In my first entry I looked at practices in scripture around the Lord’s Supper. In this entry we’ll be looking at what the earliest Father’s of the church believed on the subject. 

In the 17th century the Primate of Ireland James Ussher publicly wrote in response to a Jesuit Polemicist on the subject of the Lord’s Supper:

The question betwixt our adversaries and us being, not whether Christ’s body be turned into bread, but whether bread be turned into Christ’s body, the words in St John, if they be pressed literally, serve more strongly to prove the former than the latter.

James Ussher, Answers to a Jesuit. Chapter 3: Of The Real Presence

The reference to the words of St John being, of course, being John 6:53. Frequently raised in discussions around the eucharist.

This question posed by Ussher, I think, is a powerful one and something useful to hold before us when we look at the words of the Fathers on the question of the Lord’s Supper. What follows is a walk through the early centuries of the church and a brief survey of the statements of various fathers on communion. As we go through each I will make judgements on which side the statements we look at fall. Do we see Christ’s body being turned into bread, as Ussher believes? Or does bread become Christ’s body, like the Jesuit in question believed? We’ll take a broader look but let us bear in mind this choice as we examine the words of the early church.

Let us then start at the earliest references and work our way forwards. I’ve broken this post into two and this first entry will survey the first few centuries with a subsequent post that will examine writings from the 4th and 5th.

1st Century


The earliest extra-biblical reference I’ve seen to communion lies in the Didache. 

Now concerning the Thanksgiving (Eucharist), thus give thanks. First, concerning the cup: We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David Your servant, which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory forever. And concerning the broken bread: We thank You, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory forever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom; for Yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever. But let no one eat or drink of your Thanksgiving (Eucharist), but they who have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, Give not that which is holy to the dogs. Matthew 7:6

You, Master almighty, created all things for Your name’s sake; You gave food and drink to men for enjoyment, that they might give thanks to You; but to us You freely gave spiritual food and drink and life eternal through Your Servant.

Didache, Chapter 9-10. The Thanksgiving (Eucharist) and Prayer After Communion

What we see, particularly in chapters 9 and 10, is inferences drawn between the wine, the cup, and Christ’s existence as the fruit of the vine of David – a clear reference to the belief of the author the Lord is the Jewish Messiah.

The broken bread in turn is treated as an image of the Church being one body made up of many and taps into New Testament ideas like the Great Commission or passages like Philippians 2:6-11.

With Christ being associated with the cup, and the bread associated with the Church, the coming together of the two is also underscored by the requirement that only those who are baptised partake of the thanksgiving meal.

The final point I think we can read out of this is the underscoring that the thanksgiving meal in question is not mere food and drink but spiritual food and drink through which the participants experience eternal life, again drawing parallels with baptism.

In terms of Ussher’s choice I think it’s hard to say if this comes down cleanly on one side or the other the doubling up of the language of food and drink between conventional food and spiritual food at least implies the elements are still qualitatively considered food and drink of a type. I don’t think we can say more than that, however.

Ignatius of Antioch

The next person worth mentioning is Ignatius of Antioch, who spoke on the topic in several instances. 

They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again.

Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, Chapter 7. Let us stand aloof from such heretics

In this first quote we see Ignatius arguing that the docetists, that is a heretical group who denied the bodily reality and humanity of Christ, do not partake of the Thanksgiving meal. Reading between the lines at this point we can see the implication that the Lord’s Supper is intimately linked with the incarnation, and the Lord’s body and blood. This is why the docetists abstain, they don’t believe in the body and blood as a real thing and this is why they are condemned by Ignatius.

Ignatius goes on to say in Chapter 8:

Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it.

Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, Chapter 8. Let nothing be done without the bishop

Ignatius goes on to argue a position that sees the Bishop as a guard for those anxious to distance themselves from heretics like the Docetists. The bishop being compared to Christ as the Presbyters are to the Apostles. The bishop and the eucharist are similar in that they are seen by Ignatius as the things which bind the Church together. Elsewhere  he writes:

Let no man deceive himself: if any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God. For if the prayer of one or two possesses Matthew 18:19 such power, how much more that of the bishop and the whole Church! He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself. For it is written, God resists the proud. Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God.

Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 5. The praise of unity


If the Lord make known to me that you come together man by man in common through grace, individually, in one faith, and in Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David according to the flesh, being both the Son of man and the Son of God, so that you obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind, breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but [which causes] that we should live forever in Jesus Christ.

Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 20. Promise of another letter

Showing Ignatius to have a very high view of the thanksgiving meal and elaborating and going beyond the expectation of the Didache to reserve it to those baptised. Ignatius goes further by saying participants should have one faith, one bishop (which is also expressive of the undivided mind of the church), and one bread – something which, in a way, plays on the ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism’ of Ephesians 4:5. This, he says, is the medicine of immortality and means by which they may participate in eternal life through and in Jesus Christ.

As a brief aside, regarding Ignatius’s comments on bishops I think it’s important to ask ourselves what is the definition of a bishop, or overseer, in this instance. I hold to a bene esse view of the office (Calvin et al point out that someone like Jerome also believed this), but I am also mindful that the scale, scope, and roll bishops operated in at the time of Ignatius probably looked quite different than it does today. Looking at later texts like the Apostolic Constitutions we also see that the appointment of such people, at times by vote (as in the appointment of Ambrose), differs to today too. So I do think it’s fair to say that what Ignatius is saying regarding bishops and the sacraments squarely falls under the third mark of the church, that of discipline and order, rather than the second, the administration of the sacraments themselves. Particularly when considering the emphasis on unity. I also think that this trio of offices he advocates for is in distinction to the duo we see mentioned by texts like the Didache or the interchangeable way the terms presbuteros and episkopos are used in the apostolic writings themselves.

Returning to the Eucharist, however, I think we can confidently say Ignatius see’s it as a means by which we achieve union with Christ and participate in the unity of his body (the church).

2nd Century

Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr is the next Father to speak on the subject and speaks in similar tones to the Didache and Ignatius by admitting only those baptised and believe with one mind respectively:

And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, This do in remembrance of Me, Luke 22:19 this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone.

Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 66. Of the Eucharist

Yet here we see him go further and detail the beliefs of the church with regard to what happens in communion. Martyr, like the Didache, elevates the Eucharist above mere food and drink and goes on to draw a parallel between Christ taking on flesh and Christ becoming bread. When talking of ‘transmutation’ there’s also some ambiguity as to whether this in reference to the elements or the believers themselves yet the latter is the more compelling when we see immediately prior in the apology that the elements are referred to as bread and wine by the end of the service:

“Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the one presiding among the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water, and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to γένοιτο [so be it]. And when the one presiding has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion,” 

Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 65. Administration of the Sacraments

Which I don’t think could be said if Justin Martyr upheld a belief in the Transubstantiation of the elements, rather that there is a type of change in the participant through their union with Christ in this corporate rite. 

Moreso, the Eucharist (the thanksgiving) and the bread and wine in this context are arguably distinct things. The Eucharist being spoken over the bread and wine. Yet the bread and wine in question are clearly distinct from conventional food given there is a value attributed to their distribution to those unable to attend. The value is precisely because of the prayer, the thanksgiving, spoken over the elements during the gathering of the church. A means through which the recipient is brought into greater union with other believers in and through faith in Christ (the expression of assent mentioned).

