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Enduring Anathemas of the Roman Catholic Eucharist

Douglas M. Jones

Understanding the framework of the Roman Eucharist and the reasons given in its support helps to remind us why we should reject it.

In an age like ours, which mocks religious debate, a critical evaluation of the Roman Catholic Eucharist appears quaint. Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Sacrifice of the Mass is nothing to trivialize. The stakes in this debate are too high, and sincere persons on all sides of the issue realize that this is not a minor Swiftian quibble. The answers in this debate stand at the very heart of Christian faith and have eternal consequences.[1]

With the very apparent resurgence of Roman Catholicism over the last decade, we've witnessed renewed Biblical defenses of the Roman Catholic Eucharist. My goal in this essay is to provide a helpful summary of the Roman Catholic Eucharist and analyze traditional and recent Biblical arguments for two of its central features: Real presence and sacrifice. These two aspects of the Roman Eucharist, like any doctrines, do not sit in a moral vacuum. From a Protestant perspective, these doctrines are grave offenses against a holy God. The two primary offenses or "anathemas" -- idolatry and a distortion of Christ's atoning work -- have, since the Reformation, yet to be expunged from Roman Catholic teaching, and therefore remain under Christ's condemnation. My Roman Catholic friends obviously reject such contentions, but I hope they will consider the arguments.

I. Theological Background and Outline of the Roman Catholic Eucharist

In order to understand the Roman Eucharist adequately, we need a sketch of its general theological underpinnings. The doctrines discussed under the Roman Catholic understanding of "God the Sanctifier" provide an apt starting point for this overview.

A. God the Sanctifier

Taking Ludwig Ott's Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma as our benchmark,[2] the discussion of "God the Sanctifier" would translate in Protestant theology to a discussion of soteriology in general -- the doctrines of salvation. This usage in itself is a portend of what is to come.

Grace, the most general concept in the discussion of God the Sanctifier, is understood in subjective and objective senses. In the subjective sense, it is the "disposition of condescension or benevolence shown by a highly-placed person to one in a lower place, and especially of God towards mankind."[3] In the objective sense, the concept of grace is "an unmerited gift proceeding from this benevolent disposition."[4] This objective sense of grace is further distinguished into uncreated (God Himself) and created (any gift or work of God) grace. Created grace includes natural (e.g., Creation, bodily health, Eden) and redemptive grace.

In turn, redemptive grace may be divided into External (e.g., revelation, sermons, liturgy, sacraments) and Internal graces. Internal grace "affects the soul and its powers intrinsically, and operates physically on it."[5] For this discussion, the main subdivision of Internal grace is Gratia Gratum Faciens or the grace of sanctification. This grace is distinguished as either Actual grace, which is "a temporary supernatural intervention by God by which the powers of the soul are stirred up to perform a salutary act...directed toward [an] increase of sanctifying grace" or Habitual grace, which is "a constant supernatural quality of the soul which sanctifies man intrinsically and makes him just and pleasing to God (sanctifying grace or justifying grace)."[6]

B. Habitual or Sanctifying Grace

Sanctifying grace is the key to redemption in Roman Catholic theology. Ott declares that "[a]ccording to the teaching of the Council of Trent, sanctifying grace is the sole formal cause of justification."[7] In popular language, Sheed contends, "When we come to die there is only one question that matters -- have we sanctifying grace in our souls? If we have, then to heaven we shall go...[though] there may be certain matters to be...cleansed, on the way....If we have not [sanctifying grace], then to heaven we cannot go."[8]

As noted above, sanctifying grace is, according to Roman Catholic theology, a created supernatural gift which God infuses into the soul in order to sanctify/justify believers, thus elevating them "to participation in the Divine nature."[9]

Two characteristics of this definition must be drawn out. First, the physicalistic language used to describe grace is not metaphorical. The notorious Roman Catholic devotion to, and utter dependence on, an Aristotelian worldview plays heavily in this discussion. For example, Ott explains that "sanctifying grace is not a substance, but a real accident, which inheres in the soul-substance."[10] Similarly the Council of Trent describes sanctifying grace as: "a divine quality inhering in the soul."[11] Sanctifying grace as this sort of Aristotelian quality or property can be "inserted," "added," "lost," "conveyed," "balanced," "outweighed," "contained," etc., since sanctifying grace and other divine properties "are really in our very souls."[12]

This object-like nature of grace provides the ground for the second notable characteristic in the definition of sanctifying grace, namely, that by it we become like God, partakers of His nature, that is, by grace man "becomes elevated to a supernatural grade of assimilation to God."[13] Ott contends that the church fathers had "a firm conviction that God became man so that man might become God, that is, deified...[since this is] `the greatest possible assimilation to and unification with God.'"[14] As sanctifying grace is added to the soul, a person becomes more assimilated to or united with God's nature. Nevertheless, Roman Catholic theology denies that this understanding of grace is in any sense pantheistic since "the infinite distance between Creator and created remains."[15] [n.b., R. Catholic theology assumes that both God and man, I claim, are, nevertheless, on the same grade or continuum of being.]

On the positive side, and particularly relevant to this discussion, the unity resulting from the infusion of sanctifying grace "represents a physical communion of man with God."[16] Hence, God assimilates man closer to His grade of being by means of increasing the created gift of sanctifying grace. This assimilation is completed in the next life by the Beatific Vision of God -- "the direct vision of himself....[T]he seeing that causes bliss."[17]

Finally, according to Roman Catholic theology, though God is the ultimate source of sanctifying grace, sanctification/justification "requires the free co-operation of men." Though mysterious, the "mutual co-operation of Divine power and human freedom"[18] lies at the heart of Roman Catholic doctrines of grace. Hence, Roman Catholic theology does not flinch in asserting that the grace of God is resistible. The Council of Trent declares, "If anyone says that man's free will moved and aroused by God, by assenting to God's call and action, in no way cooperates toward disposing and preparing itself to obtain the grace of justification, that it cannot refuse its assent if it wishes, but that as something inanimate, it does nothing whatever and is merely passive, let him be anathema."[19] Hence, by this claim alone, the Roman Catholic church has forever revealed itself as a false teacher, and, with Arminians and Lutherans, has determined that the success of Almighty God's Sovereign plan rests upon the caprice of finite man.

