We call him a husband. Yet the name “bachelor” is an accidental term in the first place. He is a man; he is accidentally a bachelor and later becomes accidentally a husband. Throughout the change he is referred to as a man, because that is what we call him in reference to his essence.
Now bread is not called “bread” accidentally but essentially. Therefore the only time it would be proper to call it something else is when it had changed (substantially) into something else. e.g. If we burnt it into a pile of ash, we would call it a pile of ash. We would not call it something other than bread if it only changed accidentally.
But the fathers spoke of the bread differently after the consecration. They referred to it as “the Body” which is compatible only with a substantial change. Therefore, when the fathers spoke of a change in the Eucharist, they were speaking of a substantial change. Since Transubstantiation simply means “substantial change,” they were speaking of what we now call Transubstantiation.
We will clearly see the concept of “substantial change” in the fathers below. Additionally, in AD 1079, nearly 500 years before the Reformation at the sixth council of Rome, Berengarius affirmed the following in an oath:
…the bread and wine which are placed on the altar are substantially changed into the true and proper and living flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, our Lord…3
The Fourth Lateran Council in AD 1215 also declared:
Jesus Christ, whose body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the species of bread and wine; the bread (changed) into His body by the divine power of transubstantiation, and the wine into the blood…4
This was again confirmed by Pope Innocent III (AD 1208), the Second Council of Lyons (AD 1274), Pope Benedict XII (AD 1341), the Council of Constance (AD 1415), and the Council of Florence (AD 1439). 5 This shows that in denying Transubstantiation, the Protestants rejected centuries of official Church teaching. Later some Protestants claim to be rejecting only Trent’s declaration. But as we have already seen, there were official councils and documents that affirmed a substantial change in the sacrament long before Trent. Now let us examine the fathers to see whether or not they believed that the bread changed into something else during consecration or whether it remained the same.
For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change (transmutation) of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus. – St. Justin Martyr First Apology 66
Notice that St. Justin does not merely affirm that the food (bread) has been changed, but that it had been changed specifically by the Eucharistic prayer. The change in species is related to the host independently of the communicant. There is no hint here, or elsewhere in the fathers, that it depended on anything but the power of the Holy Spirit working in the consecration. This rules out the heresy of receptionism.6
When, therefore, the mixed cup [wine and water] and the baked bread receives the Word of God and becomes the Eucharist, the body of Christ, and from these the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they say that the flesh is not capable of receiving the gift of God, which is eternal life—flesh which is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and is in fact a member of him? – St. Irenaeus Against Heresies 5:3
For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity. – Ibid. 4.18.5
We give thanks to the Creator of all, and, along with thanksgiving and prayer for the blessings we have received, we also eat the bread presented to us; and this bread becomes by prayer a sacred body, which sanctifies those who sincerely partake of it. – Origen Against Celsus 8:33
The bread and the wine of the Eucharist before the holy invocation of the adorable Trinity were simple bread and wine, but the invocation having been made, the bread becomes the body of Christ and the wine the blood of Christ. – St. Cyril of Jerusalem Catechetical Lectures 19:7
He once in Cana of Galilee, turned the water into wine, akin to blood, and is it incredible that He should have turned wine into blood? – Ibid. 22.2
St. Cyril goes on to explicitly profess what the Church is doing in the consecration, or rather, what God is doing in the consecration:
Then having sanctified ourselves by these spiritual Hymns, we beseech the merciful God to send forth 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 surely sanctified and changed. Ibid. 23.7
Now we, as often as we receive the Sacramental Elements, which by the mysterious efficacy of holy prayer are transformed into the Flesh and the Blood, ‘do show the Lord’s Death.’ – St. Ambrose On the Christian Faith 4, 10:125
We ought . . . not regard [the elements] merely as bread and cup, but as the body and blood of the Lord, into which they were transformed by the descent of the Holy Spirit. – Theodore of Mopsuestia Catechetical Homilies 5:1
He did not say, ‘This is the symbol of My Body, and this, of My Blood,’ but, what is set before us, but that it is transformed by means of the Eucharistic action into Flesh and Blood.” – Theodore of Mopsuestia Commentary on Matthew 26:26
Rightly then do we believe that the bread consecrated by the word of God has been changed [Gr., metapoieisthai] into the Body of God the Word. For that Body was bread in power, but it has been sanctified by the dwelling there of the Word, who pitched his tent in the flesh. The change that elevated to divine power the bread that had been transformed into that Body causes something similar now. In that case, the grace of the Word sanctified that Body whose material being came from bread and was, in a certain sense, bread itself. In this case, the bread “is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer”7, as the Apostle says, not becoming the Body of the Word through our eating but by being transformed [Gr., metapoiumenos] immediately into the body by means of the word, as the Word himself said, ‘This is my Body.’ …He shares himself with every believer through the Flesh whose material being [Gr., sustais] comes from bread and wine . . . in order to bring it about that, by communion with the Immortal, man may share in incorruption. He gives these things through the power of the blessing by which he transelements [Gr., metastoikeiosas] the nature of the visible things [to that of the Immortal]. – St. Gregory of Nyssa The Great Catechism 37
He [Jesus] disseminates Himself in every believer through that flesh, whose substance comes from bread and wine, blending Himself with the bodies of believers, to secure that, by this union with the immortal, man, too, may be a sharer in incorruption. – Ibid.
