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Christian-History.org Ezine: Communion, Eucharist, Lord's Supper
January 06, 2011

Communion or Eucharist

Did the Early Christians Believe It Was the Literal Body and Blood of Christ?

I was asked this question today by a reader. His email made a great subject for a newsletter for two reasons.

  • The subject of the Eucharist (or communion) in the early church is exactly the sort of topic this newsletter is devoted to.
  • The writer also commended me for avoiding polemic (argument, attacking). I hope that's true, and I think that this topic provides an excellent example of how to address a topic vigorously fought over by Protestants and Catholics with honesty.

So here's the answer I gave him:

Quotes mentioned in this newsletter can be accessed at http://www.christian-history.org/communion-quotes.html.

Is the Eucharist the Literal Body and Blood of Christ?

I don't have a page on the Eucharist yet because the subject is difficult. I don't know what to say about it.

The early churches definitely took communion every week. Some of them may have done so every day--at least those who were supported by the church: the bishop, elders, and widows. That last part comes from Hippolytus' discussion in his Apostolic Traditions, which comes from Rome around 225.

That writing made me wonder if any meal the church provided and that was blessed by leadership was considered communion.

But that's just the point. There's so much room for interpretation!

So here's my thoughts:

  • Transubstantiation, in the sense that bread turns to meat and wine to blood, is nonsense. We can test that scientifically, and it's the opposite of the spiritual emphasis of the New Testament and early churches.
  • Figurative interpretation was normative in the early churches and in the NT. For example, Sarah and Hagar are two covenants, says Paul. Irenaeus gives indication that the most typical interpretation of the wolf lying down with the lamb was that men of a wolf-like nature would be in fellowship with weak men without one devouring the other.
  • If you want to stand in truth, it's important to speak as Scripture and tradition speak. It was clearly apostolic to refer to the bread and wine of communion as the body and blood of Christ and not to apologize for that by saying, "Well, I mean symbolically."
  • The Thanksgiving (Eucharist) is meant to convey grace, not just be a memorial. My favorite passage about it is when Ignatius calls it the medicine of immortality and the antidote to prevent us from dying. I love that!
  • It's obviously meant symbolically in some way because we're not talking about meat and blood.
  • Jesus said his words about eating flesh and blood were to be taken spiritually (not quite the same as symbolically!). He ends his discussion of his flesh and blood in John 6 by saying, "It's the spirit that gives life. The flesh is of no benefit. The words that I speak to you, they are spirit and life" (v. 63). I think any honest person has to say that Jesus was trying to tell them not to embrace cannibalism because of his words. He's saying, "Come on, you guys; everything I say is spiritual, and this is, too. Hear me correctly."

So there you have it. What do I say as a conclusion to these points?

I'm not really sure what to say, but I think it's important to reject the RCC's overboard medieval interpretation--which the Orthodox have never accepted and which the RCC itsels may no longer hold to--that the bread and wine become literal meat and blood. That's disgusting and unchristian.

So pure symbolism cannot possibly be true. (After all, the communion meal taken unworthily can kill! 1 Cor. 11:29-30.) Nor can transubstantiation interpreted physically be true. The truth lies somewhere between the two.

Maybe we should learn to speak the way the early Christians speak and give ourselves freedom to be somewhere in the middle on interpretation.

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Rose Creek Village is having a conference on discipleship and missions May 13 - 15. Please consider attending, as the benefits are eternal.

Local and guest speakers, round table discussions, entertainment, and group meals: details at rosecreekvillage.com.

(Last year's conference details still there; this year's coming within a week, I believe.)

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