William Webster


The Roman Catholic doctrine of the eucharist was first given dogmatic expression at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, when the Church formally adopted the doctrine of transubstantiation as its official teaching. This was confirmed by the Council of Trent, which also asserted that the Lord’s Supper was a propitiatory sacrifice for sin. These are the two primary and supremely important elements of the Church’s teaching on the eucharist — transubstantiation and sacrifice.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that when the priest utters the words of consecration, the bread and wine are changed into the literal body and blood of Christ. He is then offered to God on the altar as a propitiatory sacrifice for sin. The Council of Trent explicitly states that ‘in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner who once offered himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross’. There are thus two aspects of the Roman doctrine: transubstantiation, which guarantees the ‘real presence’ of Christ; and the mass, in which Christ, thus present bodily, is re-offered to God as a sacrifice. This, however, is not the only view which has been expressed in a consistent way throughout the history of the Church. From the beginning of the Church the Fathers generally expressed their belief in the Real Presence in the eucharist, in that they identified the elements with the body and blood of Christ, and also referred to the eucharist as a sacrifice, but there was considerable difference of opinion among the Fathers on the precise nature of these things, reflected in the fact that the ancient Church produced no official dogma of the Lord’s Supper. Interpretation of the meaning of the eucharist in the writings of the Fathers must be done with great caution for it is very easy to take a preconceived theology of the eucharist and read it back into their comments and teachings.

What I believe an objective analysis will reveal is that the views of the Fathers are very consistent with the differing views represented by the Roman Catholic Church and those of the Protestant Reformers. Some of the Fathers taught that the elements are symbols of the body and blood of Christ and that his presence is spiritual, while others maintained that the elements are changed into Christ’s body and blood and that his presence is physical.1 The following examples from the writings of the Fathers of the first four centuries reveal this diversity of opinion.

The Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, as it is sometimes called, is included in the collection of works known as the Apostolic Fathers, and is one of the oldest documents from the immediate post-apostolic age that we possess. It is an early manual of Church discipline dated from between the late first century and 140 A.D., and it simply refers to the Lord’s Supper as spiritual food and drink. There is no indication that the elements are transformed in anyway. Ignatius of Antioch (martyred c. 110 A.D.), on the other hand, speaks of the eucharist as the body and blood of Christ which communicates eternal life. Justin Martyr (100/110-165 A.D.) refers to the eucharistic elements as being more than common bread and wine,2 in that when they are consecrated they become the body and blood of Jesus; yet in his Dialogue with Trypho he wrote that the elements were bread and wine which were inaugurated by Christ as a memorial and remembrance of his body and blood.3 So while he spoke of a change in the elements, it seems that in his conception, the elements still remain, in essence, bread and wine. Like Justin, Irenaeus of Lyons (140-202 A.D.) clearly believed the bread and wine became the body and blood of Jesus at consecration,4 but he also stated that the elements were composed of two realities — one earthly and one heavenly, or spiritual.5 He implied that at consecration, though the elements are no longer common bread and wine, they do not lose the nature of being bread and wine.

Tertullian (155/160-240/250 A.D.) spoke of the bread and wine in the eucharist as symbols or figures which represent the body and blood of Christ. He specifically stated that these were not the literal body and blood of the Lord. When Christ said, ‘This is my body,’ Tertullian maintained that Jesus was speaking figuratively and that he consecrated the wine ‘in memory of his blood’ (Against Marcion 3.19). Some theologians have claimed that the ancient usage of the words ‘figure’ and ‘represent’ suggested that the symbols in some mysterious way became what they symbolized. But Tertullian uses the word ‘represent’ in a number of other places where the word carries a figurative meaning. For example, in Against Marcion 4.40 he says, ‘He represents the bleeding condition of his flesh under the metaphor of garments dyed in red.’ His interpretation of John 6 similarly indicates that when he spoke of the bread and wine as figures and symbols of Christ’s body and blood, that is exactly what he meant.6 He says that Christ spoke in spiritual terms when referring to the eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood and did not mean this literally. He holds that the eating of the flesh of Christ and the drinking of his blood means appropriating him by faith: ‘He likewise called His flesh by the same appellation; because, too, the Word had become flesh, 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.’7 Clearly he did not teach the concept of transubstantiation.