The bread again is at first common bread; but when the mystery sanctifies it, it is called and actually becomes the Body of Christ – St. Gregory of Nyssa Sermon on the Day of Lights or on The Baptism of Christ
You ought to know what you have received, what you are going to receive, and what you ought to receive daily. That Bread which you see on the altar, consecrated by the word of God, is the Body of Christ. That chalice, or rather, what the chalice holds, consecrated by the word of God, is the Blood of Christ. Through those accidents the Lord wished to entrust to us His Body and the Blood which He poured out for the remission of sins. – St. Augustine Sermons 227
St. Augustine here anticipates the developed form of the doctrine of Transubstantiation with surprising clarity. According to St. Thomas Aquinas many years later, the accidents of the bread and wine remain after Transubstantiation without a subject. (Summa 3.77.1) 8 It is through these “accidents” that the Lord’s Body and Blood are revealed to us. That is why we say that the Body and Blood are contained under the species of bread and wine. The bread and wine, as substances, no longer exist as they have been wholly converted into the precious Body and Blood. 9
The Lord Jesus wanted those whose eyes were held lest they should recognize him, to recognize Him in the breaking of the bread10. The faithful know what I am saying. They know Christ in the breaking of the bread. For not all bread, but only that which receives the blessing of Christ, becomes Christ’s Body.” – St. Augustine Sermons 234:2
It is not man that causes the things offered to become the Body and Blood of Christ, but he who was crucified for us, Christ himself. The priest, in the role of Christ, pronounces these words, but their power and grace are God’s. ‘This is my body,’ he says. This word transforms the things offered. – St. John Chrysostom Against the Judaizers 1.6
St. John Chrysostom explains that it is not the priest that effects the change; rather it is Christ Himself. This is why the claim that it amounts to a magician’s trick (or ‘monkey trick’ in the words of John Calvin) is false. It is not a trick but a miracle.
Far be it from me to censure the successors of the apostles, who with holy words consecrate the body of Christ, and who make us Christians. – St. Jerome Letter to Heliodorus
You will see the Levites bringing the loaves and a cup of wine, and placing them on the table. So long as the prayers and invocations have not yet been made, it is mere bread and a mere cup. But when the great and wonderous prayers have been recited, then the bread becomes the body and the cup the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ….When the great prayers and holy supplications are sent up, the Word descends on the bread and the cup, and it becomes His body. – St. Athanasius Sermon to the Newly Baptized
St. Athanasius, the great champion of Trinitarian orthodoxy, could not be any more explicit in affirming that a substantial change occurs at the consecration.
The following is a dialogue from Theodoret’s Eranistes on the subject of the miracle of consecration and the ‘change in nature’ it effects:
Eran.–You have opportunely introduced the subject of the divine mysteries for from it I shall be able to show you the change of the Lord’s body into another nature. Answer now to my questions.
Orth.–I will answer.
Eran.–What do you call the gift which is offered before the priestly invocation?
Orth.–It were wrong to say openly; perhaps some uninitiated are present.
Eran.–Let your answer be put enigmatically.
Orth.–Food of grain of such a sort.
Eran.–And how name we the other symbol?
Orth.–This name too is common, signifying species of drink.
Eran.–And after the consecration how do you name these?
Orth.–Christ’s body and Christ’s blood.
Eran.–And do yon believe that you partake of Christ’s body and blood?
- Theodoret of Cyrus Eranistes 2
Christ said indicating (the bread and wine): ‘This is My Body,’ and ‘This is My Blood,’ in order that you might not judge what you see to be a mere figure. The offerings, by the hidden power of God Almighty, are changed into Christ’s Body and Blood, and by receiving these we come to share in the life-giving and sanctifying efficacy of Christ. – St. Cyril of Alexandria Commentary on Matthew 26, 27
The body which is born of the holy Virgin is in truth body united with divinity, not that the body which was received up into the heavens descends, but that the bread itself and the wine are changed into God’s body and blood. But if you enquire how this happens, it is enough for you to learn that it was through the Holy Spirit, just as the Lord took on Himself flesh that subsisted in Him and was born of the holy Mother of God through the Spirit. And we know nothing further save that the Word of God is true and energises and is omnipotent, but the manner of this cannot be searched out. But one can put it well thus, that just as in nature the bread by the eating and the wine and the water by the drinking are changed into the body and blood of the eater and drinker, and do not become a different body from the former one, so the bread of the table and the wine and water are supernaturally changed by the invocation and presence of the Holy Spirit into the body and blood of Christ, and are not two but one and the same. – St. John of Damascus Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 4:13
St. John Damascene explains that Christ does not “come down” and hide Himself among the host as is often caricatured. The bread is assumed into His Body, that is, it is lifted up to His heavenly Body by a miracle which is analogically compared to the process by which ordinary food is assumed into the higher unity of a human being upon its consumption. In fact, non-miraculous transubstantiation (change of substance) occurs anytime we eat anything. Food is transformed into human beings by consumption and analogically, the bread is transformed into the Body of Christ by the miracle of the Eucharistic consecration.
On the topic of the Eucharist, the Council of Trent declared:
If any one 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. – Session 13, Canon I
The following quotations will show that the early fathers would not have been anathematized by this canon. At the same time, those modern Christians who deny Transubstantiation are, by their rejection of Christ’s substantial presence, at odds with this canon of the Catholic Church. As argued above, it is not enough to profess a belief in Christ’s presence in the reception of the Eucharist, even if it is professed to be a substantial presence. The Church fathers made little or no mention of the communion process in describing the Real Presence as we will see below. Christ’s presence does not depend on our reception or our faith. The significance of the simple identification statements is that they do not merely say Christ is present alongside the host, or within the host, or that He is present with us in receiving this sacrament. They explicitly affirm that this host is the Body of Christ.