Justin Martyr also writes a fair bit on communion in his dialogue with Trypho the Jew:

And the offering of fine flour, sirs, which was prescribed to be presented on behalf of those purified from leprosy, was a type of the bread of the Eucharist, the celebration of which our Lord Jesus Christ prescribed, in remembrance of the suffering which He endured on behalf of those who are purified in soul from all iniquity, in order that we may at the same time thank God for having created the world, with all things therein, for the sake of man, and for delivering us from the evil in which we were, and for utterly overthrowing principalities and powers by Him who suffered according to His will. Hence God speaks by the mouth of Malachi, one of the twelve [prophets], as I said before, about the sacrifices at that time presented by you: ‘I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord; and I will not accept your sacrifices at your hands: for, from the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same, My name has been glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure offering: for My name is great among the Gentiles, says the Lord: but you profane it.’ Malachi 1:10-12 [So] He then speaks of those Gentiles, namely us, who in every place offer sacrifices to Him, i.e., the bread of the Eucharist, and also the cup of the Eucharist.

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 41

Justin and Trypho talk at some length about this prophecy of Malachi. Each asserting that is their faith referred to by the prophet. Yet we see Justin highlight the bread and the cup of the thanksgiving (Eucharist) as a sacrifice of praise offered by the church to Christ. By way of example he compares this to the offering brought by those cured of Leprosy under the Mosaic Law in Leviticus 14 to the Priest, who we know from the book of Hebrews is Christ.

Justin Martyr also finishes the chapter in question by arguing that the prophecy of Malachi is fulfilled by the offering of bread and wine in thanksgiving. The fact that the elements remain bread and wine is stressed later on:

Now it is evident, that in this prophecy (Isaiah 33:13-19) [allusion is made] to the bread which our Christ gave us to eat, in remembrance of His being made flesh for the sake of His believers, for whom also He suffered; and to the cup which He gave us to drink, in remembrance of His own blood, with giving of thanks.

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 70

The consumption of the elements being an act of remembrance, draws parallels to Passover, but they themselves in this context are not the Eucharist, the term is a verb. The bread and wine are central to the act of the Eucharist (are ‘of the’ Eucharist) but just like the Anglo-Saxon term for the Eucharist ‘housel’ this was either something you did or participated in. The language of sacrifice in the context of communion therefore seems perfectly natural to Justin Martyr but it was one on the part of the church corporate to Christ in thanks for its participation in incorruption through him. 

We see this stressed even further by Justin Martyr later in this dialogue:

God, anticipating all the sacrifices which we offer through this name, and which Jesus the Christ enjoined us to offer, i.e., in the Eucharist of the bread and the cup, and which are presented by Christians in all places throughout the world, bears witness that they are well-pleasing to Him. … Now, that prayers and giving of thanks, when offered by worthy men, are the only perfect and well-pleasing sacrifices to God, I also admit. For such alone Christians have undertaken to offer, and in the remembrance effected by their solid and liquid food, whereby the suffering of the Son of God which He endured is brought to mind. …  For there is not one single race of men, whether barbarians, or Greeks, or whatever they may be called, nomads, or vagrants, or herdsmen living in tents, among whom prayers and giving of thanks are not offered through the name of the crucified Jesus.

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 117

I’ve condensed this to shorten the length but the image Justin paints here I find incredible. People of all races, tribes, places, and locales offering praise to God wherever they are found. What form does this thanksgiving take? Bread and wine. Bread and wine which by its consumption remembers, shapes and binds the participants across time and space together, through thanksgiving, to Christ himself.

Justin Martyr, if we return to the first apology also has a brief section on offerings worth considering in this light:

But we have received by tradition that God does not need the material offerings which men can give, seeing, indeed, that He Himself is the provider of all things. And we have been taught, and are convinced, and do believe, that He accepts those only who imitate the excellences which reside in Him, temperance, and justice, and philanthropy, and as many virtues as are peculiar to a God who is called by no proper name.

Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 10. How God is to be served

When we combine this with an understanding of the sacrifice of thanksgiving via the bread and wine we get a clearer picture of what the offering is for Justin Martyr. It is a communal act of imitation and obedience towards Christ, per his explicit command, and a desire, in faith, to be conformed into his image through what we could argue Paul calls the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

With regard to the choice at the outset presented by Ussher I think both him and Justin Martyr can be said to be of the same mind. Christ in this instance becomes bread.


We also see from Father’s like Irenaeus a continuation of this theme of thanksgiving:

From all these it is evident that God did not seek sacrifices and holocausts from them, but faith, and obedience, and righteousness, because of their salvation. As God, when teaching them His will in Hosea the prophet, said, I desire mercy rather than sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt-offerings. Hosea 6:6 Besides, our Lord also exhorted them to the same effect, when He said, But if you had known what [this] means, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the guiltless. Matthew 12:7 Thus does He bear witness to the prophets, that they preached the truth; but accuses these men (His hearers) of being foolish through their own fault.

Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies, Book 4. Chapter 17.4, Proof that God did not appoint the Levitical dispensation for His own sake, or as requiring such service; for He does, in fact, need nothing from men.

Irenaeus here sounds remarkably similar to Justin Martyr in Chapter 10 of his First Apology when it comes to how God is to be served. Irenaeus elsewhere quotes Samuel “God does not desire whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices, but He will have His voice to be hearkened to. Behold, a ready obedience is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams”. (1 Samuel 15:22 quoted in Against Heresies. Book 4. Chapter 17).

Irenaeus also describes the eucharist in terms that depict it very much as an offering of the first-fruits of creation. Language which invokes images of the priestly portion given to the levites:

Inasmuch, then, as the Church offers with single-mindedness, her gift is justly reckoned a pure sacrifice with God. As Paul also says to the Philippians, I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things that were sent from you, the odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, pleasing to God. Philippians 4:18 For it behooves us to make an oblation to God, and in all things to be found grateful to God our Maker, in a pure mind, and in faith without hypocrisy, in well-grounded hope, in fervent love, offering the first-fruits of His own created things. And the Church alone offers this pure oblation to the Creator, offering to Him, with giving of thanks, [the things taken] from His creation. But the Jews do not offer thus: for their hands are full of blood; for they have not received the Word, through whom it is offered to God.

Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies, Book 4. Chapter 18.4, Concerning sacrifices and oblations, and those who truly offer them

This specifically reminds me of the passage in Leviticus 23:13 which talks about offering the first-fruit of the grain gathered from the promised land:

Its grain offering shall be two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil, an offering made by fire to the Lord, for a sweet aroma; and its drink offering shall be of wine, one-fourth of a hin.

Leviticus 23:13

When taken in context parallels Justin Martyr’s writing (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 41) about the offering of fine flours. Whilst Martyr mentions it in the context of one being cured from leprosy Irenaeus does so in the context of entering the promised land. Both speak to deliverance. The link to this passage is strengthened by his quoting of Philippians 4:18 and it’s linking of the ‘sweet aroma’ of the sacrifice being pleasing to the Lord. Irenaeus’s reference to offering is also explicitly in reference to bread and wine – which parallels Melchizidek’s own offering to Abraham, who in exchange offered the first fruits of his spoils. Irenaeus’s closing statement about the offering being through the Word also invokes ideas of Christ being the High Priest, the mediator, through whom the offering is made to God. This builds up the Christ-priestly picture by tying together themes we’ve mentioned above in Leviticus 23 but also in Hebrews 8. Through Christ our eucharist (thanksgiving) is accepted in faith and joins us to him.

As a brief aside the New Advent text linked actually changes the wording of the last sentence from ‘through whom it is offered to God’ to ‘Who is offered to God’ with a note saying this is because the ‘text fluctuates’ between the two. I, however, think they chose the weaker variant and have not maintained this in my quotation given I have not seen other translations adopt this approach, nor do I think it flows with Irenaeus’s statements, nor do I think parallels scripture so closely.