Clement of Alexandria (150-211/216 A.D.) also called the bread and wine symbols of the body and blood of Christ, and taught that the communicant received not the physical but the spiritual life of Christ.8 Origen (185-253/254 A.D.), likewise, speaks in distinctively spiritual and allegorical terms when referring to the eucharist.

Eusebius of Caesarea (263-340 A.D.) identified the elements with the body and blood of Christ but, like Tertullian, saw the elements as being symbolical or representative of spiritual realities.9 He specifically states that the bread and wine are symbols of the Lord’s body and blood and that Christ’s words in John 6 are to be understood spiritually and figuratively as opposed to a physical and literal sense.

As time passed clearer descriptions of the eucharist as the transformation of the elements into the literal body and blood of Christ emerged in the writings of Fathers such as Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzen, Chrysostom and Ambrose. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, taught that the eucharist was the perpetuation of the incarnation and similarly Cyril of Jerusalem adopted a highly literal approach:

Since then He Himself has declared and said of the Bread, This is My body, who shall dare doubt any longer? And since He has affirmed and said, This is My blood, who shall ever hesitate, saying, that this is not His blood? He once turned water into wine, in Cana of Galilee, at His own will, and is it incredible that He should have turned wine into blood? . . . Then having sanctified ourselves by these spiritual Hymns, we call upon the merciful God to send forth His Holy Spirit upon the gifts lying before Him; that He may make the bread the Body of Christ, and the Wine the Blood of Christ; for whatsoever the Holy Ghost has touched, is sanctified and changed.’10

At the same time, there was a continuing representation by many Fathers of the eucharistic elements as figures or symbols of the Lord’s body and blood, although they also believed the Lord was spiritually present in the sacrament. Pope Gelasius I (492-496A.D.), for example, believed that the bread and wine in substance at consecration did not cease to be bread and wine,11 a view shared by Eusebius, Theodoret, Serapion, Jerome, Athanasius, Ambrosiaster, Macanus of Egypt, and Eustathius of Antioch.12

However, the theological giant who provided the most comprehensive and influential defence of the symbolic interpretation of the Lord’s Supper was Augustine.13 He gave very clear instructions and principles for determining when a passage of Scripture should be interpreted literally and when figuratively. Passages of Scripture must always be interpreted in the light of the entire revelation of Scripture, he concluded, and he used John 6 as a specific example of a passage that should be interpreted figuratively.14

Augustine argued that the sacraments, including the eucharist, are signs and figures which represent or symbolize spiritual realities. He made a distinction between the physical, historical body of Christ and the sacramental presence, maintaining that Christ’s physical body could not literally be present in the sacrament of the eucharist because he is physically at the right hand of God in heaven, and will be there until he comes again. But Christ is spiritually with his people.15 Augustine viewed the eucharist in spiritual terms and he interpreted the true meaning of eating and drinking as being faith: ‘To believe on Him is to eat the living bread. He that believes eats; he is sated invisibly, because invisibly is he born again.’16

These views of Augustine are obviously in direct opposition to those of the Council of Trent. In fact, teachings such as his on the eucharist were anathematized by that Council. This highlights once again the lack of patristic consensus on the teaching of this major doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. The view of the transformation of the elements into the literal body and blood of Christ eventually triumphed within the Church but not without consistent opposition. There were two major controversies in the ninth and eleventh centuries between the literal and more spiritualistic views and even in the Scholastic age there were many prominent theologians who rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation.17

In an attempt to give the impression that there has been a unanimous consent throughout the history of the Church to the Roman Catholic interpretation of the eucharist Karl Keating makes the following statement:

Whatever else might be said, it is certain that the early Church took John 6 and the accounts 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.18

In light of the facts given above we can see that such a claim is erroneous. The truth of the matter is that the views of the early Church on the meaning of the eucharist and its relationship to the person of Christ are very similar to those one finds today and in the days of the Reformation when one compares the different Protestant and Roman Catholic views.

There is the literal view of transubstantiation which could be that expressed by Chrysostom; the Lutheran view of consubstantiation, which could be that taught by Irenaeus or Justin Martyr; the spiritual view of Calvin, which is closely aligned with Augustine; and the strictly symbolic view of Zwingli, which is similar to that expressed by Eusebius.

A similar lack of consensus existed on the other major characteristic of the Roman Catholic position on the eucharist — that this sacrament is itself a propitiatory sacrifice. According to this teaching, in the mass Christ is physically present through the priestly consecration and he then becomes the divine victim who is immolated on the altar. The word ‘immolate’ specifically means ‘to slay’ or ‘to kill’ and this sacrifice is efficacious as a sin payment to satisfy God’s justice.