The fathers affirmed that His presence was contained in the Body and Blood and such simple identification is consistent only with a host that had been substantially changed, i.e. a consecrated host. If the fathers were speaking (merely) in a symbolic manner, they would be able to call the bread the Body even before the consecration. That is, if nothing actually changed about the bread itself during the consecration, then it would not be wrong to call it the Body before the consecration. But we saw above that the fathers did change how they referred to the host after the consecration. Further, we will see below that the fathers consistently referred to the consecrated host as the Body and to the unconsecrated host as bread. This is not only consistent with Transubstantiation–it doesn’t make sense unless we affirm the doctrine. Finally, some fathers even explicitly denied that the term “Body” was a merely symbolic reference.
I take no pleasure in corruptible food or in the delights of this life. I want the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who is the seed of David; and for drink I want his Blood which is incorruptible love. -St. Ignatius to the Romans 7:3
They [those with heterodox opinions] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. – St. Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans 7:1
The Docetists denied that Christ had a physical Body. Naturally, they denied His metaphysical presence in the Eucharist. St. Ignatius is condemning their heresy. 11
If the Lord were from other than the Father, how could he rightly take bread, which is of the same creation as our own, and confess it to be his body and affirm that the mixture in the cup is his blood? – St. Irenaeus Against Heresies 4:33–32
If Christ was speaking metaphorically, there would be no difficulty in explaining what St. Irenaeus was attempting to explain. Either St. Irenaeus had not considered the idea that Christ might be referring to the bread as His Body metaphorically, or he (Irenaeus) was taking it for granted that Jesus spoke literally. Since St. Irenaeus refrained from explaining the matter, it is clear that he was asking the question rhetorically and was taking it for granted that Christ spoke literally and that his readers would have already known this.
He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own blood, from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own body, from which he gives increase unto our bodies. – Ibid. 5:2
‘And she [Wisdom] has furnished her table’12 refers to his [Christ’s] honored and undefiled body and blood, which day by day are administered and offered sacrificially at the spiritual divine table, as a memorial of that first and ever-memorable table of the spiritual divine supper – St. Hippolytus Fragment from Commentary on Proverbs
It is not bread and wine that are offered as a memorial, but the actual Body and Blood.
Formerly, in an obscure way, there was manna for food; now, however, in full view, there is the true food, the flesh of the Word of God, as he himself says: ‘My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.’13 – Origen Homilies on Numbers 7:2
Among the early fathers, Origen and the Alexandrian tradition in general favored allegorical interpretations and leaned heavily in that direction. On several other occasions, Origen referred to the Eucharist as a symbol, as did his predecessor, St. Clement of Alexandria. Yet he also referred to it as the “true Body,” associating the Eucharist with John 6 where Jesus Himself explicitly affirmed the same.
After having spoken thus [at the Last Supper], the Lord rose up from the place where he had made the Passover and had given his body as food and his blood as drink, and he went with his disciples to the place where he was to be arrested. But he ate of his own body and drank of his own blood, while he was pondering on the dead. With his own hands the Lord presented his own body to be eaten, and before he was crucified he gave his blood as drink. – Aphraahat the Persian Sage Treatises 12:6
We speak in an absurd and godless manner about the divinity of Christ’s nature in us — unless we have learned it from Him. He Himself declares: ‘For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him’14. It is no longer permitted us to raise doubts about the true nature of the body and the blood, for, according to the statement of the Lord Himself as well as our faith, this is indeed flesh and blood. And these things that we receive bring it about that we are in Christ and Christ is in us. Is this not the truth? Those who deny that Jesus Christ is the true God are welcome to regard these words as false. He Himself, therefore, is in us through His flesh, and we are in Him, while that which we are with Him is in God. – St. Hilary of Poitiers The Trinity 8.14
It would not make sense to bring up the possibility of doubting the veracity of the Eucharist, were it only a symbol. It is not feasible to think that anyone ever doubted that the bread represented Christ’s Body. St. Hilary’s quotation is only intelligible if we assume He was speaking of the possibility of doubting that the consecrated bread is actually the Body. Furthermore, his addition of the word “indeed” so as to match our Lord’s words, would be intentionally deceitful and misleading were he not intending to convey the actual and simple identification of the consecrated host as Christ’s Body. No one adds “indeed” to something meant to be understood metaphorically.
Since then He Himself declared and said of the bread, ‘This is My Body,’ who shall dare to doubt any longer? And since He has Himself affirmed and said, ‘This is My Blood,’ who shall ever hesitate, saying, that it is not His Blood? – St. Cyril of Jerusalem Catechetical Lectures 22.1
Unfortunately there are many Christians today who dare to doubt it; and what’s worse, many of them profess to be in harmony with the early Church fathers on this issue.
Do not, therefore, regard the bread and wine as simply that; for they are, according to the Master’s declaration, the body and blood of Christ. Even though the senses suggest to you the other, let faith make you firm. Do not judge in this matter by taste, but be fully assured by the faith, not doubting that you have been deemed worthy of the body and blood of Christ. . . . [Since you are] fully convinced that the apparent bread is not bread, even though it is sensible to the taste, but the body of Christ, and that the apparent wine is not wine, even though the taste would have it so, . . . partake of that bread as something spiritual, and put a cheerful face on your soul” – Ibid. 22:6,9
Notice that St. Cyril does not merely state that the true Body is present among the bread in some mystical sense but that the apparent bread is actually not bread. The introduction of the sense experience into the question of identification clearly shows that he is meaning to identify the host with the Body.