With regard to Irenaeus’s continuity with Justin Martyr we see this go on to be developed when Ireaneus expounds on how the faithful participate in two realities through offering the eucharist. Their is an earthly and the heavenly nature to what is done:

Our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as 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 the hope of the resurrection to eternity.

Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies, Book 4. Chapter 18.5, Concerning sacrifices and oblations, and those who truly offer them

Irenaeus, also like Justin Martyr, draws a parallel between Christ taking on flesh and Christ becoming bread. The bread itself is still called such but also takes on a heavenly reality, as do the bodies of those who participate in it.. As Everett Ferguson writes: 

Irenaeus has the realist terminology but not the realist thought. There is no conversion of the elements. Indeed, if there were any change in the substance of the elements, his argument that our bodies in reality, not in appearance are raised would be subverted.

Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, Everett Ferguson, 1981, p 114

We also see this idea of heavenly participation developed further as Irenaeus develops the sense of what it means to offer something to God who is in need of nothing:

Now we make offering to Him, not as though He stood in need of it, but rendering thanks for His gift, and thus sanctifying what has been created. For even as God does not need our possessions, so do we need to offer something to God; as Solomon says: He that has pity upon the poor, lends unto the Lord. Proverbs 19:17 For God, who stands in need of nothing, takes our good works to Himself for this purpose, that He may grant us a recompense of His own good things, as our Lord says: Come, you blessed of My Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you. For I was hungry, and you gave Me food to eat: I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink: I was a stranger, and you took Me in: naked, and you clothed Me; sick, and you visited Me; in prison, and you came to Me. Matthew 25:34, etc. As, therefore, He does not stand in need of these [services], yet does desire that we should render them for our own benefit, lest we be unfruitful; so did the Word give to the people that very precept as to the making of oblations, although He stood in no need of them, that they might learn to serve God: thus is it, therefore, also His will that we, too, should offer a gift at the altar, frequently and without intermission. The altar, then, is in heaven (for towards that place are our prayers and oblations directed); the temple likewise [is there], as John says in the Apocalypse, And the temple of God was opened: Revelation 11:19 the tabernacle also: For, behold, He says, the tabernacle of God, in which He will dwell with men.

Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies, Book 4. Chapter 18.6: Concerning sacrifices and oblations, and those who truly offer them

Irenaeus clearly has a high view of God’s sovereignty over creation – nothing can be given to he who made it all. Yet the thanksgiving sacrifice is seen as training in service and good works, not for God’s benefit in any sense but for ours. It changes and shapes us. The passage seems to touching on the themes around a passage like Hebrews 8:

Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man.

For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices. Therefore it is necessary that this One also have something to offer. For if He were on earth, He would not be a priest, since there are priests who offer the gifts according to the law; who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle. For He said, “See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises.

For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them, He says: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah— not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.”

In that He says, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

Hebrews 8

To Irenaeus the thanksgiving sacrifice, offering, is not something administered by the Church but offered by the Church to the High Priest who mediates on its behalf in the form of his own body. The significance of this is not dependent on the office or charisma of the president in question but the disposition and righteousness of those participating – is the sacrifice of praise sincere?:

“I will take no calves out of your house, nor he-goats out of your fold. For Mine are all the beasts of the earth, the herds and the oxen on the mountains: I know all the fowls of heaven, and the various tribes of the field are Mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you: for the world is Mine, and the fullness thereof. Shall I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Then, lest it might be supposed that He refused these things in His anger, He continues, giving him (man) counsel: Offer unto God the sacrifice of praise, and pay your vows to the Most High; and call upon Me in the day of your trouble, and I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me; rejecting, indeed, those things by which sinners imagined they could propitiate God, and showing that He does Himself stand in need of nothing; but He exhorts and advises them to those things by which man is justified and draws near to God. This same declaration does Esaias make: To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? Says the Lord. I am full. Isaiah 1:11 And when He had repudiated holocausts, and sacrifices, and oblations, as likewise the new moons, and the sabbaths, and the festivals, and all the rest of the services accompanying these, He continues, exhorting them to what pertained to salvation: Wash you, make you clean, take away wickedness from your hearts from before my eyes: cease from your evil ways, learn to do well, seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow; and come, let us reason together, says the Lord.

Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies, Book 4. Chapter 17.1: Proof that God did not appoint the Levitical dispensation for His own sake, or as requiring such service; for He does, in fact, need nothing from men.

We offer the bread and wine in faith and receive the body and blood by which, though we die, having received in faith are raised up to eternal life in Christ:

He has acknowledged the cup (which is a part of the creation) as His own blood, from which He bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of the creation) He has established as His own body, from which He gives increase to our bodies.

When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God, and the Eucharist of the blood and the body of Christ is made, from which things the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they affirm that the flesh is incapable of receiving the gift of God, which is life eternal, which [flesh] is nourished from the body and blood of the Lord, and is a member of Him? — even as the blessed Paul declares in his Epistle to the Ephesians, that we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones. Ephesians 5:30 He does not speak these words of some spiritual and invisible man, for a spirit has not bones nor flesh; Luke 24:39 but [he refers to] that dispensation [by which the Lord became] an actual man, consisting of flesh, and nerves, and bones — that [flesh] which is nourished by the cup which is His blood, and receives increase from the bread which is His body. And just as a cutting from the vine planted in the ground fructifies in its season, or as a grain of wheat falling into the earth and becoming decomposed, rises with manifold increase by the Spirit of God, who contains all things, and then, through the wisdom of God, serves for the use of men, and having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ; so also our bodies, being nourished by it, and deposited in the earth, and suffering decomposition there, shall rise at their appointed time, the Word of God granting them resurrection to the glory of God.

Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies, Book 5. Chapter 2.2,3: When Christ visited us in His grace, He did not come to what did not belong to Him: also, by shedding His true blood for us, and exhibiting to us His true flesh in the Eucharist, He conferred upon our flesh the capacity of salvation.

Irenaeus, like Justin Martyr, draws a parallel between Christ taking on flesh and Christ becoming bread. Like the prophets of Israel he taught that God desires ‘faith, and obedience, and righteousness’ and that the thanksgiving sacrifice offered by the church is a means to teach us righteousness. That God, being in need of nothing, wishes us to live in union with him according to his will through the grace of the Holy Spirit. 

Personally I’m not sure if we could say Irenaeus comes down cleanly on either side of Ussher’s choice but with his talk of ‘two realities’ taking place in the consumption of the bread and wine I do not think we can say the bread has become Christ in this sense, or that if it has this has not caused it the bread to cease to be bread. 

Clement of Alexandria

Clement of Alexandria, by contrast, comments on the eucharist in highly symbolic terms:

Further, the Word declares Himself to be the bread of heaven. For Moses, He says, gave you not that bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He that comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world. And the bread which I will give is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. Here is to be noted the mystery of the bread, inasmuch as He speaks of it as flesh, and as flesh, consequently, that has risen through fire, as the wheat springs up from decay and germination; and, in truth, it has risen through fire for the joy of the Church, as bread baked. But this will be shown by and by more clearly in the chapter on the resurrection. But since He said, And the bread which I will give is My flesh, and since flesh is moistened with blood, and blood is figuratively termed wine, we are bidden to know that, as bread, crumbled into a mixture of wine and water, seizes on the wine and leaves the watery portion, so also the flesh of Christ, the bread of heaven absorbs the blood; that is, those among men who are heavenly, nourishing them up to immortality, and leaving only to destruction the lusts of the flesh.