C. The Instrument of Sanctifying Grace

Contrary to Protestant theology which maintains that God's Spirit may effect salvation apart from intermediaries, Roman Catholic theology teaches that God has chosen to dispense His grace only through the instrumentality of the church: "While Christ acquired the fruits of Redemption by His own efficacy, the task of the Church consists in the application of the fruits to mankind....[T]he Church is Christ's continuing and perpetually working on earth."[20] Thus, "[t]hrough the Apostles -- and, since it was to be until the world should end, through their successors -- we were to find the truth, the life, the union by which we shall be saved."[21]

Given that the Roman church is the only instrument of sanctifying grace, Pius IX could declare: "By faith it is to be firmly held that outside the Apostolic Roman Church none can achieve salvation. This is the only ark of salvation. He who does not enter into it, will perish in the flood."[22] Strangely, Roman Catholic theologians are quick to add that in rare cases persons might be saved by merely desiring baptism or desiring membership in the church.[23]

Hence, as the "only ark of salvation" the Roman Catholic church is the instrument which distributes the sanctifying grace of God through seven sacraments.

D. The Sacraments

In Roman Catholic theology, a sacrament is "a thing perceptible to the sense, which on the ground of Divine institution possesses the power both of effecting and signifying sanctity and righteousness (= sanctifying grace)."[24] There are two primary characteristics which hold of any of the sacraments.
1. Conduits of Sanctifying Grace
Each of the seven sacraments in Roman Catholic teaching -- baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, anointing th sick, priestly orders, and matrimony -- serves to infuse sanctifying grace into the souls of the recipients. Moreover, each of the seven sacraments confers its own specific sacramental grace in accord with its particular aim.[25]
2. Objective Efficacy -- ex opere operato
Roman Catholic theology maintains that the sacraments operate objectively in the sense that they have "an efficacy independent of the subjective disposition of the recipient or minister,"[26] and have more than a merely symbolic or psychological significance. This sort of claim, as an example of a typical misunderstanding on the part of the Roman Catholic church, is supposedly set in opposition to even a Reformed understanding of the sacraments. Though the Reformed tradition within the Protestant Reformation was one of the main targets of Tridentine curses, we will see below that it never maintained that the sacraments have only "psychological and symbolic significance."[27] Instead, Reformed theology holds that the efficacy of the sacraments is decisively "objective," in that, as means of grace, the Holy Spirit Himself works through them to curse or bless.

Nevertheless, Roman Catholic theology goes on to maintain that the sacraments contain the sanctifying grace which they signify within themselves. Thus Trent curses: "If anyone says that the sacraments of the New Law do not contain the grace which they signify, or that they do not confer that grace on those who place no obstacles in their way, as though they are only outward signs of grace or justice received through faith...let him be anathema."[28]

The Scholastic theologians designated this objective characteristic by the phrase: "Sacramenta operantur ex opere operato, that is the Sacraments operate by the power of the completed sacramental rite."[29] The Council of Trent subsequently etched this terminology in doctrinal stone and cursed anyone who held otherwise. The essence of the ex opere operato formula is (a) that the efficacy of the sacrament is not dependent on the subjective disposition of the recipient as a cause of grace and (b) that the sacramental grace is caused by the validly operated sacramental sign.[30] Nevertheless, Roman Catholic theology denies that ex opere operato has a mechanical or magical operation, since the sacrament's efficacy does depend upon the recipient's subjective disposition as "an indispensable pre-condition of the communication of grace."[31] Hence, interestingly, the necessity of the recipient's subjective disposition is both affirmed and denied.

In general, then, according to Roman Catholic theology, "the Sacraments are the means appointed by God for the attainment of eternal salvation."[32] Some of these are so necessary that "without their use salvation cannot be attained."[33] Of all the sacraments, "[t]he Blessed Eucharist is the Sacrament. Baptism exists for it, all the others enriched by it."[34]

E. The Roman Catholic Eucharist

Peter Stravinskas summarizes the entire Mass as "God's mysterious plan, conceived from all eternity and brought to fulfillment in His divine Son's passion, death, and resurrection,...made present. Or as Pope St. Leo the Great put it, `What our redeemer did visibly has passed over into the sacraments.'"[35] Thomas Howard describes the Roman Catholic Eucharist in the following terms:
The Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood is the great pledge, given by the Lord to His Church, for as long as history lasts, of the reunion of form and matter, or spirit and flesh. Put more directly, it presents to us His death, by which He redeemed the world from sin and death and from ruin brought on by the Fall. The "rebuilding," or reunion, of things from this ruin was inaugurated by God in the Old Testament, manifested at the Incarnation, and will be completed at the Parousia. It is pledged and kept present to us in the Eucharist which is both memory and anticipation. It recalls Christ's body, broken for us, and it looks forward to His glorious reappearing.[36]
In less eloquent though more precise terminology, Joseph Jungmann summarizes the Mass, in general, and Eucharist, in particular, as follows:
The Mass is a celebration for which the Church assembles, a celebration which occupies the center of her charge and service, a celebration which is dedicated to the Lord. It is a celebration which presents God with a thanksgiving, an offering, indeed a sacrifice. And it is a celebration which reacts with blessings upon those who gather for it.[37]
1. Purpose of the Roman Catholic Eucharist
The Council of Trent (13, I) specifies at least four purposes for its Eucharist. First, it was instituted as a remembrance of God's work, especially to show forth the death of Christ until He comes to judge the world. Second, it was instituted as "spiritual food for souls, whereby they may be nourished and strengthened, living by the life of Him who said: He that eateth me, the same also shall live by me" (i.e. a means of infusing sanctifying grace). Third, it was instituted as an antidote to free participants from daily faults and preserve them from daily sins. Fourth, it was instituted as a pledge of future glory and happiness of that "one body" to which all Christians ought to be "mutually bound and united."
2. Nature of the Roman Catholic Eucharist
The first two of the above purposes -- memorial and meal -- can be used to explain the nature of the Eucharist (the other purposes are dependent upon these).