Perhaps you may be saying, ‘I see something else; how can you assure me that I am receiving the body of Christ?’ It but remains for us to prove it. And how many are the examples we might use! . . . Christ is in that sacrament, because it is the body of Christ. – St. Ambrose The Mysteries 9:50, 58
Notice the order of the last sentence. According to St. Ambrose, we do not say it is Christ’s Body because Christ is in the sacrament; rather Christ is in the sacrament because it is Christ’s Body.
When [Christ] gave the bread he did not say, ‘This is the symbol of my body,’ but, ‘This is my body.’ In the same way, when he gave the cup of his blood he did not say, ‘This is the symbol of my blood,’ but, ‘This is my blood’; for he wanted us to look upon the [Eucharistic elements] after their reception of grace and the coming of the Holy Spirit not according to their nature, but receive them as they are, the body and blood of our Lord. – Theodore of Mopsuestia Catechetical Homilies 5:1
Here Theodore explicitly rejected a merely symbolic view of the Eucharist.
Christ was carried in his own hands when, referring to his own body, he said, ‘This is my body.’15 For he carried that body in his hands. – St. Augustine Explanations of the Psalms 33:1:10
What you see is the bread and the chalice; that is what your own eyes report to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the body of Christ and the chalice is the blood of Christ. – St. Augustine Sermons 272
It does not require faith to understand something as a symbol. It does require faith to assert that what appears to be bread is actually the Body of Christ. It would not have made sense for St. Augustine to demand that men believe (against their senses) that something was a symbol. If one wanted to object that perhaps St. Augustine was simply exhorting men to believe that Jesus was actually present along with the bread, he (the objector) would have to use another text as proof because here St. Augustine said explicitly that the bread is the Body, not that the Body is present along with the bread or in the ceremony.
When you see the Lord immolated and lying upon the altar, and the priest bent over that sacrifice praying, and all the people empurpled [made purple in coloring] by that precious blood, can you think that you are still among men and on earth? Or are you lifted up to heaven? – St. John Chrysostom On the Priesthood 3.4.177
According to St. John Chrysostom, Christ is literally present on the altar.
‘Because the Bread is one, we, the many, are in one Body’16. ‘Why do I say communion?’ he says; ‘for we are that very Body.’ What is the Bread? The Body of Christ! What do they become who are partakers therein? The Body of Christ! Not many bodies, but one Body. For just as the bread, consisting of many grains, is made one, and the grains are no longer evident, but still exist, though their distinction is not apparent in their conjunction; so too are we conjoined to each other and to Christ. For you are not nourished by one Body while someone else is nourished by another Body; rather, all are nourished by the same Body. – St. John Chrysostom Homily on the First Epistle to the Corinthians 24.2.4
When you see [the Body of Christ] lying on the altar, say to yourself, ‘Because of this Body I am no longer earth and ash, no longer a prisoner, but free. Because of this Body I hope for heaven, and I hope to receive the good things that are in heaven, immortal life, the lot of the angels, familiar conversation with Christ. This body, scourged and crucified, has not been fetched by death . . . . This is that Body which was blood-stained, which was pierced by a lance, and from which gushed forth those saving fountains, one of blood and the other of water [symbolizing the sacraments of Communion or the Eucharist and Baptism] , for the world.’ . . . This is the Body which He gave us, both to hold in reserve [for worship] and to eat, which was appropriate to intense love; for those whom we kiss with abandon we often even bite with our teeth. – Ibid. 24.4.7
Let us therefore in all respects put our faith in God and contradict Him in nothing, even if what is said seems to be contrary to our reasonings and to what we see. Let His word be of superior authority to reason and sight. This too be our practice in respect of the Mysteries [Sacrament of Eucharist or Communion], not looking upon what is laid before us, but taking heed also of His words. For words cannot deceive; but our senses are easily cheated. His word has never failed; our senses err most of the time.
When the word says, ‘This is my Body,’ be convinced of it and believe it, and look at it with the eyes of the mind. For Christ did not give us something tangible, but even in His tangible things all is intellectual. So too with Baptism: the gift is bestowed through what is a tangible thing, water, but what is accomplished is intellectually perceived: the birth and the renewal. If you were incorporeal He would have given you those incorporeal gifts naked; but since the soul is intertwined with the body, He hands over to you in tangible things, that which is perceived intellectually. How many now say, ‘I wish I could see His shape [Gr. ton tupon], His appearance, His garments, His scandals.’ Only look! You see Him! You touch Him. You eat Him. He had given to those who desire Him, not only to see Him and fix their teeth in His flesh, and to embrace Him and satisfy all their love. St. John Chrysostom Homily on Matthew 82.4
And not as common flesh do we receive it [the Eucharist]; God forbid: nor as of a man sanctified and associated with the Word according to the unity of worth, or as having a divine indwelling, but as truly the life-giving and very flesh of the Word himself. – Council of Ephesus, Session 1, Letter of St. Cyril to Nestorius
Notice that the third ecumenical council directly rejects the idea that the divine presence of Christ merely “indwells” in the Eucharist; rather the Eucharist “truly” is the “very flesh of the Word Himself.” This is incompatible with Reformed doctrine even while many Reformed Christians claim to accept the first four ecumenical councils. Notice, in case one would object that the context is reception, that St. Cyril is not talking about the act of reception, nor is there any reference to the reception as a cause of the Real Presence. His claim regards what is received rather than what happens when we receive. Objectively, what is received is the consecrated host, and this host is received as the true Body.
