Ignatius on the Eucharist? Part II

Photo by Jacob Bentzinger on Unsplash

There is another passage in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch that many people take to show that he had a very robust understanding of the real corporeal presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It is from his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 6, 2:

Now note well those who hold heretical opinions about the grace of Jesus Christ that came to us; note how contrary they are to the mind of God. They have no concern for loνe, none for the widow, none for the orphan, none for the oppressed, none for the prisoner or the one released, none for the hungry or thirsty. They abstain from Eucharist and prayer because they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist is the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which the Father by his goodness raised up.

Ignatius’s concern in the first part of his epistle is the reality of the flesh of Christ. He makes a number of references to it: the Smyrnaeans are praised for being “totally convinced with regard to our Lord that He is truly of the family of David with respect to human descent,” “truly born of a virgin,” “truly nailed in the flesh for us under Pontius Pilate,” (1, 1–2). Indeed, Ignatius emphasizes that Christ “truly suffered all these things for our sakes, in order that we might be saved; and he truly suffered just as he raised himself — not, as certain unbelievers say, that he suffered in appearance only” (2, 1). And he writes: “I know and believe that he was in the flesh even after the resurrection” (3, 1). He writes the letter to “advise” the Smyrnaeans about the heretics who deny the reality of the flesh of Christ (4, 1). The denial of Christ’s flesh is the denial of Christ’s blood shed for our sins (6, 1). And at this point, the above-cited passage arrives. As for the people who deny the reality of Christ’s flesh, and thus do not partake of the Eucharist, Ignatius says that they “perish in their conteniousness” (7, 1). The Smyrnaeans ought to avoid them, not speaking with them either publicly or privately (7, 2). On the other, “Do pay attention, however, to the prophets and especially to the gospel, in which the passion has been made clear to us and the resurrection has been accomplished” (7, 2).

Many people think that, because Ignatius says “the Eucharist is the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which the Father by his goodness raised up,” therefore he must have believed in the real corporeal presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But this does not follow.

What is the Eucharist?

My understanding of the Eucharist is as follows. It is a ritual celebration and commemoration of the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ. The bread and wine do not become the body and blood of Jesus Christ in any literal sense. At the same time, it is a part of the ritual of the Eucharistic meal to take them as being the body and blood of Christ and to eat them. Eating the bread is an embodied, ritual way of appropriating for oneself Christ’s death and all its benefits. It is a way of cultivating and expressing a commitment to Christ and trust in the sufficiency and efficacy of His sacrifice. It is a way of receiving the good news of Christ’s death and the promise of His grace which goes along with it. In this way, too, one “participates” in the moment of Christ’s sacrifice by means of a quasi-theatrical ritual action, just as one might “relive” old memories by looking at old videos or retelling an old story or even putting on a theatrical performance. One’s consciousness is “transported” into the past event through a ritual-symbolic use of certain things available on hand, namely “the bread by which [Christ] represents his own proper body” (Tertullian, Against Marcion I, 14).

At the same time, the Eucharistic meal is a way of “eating with” Christ in His presence among His people. The meal is simultaneously a celebration and commemoration of Christ’s death, as well as a meal enjoyed in Christ’s presence. It is not His physical presence, however, since otherwise He would be visible. Paul gives the examples of Jewish and pagan temple worship from his day. The Jews ate the things they sacrificed on the altar as a way of being with God, just as the pagans consume their sacrifices as a way of being “partners with” their own gods, which are really demons (1 Cor 10:18–20). But neither the Jews nor the pagans were eating their gods; they were eating with their gods. The mode of presence is spiritual: the gods are present in the sense that one eats while thinking about them and having directed one’s attention toward them. So also, the eucharistic meal of Christians is a way of eating with Christ, but it is not really an eating of Christ’s body.

Interpreting Ignatius on the Eucharist

Now here is the argument. As far as I can tell, people believe this passage establishes that Ignatius believed in the real corporeal presence of Christ in the Eucharist for two reasons:

(1) He maintains the opinion that the Eucharist “is” the flesh of Jesus Christ.

(2) He connects the heretical denial of the human nature of Christ with the denial of the real corporeal presence in the Eucharist.

But I maintain that there is nothing in the passage from Ignatius above that could not equally have been written by a proponent of my own view of the Eucharist. Therefore it does not prove that he believed in the real corporeal presence of Christ in the bread and wine.

Ad (1): He says that the heretics do not partake of the Eucharistic meal because they reject that it is His flesh and blood. But he says that the Eucharist “is” flesh and blood because that is the liturgical formula the Church uses in its celebration of the Lord’s Supper. That is the way Christ said it: “This is my body, which is broken for you.” Ignatius says “is” because Christ said “is.” But that does not mean that he therefore believed in the real corporeal presence of Christ in the Eucharist, because Christ’s own words do not have to be interpreted that way. On my own view, the bread is the flesh of Christ in the sense that it is a part of the ritual of the eucharistic meal to take it as such. Consider the analogy: it is a part of the ritual of theater to believe that one actor “is” Hamlet, the other “is” Ophelia, the other “is” Horatio, and so on. But this does not mean that every time a play is performed, the actors are transubstantiated into fictional personages. So also, it is a part of the ritual of the eucharistic meal to take the bread as the flesh of Christ and the wine as His blood. That does not mean that we must believe that they are transubstantiated into flesh and blood.

Ad (2): Nothing of the meaning of Ignatius’s comment is lost if one opts for my own view of the Eucharist. If Christ did not really die, as these heretics supposed, then there would be no salvific sacrifice for sins. And if there is no sacrifice for sins, then there would be no sense in engaging in a ritual celebration and commemoration of that death as a sacrifice. If Christ did not really have flesh and blood, then the bread and the wine cannot be taken as representing flesh and blood. There cannot be a ritual-symbolic representation of X if there is no X. This is the argument Tertullian gives 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” (Against Marcion IV, 40). Thus, the logic of Ignatius’s characterization of the heretics is not lost even if he does not believe in the real corporeal presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Thus, I do not think that this passage from the Epistle to the Smyrnaeans establishes that Ignatius had a certain conception of the Eucharist. The language he uses is compatible with a kind of “ritual-memorialist” understanding of the Eucharist such as I hold to. I don’t know exactly what he believed, but it is consistent with his language in this text that he believed something like what I do.

I can see how a passage such as this might be interpreted by a later audience as suggesting a doctrine of the real corporeal presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. The liturgical language which says that the bread “is” the body of Christ and the wine “is” His blood was eventually taken in an ontological sense. This interpretation later became very popular. Then, earlier authors who used the liturgical “is” without specifying more precisely what they mean were interpreted as teaching the same real corporeal presence as their later readers. But that is simply an error of interpretation. Later theologians who debate the issue may specify more precisely whether they see the Eucharist as the real corporeal presence of Christ or as something less than this. The fact of the debate demands that they be very precise and develop different ways of speaking in comparison to each other. But from the fact that theologians of past generations don’t make the qualifications or use the specific language of one side of the later debate, it doesn’t follow that they were on the other side. The conditions which motivate a certain way of speaking among later figures were not present for the earlier writers.

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I have a PhD in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary.

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Steven Nemes

Steven Nemes

I have a PhD in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary.

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