Transubstantiation in the Early Church pt.1

I’m researching the claim that transubstantiation was not the doctrine of the church for the first millennium of Christian history. One of my first google hits was The claim of the article is that transubstantiation was not believed universally in the early church.

The first supporting claim is that “Paschasius Radbertus was the first to formulate the doctrine of transubstantiation in the ninth century.” This claim isn’t very specific (what does it mean to formulate a doctrine?) and it begs the question. I hope my study will make the facts clear.

The second supporting claim is that Radbertus was opposed by “Ratranmus*, a contemporary monk at the monastery of Corbie. Ratranmus wrote: “The bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ in a figurative sense” (De corpore et sanguine Christi). This controversy between two Catholic monks shows that both views were present in the Catholic church at least up to the eleventh century.

This Catholic Encyclopedia (CE) entry states that Rathramnus’ work dealt with two questions:

  1. Do we in the Holy Eucharist directly see the Body of Christ with our bodily eyes, or is the Body of Christ hidden from our sensory vision?
  2. Is the Eucharistic Christ identical with the historic Christ?

According to the JFC article, Ratramnus believed in a purely symbolic Eucharist. Based on the more extensive information provided by the CE, I doubt this claim. It is curious to me why someone who believes in an exclusively figurative presence of Christ in the Eucharist would bother with the first question. If the Eucharist is only a figure, then it is pointless to ask if the presence of Christ is hidden from our sensory vision. How can something that does not exist be hidden? One might attempt to correct the notion that there is something hidden, on the basis that there is actually nothing but a symbol. But one would not take up the question as stated.

The CE entry goes on to state that Ratramnus’ answer to the first question was “yes”.

In the solution of the first question Ratramnus distinguishes correctly between the invisible substance, “invisibilis substantia”, which, he says, is truly the body and blood of Christ, “vere corpus et sanguis Christi” (xlix), and the external appearances which after the consecration by the priest remain the same as they were before (ix-x)

This simply isn’t the argument someone makes if he believes there is no transubstantiation. One who does not believe in transubstantiation does not argue that there is a distinction between an invisible substance which is one thing, and external appearances which are something else. He argues that there has been no change, that the external appearance and internal reality are the same.

Things get more curious in the next few lines of the CE entry:

Attention was again called to it [Ratramnus’ treatise] by Blessed John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, who cited it in defence of the Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist in the preface to his work: “De veritate corporis et sanguinis Christi in Eucharistia adversus Joh. Œcolampadium” (Cologne, 1527).”

It seems that Rathramnus’s treatise is cited by apologists in both camps, both for and against the doctrine of transubstantiation. Ratramnus’ views seem not to be as simple as the JFC article would lead one to believe.

Considering the more detailed information provided by the EC entry, it seems unlikely that Rathramnus believed in a purely symbolic Eucharist. If the CE article is incorrect about the content of Rathramnus’ treatise, the JFC author will have to do more than pull a single quote, of questionable translation, out of context to show so.

The JFC author then takes a swipe at the Catholic Church in stating, “Eventually Radbertus was canonized while Ratranmus’ work was placed on the index of forbidden books.” The author implies that Radbertus was canonized because he taught the doctrine of the Real Presence and Rathramnus was censured because he taught against it. This displays an ignorance of canonization, a step which is not taken because of someone’s doctrinal stance, but because of someone’s life of heroic virtue. Again the CE article provides more information: The treatise was placed on the index of forbidden books because of mistranslations, which some used as support for heretical opinions, not because of its own heresy. There is no hint of censure or disapproval of Ratramnus anywhere in the CE entry.

Further, a perusal of the CE entry on Radbertus shows that in Catholic history, Radbertus’ writing on the subject was considered more questionable than Ratramnus’. I expect that some will believe the CE has its facts wrong, but it is hard for me to believe this. The CE articles deal with the subject in more depth than the JFC article, and the CE points out various nuances that the JFC article never even hints at. The writer for JFC will have to deal with the claims stated in the CE before he will convince me of his opposing claims on this issue.

