Introductory Remarks 

As far as the early views on the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper are concerned, during the first three centuries of the new dispensation, we may remark that the chief question concerning this sacrament was not as clearly defined then as it is today. The chief question concerning the Lord’s Supper today is that which is concerned with the proper interpretation of the words of the Savior spoken by Him at the institution of this sacrament: “This is my body.” The question concerns the relation between the sign and the things that are obsignated. Four different views have developed and are held at the present time. The Roman Catholic Church believes in the doctrine of transubstantiation. According to this view the sign and the thing obsignated are identified. The bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of the Lord. The Lutheran view is known as consubstantiation. According to this conception the sign and the thing obsignated are not identified, but they are objectively connected. The body and blood of the Lord are really present in, with, and under the bread, and the wine. A third view is known as the sacramental or Calvinistic view. This conception views the relation between the thing obsignated and the sign as purely spiritual. And the fourth view of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is known as the Zwinglian view. This conception of the sacrament is merely symbolical. It regards the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper merely as a feast of commemoration.

As might be expected, none of these four views had been distinctly and fully developed in the earliest period of the Church. It is readily understandable that the Church, first of all, simply accepted the sacraments and observed them without entering into the deeper significance of them. This, I say, is easily understandable. Standing upon the threshold of the new dispensation and but recently having made the transition from the Old to the new dispensation, the Church of God did not enjoy the clear understanding of the Scriptures which characterizes the Church of the living God today. This also applied to its understanding of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. It did not give itself immediately a clear and distinct account of the meaning of this sacrament. It may be observed, however, that also to this sacrament as well as to the sacrament of baptism, a profound significance was attached, although it had no clear idea or conception of its significance. And, thirdly, we may also remark that by various writers of this early period the seeds were sown for the development of all the various views of the Lord’s Supper that were to be developed in a later period. 

More specifically we may observe, in the first place, that the present Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation was entirely unknown in the early period of the Church. We are informed that Pope Gelasius I (492-496) also taught that “the substance or nature of the bread and wine does not cease to exist.” Yet, since the Church generally held that somehow the flesh and blood of Christ were received at the Lord’s Supper and the question as to how these were present is not always clearly answered, it may be said that tendencies can be found that would point in the direction of the Roman Catholic doctrine. The views of Ignatius, Justin and Irenaeus remind us of the present Lutheran doctrine. They emphasize the real presence of the body and blood of the Lord. It must be remembered, however, that also these fathers did not clearly define the manner in which the body and blood of Christ were present. The North African Church, however, revealed rather clear tendencies toward what is called the Reformed view. Origin inclined toward the Zwinglian conception, but Clement, Tertullian and Cyprian inclined toward the Calvinistic or sacramental idea. 

Continuing with our brief resume of the early views on the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we would observe that the sacrifice constitutes an essential element today in the Roman Catholic view of the mass. The Romish Church distinguishes between the mass and the Eucharist. The mass precedes the eucharist and is, of course, necessary for it. There can be no Eucharist, no partaking of the body and blood of Christ and thanksgiving unto God without the mass. The mass is the sacrifice. Then the bread and wine are actually changed into the body and blood of the Lord. It is and should be most interesting to ascertain whether this Roman Catholic conception of the sacrifice was also present in the early Church. We know that the term “sacrifice” was used in connection with the celebration of the sacrament. But we also know that the term was used by the early Church in an altogether different sense than it is presently used in the Roman Catholic Church. According to this early view of the Church, not Christ was offered, but the Church offered itself, its prayers and thanksgiving, etc.” Cyprian, however, because of his hierarchical tendencies (it was his basic teaching that the bishop is in the Church, and the Church is in the bishop, and that salvation without the Church and the bishop is impossible) already expresses the idea that not the Church but that the pried offers an imitation of the sacrifice of the Lord. 