After the disciples had eaten the new and holy Bread, and when they understood by faith that they had eaten of Christ’s body, Christ went on to explain and to give them the whole Sacrament. He took and mixed a cup of wine. Then He blessed it, and signed it, and made it holy, declaring that it was His own Blood, which was about to be poured out . . . Christ commanded them to drink, and He explained to them that the cup which they were drinking was His own Blood: ‘This is truly My Blood, which is shed for all of you. Take, all of you, drink of this, because it is a new covenant in My Blood. As you have seen Me do, do you also in My memory. Whenever you are gathered together in My name in Churches everywhere, do what I have done, in memory of Me. Eat My Body, and drink My Blood, a covenant new and old. – St. Ephraim Homilies 4,4
According to St. Ephraim, the Eucharist was explained directly to the disciples by Christ Himself at the Last Supper. This is why the early Christians did not need to rely exclusively on the Scriptures to discern the doctrine of Transubstantiation. Indeed, the earliest Christians did not have access to the New Testament. This is the source of the Apostolic doctrine of Transubstantiation. The Church has always confessed the Eucharist to be the true Body because Christ had explained this to the Apostles, and the Apostles explained it to the Churches.
The bread and the wine are not merely figures of the body and blood of Christ (God forbid!) but the deified body of the Lord itself: for the Lord has said, ‘This is My body,’ not, this is a figure of My body: and ‘My blood,’ not, a figure of My blood. And on a previous occasion He had said to the Jews, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, ye have no life in you. For My flesh is meat indeed and My blood is drink indeed. And again, He that eateth Me, shall live. – St. John of Damascus Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 4:13
Again, St. John Damascene rejected a merely figurative view of the Eucharistic species. Notice that he was not only rejecting memorialism. He was referring to the very bread and wine (that is, the species of bread and wine) when he said that they “are not merely figures.” He insisted, as we have seen consistently from the fathers, in identifying the consecrated hosts themselves as the Body and Blood. He also associated the Eucharist with John 6.
A third type of statement shows that the Church fathers believed that extraordinary reverence, even adoration, should be given to the species itself. Of course, many Protestants who do not believe in Transubstantiation exhibit significant reverence for the act of communion but not for the species itself. The quotations below show that the early Church went beyond a mere respect for the communion rite. They hallowed and revered the consecrated host. Respect for the host would also be consistent with Consubstantiation but Consubstantiation is not consistent with adoration of the consecrated host.
In the context of the Eucharist, Tertullian explains the Tradition of the Church:
We take anxious care lest something of our Cup or Bread should fall upon the ground. – Tertullian The Crown 3:3-4
Similarly, Origen wrote:
You are accustomed to take part in the divine mysteries, so you know how, when you have received the body of the Lord, you reverently exercise every care lest a particle of it fall, and lest anything of the consecrated gift perish… how is it that you think neglecting the word of God a lesser crime than neglecting His body? – Origen Homilies on Exodus 13:3
He [Paul] threatens, moreover, the stubborn and forward, and denounces them, saying, ‘Whosoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily, is guilty of the body and blood of the Lord’17. All these warnings being scorned and contemned—[lapsed Christians will often take Communion] before their sin is expiated, before confession has been made of their crime, before their conscience has been purged by sacrifice and by the hand of the priest, before the offense of an angry and threatening Lord has been appeased, [and so] violence is done to his body and blood; and they sin now against their Lord more with their hand and mouth than when they denied their Lord. – St. Cyprian of Carthage On the Lapsed 15–16
He walked here in the same flesh, and gave us the same flesh to be eaten unto salvation. But no one eats that flesh unless he first adores it; and thus it is discovered how such a footstool of the Lord’s feet is adored; and not only do we not sin by adoring, we do sin by not adoring. – St. Augustine Commentary on Psalms 98:9
St. Augustine affirmed that the Flesh we eat in the Eucharist is the same Flesh as when Christ walked the earth. Consequently, it is proper and right to adore it (the Eucharist). In fact, it is a sin not to adore it according to St. Augustine. But if the Eucharist had not actually been changed into the Flesh of Christ, it would be idolatry to adore it. Thus, either St. Augustine was advocating idolatry or he believed in Transubstantiation.
Approaching [the Eucharist] therefore, do not come forward with the palms of the hands outstretched nor with the fingers apart, but making the left [hand] a throne for the right since this hand is about to receive the King. Making the palm hollow, receive the Body of Christ, adding ‘Amen’. Then. carefully sanctifying the eyes by touching them with the holy Body, partake of it, ensuring that you do not mislay any of it. For if you mislay any, you would clearly suffer a loss, as it were, from one of your own limbs. Tell me, if anyone gave you gold-dust, would you not take hold of it with every possible care, ensuring that you do not mislay any of it or sustain any loss? So will you not be much more cautious to ensure that not a crumb falls away from that which is more precious than gold or precious stones?