*The JFC article spells this name “Ratranmus” while the CE spells it “Ratramnus” or alternately “Rathramnus”. I have copied and pasted quotes without changing either spelling.


Happy Feast of the Assumption

Check out the words to the music. Check out the dates of the composer’s birth and death. Notice that belief in the Assumption was not made up and imposed on the lay faithful by an overweening pope in 1954. It has been around at least since the 1500’s. And seeing that Palestrina wasn’t thrown out of the church on his ear due to the perceived heresy of this piece of music, chances are good that the belief was long-since established by the time he wrote this music.

I realize there are better and older evidences of the history behind this dogma. And any serious inquirer would do well to investigate them. The point I’m making is that we don’t even need those better and older proofs. The existence of this piece of music alone shows the claim that the pope made up the dogma of the Assumption for the lie that it is.

Why Do Catholics Talk About Mary So Much?

Well, you start talking about the incarnation and see how long you can go without mentioning Mary.

God’s Sovereignty Made Me Catholic

I’ve believed as long as I remember that God is sovereign. Much of the reason I became Reformed was because I wanted the rest of my beliefs to align themselves with my belief in God’s sovereignty. I became Catholic for the same reason. Surprised? Let me explain.

As a member of the Church of Christ, I believed the church fell into apostasy almost immediately after the death of the last apostle. The “true church” had to go underground, and it emerged again into known history about 200 years ago. One of the appeals of the Reformed faith was that it was rooted in history so much more than the Church of Christ.

And yet, while the Reformed version of history set later dates on apostasy, and accepted more historical doctrines than the Church of Christ, it still was the same basic version. At some point the church apostatized and became so heretical that the true Christians had to separate from the church in order to maintain the true faith. I found that there was no consensus on the date of apostasy. Some said that the church was fine until about 1000 AD or even later. Some said around 600 AD. Most Reformed claim that St. Augustine was orthodox and so what consensus there was seemed to agree that at least until 400-450 AD, the church was orthodox.

But there were a few Biblical passages that seemed to suggest the Church would not ever fall into apostasy. There is the famous passage in Matthew 16:18, when Jesus says the gates of Hell will not prevail against His Church. I misunderstood this passage for many years, thinking it was saying the Church would not fall when under Satan’s attack. It really says that Hell will fall when attacked by the Church. Not the Church, but Satan and his demons are the ones inside the walls starving because of the siege. This understanding strengthens the argument that this passages promises that the Church will not apostatize. The Church is promised victory. And not just we-made-it-through-by-the-skin-of-our-teeth victory. Jesus promised trample-down-the-enemy’s-city-walls-and-torch-the-place victory. I could not reconcile this with apostasy of the Church.

Jesus also told the apostles shortly before He ascended, “I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20 RSV) He made this promise in the middle of His great commission. This promise, just like the rest of the commission, was made to the entire Church, not just to the apostles. And He didn’t promise to be with them only til the death of the last apostle, but to the end of the age. Some translations read “the end of the world” (KJV, for example). Jesus promised His presence to the Church for a long, long time. Again, I could not reconcile this promise with widespread apostasy of the sort that necessitates leaving the Church.

So I was left with a little quandry: I believed the Church fell into such great apostasy that it had forfeited its authority as the Church. I believed that Jesus e promised victory, not failure, for the Church, and He promised to be with the Church forever. I believed God was fully capable of guiding the Church however He wished – apostasy or orthodoxy as suited His purposes. There are several ways to reconcile these competing beliefs:

  • God is not really sovereign. Jesus made these promises but was unable to keep His promise to the Church. He was unable to protect it and guide it . Therefore the Church fell into heresy.
  • The Biblical accounts are unreliable. Jesus never promised victory to the Church, or to stay with it.
  • God is not trustworthy. Jesus lied when He promised victory to the Church and when He promised His presence to it, therefore He did not protect it and the Church fell into heresy.
  • The Biblical accounts are reliable, Jesus made these promises, meant them, followed through on them and the Church did not fall into apostasy or heresy.

