IT'S HISTORY IN THE CHURCH
Every week, tens of millions of individuals stand before a priest who will hold up what appears to be bread, and ask them in their native tongue "Body and blood of Christ?" For the faithful attending the Mass, they will answer in the affirmative. Their declaration of "amen" is the pivotal place of agreement that has been the bedrock of the Catholic church for nearly two thousand years. Although the church has adapted and modified it's form in light of the changing culture around us in some non-essential matters, the substance and core of the church has remained firm: a community of believers in Christ, sharing the common hub of the sacred liturgy and holy sacrament.
When the bishops met to convene the Second Vatican Council in 1963, they recognized that the Church had to be redirected back to a focus on the liturgy. There were many social issues pressing, bishops with agendas, questionable movements within the church and the like that had to be addressed. But the liturgy is the heart and soul of the church. It is there that Christ is made manifest. The very first constitution that was released from the council was the Constitution on The Sacred Liturgy on December 4th, 1963. In it the church declares
( Documents of Vatican II, pg. 137)
And regarding that sacrifice:
"No other action of the church can match it efficiecy, nor equal the degree of it."
( ibid. pg. 141)
There is no doubt that the climax of the mass is the Eucharistic offering. It is declared that when the elements are offered to God with thanksgiving, at that point, they are transformed into the body and blood of Christ in a true and substantive way. How flippantly we sometimes can receive those words! Is it not true that we all have been guilty of failing to appreciate the gravity of the fact that Christ is truly present in the elements of the Eucharist? For this reason, I have felt that it would be beneficial and expedient to review the history of the Eucharist in the church. Since this sacrament has played such an integral part of the existence of the church it is necessary to highlight some of the particular and unique features of the Catholic church. It is my hope that a proper understanding of this teaching in context of the historical church would help us get a more concise understanding of what the church is and how we are involved in the community of believers.
THE HISTORY OF DOCTRINE IN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
One of the most overt features of the Catholic church is, of course, it's rich history. No other church even attempts to draw it's teaching and tradition from the centuries of saints who sacrificed their lives for the promulgation of the gospel. The Catholic church, however, in contrast to the Protestant sects, relies on the "deposit of faith" that has been passed on in the teaching of the believers from years past. Their contribution is actually essential to the teaching office of the church. Since the Catholic Church is said to have an unbroken line of succession back to St. Peter, it is necessary that the living tradition that has been passed on from faithful men and women from that time be found to be of the same essence today. That is not to say that the church has or will not undergo change, for it certainly has, but only that the pertinent aspects of the church have been wholly preserved. St. Vincent of Lerins (434 AD) stated that
This belief is echoed throughout church history. Tertullian, early in the 3rd century, stated that the proof that a church was part of the "true" church was that it held to the teaching originally passed on from the apostles, and could be verified as remaining in essence, unchanged. Many other denominational churches make the claim that they are orthodox, and say that they believe just what the apostles originally taught, but they cannot demonstrate that their essential beliefs are "catholic" in this sense. Mormons, for example, claim to represent the true apostolic faith which they say was revealed on this continent at the time of Christ, but there is no evidence that the bulk of their theology existed before Joseph Smith and his successors developed it in the 19th century.
Since a knowledge of history is the greatest weapon against such error, many cults now try to propose that their doctrine was a "hidden" teaching, known to the early apostles, but withheld form the common masses. Books like "The Lost Teachings of Jesus" and "The Lost Years of Jesus" are popular titles with those in the New Age movement who want to advance a bogus gospel under the pretense that their beliefs are the original apostolic teaching. Fortunately, we have the testimony of centuries of early church fathers who addressed the erroneous teachings of their day and defined exactly what was apostolic teaching and what was not. Irenaeus,(220 A.D.) who wrote the classic "Against Heresies" dismisses the idea that there are any hidden or cryptic doctrines that were not commonly known by his day. He states
It is essential, then, that we understand the context and the history of the teaching of the church. The teaching magisterium of a church is completely trustworthy if it is consistent with the Bible and with the apostolic tradition that has been handed on from the earliest times. If the doctrine that was being handed on today from any church was in contradiction to the apostles and apostolic tradition, then we would know that the church in question was not the "true" church.