a. Memorial Sacrifice: One of the most unique (and, to Protestants, scandalous) aspects of the Roman Catholic theology is its insistence that the Lord's Supper is in itself a "true and real sacrifice," not merely the commemoration of a sacrifice. Trent declares that, on the night Christ was betrayed, He "offered up to God the Father His own body and blood under the form of bread and wine," and subsequently left to His church a "visible sacrifice" whereby His bloody sacrifice on the cross "might be represented," remembered, and "its salutary effects applied to the remission of...sins" (22: I, II). This "unbloody" sacrifice "is truly propitiatory" and thus since God is "appeased by this sacrifice" He forgives "even the gravest crimes and sins." This unbloody sacrifice is essentially identical to the bloody sacrifice of the cross, since the "victim is one and the same,...the manner alone of offering is different." Hence, according to Roman theology, the unbloody sacrifice in the Roman Eucharist is far "from derogating in any way from the former" -- i.e. Christ's atonement on the cross.

The foregoing sketch may be summarized by the following characteristics.

(i) Genuine Sacrifice: The Roman Eucharist is not only a memorial meal but a genuine sacrifice in which "Christ is offered as a sacrificial gift to God"[38] by "the Church [which] joins in the sacrifice of her Lord and Master."[39]

(ii) Unbloody Sacrifice: Roman Catholic theology presses the "unbloody" aspect of the sacrifice to counter accusations that Christ is re-sacrificed and not in the sense that no blood is present, since to deny that Christ's blood is truly in the Eucharist is to invoke the curses of Trent (13: Canon 1).

(iii) Essentially Identical to Calvary: By maintaining that the Sacrifice of the Mass is "essentially identical" to the Sacrifice of the Cross, Roman theology aims to receive the same benefits provided by the latter, thus continuing Christ's sacrifice on the cross "until the end of time."[40]

(iv) Non-Repetitive Sacrifice: The Roman Eucharist is sacrificial in nature in that Christ's "one-time act of redemption [is] made present under cloak of the rite, `in the mystery."[41] As such, it is "a liturgical reenactment of Christ's death on Calvary and not a blasphemous effort to `add to' His saving death and resurrection."[42]

(v) Sacrificial Act in Transubstantiation: The precise sacrificial action in the Eucharist has been long disputed among Roman Catholic theologians. Contrary to what many might suppose, the precise sacrificial act is not the breaking or eating of the Host but rather the transubstantiation of the sacrificial gifts.[43]

(vi) Effects Glory to God : The primary goal of the Eucharistic sacrifice is "the most perfect sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving."[44]God alone, Roman Catholics theology maintains, is worthy of such a genuine sacrifice, given the "infinite value of the sacrificial gift [i.e. Christ]...and on account of the infinite dignity of the Primary Sacrificing Priest [i.e. Christ]."[45]

(vii) Effects Propitiation of Sin: Finally, given its essential identity to Calvary, the Roman Eucharist effects not only praise to God but also the remission of sins. As "truly propitiatory," it allegedly turns away the wrath of God from participants and "the Lord grants the grace and gift of penitence and pardons even the gravest crimes and sins."[46]

These seven characteristics summarize the sacrificial nature of the Roman Eucharist. Many, if not each of these characteristics, ought to appall Protestants. The source of this Protestant revulsion resides in the central claim that the Lord's Supper is a sacrifice. Hence, we will focus on that claim and not its subsidiary characteristics. However, prior to evaluating the Roman Catholic arguments used to defend the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, we must summarize the other equally important aspect of the Roman Eucharist -- Real presence.

b. Meal of Presence: The other unique and equally scandalous aspect of the Roman Eucharist is the claim that "immediately after the consecration, the true body and the true blood of our Lord, together with His soul and divinity exist under the form of bread and wine."[47] Roman Catholics glory in the "Real presence" of Christ, since by ingesting the Divine, they are directly in union and communion with Him. Ex-Reformed pastor Scott Hahn describes the sublime effects of this Roman Eucharistic union:

We have become a temple. We have become a tabernacle. We have become almost like the blessed virgin Mary, who carried the Word incarnate within her womb for nine months. We carry the Word incarnate for about ten or fifteen minutes. And as He is flowing through our veins, and as he is assimilated into our bodies, we need to speak the most loving, generous words that our hearts can create.[48]
By partaking in the Roman Eucharist and thus maintaining that the body of Christ "is flowing through our veins," the Roman Catholic aims to assimilate divinity (cf. section B above, footnotes 12-14). In his recent popular exposition of the Mass, Stravinskas speaks of the part the Eucharist plays in deifying those who partake in it:
To aspire to divinity is the noblest of human yearnings. It is implanted in us by God Himself to keep us on the road back to Him. That is why we should reflect very carefully on the words we pray each day at Mass: `...may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.'

We need to look to the example of Jesus the Perfect Man, the Second Adam, who brought us the possibility of becoming gods -- the right way -- by submission to the will of the Father....Yes, we can become gods with a small `g,' for perfect humanity leads to divinity....To strive to be god-like was not a sin for our first parents, but the desire to do it on their own was [emphasis added].[49]

(I cannot forbear noting that statements like the two preceding ones are the type which should make our hair stand on end and enable us to better realize why our Reformation predecessors were so willing to lay down their lives in opposition to Rome. )

Finally, given the Real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Roman Catholics are obligated to "give to this most holy sacrament in veneration the worship of latria, which is due to the true God."[50]

The foregoing sketch may be summarized by the following characteristics:

