I previously wrote on the summary of Christian views on the Lord’s Supper dating from the 1st to the 3rd century. I couched this from the outset with the choice offered by the Anglican prelate James Ussher to consider whether the fathers not only taught that bread becomes Christ to us or that we might go further and ask whether Christ himself becomes bread.

My conclusion from this period noted that whilst the rite changed in some key ways, both in manner and mode, Ussher’s rejection of the latter belief (that Christ himself becomes bread) did have good historical precedent amongst the fathers.

We also saw how the fathers unpacked the doctrine of the thanksgiving sacrifice, drawing of passages like Malachi 1:10-12, to teach us that the Lord’s Supper itself is a capstone on a Christian life of worship that is offered in its entirety as an individual, but more importantly corporate, sacrifice by the Church. A corporate sacrifice that by the close of the 3rd century had a shape and structure that we’d still, fundamentally, recognise today in most of our liturgies.

What proceeds from this is an attempt to survey and summarise the views of various fathers from the 4th and 5th centuries.

NB: If you want to skip to the end of this rather long post for the summary you can do so here.

4th Century

Eusebius of Caesarea

One of the earliest commentators in the 4th century on the Lord’s Supper is the father of Church history Eusebius:

The words, “His eyes are cheerful from wine, and his teeth white as milk,” again I think secretly reveal the mysteries of the new Covenant of our Saviour. “His eyes are cheerful from wine,” seems to me to shew the gladness of the mystic wine which He gave to His disciples, when He said, “Take, drink; this is my blood that is shed for you for the remission of sins: this do in remembrance of me.” And, “His teeth are white as milk,” shew the brightness and purity of the sacramental food. For again, He gave Himself the symbols of His divine dispensation to His disciples, when He bade them make the likeness of His own Body. For since He no more was to take pleasure in bloody sacrifices, or those ordained by Moses in the slaughter of animals of various kinds, and was to give them bread to use as the symbol of His Body, He taught the purity and brightness of such food by saying, “And his teeth are white as milk.” This also another prophet has recorded, where he says, “Sacrifice and offering hast thou not required, but a body hast thou prepared for me.”

Eusebius of Caesarea, Demonstration of the Gospel, Book 8, Chapter 1

Here he makes the argument from Jacob’s prophesying over his son Judah (Genesis 49) as being fulfilled in Christ in the Eucharist. That these are fulfilled by the symbolic likeness of the bread and wine to the prophecy in question. He then channels the book of Hebrews 10 by saying the former sacrifices have passed away, fulfilled in Christ, and we are now left with the symbol of his body.

We don’t get much more of this in the Demonstration of the Gospel but it’s clearly building on previously themes we’ve seen established by the likes of Origen, Cyprian and the like. We do, however, get a much more expansive treatment in his Third Book on Ecclesiastical Theology on John 6 which reads:

But you, having taken up the gospel text, see the whole teaching of our Savior [and] how he did not speak about the flesh that he assumed, but about the mystical body and blood. For when he fed the multitudes with the five loaves and provided this great miracle to those who were watching, many Jews, disparaging the deed, said to him, “Then, what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you?” Then they made a comparison with the manna in the desert, saying, “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it has been written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” To these remarks the Savior answered, “Truly, truly I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.” Then he continues, “I am the bread of life,” and again, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,”  and again, “The bread which I shall give is my body.” And again he adds, “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 true food, and my blood is true drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” And when he had recounted all these sorts of things in a more mystical way, certain of his disciples said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”—to which the Savior replied, saying, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending where he was before? It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Through these remarks he taught them to hear in a spiritual sense what had been said about his flesh and blood. For [he says], “Do not think that I am speaking about the flesh, which I bear, [saying] that it is necessary to eat it, nor suppose that I command [you] to drink sensible and corporeal blood, but know well that ‘the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life,’ so that the words themselves and the statements themselves are the flesh and blood; he who partakes of them always, feeding as it were on heavenly bread, will have a share in the life of heaven.” Therefore, he [Christ] says, “Take no offense at what I have said to you about the food of my flesh and the drink of my blood, nor let what I have said about the flesh and blood trouble you when at first you hear it. For these things are ‘of no avail’ when they are heard sensibly, but the Spirit is that which gives life to those who are able to hear spiritually.”

Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical Theology. Book 3. Chapter 12. Kelley Mccarthy Spoerl, and Markus Vinzent. Against Marcellus and on Ecclesiastical Theology. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2017. 

In tone this exposition of the passage is very similar to that of Tertullian, on the same passage, that we went through earlier. It also taps into this vein of thought exposed by Tertullian and Origen of drinking with the ear. We see this particularly when Eusebius says: ‘the words themselves and the statements themselves are the flesh and blood; he who partakes of them always, feeding as it were on heavenly bread, will have a share in the life of heaven.’ Which when reading gave me this picture of people participating in the body and blood of Christ as they stand under the word of God, sacramental hearing.

Basil the Great

Saint Basil also talks about the Eucharist and the nature of it’s reception in a really powerful exegetic homily on Psalm 33. He writes: 

16. The prophet seems to promise something impossible. For, how can the praise of God be always in the mouth of man? When he engages in the ordinary conversations pertaining to daily life, he does not have the praise of God in his mouth. When he sleeps, he will keep absolute silence. And how will the mouth of one who is eating and drinking produce praise? We answer to this that there is a certain spiritual mouth of the interior man by which he is fed when he partakes of the word of life, which is the bread that comes down from heaven.

17. Concerning that mouth the prophet also says: ‘I opened my mouth and panted.’ 

18. The Lord even urges us to have it open wide so as to receive plentifully the food of truth. ‘Open thy mouth wide.’ He says, ‘and I will fill it.’

19. The thought of God, therefore, having been once for all molded and, as it were, sealed in the authoritative part of the soul, can be called praise of God, since it is always present in the soul. Moreover, according to the counsel of the Apostle, the zealous man can do all things for the glory of God, so that every act and every word and every work has in it power of praise. Whether the just man eats or drinks, he does all for the glory of God. 

20. The heart of such a one watches when he is sleeping, according to him who said in the Canticle of Canticles: ‘I sleep, and my heart watcheth.’ 

21. For, on many occasions the visions seen during sleep are images of our thoughts by day. 

Saint Basil: Exegetic Homilies. Homily 16. On Psalm 33. Way, Agnes Clare. Exegetic Homilies (The Fathers of the Church, Volume 46). Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1963.

Basil the Great also gives us an insight into his beliefs concerning the Lord’s Supper. In his homily on Psalm 33 he exposes this idea of dual, heavenly and earthly, participation outlined by figures like Irenaeus or Clement and builds on it with this picture of an exterior consumption of the elements and an interior reception of, and participation in, Christ himself. Basil takes this much further, like Origen, and expands this capacity to every sphere of life when life is conducted for the glory of God. There is a sacramental eating and drinking in all things under God.

Serapion of Thmuis

The next is an anaphora from a Bishop Serapion of Thmuis, a city in Egypt. He says:

10. With them accept also our adoration, for we say: ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of thy glory.’

11.”Heaven is full, the earth is also full of thy sublime glory, O Lord of hosts. Extend thy power upon this sacrifice, and grant thy aid to its fulfillment; for it is to thee that we have offered this living victim, the unbloody sacrifice.

12. To thee have we offered this bread, the likeness of the body of thine only Son. This bread is the image of His holy body; for ‘the Lord Jesus on the night in which He was betrayed, took bread, broke it, and gave it to His disciples and said: Take and eat, this is my body, which shall be broken for you,’ for the remission of sins.

13. Therefore have we, by repeating the figure of His death, offered the bread and pray: By this sacrifice reconcile thyself with us all and have mercy upon us, O God of truth. And as this bread was scattered upon the hills and brought together into one, so do thou unite thy holy Church from every people and every land and every city and every village and house, and build up one living Catholic Church.

14. We have also offered the chalice, the symbol of the blood; for the Lord Jesus, ‘after He had supped, took the cup and said to His disciples: Take, drink, this is the new covenant, which is my blood, which shall be shed for the remission of sins.’ Therefore have we also offered the chalice, because we have consummated the symbol of the blood.

15. “Let thy holy Word (Logos), O God of truth, come down upon this bread, so that the bread may become the body of the Word, and on this chalice, so that the chalice may become the blood of Truth. And grant that all who partake of them, may receive the medicine of life, as a cure for all sickness and as an increase and progress in virtue, not, however, as judgment, O God of truth, nor as punishment and disgrace.

