The historical continuity of the Church’s doctrine from past to present provides evidence for the unity, authenticity, and apostolicity of the Church.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
12 February 2016
Non-Catholic and Protestant Christians of today are often under the false impression that Christians of the first few centuries were not Catholic. The idea suggests that early Christian beliefs were more Protestant than Catholic, and that sometime later the Church became corrupted and fell away from the “pure” Christianity narrated in the Bible. There are a number of theories about how this supposedly happened, from an infusion of pagan beliefs, practices and traditions that gradually corrupted the Church, to the powerful influence of Emperor Constantine who is claimed to himself have founded Catholicism, to a mass apostasy that occurred sometime later.
Whatever the theory, the basic idea is that the Christians of early centuries did not believe what the Catholic Church believes today as if a historical discontinuity in doctrine exists between present and past. The first Christians were on track, but later got derailed as members of the Catholic Church and fell away from true Christianity, which means that Catholic doctrine is currently incorrect, unbiblical, and out of sync with what the first followers of Christ believed and practiced. What Protestants term the “Reformation” of the sixteenth century is thought to have set things back on course with a break from a poisoned Church facilitated by a new emphasis on the Bible deemed sola scriptura, which supposedly allowed for the recovery of true and authentic Christian doctrine and worship. If that were true, it indeed would be a problem for Catholics. If it is not, it poses a problem for Protestants.
Evidence for Continuity of Doctrine
It was John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), a former Anglican turned Catholic who was ordained a priest in 1847 and eventually raised to the level of Cardinal, who said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” That pithy statement expressed his discovery that the early Church was the Catholic Church and the first Christians indeed believed what Catholics do today.
Let’s take a look at one of those beliefs: the Eucharist as the Real Presence of Christ. It is the belief of the Church today that the Eucharist is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ. This presence of the glorified and risen body of Christ is a sacramental one, which means it is invisible under the visible signs of consecrated bread and wine. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:
The mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend. In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained. This presence is called ‘real’—by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be ‘real’ too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present. (CCC 1374)
The Catechism also notes that the Church Fathers affirmed the faith of the Church with respect to the Eucharist. St. John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) wrote about the conversion of bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood brought about by the Word of Christ and the action of the Holy Spirit during the Catholic Liturgy or Mass:
It is not man that causes the things offered to become the Body and Blood of Christ, but he who was crucified for us, Christ himself. The priest, in the role of Christ, pronounces these words, but their power and grace are God’s. This is my body, he says. This word transforms the things offered. (qtd. in CCC 1375; St. John Chrysostom, prod. Jud. 1:6:PG 49, 380)
It is possible to look deeper into history. Let’s read what St. Justine Martyr (100-165) had to say on the matter:
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 that is for the remission of sins and for regeneration [i.e., baptism] and is thereby living as Christ enjoined. For not as 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 that 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 nurtured, is both the flesh and blood of that incarnated Jesus. (qtd. in Jimmy Akin, The Fathers Know Best; First Apology 66, c. A.D. 151)
St. Ignatius of Antioch writes about his deeply held love for the Eucharist and his conviction that it is indeed the flesh and blood of his Savior, Jesus Christ:
I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, . . . and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible (qtd. in Jimmy Akin, The Fathers Know Best; Letter to the Romans 7, c. A.D. 110)
Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ, which have 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 that suffered for our sins and that the Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes (Ibid; Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6-7, c. A.D. 110)
There are numerous other quotes from Church Fathers that clearly show a continuity of doctrine on the Eucharist between Catholics today and the first Christians. Nevertheless, our Protestant brothers and sisters often object to the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist with the claim that it is unbiblical. It is important to note that such a claim is based on a reading of Scripture from a Protestant point of view, using a hermeneutic that is at odds with Catholic doctrine and the constant belief of the living Church of God. Ultimately, such a viewpoint does not harmonize with the New Testament as a whole, nor with the belief of the Church throughout the centuries. But let’s take a brief look at Scripture to see how what the Church believes today about the Eucharist is entirely consistent with the Bible.
The Teaching of Christ: The Word made flesh
In the first place, let us turn to the words of Christ spoken at the Last Supper. During this sacred, familial meal, Jesus took the bread into his hands, “and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood’” (Lk 22:19-20; see also Mk 14:24, Mt 26:28). Notice that Jesus uses the word “is” to express the change (transformation) that took place from ordinary bread and wine into his own body and blood. He did not say the bread “symbolizes” his body, or “contains” his body. The Church believes Jesus was speaking literally here, since there is no indication otherwise. Formerly, before Christ’s blessing, the bread and wine is ordinary bread and wine; subsequently, after the blessing, it is transformed by Christ into himself: the bread has become, is, his body. Moreover, he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” This is a commandment from Christ that the sacrifice of his body and blood is to be perpetuated throughout all time, which is precisely what the Church does through her divine liturgy all across the world and for all generations.
