A pastor-friend of mine emailed me not long ago. A member of his congregation was curious
about the Lord’s Table, and particularly their church’s celebration of it. The church member was concerned that the memorial view of communion was without historical warrant. In his words, “The fact of the matter is that the Baptistic, non-sacramental view of communion—that the bread and wine are merely symbolic—is a relatively new innovation in Christian doctrine, having come about after the Protestant Reformation, unknown throughout most of church history.”
A few weeks after that, a Roman Catholic young man emailed me with almost exactly the same claim. He included several links, directing me to online collections of patristic citations that seemingly supported the Roman Catholic position of transubstantiation.
Just a couple days later, I lectured on early church history for a college group at our church. Afterwards, one of the students asked me about the early church’s understanding of the Lord’s Table. Another alerted me to the fact that a friend of his had recently converted to Catholicism—primarily because of the doctrine of transubstantiation.
These incidents (all of which came in rapid-fire succession) convinced me of the need to address this issue in article form. Hence, this two-part series.
Evangelicals and the Eucharist
The word “eucharist” means “thanksgiving” and was an early Christian way of referring to the celebration of the Lord’s Table. Believers in the early centuries of church history regularly celebrated the Lord’s Table as a way to commemorate the death of Christ. The Lord Himself commanded this observance on the night before His death. As the apostle Paul recorded in 1 Corinthians 11:23–26:
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.
In discussing the Lord’s Table from the perspective of church history, at least two important questions arise. First, did the early church believe that the elements (the bread and the cup) were actually and literally transformed into the physical body and blood of Christ? In other words, did they articulate the doctrine of transubstantiation as modern Roman Catholics do? Second, did early Christians view the eucharist as a propitiatory sacrifice? Or put another way, did they view it in the terms articulated by the sixteenth-century Council of Trent?
In this month’s article, we will address the first of those two questions.
Did the Early Church Fathers Hold to Transubstantiation?
Transubstantiation is the Roman Catholic teaching that in the eucharist, the bread and the cup are transformed into the literal body and blood of Christ. Here are several quotes from the church fathers, often cited by Roman Catholics, in defense of their claim that the early church embraced transubstantiation.