(1) Transubstantiation: In short, transubstantiation is the name of the supernatural and mysterious process by which the underlying (invisible) substance of the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ. The substances of the bread and wine, not their visible characteristics, are transformed by God so that they take on the "matter and form" of the body and blood of Christ. This conversion of substances, according to Roman theology, is unique, without analogue in nature.[51] This view stands in contrast to the view that the elements of the supper are merely symbols (no presence), the Lutheran view that the substances of the bread and wine exist conjointly with the body and blood of Christ (Consubstantiation), and the Reformed view that Christ is present "really, but spiritually" (Real, Spiritual presence).[52]

(2) Totality of the Presence: According to Roman Catholic theology, Christ's entire person, "body and soul and Divinity" are present in the Eucharist. Moreover, He is totally present under each and in every part of the two elements individually. Hence, though communicants since the thirteenth century have regularly received only the bread, they, therefore, receive the body and blood of Christ.[53]

(3) Adoration Due to the Eucharist: Ott states that "it follows from the wholeness and permanence of the Real Presence that the absolute worship of adoration (cultus latriae) is due to Christ present in the Eucharist."[54] In this regard Stravinskas explains, "[a]s the procession reaches the altar, priest and ministers genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament, if it is visible from the central axis, or else bow profoundly to the altar. The priest kisses the altar, in effect, greeting Christ....Why do we honor the Eucharist with incense, candles, bells, hymns, a sanctuary lamp, and genuflections? For one reason alone: Because God has come into our midst."[55]

We now have before us a critical outline of the Roman Catholic Eucharist. It fits within a broader system of grace and is the Roman Catholic Church's most important conduit of sanctifying grace. The two primary characteristics of the Eucharist are that (1) it is a genuine sacrifice propitiating sin and (2) it is a meal in which Christ's body, blood, soul, and Divinity are present in the place of the substance of the common elements. These two primary characteristics -- sacrifice and Real presence -- are the targets for Reformed Protestant charges of idolatry and a distortion of Christ's atonement. Since the theology of the Roman Eucharist hinges on these two primary characteristics, I will now turn to evaluate traditional and contemporary Biblical arguments used to defend these notions.

II. Evaluating Roman Catholic Arguments for the Eucharist's Sacrificial Nature and Real Presence

A. Arguments For and Against the Eucharist as a Sacrifice

Traditionally, Roman Catholic theology has forwarded three primary Biblical arguments to support its claim that the Lord's Supper was intended to be a genuine propitiatory sacrifice. More recent Roman Catholic apologists have offered rejoinders to some of the common Protestant objections to viewing the Lord's Supper as a Sacrifice.
1. Melchizedek's Priestly Offering
The first argument to consider arises from the fact that following Abraham's rescue of Lot from the four enemy kings, Melchizedek, king of Salem, "brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God" (Gen. 14:18ff.). Add to this, the truth that Christ was made "a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek" (Heb. 5:6; 7:1; Ps. 110:4), and infer that, since Melchizedek offered a sacrifice of bread and wine, Christ too "offers a sacrifice similar to that of Melchizedek. This Sacrifice can only refer to the proffering of His Body and Blood under the forms of bread and wine at the Last Supper and in the Holy Mass."[56] Hence, the Eucharist is a proper sacrifice.

In response, first, the text makes no reference at all to a sacrifice, and so the argument depends upon the implicit premise that every time a priest presents some kind of food, he is making a sacrifice. Karl Keating sets up the universal generalization of this premise as, "a priest sacrifices the items offered -- that is the main task of all priests, in all cultures, at all times."[57] Hence, we need only one counterexample to this premise to dispose of the argument. A very pertinent counterexample is found in Christ's feeding of the multitudes (Matt. 15; Mk. 8). Christ is a priest, and he presents a miraculous meal, yet no one claims that a sacrifice takes place. Hence, the appeal to Melchizedek fails.

Second, even if we grant the eisegeted premise that Melchizedek offers some kind of sacrifice, it is clearly not expiatory since no blood is shed. Yet, the Roman Eucharist is explicitly so; hence, if Christ allegedly offers a sacrifice "in the manner of Melchisedek,"[58] He cannot be doing what Roman Catholic theology requires Him to do.

2. Malachi's Future Perfect Sacrifice
A second argument for the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist is drawn from Malachi's prophecy that "in every place incense and a pure offering will be brought to my name, because My name will be great among the nations,' says the Lord of Hosts" (Mal. 1:11). Ott sees two requirements here. One is that a future Messianic sacrifice will be offered "in every place," and two, it will be a clean oblation -- "a pure offering." According to Ott, this cannot speak of the sacrifice on Calvary, since that sacrifice was carried out in one place, and it was not clean.[59]

First, if Roman Catholics are determined to stand arm-in-arm with Dispensationalists in demanding narrow literalism regardless of the genre and context of a passage, then they need to be consistent and not just press ad hoc for literalism at Malachi 1:11 and John 6, but everywhere (including the book of Revelation).

Second, the truth is that prophets commonly use designations familiar to their audience to describe the glories of the Messianic age to come (e.g. Is. 2; 11; 19; 60; Mic. 4; Joel 2; Ezek. 40ff.; etc.). For example, Isaiah speaks in a manner very similar to Malachi, when he prophesies of sacrifices and altars that will arise in Egypt, Assyria, and Judah for pure worship of Jehovah. Must we apply the same wooden exegesis to Isaiah that Roman Catholics apply to Malachi and infer that these three nations and no others will literally erect altars for sacrifices and offerings?[60] Obviously not; both Malachi and Isaiah figuratively describe the spread of true worship of God throughout the earth in terms their immediate audience would relish. Hence, Malachi's prophecy does not stand as a support for the sacrificial nature of the Roman Eucharist without implying hermeneutical absurdities.

3. Christ's Words of Institution
Roman Catholic theology maintains that a third proof for the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist is that Christ Himself designated it a sacrifice when he used "biblical sacrificial terms, which express the oblation of a true and proper sacrifice."[61]

Yet Christ's use of sacrificial terms could easily be seen to designate a commemorative meal. This third argument is simply missing too many premises for its desired conclusion, or it assumes Real presence, which we will evaluate in a moment. Nevertheless, as these three primary arguments stand, none of them successfully implies that the Lord's Supper is a Sacrifice.