Anaphora of Bishop Serapion of Thmuis. In: Rauschen, Gerhard, Ph.D., S.T.D., Eucharist and Penance: In the First Six Centuries of the Church, B Herder, St. Louis, 1913

There’s a lot to unpack here but in the anaphora of Serapion we also see:

  • In 11. We see the language of a living victim offered up as an unbloody sacrifice.
  • In 12. We see bread and wine described as images of God’s Son the Lord Jesus with reference to Matthew 26:26-28. This is elaborated in parts 13 and 14.
  • In 13. A repetition of the language we see in the Didache about how the composition of the bread represents the bringing together of the Church as the body of the Lord. 
  • In 15. The anaphora petitions God that these elements might be the body of the Word and the blood of Truth – tapping into and repeating this idea of spiritual and sacramental eating and drinking. The idea of the Lord’s Supper as medicine of life echoing the earlier language of Ignatius.

The language of unbloody sacrifice does have a mention in another text, the Apostolic Constitutions, which state:

You, therefore, O bishops, are to your people priests and Levites, ministering to the holy tabernacle, the holy Catholic Church; who stand at the altar of the Lord your God, and offer to Him reasonable and unbloody sacrifices through Jesus the great High Priest. … Those which were then the sacrifices now are prayers, and intercessions, and thanksgivings. Those which were then first-fruits, and tithes, and offerings, and gifts, now are oblations, which are presented by holy bishops to the Lord God, through Jesus Christ, who has died for them. For these are your high priests, as the presbyters are your priests, and your present deacons instead of your Levites; as are also your readers, your singers, your porters, your deaconesses, your widows, your virgins, and your orphans: but He who is above all these is the High Priest.

Apostolic Constitutions, Book 2.25

Sacrifices in this context are prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings. Yet Serapion clearly links it to an individual who we can see is stated to be Christ. Serapion’s usage seems a development from earlier references to sacrifice frequently invoked with allusion to Malachi 1:10-12. We can see an example of an earlier view in Justin Martyr:

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

The Apostolic Constitutions, whilst showing some development, still saw the sacrifice as something originating in the Christian’s faith and how that manifests in one’s conduct whereas Serapion frames it as a repetition of Christ’s sacrifice. The apostolic epistles also talk about sacrifice in the Church repeatedly, and this helps contextualise Serapion’s statements:

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.

Romans 12:1

Indeed I have all and abound. I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things sent from you, a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God.

Philippians 4:18

You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 2:5

Yet Serapion doesn’t use this framing we see in scripture in the above quotes. For the apostles the sacrifice was an offering to God out of their faith and resultant conduct much like the patristic consensus up until this point.

Yet the phrasing of the body and blood as the ‘body of the word’ and the ‘blood of truth’ doesn’t seem a departure from Origen’s earlier receptionist language:

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.

The shift in the meaning of the sacrifice, however, is significant and points to the direction that this vein of Eucharist thought would go on to take in the Middle Ages.

Cyril of Jerusalem

Cyril of Jerusalem, in his Catechetical Lectures, describes the Lord’s Supper in terms equivalent to food sacrificed to idols in that with both we see a change. Both becoming sacred or profane respectively:

7. Moreover, the things which are hung up at idol festivals , either meat or bread, or other such things polluted by the invocation of the unclean spirits, are reckoned in the pomp of the devil. For as the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist before the invocation of the Holy and Adorable Trinity were simple bread and wine, while after the invocation the Bread becomes the Body of Christ, and the Wine the Blood of Christ , so in like manner such meats belonging to the pomp of Satan, though in their own nature simple, become profane by the invocation of the evil spirit.

Cyril of Jerusalem. Catechetical Lectures. Catechetical Lecture 19.7

Clearly channeling Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:14:22. 

For context, in a later lecture he elaborates on his eucharistic beliefs more fully:

1. Even of itself the teaching of the Blessed Paul is sufficient to give you a full assurance concerning those Divine Mysteries, of which having been deemed worthy, you have become of the same body and blood with Christ. For you have just heard him say distinctly, That our Lord Jesus Christ in the night in which He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks He broke it, and gave to His disciples, saying, Take, eat, this is My Body: and having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, Take, drink, this is My Blood. Since then He Himself declared and said of the Bread, This is My Body, who shall dare to doubt any longer? And since He has Himself affirmed and said, This is My Blood, who shall ever hesitate, saying, that it is not His blood?

2. He once in Cana of Galilee, turned the water into wine, akin to blood , and is it incredible that He should have turned wine into blood? When called to a bodily marriage, He miraculously wrought that wonderful work; and on the children of the bride-chamber Matthew 9:15, shall He not much rather be acknowledged to have bestowed the fruition of His Body and Blood ?

3. Wherefore with full assurance let us partake as of the Body and Blood of Christ: for in the figure of Bread is given to you His Body, and in the figure of Wine His Blood; that you by partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, may be made of the same body and the same blood with Him. For thus we come to bear Christ in us, because His Body and Blood are distributed through our members; thus it is that, according to the blessed Peter, we become partakers of the divine nature 2 Peter 1:4.

Cyril of Jerusalem. Catechetical Lectures. Catechetical Lecture 22.1-3

Cyril builds out the themes in a passage like 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 and reiterates the use of ‘figure’ we first saw used by Tertullian. Yet unlike Tertullian wherein the earlier writer describes the bread and wine as a figure of Christ’s body and blood Cyril describes the body and blood as a figure of bread and wine. Is this a semantic distinction without a difference? Tertullian wrote against Marcion:

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.

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.

Tertullian upholds that the figure necessarily points to a reality. The reality of the incarnation. That necessitates a distinction maintained between the figure and the reality it denotes, the latter does not supplant the former. Can the same be said for Cyril? It’s debatable I think, by using the language of figure is he describing the accidents when the elements themselves are changed? Is this transubstantiation? The theological and ecclesiastical historian Philip Schaff writes on this:

In this view the Bread and Wine are signs or figures of the natural Body of Christ crucified, but they are also much more, they are endued by the Divine Word, and through the operation of the Holy Ghost, with the life-giving power of the same Body and Blood of Christ,—a power which being imparted to the faithful recipient makes him to be “of the same body and the same blood with Christ,” thereby assuring him of the resurrection of the body to eternal life, and at the same time strengthening and refreshing the soul by its being united through faith with the Word, and being thus made “partaker of the Divine nature.”

Philip Schaff, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Second Series Translated Into English With Prolegomena and Explanatory Notes. Volumes I–VII. The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem  Chapter VII: Eucharist Doctrine

According to Schaff after consecration the bread and wine are not to be treated as such, they have become something more, but it also hasn’t ceased to be. Through them the true partaker experiences union with Christ, and union with the Church which is Christ’s body. In this the recipient takes heart, through the working of the Holy Spirit, and is strengthened in their faith.

John Chrysostom

Chrysostom also wrote on the subject and we also have a liturgy attributed to him to consider. Let’s start with an example of his writing on the topic:

The bread which we break, is it not a communion of the Body of Christ? Wherefore said he not, the participation? Because he intended to express something more and to point out how close was the union: in that we communicate not only by participating and partaking, but also by being united. For as that body is united to Christ, so also are we united to him by this bread.

But why adds he also, which we break? For although in the Eucharist one may see this done, yet on the cross not so, but the very contrary. For, A bone of Him, says one, shall not be broken. But that which He suffered not on the cross, this He suffers in the oblation for your sake, and submits to be broken, that he may fill all men.

Further, because he said, a communion of the Body, and that which communicates is another thing from that whereof it communicates; even this which seems to be but a small difference, he took away. For having said, a communion of the Body, he sought again to express something nearer.

John Chrysostom, Homilies on First Corinthians, Homily 24.4

Chrysostom in this passage from his homilies on First Corinthians reiterates the idea that not only are joined to Christ in communion, but we are also joined to one another by consuming one bread. Chrysostom stresses this is what is meant by the ‘communion of the body’ in 1 Corinthians 10:16 – it is not just communion of an abstract sort, of assent, but of union in Christ and through Christ.

In the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, claimed to be written by Chrysostom himself, we also see a return to the language of sacrifice, but this is different to that of Serapion’s usage and more in keeping with earlier precedent:

Lord God Almighty, You alone are holy. You accept the sacrifice of praise from those who call upon You with their whole heart, even so, accept from us sinners our supplication, and bring it to Your holy Altar of sacrifice. Enable us to offer You gifts and spiritual sacrifices for our own sins and the failings of Your people. Deem us worthy to find grace in Your sight, that our sacrifice may be well pleasing to You, and that the good Spirit of Your grace may rest upon us and upon these gifts presented and upon all Your people.

The Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, The Offertory Prayer

Sacrifice here is the sacrifice of praise as opposed to the re-presenting of Christ, the living victim, and his sacrifice on the cross before God the father.

There is also another quotation, attributed to Chrysostom, although despite that authorships being considered debatable is nonetheless also argued to represent the view of the period in which he lived. Long known as Chrysostom’s Epistle to Caesarius the Monk it reads:

Christ is both God and man; God, in that he is impassible; man, for that he suffered, yet but one Son, one Lord; he is the same without doubt having one dominion, one power of two united natures. Not that these natures are consubstantial, forasmuch as either of them does without confusion retain its own properties, and being two are yet inconfused in him. For as [in the eucharist] before the bread is consecrated, we call it bread, but when the grace of God by the Spirit has consecrated it, it is no longer called bread, but is esteemed worthy to be called the Lord’s body, although the nature of bread still remains in it; and we do not say there be two bodies, but one body of the Son; so here, the divine nature being joined with the [human] body, they both together make up but one Son, one person. But yet they must be confessed to remain without confusion after an indivisible manner, not in one nature, but in two perfect natures.

John Chrysostom, Epistle to Caesarius the Monk

Which gives us context on prior statements like those of Cyril of Jerusalem, in that the bread and wine become something more but nothing less than what they were before the consecration. 

This quote, however, didn’t enter the public sphere until 1548 whereby it was first raised by the Italian Reformer and former Abbott Peter Martyr Vermigli. Denounced as a forgery by critics it wasn’t until it was independently discovered again, in 1680, that people began to consider it seriously. Regarding it’s true authorship one commentator writes:

A footnote in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers collection puts it succinctly, “whoever the writer may have been, he is clearly representing the current orthodox belief of the Church in his day” (NPNF, vol. 9, pg. 46). To this, however, it is important to add the fact that many important early writers did indeed accept this letter as authentic to Chrysostom, including John of Damascus, Anastasius Sinaita, and Nicephoros I. Thus the mistake, if it was indeed a mistake, happened relatively early and obtained a solid pedigree in the church.

This consensus is still relatively tentative, and it seems that scholars all point back to a very limited selection of sources. Two of the more engaging and accessible examples are those of W. R. W. Stephens and Edmund Venables. Recently the late professor David Wright wrote rather confidently on the matter, though McLelland, whom he cites as an authority, appears more cautious.

Steven Wedgeworth, The Tale of John Chrysostom’s Letter to Caesarius: Eucharist, Dogma, Textual Criticism, and Propaganda

Even if the text does date later than Chrysostom the contents itself can be said to represent an uncontroversial view on the eucharist for that period in the life of the church.

Macarius of Egypt

The coptic Christian hermit, Macarius of Egypt, also spoke on the Eucharist during his 50 spiritual homilies given during his life in the 4th century:

A man who is possessed of much substance, and has both servants and children, gives a different kind of food to the servants from what he gives to his own born children, because the children are their father’s heirs, and eat with him, being made like to their father. Even so Christ, the true Master of the house, who created all things Himself, nourishes the evil and the unthankful, but the children whom He has begotten of His own substance, to whom He has imparted of His grace, in whom the Lord is formed, these He provides beyond others with special refreshment and diet and meat and drink. Going up and down with Jesus their Father, they receive the gift of Himself, as the Lord says, He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood dwelleth in Me, and I in him, and he shall not see death. Those who possess the true inheritance have been begotten as sons of a heavenly Father, and pass their time in their Father’s house, as the Lord says, The servant abideth not in the house, but the son abideth for ever.

Macarius, 50 Spiritual Homilies of Macarius the Egyptian, Homily 13.2

He comments that just as a servant is given different food to a son so his children eat other food than the unthankful. Macarius, unsurprisingly, sounds much like Origen in his writing on this topic who argued that only the faithful partake of the Lord’s body. That otherwise: ‘it would sanctify even him who eats unworthily of the bread of the Lord’ and we see a repetition of this idea in Macarius’s thinking. That as we eat the food offered by our Father, offered due to our relation to him, we become more like him. We reaffirm and become sons through partaking of him, we bear his image becoming a new humanity through this grace given to us. 

Both Macarius and Origen believe that those who partake will not see death, and so only the righteous could consume what is offered by Christ. This language of ascent and descent (Going up and down with Jesus their Father, they receive the gift of Himself) also reiterates this idea we see in Clement of the ‘celestial banquet’. That in participating in Christ through the Lord’s Supper we are somehow taken up into his presence and experience a union with him and, logically, with all others who do the same.

Ambrose of Milan

Augustine of Hippo’s mentor, Ambrose of Milan, also wrote on the Eucharist:

The Lord Jesus Himself proclaims: This is My Body. Matthew 26:26 Before the blessing of the heavenly words another nature is spoken of, after the consecration the Body is signified. He Himself speaks of His Blood. Before the consecration it has another name, after it is called Blood. And you say, Amen, that is, It is true. Let the heart within confess what the mouth utters, let the soul feel what the voice speaks.

Christ, then, feeds His Church with these sacraments, by means of which the substance of the soul is strengthened, and seeing the continual progress of her grace, He rightly says to her: How comely are your breasts, my sister, my spouse, how comely they are made by wine, and the smell of your garments is above all spices. A dropping honeycomb are your lips, my spouse, honey and milk are under your tongue, and the smell of your garments is as the smell of Lebanon. A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse, a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed. By which He signifies that the mystery ought to remain sealed up with you, that it be not violated by the deeds of an evil life, and pollution of chastity, that it be not made known to thou, for whom it is not fitting, nor by garrulous talkativeness it be spread abroad among unbelievers. Your guardianship of the faith ought therefore to be good, that integrity of life and silence may endure unblemished.

The Church, beholding so great grace, exhorts her sons and her friends to come together to the sacraments, saying: Eat, my friends, and drink and be inebriated, my brother. Song of Songs 5:1 What we eat and what we drink the Holy Spirit has elsewhere made plain by the prophet, saying, Taste and see that the Lord is good, blessed is the man that hopes in Him. In that sacrament is Christ, because it is the Body of Christ, it is therefore not bodily food but spiritual. Whence the Apostle says of its type: Our fathers ate spiritual food and drank spiritual drink, 1 Corinthians 10:3 for the Body of God is a spiritual body; the Body of Christ is the Body of the Divine Spirit, for the Spirit is Christ, as we read: The Spirit before our face is Christ the Lord. Lamentations 4:20 And in the Epistle of Peter we read: Christ died for us. 1 Peter 2:21

Ambrose, On the Mysteries

By invoking the typological associations in the Song of Solomon to that of Christ and the Church Ambrose also underscores the union of Christ, the head and groom, to that of the Church, the body and bride through the Lord’s Supper. His petition for people to keep the ‘guardianship of the faith’ when coming to the table of the Lord again channelling Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22:

Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to wise men; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.

Observe Israel after the flesh: Are not those who eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar? What am I saying then? That an idol is anything, or what is offered to idols is anything? Rather, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord’s table and of the table of demons. Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than He?

1 Corinthians 10:14-22

When writing on the sacrament Ambrose also reiterates this language of ‘type’ mentioned in the context of other writers. He reiterates Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 10:3 showing that Israel partook of this food and drink in the exodus. The food in question being not something carnal but spiritual. The spiritual food, spiritual medicine, being received when the bodily food is consumed by the faithful. 

I particularly like this passage at the start of the above quotation from Ambrose: ‘Before the consecration it has another name, after it is called Blood. And you say, Amen, that is, It is true. Let the heart within confess what the mouth utters, let the soul feel what the voice speaks.’ which I think prepares us for what he goes on to say. It also reminds me of the writings of his prodigy, Augustine, on the subject which we’ll come to shortly.

