The “real presence” doctrine, as modern Catholicism teaches, states that once the bread and wine are blessed by the priest, they change into the literal body and blood of Christ. This implies that the substance of the bread and wine are no longer present, but only the accidents (characteristics or appearance) remain intact. Since the bread has become Jesus – in the mind of a Catholic – it’s placed in a monstrance and worshipped. Of course, this doctrine is Biblically and logically false.
Modern Catholic apologists claim that this doctrine was universally believed from the early days of the church. As proof, they selectively quote patristic works. Karl Keating of Catholic Answers wrote unashamedly:
“Whatever else might be said, it is certain that the early Church took John 6 and the act of the Last Supper literally. There is no record in the early centuries of any Christian doubting the Catholic interpretation. There exists no document in which the literal interpretation is opposed and the metaphorical accepted” (Catholicism and Fundamentalism, 1988, 238)
These are strong statements but as it turns out, they are mere quicksand and jaded tropes used to deceive potential converts. For a religion with centuries of experience in forgery and revisionism, before we can “be certain” enough to accept that “there is no record in the early” church that opposes what Catholicism today teaches, we need to verify these claims by ourselves and reach our own conclusions.
To this end, this piece examines the writings of church fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Origen, Cyprian and Augustine to show that the early church never believed, taught or conceived the doctrine of transubstantiation or real presence.
1. Ignatius of Antioch
“They abstain from the eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again” (Romans 7:3)
To understand the context of this quote, one needs to know who Ignatius was referring to and why they rejected the eucharist. He was referring to heretics known as Docetists, who denied that the human body (and suffering) of Christ was real. This is seen in Ignatius’ preceding and proceeding statements:
“He [Jesus] suffered truly, even as also He truly raised up Himself, not, as certain unbelievers maintain, that he only seemed to suffer, as they themselves only seem to be Christians” (ch 2)
“For what does any one profit me, if he commends me, but blasphemes my Lord, not confessing that He was [truly] possessed of a body? But he who does not acknowledge this, has in fact altogether denied Him, being enveloped in death” (ch. 5)
Catholic apologists who cite this want their readers to believe the heretics he was attacking were those who rejected transubstantiation! Another misused quote is presented below in full:
“For though I am alive while I write to you, yet I am eager to die. My love has been crucified, and there is no fire in me desiring to be fed; but there is within me a water that liveth and speaketh, saying inwardly, Come to the Father. I have no delight in corruptible food, nor in the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards of the seed of David and Abraham; and I desire the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life” (Romans 7:3)
This was written when he was to be martyred. He was speaking about the Spirit of God within him, his desire for the Bread of Heaven, the flesh of Christ who was sacrificed for the sins of the world and the drink which is the incorruptible blood of Christ shed for the remission of sins. There’s nothing about the real presence here, unless one is reading it through Rome’s dark lenses.
2. Justin Martyr
The portion of his works oft quoted are:
“And this food is called among us eukarista [the eucharist] of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things we teach are true… For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh” (First Apology, 66).
Justin was writing to refute the slanderous accusations from the Roman pagans that Christians were partaking human flesh and blood. He described what the eucharist was all about, stating that the bread and wine Christians partake are not just common bread or wine, but are connected to Christ (His flesh and blood) who became incarnate and was sacrificed at Calvary for our salvation. So, this food is able to nourish the body through transmutation. Nowhere did Justin accept the charge of cannibalism as true. In the same work:
“And whether they perpetrate those fabulous and shameful deeds– the upsetting of the lamp, and promiscuous intercourse, and eating human flesh…[and] they are neither persecuted nor put to death by you, at least on account of their opinions.”
If he termed eating of human flesh a shameful deed, then the Eucharist does not involve a changing of bread to human flesh in any way. He in fact, outrightly denounced the charges of eating human flesh as “accusations falsely brought against us…because none of these actions are really ours and we have the unbegotten God as witness both of our thoughts and deeds” (Apology 2:12). Why would he say this if he believed in transubstantiation?
He in fact, refuted the idea that the Eucharist is literal flesh and blood by defining it as a remembrance not a “repetition”: “[It is] the celebration of which our Lord Jesus Christ prescribed, in remembrance of the suffering which He endured on behalf of those who are purified in soul from all iniquity…”
“Now it is evident that in this prophecy [allusion is made] to the bread which our Christ gave us to eat, in remembrance of His being made flesh for the sake of His believers, for whom also He suffered; and to the cup which He gave us to drink, in remembrance of His own blood, with giving of thanks.” (Dialogue with Trypho, 70)
3. Irenaeus of Lyons
His major work, Against Heresies (c 180), was to counter the beliefs and practices of Gnostics. Gnosticism taught that the material world (including the physical body) was evil, while the souls of humans were divine. So, they rejected the human nature of Christ. Irenaeus refuted this belief by stating that God created the world and everything in it, including the bread and wine which Christ commanded to be received as His body and blood- a memorial of His sacrifice.
Its in that context that Ireneaus wrote these:
“If the Lord were from other than the Father how could he have rightly taken 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” (Against Heresies 4:32)
“When, therefore, the mixed cup 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 [the Gnostics] 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?” (5:2)
Like Ignatius, Irenaeus was refuting the docetic gnostics who denied the physical reality of Christ’s incarnation, not teaching transubstantiation. He even wrote that the altar is in Heaven for that is where prayers and oblations are offered (Book IV, Ch 18). This shows he didn’t believe the Eucharist was a sacrifice.