There are some present day Roman Catholic writers who deny that the Roman Catholic Church teaches that the mass is the re-sacrifice of Christ, but the words of the Council of Trent are quite clear in their meaning:

And forasmuch as, in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner who once offered himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross . . . For the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different. . . If any one saith, that the sacrifice of the mass is only a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; or, that it is a bare commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the cross, but not a propitiatory sacrifice. . . and that it ought not to be offered for the living and the dead for sins, pains, satisfactions, and other necessities: let him be anathema.19

Trent teaches that just as Christ was the divine victim and was offered and immolated on the cross as a propitiatory sacrifice for sin, so in the mass, which is a distinct sacrifice in its own right, he is referred to as the divine victim who is again offered and immolated as a propitiatory sacrifice, just as he was immolated on the cross. The only difference, according to Trent, between the sacrifice of the mass and the sacrifice of the cross is that one is bloody and the other unbloody.

There are those who object to the charge that what Trent meant by immolation is a renewed slaying of Christ. Historically, the word immolate had been used by Fathers and theologians of the Church to refer to the eucharist as a commemoration of the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ. Augustine used the word in this way and his definition became normative for centuries afterwards.20 For example, Peter Lombard in the twelfth century in his Sentences expressed the Augustinian view in this way:

We may briefly reply that what is offered and consecrated by the priest is called a sacrifice and an immolation because it is a memorial and a representation of the true sacrifice and holy immolation made upon the altar of the cross. Christ died once, upon the cross, and there he was immolated in his own person; and yet every day he is immolated sacramentally, because in the sacrament there is a recalling of what was done once.21

The meaning of the term as it is expressed here is strictly that of a sacramental commemoration, it was not literal. However, Trent’s use of the term added a new dimension of meaning to the word which differs from that of Augustine for he did not view Christ as being physically present in the sacrament, nor the eucharist as a propitiatory sacrifice for sin. Augustine certainly did not teach that the sacrifice of the eucharist was the same as the sacrifice of Calvary.

But in Roman theology the eucharist is not merely the commemoration of a sacrifice, it is itself the same sacrifice as Calvary, and the immolation is literal. In the mass Christ is literally and physically present on the altar. He is referred to as a victim and is literally offered and sacrificed in the same manner as he was offered and sacrificed on the cross as an expiation or satisfaction for sin. One would seem to be justified in concluding that the Council of Trent understood immolare to refer to the offering of a victim in sacrifice to God, specifically in death, since this is how Christ was offered on the cross. The teaching of Trent on the nature of the mass is that it is a repetition of the sacrifice of Christ because he is offered again as a propitiation for sin.

While the exact meaning of the term immolare as employed by Trent may be disputed, there is no ambiguity about the fact that the Council teaches that the mass is a propitiatory sacrifice for sin. It was at this point that the Reformers universally challenged the Roman teaching. They charged that if the mass were truly a propitiatory sacrifice then Christ must die, which contradicts the clear statement of Scripture that Christ died once for all and can never die again. And on the other hand, if Rome teaches that Christ does not die, its teaching that the mass is propitiatory for sin is false for it is not a true sacrifice. Vatican II says that the mass was instituted in order to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice through time. But if his death was once-for-all it cannot be perpetuated through time. Christ can never die again. Propitiation was accomplished at Calvary.

The propitiatory nature of the eucharist is the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and it claims that its interpretation and practice is a fulfilment of the prophecy of Malachi 1:11 that a pure and bloodless sacrifice would be offered throughout the world which was acceptable to God. Once again, however, we find this interpretation disputed by the vast majority of Fathers in the early Church. The Roman Catholic Church would lead us to believe that its particular teaching of the eucharistic sacrifice has been the view universally held in the Church from the very beginning. But, as with the teaching on the Real Presence, there is a parallel situation historically with the concept of the eucharist as a sacrifice. Some of the Fathers approach the Roman Catholic interpretation, but the majority do not. Their writings reveal that they viewed the Lord’s Supper as a memorial of thanksgiving and praise in commemoration or remembrance of Christ’s once-for-all atoning sacrifice, and not as a propitiatory sacrifice for sin. They referred to the prophecy of Malachi and taught that the eucharist was indeed a partial fulfilment of that prophecy, and even referred to it as a sacrifice, but they did not interpret this in the same way as the Church of Rome has done. As with the term ‘tradition’, the Roman Church has given the word ‘sacrifice’ a certain content and meaning and has read that back into the use of the word by the early Church. Because the Fathers use the term sacrifice to refer to the eucharist it does not mean that they accepted the meaning the Roman Church gives to the word, as a brief survey of the writings of the Fathers reveals.