4. Considerations Precluding the Lord's Supper as a Sacrifice
Beyond the failure of the three primary proofs presented above, there are weighty Biblical considerations which preclude considering the Lord's Supper as a sacrifice.

First, if anything is at the heart of Biblical redemption, it is the claim that "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness" (Heb. 9:22; Lev. 17:11). Yet, the entire theology of the Eucharist contradicts this basic Biblical teaching; the Eucharist is dogmatically prescribed as an "unbloody" sacrifice by which the Lord is appeased and for which He "pardons even the gravest crimes and sins." Even the Roman Catholic appeal to the Eucharist's "essential identity" with Calvary cannot solve the dilemma.

Second, the Reformers strongly denounced the Roman Eucharist as a violation of Hebrews 7-11 which teaches that Christ's atonement was "once for all." The now standard Roman Catholic rejoinder is that "the sacrifice of the Mass is the sacrifice of the Cross, only presented in a different manner. The aspect of redemption which involved his death is finished, but Christ lives forever to offer, by his very presence in the Mass, his work on the Cross for our sins to the Father in heaven. In no way does this diminish Calvary."[62] Keating claims that "what makes the Mass literally unbelievable for fundamentalists is that they cannot conceive of a single act that is perpetuated through time."[63] In short, Roman Catholic theology denies that the Eucharist repeats the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary; it merely presents anew[64] or re-enacts[65] the once-for-all sacrifice "in order that the redemption won for our race should produce its fruit in us individually."[66]

However, the problem is not that Protestants are uniformly so dull that they cannot conceive the alleged subtleties of the Roman Catholic answer, it's that the answer woefully misses the mark. Contrary to Roman Catholic claims, the theology of the Eucharist still grossly denigrates Calvary since it assumes that Christ's atonement was radically incomplete. Roman theology assumes that Christ did not complete His propitiatory and expiatory work or else there would be no need for a re-enacted sacrifice in the Eucharist.

Yet Scripture presents Christ's atonement as "having obtained eternal redemption" (Heb. 9:12). He did not obtain six months or six day redemption but eternal redemption, since in the past by Calvary "we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Christ" (Heb. 10:10). And by this past, historical "offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified" or set apart (Heb. 10:14). Because God's people have by Christ's perfect and complete atoning work received this forgiveness, "there is no longer any offering for sin" (Heb. 10:18). Given these glorious truths, Calvin was absolutely correct when he declared, "The cross of Christ is overthrown as soon as the altar is set up."[67] Hence, the theology of the Roman Eucharist, even granting the "single-act-through-time" rejoinder, still grossly distorts and diminishes Christ's atoning work. Given these constraints, Scripture cannot conceive of the Eucharist as a sacrifice.

Let us now turn to evaluate the Roman Catholic arguments for Real Presence to see if they fare any better.

B. Arguments For and Against "Real" Presence in the Eucharist

Roman Catholic theology also has traditionally forwarded three primary Biblical arguments to support its claims for Christ's Real Presence in its Eucharist. And as before, we will evaluate how more recent Roman Catholicologists have rejoined historical Reformed objections.

Before examining the three arguments, please note that the Roman Catholic use of "Real" in this discussion should not be taken as in opposition to "unreal" or no presence. The Reformed faith as expressed in the Westminster Confession strongly endorses "Real" presence as well, though not in the Roman Catholic sense. We maintain that God's Spirit is real, in fact, God is a Spirit, and He is the foundation and precondition of all reality. A Biblical metaphysic, contrary to the Roman Catholic usage of "Real," need not require that reality be grounded in the physical, as is the tendency in those enslaved to an Aristotelian outlook.

1. Christ's Command to Eat His Body
John 6:48ff is the classic focus for the Roman Catholic defense of Real presence. The basic argument is that Christ declares that "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves" (v. 53). Roman Catholic apologists emphasize the fact that Christ does not soften his words, though he lost many disciples. "If they merely had misunderstood him, if they foolishly had taken a metaphor in a literal sense, why did he not call them back and straighten things out?....[They] would have remained had he told them he meant no more than a symbol."[68] Hence, Roman Catholics argue that the simple, literal, obvious meaning of the words teaches the Real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Sheed continues, "There are those, bent upon escaping the plain meaning of the words used, who say the phrase really means `This represents my body.' It sounds very close to desperation! No competent speaker would ever talk like that, least of all Our Lord, least of all then." [69]

First, the whole Roman Catholic case depends upon a strictly literal interpretation of the passage, and so one way to quickly pull the rug out from its defenders is to show that they themselves do not read the text literally. They read John 6 figuratively by not maintaining that (a) Christ is some genuine conglomeration of grain as "bread" -- vv. 48, 51, (b) eating Christ's flesh is an unqualified necessity for salvation -- v. 53, (c) believers actually live within the physical body of Christ -- v. 56, and (d) by eating this bread believers shall never die in history -- v. 58. These are all the "plain" meanings of the words, yet Catholics themselves reject such silly interpretations. Moreover, they can hardly succeed in having others take them seriously if they will not apply their a priori commitment to literalism everywhere else in the Bible. Once they concede that the text determines whether it should be taken as poetic, narrative, apocalyptic, dogmatic, etc., they lose the heart of their case from John 6 (Cf. the discussion below regarding figurative interpretation in the institution of the Lord's Supper).

Second, Roman Catholic appeals to John 6 assume that Christ would have no desire to drive away some of His disciples,[70] but this assumption is false given His own reasons for speaking in parables (Matt. 13:13-16; cf. John 6: 44,65).

Third, the gospel of John provides us with a pattern of Christ's dialogues in which the hearers mistakenly interpret Christ literally, and yet Christ does not explicitly correct their misinterpretations.[71] In John 3, Nicodemus mistakenly interprets Christ literally and falsely in regard to the new birth, and Christ rebukes him for misunderstanding spiritual matters. Similarly, in John 4, the woman at the well mistakenly interprets Christ literally and falsely in regard to "living water," and Christ does not explain his words but rather redirects the discussion.