Then, after you have partaken of the Body of Christ, come forward only for the cup of the Blood. Do not stretch out your hands but bow low as if making an act of obeisance and a profound act of veneration. Say ‘Amen’. and sanctify yourself by partaking of Christ’s Blood also. While the moisture is still on your lips, touch them with your hands and sanctify your eyes, your forehead, and all your other sensory organs. Finally, wait for the prayer and give thanks to God, who has deemed you worthy of such mysteries.- St. Cyril of Jerusalem Catechesis Mystagogica V, 11-22
Notice that St. Cyril demanded that the faithful approach with great reverence. This would be unfitting if they did not believe that the bread and wine had actually become the Body and Blood of the Lord. He, like St. Augustine, also exhorted adoration of the sacrament.
Additionally, the well known practice of the ante-Nicene Christians carrying the consecrated Eucharist to the sick and shut-in only makes sense given that the bread had become the Body. If not, it would suffice to eat any bread so long as one believed that he was consuming Christ. Rather, the early Christians even risked their lives to transport the Eucharist. This is consistent only with Transubstantiation. St. Hippolytus also warned those Christians who did reserve consecrated hosts to be careful lest it should be consumed by an unbeliever or even a mouse. 18
Finally, on a slightly different note, St. Ignatius of Antioch explains that only an ordained presbyter or bishop can consecrate the Eucharist.
Let that Eucharist be held valid which is offered by the bishop or by one to whom the bishop has committed this charge. – St. Ignatius of Antioch Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8:1
If the Eucharist were a mere symbol, it would not make any sense whatsoever to talk about a “valid” Eucharist or an “invalid” Eucharist. It could still make sense to speak of an illicit Eucharist, but not of an invalid Eucharist. If the bread and wine only symbolized, and did not actually become the Body and Blood, then anyone anywhere could achieve the same thing (symbolize Christ’s Body) whether or not they were ordained. It might be the case that they were wrong in doing so, since they should have done it in the context of the Church, but nevertheless it would not be invalid. This is additional evidence that Transubstantiation was believed by the Church from her earliest days.
i – Objections
1. Is the doctrine of Transubstantiation dependent on Aristotlean metaphysics?
On the contrary, (then) Lutheran scholar, Jaroslav Pelikan writes:
The victory of orthodox Christian doctrine over classical thought was to some extent a Pyrrhic victory, for the theology that triumphed over Greek philosophy has continued to be shaped ever since by the language and the thought of classical metaphysics. For example, the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 decreed that “in the sacrament of the altar… the bread is transubstantiated into the body [of Christ],and the wine into [his] blood,” and the Council of Trent declared in 1551 that the use of the term “transubstantiation” was “proper and appropriate.” Most of the theological expositions of the term “transubstantiation,” beginning already with those of the thirteenth century, have interpreted “substance” on the basis of the meaning given to this term by such classical discussions as that in the fifth book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics; transubstantiation, then, would appear to be tied to the acceptance of Aristotelian metaphysics or even of Aristotelian physics.
Yet the application of the term “substance” to the discussion of the Eucharistic presence antedates the rediscovery of Aristotle. In the ninth century, Ratramnus spoke of “substances visible but invisible,” and his opponent Radbertus declared that “out of the substance of bread and wine the same body and blood of Christ is mystically consecrated.” Even “transubstantiation” was used during the twelfth century in a nontechnical sense. Such evidence lends credence to the argument that the doctrine of transubstantiation, as codified by the decrees of the Fourth Lateran and Tridentine councils, did not canonize Aristotelian philosophy as indispensable to Christian doctrine.19
2. Does patristic reference to Eucharistic symbolism indicate disbelief in an actual change?
On the contrary, Catholics affirm that the Eucharist is also symbolic. Protestant historian Adolf Harnack helps explain the ancient mind on the topic of symbolism:
What we nowadays understand by “symbol” is a thing which is not that which it represents; at that time [antiquity] “symbol” denoted a thing which in some kind of way really is what it signifies.20
The Fathers clearly teach the Real Presence of Christ, that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. Harnack’s explanation of the ancient understanding of what it means to be a symbol explains how the Fathers could believe that the Eucharist was truly the Body and Blood of Christ and also a symbol. However, the Eucharist is real in a way that other “symbolic” things are not (this is understood now and in antiquity). This shows the weakness of the argument that denies the reality of the sacrifice of the Eucharist by relegating the mystery to symbolism. Since the modern mind apprehends ‘symbolism’ to mean that something is not real, whereas the ancient mind did not, this argument is weak. That is, the patristic use of the word ‘symbol’ in reference to the Sacrament does not connote what the modern use of the term ‘symbol’ connotes to us. And because of this, the patristic use of the term ‘symbol’ to refer to the Eucharist does not imply that the Fathers thought of the Eucharist as “merely symbolic” à la Zwingli.