Therefore, every schismatic and cult needs to distort the historical foundation of the church in order to justify it's own existence. Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, do this very thing with regard to what the early fathers said about the full "Godhood" of Jesus Christ. Since the teaching on the Trinity are not explicitly spelled out in the Bible, they attempt to buttress their argument against the Deity of Jesus by citing church fathers of the second and third century who forcefully reiterate that Jesus was indeed a man. In every example they use, however, they cite a writer who believes in Jesus' divinity, but is in process of putting forth a proof that Jesus was also indeed human. What the Jehovah's Witnesses neglect to mention is that Jesus' equality with God was assumed by all, right from the beginning. When a heresy called Gnosticism that questioned Jesus' actual humanity became a threat to the church, the early fathers sprang into action a frequently put forth writings emphasizing Jesus' humanity. These writings the Jehovah's Witnesses try to use to convince the unaware that the fathers did not believe in Christ's Deity, which is a completely ridiculous and insupportable argument. If we are familiar with the context in which our doctrine was developed, such erroneous teaching could never take root. If we could now turn our attention to the historical context of the subject at hand, namely, the Eucharist, we may see a similar light shed upon it's development.
When Jesus shared the last supper with his disciples, he instituted a lasting ordinance that would become the distinguishing mark of the faith. During the terrible persecutions of the second century, the Christians were persecuted on the grounds that the participated in "Thyestean Feasts", which is a reference to a mythical character who inadvertedly practiced cannibalism. The rumor that they fed on "the body and the blood" during their services may have led to this accusation. Nevertheless, the church thrived during these times of testing and tribulation. One must not think, however, that the all those who named the name of Christ were united in their struggles against Imperial Rome. From a very early stage, new and anti-biblical teaching had arisen under the guise of being the "true faith". As mentioned earlier, numerous strains of gnosticism had infiltrated the church of Jesus Christ. The word "Gnosis" in Greek means "knowledge". One common thread that all of these varied sects had was that they believed that Jesus came to deliver a "secret" knowledge to mankind that would result in our salvation. This knowledge was reserved only for the initiates into gnosticism. Irenaeus' response to this has already been cited above.
The particular world-view of the Gnostics is something which actually had significant impact on the subject of the Eucharist. Many of the Gnostics believed in what is called "Docetism". Docetism derives its name from the Greek word "docet" which means "to seem ". Docetics believed that the material world was inherently evil, and that our regenerate spirits are veritably trapped in our bodies until our flesh perishes. They, therefore, hypothesized that Jesus Christ, if he was truly Divine, could not have truly assumed a body of flesh. He only "seemed" for the sake of our sensory experience, to have a body of flesh. If he was truly Divine than neither could he have suffered, since the Almighty is impassable and incapable of suffering. Christ only "seemed" to suffer on the cross. This view crept into the church at a very early stage. The fathers in the second century attribute Gnosticism to Simon, who is seen in Acts 8:9-13. In John's first epistle, the apostle addresses the world view of the Docetists by declaring their opinion of Christ a manifestation of the antichrist.
It is not enough, in John's opinion, just to acknowledge Jesus. A true spirit acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. He also states in II John 1:7 that
One might think that with such apostolic directives, Docetism may have been checked. Unfortunately, it persisted to be the most pervasive and damaging threat to the church. John's own disciple Ignatius struggled hard with the Docetists. He writes in his Epistle to the Trallians
What was at stake was the entire incarnation of Jesus Christ. Moreover, if Christ had not really suffered, than the terrible suffering that the church was enduring at the time was complete vanity. The Docetist world-view trivialized the sacrifice not only of Jesus, but of the great sacrifice of the church of their day. The early fathers had to reiterate in every way that Jesus was indeed God incarnate; that is not only God Almighty, but God appearing in the flesh. Hippolytus (202 A.D.) stated in his work The Refutation of All Heresies that
It was a common topic of such works to constantly remind the orthodox that Christ shared in our humanity. He ate, he drank, he suffered and died. It was essential to show that Christ was a union of the Divine with the material. No where did this clash become more apparent than in the celebration of the Eucharist. The Docetists denied that Christ came in the flesh, so it was abhorrent to them to consider that the Eucharist was the "body and blood of Christ". They saw the Divine and material worlds so separated that the union in the elements was a philosophical impossibility. Ignatius, in his letter to the Smyrneans states that
The Eucharist became a visible focal point to address the errors of the Gnostics, Docetics, and other heresies. It mirrored the incarnation. In this case, however, since the bread and wine were clearly visible, it became necessary to emphasize the indwelling Body of Christ in the elements to counter the Docetics. Irenaeus laid out the most specific belief in the doctrine of the Eucharist in his work Against Heresies IV, xviii,5.