These patterns match that of the John 6 discussion, except that at least in chapter six, Christ does indicate that he is speaking figuratively, when finally he states, "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life" (v. 63). Karl Keating rejoins that the Protestant interpretation of this verse makes it a "fairy clumsy" circumlocution for "symbolic." Yet Keating himself offers an interpretation which makes the Protestant's case. He argues that Christ is not using "flesh" in the same sense as in vv. 53-59, but rather like John 3:6, in which the contrast is between a spiritual understanding over against a carnal, earthly understanding: "Christ detects in some of his listeners an unsupernatural attitude....[By "flesh," Christ] means instead carnal understanding, as distinguished from spiritual."[72] Protestants heartily agree, and as Leon Morris argues,

there is [in John 6:63] also in the manner of II Cor. 3:6 a contrast between the letter of the words and the spirit. A woodenly literal, flesh-dominated manner of looking at Jesus' words will not yield the correct interpretation. That is granted only to the spiritual man, the Spirit-dominated man. Such words cannot be comprehended by the fleshly, whose horizon is bounded by this earth and its outlook. Only as life-giving Spirit informs him may a man understand these words."[73]
Fourth, beyond the above, most Roman Catholic defenses of John 6 narrowly aim to refute those Zwinglian type understandings of the Eucharist which maintain that the Lord's Supper is merely symbolic, but this is not the Scriptural view, and so many of their rejoinders are irrelevant or do not support "Real" in the Catholic sense over "Real" in the Reformed sense.

As it stands, then, John 6 cannot be used to support the Roman understanding of Real presence.

2. The Institution of the Lord's Supper
Ott contends that "the principal biblical proof for the Eucharistic Real Presence lies in the words of institution."[74] At the institution, Christ declares regarding the bread, "Take, eat; this is My body," and regarding the cup, "this is My blood of the covenant" (Matt. 26:26ff.; Mk. 14:22-34; Lk. 22:15-20). The argument from these verses is that the wording is not figurative, the circumstances are straightforward, and the arguments raised against a literal understanding are flawed. Scott Hahn has also recently argued on the basis of Isaiah 55:11 that Christ's words bring about whatever they ascribe to an object.[75]

First, contrary to the simplistic claim that the words are in no way figurative, Scripture provides a wide array of just such covenant language which is obviously figurative. For example, "thus shall my covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant" (Gen. 17:13), "the rock was Christ" (I Cor. 10:4), and most relevant, the lamb "is the Lord's Passover" (Ex. 12:11).[76] The covenantal context bespeaks very important figurative language; a literal interpretation crassly misses the point.

Second, once again, Roman Catholics decidedly don't interpret these passages literally. For example, in Luke 22:20, Christ declares "the cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood." The emphasized text shows that the identification is now made between the wine or cup and an administration of God's grace, instead of Christ's blood. On Roman Catholic premises, we should expect some change in the substance of the wine's container (the cup) itself. Or similarly, promises, commands, and New Covenant mercies are constituted of fermented grapes! Such giant category mistakes are hard to come by.

Third, Hahn's argument that whatever God speaks comes to pass and that by declaring "This is My body" Christ immediately transformed substances requires that every time Christ makes a claim the event must come to pass. No one denies the power of Christ's word to create and destroy, but what I do deny is the premise that Christ always chooses to transform reality in this way. The frightful reductio that follows from Hahn's premise is that when Christ declared to Peter, "Get thee behind Me Satan" (Matt. 16:23), Peter was transformed into Satan. Similarly when Christ declared that he was the door, vine, or bread, dreadful transformations would have to take place. If Hahn rescinds the universality of his premise, then he simply loses his argument.[77]

Fourth, Protestants have often argued that Christ's presence at the meal was a clear indication to those present that His words did not signify that He was also in the bread and wine. As a wild rejoinder, Roman apologists often claim that "Christ was at the Last Supper in two ways. He was present at the table in a natural way, as were the apostles, and he was present in the eucharistic elements in a sacramental way....There is no contradiction in Christ being both physically and sacramentally present."[78] Whatever "sacramental existence" is, this rejoinder surely forever bans Roman Catholic defenders from appealing to the "plain sense" of the text to buttress their case.

Fifth, Rumble and Carty rejoin the Protestant figurative interpretation of the institution of the Supper by arguing that those who appeal to such texts as "I am the vine" to prove the figurative nature of Christ's statements fail to see that,

There is no logical parallel between the words `This is My body' and `I am the vine' or `I am the door.' For the images of the vine and door can have, of their very nature, a symbolical sense. Christ is like a vine because all the sap of my spiritual life comes from Him. He is like a door since I go to heaven through Him. But a piece of bread is in no way like His flesh. Of its very nature it cannot symbolize the actual body of Christ.[79]

Here we have a distinction with no difference. Contrary to their claim that bread cannot symbolize Christ ("actual body" begs-the-question), one need only see the symbolism in John 6 regarding God's provision of Manna in the wilderness. God nourished and sustained His people by bread in the desert, and now Christ applies that symbolism to Himself who nourishes us spiritually. The symbolism is evident.

As with John 6, Roman Catholic appeals to Christ's words of institution simply do not entail Real presence.

3. Paul and Those Who Have Died
The third and final primary support for Real presence is the appeal to I Corinthians 11:23ff. in which Paul warns him who takes the Lord's Supper unworthily that he "eats and drinks judgment to himself" and that "whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord." Hence, we are told that the passage assumes Real presence since mere symbols could not have such disastrous effects.

Reformed Protestants heartily agree and use this as a prooftext against those who hold to a mere Memorialist view. But again, it does not prove Real presence in the Roman Catholic sense.

In all then, none of the three arguments can be used to support Christ's "Real" presence in the Roman Eucharist. The arguments are either fallacious or do not uniquely support Roman Real presence.