3. Do some patristic statements indicate that a particular father disbelieved in substantial change?
Even if it were shown that a Church father disbelieved in Transubstantiation, it would only prove that that particular father was in error on this point. As shown above, the Church authoritatively defined it as dogma on several occasions including no less than four ecumenical councils. Here are some example quotations that are sometimes used in an attempt to justify one’s disbelief in Transubstantiation:
And extending His hand, He gave them the bread which His right hand had made holy: ‘Take, all of you eat this, which My word has made holy. Do not regard as bread that which I have given you; but take, eat this Bread, and do not scatter the crumbs; for what I have called my Body, that it is indeed. One particle from its crumbs is able to sanctify thousands and thousands, and is sufficient to afford life to those who eat of it. Take, eat, because this is my Body, and whoever eats it in belief, entertaining no doubt of faith, because this is My Body, and whoever eats it in belief eats it in Fire and Spirit. But if any doubters eat of it, for him it will be only bread. And whoever eats in belief the Bread made holy in My name, if he be pure, he will be preserved in his purity; and if he be a sinner, he will be forgiven.’ But if anyone despise it or reject it or treat it with ignominy, it may be taken as a certainty that he treats with ignominy the Son, who called it and actually made it to be His Body. – St. Ephraim Homilies 4,4
One way to read the bolded phrase above is to claim that St. Ephraim believed that the consecrated host was really bread but that if you had faith, you could receive Christ. Thus, the doubters only receive bread because they do not have the faith to receive the Body. The problem with this way of reading the phrase is that he explicitly states in this same passage that it is the Body. Above, we quoted from this same passage showing that St. Ephraim went into great detail and used explicit language to affirm his belief that the bread truly becomes the Body. Since he clearly affirmed a substantial change, either we must conclude that he contradicted himself, or “for him it will be only bread” must be read in another way.
In fact, there is another feasible way to read this phrase. The phrase should be understood as referring to the effect of the sacrament rather than the sacrament itself. A believer receives the Body unto salvation, but the doubter does not receive any benefit; for him it has the same effect as would normal bread. Since this way is fully compatible with the rest of what St. Ephraim said and the other way is a contradiction, this is the more probable way of interpreting his statement.
Another one sometimes used is this quotation from St. Augustine:
They said therefore unto Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” For He had said to them, “Labor not for the meat which perisheth, but for that which endureth unto eternal life.” “What shall we do?” they ask; by observing what, shall we be able to fulfill this precept? “Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He has sent.” This is then to eat the meat, not that which perisheth, but that which endureth unto eternal life. To what purpose dost thou make ready teeth and stomach? Believe, and thou hast eaten already.21
We have seen above that St. Augustine affirmed that the bread become the Body and that the communicants must adore it before receiving. So how is this quotation compatible with his other statements? St. Augustine is not denying Transubstantiation by affirming that we can receive Christ by faith. As St. Thomas Aquinas explained, there are two ways to receive Christ: spiritually and sacramentally. 22 To receive Him by faith is to receive Him spiritually, and to receive Him by consumption of the Eucharistic species is to receive Him sacramentally. Ideally, one would receive Christ in both ways at each communion. But in the case of the doubter above, he receives only sacramentally and does not receive spiritually because he lacks faith. St. Augustine in this passage is referring to the spiritual reception of Christ’s Body which is not opposed to the sacramental reception and far less does it disprove his belief in a substantial change in the Eucharist.
Two other quotations often used to argue against the historicity of Transubstantiation are from Pope Gelasius and Theodoret:
Surely the sacrament we take of the Lord´s body and blood is a divine thing, on account of which, and by the same we are made partakers of the divine nature; and yet the substance of the bread and wine does not cease to be. And certainly the image and similitude of Christ´s body and blood are celebrated in the action of the mysteries. – Pope Gelasius Tractatus de duabus naturis 14
You are caught in the net you have woven yourself. For even after the consecration the mystic symbols are not deprived of their own nature; they remain in their former substance figure and form; they are visible and tangible as they were before. But they are regarded as what they are become, and believed so to be, and are worshipped as being what they are believed to be. Compare then the image with the archetype, and you will see the likeness, for the type must be like the reality. For that body preserves its former form, figure, and limitation and in a word the substance of the body; but after the resurrection it has become immortal and superior to corruption; it has become worthy of a seat on the right hand; it is adored by every creature as being called the natural body of the Lord. – Theodoret, Dialogue II
On the contrary, W.R. Carson writes:
…it is assumed wrongly that by the words “nature” and “substance” the Fathers cited, writing centuries before heresies had made accurate definition and precise terminology necessary, intended to mean what the Tridentine Fathers meant by them. This is demonstrably untrue. The words ‘substance’ and ‘nature’ are synonymous with what at Trent were called the ‘species’ or ‘accidents.’ This is surely evident (a) from the context of the various passages, where a conversion (metabolen), to use Theodoret’s word, of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, is mentioned; (b) from the fact that they constantly and uniformly speak of such ‘nature’ and ‘substance’ as symbols; (c) from Leibnitz’ (a Protestant authority) well-known observation that the Fathers do not use these terms to express metaphysical notions.(53) (d) As regards Theodoret, from the confession of the Lutherans of Madgeburg that he is opposed to their doctrine and cannot be read with safety.(54) It should be added that the passages attributed to Theodoret and St. Gelasius occur in works that are considered spurious by many competent critics.23
This list is not an exhaustive; more could be cited for and against the doctrine but this is representative and contains the majority of the strongest objections from patristic sources.
4. Does Transubstantiation undermine the true corporeality of Christ’s Body?
John Calvin erroneously claimed that the ubiquity of Christ’s presence on Catholic altars was impossible because it would undermine the true corporeal nature of Christ’s risen Body.
