You may have seen a video of the Christian author and preacher, Francis Chan, doing the rounds in recent days. In it, Francis makes the claim that for the first fifteen hundred years of Church History, people literally believed that the body and blood of Christ were being partaken during the Lord’s Supper. I include the video below in case you’ve missed it.
I’d like to briefly say that this post is not a dig against Francis by any means. I appreciate his books and teaching, and would thoroughly recommend books such as Crazy Love as a great read for young and mature Christians alike. This post is aimed at challenging something I believe to be factually wrong.
This claim, aligning Christian belief for the first 1500 years of Church History with elements of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, is in fact incorrect. Whilst Francis has much to say that is helpful, this particular claim is wrong.
Below are extracts from key early church thinkers and writings, that refute Francis’ claims. But behind such claims is, I believe, a bigger problem with the current engagement of evangelical Christians with Early Church history. And so at the end of this post is a short addendum and a link to some earlier posts. Evangelical Christians, such as Francis and myself, all too often lump the Early Church in with the Catholic Church, or assume that after the Apostolic era ended, the Catholic Church simply appeared. We’re often too easily afraid of the difference between catholic and Catholic.
But first, a short reponse to Francis Chan, from the mouths of members of the Early Church themselves.
Early Church understandings of The Bread and The Wine.
Athenagoras (c.133 – 190) says to eat the flesh of man is an abomination:
But if it be unlawful even to speak of this, and if for men to partake of the flesh of men is a thing most hateful and abominable, and more detestable than any other unlawful and unnatural food or act; and if what is against nature can never pass into nourishment for the limbs and parts requiring it, and what does not pass into nourishment can never become united with that which it is not adapted to nourish,–then can the bodies of men never combine with bodies like themselves, to which this nourishment would be against nature, even though it were to pass many times through their stomach, owing to some most bitter mischance”
Athenagoras, On the Resurrection of the Dead, 8
Clement of Alexandria (c.150 – 211) says Christ called the wine, wine:
In what manner do you think the Lord drank when He became man for our sakes? As shamelessly as we? Was it not with decorum and propriety? Was it not deliberately? For rest assured, He Himself also partook of wine; for He, too, was man. And He blessed the wine, saying, ‘Take, drink: this is my blood’–the blood of the vine. He figuratively calls the Word ‘shed for many, for the remission of sins’–the holy stream of gladness. And that he who drinks ought to observe moderation, He clearly showed by what He taught at feasts. For He did not teach affected by wine. And that it was wine which was the thing blessed, He showed again, when He said to His disciples, ‘I will not drink of the fruit of this vine, till I drink it with you in the kingdom of my Father.’
Clement of Alexander, Paedagogus, 2.2
Justin Martyr (c.100 – 165) spoke of the bread and wine being shared out as bread and wine:
There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to γένοιτο [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.
Justin Martyr, First Apology, 65.
In the Didache (written c.96), the bread and wine are pictures of unity, and there to stir us to give thanks:
First, concerning the cup: We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever.. And concerning the broken bread: We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through.
Tertullian (c.155 – 220) reminds us that Christ told us the bread was a representation:
the bread by which he represents his own proper body…
Tertullian, Against Marcion, 1.14
Finally, Origen (c.184 – 253), in his commentary On Matthew, says that bread is bread, and has no higher substance. But that the Lord’s Supper ought to point us to something greater, to the True Living Bread, to the one we are remembering. Christ.
… 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 symbolical body. But many things might be said about the Word Himself who became flesh, and true meat of which he that eateth shall assuredly live for ever, 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 for ever.’
Origen, On Matthew, 11.14
Origen points us away from the physical bread and wine, and takes us to the true satisfaction found in Christ. The Early Church clearly taught that the Lord’s Supper was an opportunity to meet as a church family and remember what it was the Lord has done for us. It clearly taught that we meet to give thanks to our God and Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. We do not eat of Him, nor would they suggest such a thing, but wonderfully, through His death and resurrection, we are now in Him.
Francis Chan has been right on many things, but on this he is wrong. The Early Church drew on truth they gained from Scripture, that the Lord had instituted this meal so that His church would gather and remember what He did for them. I have included the words of Early Church writers here to counter the claims made in the above video, but to see real and lasting truth, simply turn to the Gospel accounts of that Upper Room, and Paul’s thoughts upon what happened there, to read the divinely inspired words of Scripture on this matter. Transubstantiation is not a biblical teaching, and neither is it backed up by the history of the Early Church.
Addendum: why we need to study Church History well.
Francis Chan’s comments show the need to approach Christian history with discernment. He makes two claims in his video that would be refuted by almost every single academic, whether Christian or not. As seen above, the claim that the church believed the bread and wine became the literal body and blood for the first 1500 years is clearly incorrect, but secondly, Francis claimed that for the first 1000 years there was but one church.
This is simply not the case. As I show in my blog on Catholicism, the Catholic Church came to the fore in the sixth century. And both before and after this, Christendom was divided geographically, or by leadership or cannon. Groups such as the Gnostics, Donatists and Arians claimed to be the true church, in the first three centuries of Church History alone!
There has only ever been one true church, God’s elect and redeemed church. But that’s never been shown in one strain, denomination, or label. However hard we might try. Sinful people simply make it too hard to achieve such global unity.
We need a better understanding of Church History, and the Early Church in particular. Find out more below.
Why do we need to bother with the Early Church? Find out here.
What about Catholicism? Check this post out.
Was there one church only? See this post for examples of the heresy and schisms that plagued even the earliest years of Christian history.