Many people claim that there is unanimous testimony to the doctrine of the Real Presence in the early Church Fathers. I am not so convinced. I have already explained my understanding of the Eucharist here and why I reject the real presence here. In this post, I wish to consider some passages from Irenaeus on the topic.
First, in Against Heresies IV, 18, Irenaeus deals with the question of the offering of oblations and sacrifices. He makes clear that it is “not that [God] stands in need of a sacrifice from us, but that he who offers is himself glorified in what he does offer, if his gift be accepted. For by the gift both honour and affection are shown forth towards the King” (§1). In other words, the offering of sacrifices is a way of establishing a kind of relationship between God and the human being. No one can buy over God by offering Him gifts, since “God is not appeased by sacrifice” (§3). What matters to God is the attitude of friendship and devotion on the part of the one offering. Thus, “God had respect to the gifts of Abel, because he offered with single-mindedness and righteousness; but He had no respect unto the offering of Cain, because his heart was divided with envy and malice” (ibid.). The lesson Irenaeus draws from various scriptural examples is that “Sacrifices, therefore, do not sanctify a man, for God stands in no need of sacrifice,” whereas it is “conscience of the offerer that sanctifies the sacrifice when it is pure, and thus moves God to accept [the offering] as from a friend” (ibid.).
It is thus appropriate to offer sacrifices to God. They make us to be the friends of God. By them, we may be “found grateful to God our Maker, in a pure mind, and in faith without hypocrisy, in well-grounded hope, in fervent love, offering the first-fruits of His own created things” (§4). The Church does precisely this when it offers to God things taken “from His own creation” (ibid.). Irenaeus maintains that the sacrifices of the Jews are not accepted because they rejected the Word, whereas the sacrifices of the heretical “conventicles” are unacceptable because they do not consider that the God to whom they are making offerings is the one who created this world. Thus, they are offering to Him as to one who is “covetous of another’s property, and desirous of what is not His own” (ibid.). In the same way, Irenaeus finds unacceptable those who believe that “the things around us originated from apostasy, ignorance, and passion” only succeed in sinning against God and insulting Him. He writes:
But how can they be consistent with themselves, [when they say] that the bread over which thanks have been given is the body of their Lord, and the cup His blood, if they do not call Himself the Son of the Creator of the world, that is, His Word, through whom the wood fructifies, and the fountains gush forth, and the earth gives first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear (ibid.).
Here the argument seems to be clear: If they do not believe that the Father of Christ is the Creator of the world, what sense can it make to call the bread His body and the cup His blood? Christ would have no connection with the world and the things that come from it, if His Father were not the Creator.
Then comes the following passage, which is striking:
Then, again, how can they say that the flesh, which is nourished with the body of the Lord and with His blood, goes to corruption, and does not partake of life? Let them, therefore, either alter their opinion, or cease from offering the things just mentioned. But our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity (§5).
Here Irenaeus offers yet another argument from the eucharist against certain heresies. This heresy says that “the flesh … goes to corruption and does not partake of life.” This seems to be a denial of the value of the body in salvation and of the resurrection. But Irenaeus argues that this makes does not make sense in light of the eucharistic practice of the Church, in which flesh and spirit are seen to be together. It is worth interpreting this passage carefully, sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase.
“For we offer to Him His own” — What is offered to God in the Eucharist is first and foremost the bread and the wine, things taken from the created order. But in light of Irenaeus’s general theory of sacrifice as a gesture of friendship and devotion from human beings to God, it is also appropriate to understand this to mean that we offer ourselves, along with the bread and the wine.
“announcing consistently the fellowship of flesh and spirit”—There is no reason to capitalize “Spirit” here, as the above-quoted translation does. Irenaeus is arguing against a heresy that denies the ultimate unity of the human being as flesh and spirit, since it says that flesh is corrupted and does not partake of life. He is not arguing against a heresy that denies the Holy Spirit. What he means to say, then, is that both aspects of the human person, the flesh and the spirit, are involved in the eucharistic offering. This coheres with his earlier arguments to the effect that material offerings and sacrifices are not accepted unless the spirit of the person is properly ordered toward God.
“For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly”—This does not mean that the bread is transubstantiated into the body of Christ, nor does it mean that the substance of Christ’s body is sacramentally united to the substance of the bread. I don’t think he can be referring to Christ’s body as “heavenly” alongside the earthly bread, because Christ’s body is not “heavenly” but “earthly” just like ours. It is a created body of the same sort that we have. I think, rather, that he means that the bread becomes a holy object by means of which one interacts with God in a conscious way. To say that a thing is “holy” is to say that it is “set apart,” i.e. taken a certain way by a person who uses it for a certain purpose. To say the bread is “heavenly” is to say that it has some connection with God. Thus, by calling the bread “heavenly” as well as “earthly,” Irenaeus is talking about the significance of the bread for the persons involved in the eucharistic ritual.