Likewise Justin Martyr (150 AD), in his Apology 1,lxvi, describes the Eucharist in this exact same incarnational union.
We can conclude then that the essence of the early church fathers regarding the Eucharist is that it is a union of two substances, one earthly, one heavenly, in a manner that is consistent with the actual incarnation of Jesus Christ. It actually was many years later in subsequent council that the church formally defined the nature of the incarnation of Jesus, which followed the same line of reasoning: a harmonious union of what was formerly two substances.
It can not be stressed enough the how clear and simple this recognition of the Eucharist was. It was, it many ways, the litmus test of orthodoxy. Since all of the early councils deliberated questions regarding Jesus' incarnation, a person's view of the Eucharist would shed light on their view of the nature of Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus was truly God, and truly human, the Eucharist was truly Christ, and truly the physical elements. In both cases the indwelling "divine" substance would not negate or annihilate the "earthly" substance.
There is even evidence that the Roman Pontiff from this early period specifically held this view too. There is a citation found in the Ante-Nicene Fathers attributed to Pope Gelasius of Rome, ca 490 AD.
It appears that the Church universally held the view that Eucharist is specifically comprised of both a “divine” substance, and a natural substance (bread and wine).
This viewpoint was without any real challenge for over seven centuries of Christianity. In 831 A.D. a monk named Paschius Radbertus wrote a treatise call "On the Body and Blood of the Lord" in which he put forth the idea that the Eucharist was actually the real flesh and blood of Jesus under the guise or appearance of bread and wine. He insinuated that rather than the Eucharist being a union akin to the incarnation, it was instead a replacement; the substance of the bread and wine were completely transformed into a different substance, that of Christ. He immediately met with opposition, even from one of his own monks Ratramnus. Ratramnus wrote a counter treatise by the same title, which demonstrated that Paschius' hypothesis was contrary to Augustine, Ambrose and other church fathers. John Scotus Eriugena also opposed Paschius. Eriugena was considered one of the most learned men in all of Christendom at the time. Being one of the few theologians of his day who was fluent in Greek as well as Latin, Eriugena led an organized philosophical assault against Paschius' teaching. Rabanus Maurus also opposed Paschius.
Unfortunately, just as the Docetics persisted even when soundly refuted, the doctrine of the change/replacement of substance error also persisted. Amazingly enough, these two doctrinal abnormalities had a startling similarity. Just as the Docetics argued that Christ had come, was completely God, yet had only the appearance of flesh, this new teaching stated that the Eucharist was Christ, yet only "seemed" to have the appearance of bread and wine. That which appears is only a "phantasm" or merely illusion. It is merely the same old heresy, once applied to the incarnation, now to the Eucharist.
The erroneous teaching was given the name "transubstantiation" which denotes a change of substance. The issue was debated without any decisive action for two hundred years. Then in the twelfth century, there was a "rediscovery" of the great works of the pagan philosopher Aristotle, who lived in the fourth century before Christ. The scholastics of the time were very accepting of Aristotle's categories of philosophy, and there was again an major undertaking to rectify Christian theology with philosophy. Much of Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica is an example of this merger of Aristotle and biblical faith. Regarding the Eucharist, Aquinas relied heavily on the ancient Greek philosopher to try to defend what was initially Paschius' position. He said that after the elements are consecrated, the substance of bread and wine no longer exist. He termed the appearance of the elements as "accidents" which is a Aristotelian term for that which is merely perceived by senses, yet has no substance.
The only reasoning he could give in defense of the whole notion is a contradictory discourse on how something could be in existence in a substantial mode, contained by dimensions, yet not be there "locally" with regard to place. (Summa Theologica Q.lxxvi). He resorts to having to admit that the only reason we don't actually see and taste real flesh and blood is because of an act of God's providence, since "it is abhorrent to eat a man's flesh and blood...(and) lest the sacrament be mocked by infidels" ( ibid., article 5). It is apparent that there has never been a scriptural, historical or rational defense for Paschius' doctrine.
The issue was finally decided in 1215 A.D. at the Fourth Lateran Council. This council had been summoned by Pope Innocent III to deal with the heresies and political challenges to the church of the time. To properly understand the cultural tenor at the time, as well as reach a sound conclusion of the decision reached at this council regarding the Eucharist, we it is necessary to digress briefly to investigate the reign of Pope Innocent III.