Gregory of Nyssa

Gregory of Nyssa writing a little later also discusses the sacraments in his Great Catechism, writes:

The Eucharist unites the body, as Baptism the soul, to God. Our bodies, having received poison, need an Antidote; and only by eating and drinking can it enter. One Body, the receptacle of Deity, is this Antidote, thus received. But how can it enter whole into each one of the Faithful? This needs an illustration. Water gives its own body to a skin-bottle. So nourishment (bread and wine) by becoming flesh and blood gives bulk to the human frame: the nourishment is the body. Just as in the case of other men, our Saviour’s nourishment (bread and wine) was His Body; but these, nourishment and Body, were in Him changed into the Body of God by the Word indwelling. So now repeatedly the bread and wine, sanctified by the Word (the sacred Benediction), is at the same time changed into the Body of that Word; and this Flesh is disseminated among all the Faithful.

The Great Catechism.The Sacraments. Chapter 37

For Gregory the Eucharist is what draws together the body, of the believer and the church corporately, to God. This echoes the language of the Didache comparing the grains of wheat being gathered together into one loaf or the wine being produced out of many grapes. 

His illustration: that through consumption we are filled and changed, as a water skin expands to contain what is poured into it implies that this is how we find our intended ends (to be filled and partake of the grace and goodness of God). Gregory compares this to the fact that the bread and wine Christ ate were changed by his consumption of them, the food became part of him. That his same nature, his same power, now changes the bread and wine which we subsequently partake in. As that bread and wine is now ‘in Christ’ so are we by our faithful reception of it.

Gregory’s views on the nature of the Eucharist are also, arguably, no different from Irenaeus’s belief that the Eucharist consisted of ‘two realities’ (Against Heresies, Book 4. Chapter 18.5) and reflects a ‘hypostatic’ understanding of communion being ‘perfectly’ the body and blood of Christ and ‘perfectly’ bread and wine. Maintaining two complete and distinct natures at once. That despite Gregory of Nyssa living and dying before the council of Chalcedon his Eucharistic views place him inline with it’s Christological proclamations.


I struggled to find much on Jerome on the Eucharist but when commenting on the Psalms we see him conflate Scripture and the Eucharist. That the things that can be said about the reading of scripture can be said about consumption of the Lord’s Supper: 

“For me, the Gospel is the Body of Christ; for me, the holy Scriptures are his teaching. And when he says: whoever does not eat my flesh and drink my blood (Jn 6:53), even though these words can also be understood of the [Eucharistic] Mystery, Christ’s body and blood are really the word of Scripture, God’s teaching. When we approach the [Eucharistic] Mystery, if a crumb falls to the ground we are troubled. Yet when we are listening to the word of God, and God’s Word and Christ’s flesh and blood are being poured into our ears yet we pay no heed, what great peril should we not feel?.”

Sister Marie Liguori Ewald. “Homily 57: on Psalm 147 (147b).” In The Homilies of Saint Jerome, Volume 1 (1–59 on the Psalms) (The Fathers of the Church, Volume 48), 408-15. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1964.

That language of ‘when we are listening to the word of God, and God’s Word and Christ’s flesh and blood are being poured into our ears’ I find really evocative. Jerome here also challenges the idea that scripture and sacrament are somehow distinct things but are intimately related. One should confirm the other with both drawing us closer to God.

The Apostolic Tradition

The final work I will look at in the 4th century is the Apostolic Tradition. The dating for this work is debated, and whilst attributed to Hippolytus of Rome (3rd century) it’s authorship is contested. Yet it described a liturgy and eucharistic blessing in which it states:

4. When he has been made bishop, everyone shall give him the kiss of peace, and salute him respectfully, for he has been made worthy of this. Then the deacons shall present the oblation to him, and he shall lay his hand upon it, and give thanks, with the entire council of elders, saying:

The Lord be with you.

And all reply:

And with your spirit.

The bishop says:

Lift up your hearts.

The people respond:

We have them with the Lord.

The bishop says:

Let us give thanks to the Lord.

The people respond:

It is proper and just.

The bishop then continues:

We give thanks to you God,

through your beloved son Jesus Christ,

whom you sent to us in former times

as Savior, Redeemer, and Messenger of your Will,

who is your inseparable Word,

through whom you made all,

and in whom you were well-pleased,

whom you sent from heaven into the womb of a virgin,

who, being conceived within her, was made flesh,

and appeared as your Son,

born of the Holy Spirit and the virgin.

It is he who, fulfilling your will

and acquiring for you a holy people,

extended his hands in suffering,

in order to liberate from sufferings

those who believe in you.

Who, when he was delivered to voluntary suffering,

in order to dissolve death,

and break the chains of the devil,

and tread down hell,

and bring the just to the light,

and set the limit,

and manifest the resurrection,

taking the bread, and giving thanks to you, said,

“Take, eat, for this is my body which is broken for you.”

Likewise the chalice, saying,

This is my blood which is shed for you.

Whenever you do this, do this (in) memory of me.

Therefore, remembering his death and resurrection,

we offer to you the bread and the chalice,

giving thanks to you, who has made us worthy

to stand before you and to serve as your priests.

And we pray that you would send your Holy Spirit

to the oblation of your Holy Church.

In their gathering together,

give to all those who partake of your holy mysteries the fullness of the Holy Spirit,

toward the strengthening of the faith in truth,

that we may praise you and glorify you,

through your son Jesus Christ,

through whom to you be glory and honor,

Father and Son,

with the Holy Spirit,

in your Holy Church,

now and throughout the ages of the ages.


5. If someone makes an offering of oil, the bishop shall give thanks in the same manner as for the oblation of the bread and wine. He does not give thanks with the same words, but quite similar, saying, “Sanctify this oil, God, as you give holiness to all who are anointed and receive it, as you anointed kings, priests, and prophets, so that it may give strength to all who taste it, and health to all who use it.”

6. Likewise, if someone makes an offering of cheese and olives, the bishop shall say, 

“Sanctify this brought-together milk, just as you also bring us together in your love. Let this fruit not leave your sweetness, this olive which is a symbol of your abundance, which you made to flow from the tree, for life to those who hope in you.”

In every blessing should be said:

To you be glory,

Father and Son

with the Holy Spirit,

in your Holy Church,

now and forever,

and throughout all the ages of the ages.


The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus. Part 4-6: Election of a Bishop

A lot of what is said here is very familiar to me and sounds a lot like what I hear on a Sunday. The rite itself really emphasising the ‘thanksgiving’ aspect of the Eucharist. Yet the key difference is the introduction of additional foodstuffs. We also see this in the administration of communion to the newly baptised:

The bishop shall bless the bread, which is the symbol of the Body of Christ; and the bowl of mixed wine, which is the symbol of the Blood which has been shed for all who believe in him; and the milk and honey mixed together, in fulfillment of the promise made to the fathers, in which he said, “a land flowing with milk and honey,” which Christ indeed gave, his Flesh, through which those who believe are nourished like little children, by the sweetness of his Word, softening the bitter heart; and water also for an oblation, as a sign of the baptism, so that the inner person, which is psychic, may also receive the same as the body. The bishop shall give an explanation of all these things to those who are receiving.

Breaking the bread, distributing a piece to each, he shall say,

“The Bread of Heaven in Jesus Christ.”

And the one who receives shall answer,


The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus. Part 21: Of Baptism

In this we see oil, cheese, olives, milk, honey being an addition to the bread and wine. Similar examples of this, particularly of milk and honey, can be found in Tertullian’s writings: 

“Hereupon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel. Then when we are taken up (as new-born children), we taste first of all a mixture of milk and honey.”

Tertullian, Of the Soldier’s Crown. Chapter 3

And Clement talks at length about the semiotic significance of milk in relation to the God’s body and blood:

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? Who washes, it is said, His garment in wine, His robe in the blood of the grape. Genesis 49:11 In His own Spirit He says He will deck the body of the Word; as certainly by His own Spirit He will nourish those who hunger for the Word.

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

Jerome also talks about the use of additional foodstuffs:

For many other observances of the Churches, which are due to tradition, have acquired the authority of the written law, as for instance the practice of dipping the head three times in the laver, and then, after leaving the water, of tasting mingled milk and honey in representation of infancy.

Jerome, The Dialogue Against the Luciferians

Based on these prior outlines of how other foodstuffs are described the use of additional foodstuffs can be seen as an elaboration on the core rite. Particularly with milk and honey being associated with first communion after baptism. Marking the entrance of the believer into a ‘land flowing with milk and honey’.

Where such practices emerge from it’s not known but convention, or precedent, in Jerome’s words gave such things the authority of written law. Such practices are easier to imagine in a setting where the agape meal, something we previously compared to greco-roman symposiums (with help from Tertullian), was commonplace. That these offerings or additions were the vestigial remains of a much broader communal meal that endured long after the rite ceased to resemble the symposium and instead something like the morning salutatio. Yet the trajectory towards a paired down offering continued with eventually everything but the bread and wine being dropped eventually.