The Didache seems to refer to the eucharist as the believer’s sacrifice, reflecting the idea of self-giving to the Lord through an offering of praise and thanksgiving for the finished work of Jesus Christ. There is no mention of its being a propitiatory sacrifice. Roman apologists have often appealed to Clement of Rome as a support for their sacrificial interpretation of the eucharist but this is done as a result of a mistranslation. Keating, for example, gives a translation of 1 Clement 44 where Clement mentions those ‘from the episcopate who blamelessly and holily have offered its Sacrifices’.22 The problem with this translation is that Clement does not use the word ‘sacrifices’ in his original letter but the word ‘gifts’. So the appeal to Clement of Rome is an empty one.

Justin Martyr believed the eucharist was a spiritual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving which commemorated the death of Christ by a Church which now counted Gentiles among its members.23 Irenaeus also referred to Malachi’s prophecy and characterized the eucharist as a thank-offering to God. He maintained that the real sacrifice intended within it was the prayers of true believers, which came from pure hearts wholly yielded to God and undefiled by sin.24 Similarly, Tertullian argued that the true sacrifices offered to God were not of a carnal, physical kind, but the spiritual sacrifice of a broken and a contrite heart before God.25 Origen and Clement of Alexandria stressed this same theme: that the real meaning of the eucharistic sacrifice was as a memorial or commemoration of the sacrifice of Christ which demanded the self-surrender of the soul to God. It was a sacrifice because it involved the prayers and praise of God’s people; the self-surrender of themselves to God from broken and contrite hearts; and the giving of material offerings to the poor. There is absolutely no mention of the eucharist as the literal and renewed sacrifice of Christ as a propitiatory sin-offering.

Eusebius also explicitly states that the fulfilment of the prophecy of Malachi of a pure and bloodless sacrifice was to be found in the prayers and thanksgiving of true Christians throughout the world from contrite hearts.26

But the most influential advocate for this point of view was, once again, Augustine.27 He was unequivocal in his belief that the Lord’s Supper was a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, a commemoration of Christ’s passion. The eucharist is simply a sacramental way of remembering Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice. The sacrament is called a sacrifice only because it is identified with Calvary as a memorial or commemoration of that unique sacrifice.28 It was not Christ who was offered in this memorial but the Church, who offered herself to God through Christ as a living sacrifice from a broken and a contrite heart. He, too, saw this as the fulfilment of the prophecy of Malachi.29

Though the early Church generally viewed the eucharist in spiritual terms, the concept began to emerge of a literal sacrifice in the eucharist. Nearly all historians agree that this change had it beginnings with the third century North African bishop and martyr, Cyprian. The Church at this time was drifting from reliance on God’s grace in Jesus Christ to a theology which included the concept of human works to gain merit before God and to atone for sin through penance, asceticism and good works. Thus, the eucharist as a sacrifice began also to be looked upon, by some, as a means of propitiating God for sins committed after baptism. Men began to view the priest and Christian ministry as being parallel to the priesthood and ministry of the Old Testament. And though this analogy had been set forth by earlier Fathers, they always emphasized that the carnal sacrifices of Judaism had been displaced with the spiritual sacrifices of the Church on the basis of the completed sacrifice of Christ. There were no more sacrifices for sin. But the analogy began to lose its strictly spiritual character. Along with a materialistic view of the elements in the eucharist there began to develop through Cyprian, with his view of the sacerdotal nature of the priesthood, the concept of the eucharist as a literal sacrifice. He laid down the axiom:

If Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, is Himself the great High Priest of God the Father, and first offered Himself a Sacrifice to the Father, and commanded this to be done in remembrance of Himself, surely that Priest truly acts in Christ’s stead, who imitates that which Christ did; and he then offers a true and full Sacrifice in the Church to God the Father, when he begins to offer it according as he sees Christ Himself offered it.30