Pope Innocent III had been elected Pope in 1198 A.D., at the age of 37, having not even served as a priest (he had climbed the ecclesiastical ladder quickly since his uncle was Pope Clement III). Innocent III was known as the strongest Pope of all time. He labored extremely hard to bring all political figures in Europe to pay homage to him, and recognize him as the "Supreme Sovereign over the church and the world." He ruthlessly crushed heresy wherever he suspected it might be. When the Albigensian movement became popular in Southern France, he directed armies to go slaughter these non-orthodox Christians. He said
At first, Many of the bishops were reluctant to comply. Many nobles complained saying "These people are kindred among us... and we see them living righteously." Innocent offered indulgences and land to the anyone who would participate in destroying the "heresy". It was designated as a "crusade". The crusaders moved through southern France, murdering anyone whom the local Bishop felt was a heretic. When the city of Beziers refused to open its gates to the crusaders, the army lay siege to it's walls, and capturing the town, slaughtered the 20,000 inhabitants. Since it was known that most of the population was orthodox Roman Catholic, and only a tiny minority of people were actually Albigensiens, some had questioned the ethics of indiscriminately killing even those who sought sanctuary in the Catholic churches. A papal legate reportedly had replied "Kill them all, for God knows His own!"
Not only did Innocent III maintain the exterminations in France, but he instigated the inquisition throughout the rest of Europe. He organized Crusades in Palestine that slaughtered untold numbers of civilians. The Fourth Crusade ( 1204 A.D.) which he organized, instead of going to recapture Jerusalem, went instead and sacked the Christian city of Constantinople in search of booty. In all of the papal lands, he forced non-Christians to wear distinctive badges, so they could be easily identified. Non-Catholics were excluded from public office. When the Magna Carta, the mother document of all western democracy, was signed in England, Innocent III flatly condemned it. Unless one should think that the author is being a bit too hard on this man, I will here recite some poetry that was popular in Germany at the time of Innocent's papacy.
It was this Pope who called for the Fourth Lateran Council. Thousands attended to hear the Pope reiterate his supremacy over the world. Historians agree that he may have been the most powerful pope of all time, and the most powerful individual for the whole medieval time period. To the objective observer, his similitude bears a more striking resemblance to Adolph Hitler than anything else. Innocent took the opportunity to dictate dogma to the church. The doctrine that he commanded the church to believe was that which would strengthen the church's hold upon the masses. He forbade the reading of the Bible in the vernacular. He commanded that all faithful must go to confess their sins to a priest, at least yearly. When it came to the Eucharist, he officially defined Paschius' teaching into dogma. Even though every early church fathers clearly opposed anything similar to the transubstantiation, it became a part of the Roman Catholic Church's magisterial teaching. The Pope, Innocent III, who had convened the council, had insisted that the transubstantiation was part of the churches indelible truth, and the church added one more item that had no solid traditional or historical precedent.
The issue became closed when the Fourth Lateran Council accepted Innocent's definition of the transubstantiation. Knowing the manner of man that he was, they obviously had no choice. Over 1100 years after Jesus first instituted the Lord's Supper, it was settled in the Roman Catholic church, and the decision was based more on Aristotle, a subtle form of Docetism, and the ambitions of one man than on scripture or tradition.
Some three hundred years later, when Martin Luther attempted to bring reform into the church by first posting his "95 theses" he cited the Bible and early church fathers to support his views. Few people realize that Luther did not set out to create a new church, but initially, to call attention to unscrupulous men selling indulgences. He reiterated his support for the Pope, and assumed that the Pope would support him in his quest to bring renewal to the Roman Catholic church. Regarding the Eucharist, he cited Augustine, the Bible, and other church fathers in opposition to the transubstantiation. He stated that the Real Presence of Christ was "with, in, and under elements", not replacing or annihilating the elements of bread and wine. Many now realize that his viewpoint closely resembles the verifiable opinion of many of the church fathers from about 200 A.D. to 1200 A.D.
