As we prepare for the Season of Lent, and we prepare for the Midweek series on the Sacrament of the Altar (6th Part of the Catechism), let us consider the writings of some of the early church fathers and their descriptions and assertions of the Lord’s Supper as we see that, from the onset, the church has embraced Sacramental theology, that God uses “matter” or “means” to deliver His gifts and promises, and that Christ, the greatest “means” teaches us precisely what we are to believe about the blessed feast both in the present, and in the eternity to come.
Irenaeus in “Against Heresies”
Our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and, in turn, the Eucharist establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and spirit. For the 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 hope of the resurrection to eternity. (Irenaeus, 130-202)
Cyril of Jerusalem in his “On the Mysteries”
Since Christ himself in his own words asserted of the bread, “This is my body,” who will dare any longer to have doubts? And since in his own words he insisted, “This is my blood,” who will have any doubts or say that it is not his blood? Once, in Cana of Galilee, he changed water into wine (and wine is akin to blood); is it incredible that he should change wine into blood? (Cyril of Jerusalem, 315-386?)
Ambrose in his “Commentary on Psalm 118”
He is the bread of life. Whoever eats life cannot die…. Go to him and take your fill, for he is the bread of life. Go to him and drink, for he is the spring. Go to him and be enlightened, for he is the light. Go to him and become free, for where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom…. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever comes to me shall not believes in me shall never thirst.” (Ambrose of Milan, 339-397)
Ignatius of Antioch in his “Epistle to the Romans”
I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life-which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…. And I desire the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life. (Ignatius of Antioch in his “Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans”, who died in 108 by martyrdom)
Pastor’s thoughts concerning why many Protestants and Evangelicals reject both the historic and biblical teaching regarding the Real Presence in the Sacrament.
The church fathers fought day and night against Gnosticism, the ancient and philosophical distortion of orthodox Christianity and from where many horrible texts and false gospels were written in order to dehumanize Christ and strip Him of His flesh.
According to the Gnostic doctrine, matter was irredeemable, corrupt, the very definition of evil, and no god or greater being would care to save it. Christ, therefore, only appeared to be human (Doceticism); His body only seemed like ours. And if Christ was reluctant or averse on assuming human form, there must be something in the human form which God detests and will not redeem.
This was how the Gnostics understood matter and the flesh, as depraved, corrupt, and not worth redeeming.
Early Christians, on the other hand, accepted that matter and human flesh was corrupt, but also believed that God, in His wisdom, chose to be enveloped in flesh and matter and thereby redeem matter and flesh, that Christ Jesus was both God and man from conception, and died the God-man, was raised the God-man, and continues to live and dwell in eternity as the God-man, thus lifting up matter and flesh and shedding His blood for it.
But the Gnostics refused to accept this and continued to do so throughout early Christianity. This ideology continues, even today, to find footing in western Christianity but was kept at bay throughout the Medieval, Renaissance, and early Reformation eras.
It wasn’t until the Enlightenment of the 16th century that western theology began to reconsider the Gnostic idea regarding matter, and as an intentionally contrary position to Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Confessional Lutheranism, protestants started asserting that Spirit and Flesh have nothing to do with one another, and that God is too holy and perfect to utilize mere matter to accomplish eternal things. This idea, by the way, was also part of Arius’ argument when he insisted that the Christ could not be God but the first and highest creation of God, because God and flesh do not mix. Arius’ teachings were deemed heresies and ultimately led to the development of the Nicene Creed which asserts that the Son of God is the “same substance” with the Father.
The rationalistic notion that “spirit and flesh are exclusive” was the foundation behind rejecting the Sacraments, and particularly the Sacrament of the Altar and the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and wine. It is the same, ancient gnostic heresy, the heresy which the Apostles and the church fathers fought so hard to kill, come back to life and has seemingly taken over much of western Christianity. In case you’re wondering, yes, the ancient Gnostics rejected Christ’s real presence in the Sacrament insisting that their god would not petty himself by using mere matter to deliver spiritual/divine things.
This has also led to a low view of the Sacrament of the Altar where the sacredness and holiness of the meal is all but lost and replaced by calls for “inclusivity” and “openness” regarding who can receive it. After all, if it’s just crackers and grape juice, who can forbid anyone from partaking?