Were Irenaeus, Theodoret of Cyrus and Augustine anti-Eucharist?

We got an email that said:

You make it sound that like the early Church unanimously agreed on the idea of transubstantiation, but this is simply not true, Hugh... There was no general consensus regarding the Eucharist until the Fourth Lateran Council.

And then he provides three quotes from Irenaeus, Theodoret of Cyrus and Augustine:

Irenaeus: "For as the bread of the earth, receiving the invocation of God, is no longer common bread but Eucharist, consisting of two things, and earthly and an heavenly."

This quote is completely consistent with Catholic teaching on Transubstantiation. Here's the entire quote:

Irenaeus: "For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the Flesh and Spirit. For as bread which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of resurrection to eternity (...) Even as the blessed Paul declares in his epistle to the Ephesians that ‘We are members of his body, of his flesh and of his bones’: he does not speak these words of some spiritual and invisible man, for a spirit has not bones nor flesh; but he (Paul) refers to that dispensation by which the Lord became an actual man, consisting of flesh, and nerves, and bones, - that flesh which is nourished by the cup which is His blood, and receives increase from bread which is his body. And just as a cutting from the vine planted in the ground fructifies in its season, or as a corn of wheat falling on the earth and becoming decomposed, rises with manifold increase by the Spirit of God, who contains all things, and then, through the wisdom of God, serves for the use of men, and having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the Body and Blood of the Christ (...)”.

It is clear that Irenaeus was totally into the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Next in the email my Evangelical friend quotes Theodoret of Cyrus (from his Eranistes). It is a Greek style dialogue such as those found in Socrates between a student (Eran) and a teacher (Ortho):

Eran: "Therefore, just as the symbols of the Lord's body and of his blood are one thing before the priest's invocation, but after the invocation are changed, and become something else, so to was the Lord's body changed, after the ascension, into the divine essence."

Ortho: "You have been caught in the nets which you have woven, for not even after the consecration do the mystical symbols depart from their own nature! They continue in their former essence, both in shape and appearance, and are visible, and palpable, as they were beforehand"

A full examination of the passage makes it clear what Theodoret was talking about. Even though his terminology was naturally undeveloped regarding accidents and substance which were used to explain Transubstantiation in the dogma of 1215 A.D., conceptually it is consistent with Church teaching. Two lines before the quote above, Theodoret writes:

Eran.--And after the consecration how do you name these?

Orth.--Christ's body and Christ's blood.

Eran.--And do you believe that you partake of Christ's body and blood?

Orth.--I do.

The full document is at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/27032.htm. Yes, Theodoret of Cyrus was totally into the Eucharist. In fact, we Catholics consider him one of the Fathers of the Church. Next my Evangelical friend quotes Augustine:

Augustine: "For if the sacraments did not have a certain likeness to the things of which they are the sacraments, they would not be sacraments at all ...Therefore...in a certain way the sacrament of the body of Christ is the body of Christ". ..."You are not going to eat this body which you see, nor are you going to drink the blood which those who crucify me are going to shed. I have given you a sacrament."

Here is the entire passage. It is totally Eucharistic:

"In the sacrament he is immolated for the people not only on every Easter Solemnity but on every day; and a man would not be lying if, when asked, he were to reply that Christ is being immolated. For if sacraments had not a likeness to those things of which they are sacraments, they would not be sacraments at all; and they generally take the names of those same things by reason of this likeness" (Letters 98:9 [A.D. 412]).

Some have said that Augustine's belief in the Eucharist was symbolic. This is not so. However, in Augustine's early faith journey, he was influenced by Plato, who had quite a disdain for the material world. (Spirit good, body bad). It was natural for Augustine to identify with Plato, given that Augustine lived a very fleshly life before finding Christ. Much like me. Even so, Augustine never engaged in debate about the Eucharist and never questioned the Lord's presence in it. He was into the Mass and the miracle of Jesus being present at the consecration. Later in his life when he matured in his faith and gave up the Plato influence he was totally into the Eucharist in every sense of the word. More about Greek influence on Christianity here.

