After establishing the biblical basis of the early Churchs belief in the real presence Keating goes on to answer all the main objections of fundamentalists to the Holy Eucharist.
The narrative opens on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee with the feeding of the five thousand, the only miracle recorded by all four evangelists. After the people were fed, Jesus withdrew to the hillside to be alone. Night fell, and the disciples went down to the lake without Him and, embarking in the only boat available, sailed for Capharnaum, which was on the western shore. Jesus caught up with them some time later by walking on the water. The multitude, thinking He still must be with them, stayed overnight where the miracle was performed. The next morning they discovered Jesus was nowhere to be found and, when other boats put in near them, they embarked for Capharnaum, where they found Jesus and asked Him when (but not how) He had made His way there, apparently thinking He had set off on foot before dawn for the long walk around the lake. He did not answer directly, but told them to "work to earn food which affords, continually, eternal life" (Jn 6:27). He had provided them their fill of natural bread; now He began to speak of supernatural bread.
With verse 30 begins a colloquy that took place in the synagogue at Capharnaum. The Jews asked Him what sign He could perform, and, as a challenge, they noted that "our fathers had manna to eat in the desert" (Jn 6:31). Could Jesus top that? He told them the real bread from heaven comes from the Father. "Give us this bread", they insisted. "But Jesus told them, 'It is I who am the bread of life'" (Jn 6:34-35). He was getting more explicit, and the Jews started to complain, but still understood Him to be speaking metaphorically. Jesus repeated what He said before, then summarized: "I myself am the bread that has come down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever. And now, what is this bread that I am to give? It is my flesh, given for the life of the world" (Jn 6:51-52). Then the Jews asked, incredulously, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" (Jn 6:53).
Hugh Pope, in commenting on this chapter, remarked that at last "they had understood Him literally and were stupefied; but because they had understood Him correctly, He repeats His words with extraordinary emphasis, so much so that only now does He introduce the statement about drinking His blood".1 "You can have no life in yourselves, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood. The man who eats my flesh and drinks my blood enjoys eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. My flesh is real food, my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, lives continually in me, and I in him" (Jn 6:54-57).
This is the only record we have of any of Christ's followers forsaking him for doctrinal reasons. If they merely had misunderstood Him, if they foolishly had taken a metaphor in a literal sense, why did He not call them back and straighten things out?
There was no attempt to soften what was said, no attempt to correct "misunderstandings", for there were none. His listeners understood Him quite well. No one any longer thought He was speaking metaphorically. If they had, why no correction? On other occasions, whenever there was confusion, Christ explained what He meant. Here, where any misunderstanding would be catastrophic, there was no effort to correct. Instead, He repeated what He had said.
"There were many of His disciples who said, when they heard it, This is strange talk, who can be expected to listen to it?" (Jn 6:61). These were His disciples, people who already were used to His remarkable ways. He warned them not to think carnally, but spiritually: "Only the spirit gives life; the flesh is of no avail; and the words I have been speaking to you are spirit, and life" (Jn 6:64). But He knew some did not believe, including the one who was to betray Him. (It is here, in the rejection of the Eucharist, that Judas fell away.) "After this, many of His disciples went back to their own ways, and walked no more in His company" (Jn 6:67).
This is the only record we have of any of Christ's followers forsaking him for doctrinal reasons. If they merely had misunderstood Him, if they foolishly had taken a metaphor in a literal sense, why did He not call them back and straighten things out? Both the Jews, who were suspicious of Him, and His disciples, who had accepted everything up to this point, would have remained had He told them He meant no more than a symbol.
But He did not correct these first protesters, these proto-Protestants. Twelve times He said He was the bread that came down from heaven; four times He said they would have "to eat my flesh and drink my blood". John 6 was an extended promise of what would be instituted at the Last Supper — and it was a promise that could not be more explicit. Or so it would seem to a Catholic. But what do fundamentalists say?
Anti-Catholic writers identify two approaches to use when "disproving" the Real Presence. Jimmy Swaggart summarized them this way: "In all honesty we must repudiate this dogma on two counts: (1) It is opposed to Scripture. (2) It is contradicted by the evidence of the senses."2
Fundamentalists concentrate on the first count, the argument from "the evidence of the senses" being weak since even a rudimentary understanding of transubstantiation makes one realize that the dogma, by definition, cannot be refuted through an appeal to sensory perception since there is not supposed to be any perceptible change to the eucharistic elements. Besides, an argument based on the senses must be an argument based on science or philosophy, and fundamentalists prefer to argue from the Bible.