In this way Cyprian extended the traditional interpretation of the eucharist to include the concept of a sacramental re-enactment of the original sacrifice of Christ. In his mind, the eucharist was a sacrifice in the sense that it set forth as a memorial the original sacrifice. But given the materializing influences within the Church, it did not take long before the view of the eucharist as a sacramental re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice, in commemoration of him, was extended to the idea that Christ was truly and literally immolated on the altar. Chrysostom, for example, teaches that Christ physically suffers in the eucharistic sacrifice:

The bread which we break, is it not a communion of the Body of Christ?. . . But why adds he also, ‘which we break’? For although in the Eucharist one may see this done, yet on the cross not so, but the very contrary, For, ‘A bone of Him,’ saith one, ‘shall not be broken.’ But that which He suffered not on the cross, this He suffers in the oblation for thy sake, and submits to be broken, that He may fill all men.31

The drama of such a ‘real’ sacrifice fostered increasingly bizarre ‘visions’ throughout the Church which were used in turn as proof for the truth of the doctrine. A vivid example of this phenomenon was the defence of the materialist view of the eucharist by Radbertus, the ninth century theologian, by recourse to a succession of ‘marvellous stories of the visible appearances of the body and blood of Christ for the removal of doubts or the satisfaction of the pious desire of the saints. The bread on the altar, he reported, was often seen in the shape of a lamb or a little child, and when the priest stretched out his hand to break the bread, an angel descended from heaven with a knife, slaughtered the lamb or the child, and let his blood run into a cup.’32

Yet even when the Church was leaning more and more towards the concept of the literal sacrifice of Christ in the eucharist, the old view of the memorial of Christ’s sacrifice articulated by Augustine and the early Church Fathers was still widely held. For the first 1200 years of the Church’s life there was no unanimity on the nature of the eucharist.

The starting point for both interpretations (material and spiritual) of the eucharist was Scripture. Only in a detailed analysis of what Scripture has to say about the nature of Christ’s sacrifice, and how believers are to commemorate this sacrifice, can we come to a definitive understanding.

There is an important Greek word which is used to describe both the death and the sacrifice of Christ: ephapax, which means ‘once-for-all’. In Romans 6:9-10, Paul clearly states that Christ can never die again because his death was ‘once-for-all’. The author of Hebrews insists that Christ cannot be sacrificed daily, that his body is offered ‘once-for-all’ and that because this once-for-all sacrifice has brought complete forgiveness of sin there is no longer any requirement for an offering or sacrifice for sin.33 All that the animal sacrifices and human priesthood signified in the Old Testament, Christ has fulfilled. Consequently, God has abolished the priesthood and all sacrifices.

This presents the Roman Catholic Church with a dilemma. Scripture teaches that Christ’s body and his sacrifice were offered once. Rome teaches that his body and sacrifice are offered over and over again in transubstantiation and the repetition of each mass. The Church attempts to get around this problem by claiming that the sacrifice of the mass is not a different sacrifice from that of Calvary but the same sacrifice perpetuated through time. Because God is beyond time the sacrifice of the cross is always present with him, and therefore the sacrifice of the mass is the same sacrifice as that of Calvary. This logic is a semantic smoke-screen: the sacrifice of the cross was an historic space-time event which occurred once and can never be repeated. The application of the Lord’s sacrifice goes on through time in terms of the Holy Spirit bringing men to receive the benefits of his finished work, and the commemoration of his sacrifice goes on through time, but the sacrifice itself cannot be perpetuated. Indeed, the principal theme of the book of Hebrews is that there are no more sacrifices for sin of any kind whatsoever.

Scripture teaches that the Lord Jesus Christ has not only made a once-for-all-time atonement, but that his historical death on the cross is a complete atonement. He has completely satisfied God’s justice: the debt due to man’s sin has been fully paid and therefore all those who come to God through Jesus Christ are wholly free from condemnation. No further expiation for sin can ever be needed. The biblical view is that cleansing and forgiveness for sin are found in the blood of Jesus Christ alone, and never in the works or sufferings of man, for the law demands death as a penalty for sin. The significance of the reference to blood with respect to the work of Christ is that it signifies his life has been given over in death on our behalf and as a payment for our sin. It is because a full atonement has been made that a full forgiveness can be offered:

    The blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7).

    In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace (Eph. 1:7).