Consider Augustine's words, it makes it clear he is into the Eucharist:

"For when he says in another book, which is called Ecclesiastes, ‘There is no good for a man except that he should eat and drink’ [Eccles. 2:24], what can he be more credibly understood to say [prophetically] than what belongs to the participation of this table which the Mediator of the New Testament himself, the priest after the order of Melchizedek, furnishes with his own body and blood? For that sacrifice has succeeded all the sacrifices of the Old Testament, which were slain as a shadow of what was to come. . . . Because, instead of all these sacrifices and oblations, his body is offered and is served up to the partakers of it" (The City of God 17:20 [A.D. 419]).

Another issue presented by this well meaning Evangelical in his email is:

"...contrary to what you have written in your article, the early church did not conclusively teach transubstantiation."

It is true that the Church did not make it a Dogma until the Fourth Lateran Council of the 1215's. A council's dogmatic declaration is not the first time something is believed, it is the solidifying of centuries of consistent belief. Usually a council's declaration is a response to a heretical threat. This is true of most dogmas declared at councils including the Trinity which was not defined until the Fourth century in response to the Arian heresy.

The fact that they didn't dogmatically declare the Lord's presence in the Eucharist earlier indicates that there was no major controversy over it. If we search for the historic origin of the first challenges to it, it was the controversies against the disciples of Berengarius of Tours at the end of the eleventh century.  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07694a.htm

Most certainly the full articulation of the subtleties of Transubstantiation were hammered out in the Dogma of 1215, with much input from Aquinas. But to say that they didn't believe in the Eucharist or that they didn't all agree that the Lord was fully present in it before that is incorrect.

There are numerous letters from early Christians that recognize and document this belief in the real presence of Jesus. In 2000 years, there have been no letters discovered from early Christians that indicate they thought it was just a symbol.

Let's go back to 110 A.D. to the time of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch where Jesus' followers were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). Ignatius had heard the Good News from John himself who wrote a Eucharist passage. (Jn 6:48-58) Ignatius wrote to the Churches while he was on the way to Rome to be thrown to lions. His letters were highly regarded in the early Church. He said "...They (the heretics) even absent themselves from the Eucharist and the public prayers (c.f. Acts 2:42) because they will not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ." (3)

Writing to the church at Philadelphia, Ignatius states, "Take care, then, to partake of one Eucharist; for, one is the Flesh of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and one the cup to unite us with His Blood, and one altar, just as there is one bishop assisted by the presbytery and the deacons, my fellow servants. Thus you will conform in all your actions to the will of God" (Letter to the Philadelphians, par. 4).

To the Church in Ephesus, Ignatius wrote that they were to "obey bishop and clergy with undivided minds and to share in the one common breaking of bread - the medicine of immortality and the sovereign remedy by which we escape death and live in Jesus Christ for ever more." (Eph 20:3)

The ‘Didache’ or ‘The teaching of the Twelve Apostles,’ early 2nd century:

“Let no one eat and drink of your Eucharist but those baptised in the name of the Lord; to this, too, the saying of the Lord is applicable ‘Do not give to dogs what is sacred”.

In another fragment of the same document:

“On the Lord’s own day, assemble in common to break bread and offer thanks; but first confess your sins, so that your sacrifice may be pure.”

Following the death of Simon Peter, who was head of the Church of Rome, leadership was given to St. Peter’s student, for want of a better word, ‘Evodius. After a time Evodius gave this leadership over to Ignatius, he became the second successor to St. Peter. He was writing letters to the Churches from A.D. 80 and was killed in the arena about A.D. 110. In one letter to the Romans he wrote:

“I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the Bread of God, which is the Flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David: and for drink I desire his Blood which is love incorruptible”.