In arguing from Scripture, every fundamentalist says Christ was speaking metaphorically in John 6 and during the Last Supper. Bart Brewer, head of Mission to Catholics International, says that "if I were to show someone a photograph of my son and say, "This is my son', they [sic] would not take these words literally. The Scripture is written with such common language that it is obvious to any observant reader that the Lord's Supper was intended primarily as a memorial and in no sense a literal sacrifice. In taking Biblical statements literally, we must be sure that doing so is consistent with the context and not in contradiction to other clear teaching." Brewer also argues that "when Jesus said 'this is my body' or 'blood', He did not change the substance, but was explaining that He is the one 'represented' by the passover bread and wine. Jesus did not say touto gignetai, this has become or is turned into, but touto esti, which can only mean this represents or stands for."3 Brewer's Greek is deficient here. Esti is nothing else than the verb "is". Its usual meaning is the literal, although it can be used figuratively, just as in English. If this crucial term is supposed to be read as "represents", why was it not clearly put so in the Greek?
Brewer continues: "It is perfectly clear in the Gospels that Christ spoke in figurative terms, referring to Himself as 'the door', 'the vine', 'the light', 'the root', 'the rock', 'the bright and morning star', et cetera.'"4 In this Brewer is seconded by Donald F. Maconaghie of the Conversion Center: "It is clear that our Lord used a sign or figure which the Council of Trent would have us cursed for believing when He said, 'Except ye eat My flesh and drink My blood ye have no life in you' John 6:53. Was our Lord transubstantiated into a literal door: He said, 'I am the door' John 10:9. Or into a vine? He said, 'I am the true vine' John 15:1. Notice we also read: 'The ten horns are ten kings' Daniel 7:24. 'These great beasts which are four, are four kings' Daniel 7:17. 'The seven kine are seven years' Genesis 41:26."5
Leslie Rumble and Charles M. Carty answered this common charge years ago: "There is no logical parallel between the words 'This is My body' and 'I am the vine' or 'I am the door.' For the images of the vine and door can have, of their very nature, a symbolical sense. Christ is like a vine because all the sap of my spiritual life comes from Him. He is like a door since I go to heaven through Him. But a piece of bread is in no way like His flesh. Of its very nature it cannot symbolize the actual body of Christ. And He excludes that Himself by saying, "The bread that I will give is My flesh for the life of the world, and My flesh is meat indeed.' That is, it is to be actually eaten, not merely commemorated in some symbolical way."6
Not surprisingly, Swaggart agrees with Maconaghie and Brewer. He writes, "This is my body...this is my blood, are accepted literally in Catholic dogma. On the same basis we should accept without thinking that Jesus gives us literal living waters which will produce eternal life (John 4:14), or that Jesus is truly a door (John 10:7-9), that He is a lamb (John 1:29), or that He is a growing vine (John 15:5). If the Catholic hierarchy is to be consistent, they [sic] should foster adoration of doors, vines, and lambs. Certainly, these figures of speech are descriptive and colorful, but they are transparently figurative, just as are the terms 'my body,' and 'my blood'. The New Testament Church and the Early Church understood and accepted this just as it was offered, as a figure of speech."7
Writing to the Smyrnaeans around 110 and referring to "those who hold heterodox opinions", Ignatius of Antioch said, "They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His goodness, raised up again."8
Forty years later, Justin Martyr wrote, "We call this food 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 a common bread nor 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 which 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 nourished, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus."9
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.
Irenaeus of Lyons, in his masterwork, Against Heresies, written toward the close of the second century, said that Christ "has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be His own Blood, from which He causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, He has established as His own Body, from which He gives increase to our bodies." He asks, "If the Lord were from other than the Father, how could He rightly take 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?"10
Origen, writing about 244, demonstrated that reverence is given to the smallest particle from the host. "I wish to admonish you with examples from your religion. You are accustomed to take part in the divine mysteries, so you know how, when you have received the Body of the Lord, you reverently exercise every care lest a particle of it fall and lest anything of the consecrated gift perish. You account yourselves guilty, and rightly do you so believe, if any of it be lost through negligence."11
Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, said this in his Sermon to the Newly Baptized, delivered in 373: "You shall see the Levites bringing loaves and a cup of wine and placing them on a 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."12
As a final example, taken from dozens that could have been used, Cyril of Jerusalem, in his Cathechetical Lectures, presented in the middle of the fourth century, told his listeners: "Do not, therefore, regard the Bread and Wine as simply that, for they are, according to the Master's declaration, the Body and Blood of Christ. Even though the senses suggest to you the other, let faith make you firm. Do not judge in this matter by taste, but be fully assured by faith, not doubting that you have been deemed worthy of the Body and Blood of Christ."13
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 documents in which the literal interpretation is opposed and only the metaphorical accepted. Brewer persists by saying, "The doctrine of transubstantiation does not date back to the Last Supper as is supposed... The idea of a corporal presence was vaguely held by some, such as Ambrose, but it was not until 831 A.D. that Paschasius Radbertus, a Benedictine monk, published a treatise openly advocating the doctrine of transubstantiation. Even then, for almost four hundred years, theological war was waged over this teaching by bishops and people alike until at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 A.D., it was officially defined and canonized as a dogma."14
This is misleading. First of all, the Real Presence was not "vaguely" held by Ambrose. In his treatise The Sacraments, composed about 390, he wrote, "You may perhaps say: 'My bread is ordinary.' But that bread is bread before the words of the sacraments; where the consecration has entered in, the bread becomes the flesh of Christ. And let us add this: How can what is bread be the Body of Christ? By the consecration. The consecration takes place by certain words, but whose words? Those of the Lord Jesus... Therefore it is the word of Christ that confects the sacrament."15 Nothing vague about that.