Scripture nowhere teaches that men must suffer temporal punishment for their own sins to render satisfaction to God, either in this life or in the life to come. All punishment for sin was borne by Christ. This is why the Word of God declares that ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Rom. 8:1). God certainly disciplines believers for sin, but this has nothing to do with making atonement or expiation. In the discipline of his children God’s action is remedial, not punitive; it flows from love, not wrath (see Heb. 12:4-13).

Scripture does speak of a eucharistic sacrifice. The word ‘eucharist’ literally means ‘thanksgiving’ and the New Testament frequently enjoins believers to offer this kind of sacrifice of praise: ‘Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of the lips that give thanks to His name’ (Heb. 13:15). This is the true eucharistic sacrifice. Scripture also speaks of other sacrifices the believer is to offer to God — our goods to meet the needs of others, and ourselves in total surrender to God (Heb. 13:16; Rom. 12:1). These are all true sacrifices in the New Testament but they have nothing to do with the expiation of sin.

If, as we have seen, there is no more sacrifice for sin — what is the meaning of the Lord’s Supper? The Supper was established by the Lord Jesus as a memorial of thanksgiving and praise for his atoning sacrifice by which believers were to commune with him spiritually and also to proclaim his death until he comes again. The bread and wine, as Augustine points out, were given as figures or visible symbols of his body and blood and therefore are figurative expressions of his self-sacrifice. They are visible reminders to his people of what he has done on their behalf. When the Lord says, ‘This is my body’, he is speaking figuratively and not literally. In fact, in Matthew 26:29, Mark 14:25 and Luke 22:16,18, Christ refers to the wine after consecration as the ‘fruit of the vine’, indicating that it was still wine. Twice, in 1 Corinthians 11:23-27, Paul refers to the consecrated bread as ‘bread’.

When Jesus refers to himself as the bread of life and says that men must eat his flesh and drink his blood, he makes it clear that his words were to be interpreted spiritually and figuratively: ‘The flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life’ (John 6:63). This discourse could not refer to the Lord’s Supper for Christ had not instituted that ordinance at the time he gave this teaching. He is not speaking here of the eucharist, but of his sacrifice on Calvary. The whole discourse of John 6 is a presentation of Jesus as the atoning sacrifice for the sin of the world in the giving of his flesh and blood, and how men are to appropriate the benefits of that sacrifice. It is those who believe who experience the benefits of his work, and so when he likens faith to eating his flesh and drinking his blood he is explaining the nature of saving faith as the appropriation of his person into the believer’s heart. The Son of God would have us understand that saving faith is much more than mere intellectual assent to truth. As John Calvin pointed out:

We are quickened by the true partaking of him; and he has therefore designated this partaking by the words ‘eating’ and ‘drinking’, in order that no one should think that the life that we receive from him is received by mere knowledge. As it is not the seeing but the eating of bread that suffices to feed the body, so the soul must truly and deeply become partaker of Christ that it may be quickened to spiritual life by his power . . . In this way, the Lord intended, by calling himself ‘the bread of life’ (John 6:51), to teach not only that salvation for us rests on faith in his death and resurrection, but also that, by true partaking of him, his life passes into us and is made ours — just as bread when taken as food imparts vigour to the body.34

Christ often used very vivid language to impress spiritual truth upon men’s minds. When speaking with Nicodemus he tells him that he must be ‘born again’. He refers to himself as a ‘vine’ and believers as ‘branches’. These references are obviously not to be taken in a literal sense. Again, in Matthew 5:29-30 Jesus says:

And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to go into hell.

Christ is obviously using starkly realistic language to convey an important spiritual truth: the necessity for radical repentance from sin. He speaks in physical terms but we are not meant to take his words in a literal, physical sense. Precisely the same is true with his teaching in John 6 and his words at the institution of the Lord’s Supper. To interpret all his words in those passages literally would adopt an interpretation which directly contradicts the teaching of Scripture.

Jesus himself teaches us that the Church is to observe the Supper ‘in remembrance of me’. The word remembrance is the Greek word which literally means a memorial. The Supper is no altar of sacrifice, but a table of remembrance, a place of spiritual communion with the Saviour by his Spirit. To teach that Christ has instituted a means whereby his sacrifice can be perpetuated through time is to contradict the plain teaching of Scripture.