In another letter to the Philadelphians Ignatius wrote:

“Take care then to use the Eucharist, so that whatever you do, you do according to God: for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup in the union of his blood (..)”.

In a letter to the Smyrnaeans:

“From Eucharist and prayer they hold aloof, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ (..)”

Another Apostle from the sub-apostolic age is Justin the Martyr. He was born a pagan. He converted to Christianity in 150 A.D. and was beheaded for it in 163 A.D.. He wrote about the Eucharist between these two dates:

“We call this food the Eucharist; and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration, and is thereby living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread nor as common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and hath both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our flesh and blood is nourished, is both the flesh and blood of that incarnated Jesus”.

A student and companion of the Apostle John, named Polycarp, befriended a man named Irenaeus. Following the death of John, and then the martyrdom of Polycarp, Irenaeus became the third leader of the Church of Lyons. The third Bishop. In 165 A.D., referring to the Eucharist, he wrote:

“Then again, how can they say that the flesh, which is nourished with the body and with the blood, goes to corruption, and does not partake of life? Let them, therefore, either alter their opinion, or cease from offering the things just mentioned. But our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the Flesh and Spirit. For as bread which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of resurrection to eternity (..) Even as the blessed Paul declares in his epistle to the Ephesians that ‘We are members of his body, of his flesh and of his bones’: he does not speak these words of some spiritual and invisible man, for a spirit has not bones nor flesh; but he (Paul) refers to that dispensation by which the Lord became an actual man, consisting of flesh, and nerves, and bones, - that flesh which is nourished by the cup which is His blood, and receives increase from bread which is his body. And just as a cutting from the vine planted in the ground fructifies in its season, or as a corn of wheat falling on the earth and becoming decomposed, rises with manifold increase by the Spirit of God, who contains all things, and then, through the wisdom of God, serves for the use of men, and having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the Body and Blood of the Christ (..)”.

In 200 A.D., Clement of Alexandria wrote:

“The Blood of the Lord, indeed, is two fold. There is the corporeal Blood by which we are redeemed from corruption; and His Spiritual Blood, that with which we are anointed. That is to say, to drink the Blood of Jesus is to share in His immortality (..)”.

Athanasius of Nicaea; 295 A.D.- written for the newly baptised:

“You shall see the Levites bringing loaves and a cup of wine, and placing them on the table. So long as the prayers of supplication and entreaties have not been made, there is only bread and wine. But after the great and wonderful prayers have been completed, then the bread is become the body, and the wine the blood, of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

It appears that early Christians were teaching we "live in Jesus Christ for evermore" in the Eucharist. (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8:1-2). No early writings of the church view the Lord's Supper as a mere symbol that failed to do what it symbolized.

Here's a bit on accidents vs. substance. It took me a while to understand this, and so I don't fault my Evangelical friends for not understanding the Church's position on it. I encourage you to spend some time with this paragraph, it's not mine, which is why I like it so much.

What is Transubstantiation?

In the Church's traditional theological language, in the act of consecration during the Eucharist the "substance" of the bread and wine is changed by the power of the Holy Spirit into the "substance" of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. At the same time, the "accidents" or appearances of bread and wine remain. "Substance" and "accident" are here used as philosophical terms that have been adapted by great medieval theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas in their efforts to understand and explain the faith. Such terms are used to convey the fact that what appears to be bread and wine in every way (at the level of "accidents" or physical attributes - that is, what can be seen, touched, tasted, or measured) in fact is now the Body and Blood of Christ (at the level of "substance" or deepest reality). This change at the level of substance from bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is called "transubstantiation." According to Catholic faith, we can speak of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist because this transubstantiation has occurred (c.f.. Catechism, no. 1376) ... Christ's presence in the Eucharist is unique in that, even though the consecrated bread and wine truly are in substance the Body and Blood of Christ, they have none of the accidents or characteristics of a human body, but only those of bread and wine.

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Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.
Amen