Given such a weak Biblical basis for the Roman Eucharist, I would hope that Roman Catholics would recoil from the grave implications of Real presence, namely, the adoration of the creature over the Creator. The Westminster Confession speaks solemnly and truly when it declares, "The doctrine which maintains a change of the substance of bread and wine in the substance of Christ's body and blood...is the cause of manifold superstitions, yea, of gross idolatries."[80]

III. A Biblical Approach

If we reject the Roman Eucharist as grossly unbiblical, how ought we to understand the Lord's Supper? Below I provide a brief sketch of a Biblical understanding of the Lord's Supper, realizing that each point is worthy of a lengthy discussion in and of itself.

* God's grace is not a material-like object but rather His personal favor and beneficence spiritually communicated to accomplish His purposes.

* God communicates His grace commonly to the unregenerate (Matt. 5:45) and redemptively to His people by various means, including His Word, written and preached, prayer, and the sacraments.

* A sacrament is one of the means of grace and is a perpetual ordinance instituted by Christ to serve as a sign and seal to those within the covenant of Grace (Gen. 17:7; Matt. 28: 19; 27: 26-28; Rom. 4:11; I Cor. 11:24; Rom. 15:8; Ex. 12:48).

* As a sign, a sacrament directs our thoughts to the redemptive reality it represents (Gen. 17:7; Matt. 3:11; I Pet. 3:21; Rom. 2:28, 29).

* As a seal, a sacrament serves to authenticate or confirm God's promises to His people individually. The Lord seals or places his mark of ownership on His people to strengthen their faith, unify them, and to separate them from unbelievers (Rom. 4:11; I Cor. 11: 24; Gal. 3:27; Eph. 4:5; 2:11,12; I Cor. 12:13; Ex. 12:48).

* A sacrament is not effective due to anything in itself or its operation but only because the Spirit of God works through it to curse or bless (I Cor. 10:16; 11:20ff; 12:13). Moreover, since a sacrament is God's Word conveyed in pictorial or ritual form, and God's Word surely effects blessing or cursing as He determines (Is. 55:11), a sacrament, in turn, assuredly effects God's purposes as well. Hence, a sacrament is not merely a symbol but a powerful means of God's action (I Cor. 10:16; 11:26).

* The New Testament describes only two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord's Supper (Matt. 28:19; I Cor. 11:20ff), and these two sacraments are essentially the same as the Old Covenant sacraments of Circumcision and Passover (Col. 2:12; I Cor. 5:7), though the latter anticipated Christ's work, "whereas those of the New Testament are concerned with and point back to Christ and His perfect redemptive sacrifice, which has now been accomplished." [81]

* The Lord's Supper was instituted by Christ on the night He was betrayed to serve as a commemoration of His perfect and complete sacrifice of Himself as the Lamb of God (Lk. 22:7ff.; I Cor. 10:20; 9:12;10:10,14,18; Matt. 1:21; Jn. 10:11; Eph. 5:25). The Supper is not a true sacrifice, since Christ's work is complete, but it is a commemoration of that perfect sacrifice.

* Though the common bread and wine of the Lord's Supper are called by the names of what they signify, the body and blood of Christ (cf. Gen. 17:13; Ex. 12:11; Matt. 26:26), the Scripture rejects Transubstantiation (see discussion above). Hence, believers do really, spiritually, "yet not carnally and corporally,...receive and feed upon Christ crucified,"[82] the Lamb of God, who thereby effects union, communion, and peace between God and His people.

* This spiritual nourishment of the Lord's Supper furthers believers' growth, as well as a the bond-of-unity to their Lord and each other, and distinguishes them from unbelievers ("incommunicants" vs. "excommunicants").

* The celebration of the Lord's Supper requires due preparation and discernment (I Cor. 11:27-29), and the norm of New Testament practice demonstrates that the Supper ought to be celebrated weekly (Acts 20:7).

The Lord's Supper is indeed the blessed and triumphant meal. It should lead us to glory in the truth that Christ "was pierced for our transgressions" (Is. 53:5) in order that He would "save His people from their sins" (Matt. 1:21). Our new song is "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain" (Rev. 5:12) for He "purchased for God with [His] blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation" (Rev. 5:9). Yet, as we've seen, the Roman Catholic Eucharist makes a mockery of all of this. It transforms the glorious into the grotesque. It denigrates Christ's atoning work and idolatrously confuses the Creator and the creature. Therefore, our deepest and most sincere compassion should constrain us to cry out to our Roman Catholic friends, "Come forth from her midst, My People, and each of you save yourselves from the fierce anger of the Lord" (Jer. 51:45).


[1 ] I am grateful to Kark Keating and Gerry Matatics of Catholic Answers for comments on an earlier version of this essay.

[2 ] Lynch, P. (trans.), Bastible, J., (ed), (Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, 1974)

[3 ] Ibid., p. 219.

[4 ] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 221.

[6 ] Ibid., p. 222.

[7 ] Ibid., p. 252.

[8 ] Sheed, F.J., Theology for Beginners, (Michigan: Servant Books, 1981), p. 67.

[9 ] Ott, Fundamentals, pp. 254, 255.

[10 ] Ibid., p. 255.

[11 ] Cited in Ibid.

[12 ] Sheed, Theology , p. 72.

[13 ] Ott, Fundamentals, p. 257.

[14 ] Ibid., p. 256.

[15 ] Ibid.

[16 ] Ibid., p. 257.

[17 ] Sheed, Theology, p. 75, 67.

[18 ] Ott, Fundamentals, p. 219.

[19 ] The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, trans. Schroeder, H., (Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, 1978), p. 42: VI, 4.

[20 ] Ott, Fundamentals, p. 274.

[21 ] Sheed, Theology, p. 105.

[22 ] Cited in Ott, Fundamentals, p. 312.

[23 ] Ibid., p. 312, 313.

[24 ] Ibid., p. 326.

[25 ] Ibid., p. 332.

[26 ] Ibid., p. 329.

[27 ] Ibid., p. 327.

[28 ] Schroeder, Trent, p. 52: VI, 6.

[29 ] Ott, Fundamentals, p. 329.

[30 ] Ibid., p. 330.

[31 ] Ibid.