On the contrary, this is false because Christ is not present in the sacrament as a thing is present in a place. St. Thomas explained that here. 24 That is, Christ is present metaphysically (or “after the manner of a substance”). It could also be said that He is present ‘supernaturally’ as opposed to ‘naturally.’ His Body is not subjected to physical laws and cannot be said to be present physically, insofar as ‘physically’ denotes that the thing belongs to the physical order in the way that ordinary physical objects do. 25 Therefore, Transubstantiation is consistent with the true corporeality of Christ’s risen Body. 26
5. Do the Eastern Orthodox reject Transubstantiation?
On the contrary, the Catholic Church affirms that the Eastern Churches have a valid Eucharist and that they have correct doctrine in respect to the Eucharist.27 This is evidenced by the fact that there is an open invitation (on the side of the Catholic Church) for Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters to receive Catholic communion. This would be impossible were the Church to understand them as rejecting the essential elements of Transubstantiation.
6. Is Transubstantiation tantamount to cannibalism?
On the contrary, this objection assumes the error of reducing the Eucharistic reception to a purely physical process. In the Eucharist Christ is not received physically, but spiritually and sacramentally as explained above. Also see this post on the Real Presence and Cannibalism.
ii – Additional Reading
Fr. Al Kimel on Transubstantiation (Long but well worth the read.)
Eucharist, by Louis Bouyer
A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, by Abbot Vonier, Peter Kreeft, and Aidan Nichols
The Hidden Manna: A Theology of the Eucharist, by James T. O’Connor
Finally, Protestant historian J. N. D. Kelly writes:
Eucharistic teaching, it should be understood at the outset, was in general unquestioningly realist, i.e., the consecrated bread and wine were taken to be, and were treated and designated as, the Savior’s body and blood.28
Hippolytus speaks of ‘the body and the blood’ through which the Church is saved, and Tertullian regularly describes the bread as ‘the Lord’s body.’ The converted pagan, he remarks, ‘feeds on the richness of the Lord’s body, that is, on the Eucharist.’ The realism of his theology comes to light in the argument, based on the intimate relation of body and soul, that just as in baptism the body is washed with water so that the soul may be cleansed, so in the Eucharist ‘the flesh feeds upon Christ’s body and blood so that the soul may be filled with God.’ Clearly his assumption is that the Savior’s body and blood are as real as the baptismal water. Cyprian’s attitude is similar. Lapsed Christians who claim communion without doing penance, he declares, ‘do violence to his body and blood, a sin more heinous against the Lord with their hands and mouths than when they denied him.’ Later he expatiates on the terrifying consequences of profaning the sacrament, and the stories he tells confirm that he took the Real Presence literally. 29
In Conclusion, it is clear that the doctrine of Transubstantiation extends in concept to the earliest days of the Church, was upheld and affirmed by several popes and ecumenical councils, and was then rejected by Protestants in the sixteenth century. The patristic support is heavily on the side of the Catholic dogma.
- Such a defense will be written in the future on Called to Communion. [↩]
- http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=transubstantiation&searchmode=none [↩]
- As quoted by Denzinger Sources of Catholic Dogma, 355 [↩]
- Ibid., 430 [↩]
- Ibid., 424, 465, 544, 581, 698 [↩]
- See also Council of Trent, Session 13, Canon IV: “If any one saith, that, after the consecration is completed, the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ are not in the admirable sacrament of the Eucharist, but (are there) only during the use, whilst it is being taken, and not either before or after; and that, in the hosts, or consecrated particles, which are reserved or which remain after communion, the true Body of the Lord remaineth not; let him be anathema.” [↩]
- 1 Tim 4:5 [↩]
- There are strong reasons to believe this particular metaphysical nuance of the doctrine but the council of Trent did not directly canonize this Thomistic idea. In other words, there is some room for speculation on these grounds. One can accept Trent without affirming strict Aristotlean metaphysics. It should also be stated that Aristotle, for this very reason, would have rejected Transubstantiation as an impossibility since accidents cannot, according to him, exist without a subject. Ordinarily, St. Thomas would agree, but he considers this a uniquely miraculous event. [↩]
- Council of Trent, Session 13, Canon II [↩]
- Luke 24:16,30-35 [↩]
- See also Kelly, J.N.D., Early Christian Doctrines, pp. 197-198 [↩]
- Proverbs 9:2 [↩]
- John 6:55 [↩]
- John 6:56-57 [↩]
- Matthew 26:26 [↩]
- 1 Cor 10:17 [↩]
- 1 Corinthians 11:27 [↩]
- For more, see Chadwick, Henry The Early Church, pp. 262, 266 [↩]
- Pelikan, Jaroslav The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, p. 44; emphasis added. [↩]
- Harnack, Adolf History of Dogma 1888, I. p. 397 [↩]
- NPNF1: Vol. VII, Tractates on John, Tractate 25, 12. [↩]
- St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 3.80.1 [↩]
- Carson, W. R. The Antiquity of the Doctrine of Transubstantiation which can be read online here. [↩]
- St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 3.76.5 [↩]
- Unfortunately, the modern mind often uses the word “physical” to denote that something is “actual” as if “physical” were the opposite of “imaginary” or “untrue.” This is due in large part to the influence of materialism on the modern way of thinking. But the term “physical” means that the aspect described is relegated to the physical world, i.e. to matter. This is clearly not true of the Real Presence of Christ; hence we say metaphysical rather than physical, supernatural rather than natural. [↩]
- See also St. Gregory of Nyssa The Great Catechism, 37 in which he anticipated and explained the answer to Calvin’s objection. [↩]
- This is not to say that there aren’t Eastern Orthodox Christians who deny the dogma. [↩]
- Kelly, J. N. D. Early Christian Doctrines p. 440 [↩]
- Ibid., pp. 211-212 [↩]