This becomes yet clearer from the identification of the Lord’s Supper with the Passover memorial of the Old Testament. The Lord’s Supper was first celebrated at the time of the Jewish Passover and Jesus specifically identifies it as an equivalent when he says: ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer’ (Luke 22:15). What exactly was the Passover? It was an annual feast established by God in which the Jews would remember the night in which the angel of death ‘passed over’ those families which had applied the blood of the lamb to their door-posts (Exod. 12:1-13). ‘Now this day will be a memorial to you, and you shall celebrate it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations you are to celebrate it as a permanent ordinance’ (Exod. 12:14). This was a ‘memorial’ to a specific act of God in redeeming his people from bondage and death. The ‘memorial’ served to bring to remembrance an important event. It did not repeat the event but kept it vivid in the memory through a physical representation.

Just as God instituted a memorial of remembrance of redemption in the Old Testament, he has done the same in the New Testament. 1 Corinthians 5:7 states, ‘For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed.’ His death is an accomplished fact. Now we are called, not to a sacrifice, but to a feast: ‘Let us therefore celebrate the feast . . . with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth’ (1 Cor. 5:8). When Christ states that the bread is to be eaten and the wine drunk in remembrance of him, he is employing the same language as that of the Old Testament memorial in reference to the Passover. The Lord’s Supper is not a sacrifice, it is the commemoration of a sacrifice.

The Roman Catholic teaching of the eucharist contradicts Scripture and it cannot be validated by the unanimous consent of the Fathers. To teach men to put trust in the eucharist as a sacrificial event is to undermine the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is to deny the sufficiency of his once-for-all sacrifice on the cross of Calvary. To suggest in any way that men must rely upon anything but Christ and his cross as God’s means for dealing with sin is to lead men to a false trust and a false gospel.


