Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Failure of the Early Church? On the Lord's Supper as Symbol

This week, I listened to two different Baptist sermons on the Lord's Supper.  Baptists, like most Protestants, believe the Lord's Supper to be a symbolic ritual in which we remember Jesus's sacrifice for our sins.  They do not believe that the bread and wine/juice actually is Jesus's precious, glorified Body and Blood.  Rather, it is just a symbol of Jesus, and they celebrate the Lord's Supper in memory of his death.

Put this way, this teaching seems to be rather mild and easy to accept.  Even though many Christians believe the Lord's Supper is much more (infinitely more, in fact) than a symbolic ritual, the idea of it being a symbolic ritual sits comfortably in the minds and hearts of millions and millions of Christians around the world.

Although it would be worth discussing the theology of this belief itself, I will focus on a problem that, for most Protestants, seems to be completely off the radar - a problem that, theology aside, makes it virtually impossible to believe that the Lord's Supper is only a symbol.

The problem with the Protestant doctrine is that the claim quickly becomes too large through what it implies.  In other words, despite the mild packaging given the Lord's Supper, to believe the Lord's Supper is only a symbol is to make extraordinary, staggering claims about the history of Christianity. 

The early church unanimously believed that Jesus was really and truly present in the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper.  Many of the pastors of the early church who taught this learned their faith directly from the apostles themselves! Almost all of these early pastors were martyred for their faith, which serves as a testament to the truth of their claims.

Take, for instance, St. Ignatius, who was an early bishop of Antioch and a student of the apostle John.  On his way to being thrown to the lions around 110 AD, St. Ignatius wrote letters to the churches in each city through which he passed.  In these letters, St. Ignatius makes the following remarks:
"Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . 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 that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes" (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 [A.D. 110]).
Other writings from the early church can be read here, though every Christian should take some time to read these quote in context by purchasing a volume of the writings of the early church fathers, such as these volumes by William Jurgens, which I highly recommend given their exhaustive index and cross-references.

My claim (which should be easy enough to disprove if false) is that the apostles passed on to their successors the doctrine that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist - that the bread and wine are truly and substantially his body and blood.  (Please don't take my word for it!  I invite every reader to study the writings of the apostles' students and their successors.  Consult the primary sources, not what some third party - even myself - has to say about the primary sources.)

Now, let's pause for a minute and assume, like Baptists believe, that the Lord's Supper is only a symbolic ritual.  If this assumption is true, then logic forces us to conclude that what St. Ignatius was teaching was not true.

This conclusion immediately raises a dilemma for Christians: am I going to believe my Baptist interpretive tradition over the teaching of a pastor who received their faith directly from an apostle?

Let's push the Baptist assumption farther and assume that St. Ignatius was teaching heresy over in Antioch.  If he was the only Pastor who distorted the original gospel message, then where are the other faithful students of the apostles who passed on the correct understanding of the Lord's Supper?

Also, we know from the early church that when someone taught heresy, there was an outcry.  Where is there a record of the outcry against St. Ignatius's false teaching?  In fact, if a number of early church fathers went astray, you would expect even more of an outcry from those successors of the apostles who had maintained the true Christian faith.   Moreover, if those who were distorting the Gospel message had no commitment to the original deposit of faith Christ left with the apostles, you would expect there to be some amount of disagreement between their teachings.  After all, if you are not going to remain obedient to the apostles and to the true Gospel, why remain obedient to and consistent with the teachings of the other heretics?

Further still, if these early heretics knew that their teachers, the apostles, taught them one thing, and that they were about to martyred for beliefs they knew were not true, why do we never here of a single early church father admitting moments before death that what they believed was actually a human tradition that someone had made up after the apostles had died?

Put simply, the historical evidence suggests that the early church consistently believed that the Eucharist was Christ's Body and Blood, not a symbolic representation of it.  The Eucharist is the same flesh that suffered for our sins, as St. Ignatius emphasizes.  The flesh on the cross was not a symbolic flesh.