4. Clement of Alexandria
His famous work, Paedagogus (The Instructor of Children) is often quoted. Here is it in full:
“‘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” (1:6)
You can see that though Clement quoted from John 6 (which Catholics love to use as proof text), the full quote shows he was using an obscure metaphor to explain what apostle Paul taught about putting off the old man and putting on Christ (Eph. 4:21-24, Col. 3:9-10). This is why Catholic apologists selectively quote him, because to present the real context would have been fatal to their cause. Even in a few lines after this, he challenges the idea of the real presence:
“The flesh figuratively represents to us the Holy Spirit; for the flesh was created by Him. The blood points us to 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…”
Clement’s figurative view of the Eucharist is consistently taught in his writings:
“Elsewhere the Lord, in the Gospel according to John, brought this out by symbols, when He said: ‘Eat ye my flesh, and drink my blood;’ describing distinctly by metaphor the drinkable properties of faith and the promise, by means of which the Church, like a human being consisting of many members, is refreshed and grows…”
“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.” (ibid)
“‘Taste and see that the Lord is Christ’ it is said. For so He imparts of Himself to those who partake of the food in a more spiritual manner.” (Stromata 5:10)
5. Tertullian of Carthage
In his work “The Resurrection of the Dead,” Tertullian expounded on the unique relationship between the soul and the body working together to serve God. Catholic apologists quote a fraction of his words here to support the real presence. Here it is in full:
“The flesh, indeed, is washed, in order that the soul may be cleansed; the flesh is anointed, that the soul may be consecrated…the flesh is shadowed with the imposition of hands, that the soul also maybe illuminated by the Spirit; the flesh feeds on the body and blood of Christ, that the soul likewise may fatten on its God. They cannot then be separated in their recompense, when they are united in their service.”
One would have to be highly indoctrinated by Rome to see “real presence” here. No real Christian denies that the communion bread and wine are called the body and the blood of Christ. The contention is when Rome claims they become literal body and blood of Jesus Christ when the priest speaks Latin to it. That Tertullian refers to the eucharistic elements as “body and blood” fails to support Rome’s fictions. He continues:
“But since He [Jesus] had but one flesh and one soul,- that ‘soul which was sorrowful, even unto death,’ and that flesh was the ‘bread given for the life of the world,’- the number is unimpaired of two substances distinct in kind…”
If he was teaching real presence, he would have phrased it as “that flesh is the bread…” since the act of eating it is ongoing. His interpretation of John 6 is also contrary to Catholicism’s use of it:
“They thought His discourse was harsh and intolerable, supposing that He had really and literally enjoined on them to eat his flesh, He, with the view of ordering the state of salvation as a spiritual thing, set out with the principle, it is the spirit that quickens; and then added, The flesh profits nothing- meaning of course, to the giving of life….We ought therefore to desire Him in order that we may have life, and to devour Him with the ear, and to ruminate on Him with the understanding, and to digest Him by faith.” (ibid, 37)
Another part of Tertullian’s words misused was his illustration of the Lord’s Supper to refute Marcion’s Gnostic beliefs. Here it is in full:
“When He so earnestly expressed His desire to eat the passover, He considered it His own feast; for it would have been unworthy of God to desire to partake of what was not His own. 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. An empty thing, or phantom, is incapable of a figure. If however (as Marcion might say) He pretended the bread was His body, because He lacked the truth of bodily substance, it follows that He must have given bread for us…He did not understand how ancient was this figure of the body of Christ…” (Against Marcion, ANF Ch. XL, 418)
The context shows Tertullian believed the Lord’s Supper was a symbol or representation, not a real presence.
He also viewed the eucharistic bread and wine as symbolical.
“…and it is not the material of the bread but the word which is said over it which is of advantage to him who eats it not unworthily of the Lord. And these things indeed are said of the typical and symbolical body. But many things might be said about the Word Himself who became flesh, and true meat of which he that eateth shall assuredly live for ever…” (Commentary on Matthew 11:14)
“And so neither by not eating, I mean by the very fact that we do not eat of the bread which has been sanctified by the word of God and prayer, are we deprived of any good thing…” (ibid)
Where is “real presence” here? It’s absent!
His words taken from The Lapsed 15-16 is often cited, but there is nothing there that teaches the real presence. In another work, he refuted such an idea:
“For when Christ says, ‘I am the true vine.’ the blood of Christ is assuredly not water, but wine: neither can His blood by which we are redeemed and quickened appear to be in the cup there is no wine whereby the blood of Christ is shown forth, which is declared by the sacrament and testimony of all the Scriptures.” (Epistles LXII)
8. Augustine of Hippo
“Who is the bread of the kingdom of God but He who says “I am the living Bread which came down from heaven? “Do not get your mouths ready but your hearts…Lo we believe Christ, we receive Him with faith. In receiving Him we know what to think of. We receive but little, and we are nourished in the heart. It is not then what is seen, but what is believed, that feeds us.” (Tractate 25:12)
“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 you will not have always’: 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 … He left the world by a bodily withdrawal, He proceeded to the Father by His ascension men…” (50, 92)
9. Gelasus, the bishop of Rome
“The sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, which we receive, is a divine thing, because by it we are made partakers of the divine nature. Yet the substance or nature of the bread and wine do not cease. And assuredly the image and similtude of the body and blood of Christ are celebrated in the performance of the mysteries” (Adversus Eutychen et Nestorium, 14)
From these it can be seen that the early church didn’t hold to the doctrine of real presence in the eucharist or transusbtantiation. Therefore, all the gymnastics of Rome’s apologists to support this from early church history are exposed as cheap tricks and intellectual dishonesty, a feat which militates against the doctrine they seek to defend.