  1. For comments by the Fathers on the Eucharist and the Real Presence see Appendix 8.
  2. ‘We call this food the Eucharist. . . . Not as ordinary bread or as ordinary drink do we partake of them, but just as, through the word of God, our Saviour Jesus Christ became incarnate and took upon Himself flesh and blood for our salvation, so we have been taught, the food which has been made the Eucharist by the prayer of His word, and which nourishes our flesh and blood by assimilation, is both the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.’ Thomas B. Falls, The Fathers of the Church, Saint Justin Martyr, First Apology 65-66 (Washington D.C.: Catholic University, 1948), pp. 105-06.
  3. It is quite evident that this prophecy also alludes to the bread which our Christ gave us to offer in remembrance of the Body which He assumed for the sake of those who believe in Him, for whom He also suffered, and also to the cup which He taught us to offer in the Eucharist, in commemoration of His blood (Ibid., Dialogue with Trypho 70, p.262).
  4. Alexander Roberts and W. H. Rambaut, trans., The Writings of Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.2.2 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1874), p. 59.
  5. Ibid., Against Heresies 4.18.4-5, pp. 434-35.
  6. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. III, Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, ch. 37 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), p. 572.
  7. Ibid., Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, ch. 37, p. 572.
  8. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. II, Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book I, ch. VI (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), pp. 215-22.
  9. Eusebius of Caesarea, On the Theology of the Church, iii.11, 12. Taken from Darwell Stone, A History of the Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist, vol. I (New York: Longmans, Green, 1909), pp. 85-89.
  10. A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church, The Catechetical Lectures of Cyril of Jerusalem, XXII.1-2, XXIII.7 (Oxford: Parker, 1842), pp. 270, 275.
  11. Pope Gelasius, I On the Two Natures in Christ. Taken from Darwell Stone, A History of the Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist, vol. I (London: Longmans, Green, 1909), p. 102.
  12. J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978), pp. 440-41, 445-46.
  13. For comments by Augustine on the nature of the Eucharist and the Real Presence refer to Appendix 8.
  14. ‘If the sentence . . . seems to enjoin a crime or vice. . . it is figurative. “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man,” says Christ, “and drink His blood, ye have no life in you.” This seems to enjoin a crime or a vice; it is therefore a figure, enjoining that we should have a share in the sufferings of our Lord, and that we should retain a sweet and profitable memory of the fact that His flesh was wounded and crucified for us.’ Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. II, St. Augustin: The City of God and On Christian Doctrine, On Christian Doctrine 3.16.2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), p. 563.
  15. ‘In respect of the presence of the Majesty we have Christ always; in respect of the presence of the flesh, it was rightly said to the disciples, But Me ye will not always have. For the Church had Him in respect of the presence of the flesh, for a few days; now, by faith it holds, not with eyes beholds Him.’ A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church, Homilies on the Gospel According to St. John by S. Augustine, Homily 92.1, p. 873; Homily 50.13 (Oxford: Parker, 1849), pp. 677-78.
  16. Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. VII, St Augustin, Homilies on the Gospel of John, Tractate XXVI.I (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), p. 168.
  17. For instance: Theologians such as Duns Scotus, Biel, Occam & Wessel. See Seeberg, vol. 2, pp. 203ff. for details.
  18. Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988), p. 238.
  19. Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, vol. II, The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (New York: Harper, 1877), pp. 179, 184-85.
  20. Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. I, The Confessions and Letters of St Augustin, Letter 98.9, Ad Boniface (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), p. 410.
  21. Sentences, book IV, dist. 12, cap. 5. Taken from Francis Clark, Eucharistic Sacrifice and the Reformation (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1967), p. 407.
  22. Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988), p. 255.
  23. ‘God has therefore announced in advance that all the sacrifices offered in His name, which Jesus Christ commanded to be offered, that is, the Eucharist of the Bread and of the Chalice, which is offered by us Christians in every part of the world, are pleasing to Him. . . . Now, I also admit that prayers and thanksgivings, offered by worthy persons, are the only perfect and acceptable sacrifices to God.’ Thomas Falls, Saint Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho 117, (Washington D.C.: Catholic University, 1948), p. 328.
  24. Alexander Roberts and W. H. Rambaut, The Writings of Irenaeus, Against Heresies IV.17.5-6, 18.1-4 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1874), pp. 430-35.
  25. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. III, Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews, ch. 5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), pp. 156-57.
  26. Eusebius, Dem. Evang. I.x.28-38. Taken from Darwell Stone, A History of the Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist, vol. I (New York: Longmans, Green, 1909), pp. 110-11.
  27. For a detailed documentation of the teachings of the Fathers and Augustine on the nature of the eucharistic sacrifice see Appendix 9.
  28. ‘While we consider it no longer a duty to offer sacrifices, we recognise sacrifices as part of the mysteries of Revelation, by which the things prophesied were foreshadowed. For they were our examples, and in many and various ways they pointed to the one sacrifice which we now commemorate. Now that this sacrifice has been revealed, and has been offered in due time, sacrifice is no longer binding as an act of worship, while it retains its symbolic authority. . . Before the coming of Christ, the flesh and blood of this sacrifice were fore-shadowed in the animals slain; in the passion of Christ the types were fulfilled by the true sacrifice; after the ascension of Christ, this sacrifice is commemorated in the sacrament.’ Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. IV, St. Augustin: The Writings Against the Manicheans and Against the Donatists, Reply to Faustus the Manichean 6.5, 20.21 (New York: Longmans, Green, 1909), pp. 169, 262.
  29. ‘For, as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office, so we, being many, are one body in Christ. This is the sacrifice of Christians: we being many, are one body in Christ. And this also is the sacrifice which the Church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar, known to the faithful, in which she teaches that she herself is offered in the offering she makes to God. . . . For we ourselves, who are His own city, are His most noble and worthy sacrifice, and it is this mystery we celebrate in our sacrifices, which are well known to the faithful. . . . For through the prophets the oracles of God declared that the sacrifices which the Jews offered as a shadow of that which was to be would cease, and that the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun, would offer one sacrifice.’ Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. II, p. 230-31. St. Augustin: The City of God and On Christian Doctrine, The City of God Book 10, ch. 6; Book 19, ch. 23 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), pp. 184, 418.
  30. A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church, Epistle 63.11 (Oxford: Parker, 1844), p. 192.
  31. Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. XII, Saint Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, Homily 24.4-5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), pp. 139-40.
  32. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), p. 548.
  33. See Hebrews: 7:27, 10:10-14, 10:18.
  34. The Library of Christian Classics, John McNeill, ed., vol. XXI, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. II, Book IV, ch. 17 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), p. 1365.


William A. Webster is a business man, living with his wife and children in Battle Ground, Washington. He has already authored The Christian Following Christ as Lord and Salvation, The Bible, and Roman Catholicism, The Church of Rome at the Bar of History and just recently published (Sept. 2001), from which this article is taken, and the three volume series, Sola Scriptura, co-edited by David T. King. Mr. Webster is a founder of Christian Resources, Inc., a tape and book ministry dedicated to teaching and evangelism. You can visit his website at:



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