We would conclude these introductory remarks by referring our readers to the term, “sacrament.” The word, sacrament, is not found in holy writ. However, this is not the only word which we use dogmatically and is not found in the Scriptures. Terms such as: providence, trinity, are also foreign to the Word of God. The word, sacrament, is derived from the Latin “sacramentum,” which originally denoted, a sum of money deposited by parties in litigation, inasmuch as the winner’s money was returned while the loser’s sum was forfeited. This seems to have been called a “sacramentum” because it was intended to be a sort of sacrifice to the gods and therefore sacred. The transition of this term to its Christian use may be sought in two things. First, the word appears to have been used as a military term, in which it denoted the oath by which a soldier solemnly pledged obedience to his command. A reference to this idea of an oath and obedience to our cCommander may be discerned in Article 34 of our Confession of Faith, where we read that “by which we are received into the Church of God and separated from all other people and strange religions, that we may wholly belong to him, whose ensign and banner we bear (we underscore—H.V.). Secondly, we would refer to the specifically religious sense which the term acquired when the Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Bible) employed it as a rendering of the Greek “musterion.” It is possible that this Greek term was applied to the sacraments because they bear a faint resemblance to some of the mysteries of the Greek religion. In the early Church the word “sacrament” was first used to denote all kinds of doctrine and ordinances. 

Two words were therefore employed in the early period of the Church to denote the idea of the sacraments: the Latin “sacramenturn” (sacrament) and the Greek “musterion” (mystery). It must be remembered, however, that these words were not exclusively used for our sacraments, but that they also had a wider, use’; the sacrament or mystery of religion, of the trinity, of the Lord’s prayer, etc.

The doctrine of transubstantiation not the accepted doctrine of the Church in this period 

The union of Christ and the signs in the Supper were often compared to the union of the two natures in Christ. Corresponding to the mysterious union between the two natures of Christ in one and the same person, was the idea of a mystical connection subsisting between the body of Christ and the bread in the Lord’s Supper, and between His blood and the wine. The deeply mysterious and often fantastic rhetoric of the fathers, the mysterious language in which they expressed themselves, makes it often uncommonly difficult to decide what dogmatic notions are to be attached to their expressions. By their changing imagery we are sometimes led to think of an ideal, sometimes of a substantial change; now of a subjective change on the part of the participant, and again of an objective change in what is received; sometimes it is a wonderful conjunction of the head and the body of Christ (consubstantiality); sometimes a total change of the elements of the Lord’s Supper into this body (transubstantiation, real transformation). Their writings are not characterized by clarity. 

We may, however, remark that the doctrine of transubstantiation was surely not at this time as yet a part of the accepted doctrine of the Church. Eusebius of Caesarea (he was the bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, the father of church history, was born about 275 or 280, died perhaps at Caesarea most probably May 30, 339) is reportedly to have been partial to expressions such as the following: “Christians are admonished to celebrate the remembrance of Christ by the symbols of his body and blood.” Notice that this writer, in this quotation, speaks of the symbols of Jesus, body and blood. And in his interpretation of John 6 (in this chapter the Lord feeds five thousand men, not counting the women and the children, with five loaves and two fishes and then becomes involved in a heated dispute with the carnal Galileans which leads to their forsaking of Him because they are carnal and the Lord and His Kingdom are spiritual), he says that we are not to believe that Christ spake of His present body, or enjoined the drinking of His corporeal and sensuous blood; but the words which He spake are spirit and life, so that His words themselves are His flesh and blood. In this expression reputedly attributed to Eusebius, we should notice that he is reportedly to have said that Jesus’ words themselves are His flesh and blood. This is certainly a “far cry” from the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation which advances the theory that the body and blood of the Lord are actually imparted to the believing participant, inasmuch as the bread and wine are actually changed into the body and blood of the Lord. Eusebius speaks of the symbols of Jesus’ body and blood, and he also declares that the words of the Lord themselves are His flesh and blood. 

Gregory Nazianzen called the bread and wine of the sacrament symbols and antitypes of the body and blood of Christ. Nilus, a disciple of Chrysostom (John Chrysostom, called “John the Golden-mouthed,” was patriarch of Constantinople. He was born at Antioch, probably about 345 or 347, and died in Pontus, Sept. 14, 407), made a clear distinction between the symbols and the thing represented by them. And the distinction made by Theodoret between the sign and the thing signified was intimately connected with the similar distinction which he drew between the human and the divine natures of Christ.

The Lord willing, we will continue with this in our following article and quote from Reinhold Seeberg who has written on Augustine’s view of the Lord’s Supper in his “The History of Doctrine.” 

H.V.


“Inward holiness and eternal glory are the crown with which God adorns and dignifies His elect. But they are not the cause of election. A king is not made a king, by the royal robe he wears, and by the crown that encircles his brow; but he therefore wears his robe, and put on his crown, because he IS the king . . . .”

—Toplady