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The Non-Literal Interpretation of the Eucharist in Early Christian Thought

The following excerpt is taken from William Webster’s article, “Scripture and Tradition in the Early Church Tradition As Interpretation: The Formal Sufficiency of Scripture” ( He shows that not all of the early Christians believed that the bread and the wine literally transformed into the body and blood of Christ, or that they were conjoined to Christ’s body and blood. He even includes a Pope whose views of the eucharist contradict Rome’s doctrine of transubstantiation!

Yet another example is the varying interpretations over the meaning of the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. Some fathers believed in a transformation of substance while others taught that the elements were simply representative of the body and blood of Christ. Cyril of Jerusalem spoke of a miraculous change in the elements very much like transubstantiation:

Even of itself the teaching of the Blessed Paul is sufficient to give you a full assurance concerning those Divine Mysteries, of which having been deemed worthy, ye are become of the same body and blood with Christ. For you have just heard him say distinctly, That our Lord Jesus Christ in the night in which He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks He brake it, and gave to His disciples, saying, Take, eat, this is My Body: and having taken the cup and given thanks, he said,   Take, drink, this is My Blood. 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? 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? When called to a bodily marriage, He miraculously wrought that wonderful work; and on the children of the bride-chamber, shall He not much rather be acknowledged to have bestowed the fruition of His Body and Blood? (NPNF2, Vol. 7, Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 22.1–2).

Pope Gelasius (492–496 A.D.), on the other hand stated that there is no change that takes place in the elements themselves:

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. Cited by Darwell Stone, A History of the Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist (London: Longman’s, Green, 1909), Volume I, p. 102).

Augustine taught that John 6 was to be interpreted figuratively and used it as an illustration on how to properly interpret Scripture:

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 (NPNF2, Vol. 2, Augustin, On Christian Doctrine 3.16.24).

He did not believe that Christ was physically present in the sacrament because he is physically present only in heaven until his second coming. He warned that one must be  careful to distinguish the difference between what is true of Christ as man and what is true of him as God. As God, he says, Christ is everywhere present spiritually, but as man, he is physically present only in heaven:

‘The poor ye will always have with you, but Me ye will not always have’…He was speaking of His bodily presence. For, in respect of His majesty, His providence, His ineffable and invisible grace, His own words are fulfilled, ‘Lo, I am with you alway, even to the end of the world. But in respect of the flesh He assumed as the Word…‘ye will not have Him always.’ And why? Because 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 we always have Christ; in respect of His presence in the flesh it was rightly said to the disciples, ‘Me ye will not have alway.’ 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’…

Since, then, Christ is God and man…we must take account of both these natures in Him when He speaks or when Scripture speaks of Him, and we must mark in what sense anything is said. 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…For, as man He was on earth, not in heaven where He now is…although in His nature as Son of God He was in heaven, but as Son of man He was still on earth and had not yet ascended into heaven…Do not doubt, then, that the man Christ Jesus is now there whence He shall come again; cherish in your memory and hold faithfully to the profession of your Christian faith that He rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, sitteth at the right hand of the Father, and will come from no other place but there to judge the living and the dead; and He will so come, on the testimony of the angel’s voice, as He was seen going into heaven, that is, in the same form and substance of flesh to which, it is true, He gave immortality, but He did not take away its nature.

According to this form, we are not to think that He is everywhere present. We must beware of so 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. The Scripture says, with perfect truth: ‘In him we live and move and are,’ yet we are not everywhere present as He is, but man is in God after one manner, while God is in man quite differently, in His own unique manner. 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 (Ibid., Vol. 7, Augustin, Homilies on the Gospel of St. John, Tractate 50.13, p. 282–283).

He taught that when we partake of the sacrament, we do so spiritually and not physically or materially. For example, he wrote that when the Jews responded in faith to the preaching of Peter on the day of Pentecost, they ‘drank the blood of Christ,’ demonstrating that, for him, the terminology of eating and drinking is spiritual and not physical:

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., On the Gospel of John, Tractate 40.2, p. 225.

Clement of Alexandria expressed the spiritual, figurative interpretation which was also representative of Origen:

‘Eat ye my flesh,’ He says, ‘and drink my blood.’ Such is the suitable food which the Lord ministers, and He offers His flesh and pours forth His blood, and nothing is wanting for the children’s growth. O amazing mystery! We are enjoined to cast off the old and carnal corruption, as also the old nutriment, receiving in exchange another new regimen, that of Christ, receiving Him if we can, to hide Him within; and that, enshrining the Saviour in our souls, we may correct the affections of our flesh. 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 figuratively represented as milk. For is it not figuratively represented as wine? The same blood and milk of the Lord is therefore the symbol of the Lord’s passion and teaching (ANF, Vol. 2, Clement of Alexandria,The Instructor, Book I, Chapter 6).

Tertullian spoke of the elements as figures of the body and blood of Christ:

How earnestly, therefore, does He manifest the bent of His soul: ‘With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer.’ What a destroyer of the law was this, who actually longed to keep its passover! Could it be that He was so fond of the Jewish lamb? 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? The prophetic Spirit contemplates the Lord as if He were already on His way to His passion, clad in His fleshly nature; and as He was to suffer therein, He represents the bleeding condition of His flesh under the metaphor of garments dyed in red, as if reddened in the treading and crushing process of the winepress, from which the labourers descended reddened with the wine-juice, like men stained in blood…Thus did He now consecrate His blood in wine, who then (by the patriarch) used the figure of wine to describe His blood (Ibid., Vol. 3, Tertullian, Against Marcion 4.40).

Philip Schaff writes of the various views on the eucharist held among the Church fathers:

The realistic and mystic view is represented by several fathers and the early liturgies…They speak in enthusiastic and extravagant terms of the sacrament and sacrifice of the altar.  They teach a real presence of the body and blood of Christ, which is included in the very idea of a real sacrifice, and they see in the mystical union of it with the sensible elements a sort of repetition of the incarnation of the Logos.  With the act of consecration a change accordingly takes place in the elements, whereby they become vehicles and organs of the life of Christ, although by no means necessarily changed into another substance.  To denote this change very strong expressions are used, like metabolh, metaballein, metaballesqai, metastoiceiousqai, metapoieisqai, mutatio, translatio, transfiguratio, transformatio; illustrated by the miraculous transformation of water into wine, the assimilation of food, and the pervasive power of leaven…

The symbolical view, though on a realistic basis, is represented first by Eusebius, who calls the Supper a commemoration of Christ by the symbols of his body and blood, and takes the flesh and blood of Christ in the sixth chapter of John to mean the words of Christ, which are spirit and life, the true food of the soul, to believers. Here appears the influence of his venerated Origen, whose views in regard to the sacramental aspect of the Eucharist he substantially repeats…

It is remarkable that Augustine, in other respects so decidedly catholic in the doctrine of the church and of baptism, and in the cardinal points of the Latin orthodoxy, follows the older African theologians, Tertullian and Cyprian, in a symbolical theory of the Supper, which however includes a real spiritual participation of the Lord by faith, and in this respect stands nearest to the Calvinistic or Orthodox Reformed doctrine, while in minor points he differs from it as much as from transubstantiation and consubstantiation (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), Volume III, Nicene and Post–Nicene Christianity, Chapter VII, § 95, The Sacrament of the Eucharist, pp. 493, 495, 498).

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