Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Partaking of Christ's flesh and blood; Augustine instructs - how to understand - Part 3

Lying at the heart of the differences of interpretation (addressed herehere, and here) regarding the doctrine of the Lord's Supper, is the question of how one is to understand what the Scripture speaks concerning it.  How is the Church to read and understand difficult passages of the Bible in order to come to godly teaching?  The church fathers made their appeal to right doctrine from the teaching of Scripture.  This question must be answered, not only for Protestants, but Rome as well, since the "infallible" teaching of the Roman Church claims to true doctrine consistent with Scripture.

To help answer that question I thought I'd not call on any Reformed voices, of which there are many able and reliable.  Rather let me quote the eminent theologian Augustine, from Thomas Cranmer's Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ (1550).  Cranmer writes:
And yet most plainly of all other, St. Augustine doth declare this matter in his book De Doctrina Christiana in which book he instructeth Christian people how they should understand those places of Scripture, which seem hard and obscure.
"Seldom," saith he, "is any difficulty in proper words, but either the circumstances of the place, or the conferring of divers translations, or else the original tongue wherein it was written, will make the sense plain.  But in words that be altered from their proper signification, there is great diligence and heed to be taken  And specially we must beware, that we take not literally any thing that is spoken figuratively.  For contrariwise, we must not take for a figure, any thing that is spoken properly.  Therefore must be declared," saith Augustine, "the manner how to discern a proper speech from a figurative; wherein, " saith he, "must be observed this rule, that if the thing which is spoken be to the furtherance of charity, then it is a proper speech, and no figure.  So that if it be a commandment that forbiddeth any evil or wicked act, or commandeth any good or beneficial thing, then it is no figure.  But if it command any ill or wicked thing, or forbid anything that is good and beneficial, then it is a figurative speech.
So how does Augustine unpack what he is instructing?  He happens to focus on one of the most difficult passages for men to hear, that of Christ's words regarding the eating of His flesh and drinking of His blood as found in John chapter 6.  It was because of these words spoken by Jesus that many stopped following him.  And even His chosen disciples were troubled.  Continuing with Augustine in the passage from Cranmer:
"Now the saying of Christ, 'Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you shall have no life in you', seemeth to command an heinous and a wicked thing; therefore it is a figure, commanding us to be partakers of Christ's passion, keeping in our minds to our great comfort and profit, that his flesh was wounded for us."
 Thus in another part of his book Cranmer sums up St. Augustine's teaching on the sacraments:
And therefore St. Ausgustine saith, Contra Maximinum, that "in the sacraments we must not consider what they be, but what they signify.  For they be signs of things, being one thing, and signifying another."
By this neither Augustine nor Cranmer were denying that Christians do partake of Christ's body and blood.  The confession of the Church of England's, The Thirty-Nine Articles, summarizes the Reformed understanding.  The relevant sections are shown below:
XXV. Of the Sacraments.
Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men's profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God's good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.
XXVIII. Of the Lord's Supper.
The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another, but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ's death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ. 
Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions. 
The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith.
Again, the purpose of these last several posts is not to offer some definitive case against Rome's teaching of transubstantiation.  Rather, it is to provide evidence that the early church writers, in conjunction with Scripture, taught not the Roman doctrine.  And a case, therefore, can be made that the Reformers' teachings on this doctrine were consistent with those church patriarchs as well as Scripture.

Update 10-16-2013:
A question has been raised as to the authenticity of the early church fathers' quotes in this and the previous two posts.  So, I am adding this Link to Authorities in Appendix which is A Collection of Authorities cited by Cranmer and others in the Controversy on the Lord's Supper '.  In addition here is a footnote from the first page of that Appendix:
1 [Cranmer and his adversaries in the Eucharistic controversy seldom printed more than a version of the authorities which they cited : and mutual charges of mistranslation were the result. To enable the reader to form his own judgment on these charges, without referring to the voluminous works of the Fathers, a large number of the original passages have here been extracted. They have been arranged in chronological order, partly for convenience of reference, and partly for the purpose of presenting a series of citations on the Lord's Supper, from the time of Ignatius, A. I). 101, to that of the Lateran Council, A.D. 1215, when the doctrine of transubstantiation was finally established. The inquiry, it will be remembered, may be pursued further, by referring also to those authorities, which, being quoted by the contending parties in the original language, it has been thought unnecessary to repeat here.]
Cranmer's and his Roman Catholic adversary in this dispute wrote their works in Latin.  Thus the citations are in Latin.  I take the editors meaning to be that any disagreement over translation had to do with the citations of those who wrote in Greek or, in addition, subsequent English translations.


  1. Thanks for this series of posts, Jack. Well done.

  2. Tony,
    You're quite welcome. And thank you for stopping in.