This concludes a brief survey of writing from the 4th century on the topic. We’ll now briefly cover some commentary from the 5th century. Namely from Augustine of Hippo and Theodoret of Cyprus.

5th Century

Augustine of Hippo

Augustine wrote a fair bit on the Eucharist but perhaps the most useful place to start is looking at what he said regarding a passage like John 6:53. There’s a particular passage in his work ‘On Christian Doctrine’ that really sets the scene for this and is mentioned in the context of how to interpret particular passages of scripture:

If the sentence is one of command, either forbidding a crime or vice, or enjoining an act of prudence or benevolence, it is not figurative. If, however, it seems to enjoin a crime or vice, or to forbid an act of prudence or benevolence, it is figurative. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man,” says Christ, “and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” John 6:53 This seems to enjoin a crime or a vice; it is therefore a figure, enjoining that we should have a share [communicandem] in the sufferings of our Lord, and that we should retain a sweet and profitable memory [in memoria] of the fact that His flesh was wounded and crucified for us. 

Augustine of Hippo. On Christian Doctrine. Book 3. Chapter 16: Rule for Interpreting Commands and Prohibitions

Augustine here presents John 6:53 as: 

  • A figural or symbolic consumption of our Lord’s body and blood.
  • A participation in the sufferings of our Lord.
  • A means to be reminded and reflect on his sufferings for our sake.

When Augustine calls the Eucharist a figure he is repeating the language of Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian covered in the last entry. The latter doing so in a number of ways but specifically as a polemical tool against the Gnosticism of Marcion. Tertullian argues that the figural representation of the bread is a signifier pointing to that which it signified, his genuine humanity and the sufferings born within it. Drawing a distinction between the signified and the signifier in the way only he could by saying: It would contribute very well to the support of Marcion’s theory of a phantom body, that bread should have been crucified! (Contra Marcion. Book 4.40). In this sense a collapse between the signified and the signifier, the sacramentum (sign) and res (thing), would undermine the reality of the latter. The relation between the two is maintained by a distinction between. Both are needed to create the sign, and both can be said to still exist provided the distinction is maintained.

He elaborates on this in the next book of the work with an extensive quote from Cyprian of Carthage on the significance of mixed wine in the Eucharist:

Cyprian of blessed memory writes in the subdued style in his treatise on the sacrament of the cup. In this book he resolves the question, whether the cup of the Lord ought to contain water only, or water mingled with wine. But we must quote a passage by way of illustration. After the customary introduction, he proceeds to the discussion of the point in question. Observe he says, that we are instructed, in presenting the cup, to maintain the custom handed down to us from the Lord, and to do nothing that our Lord has not first done for us: so that the cup which is offered in remembrance of Him should be mixed with wine. For, as Christ says, ‘I am the true vine,’ John 15:1 it follows that the blood of Christ is wine, not water; and the cup cannot appear to contain His blood by which we are redeemed and quickened, if the wine be absent; for by the wine is the blood of Christ typified, that blood which is foreshadowed and proclaimed in all the types and declarations of Scripture. For we find that in the book of Genesis this very circumstance in regard to the sacrament is foreshadowed, and our Lord’s sufferings typically set forth, in the case of Noah, when he drank wine, and was drunken, and was uncovered within his tent, and his nakedness was exposed by his second son, and was carefully hidden by his elder and his younger sons. Genesis 9:20-24 It is not necessary to mention the other circumstances in detail, as it is only necessary to observe this point, that Noah, foreshadowing the future reality, drank, not water, but wine, and thus showed forth our Lord’s passion. In the same way we see the sacrament of the Lord’s supper prefigured in the case of Melchizedek the priest, according to the testimony of the Holy Scriptures, where it says: ‘And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed Abraham.’ Genesis 14:18-19 Now, that Melchizedek was a type of Christ, the Holy Spirit declares in the Psalms, where the Father addressing the Son says, ‘You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.’  In this passage, and in all of the letter that follows, the subdued style is maintained, as the reader may easily satisfy himself.

Augustine of Hippo. On Christian Doctrine. Book 4. Chapter 21: Examples of the Various Styles, Drawn from the Teachers of the Church, Especially Ambrose and Cyprian

We see from Augustine, via Cyprian, that the signifier (in this case mixed wine) has significance not just because it is seen as the signified (whilst maintaining a distinction) but because through the signified we can subsequently identify other signifiers by association which expand our understanding how we participate in the overall sign. Without wine, mixed wine specifically, we cannot participate in Christ body and blood. Typology, therefore, isn’t just a matter for dusty academia but something we are all participating in by our conduct.

We see this distinction repeated between the signified and signifier in his tractates on the gospel of John :

For the Son, who was begotten equal, does not become better by participation of the Father; just as we are made better by participation of the Son, through the unity of His body and blood, which thing that eating and drinking signifies.

Augustine of Hippo. Tractate on the Gospel of John 26.19 (John 6:41-59)

We see this teased out earlier in the same tract wherein Augustine mirrors the language of Origen wherein he says: ‘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’ (Origen, Commentary on Matthew Book 11.4). Augustine explains how one partakes of the body and blood of Christ:

This bread, indeed, requires the hunger of the inner man: and hence He says in another place, Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Matthew 5:6 But the Apostle Paul says that Christ is for us righteousness. 1 Corinthians 1:30 And, consequently, he that hungers after this bread, hungers after righteousness — that righteousness however which comes down from heaven, the righteousness that God gives, not that which man works for himself. For if man were not making a righteousness for himself, the same apostle would not have said of the Jews: For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and wishing to establish their own righteousness, they are not subject to the righteousness of God. Romans 10:3 Of such were these who understood not the bread that comes down from heaven; because being satisfied with their own righteousness, they hungered not after the righteousness of God. What is this, God’s righteousness and man’s righteousness? God’s righteousness here means, not that wherein God is righteous, but that which God bestows on man, that man may be righteous through God. But again, what was the righteousness of those Jews? A righteousness wrought of their own strength on which they presumed, and so declared themselves as if they were fulfillers of the law by their own virtue. But no man fulfills the law but he whom grace assists, that is, whom the bread that comes down from heaven assists. For the fulfilling of the law, as the apostle says in brief, is charity. Romans 13:10 Charity, that is, love, not of money, but of God; love, not of earth nor of heaven, but of Him who made Heaven and earth. Whence can man have that love? Let us hear the same: The love of God, says he, is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us. Romans 5:5 Wherefore, the Lord, about to give the Holy Spirit, said that Himself was the bread that came down from heaven, exhorting us to believe in Him. For to believe in Him is to eat the living bread. He that believes eats; he is sated invisibly, because invisibly is he born again. A babe within, a new man within. Where he is made new, there he is satisfied with food.

Ibid 26.1 (John 6:41-59)

He also outlines where, bodily, Christ may be found. Which, to my reading, invites comparisons to Macarius’s language ‘Going up and down with Jesus their Father, they receive the gift of Himself, as the Lord says, He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood dwelleth in Me, and I in him, and he shall not see death’ (Homily 13.2). Affirming Christ’s body being in heaven and that those ‘hungry’ for him are taken ‘up’ to receive him:

Let us for our parts show the Jews where Christ is. Would, indeed, that all the seed of those who had given commandment to have it shown them where Christ was, would but hear and apprehend! Let them come to the church and hear where Christ is, and take Him. They may hear it from us, they may hear it from the gospel. He was slain by their forefathers, He was buried, He rose again, He was recognized by the disciples, He ascended before their eyes into heaven, and there sits at the right hand of the Father; and He who was judged is yet to come as Judge of all: let them hear, and hold fast. Do they reply, How shall I take hold of the absent? How shall I stretch up my hand into heaven, and take hold of one who is sitting there? Stretch up your faith, and you have got hold. Your forefathers held by the flesh, hold thou with the heart; for the absent Christ is also present. But for His presence, we ourselves were unable to hold Him. But since His word is true, Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world, Matthew 28:20 He is away, and He is here; He has returned, and will not forsake us; for He has carried His body into heaven, but His majesty He has never withdrawn from the world.

