This is part of an ongoing series by Ken Hensley. Part I
If I had wanted to remain a Baptist pastor, I should never have read the brilliant Anglican convert John Henry Newman.
It was Newman who in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine famously said, “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” He insisted that it was “easy” to show that the early Church was not Protestant. He went so far as to assert that if the system of doctrine I held as a Baptist minister had ever existed in the earliest centuries of Christian history, it has been swept from the historical record as if by a flood. There is simply no evidence of it.
I certainly found this to be the case when it came to the teaching of the early Church on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.If I had wanted to remain a Baptist pastor, I should never have read the brilliant Anglican convert John Henry Newman. Click To Tweet
A single quotation from St. Justin Martyr, writing around 150 A.D., sums up what seems to have been the universal teaching of Christianity, in both the East and the West, for the first fifteen hundred years of Christian history.
For not as common bread or common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food that has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and blood of that incarnated Jesus (First Apology 66).
From History to Scripture
How does a Christian who has always viewed the Lord’s Supper as a simple symbolic meal of remembrance respond to this challenge?
A good number have ingrained into them so deeply the conviction that “nothing really matters except what the New Testament teaches” that they don’t care what the early Church believed.
Assuming that they know pretty well what the New Testament teaches on the topic, the idea that the Church might have held—even for the first fifteen hundred years of it’s existence—a view of the Eucharist that was in all essentials Catholic, doesn’t rattle them enough to make them even want to find out if it’s true.
I wasn’t able to respond like this.
First, I had spent years and years in academic study of the New Testament writings. I had preached verse by verse through a number of New Testament books, working directly from the Greek text. I knew enough about the New Testament to know that it is not even close to being a “manual of Christian doctrine.”
If it was a manual of Christian doctrine, we wouldn’t have so many contradictory opinions on so many doctrinal issues among Christians who all believe they are following the clear teaching of Scripture.
The ministry of the Apostles was primarily one of evangelizing, making disciples, establishing churches and teaching those churches the doctrines of the faith. Instructing them.
When the Apostles wrote, most of the time they wrote to deal with specific problems that had arisen in specific churches. They didn’t write to summarize Christian doctrine and with rare exceptions, they don’t summarize Christian doctrine.
I knew this. And I knew enough about the contents of the New Testament to suspect that there was no passage to which I was going to be able to point to say, “Here it is! Proof that the early Church’s belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is unbiblical!”
Second, with respect to the value of early Church history, it seemed reasonable to me to think that even as the teaching of the Apostles would be reflected in their writings, so would their teaching be reflected in the faith and practice of the early Church.
Would not the faith and practice of the early Church, I asked myself, be a good indicator of what the Apostles had taught – especially in a case like this where the Church’s belief and practice seemed unanimous and was evidenced very early in the Church’s history?
This seemed reasonable to me.
It did not seem reasonable to think that the apostles would teach one thing and the entire Church turn around and immediately teach another.
Third, what seemed reasonable to me clearly seemed reasonable to the early Church as well.
St. Irenaeus describes the Apostles as having deposited their teaching in the Church as a rich man deposits his money in a bank. Because of this, Christians, he says, can come to the Church to draw from her the truth.
As I said before, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith [from the apostles], although she is disseminated throughout the whole world, yet guarded it, as if she occupied but one house. She likewise believes these things just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart; and harmoniously she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down, as if she possessed but one mouth…. When, therefore, we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek among others the truth, which is easily obtained from the Church. For the Apostles, like a rich man in a bank, deposited with her most copiously everything which pertains to the truth; and everyone whoever wishes draws from her the drink of life (Against Heresies I:10:2 and 3:4:1, c. 189 A.D.)
With all of this in mind, I did not feel that I could easily dismiss the witness of the early Church. I could not treat that witness as though it didn’t matter and shouldn’t carry weight in my thinking.
At the same time, I was eager to reexamine the New Testament passages that touched on the Lord’s Supper. Was there anything in the New Testament that might somehow demonstrate that the early Church’s view of the Eucharist, regardless of how long or unanimously it was held, was in error? Was there anything in the New Testament I had not seen before and that might support the early Church’s view?
First Corinthians 10 and 11
The passage that immediately came to mind was 1 Corinthians 10 and 11, the only passage in all the New Testament Epistles where the Lord’s Supper is discussed at some length.
The results were more than interesting.
1. It seemed clear to me that for Paul the Lord’s Supper was about remembering and proclaiming the Lord’s death — a point on which all Christians agree.
No dispute. Paul states this clearly in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given the thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, 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.
So far, so good.
2. It also seems clear to me that when Paul in 1 Cor 10:16-17 identified the bread and the cup with the body and blood of Christ he was not speaking literally but figuratively.
