The Eucharist is a very early doctrine ...
I wrote these series of articles (see menu sidebar to the left) as a Catholic for Catholics, but I no longer accept Catholic teaching as the authoritative source of truth.I have not attempted to align these articles with my current views.
I show that the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist was believed and practiced by the very early church.
I should clarify: the modern Catholic Church teaches the doctrine of Transubstantiation as developed by St. Thomas Aquinas in the late 1200's and based on Aristotle's philosophical system. Transubstantiation as such was not taught or believed or practiced by the early church. But the following ingredients were believed, taught, and practiced by the early church:
I accept all these just as the early church did. Sadly, many Evangelical and other Protestant denominations reject the Eucharist in favor of believing it to be a merely symbolic ceremony performed as an act of faith — an opportunity for the Christian community to remember Christ's sacrifice together.
When taken literally, the New Testament teaches the doctrine of the Eucharist:
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, Take and eat; this is my body. (Matthew 26:26)
This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:28)
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever." (John 6:51-58)
Critics dispute the meaning of the references to bread and wine in these passages. But it is hard to explain why the apostolic church as well as the very next generation of Christians after this believed in the Eucharist if these New Testament passages don't refer to the Eucharist as the literal body and blood of Christ.
The Eucharist is a very early doctrine. The following quotes clearly support the modern doctrine of the Eucharist and were written only a few years after the book of Revelation was written.
The following passage from Ignatius is very early (110 A.D.). He states the importance of believing that the Eucharist is the literal body and blood of Christ:
Let Us Stand Aloof from Such Heretics. 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.
Letters of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, Chapter VII
The following passage from Justin Martyr is very early (150 A.D.). He affirms that the bread is the body of Christ and the wine is the blood of Christ:
And this food is called among us 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 ye in remembrance of Me, 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.
The First Apology of Justin, Chapter LXVI, Of the Eucharist.
The following letter from Irenaeus is very early (150 A.D.). He makes very clear statements regarding the Eucharist:
Chapter II — 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.
2. But vain in every respect are they who despise the entire dispensation of God, and disallow the salvation of the flesh, and treat with contempt its regeneration, maintaining that it is not capable of incorruption. But if this indeed do not attain salvation, then neither did the Lord redeem us with His blood, nor is the cup of the Eucharist the communion of His blood, nor the bread which we break the communion of His body. For blood can only come from veins and flesh, and whatsoever else makes up the substance of man, such as the Word of God was actually made. By His own blood he redeemed us, as also His apostle declares, "In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the remission of sins." And as we are His members, we are also nourished by means of the creation (and He Himself grants the creation to us, for He causes His sun to rise, and sends rain when He wills). 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.
3. 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." He does not speak these words of some spiritual and invisible man, for a spirit has not bones nor flesh; 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 corn 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 Against Heresies, Book V, Chapter II
The following passage from Irenaeus (about 150 A.D.) remarks on those who reject Christ, referring to Him as the heavenly wine:
Therefore do these men reject the commixture of the heavenly wine, and wish it to be water of the world only, not receiving God so as to have union with Him.
Irenaeus Against Heresies, Book V, Chapter I, Paragraph 3
The following passage considers belief in the Eucharist as necessary for salvation:
And the angel answered and said unto me: If any man shall have been put into this well of the abyss and it shall have been sealed over him, no remembrance of him shall ever be made in the sight of the Father and His Son and the holy angels. And I said: Who are these, Sir, who are put into this well? And he said to me: They are whoever shall not confess that Christ has come in the flesh and that the Virgin Mary brought him forth, and whoever says that the bread and cup of the Eucharist of blessing are not this body and blood of Christ.
The Vision of Paul, Paragraph 41
The following passage from the Didache is very early (100 A.D.). Note that the Eucharist is considered to be holy:
(9:1) But concerning the Eucharist, after this fashion give ye thanks.
(9:5) And let none eat or drink of your Eucharist but such as have been baptized into the name of the Lord, for of a truth the Lord hath said concerning this, Give not that which is holy unto dogs.
The Didache, Chapter 9
The following letter from Ignatius is very early (110 A.D.). He affirms that the bread is the body of Christ and the wine is the blood of Christ:
I have confidence of you in the Lord, that ye will be of no other mind. Wherefore I write boldly to your love, which is worthy of God, and exhort you to have but one faith, and one [kind of] preaching, and one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of the Lord Jesus Christ; and His blood which was shed for us is one; one loaf also is broken to all [the communicants], and one cup is distributed among them all: there is but one altar for the whole Church, and one bishop, with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants.
Letters of Ignatius to the Philadelphians, Chapter IV, Have but One Eucharist
Critics of the Eucharist claim Transubstantiation doesn't occur because you can clearly see that the elements are still bread and wine. But this conclusion is based on an incorrect understanding of the Eucharist. The change in the elements simply cannot be detected by the senses. St. Thomas Aquinas describes it as follows:
The presence of Christ's true body and blood in this sacrament cannot be detected by sense, nor understanding, but by faith alone, which rests upon Divine authority.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica
Although the figure of the bread and wine be seen, still, after the Consecration, they are to be believed to be nothing else than the body and blood of Christ.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica
Whether bread can be converted into the body of Christ? . . . This change is not like natural changes, but is entirely supernatural, and effected by God's power alone.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica
I should mention that the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation is not the only way to explain the fact that the elements literally change into the body and blood of Christ and that this change is not detectable by the senses. The Orthodox Churches also believe in the Eucharist as literally the body and blood of Christ but they reject the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation.
Some critics claim the Catholic Church teaches that the Eucharist is necessary for salvation, but this is not the view of the Catholic Church:
Whether the Eucharist is necessary for salvation? . . . Before receiving a sacrament, the reality of the sacrament can be had through the very desire of receiving the sacrament. Accordingly, before actual reception of this sacrament, a man can obtain salvation through the desire of receiving it, just as he can before Baptism through the desire of Baptism, as stated above this sacrament is not necessary for salvation in the same way as Baptism is.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica
I should mention that the Anglican, Episcopal, and Lutheran churches also believe that the consecrated elements of the Eucharist literally become the body and blood of Christ. Here's what they typically say (but there are many variations):