Ibid 50.4 (John 11:55-12)

Augustine reiterates this much more concisely elsewhere:

Bodily the Lord is in heaven, but his majesty is still with us. Our Lord: ‘depriving them of His bodily presence while continuing His spiritual presence to all His disciples till the very end of the world’

Ibid 92.1 (John 15:26-27)

Whilst being much more explicit in one of his letters to a layman named Dardanus:

Do not doubt, therefore, that the man Christ Jesus is now in heaven, from where he will come, and recall to mind and maintain with faith the Christian confession that he rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come from nowhere else when he will come to judge the living and the dead. And, as the angel’s voice testified, he will come just as he was seen going to heaven, that is, in the same form and substance of the flesh, to which he certainly gave immortality, but did not take away its nature. In accord with this form he should not be thought to be spread out everywhere. For we must be careful not to defend the divinity of the man in such a way that we remove the reality of his body. It does not follow, however, that what is in God is everywhere, as God is. For scripture also says of us that we live, move, and have our being in him (Acts 17:28), and yet we are not everywhere, as he is. But that man [Jesus] is in God in a different way because, as God, he is in the man in a different way, in a manner that is proper to him and singular. For one person is God and man, and the two are the one Jesus Christ, everywhere as God, in heaven as man.

Augustinian Heritage Institute, Inc. The Works of St Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century. Letters. Part 2 Volume 3: Letters 156 – 210. Augustine of Hippo. Letter 187.10 ‘Augustine to Claudius Postumus Dardanus’ or ‘The Presence of God’

This is pertinent when we see him commentating on John 6:61-65 where he says:

This offends you; because I said, I give you my flesh to eat, and my blood to drink, this forsooth offends you. Then what if you shall see the Son of man ascending where He was before? What is this? Did He hereby solve the question that perplexed them? Did He hereby uncover the source of their offense? He did clearly, if only they understood. For they supposed that He was going to deal out His body to them; but He said that He was to ascend into heaven, of course, whole: When you shall see the Son of man ascending where He was before; certainly then, at least, you will see that not in the manner you suppose does He dispense His body; certainly then, at least, you will understand that His grace is not consumed by tooth-biting.

Ibid. Tractate on the Gospel of John 27.3 (John 6:60-72)

In short the words of John 6:53, for Augustine:

Are to be understood spiritually. Have you understood spiritually? They are spirit and life. Have you understood carnally? So also are they spirit and life, but are not so to you.

Ibid 27.6 (John 6:60-72)

Augustine makes this really clear in a sermon, presumably aimed at children, explaining this distinction between the signified and the signifier (one thing is seen, another is to be understood). That what is seen and participated in provides spiritual growth. He says:

Some such thought as this, after all, may cross somebody’s mind: “We know where our Lord Jesus Christ took flesh from; from the Virgin Mary. He was suckled as a baby, was reared, grew up, came to man’s estate, suffered persecution from the Jews, was hung on the tree, was slain on the tree, was taken down from the tree, was buried; rose again on the third day, on the day he wished ascended into heaven. That’s where he lifted his body up to; that’s where he’s going to come from to judge the living and the dead; that’s where he is now, seated on the Father’s right. How can bread be his body? And the cup, or what the cup contains, how can it be his blood?” The reason these things, brothers and sisters, are called sacraments is that in them one thing is seen, another is to be understood. What can be seen has a bodily appearance, what is to be understood provides spiritual fruit. So if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the apostle telling the faithful, You, though, are the body of Christ and its members (1 Cor 12:27). So if it’s you that are the body of Christ and its members, it’s the mystery meaning you that has been placed on the Lord’s table; what you receive is the mystery that means you. It is to what you are that you reply Amen, and by so replying you express your assent. What you hear, you see, is The body of Christ, and you answer, Amen. So be a member of the body of Christ, in order to make that Amen true.

Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 272: On The Day Of Pentecost To The Infants, On The Sacrament 

His line about making the ‘amen true’ calls back his comments in the Tractates on John about the ‘hunger of the inner man’. Be made hungry for Christ and you will participate through his grace:

For to believe in Him is to eat the living bread. He that believes eats; he is sated invisibly, because invisibly is he born again. A babe within, a new man within. Where he is made new, there he is satisfied with food.

Augustine of Hippo, Tractates on the Gospel of John. 26.1. John 6:41-59

Likewise those who fail to be hungry for Christ cannot participate in him, echoing Origen’s words that the Eucharist is of benefit to an individual precisely in proportion to their faith (Commentary on Matthew. Book 11.14):

He that dwells not in Christ, and in whom Christ dwells not, doubtless neither eats His flesh [spiritually] nor drinks His blood [although he may press the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ carnally and visibly with his teeth], but rather does he eat and drink the sacrament of so great a thing to his own judgment, because he, being unclean, has presumed to come to the sacraments of Christ, which no man takes worthily except he that is pure.

Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John. 26.18. John 6:41-59

So we can see from this the importance the faith of the recipient plays in the reception of the Eucharist. We also see this built up in his writing elsewhere, when writing on the Sermon on the Mount. The next excerpt from him will focus on Matthew 5:23-24:

Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Matthew 5:23-24

And Augustine reflects on this:

And so we may interpret the altar spiritually, as being faith itself in the inner temple of God, whose emblem is the visible altar. For whatever offering we present to God, whether prophecy, or teaching, or prayer, or a psalm, or a hymn, and whatever other such like spiritual gift occurs to the mind, it cannot be acceptable to God, unless it be sustained by sincerity of faith, and, as it were, placed on that fixedly and immoveably, so that what we utter may remain whole and uninjured. For many heretics, not having the altar, i.e. true faith, have spoken blasphemies for praise; being weighed down, to wit, with earthly opinions, and thus, as it were, throwing down their offering on the ground.

Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume VI, Saint Augustine, Sermon on the Mount, Book 1: Chapter 10.27)

Which, to me, really draws us back to earlier commentators on the nature of the Eucharist as a thanksgiving sacrifice offered to Christ, our high priest, for the work of God in the life of the Church and all of creation. We see this outlined more clearly in Augustine’s City of God:

In the epistle entitled To the Hebrews it is said, To do good and to communicate, forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased. Hebrews 13:16 And so, when it is written, I desire mercy rather than sacrifice, Hosea 6:6 nothing else is meant than that one sacrifice is preferred to another; for that which in common speech is called sacrifice is only the symbol of the true sacrifice. Now mercy is the true sacrifice, and therefore it is said, as I have just quoted, with such sacrifices God is well pleased. All the divine ordinances, therefore, which we read concerning the sacrifices in the service of the tabernacle or the temple, we are to refer to the love of God and our neighbor. For on these two commandments, as it is written, hang all the law and the prophets. Matthew 22:40

Augustine of Hippo, City of God, Book 10.5: Of the Sacrifices Which God Does Not Require, But Wished to Be Observed for the Exhibition of Those Things Which He Does Require

A big part of the significance of the Eucharist then is as part of mystery by which we participate by mimesis. We retell, repeat, partake, and fulfill our intended ends through partaking of it and that goes on to shape our lives. As Augustine wrote against the Manichaens:

Before the coming of Christ, the flesh and blood of this sacrifice were foreshadowed in the animals slain; in the passion of Christ the types were fulfilled by the true sacrifice; after the ascension of Christ, this sacrifice is commemorated in the sacrament.  Between the sacrifices of the Pagans and of the Hebrews there is all the difference that there is between a false imitation and a typical anticipation.  We do not despise or denounce the virginity of holy women because there were vestal virgins.  And, in the same way, it is no reproach to the sacrifices of our fathers that the Gentiles also had sacrifices.  The difference between the Christian and vestal virginity is great, yet it consists wholly in the being to whom the vow is made and paid; and so the difference in the being to whom the sacrifices of the Pagans and Hebrews are made and offered makes a wide difference between them.  In the one case they are offered to devils, who presumptuously make this claim in order to be held as gods, because sacrifice is a divine honor.  In the other case they are offered to the one true God, as a type of the true sacrifice, which also was to be offered to Him in the passion of the body and blood of Christ.

Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume IV, Saint Augustine, Reply to Faustus the Manichaen, Book 20:21

Stating earlier in the same text:

With all this, you venture to denounce the sacrifices of the Old Testament, and to call them idolatry, and to attribute to us the same impious notion. To answer for ourselves in the first place, while we consider it no longer a duty to offer sacrifices, we recognize sacrifices as part of the mysteries of Revelation, by which the things prophesied were foreshadowed. For they were our examples, and in many and various ways they all pointed to the one sacrifice which we now commemorate. Now that this sacrifice has been revealed, and has been offered in due time, sacrifice is no longer binding as an act of worship, while it retains its symbolical authority. For these things “were written for our learning, upon whom the end of the world is come.”