There is additional evidence in Scripture supporting Catholic belief about the Eucharist. Let us turn briefly to John chapter six and the bread of life discourse. We begin with v. 41: the Jews were murmuring against Jesus because he said, “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” The Jews are confused because they know Jesus is the son of Mary and Joseph, a seemingly ordinary and familiar man, and they fail to understand how he could have come down from heaven. But Jesus begins to insist more strongly on his divine, pre-existent origin by stating that those who believe in him and his words have eternal life. Additionally, Jesus states that the bread of life of which he is speaking is his flesh, which he offers for the life of the world. Further, he repeatedly uses the word “eat” to describe how we are to receive his flesh that is the bread of life:
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. (Jn 6:47-51)
Because the Jews understood Jesus was speaking literally a dispute ensued. They ask, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (v. 52). Jesus responds not by correcting them but by becoming considerably more direct in a way that was likely viewed as offensive:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever. (Jn 6:53-58)
When Jesus’ disciples heard this teaching, many of them said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (v. 60). Consequently, “many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (v. 66). Again, Jesus made no effort to call them back and correct them. This is the first recorded schism among the followers of Christ. And it involved a central dogma of the faith: the Eucharist as the flesh and blood of Christ.
It is clear in John’s gospel that Jesus was not speaking symbolically about the eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood as real food and drink. If he had been, then he intentionally allowed some of his disciples to be misled. But that is contrary to God’s perfectly truthful nature. It would be unthinkable for Christ to intentionally misguide his followers about something so crucially important, so much so as to drive them away from him. Nevertheless, there is additional evidence in Scripture upholding the belief of the Church about the Eucharist.
St. Paul: Discern the Body and Blood of the Lord
In the First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul teaches that the Eucharist is indeed the flesh and blood of Christ:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Cor. 11:23-26)
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (1 Cor. 11:27-30)
St. Paul did not view the bread and cup of the Lord as merely symbolic of Christ’s presence, but rather as his body and blood, because he warns that those who receive the bread and the cup in an unworthy manner (i.e., not in a state of grace or not discerning the true nature of the bread and wine as Christ) are guilty of profaning the Lord. This is an offense of such great magnitude that those who have committed it are falling ill and some are dying. If the bread and wine were symbolic, those types of consequences could not follow from lack of discernment. We see, then, that holding to the notion of the Eucharist as symbolic reduces the words of St. Paul to nonsense.
We have looked at the words of Scripture and the belief of the Church Fathers and early Christians about the Eucharist, including what the living body of the Catholic Church believes today. The doctrine of the Eucharist as the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ passes the test of continuity, which relates to one of the four marks of the Church called “oneness.” The Church professes one faith, one baptism and one Lord (Eph. 4:5); from her birth twenty centuries ago to the present, the Church and her teaching is constant, permanent and changeless. The only explanation for this type of durability and certainty of belief is the hand of God. The Church is indeed instituted by Jesus Christ as a holy dwelling place and Spirit-guided city of truth. She is the home of the Christian who wants to know and love God to the fullest. The Church is God’s plan of truth ordained from eternity in order to safely guide his children to the fulfillment of human desire.
The question every non-Catholic Christian (including Catholics who have drifted from the Church or rejected her) must ask themselves is this: Since Scripture supports Catholic teaching on the Eucharist, and Christians throughout the ages who have lived in the heart of the Church have always believed what Catholics do today, why do I hold some different, independent and/or individual view on the matter that is not in conformity with this unchanging belief? If my belief is contrary to what the Church has always believed about this most glorious sacrament of sacraments, what is the source of this disagreement and why do I hold to it? Additionally, given this constant teaching, should the Eucharist be something important to me? If Catholic doctrine is true, is not becoming Catholic something that really matters? Is becoming Catholic and receiving the flesh and blood of Christ something that has real value in my life as it flows from here into eternity?
Jesus offers your answer:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. (Jn 6:53 ff.)
Visit a Catholic Mass. After the words of consecration, gaze on the flesh and blood of Christ as the priest celebrant lifts the consecrated host for Christians to worship and adore. Then talk to your local parish priest or deacon about RCIA and becoming Catholic so that you may receive Christ’s flesh and blood as a Catholic who believes as Christians always have with faith in the words of Christ!
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Photo Credit: Cameron Kirby, modified.