And what about Paschasius Radbertus? Was he the first to believe in transubstantiation? Radbertus was abbot of Old Corbie Monastery near Amiens. In 831 he composed a treatise that contained this ambiguous expression: "This is precisely the same flesh that was born of Mary, suffered on the Cross, and rose from the tomb."16 He narrated some Eucharistic miracles that gave the impression that Christ must be understood to be sensibly present in the sacrament, and another monk at his abbey, Ratramus, wrote a counter treatise noting that one must distinguish between the appearance of Christ in the Eucharist and the appearance of His body received from Mary, but he used language that might suggest Christ is only symbolically present in the Eucharist. Both Radbertus and Ratramus were orthodox; the trouble was that neither was precise in wording.
"The debate between these principals soon became a theological free-for-all", said historian Newman Eberhardt.17 Others entered the fray, sometimes proposing rectifying language that was even more confusing than what Radbertus and Ratramus wrote.
The dispute ended by 860, with no one denying the Real Presence. What should be noted is that, despite various attempts to phrase the doctrine of the Real Presence accurately, there was no cry from anyone that this was a new doctrine. It was taken as a given. Those who inadvertently implied the Presence might be symbolic only were considered the innovators, not those who presumed it was Real.
In the theological world there was no further controversy on the issue until Berengarius of Tours, who died in 1088. He had studied the dispute that began with Radbertus and Ratramus and concluded that Christ was indeed present only symbolically. He repeated signed recantations and then, safe at home, reiterated his original position. This theological seesaw went on for decades, until he finally subscribed to an unambiguous formula. Church historians say he apparently died reconciled.18 Whether or not he did, he is the first Christian, so far as we can tell from the records, who denied the Real Presence. Paschasius Radbertus and Berengarius of Tours are remembered to history only because the one seemed to doubt the Real Presence and the other actually did. What this tells us is that the accepted belief was the opposite of what they were understood to hold.
Back to the words of the text. Keith Green identified in his Catholic Chronicles two biblical passages as the keys to the Catholic position. The first is John 6:55-56: "The man who eats my flesh and drinks my blood enjoys eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. My flesh is real food, my blood is real drink." Green said that "with just a little study of the whole passage (verses 27-71), it is clear that Jesus was not talking about physical, but spiritual food and drink." He argued that since Jesus says "he who comes to Me will never be hungry" (Jn 6:35), "to come to Him is to 'eat'!" Similarly, since Jesus tells us in the same verse that "he who has faith in Me will never know thirst", it follows that "to believe on Him is to 'drink'!"19
Bart Brewer concurs. "These verses actually disprove the dogma of transubstantiation. The ones who took Jesus' words literally were offended. That is why He clarified their misunderstanding by teaching them that what He said was to be understood spiritually (see verse 63)... Looking back to verse 47, it is obvious that 'eating' is equivalent to 'believing.' It is certain that what is meant by eating this flesh and drinking this blood is neither more nor less than 'believing' in Christ."20 In short, the command to eat Christ's flesh and drink His blood must be taken metaphorically.
But there is a problem with that. As John A. O'Brien put it, "the phrase 'to eat the flesh and drink the blood', when used figuratively among the Jews, as among the Arabs of today, meant to inflict upon a person some serious injury, especially by calumny or by false accusation. To interpret the phrase figuratively then would be to make our Lord promise life everlasting to the culprit for slandering and hating Him, which would reduce the whole passage to utter nonsense."21 Christ would be saying, "He that reviles Me has eternal life."