Ibid. Book 4.2

As we can see from this Augustine held to what may be called a ‘symbolic’ view that was shared by earlier Fathers and writers like Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen and Macarius. Incidentally with them all being based or originating from the general North African region Augustine himself hailed from. Yet this position is not to be mistaken with later memorialism, far from it. The sacrifice was real but it was offered to Christ in thanksgiving for his sacrifice made on our behalf. Through it we participate in the body of Christ found in heaven.

The last father on the subject I will look at is Theodoret, a bishop of Cyprus, in the 5th century and namely his writing known as the Dialogues.

Theodoret of Cyprus

In the first part of Theodoret’s dialogues we see him affirm the symbolic or typological approach we saw with Augustine. Again we see the Eucharist as a means to affirm the Lord’s perfect humanity. Whilst also making a point to stress the bread and wine aren’t merely such but that grace has been added to them. As a result they are no longer called bread and wine but the body and blood:

Orth.— You know that the Lord called himself a vine?

Eran.— Yes I know that he said I am the true vine.

Orth.— Now what is the fruit of a vine called after it is pressed?

Eran.— It is called wine.

Orth.— When the soldiers wounded the Saviour’s side with the spear, what did the evangelist say was poured out from it?

Eran.— Blood and water.

Orth.— Well, then; he called the Saviour’s blood blood of the grape, for if the Lord is called a vine, and the fruit of the vine wine, and from the Lord’s side streams of blood and water flowed downwards over the rest of his body, fitly and appropriately the Patriarch foretells He shall wash his robe in wine and his mantle in blood of the grape. For as we after the consecration call the mystic fruit of the vine the Lord’s blood, so he called the blood of the true vine blood of the grape.

Eran.— The point before us has been set forth in language at once mystical and clear.

Orth.— Although what has been said is enough for your faith, I will, for confirmation of the faith, give you yet another proof.

Eran.— I shall be grateful to you for so doing, for you will increase the favour done me.

Orth.— You know how God called His own body bread?

Eran.— Yes.

Orth.— And how in another place he called His flesh grain?

Eran.— Yes, I know. For I have heard Him saying The hour has come that the Son of man should be glorified, and Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone; but if it die it brings forth much fruit.

Orth.— Yes; and in the giving of the mysteries He called the bread, body, and what had been mixed, blood.

Eran.— He so did.

Orth.— Yet naturally the body would properly be called body, and the blood, blood.

Eran.— Agreed.

Orth.— But our Saviour changed the names, and to His body gave the name of the symbol and to the symbol that of his body. So, after calling himself a vine, he spoke of the symbol as blood.

Eran.— True. But I am desirous of knowing the reason of the change of names.

Orth.— To those who are initiated in divine things the intention is plain. For he wished the partakers in the divine mysteries not to give heed to the nature of the visible objects, but, by means of the variation of the names, to believe the change wrought of grace. For He, we know, who spoke of his natural body as grain and bread, and, again, called Himself a vine, dignified the visible symbols by the appellation of the body and blood, not because He had changed their nature, but because to their nature He had added grace.

Eran.— The mysteries are spoken of in mystic language, and there is a clear declaration of that which is not known to all.

Orth.— Since then it is agreed that the body of the Lord is called by the patriarch robe and mantle and we have reached the discussion of the divine mysteries, tell me truly, of what do you understand the Holy Food to be a symbol and type? Of the godhead of the Lord Christ, or of His body and His blood?

Eran.— Plainly of those things of which they received the names.

Orth.— You mean of the body and of the blood?

Eran.— I do.

Orth.— You have spoken as a lover of truth should speak, for when the Lord had taken the symbol, He did not say this is my godhead, but this is my body; and again this is my blood and in another place the bread that I will give is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world.

Eran.— These words are true, for they are the divine oracles.

Orth.— If then they are true, I suppose the Lord had a body.

Theodoret, Dialogues. Dialogue 1

For Theodoret there was a change in the bread and wine, there was an addition to it, which warranted the distinction in terms compared ‘mere’ bread and wine. We see in the second of his dialogues when one of the intercoluters tries to argue what seems to be an adoptionist Christology from the belief that the elements are transmuted or changed in the Eucharist, to which the orthodox argues that the bread and wine still endure such just as Christ retains his humanity:

Orth.— Tell me now; the mystic symbols which are offered to God by them who perform priestly rites, of what are they symbols?

Eran.— Of the body and blood of the Lord.

Orth.— Of the real body or not?

Eran.— The real.

Orth.— Good. For there must be the archetype of the image. So painters imitate nature and paint the images of visible objects.

Eran.— True.

Orth.— If, then, the divine mysteries are antitypes of the real body, therefore even now the body of the Lord is a body, not changed into nature of Godhead, but filled with divine glory.

Eran.— You have opportunely introduced the subject of the divine mysteries for from it I shall be able to show you the change of the Lord’s body into another nature. Answer now to my questions.

Orth.— I will answer.

Eran.— What do you call the gift which is offered before the priestly invocation?

Orth.— It were wrong to say openly; perhaps some uninitiated are present.

Eran.— Let your answer be put enigmatically.

Orth.— Food of grain of such a sort.

Eran.— And how name we the other symbol?

Orth.— This name too is common, signifying species of drink.

Eran.— And after the consecration how do you name these?

Orth.— Christ’s body and Christ’s blood.

Eran.— And do you believe that you partake of Christ’s body and blood?

Orth.— I do.

Eran.— As, then, the symbols of the Lord’s body and blood are one thing before the priestly invocation, and after the invocation are changed and become another thing; so the Lord’s body after the assumption is changed into the divine substance.

Orth.— You are caught in the net you have woven yourself. For even after the consecration the mystic symbols are not deprived of their own nature; they remain in their former substance figure and form; they are visible and tangible as they were before. But they are regarded as what they have become, and believed so to be, and are worshipped as being what they are believed to be. Compare then the image with the archetype, and you will see the likeness, for the type must be like the reality. For that body preserves its former form, figure, and limitation and in a word the substance of the body; but after the resurrection it has become immortal and superior to corruption; it has become worthy of a seat on the right hand; it is adored by every creature as being called the natural body of the Lord.

Eran.— Yes; and the mystic symbol changes its former appellation; it is no longer called by the name it went by before, but is styled body. So must the reality be called God, and not body.

Orth.— You seem to me to be ignorant— for He is called not only body but even bread of life. So the Lord Himself used this name and that very body we call divine body, and giver of life, and of the Master and of the Lord, teaching that it is not common to every man but belongs to our Lord Jesus Christ Who is God and Man. For Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Theodoret, Dialogues. Dialogue 2

Theodoret is arguing against a sort of alchemical view of the Eucharist in which bread and wine cease to be such but properly become entirely divine substances. The discussion focuses on the eucharist at one level but the discussion going on behind this is about the nature of Christ’s humanity, the two are related. So to say, as the intercoluter argues, the bread and wine only appear such after consecration but are really divine and no longer properly bread or wine would be to deny the hypostatic union of the Lord. Theodoret goes on to quote verbatim from Irenaeus’s Letter to the Smyrnaeans:

“And after His Resurrection He ate with them, and drank with them, as being of the flesh, although He was spiritually one with the Father.” 

Epistle to the Smyrnaeans

And Irenaeus’s Against Heresies to underscore this point:

So again in his Epistle he says ‘Whosoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God,’ recognising one and the same Jesus Christ to whom the gates of heaven were opened, on account of His assumption in the flesh. Who in the same flesh in which He also suffered shall come revealing the glory of the Father.

Against Heresies Book 3. Chapter 18

Theodoret goes on to quote many more luminaries in the Church to this point that the humanity of Christ endures after the resurrection wherein the Lord is now seated at the right hand of the father. Accordingly the distinction between the bread and the body in the Eucharist, despite it being referred to as the body after consecration, are still retained. The properties of bread and wine are important even after the consecration because the properties of Christ’s humanity are integral to the incarnation and his redemption of the flesh through the resurrection. They do not remain ‘in appearance’ bread and wine but perfectly bread and wine with the addition of grace.

Theodoret on one level seems to go further than Augustine on the Eucharist but I could not imagine them disagreeing in substance.