If God is not sovereign, then I’m not going to worship Him. If the Bible is unreliable, then I’m going to stop looking to it for guidance, and stop worshiping the God it presents. If God is not trustworthy, then He’s not good, and I’m not going to worship him. These are all logical options that many people accept, but they are inconsistent with Christianity. If I was to remain a Christian, I had to accept that the Church never apostatized. (There are logical reasons for choosing Christianity over other options, but they are beyond the scope of this post, and even of this blog.)

If the Church never fell into apostasy or heresy, then it is still around now. The task is to find it. Based on the conclusions I had just come to, I was pretty sure the Church Jesus founded would not justify its existence by a view of history that involved complete apostasy. That criteria alone eliminated the vast majority of religious bodies that claim to be the Church (or part of it) and it left the Catholic Church, and the Orthodox Church, and maybe the Anglican/Episcopalian Church. As I looked into these three it became clear that the Anglican Church, while founded for political reasons, yet did justify its separation from the Catholic Church by claiming fault on the part of the Catholic Church. And so did the Orthodox Church.

Of course, there were many doctrines the Catholic Church teaches that I was uncomfortable with. I had to learn about many of them, recognize where I did not understand them, find where they were more consistent than the non-Catholic arguments against them, and eventually simply accept a few I did not understand. However, careful study will make sense of distinctly Catholic doctrines, and a careful study of history will show a distinctly Catholic Church from the beginning of Christianity.

A sovereign God will not let fall the Church He sacrificed so much for, to which He promised victory. Becoming Catholic was the only way to remain a Christian, or to maintain God’s sovereignty. This, in a nutshell, is why I will remain Catholic, and will never leave the Catholic Church for another form of Christianity.

Worship vs. Honor; Defining Worship

Originally published October 28, 2008.

I was recently accused of worshiping Mary.  This might be the most popular accusation for Protestants to make against Catholics. The Catholic response is that we don’t worship Mary or the other saints, but we do honor them. Most non-Catholics do not understand how we can say this. We sing songs to Mary, and to other saints. We pray to them. We have statues of them in our churches, schools, and homes and often these statues are placed in shrines. Many Catholics place flowers or other gifts at the feet of these statues. We light candles to them. In the Protestant mind, these actions constitute worship, and many of them a particularly pagan style of worship.

The difference between our treatment of Mary and the other saints and our treatment of the Godhead can be understood if you understand how we think of the Eucharist. Catholics believe the bread becomes Jesus’ body and the wine becomes His blood. These are offered to God as a sacrifice, in union with the sacrifice Jesus made of Himself at Calvary. We offer this blood sacrifice to God. I learned recently that there was a heretical group in the days of the early church that did offer their Eucharist to Mary. This heresy was condemned by the Catholic church, because Catholics know that it is wrong to worship Mary. We never, ever offer the Eucharist to anyone other than God. Not Mary. Not other saints. Not angels. Only God.

Of course, Protestants do not believe the Eucharist is really Jesus’ body and blood. Because of this, the highest form of honor they give to God is to sing songs about Him and to Him, pray to Him, preach about Him, give money to promote His church, and participate in a symbolic meal. Even Protestants who believe in some form of the real presence do not believe their meal is a sacrifice being offered to anyone. This is why Protestants, who also do not want to worship Mary or other saints or angels do not sing songs to them, or talk to them/pray to them, etc.

But Protestants are perfectly comfortable singing love songs addressed to their boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse. Does that mean they are worshiping their boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse? We all understand that the lecture about Edgar Allan Poe I listened to in college was not remotely a form of worship. When I take flowers to my grandmother’s grave, I am not worshiping her. The images carved in the side of Mount Rushmore are not idolatrous. Does the man who talks to his dead mother, asking her to put in a good word for him on the other side, worship his mother? Has he crossed the line if he kisses her picture, or if he keeps some trinket of hers next to his heart? Surely we all know these actions do not constitute worship. They are ways of honoring people.