The scriptural argument is capped, by all fundamentalist writers, with an appeal to John 6:64: "Only the spirit gives life; the flesh is of no avail; and the words I have been speaking to you are spirit, and life." This is a verse to which fundamentalists always return, and it was, by the way, the first verse that Jimmy Swaggart threw at Catholic writer Barbara Nauer when they discussed the interpretation of this chapter. She was stunned by his use of the line, for the very good reason that in the context of the narration it can be seen not to relate to the question they were examining, which was: Is the Real Presence real? Swaggart thought this verse more than compensated for the apparent (and literal) meaning of the earlier part of John 6. He interpreted Nauer's pause as a silent acknowledgment of defeat, when in fact she was trying to understand what this non sequitur had to do with the issue at hand.22 Did Swaggart think that Christ, who had just commanded His disciples to eat His flesh, now say their doing so would be pointless? Is that what "the flesh is of no avail" means? "Eat my flesh, but you'll find it's a waste of time" — is that how He was to be understood? And were the disciples to understand the line "the words I have been speaking to you are spirit, and life" as nothing but a circumlocution, and a fairly clumsy one at that, for "symbolic"? No one can come up with interpretations like these unless he first holds to the fundamentalist position and thinks it necessary to find some rationale, no matter how tortuous, for discarding the Catholic interpretation.
In John 6:64 the word "flesh" is not used in the same sense as in John 6:53-59. It is being used more in the Pauline sense, in which it is contrasted with "spirit". The contrast is between unaided nature and nature elevated by grace. Compare John 3:6: "What is born by natural birth is a thing of nature, what is born of spiritual birth is a thing of spirit." Christ detects in some of His listeners an unsupernatural attitude that looks for earthly rewards and that turns away from His teaching on the Eucharist. When He says "the flesh is of no avail", He does not mean "My flesh" — that would contradict His immediately prior remarks. He means instead carnal understanding, as distinguished from spiritual.
Return to Keith Green. He examined John 6:55-56, the first of the passages he identified as key, and then turned to the second, Matthew 26:26, 28: "This is my body...this is my blood." He noted that
The reply to Green is simple: Christ was present at the Last Supper in two ways. He was present at the table in a natural way, as were the apostles, and He was present in the Eucharistic elements in a sacramental way, which is precisely the way He is present in them today, in Catholic churches throughout the world. That Christ can be present in two ways simultaneously is indeed a mystery (a mystery being a religious truth that cannot be comprehended fully by reason), but it is not an impossibility.
Catholics base their whole religious system on their interpretation of these two verses. They adamantly teach that right here, Jesus is pronouncing the first priestly blessing that mysteriously changes the bread and wine into His body and blood. The absolute folly of such a conclusion is proved by this one observation: He was literally still there before, during, and after they had partaken of the bread and cup! He had not changed into some liquid and bread — His flesh was still on His bones, and His blood was still in His veins. He had not vanished away to reappear in the form of a piece of bread or a cup of wine!23
So here we have the diabolically clever Catholic Church telling us the transformation was real, yet Jesus was still at the table. Catholic exegetes through the centuries missed the fact that He was still present, that He did not disappear in a puff of smoke and end up on the platter and in the cup. How stupid Catholics have been, to miss the obvious! (Perhaps this just shows that none of them ever read beyond John 6:28; if any Catholic had, he could have blown the whistle, and the Church would not have made such a fool of itself.) This is the loose thinking fundamentalists end up with if they conclude, as they do, that the answer to the Catholic position is elementary because the Catholic position is so clearly erroneous.
The reply to Green is simple: Christ was present at the Last Supper in two ways. He was present at the table in a natural way, as were the apostles, and He was present in the Eucharistic elements in a sacramental way, which is precisely the way He is present in them today, in Catholic churches throughout the world. That Christ can be present in two ways simultaneously is indeed a mystery (a mystery being a religious truth that cannot be comprehended fully by reason), but it is not an impossibility. Something does not become impossible simply because we cannot understand it. After all, God is present everywhere — all Christians acknowledge that — and that is as much a mystery as Christ's presence in the Eucharist. Are we to deny God's omnipresence because we cannot conceive how He pulls it off? If Christ, who was on earth in a natural body and now reigns in heaven in a glorified body, can make the world out of nothing, certainly He can make bread and wine into His own Body and Blood. That should not be hard to accept, no matter how hard it might be to fathom. There is no good reason to limit God's acts to the extent of our understanding.