Unfortunately, the next council that deliberated this issue, The Council of Trent, ( 1545-1563) was very reactive and inflammatory regarding anything that any reformer had suggested. The Council of Trent took a strong stand diametrically opposed to anything that was believed by the reformers. They reaffirmed the belief in the transubstantiation, as well as numerous other doctrines and practices that were in question. They declared that the doctrine of the transubstantiation "had always been held in the church"( Session XIII, chapter 4). Consider this statement in light of all that was said by Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Pope Gelesius. The Council of Trent declared that
It seems hard to believe that the theologians of the church could assert that it has always been the uniform doctrine of the church, when every statement by the church before the 9th century said the exact opposite! Still, that is exactly what they did.
The council also declared that the bread and wine were to be offered worship and adoration as "due to the true God", and whosoever did not believe as such was to be accursed forever. Interestingly enough, even though the Council of Trent was considered the authoritative rule for the Catholic Church for centuries to come, it was not even directly presided by a Pope for the first few years. There were initially only about 36 participants when the first session began. Eventually more bishops were allowed to participate, and some Protestants were allowed to state their positions, but only after the Council had voted the Protestants as heretics, and promised not to execute them should they arrive. Several bishops who held to positions that were remotely similar to Luther or Calvin were accused of possible heresy, and excused themselves for the sake of their own safety.
The most recent Council ( Vatican II, 1963-65), reversed many of the manners of practiced from the Council of Trent. Bible reading is now encouraged, Mass spoken in the vernacular, and other definitions, like salvation, and the church, have come to take a closer resemblance to what the reformers wanted. Theologically, however, the Roman Catholic Church did not consider a reevaluation of it's view on the Eucharist. Since the transubstantiation has been defined as dogma, not merely doctrine, it is not something which can be now altered without doing incredible violence to the credibility of the church. Even though it was common knowledge among theologians that the view of the transubstantiation was contrary to the historical understanding of the Catholic church, it was obligated to continue the charade to maintain consistency with the most recent councils.
When the priest then asks the congregation "body and blood of Christ?", what then is our answer? Do we consent to the error that has been perpetrated over the centuries? The Roman Catholic Church cannot reverse itself on key matters of faith and morals. To do so would be to concede that it is indeed not infallible, and not representative of the original apostolic faith. Since the church does claim to possess the "fullness of truth", and infallibility when such matters are defined "ex cathedra", then that would make the Catholic church to be guilty of deliberately misrepresenting the truth. In short, a phony and a fraud. What, then, does one do, when it is discovered that our faith is indeed not the one that, as St. Vincent had said "believed by all, everywhere, always"? In the 5th century, St. Vincent himself gave an answer. Since he considered the possibility that the church might eventually depart from biblical and apostolic teaching to follow a new or novel teaching he wrote these directions for Catholic Christians:
The solution is to go back to the earliest possible sources to examine what indeed is part of the historic church and what is not. If this formula had been followed faithfully, then today we would still have a truly "catholic" or universal church, holding fast to the teaching of the apostles. Instead, we have churches laden with man-made teachings that have been invented over the centuries, and a Christian church fragmented over what man or denomination to follow. We need to return to the source. We need to put aside the rhetoric and historical revisionism and return to Biblical Christianity. If we leave the man-made teachings, only then can we truly be "catholic". To many people's surprise, they find that there is a tremendous difference between being "catholic" in the true sense of the word, and being Roman Catholic.
The only issue then becomes what the most effectual way is to get back to Biblical Christianity. Does it mean leaving the Roman Catholic Church, or trying to reform it from the inside? This question is one that God would have us all answer for ourselves. No church, of course, is perfect, nor completely flawless in every manner of practice and doctrine. Yet, we do have a responsibility to participate in the Body of Christ in truth, not knowingly and willingly propagating a lie.
We can clearly see that the Catholic Church cannot maintain it's claims to truth, or claim that it has inherited the apostolic faith. If we were to examine all of it's dogma, we would find numerous other items that are completely contrary to both the Bible and apostolic tradition. Some of these things, while not going into detail here, are in my opinion, very spiritually detrimental. The one thing that the Roman Catholic Church claims is "most efficacious", the transubstantiation, is merely a distortion of history and tradition. To justify it's opinions, it resorts to the same practices mentioned in the beginning of this book that Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons employ: twisting history and scripture to meet it's own ends.
Some day, according to the Apostle Paul, we will all come to the unity in knowledge of the faith. That unity will not be under the banner of "Roman Catholic", "Greek Orthodox", "Protestant" or any other divisive and exclusionary label. Until then, I feel that it is imperative that we all exercise our God-given discernment, and seriously consider the ramifications of our association with the church of our choice