Catholics use these same ways of honoring people to honor Mary and the other saints. We offer our sacrifice to God alone. That is why we can say that we honor Mary and the other saints, but we do not worship them.

1400-Year-Old Monastery

Originally published October 1, 2008

HT: The Way of the Fathers

A 6th-century monastery has been found in Iraq. You really should click that link and read the Smithsonian article because this is fascinating stuff. There are a few things I want to highlight for my own purposes:

Inside the plain walls of the chapel, one shell-shaped niche is decorated with intricate carvings and an Aramaic inscription asks for prayers of the soul of the person interred beneath the walls. Shades of a cobalt blue fresco can be found above the stepped altar. (snip)

After World War I, the monastery became a refugee center, according to chaplain and resident historian Geoff Bailey, a captain with the 86th Combat Support hospital. Christians supposedly still came once a year in November to celebrate the feast of St. Elijah (also the name of the monastery’s founding monk).

We have a monastery from the late 500’s, founded by a monk named St. Elijah, with frescos above the altar, and a request for prayers to prayed by the deceased at a grave. Monasticism, saints, images, altars, praying to the dead.

Almost all non-Catholics (Anglicans and Episcopals excepted, I think) would claim that these are all signs of gross apostacy. Yet many of these same non-Catholics would claim that the Church did not apostatize until the 1000’s or later. How, in the absence of any evidence that any orthodox Christians saw these practices as apostacy, and in the presence of their widespread use throughout history, and in the presence of explicit defenses of these practices by orthodox Christians, can these Protestants claim to practice the true ancient faith? If you’re going to say that these practices are un-orthodox, you must also say the Church apostatized sometime before this monastery was built. And this is just ONE monastery. There are scores more, and much, much more such evidence in other places. (The catacombs for one example.)

The Orthodox Church is the only other contender even in the ballpark for the title of The Historic Church. This is precisely the sort of thing that brought me to the Catholic Church.

God Does Not “Overlook” Our Sin

Originally published August 31, 2008

Growing up in the Church of Christ, I thought that after baptism, every time I sinned, I had to pray to God for forgiveness. In response, the ever-patient and forgiving God would wipe my slate clean (the slate on which He kept track of my demerits) because of His inexplicable love for me. So every time I prayed for forgiveness, I was starting over – getting a second chance. One of the most difficult things to understand was why God would be willing to pass out “second” chances when we all knew I was on chance number five million. It was my job to stop sinning. Sanctification was understood in terms of the most basic definition of the word – a setting apart. So when God sanctified me, He excluded me from the class of people who are the “world” and included me instead in the class of people who make up his church. So I lost my sanctification every time I sinned and was re-sanctified every time I was forgiven.

When I became a Calvinist, I believed something a bit different. I believed that God had chosen me specifically (and many other people) out of the entire human family to be saved from my sin. I believed that because I was one of the chosen ones, it was impossible for me to die without having repented of all sin. The repentance and forgiveness still worked basically the same way in my new belief system. The reason God kept giving me chances was that He had chosen to save me, and His will would prevail even over my sinfulness. My sanctification was something that God was working out in my life so that I will sin less and less as my life goes on. However, I could not expect to reach complete sanctification in this life.

Now that I’m Catholic, I understand this entire process differently. I do not believe that God ever “overlooks” my sin. He forgives it, yes. But He doesn’t ever pretend it doesn’t exist or that it didn’t happen. He looks unflinchingly on what I am and sees both what I was designed to be and the horror that I have become. God works my sanctification, declaring me righteous only after I become truly holy. My holiness may be achieved in this life or after it (in Purgatory), but it will be achieved. (This, incidentally, is why I find Purgatory comforting, rather than scary.) The good news of Christianity is that it’s not my job to make myself perfect, but God’s. And the great promise is that God will not give up on my sanctification.