*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 2nd of September 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
A happy Friday- the end of a week and the beginning, at least in the USA, of a three-day weekend where we celebrate labor day and USC pummeling Rice.
So for this last day of a mailbag week, I decided to take on a question that’s been sitting around for a while and has had me reading for some time now.
Daniel in Orlando sent me a question a while back- it was a longer email in which, near the end, he wrote.
“What did the ancient churches teach about it [the real presence in the Eucharist]? I would imagine it was established doctrine through the Middle Ages. I recall learning about some would-be reformers like John Wycliffe, who voiced pre-Reformation opposition to the teaching. Was he a largely isolated figure, or was there a longer-established tradition of criticism of the real presence before it took hold with reformers like Zwingli?”
Ok- so “what is happening on a molecular level during the Lord’s Supper” is one of my least favorite questions- in large part because the conversation has led to division and because too often scholars in particular denominations report back to the faithful “don’t worry folks, Church history shows us that our view is essentially what has always been taught.”
There are three major branches of Christianity today- RC, Prot, and EO- hundreds of millions of Christians spread out across these branches, and all hold slightly different versions of what happens during the Lord’s Supper.
*Please note: I am not trying to diminish the significance of being as precise as possible when it comes to doctrine, but that trying to find consensus in particulars is very hard across languages and cultures*
Ok- so, if I were to take a Birdseye view of what the church has taught historically, I would go to the church fathers- take a few:
Ignatius- amongst the earliest church fathers, wrote against some that: "they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead.
Justin Martyr- a 2nd-century cat, wrote that the sacrament of the Altar “is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus.”
Tertullian, shortly after Martyr, wrote: “the flesh feeds [in the Eucharist] on the body and blood of Christ, that the soul likewise may be filled with God.”
Eusebius writes, "We are continually fed with the Savior's body,” and Ambrose writes: “Christ is in that sacrament because it is the body of Christ.”
These and other statements would lead patristic scholar J.N.D. Kelly to write
“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.”
Daniel is right that Wycliffe- the “proto-Reformer” in the 1300s would take issue with the church’s teaching- but not because the church taught that Christ was present- but because of the particular teaching about the physics of what was going on. That is, he opposed “transubstantiation”- a doctrine that posited the “substance” of the bread ceased to be bread but was “trans”formed into the body of Christ. This was the language of Aristotle imported by Aquinas (and rejected by most non-Roman Catholics).
Lutherans and Reformed Christians would scuffle again in the 16th century, with some of the Reformed moving in the direction of Zwingli, which is a “pure memorial.” Other Reformed Christians would be fine with the language of Real Presence- that is, something is happening- but would oppose the idea of “corporal” eating- that is, they believe that one does not receive the flesh of Christ in the same way that one eats a different meal.
On one end of the spectrum, you have Christians explaining, to the molecular level, how the bread and wine become Jesus; on the other, you have Christians saying that it is purely symbolic. I can weigh in and say that while a “real presence” (although using a different language) was a standard position in the early church, over the past 500 years, Protestants have redefined and, in some cases, spiritualized the Eucharist.
My reticence in talking about this has to do with the place that division over this doctrine has divided the churches of the Reformation- but certainly, we do well to talk about what is happening during the Lord’s Supper- even if we do come to some disagreements.
Thanks, Daniel, for making me awkward… you, too, can make me uncomfortable with questions as we go back to a Monday mailbag- I’m at first name, last initial at 1517 dot org.
The Last Word for today comes from the lectionary for today from Psalm 1-
Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 2nd of September 2022, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who knows Orlando as the home of light-hitting Mets catcher Choo Choo Coleman. He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who knows Orlando as the place with an amusement park like Disneyland, but if you’d like humidity and mosquitoes as well… I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.