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread (1 Cor 10:16-17).
Now the Greek word translated “participation” here is koinonia. It simply means “to share in” or “to participate in.” When we celebrate the Eucharist, Paul says, we are sharing in the body and blood of Christ.When Christians share in the bread and the cup, Paul says they are sharing in the body and blood of Christ. Click To Tweet
Because of this, Paul could be saying that when we receive the bread and the cup we are sharing literally in the body and blood of Christ. And while I have come as a Catholic to believe this to be true, I do not believe Paul is saying that in this passage.
If you read further to verses 18-21, Paul compares this “sharing,” this “participation” in Christ with those who might “share” or “participate” in the altars of demons. He does not want his readers, he says, to be “partners with demons” (same Greek word koinonia). He goes on to say “You cannot partake (koinonia) of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.” Well, since I doubt very much that Paul means that when one eats pagan sacrifices he is consuming literal demons, it makes the most sense to think that what Paul is saying in vs. 16-17 is that when we share in the bread and the cup we are uniting ourselves to Christ, we are expressing our partnership with Christ.
Again, something all Christians believe.
3. But then, it also seemed to me that Paul thought of the Lord’s Supper as as in some sense parallel to the supernatural food and drink with which the Israelites were sustained in the desert.
Now this was something of a revelation to me.
I had read 1 Corinthians 10:1-6 many times. It’s the classic passage where St. Paul uses Old Covenant Israel’s experience in the wilderness as an illustration of what will happen to his New Covenant readers in Corinth — if they allow themselves to fall into sin again and fail to persevere in the obedience of faith.
I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless with most of them God was not pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things are examples for us, not to desiere eveil as they did.
Even though the Israelites had been baptized into Moses; even though they were given supernatural food and drink to sustain them in their journey through the wilderness—the manna from heaven, the water from the rock—many of them never made it to the Promised Land.
There’s the example of Old Covenant Israel. OK, so what’s Paul’s message to the believers in Corinth? What is Paul saying to them by raising the illustration of Old Covenant Israel?
Here’s the implied message: “Brothers and sisters, you may have received your own baptism. You may have your own supernatural food and drink. But as with Israel in the wilderness, none of this guarantees that you will make it to the end of your journey—if you follow the example of Israel and fail to persevere in the obedience of faith.”
Here’s what I had not seen before but that now struck me as obvious: In this passage, Paul is drawing a direct parallel between the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, and the miraculous food and drink with which the Lord fed the Israelites during their wilderness wanderings. Paul is implicitly referring to the Eucharist as “supernatural food and drink.”
In other words, when the Apostle Paul thought about the Lord’s Supper, he didn’t just think about remembering our Lord’s death and proclaiming it. Images also came to his mind of water springing up from rocks and manna falling down from heaven. When Paul thought about the Eucharist he thought about supernatural food and drink given to sustain the New Covenant people of God on their journey through the wilderness of this world to the Promised Land of the Beatific Vision.
Paul seems to have thought of the Eucharist as supernatural food and drink.
4. Finally, I had to admit that what Paul goes on to say about the danger of receiving the Eucharist unworthily seemed somewhat at least strange—if he believed that the Lord’s Supper was nothing more than a simple meal by which we remember our Lord’s death.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged (1 Cor 11:27-31).
To receive unworthily is to profane the body and blood of the Lord?
It is to drink judgment on oneself?
One can become weak and ill and even die by receiving the Lord’s Supper unworthily?
Again, in biblical interpretation, it’s always possible to say, “Well, I think he just means…” and then go on to explain what the inspired author “just means.” But it sure seemed to me like Paul viewed Christ’s body and blood as being somehow truly present and received in the Eucharist.
It sure seemed to me like Paul viewed the Eucharist as something more than a merely symbolic meal of remembrance.
I left chapters 10 and 11 of 1 Corinthians with three main thoughts in mind:
1. Nothing Paul says in this passage “proves” or “demonstrates conclusively” the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I don’t believe one could demonstrate the doctrine from 1 Cor 10 and 11.
2. At the same time, Paul says nothing in these chapters that is not entirely consistent with the doctrine of the Real Presence and a few things in 1 Cor 1:1-6 and 11:27-31 that make a great of sense on the premise that he took the Eucharist to be more than a simple meal of remembrance. So while the Real Presence can’t be proved, it fits.
3. Finally, the question of how to weight the evidence from the early Church. Given that Paul doesn’t spell out a “doctrine of the Eucharist” anywhere in his writings, if the early Church believed and taught the Real Presence, and if what Paul says is consistent with the Real Presence, upon what exactly would I stand to reject that belief and teaching?
The mere possibility that this isn’t what Paul meant?