Thus in many ways the Word is figuratively described, as meat, and flesh, and food, and bread, and blood, and milk. The Lord is all these, to give enjoyment to us who have believed on Him. Let no one then think it strange, when we say that the Lord’s blood is figuratively represented as milk. For is it not figuratively represented as wine?

Clement of Alexandria, The Paedagogus, Book 1, Chapter 6. The Name Children Does Not Imply Instruction in Elementary Principles

Drawing on passages like John 6:35-40 he treats the eucharist bread as a figure, symbol or analogy for Christ’s taking on of flesh, death, and resurrection in the growth of the wheat, grinding down of the grain, and baking into bread. This is different to the Didache’s comparison of the grains of wheat being brought together as symbolic of the Church but it seems unclear from this how much further we could take Clement’s views on this. 

We also see him speak explicitly to the agape feast, something we haven’t explicitly treated before but which I think we can assume (at this time) was closely related or synonymous with the eucharist itself. I say this, briefly, based on Ignatius of Antioch’s comments in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans wherein he instructs them ‘It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast’ which reflects the two sacraments instituted by Christ and the fact that Clement does seem to describe the agape feast in the Paedagogus and the Eucharist in the Stromata in similar terms. In the next book of the Paedagogus he writes:

For they have not buried the mind beneath food, nor deceived it with pleasures. But love (agape) is in truth celestial food, the banquet of reason. It bears all things, endures all things, hopes all things. Love never fails. 1 Corinthians 13:7-8 Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God. Luke 14:15 But the hardest of all cases is for charity, which fails not, to be cast from heaven above to the ground into the midst of sauces. And do you imagine that I am thinking of a supper that is to be done away with? For if, it is said, I bestow all my goods, and have not love, I am nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:3 On this love alone depend the law and the Word; and if you shall love the Lord your God and your neighbour, this is the celestial festival in the heavens. But the earthly is called a supper, as has been shown from Scripture. For the supper is made for love, but the supper is not love (agape); only a proof of mutual and reciprocal kindly feeling. Let not, then, your good be evil spoken of; for the kingdom of God is not meat and drink, says the apostle, in order that the meal spoken of may not be conceived as ephemeral, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. Romans 14:16-17 He who eats of this meal, the best of all, shall possess the kingdom of God, fixing his regards here on the holy assembly of love, the heavenly Church. Love, then, is something pure and worthy of God, and its work is communication.

Clement of Alexandria, The Paedagogus, Book 2, Chapter 1. On Eating.

Clement in his framing of the agape meal makes an interesting distinction – the supper is made for love, but is not love itself. This talk of a celestial festival in the heavens arguably draws parallels to Irenaeus’ description of the bread taking on a heavenly reality, enabling heavenly participation. That as Irenaeus explained the supper itself is not an offering to God but a desire on the part of God for it to serve as a means of instruction regarding the conduct of believers. The emphasis and tone of Irenaeus and Clement are different but there are a lot of parallels between the two. Clement continues:

And the blood of the Lord is twofold. For there is the blood of His flesh, by which we are redeemed from corruption; and the spiritual, that by which we are anointed. And to drink the blood of Jesus, is to become partaker of the Lord’s immortality; the Spirit being the energetic principle of the Word, as blood is of flesh.

Accordingly, as wine is blended with water, so is the Spirit with man. And the one, the mixture of wine and water, nourishes to faith; while the other, the Spirit, conducts to immortality.

And the mixture of both — of the water and of the Word — is called Eucharist, renowned and glorious grace; and they who by faith partake of it are sanctified both in body and soul. For the divine mixture, man, the Father’s will has mystically compounded by the Spirit and the Word. For, in truth, the spirit is joined to the soul, which is inspired by it; and the flesh, by reason of which the Word became flesh, to the Word.

Clement of Alexandria, The Paedagogus, Book 2, Chapter 2. On Drinking.

This second passage sounds much closer to Irenaeus and echoes the earthly and heavenly language he uses. The elements themselves serving as a collective recollection and confession of the faith of the church which the spirit sustains. This language of the mixing of the water and the word also can’t help but invite parallels to baptism and this blending of the Spirit with man invokes images of the New Heavens and Earth, the Incarnation itself. 

In the Stromata we also see Clement speak to the Eucharist explicitly by name, albeit not so much as a direct topic of focus:

As also some in the dispensation of the Eucharist, according to custom enjoin that each one of the people individually should take his part. One’s own conscience is best for choosing accurately or shunning. And its firm foundation is a right life, with suitable instruction. But the imitation of those who have already been proved, and who have led correct lives, is most excellent for the understanding and practice of the commandments. So that whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 1 Corinthians 11:27-28.

The Stromata, Chapter 1. Preface — The Author’s Object — The Utility of Written Compositions

In this early mention of the Eucharist we see a mention of people making the decision to abstain themselves from the body of the Lord and the role the conscience plays in this. There isn’t much else said on this in the context of the chapter other than using it as a frame to praise the art of writing and it’s aid to faith, conscience and contemplation. We see this developed later:

Wherefore the Saviour, taking the bread, first spoke and blessed. Then breaking the bread, He presented it, that we might eat it, according to reason, and that knowing the Scriptures we might walk obediently. And as those whose speech is evil are no better than those whose practice is evil (for calumny is the servant of the sword, and evil-speaking inflicts pain; and from these proceed disasters in life, such being the effects of evil speech); so also those who are given to good speech are near neighbours to those who accomplish good deeds.

The Stromata, Chapter 10. To Act Well of Greater Consequence Than to Speak Well

Here again it emerges but in the context of Clement making an argument that good conduct and good speech go together. In the context of the Eucharist Clement is pointing to the fact that Christ spoke well with the Eucharist, he then acted well in the breaking of bread. That speech and conduct go together. That Christ spoke that people might respond to his action with reason and knowledge of scripture. Both coming together to culminate in the same thing – obedience to God.

Clement seems to have a less intense view, in some regards, than someone like Irenaeus pertaining to the Lord’s Supper but we see later on another side to this. Particularly when he condemns those who choose not to use wine in communion:

Such are the sects which deserted the primitive Church. Now he who has fallen into heresy passes through an arid wilderness, abandoning the only true God, destitute of God, seeking waterless water, reaching an uninhabited and thirsty land, collecting sterility with his hands. And those destitute of prudence, that is, those involved in heresies, I enjoin, remarks Wisdom, saying, Touch sweetly stolen bread and the sweet water of theft; Proverbs 9:17 the Scripture manifestly applying the terms bread and water to nothing else but to those heresies, which employ bread and water in the oblation, not according to the canon of the Church. For there are those who celebrate the Eucharist with mere water. But begone, stay not in her place: place is the synagogue, not the Church. He calls it by the equivocal name, place. Then He subjoins: For so shall you pass through the water of another; reckoning heretical baptism not proper and true water. And you shall pass over another’s river, that rushes along and sweeps down to the sea; into which he is cast who, having diverged from the stability which is according to truth, rushes back into the heathenish and tumultous waves of life.

The Stromata, Chapter 19. That the Philosophers Have Attained to Some Portion of Truth

In this context Clement is pointing out that the Philosophers, those who seek after the good and true, can only go some way towards it but that it is only through the Word that people can access the full revelation of God. That there are those addicted to philosophy who have abandoned the Word and by example of this have substituted water for wine – which in the context of his earlier comments (Clement of Alexandria, The Paedagogus, Book 2, Chapter 2. On Drinking,) on wine also symbolically indicates men who worship without the Spirit in the Eucharist.