The fundamentalists' problem is that theirs is a religion almost entirely lacking in the mysterious. More precisely, they readily acknowledge only those mysteries that are purely spiritual, such as the Trinity. They know the doctrine of the Trinity has been revealed, that something about the Trinity can be known, that certain deductions can be drawn from what is known; and they realize the essence of the Trinity lies beyond human comprehension, and they are happy to leave it at that. When it comes to mysteries that involve the mixing of spirit and matter, a kind of Docetism shows.
For fundamentalists the sacraments are out because they necessitate a spiritual reality, grace, being conveyed by means of matter. This seems a violation of the divine plan. Matter is not to be used, but overcome or avoided, and in this lies the unease with which they view the Incarnation. One suspects that, had they been asked by the Creator their opinion of how to effect mankind's salvation, they would have advised Him to adopt an approach that would have appealed to Mary Baker Eddy. How much cleaner things would be if spirit never dirtied itself with matter! But God, quite literally, loves matter, and He loves it so much that He comes to us under the appearance of bread and wine. There is no contradiction in Christ being both physically and sacramentally present.
The verses fundamentalists have the hardest time with are I Corinthians 11:26-30: "So it is the Lord's death that you are heralding, whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, until He comes. And therefore, if anyone eats this bread and drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily, he will be held to account for the Lord's body and blood. [Douay-Rheims translation: "... shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord".] A man must examine himself first, and then eat of that bread and drink of that cup; he is eating and drinking damnation to himself if he eats and drinks unworthily, not recognizing the Lord's body for what it is." And what should it be recognized as? A mere metaphor? Then how can receiving unworthily be equated with being "guilty of the body and blood of the Lord"?
"Plain and simple reason", observed Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman more than a century ago in his Lectures on the Real Presence, "seems to tell us that the presence of Christ's body is necessary for an offense committed against it. A man cannot be 'guilty of majesty' unless the majesty exists in the object against which his crime is committed. In like manner, an offender against the Blessed Eucharist cannot be described as guilty of Christ's Body and Blood, if these be not present in the Sacrament."24
'How could a person be guilty, if he had merely eaten a little bread and drunk a little wine, as a picture or representation or reminder of the Last Supper?" asked Rumble and Carty more recently. "No one is guilty of homicide if he merely does violence to the picture or statue of a man without touching the man in person. St. Paul's words are meaningless without the dogma of the Real Presence."25 They may indeed then be meaningless, but fundamentalists would rather live with a meaningless Real Absence than a meaning-full Real Presence.
- Hugh Pope, The Layman's New Testament (London: Sheed and Ward, 1914), 333.
- Jimmy Swaggart, "The Mass—The Holy Eucharist", The Evangelist, October 1985, 35.
- From his tracts The Roman Catholic Sacrifice of the Mass and The Mystery of the Eucharist.
- Brewer, Sacrifice and Mystery.
- From his tract Transubstantiation.
- Rumble and Carty, Replies, 186.
- Swaggart, "Mass", 38.
- Ignatius, Epistula ad Smyrnaeos 6, 2.
- Justin Martyr, Apologia prima pro Christanis 65.
- Irenaeus, Adversus haereses 5, 2, 2; 4, 33, 7.
- Origen, in Exodum homiliae 13, 3.
- Athanasius, Sermo ad nuper baptizatos.
- Cyril of Jerusalem, Catecheses 22, 6.
- In the tract The Mystery of the Eucharist.
- Ambrose, De sacramentis libri sex 4, 4, 14.
- Paschasius Radbertus, De corpore et sanguine Domini.
- Newman Eberhardt, A Summary of Catholic History (St. Louis: Herder, 1961), I:464.
- Eberhardt, Summary, I:610.
- From his tract The Holy Eucharist: Eating the Flesh of Deity.
- Challenger, October/November 1984.
- O'Brien, Faith, 215.
- Personal correspondence to the author from Barbara Nauer.
- Green, Eucharist.
- Nicholas Wiseman, Lectures on the Real Presence, 319.
- Leslie Rumble and Charles M. Carty, Eucharist Quizzes to a Street Preacher (Rockford, Ill.: TAN Books, 1976), 7-8.
Keating, Karl. "The Eucharist." Chapter 19 in Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on Romanism by Bible Christians (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988).
Reprinted with permission of Ignatius Press. To order Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on Romanism by Bible Christians ISBN 0-89870-177-5 (SB) call 800-651-1531.
Karl Keating is founder and president of Catholic Answers, the country’s largest apologetics and evangelization organization. He is the author of five books, including Catholicism and Fundamentalism and What Catholics Really Believe.Copyright © 1988 Ignatius Press
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