[32 ] Ibid., p. 340.

[33 ] Ibid., p. 341.

[34 ] Sheed, Theology, p. 153.

[35 ] Stravinskas, P., The Bible and the Mass: Understanding the Scriptural Basis of the Liturgy, (Michigan: Servant Publ., 1989), p. 15.

[36 ] Howard, T., Evangelical is Not Enough, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984), p. 105.

[37 ] Jungmann, J., The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origin and Development, (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1986 [1951]), p. 175.

[38 ] Ott, Fundamentals, p. 402.

[39 ] Jungmann, Roman Rite, p. 183

[40 ] Ott, Fundamentals, p. 407.

[41 ] Ibid. Jungmann notes that describing the Eucharist as the "sacrifice of the Church" dwindled in conflicts with the Reformers, since the Roman Catholic theologians focused on the question of whether "the Mass was a sacrifice at all, and -- opposing Calvin especially -- whether believing it was contradicted by the teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews regarding the one sacrifice of Christ" Ibid., p.180.

[42 ] Stravinskas, Bible and Mass, p. 86.

[43 ] Ott, Fundamentals, p. 409.

[44 ] Ibid., p. 412.

[45 ] Ibid.

[46 ] Schroeder, Trent, p. 146 (22, II).

[47 ] Ibid., p. 73 (13, III).

[48 ] Hahn, Scott, "Communion as Reunion," (audio cassette), Saint Joseph Communications, Inc., P.O. Box 720, W. Covina, CA 91793.

[49 ] Stravinskas, Bible and Mass, p. 112.

[50 ] Ibid., p. 76 (13,5).

[51 ] Ott, Fundamentals, p. 380.

[52 ] Westminster Confession of Faith, XXIX, 7.

[53 ] Ott, Fundamentals, p. 385.

[54 ] Ibid., p. 387.

[55 ] Stravinskas, Bible and Mass, pp. 23, 113. Roman Catholic scholar Joseph Jungmann provides the following unnerving account of the origins of elevating the Eucharist for adoration. Note well how the people, as opposed to God's command, motivate innovations in divine worship:

"[I]n the twelfth century, we begin to hear accounts of eucharistic miracles. In place of the species of bread, our Lord was seen in His own human appearance....Even if the ordinary Christian acknowledges his unworthiness to be favored by the visible appearance of the Redeemer, he will at least want to see the outward veil beneath which He lies hid....For such a view of the host the first opportunity was offered by an old traditional rite, when at the words accepit panem the priest took the bread in his hands, as one our Lord Himself had done, and lifted it slightly. Urged by the desire of the people, the priests emphasized and augmented the rite. But since the interest of the people was centered not only on the outward act of oblation but on the presence of the Lord (which was not yet at this moment actual), many bishops were greatly concerned lest the people adore the bread, and so about 1210 a decree of the Bishop of Paris introduced the regulation which determined everywhere that the priest should elevate the Host only after the words of consecration, and so high then that all might see and adore.

Thus the Mass acquired a new center, a new focal point, and the devotion of the people acquired an object which corresponded to their understanding and to which they clung tenaciously....

To look at the sacred Host at the elevation became for many in the later Middle Ages the be-all and end-all of Mass devotion. See the body of Christ at the consecration and be satisfied! In the cities people ran from church to church, to see the elevated Host as often as possible, since rich rewards could be expected from such a practice. People even started lawsuits to ensure their getting a favorable view of the altar. There are examples of congregations where the majority of the faithful waited for the sance-bell signalling the approach of the consecration before they entered the church and then after the elevation they rushed out as quickly as they had come in.

Of course such abuses were discountenanced, but the underlying usage itself obtained ecclesiastical approval" -- Jungmann, Roman Rite, pp. 119-121 [emphasis added].

[56 ] Ott, Fundamentals, p. 403.

[57] Keating, Karl, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), p. 253.

[58 ] Ibid.

[59 ] Ott, Fundamentals, p. 403.

[60 ] cf. Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, [ed. McNeill, J.T.], (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960) p. 1433; Bk. IV, Ch. 18, 4.

[61 ] Ott, Fundamentals, p. 404.

[62 ] Brumley, Mark, "Once For All," This Rock, June 1990, p. 26. Cf. Sheed, Theology, p. 159, 160; Keating, Catholicism, p. 256.

[63 ] Ibid.

[64 ] Sheed, Theology, p. 160.

[65 ] Jungmann, Roman Rite, p. 183.

[66 ] Sheed, Theology, p. 160.

[67 ] Calvin, Institutes, p. 1431; Bk. IV, Ch. 18, 3.

[68 ] Keating, Catholicism, p. 234.

[69 ] Sheed, Theology, p. 154.

[70 ] Ott, Fundamentals, p. 374.

[71 ] My thanks to Doug Wilson for suggesting this line of thought.

[72 ] Keating, Catholicism, p. 242.

[73 ] Morris, Leon, The Gospel According To John, (Eerdmans Publ. Co.: Grand Rapids, 1984), p. 385.

[74 ] Ibid., p. 374.

[75 ] Hahn, "Communion as Reunion."

[76 ] cf. Calvin, Institutes, p. 1384; Bk. IV, Ch. 17, 20.

[77 ] Hahn has also recently attempted another defense of Real presence by means of a rather interesting interpretation in which usually unmentioned details of the Last Supper are shown to have apparently direct ties to the four cups of the Passover. Though worthy of more study in itself, it simply doesn't entail Real presence over a Reformed view of presence -- Hahn, Scott, "The Fourth Cup," (audio cassette) Saint Joseph Communications, Inc.

[78 ] Keating, Catholicism, pp. 243, 244.

[79 ] Cited in Ibid., p. 236.

[80 ] Westminster Confession of Faith, XXIX, 7

[81 ] Marcel, Pierre, The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism, (trans. P.E. Hughes) (Greenwood: Attic Press, Inc. 1953, 1981) p. 91.

[82 ] Westminster Confession of Faith, XXIX,7.

Doug Jones is the editor of Antithesis.
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