If we can presume the love feast is closely related to the thanksgiving sacrifice for Clement then we see him frame it both as an earthly feast of reason and simultaneously a celestial banquet which the participants of one, by faith, also partake of the other. That we could even arguably say the love feast isn’t love itself but a means for it to be realised (‘The supper is made for love, but the supper is not love.’). What we do not see, atleast as far as I can tell, is any talk of change in the elements. There is a dual participation but Clement even goes so far to say the elements should be understood as the Lord’s body and blood figuratively. This doesn’t mean we can downplay the elements of the supper, for Clement rebukes those who forsake wine, but that of Ussher’s choice Christ, for Clement, can be better said to have become bread rather than the other way around.

3rd Century


Tertullian in his work against Marcion uses the Eucharist as a polemical tool against the gnostic position:

Then, having taken the bread and given it to His disciples, He made it His own body, by saying, This is my body, that is, the figure of my body. A figure, however, there could not have been, unless there were first a veritable body. An empty thing, or phantom, is incapable of a figure. If, however, (as Marcion might say,) He pretended the bread was His body, because He lacked the truth of bodily substance, it follows that He must have given bread for us. It would contribute very well to the support of Marcion’s theory of a phantom body, that bread should have been crucified! But why call His body bread, and not rather (some other edible thing, say) a melon, which Marcion must have had in lieu of a heart! He did not understand how ancient was this figure of the body of Christ, who said Himself by Jeremiah: I was like a lamb or an ox that is brought to the slaughter, and I knew not that they devised a device against me, saying, Let us cast the tree upon His bread, which means, of course, the cross upon His body. And thus, casting light, as He always did, upon the ancient prophecies, He declared plainly enough what He meant by the bread, when He called the bread His own body. He likewise, when mentioning the cup and making the new testament to be sealed in His blood, Luke 22:20 affirms the reality of His body. For no blood can belong to a body which is not a body of flesh. If any sort of body were presented to our view, which is not one of flesh, not being fleshly, it would not possess blood. Thus, from the evidence of the flesh, we get a proof of the body, and a proof of the flesh from the evidence of the blood.

Tertullian, Contra Marcion, Book 4.40. How the Steps in the Passion of the Saviour Were Predetermined in Prophecy. The Passover. The Treachery of Judas. The Institution of the Lord’s Supper. The Docetic Error of Marcion Confuted by the Body and the Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.

He does this when he argues that the figure of the body in the bread serves as a sign that must necessarily have a signifier in the actual body of Christ. That the sacrament by it’s very composition points to the reality of the incarnation. 

It’s hard to read tone in some of these writings but I’ve always found this quote pretty amusing when Tertullian goes on to ask why Christ’s is depicted as bread rather than any other sort of food in Marcion’s belief system, offering a melon as a hypothetical alternative. He goes on to say it is Marcion who must have a melon for a heart to believe as he does. That Marcion fails to understand the prophetic semiotics of bread in the Old Testament. That Christ himself pointed out this connection and with it the reality of his incarnation.

Whilst not the direct focus of this piece, the focus being refuting Marcion’s gnosticism, we see from the outset Tertullian arguing that Christ becomes bread to us, that the bread is a figure of Christ’s body which we participate in. 

We also see from Tertullian a description of the actual rite during his time which sheds a lot of light on how the Church of this period approached the rite:

Yet about the modest supper-room of the Christians alone a great ado is made. Our feast explains itself by its name. The Greeks call it agapè, i.e., affection. Whatever it costs, our outlay in the name of piety is gain, since with the good things of the feast we benefit the needy; not as it is with you, do parasites aspire to the glory of satisfying their licentious propensities, selling themselves for a belly-feast to all disgraceful treatment — but as it is with God himself, a peculiar respect is shown to the lowly. If the object of our feast be good, in the light of that consider its further regulations. As it is an act of religious service, it permits no vileness or immodesty. The participants, before reclining, taste first of prayer to God. As much is eaten as satisfies the cravings of hunger; as much is drunk as befits the chaste. They say it is enough, as those who remember that even during the night they have to worship God; they talk as those who know that the Lord is one of their auditors. After manual ablution, and the bringing in of lights, each is asked to stand forth and sing, as he can, a hymn to God, either one from the holy Scriptures or one of his own composing — a proof of the measure of our drinking. As the feast commenced with prayer, so with prayer it is closed. We go from it, not like troops of mischief-doers, nor bands of vagabonds, nor to break out into licentious acts, but to have as much care of our modesty and chastity as if we had been at a school of virtue rather than a banquet. Give the congregation of the Christians its due, and hold it unlawful, if it is like assemblies of the illicit sort: by all means let it be condemned, if any complaint can be validly laid against it, such as lies against secret factions. But who has ever suffered harm from our assemblies? We are in our congregations just what we are when separated from each other; we are as a community what we are individuals; we injure nobody, we trouble nobody. When the upright, when the virtuous meet together, when the pious, when the pure assemble in congregation, you ought not to call that a faction, but a curia— [i.e., the court of God.]

Tertullian, Apology, Chapter 39

What Tertullian is describing here is likely the main Christian gathering. We see in this passage that the love feast and thanksgiving supper that Clement talks about are, likely, the same thing to Tertullian. Yet we do also see another rite described by Tertullian in his text ‘On the Soldier’s Crown’:

We take also, in congregations before daybreak, and from the hand of none but the presidents, the sacrament of the Eucharist, which the Lord both commanded to be eaten at meal-times, and enjoined to be taken by all alike. … We feel pained should any wine or bread, even though our own, be cast upon the ground. 

Tertullian, On the Soldier’s Crown. Chapter 3

Which sounds very much more like the eucharist, and is a distinct rite from what he describes in the Apology. The timing, before daybreak, also seems an unlikely time to hold a symposium. Yet this brief description sounds considerably more condensed than the love feast he details at length in the Apology – perhaps Tertullian is writing during a time when the rite is changing. Perhaps, if the Lord commanded the Eucharist to be eaten at meal times, this rite in particular was for those who could not make a gathering later in the day?

One clue as to the origin of this gathering may be in looking for a parallel from the broader culture of the period. If we do this we see a potential explanation in the form of Salutatio which was a practice in which a patron would receive his dependents in the morning, at his home, in order for them to greet him at the start of the day. I think this is pretty compelling given the context of the quote and the special reference given to the presidents. Was this the start of the eucharistic meal being stripped back only to bread and wine and as Christianity grew became the favoured method for the consumption of the Eucharist?

Returning to the more detailed account in the Apology. What Tertullian here is describing a Christian gathering and it’s worth noting that the meal actually takes place first, before anything else. This is different to Justin Martyr’s description of Word and then Sacrament giving us an idea that there is some variation across time and place to the rite. He also contrasts it to ritual meals in the context of the broader culture, what he ends up describing sounds a lot like the Symposiums mentioned by classical figures like Plato and Xenophon. Gatherings which were popular at the time and the structure he describes reflects the liturgy of these events. As an interesting aside we know that the typical size of a Pagan Symposium was around 30 people – this may give us a clue as to the size of a typical Christian gathering during this period.

We see from the above some insight into the conduct of eucharistic practice at the time of Tertullian but what did they believe about the elements and the act itself? We get an idea in his work On The Resurrection of the Flesh wherein he explains the meaning of Jesus’s words in John 6:

He says, it is true, that the flesh profits nothing; John 6:63 but then, as in the former case, the meaning must be regulated by the subject which is spoken of. Now, because they thought His discourse was harsh and intolerable, supposing that He had really and literally enjoined on them to eat his flesh, He, with the view of ordering the state of salvation as a spiritual thing, set out with the principle, It is the spirit that quickens; and then added, The flesh profits nothing,— meaning, of course, to the giving of life. He also goes on to explain what He would have us to understand by spirit: The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life. In a like sense He had previously said: He that hears my words, and believes in Him that sent me, has everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation, but shall pass from death unto life. John 5:24 Constituting, therefore, His word as the life-giving principle, because that word is spirit and life, He likewise called His flesh by the same appellation; because, too, the Word had become flesh, John 1:14 we ought therefore to desire Him in order that we may have life, and to devour Him with the ear, and to ruminate on Him with the understanding, and to digest Him by faith.

Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh. Chapter 37:Christ’s Assertion About the Unprofitableness of the Flesh Explained Consistently with Our Doctrine

This passage is interesting, I think, because when Luther and Zwingli debated the Lord’s Supper, the former is famous for simply asserting again and again ‘this is my body’ but Zwingli is also known to have responded with John 6:63 as a means to understand the supper, so it’s interesting that Tertullian seems to take an approach similar to the latter here. This idea of ‘devouring him with the ear’ however is a theme we will come to see be repeated by later fathers too.

We also see Tertullian echo and affirm the understanding of sacrifice as one of praise mentioned by previous fathers like Irenaeus and Justin Martyr. The sacrifice of ‘prayers and giving of thanks.’ as the latter describes it. In this light the Eucharist can be seen as a focal point of the Christian life in which we are enjoined by Paul to offer ourselves in our entirety as sacrifices to God, just like Christ did:

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

Romans 12:1-2

Tertullian writes on sacrifice:

In short, when the sacerdotal law was being drawn up, through Moses, in Leviticus, we find it prescribed to the people of Israel that sacrifices should in no other place be offered to God than in the land of promise; which the Lord God was about to give to the people Israel and to their brethren, in order that, on Israel’s introduction there, there should there be celebrated sacrifices and holocausts, as well for sins as for souls; and nowhere else but in the holy land. Why, accordingly, does the Spirit afterwards predict, through the prophets, that it should come to pass that in every place and in every land there should be offered sacrifices to God? As He says through the angel Malachi, one of the twelve prophets: I will not receive sacrifice from your hands; for from the rising sun unto the setting my Name has been made famous among all the nations, says the Lord Almighty: and in every place they offer clean sacrifices to my Name. Again, in the Psalms, David says: Bring to God, you countries of the nations — undoubtedly because unto every land the preaching of the apostles had to go outbring to God fame and honour; bring to God the sacrifices of His name: take up victims and enter into His courts. For that it is not by earthly sacrifices, but by spiritual, that offering is to be made to God, we thus read, as it is written, An heart contribulate and humbled is a victim for God; and elsewhere, Sacrifice to God a sacrifice of praise, and render to the Highest your vows. Thus, accordingly, the spiritual sacrifices of praise are pointed to, and an heart contribulate is demonstrated an acceptable sacrifice to God. And thus, as carnal sacrifices are understood to be reprobated — of which Isaiah withal speaks, saying, To what end is the multitude of your sacrifices to me? Says the Lord Isaiah 1:11 — so spiritual sacrifices are predicted as accepted, as the prophets announce. For, even if you shall have brought me, He says, the finest wheat flour, it is a vain supplicatory gift: a thing execrable to me; and again He says, Your holocausts and sacrifices, and the fat of goats, and blood of bulls, I will not, not even if you come to be seen by me: for who has required these things from your hands? for from the rising sun unto the setting, my Name has been made famous among all the nations, says the Lord. But of the spiritual sacrifices He adds, saying, And in every place they offer clean sacrifices to my Name, says the Lord.

Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews. Chapter 5: On Sacrifice

Tertullian here combines passages quoted by previously mentioned fathers, like Justin Martyr who invokes Malachi 1:10-12 and joins it to Isaiah 1:11 raised by Irenaeus, to give us a synthesised view of sacrifice in the early church. Whilst Tertullian doesn’t explicitly link this to the eucharist we can take this definition, with the witnesses of other fathers, to formulate our understanding of what it means to see the thanksgiving meal as a form of sacrifice. A sacrifice of praise, of a ‘heart contribulate and humbled’, defined by Tertullian in contrast to carnal understandings of that term, even going so far as to compare the two understandings of sacrifice as the difference between the offerings of Cain and Abel respectively.


Origen in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew speaks on holiness and how it relates explicitly to communion:

…As nothing is pure to him who is defiled and unbelieving, not in itself, but because of his defilement and unbelief, so that which is sanctified through the word of God and prayer does not, in its own nature, sanctify him who uses it, for, if this were so, it would sanctify even him who eats unworthily of the bread of the Lord, and no one on account of this food would become weak or sickly or asleep for something of this kind Paul represented in saying, For this cause many among you are weak and sickly and not a few sleep. 1 Corinthians 11:30 And in the case of the bread of the Lord, accordingly, there is advantage to him who uses it, when with undefiled mind and pure conscience he partakes of the bread. And so neither by not eating, I mean by the very fact that we do not eat of the bread which has been sanctified by the word of God and prayer, are we deprived of any good thing, nor by eating are we the better by any good thing; for the cause of our lacking is wickedness and sins, and the cause of our abounding is righteousness and right actions; so that such is the meaning of what is said by Paul, For neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we eat not are we the worse. 1 Corinthians 8:8 Now, if everything that enters into the mouth goes into the belly and is cast out into the drought, Matthew 15:17 even the meat which has been sanctified through the word of God and prayer, in accordance with the fact that it is material, goes into the belly and is cast out into the draught, but in respect of the prayer which comes upon it, according to the proportion of the faith, becomes a benefit and is a means of clear vision to the mind which looks to that which is beneficial, and it is not the material of the bread but the word which is said over it which is of advantage to him who eats it not unworthily of the Lord. And these things indeed are said of the typical and symbolic body. But many things might be said about the Word Himself who became flesh, John 1:14 and true meat of which he that eats shall assuredly live forever, no worthless person being able to eat it; for if it were possible for one who continues worthless to eat of Him who became flesh, who was the Word and the living bread, it would not have been written, that every one who eats of this bread shall live forever. John 6:51

Origen, Commentary on Matthew. Book 11.14. Why the Pharisees Were Not a Plant of God. Teaching of Origen on the Bread of the Lord.

He writes that the eucharist does not sanctify the participant ex opere operato even if they consume the elements. If anything it will make the unbelieving and unworthy sick. In Origen we see that the bread and wine remain such and that whether it is good for us, or bad, is down entirely to the degree to which we are in possession of ‘righteousness and right actions’ or mired in ‘wickedness and sins’ when we consume it.

In Origen we see no material change in the elements, as he goes on to describe how they are consumed and passed as all food is, but that it is through faith that we are sanctified by the prayer spoken over the elements which we receive by faith. That only those who are part of the body of Christ, the righteous, can truly receive Christ, by faith, in communion.

He writes elsewhere:

But we are said to drink the blood of Christ not only in the rite of the sacraments, but also when we receive his words, in which are life, as he himself says: “The words that I have spoken are spirit and life: ‘Thus, he himself was wounded, whose blood we drink, that is, we receive the words of his teaching. Moreover, they are no less wounded who have preached his word to us. For when we read their words, that is, the words of his apostles, and when we attain to life from them, we are “drinking the blood of the wounded:” 

Origen, On Numbers. Homily 16: Numbers 23:11-24, Translated by Thomas P. Scheck; edited by Christopther A. Hall. InterVarsity Press 2009

This repeats Tertullian’s language of ‘devouring with the ear’ and shows how Origen has a greatly expansive, sacramental, view of Christ’s word that goes beyond, whilst still encompassing, the eucharistic rite itself. What he’s writing doesn’t just mean acceptance of the words but the ‘receiving’ of them can’t help but draw parallels, to me, to the collect for the second week of Advent from the BCP and the opening statement: ‘Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them’. It means to internalise them, to become a part of us, to have them written on our hearts. In the words of Phillip Schaff:

The Alexandrians are here, as usual, decidedly spiritualistic. Clement twice expressly calls the wine a symbol or an allegory of the blood of Christ, and says, that the communicant receives not the physical, but the spiritual blood, the life, of Christ, as indeed, the blood is the life of the body. Origen distinguishes still more definitely the earthly elements from the heavenly bread of life, and makes it the whole design of the supper to feed the soul with the divine word.

Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume 2, p. 244.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1910

This passage too has some significance for me in the last year given I’ve not been able to take communion with my church being closed for physical gatherings. Origen here gives comfort and assurance that even if I am ‘absent in the body’ from communion I can still be ‘present with the Lord’.


We also see Cyprian rebuke those who show no consideration as to who should receive communion:
Contrary to the vigour of the Gospel, contrary to the law of the Lord and God, by the temerity of some, communion is relaxed to heedless persons — a vain and false peace, dangerous to those who grant it, and likely to avail nothing to those who receive it. They do not seek for the patience necessary to health nor the true medicine derived from atonement. Penitence is driven forth from their breasts, and the memory of their very grave and extreme sin is taken away. The wounds of the dying are covered over, and the deadly blow that is planted in the deep and secret entrails is concealed by a dissimulated suffering. Returning from the altars of the devil, they draw near to the holy place of the Lord, with hands filthy and reeking with smell, still almost breathing of the plague-bearing idol-meats; and even with jaws still exhaling their crime, and reeking with the fatal contact, they intrude on the body of the Lord, although the sacred Scripture stands in their way, and cries, saying, Every one that is clean shall eat of the flesh; and whatever soul eats of the flesh of the saving sacrifice, which is the Lord’s, having his uncleanness upon him, that soul shall be cut off from his people. Leviticus 7:20 Also, the apostle testifies, and says, You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of devils; you cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table and of the table of devils. 1 Corinthians 10:21 He threatens, moreover, the stubborn and Lord unworthily, is guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. 1 Corinthians 11:27

Cyprian of Carthage, On the Lapsed. Section 15

That giving communion to the heedless, sinful, or lapsed is ‘dangerous to those who grant it, and likely to avail nothing to those who receive it’. This is the other side of Clement’s comments about individuals choosing to excuse themselves, Cyprian is admonishing those who are too quick to let anyone who comes forward for communion to receive it.

We also see Cyprian recount his belief, later in the same work, in miraculous interventions surrounding the eucharist which prohibit the unworthy from receiving it. Giving two accounts at length:

Learn what occurred when I myself was present and a witness Some parents who by chance were escaping, being little careful on account of their terror, left a little daughter under the care of a wet-nurse. The nurse gave up the forsaken child to the magistrates. They gave it, in the presence of an idol whither the people flocked (because it was not yet able to eat flesh on account of its years), bread mingled with wine, which however itself was the remainder of what had been used in the immolation of those that had perished. Subsequently the mother recovered her child. But the girl was no more able to speak, or to indicate the crime that had been committed, than she had before been able to understand or to prevent it. Therefore it happened unawares in their ignorance, that when we were sacrificing, the mother brought it in with her. Moreover, the girl mingled with the saints, became impatient of our prayer and supplications, and was at one moment shaken with weeping, and at another tossed about like a wave of the sea by the violent excitement of her mind; as if by the compulsion of a torturer the soul of that still tender child confessed a consciousness of the fact with such signs as it could. When, however, the solemnities were finished, and the deacon began to offer the cup to those present, and when, as the rest received it, its turn approached, the little child, by the instinct of the divine majesty, turned away its face, compressed its mouth with resisting lips, and refused the cup. Still the deacon persisted, and, although against her efforts, forced on her some of the sacrament of the cup. Then there followed a sobbing and vomiting. In a profane body and mouth the Eucharist could not remain; the draught sanctified in the blood of the Lord burst forth from the polluted stomach. So great is the Lord’s power, so great is His majesty. The secrets of darkness were disclosed under His light, and not even hidden crimes deceived God’s priest.

This much about an infant, which was not yet of an age to speak of the crime committed by others in respect of herself. But the woman who in advanced life and of more mature age secretly crept in among us when we were sacrificing, received not food, but a sword for herself; and as if taking some deadly poison into her jaws and body, began presently to be tortured, and to become stiffened with frenzy; and suffering the misery no longer of persecution, but of her crime, shivering and trembling, she fell down. The crime of her dissimulated conscience was not long unpunished or concealed. She who had deceived man, felt that God was taking vengeance. And another woman, when she tried with unworthy hands to open her box, in which was the holy (body) of the Lord, was deterred by fire rising from it from daring to touch it. And when one, who himself was defiled, dared with the rest to receive secretly a part of the sacrifice celebrated by the priest; he could not eat nor handle the holy of the Lord, but found in his hands when opened that he had a cinder. Thus by the experience of one it was shown that the Lord withdraws when He is denied; nor does that which is received benefit the undeserving for salvation, since saving grace is changed by the departure of the sanctity into a cinder.

Cyprian of Carthage, On the Lapsed. Section 25-26

There are a lot of things going on in this section – the first is that Cyprian clearly has a much more material view of the elements compared to someone like Origen. To him Christ doesn’t just become bread but bread can also be said to have become Christ. 

We also see the language of sacrificing, as something done by Christian priests, presented in distinction to the sacrifices offered to pagan idols in a way that seems qualitatively different to how Justin Martin, Irenaeus, or Tertullian describe it as something done by the recipient.

The elements themselves are described in such a way as to almost exercise independent agency, in the first instance ‘bursting forth’ from a polluted stomach, in the second torturing a woman, in a third prohibited its consumption by fire issuing from it, in a fourth by burning to a cinder before he could eat it. The belief that the unworthy cannot partake of the Lord’s Supper, articulated by others before now, takes on a new visceral and carnal expression in Cyprian’s writing. Not only can the unworthy not partake, the sacrament itself can act to prohibit its consumption by the unworthy.

There is also a mention of a woman receiving the Eucharist in a box. Andrew McGowan helpfully gives us some context on this whilst highlighting the continued shift from evening banquet to the pared down morning rite that we first saw in Tertullian’s writings:

By Cyprian’s time half a century later, however, the significance of evening banquets for the whole church had declined, perhaps because it was just not possible for the now-larger Christian community at Carthage to gather as one (granted that both in his time and in Tertullian’s there were tensions and rivalries that may have led to separate gatherings anyway). Instead, the morning distribution of the Eucharist was the primary meeting. At those more specifically sacramental events, the quantity of food offered was not sufficient to be considered a meal, but involved small amounts that could be reverently carried in a bag or box around the believer’s neck. This also reminds us that despite the emergence of more public forms of Christian ritual, the personal and domestic context was of great importance, and devotional practices centered there have their own, somewhat neglected, history. The changes of these centuries do not constitute so much a move from private to public as the addition of a more public dimension to communal practice.