Over the last few entries I’ve tried to run through the position of various fathers on the topic of the eucharist. I’ve tried to cover a lot but there’s a lot of material I haven’t included. This isn’t due to any knowing omission on my part but rather an attempt to focus on what I see as the substantive mentions on the subject.

For my part I come away from this with a sense of a few things:

  1. There are broadly two views latent in the writing of the fathers on the Eucharist. Both views are realist in their language with regard to the Eucharist being the Lord’s body and blood but differ on whether this a symbolic or material change in the bread and wine. The former view resisted the latter’s conclusions by affirming that Christ bodily resides in heaven and the believer is ‘taken up’ to Christ rather than the Lord being called down as in the latter position.
  2. The bread and wine, even if changed, endure after Consecration given that what we say about the elements after consecration inevitably has Christological implications.
  3. Sacrifice in a eucharistic context is that of thanksgiving for Christ’s one-time sacrifice on the Cross. It was seen as a prism by which to see the entirety of the Christian life, it’s pinnacle.
  4. The benefit of the Eucharist to an individual was not consistent but took into account their own faithfulness as participation in the body and blood had ecclesiological significance. Namely that the unworthy could not participate or consume the body and blood of the Lord.

However, I think it’s worth reading what the Historian JND Kelly writes on the subject during the 4th century:

Eucharistic teaching, it should be understood at the outset, was in general unquestionably realist, i.e. the consecrated bread and wine were taken to be, and were treated and designated as, the Saviour’s body and blood. Among theologians, however, this identity was interpreted in our period (4th century) in at least two different ways, and these interpretations, mutually exclusive though they were in strict logic, were often allowed to overlap. In the first place, the figurative or symbolical view, which stressed the distinction between the visible elements and the reality they represented, still claimed a measure of support. It harked back, as we have seen, to Tertullian and Cyprian, and was given a renewed lease of life through the powerful influence of Augustine. Secondly, however, a new and increasingly potent tendency becomes observable to explain the identity as being the result of an actual change or conversion in the bread and wine.

As an example of the former tendency we may cite the Apostolical Constitutions, which describes the mysteries as ‘antitypes…of His precious body and His blood’, and speaks of commemorating Christ’s death ‘by virtue of the symbols … of His body and blood’. In the liturgy we give thanks for the precious blood and for the body, ‘of which we celebrate these antitypes’…Yet at the same time the formula at the communion is ‘the body of Christ’ and ‘the blood of Christ’. Serapion, while referring to the elements as ‘the body and the blood’, speaks of ‘offering this bread’ as ‘a likeness … of the body of the Only-begotten’, and ‘offering the cup’ as ‘a likeness … of the blood’. The theologians use the same language as the liturgies. So Eusebius of Caesarea, while declaring that ‘we are continually fed with the Saviour’s body, we continually participate in the lamb’s blood’, states that Christians daily commemorate Jesus’s sacrifice ‘with the symbols … of His body and saving blood’, and that He instructed His disciples to make ‘the image … of His own body’, and to employ bread as its symbol. His contemporary, Eustathius of Antioch, commenting on Prov. 9.5, says that ‘by bread and wine he (i.e. the author) refers prophetically to the antitypes of Christ’s bodily members …Marcarius of Egypt (c. 390) speaks of bread and wine as being offered in the Church as ‘a symbol of His flesh and blood’. Athanasius, too, while not employing such terms as ‘symbol’ or ‘antitype’, clearly distinguishes the visible bread and wine from the spiritual nourishment they convey.

It must not be supposed, of course, that this ‘symbolical’ language implied that the bread and wine were regarded as mere pointers to, or tokens of, absent realities. Rather were they accepted as signs of realities which were somehow actually present though apprehended by faith alone.

It is not the case, (Theodoret) urged, that after consecration the oblations lose their proper nature: ‘they remain in their former substance, appearance and form, visible and tangible as before’. Since he admitted, however, that the bread was now called the body and habitually used realistic language of the sacrament, he was faced with the problem of explaining what the consecration effected. His explanation was that, while a change … certainly took place, it did not consist in the transformation of the substance of bread and wine into that of Christ’s body and blood, but rather in their being made vehicles of divine grace. As he put it, in designating them His body and blood Christ did not change their nature, but added grace to their nature …     The bread and wine were thought of both as remaining in their own nature and as being able to mediate the nature of the Lord’s body and blood.

In the West the conception of the eucharistic gifts as symbols continued in vogue in this period. The canon of the mass in the Ambrosian De sacramentis, which dates from the fourth century, may be taken as an illustration. This is an imitation of the Last Supper, in word and act, solemnly performed before God, and the repetition of the Lord’s words is regarded as establishing the sacramental association of the bread and wine with the divine realities they represent. So the oblation is ‘a figure (figura) of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ’. According to Jerome, the wine in the chalice is ‘the type (typus) of His blood’, and the eucharistic mystery is ‘the type of His passion’ … In the consecrated bread the Saviour’s body ‘is shown forth’ … by means of the elements He ‘represents … His body and blood’. Ambrosiaster similarly states that ‘we receive the mystic chalice as a type’ … of the divine blood…

J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978), pp.440-441, 445-446).

Kelly, much more concisely than I have, makes the case that a (realist) symbolic view was largely normative, however, that as time went on we saw not just a symbolic dimension but a substantive change in the elements themselves took place. Represented by those like Theodoret (or Serapion) vis a vis Augustine respectively.

This distinction is something which would go unaddressed for some time whilst the view that the elements would undergo a substantive change became increasingly prominent. However this didn’t really come to a head as an issue until the 9th century as Schaff writes:

The doctrine of the Lord’s Supper became the subject of two controversies in the Western church, especially in France. The first took place in the middle of the ninth century between Paschius Radbertus and Ratramnus, the other in the middle of the eleventh century between Berengar and Lanfranc. In both cases the conflict was between a materialistic and a spiritualistic conception of the sacrament and its effect. the one was based on a literal, the other on a figurative interpretation of the words of institution, and of the mysterious discourse in the sixth chapter of St. John. The contending parties agreed in the belief that Christ is present in the eucharist as the bread of life to believers; but they differed widely in their conception of the mode of that presence: the one held that Christ was literally and corporeally present and communicated to all communicants through the mouth; the other, that he was spiritually present and spiritually communicated to believers through faith … The spiritual theory was backed by the all-powerful authority of St. Augustin in the West…

Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), pp. 544-545

This same controversy is expounded by Everett Ferguson more extensively below:

The first eucharistic controversy occurred in the mid-ninth century. Paschasius Radbertus (d. ca. 860) wrote the first doctrinal monograph on the Lord’s supper, On the Body and Blood of the Lord (831, revised 844). Radbertus was a monk and later abbot at Corbie. He made a realistic identification of the eucharistic body with the human body of Jesus Christ that was born of Mary, was crucified on the cross, and is miraculously multiplied on the altars of Christendom at the consecration of the bread and wine. The elements become nothing less than the flesh and blood of Christ under the figure of bread and wine regardless of the faith of participants—a faith which is necessary, however, for spiritual blessings to be received. The view of Radbertus drew opposition from various perspectives—from Gottschalk, Rabanus Maurus, and John Scotus Eriugena. Charles the Bald commissioned Ratramnus (d. c. 868), another monk at Corbie, to reply. Ratramnus opposed the realistic interpretation of the bread and wine, saying that the body and blood of Jesus Christ are present in a figure, not literally. The spiritual presence of the body of Christ is a mystery, available only to faith. As the elements nourish the human body, the spiritual reality nourishes the soul. The Holy Spirit works in the bread and wine to bring spiritual blessing even as he does in the baptismal waters. In the background of this discussion were two different traditions of interpreting the words of Jesus at the Last Supper and in John 6. Ambrose had set forth a metabolic view of the Lord’s supper in which by consecration the sign becomes the reality. Augustine made a subtler distinction, maintaining the symbolism of the sign and the realism of the supernatural invisible gift. By the time of Bede the two views were brought together synthetically, using the terms of both. Accordingly, both Radbertus and Ratramnus assumed that both Ambrose and Augustine agreed, for it was assumed that there was no contradiction in the tradition, but each of the former men interpreted each of the latter men according to the perspective of the other. Over time, the position espoused by Radbertus gained ground, especially in popular piety.

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

Both positions have precedent in the writings of the Father’s albeit with the spiritualistic or symbolist view providing a foundation from which all later views developed. Which, in the grand scheme of things, I think vindicates James Ussher’s comment that:

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

What do you think? Am I off base? Let me know.

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