In the Eucharist, the bread is treated “no longer [as] common bread,” but as Eucharist, as earthly and heavenly at the same time. It is “earthly” because it is eaten; it is “heavenly” because it has a connection with God. The proof that Irenaeus is speaking about the way in which the bread is treated, rather than about the substantial being of the bread, is as follows. He says that this transformation into the Eucharist takes place “when it receives the invocation of God.” He does not say that it transforms when it receives the miraculous intervention of God. Neither does He say that God invokes the bread to be Eucharist. The one doing the invocation is clearly the celebrant in the church. It is not obvious to me what Irenaeus’s liturgy would have looked like, but if it was anything like the one described in the Didache, there would have been no invocation for the transformation of the elements at all. What he means, rather, is that when the bread is prayed over and offered to God, it becomes a holy object in virtue of having been offered to God. It becomes “spiritual” in virtue of the fact that it is no longer intended for common use but specifically for the rite of the Eucharist. Irenaeus’s language is phenomenological rather than metaphysical.
As further evidence of this interpretation, consider what he says in the next section: “Now we make offering to Him, not as though He stood in need of it, but rendering thanks for His gift, and thus sanctifying what has been created” (§6). The gift of God, whatever creaturely thing it might be, is sanctified through the fact that we render thanks to God for it. It is “sanctified” in the sense that it becomes a constituent item or element of the Christian’s interaction with God. This is precisely what the heresy denied, however, when it said that the flesh does not partake of life—that is, the life-with-God—and is destined to corruption. Thus, there is no need for any kind of metaphysical change in any of this.
“so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity”—The traditional “real presence” interpretation says that the Eucharist confers immortality of the body through a kind of special union which is effected between the human being and Christ. But this reading seems to me to be both confused and unnecessary.
In the first place, our bodies remain corruptible in a literal sense even after the Eucharist. We still die. In the second place, even those persons who do not partake of the Eucharist will still be resurrected: some of them to eternal damnation, perhaps, but others to eternal life (e.g., catechumens, children, and so on). In the third place, it is not at all obvious how the body is supposed to receive this incorruptibility in the Eucharist, as if Christ were magical food for the body. Is he digested? Does he give immortality in the way that consuming caffeine wakes a person up? How is the corruptible body mingled and infused with immortality by Christ’s body? One gets the impression that a proposal is being accepted more for its power of suggestion than for its actual content.
In any case, I think it is preferable to read Irenaeus in the same phenomenological line as above. Our bodies “are no longer corruptible”—not because we will not die, which is clearly false; nor because of some strange metaphysical union which has been effected between us and Christ, which is not exactly clear; but because the process of participating in the Eucharist produces faith in us. It strengthens our love and devotion toward God, our faith in Christ, and our conviction of our eventual resurrection to eternal life. This is the sense in which our bodies become incorruptible after the Eucharist, “having the hope of resurrection to eternity”: we no longer think of them as ultimately destined for destruction, but rather for resurrection and life.
As evidence of this reading, consider how Irenaeus describes the purpose of the offering in the next section: “As, therefore, He does not stand in need of these [services], yet does desire that we should render them for our own benefit, lest we be unfruitful; so did the Word give to the people that very precept as to the making of oblations, although He stood in no need of them, that they might learn to serve God” (§6). From what Irenaeus says here, it would seem that oblations are instituted in the Church for the sake of our education and formation. The oblations put us in regular contact with God, fostering our friendship with Him, and teach us to serve Him in love and faithfulness.
As I have discussed it here, Irenaeus’s theology of sacrifices is simple. God calls people to bring sacrifices to Him, not because He needs them, nor because He can be won over by them, but because He wants regular friendship and interaction with human beings. The purpose of the sacrifices is to transform us into friends of God. The things we offer to God in sacrifice—including the bread and wine of the Eucharist—are things taken from this world which He has created. They become holy, “spiritual” too and not merely “earthly,” when we make use of them in interacting with God. Thus, our interaction with God includes both body and spirit. Both aspects of us participate in this living-with-God which is the true life. And the Eucharist illustrates this best of all. Through this meal, our faith, love, and hope are confirmed, and these include our bodies as well as our spirits.