Andrew B. McGowan. Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspectives. Chapter 2: Meal. From Eucharist to Agape, From Banquet to Sacrament. p49-50

Yet despite Cyprian’s views on the Eucharist there still is no apparent change in the material state of the elements in his theology:

Nor is there need of very many arguments, dearest brother, to prove that baptism is always indicated by the appellation of water, and that thus we ought to understand it, since the Lord, when He came, manifested the truth of baptism and the cup in commanding that that faithful water, the water of life eternal, should be given to believers in baptism, but, teaching by the example of His own authority, that the cup should be mingled with a union of wine and water. For, taking the cup on the eve of His passion, He blessed it, and gave it to His disciples, saying, Drink all of this; for this is my blood of the New Testament, which shall be shed for many, for the remission of sins. I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day in which I shall drink new wine with you in the kingdom of my Father. Matthew 26:28-29 In which portion we find that the cup which the Lord offered was mixed, and that that was wine which He called His blood. Whence it appears that the blood of Christ is not offered if there be no wine in the cup, nor the Lord’s sacrifice celebrated with a legitimate consecration unless our oblation and sacrifice respond to His passion. But how shall we drink the new wine of the fruit of the vine with Christ in the kingdom of His Father, if in the sacrifice of God the Father and of Christ we do not offer wine, nor mix the cup of the Lord by the Lord’s own tradition?

Cyprian of Carthage, To Caecilius, on the Sacrament of the Cup of the Lord

Cyprian is insistent that wine, mixed with water, is necessary for communion to be valid. However, part of this is the insistence that what is in the cup is wine. Something which precludes the idea that the wine is changed into something else. Which is interesting in that Cyprian in the above passages clearly sees the bread being for all intents and purposes Christ’s actual body (‘when she tried with unworthy hands to open her box, in which was the holy (body) of the Lord’). So how do we reconcile this difference? The Reformer Thomas Cranmer wrote on this:

In these words of St. Cyprian appeareth most manifestly, that in this sacrament is not only offered very wine that is made of grapes that come of the vine, but also that we drink the same. And yet the same giveth us to understand, that if we drink that wine worthily, we drink also spiritually the very blood of Christ which was shed for our sins. 

The True and Catholic Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Book 2: The Second Book Is Against the Error of Transubstantiation. Chapter 5

So the elements are unchanged but are spiritually considered to be the very body and blood of Christ. This seems to be supported by Cyprian’s own words:

For when the Lord calls bread, which is combined by the union of many grains, His body, He indicates our people whom He bore as being united; and when He calls the wine, which is pressed from many grapes and clusters and collected together, His blood, He also signifies our flock linked together by the mingling of a united multitude.

Cyprian. Epistle 75.5: To Magnus, on Baptizing the Novatians, and Those Who Obtain Grace on a Sick-Bed.

In closing Cyprian, like Irenaeus, can arguably be said, in the words of Everett Ferguson, to hold to a ‘realist terminology but not the realist thought. There is no conversion of the elements’. I think it’s worth saying, however, that no father can really be said to hold to a ‘non-realist’ terminology of the sacraments but that a distinction can be said to exist between the material elements and the non-material reality they participated in.


With regard to Ussher’s quote mentioned from the outset I think history does favour the good bishop. The father’s believed Christ became bread, but we don’t see much that argued that bread became Christ. There is the belief that whilst the bread and wine were no longer common bread and wine but that they still remained bread and wine of a type. Parallels are invoked comparing Christ’s body and the bread, like that of Tertullian or Ignatius, against gnostic heresies which would lose their force if the bread was only bread in appearance (A figure, however, there could not have been, unless there were first a veritable body – Tertullian). If the bread only appeared to be bread but had actually become something else whilst retaining only the external trappings of the former this would seem to favour the position of the Docetist who believed Christ only appeared human and denied the incarnation.

From the earliest centuries the Christian church understood the Lord’s Supper, the thanksgiving (eucharist), as a form of offering to God. Yet any discussion of sacrifice, whilst used, frequently went in hand with mention of passages like Malachi 1:11 which reads:

For from the rising of the sun, even to its going down,

My name shall be great among the Gentiles;

In every place incense shall be offered to My name,

And a pure offering;

For My name shall be great among the nations,”

Says the Lord of hosts.

Malachi 1:11

Everett Ferguson explains:

The most popular text concerning the eucharist was Malachi 1:11, indicating that Christians offered the pure sacrifice desired by God. In contrast to the bloody sacrifices of paganism and the Jewish temple, sacrificial language moved from the prayers of thanksgiving as a spiritual service (Justin Martyr), to the elements as first fruits of the earth (Irenaeus), and then to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross that was commemorated by the bread and wine (Cyprian).

Everett Ferguson, Church History, Volume One: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context

Andrew McGowan writes similarly:

The Eucharist was proudly depicted by its Christian participants as a peaceable act, morally and religiously superior to the violent rituals of their pagan neighbors; and yet it was increasingly for them also a sacrifice par excellence, a sharing in flesh and blood not merely animal but human, or even divine. Christians could reject sacrificial imagery and ideas in relation to gentile religion and idolatry but still see their meal as fulfillment of the offerings once made at the Jerusalem temple.

Andrew McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective. Chapter 2: Meal, Sacrifice p.53

Although seeing the sacrifice of the early church not as an act in opposition to the Jewish temple rites but the fulfilment of them. Which I’d agree with through the lens of Hebrews 10:

Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.

Hebrews 10:19-25

This understanding of the Lord’s Supper was as an act of thanksgiving in which we draw near and partake of God. Something intimately connected and expressive of the all encompassing worship of the Church through everything it did:

When He had repudiated holocausts, and sacrifices, and oblations, as likewise the new moons, and the sabbaths, and the festivals, and all the rest of the services accompanying these, He continues, exhorting them to what pertained to salvation: Wash you, make you clean, take away wickedness from your hearts from before my eyes: cease from your evil ways, learn to do well, seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow; and come, let us reason together, says the Lord.

Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies, Book 4. Chapter 17.1: Proof that God did not appoint the Levitical dispensation for His own sake, or as requiring such service; for He does, in fact, need nothing from men.

There is also a shift we see in eucharistic practice that emerges. What starts with the evening agape meal is added to by a morning rite just consisting of the bread and wine. In time we see the agape fall away and a focus on the eucharist as a distinct rite emerges. Something which went in hand with the increasing scale of the church and the rising prominence of the president or bishop. McGowan writes:

Whatever the exact process, the result is clear. By 200 in some places and certainly by 300, these new eucharistic celebrations had many of the characteristics they would for centuries to come. Whereas the evening banquet had involved a meal followed by or interspersed with various forms of speech, music, or conversation, the morning sacramental assemblies had something like the reverse shape foreshadowed in Justin’s Syro-Roman community: readings from Scripture, teaching, and prayer all preceded the reception of the sacred food.

Andrew McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective. Chapter 2: Meal, From Banquet to Sacrament. p. 51

The reverse shape is the difference between communion being received first (as Tertullian describes in Chapter 39 of his Apology) to last (as Justin describes in his First Apology. Chapter 67) with both having precedent but the latter becoming normative. There’s also a change, I think, with this from the gatherings being hosted at the home of wealthy patrons (think of Lydia in the book of Philippians) to the morning eucharist being hosted at the home of the bishop or dedicated church buildings (like the Dura-Europos House Church from the 3rd century). A shift not just from banquet to sacrament but from Symposium to Salutatio.

So by the end of the third century I think we can say that communion, the eucharist, had the appearance and shape that would be recognisable to most of us, to some degree. So in the next entry we’ll look at what figures like Augustine, Chrysostom et al, the fathers of the 4th and 5th, have to say on the subject of the eucharist. 

There’s a lot of material to go through and I originally planned to do it all in one entry but the sheer length necessitates us taking a break before going through the next entry.

2 thoughts on “The Lord’s Supper. Part Two: The Early Church, 1st-3rd Century

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