Did the Whole Church Get the Eucharist Wrong before the 16th Century?

April 25th, 2013 Post by

For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but just as our Savior Jesus Christ, being incarnate through the work of God, took flesh and blood for our salvation, so too we have been taught that the food over which thanks have been given by a prayer of the Word that is from Him, from which our flesh and blood are fed by transformation, is both the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus.  (Justin Martyr, First Apology 66:2)

I ran across this statement from Justin Martyr in the 3rd Century, and it occured to me that in all of my reading of primary sources throughout church history, I can’t find a single person who regards the elements of the Lord’s Supper to be merely a memorial or a symbol prior to the 16th century who isn’t also a heretic for other reasons. In fact, one can hardly find any heretics that held a memorial/symbolic view.If it is in fact true that the memorial view wasn’t held by any otherwise-orthodox believer prior to the sixteenth century, what does this say about the validity of this view if no one in the church holds to it for fifteen hundred years of the church’s history? Was the whole church wrong until Zwingli? I suppose many Evangelicals will bite the bullet and say ‘yes’, but that’s an awfully big bullet. Let me head off at the pass the argument that the Roman Catholic church is to blame for this doctrine. I’m sorry to take away that old saw from the Evangelicals, but the confession of the substantial presence was in the Eastern church as much as it was in the Western church. Long before the Magisterium in the West, the church throughout the world held to this doctrine. The above quote from Justin Martyr, while one of the earliest, is just one of many pre-Nicene statements identifying the Eucharist as the body and blood of Christ.

Ultimately, to hold a memorial/symbolic view is to disconnect yourself from the church throughout time. Whenever you have universal agreement or even nearly universal agreement by the church throughout the ages, to go on insisting that the whole church is wrong and that you are right is a dangerous and arrogant move. You can say “Sola Scriptura”, and I agree. But was the church not reading Scripture for 1600 years? How did all those theologians who loved the Scriptures (and were more devoted to them than you or I) universally miss the boat on something so categorically important as what brings forgiveness of sins?

Maybe you’re thinking that an argument against theological novelty in church history slopes slippery toward believing in the infallibility of the church or maybe a path that eventually leads to Rome. Don’t worry. It doesn’t. Those who are willing to allow theological novelty are already closer to Rome than they might think, for Rome has no problem with novelty and going against what the church throughout the ages has taught and practiced. It has proven over and over again that just because the church has never taught a particle article is no reason not to start teaching it now. Lutheran theology, on the other hand, passes the novelty test. Justification by faith alone, by way of one example, can be found much earlier than Luther — even if in nascent form.






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  1. Lloyd I. Cadle
    April 25th, 2013 at 08:41 | #1

    Very well written!

    Here are some more Early Church Fathers that hold to the real presence: St Ignatius of Antioch, A.D.110, St. Clement of Alexandria, A.D. 197, Tertullian of Carthage, A.D. 217, Origen of Alexandria, A.D. 249, St Cyprian of Carthage, A.D.251, The Council of Nicaea 1, (Canon 18) A.D. 325, St Aprahat the Persian Sage, (Demonstrations 12:6) A.D. 340, St Cyril of Jerusalem, A.D. 350, St Ambrose of Milan, A.D. 390, Theodore of Mopuestia A.D. 410, St. Augustine of Hippo A.D. 411, and the Council of Ephesus in Session 1, Letter of Cyril to Nestorius in A.D. 431.

    I have their quotes, but I don’t have the time to post them.

    Also, to hold this view (memorial and a symbol) is to go against the words of Jesus himself!

  2. Carl Vehse
    April 25th, 2013 at 08:55 | #2

    “Ultimately, to hold a memorial/symbolic view is to disconnect yourself from the church throughout time.”

    The phrase, “disconnect yourself from the church throughout time,” is essentially identical to the definition of “apostasy” (the formal disaffiliation from or abandonment or renunciation of a religion by a person or group of people). Such a description of “embodying apostasy” has previously been applied by the Missouri Synod’s CTCR to the so-called Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (XXXA). Such a description indicates that the XXXA is no longer part of the visible Church (although there may be individual Christians who are associated with the XXXA).

    Is the statement by Rev. Fraiser meant to assert that those Protestant denominations are similarly embodying apostasy, which hold that the Lord’s Supper has only memorial/symbolic meaning and which deny the Real Presence of the Christ’s body and blood?

  3. conqueror in progress
    April 25th, 2013 at 10:13 | #3

    Did the Whole Church Get the Eucharist Wrong until the Evangelicals Came Along?

    You mean before Zwingli and the Anabaptists came along?

  4. Matthew Mills
    April 25th, 2013 at 11:20 | #4

    I’m sure most of you have seen this already, but it’s priceless.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-QnBWL_d-5A

    Pax Christi+,
    -Matt Mills

  5. #4Kitty
    April 25th, 2013 at 12:23 | #5

    Whenever, you have universal agreement or even nearly universal agreement by the church throughout the ages, to go on insisting that the whole church is wrong and that you are right is a dangerous and arrogant move.

    Pope Leo X couldn’t have said it better himself.

  6. Pastor John Fraiser
    April 25th, 2013 at 12:56 | #6

    @conqueror in progress #3

    Yes, yes, we’re the original evangelicals. I get it. It’s a fair point. However, the term has been hijacked, and there’s no point in trying to reclaim it. Nevertheless, to avoid the distraction in Lutheran circles, I’ve updated the title to read “…before the 16th Century” instead of “…before the Evangelicals came along”.

  7. Pastor John Fraiser
    April 25th, 2013 at 12:57 | #7

    @Carl Vehse #2

    Yes, it is an apostasy of sorts. Luther said the same about Zwingli and the anabaptists many times.

  8. conqueror in progress
    April 26th, 2013 at 02:56 | #8

    I am a recovering Evangelical/Anabaptist, BTW. I plan to sit down these days and write an article, God willing, about why I have become an Anabaptist and how I embraced the Lutheran doctrine of Sacraments, baptismal regeneration and infant baptism.

  9. Mrs. Hume
    April 26th, 2013 at 17:25 | #9

    #4Kitty :

    Whenever, you have universal agreement or even nearly universal agreement by the church throughout the ages, to go on insisting that the whole church is wrong and that you are right is a dangerous and arrogant move.

    Pope Leo X couldn’t have said it better himself.

    Au contraire.

    Pope Leo X himself was very much one to go on insisting on things contrary what the whole church had always believed. When reformers called him on it and called him back to the scriptures and orthodox belief, he clung to the innovations of his and of his predecessors in the office. The reformers were orthodox. Pope Leo X was not.

  10. helen
    April 26th, 2013 at 21:16 | #10

    @Mrs. Hume #9
    Au contraire

    Thanks, Mrs. Hume! +1, as they say on geneveith. :)

  11. Riccardo
    July 2nd, 2013 at 14:18 | #11

    Could the same thing be said of infant baptism? Is there essentially universal agreement on the correctness of this belief among the Early Church Fathers?

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