If the above paragraph is correct, then the history of the early church's teaching on the Lord's Supper can be interpreted in one of two ways.

1. A major, global cover-up/distortion of the true Gospel message.

2. A faithful, consistent, global adherence to the teaching of the apostles.

Now, assuming that #2 is not an option for Baptists, let's push the implications a bit further.

Let's say that every single apostle chose successors who turned out to be unfaithful to the original message (so unfaithful that almost every single one of them would submit to marytrdom without a peep regarding their having changed the Gospel message).

The consequence of this massive failure of the apostles in choosing "faithful men" to pass on the traditions that had been given them is that error was taught and idolatry promoted for the first 1,500 years of church history.  The Sacrifice of the Mass, the worship of the Host, the Sacraments - all of it - is one gigantic mistake - one enormous distortion of what Jesus's church (the one he offered his sacrifice for and sent His Spirit to maintain) was supposed to look like and believe.

Thus, to believe that the Lord's Supper is a symbolic ritual is ultimately to believe that:

1.  The apostles completely failed at their Great Commission (Matt. 28:20) by failing to find anyone to faithful transmit the faith.

2.  Every student of the apostles and their successors changed the Gospel in a consistent and unchanging manner and promoted this lie without ever once altering it further in time or place for centuries - and all of this through countless martyrdoms and persecutions.

3.  Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to protect His Church from error and guide it into all truth, but something prevented the Holy Spirit from achieving this goal even as early as the time when the apostles were passing on the faith to their successors.

4.  Christianity, from Jesus's perspective, was an utter and near-complete failure until the time of the Reformation.  Jesus founded a Church that wouldn't really come into being until 1,500 years after he founded it.

5.  Only after the Reformation do we finally see the New Testament Church as Jesus and Apostles envisioned it, despite the fact that outside the Catholic Church there are tens of thousands of denominations preaching conflicting interpretations of the Scriptures.

I suggested earlier that to believe the Lord's Supper is only a symbolic ritual is to make an extraordinary claim about the history of Christianity.  Should anyone then wonder why history is the last thing most Baptist pastors mention when they preach about the Lord's Supper?  For these pastor's to mention what the Early Church believed about Jesus's Real Presence in the Eucharist is to raise serious alarms in the minds of anyone willing to push the implications to their conclusions.  Many people whose whose minds and hearts are open to these conclusions have pushed their way right into the Catholic Church, even though this is the last Church these Protestants would have ever dreamed of joining.  They, like so many converts, find themselves surprised by truth!

Let us open our minds, our hearts, and our wills to the fullness of the faith that has been faithfully passed down to us from the apostles and through their successors so that we Christians, two-thousand years later - can know the lord Jesus Christ in His fullness.  Through the breaking of the bread, let us come to know Christ how he loves for us to know Him (see Luke 24:13-35 and following)!  Let us share in communion with the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity with our Lord and Savior, the divine spouse of our souls!

Praise be Jesus Christ now and forever!



How might we explain the tendency for Christians to believe things without understanding their implications?  One contributing factor is the way in which we conceive doctrine in our minds.  If our doctrinal beliefs are imagined as a bullet-point list, then it is difficult for our minds to see their relationships, not to mention the relationships between doctrines and their historical development.

On the other hand, if we see doctrine in a more symphonic manner, where each truth melodiously intersects with other truths, and with the contexts for these truths (history included), then our minds are able to see truth as an organic whole, as a...Person!  Our minds can perceive the beautiful splendor of truth as all the pieces (doctrine, history, theology, morality, etc.) fit together. 

The truth of the Catholic faith amounts to far more than simply having a bullet-list in which each item is correct.  Rather, the truth of the Catholic faith allows one to fit all of life together in a way that glorifies the Father.  To be a Catholic is to be connected with Scripture and Tradition in the heart of the living Body of Christ, the Church, and through this relationship, be connected with all of human history that finds its center and meaning in the person of Jesus Christ.

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