The Real Presence and the Development of Doctrine

In the 1840s, John Henry Newman published his landmark Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine in which he proposed that

1. the doctrines of Christianity must grow and develop over time, and

2. the communion in which the doctrines of the early Church are most fully preserved and logically developed is the Church of Rome. (Not surprisingly, Newman left Anglicanism for Rome upon publication of the book.)

Since then, there has been much discussion about “development of doctrine.” Some people, both Protestant and Catholic, hotly disputed Newman’s claim. For Protestants, it threatened the cherished notion of sola scriptura. For some arch-conservative Catholics, Newman seemed to be saying Catholic teaching suffers addition or subtraction according to the mood of the age. On the other hand, some (particularly in our own day) have taken Newman’s ideas as carte blanche for calling any agenda they want to push a “development of doctrine.” Thus we have, on the one hand, schismatic St. Pius X Society members who deny the developments of Vatican II and deride the present Mass as newfangled and invalid. On the other hand, we have a contingent of vocal “dissenters” who want everything from gay marriage to abortion rights acknowledged as “developments of Catholic spirituality.”

Given this confusion, it is well for us to look concretely at how the Church has actually developed doctrine. And a good starting place is the development of Church teaching concerning the center of her faith and worship: the Real Presence in Holy Eucharist. For the development here is representative of how the Church has always developed teaching: according to the pattern of the mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32).

The point of the parable of the mustard seed is that big things (intellectually and spiritually as well as physically) can spring from small seeds. Indeed, to the uninformed, the near invisibility of the seed may make the big plant seem to have appeared from thin air when, in fact, it has strong roots and was sown by the Master of the Garden Himself. Thus, certain uninformed “Bible Christians,” snookered precisely by deceiving appearances, are fond of saying that the Real Presence (like many other Catholic beliefs) was not articulated using the precise term “transubstantiation” for over a thousand years after Christ. Therefore, they conclude, the Church “made it up” and added this “doctrine of men” to its corpus of beliefs out of sheer 13th Century superstition. Prior to this “pagan mystification,” we are told, Eucharist had been seen as “a simple symbol” and not the literal body, blood, spirit, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.

Scripture, however, is quite clear concerning the teaching of our Lord and his Apostles on the true nature of the Eucharist. Jesus himself says “I am the bread of life.” And lest anyone take him to mean “My teaching or Spirit or ethics or example is the bread of life” he spells it out:

“The bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.” (John 6:51)

and again

“For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.” (John 6:55)

He then goes on to consecrate the first Eucharist with the words “This is my body” and “This is my blood of the covenant” (Mark 14:22;24). Scripture is about as clear as you can get on this point.

Nor was this point misunderstood by the Apostles. For every particle of evidence from the New Testament indicates they took Jesus literally. Paul, for instance, speaks of Eucharist, not as a symbol, but as a “participation” or “sharing” in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16). He sees it as the source of Christian unity (1 Cor. 10:17). He teaches that one who receives the bread and the cup unworthily “eats and drinks a judgment on himself” (1 Cor. 11:29). Weirdest of all, (from a “mere symbolism” perspective) he warns against “sinning against the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27).

Moreover, Paul is not saying this on his own authority. He himself says “I received from the Lord what I handed on to you” (1 Cor. 11:23). To understand the full import of this, we must remember that “receiving and handing on” is rabbinical jargon which means “to pass on a tradition fully.” In other words, Paul is saying “This is what all the Apostles teach [for their teaching is “from the Lord” (Luke 10:16)].”

Very well then, that is the scriptural witness. But what about the Church the Apostles instructed? Not surprisingly, the post-apostolic Church (arch-conservatives all) also held that, somehow or other, the Eucharist was no symbol, but the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ. Thus, St. Ignatius of Antioch writes (c. 110) that it is essential to “partake of one Eucharist, for one is the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one the cup to unite us” (Epistle to the Philadelphians). Indeed (following apostolic instruction closely here as everywhere else), he makes belief in the Real Presence a litmus test of orthodoxy, warning sternly against heretics who “abstain from Eucharist and prayer because they allow not that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior, Jesus Christ” (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans).

Likewise St. John Chrysostom declares of Eucharist: “When you see it exposed, say to yourself: Thanks to this body, I am no longer dust and ashes, I am no more captive but a free man.” Indeed, he boldly states, “This is that body which was once covered with blood, pierced by a lance, from which issued saving fountains upon the world, one of blood and the other of water” (Commentary on Corinthians).

And so on through one patristic writer after another. Eventually, the Eastern Church fathers coined the term meta-ousiosis (literally “change of being”) to describe the Eucharistic miracle at consecration. So in both East and West, we have virtually no evidence that it even occurred to any orthodox believer to doubt the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ for centuries.

But in the 9th Century, there arise the first ripples of real controversy. At this time, a French monk named Ratramnus asks in essence, “But how can this be the body and blood of Christ?” He holds that Christ’s body in the Eucharist cannot be the same as Christ’s crucified and risen body because the Eucharistic body cannot be seen or felt. In a word, for Ratramnus, the Real Presence is “spiritual” (and therefore not physical). This line of reasoning inevitably leads Ratramnus (and all those who follow his lead) to increasingly regard the Eucharist as a “mere symbol” of the “true” (meaning “non-physical”) reality rather than as the true body and blood taught by the Apostles. Eventually, his theory is condemned by the Synod of Vercelli, but the controversy continues for two more centuries and Ratramnus is at length championed by Archdeacon Berengar of Tours. In response to this, Pope Gregory VII writes a formal declaration of the Church’s faith (reiterating the biblical and patristic teaching concerning the literalness of the Church’s belief on the point) and requires Berengar to submit to it. But the ferment continues.

It is in the midst of this ferment that the term “transubstantiation” is finally coined by the Western Church in the 13th Century to more precisely define how the “being” or “substance” of the bread and wine is divinely changed into the being or substance of Christ Jesus. But as we have already seen, this belief (now expressed under a newly coined term) is not itself new. Thus, transubstantiation turns out to be, not pulled from thin air, but rooted in the same revelation the Eastern Church had tried to describe centuries before with the term meta-ousiosis. And meta-ousiosis is itself merely a more technical way of reiterating the clear (though mysterious) teaching of our Lord and his Apostles in Scripture. Paradoxically, the Church invented a new word so it could continue guarding a very old revelation from Christ himself.

This 13th century development would become very important during the Reformation, for the wholesale rejection of Sacred Tradition naturally led to wholesale theological chaos. For Zwingli, the Eucharist is simply a symbol. For Luther (who detested Zwingli’s symbolism) it is the true body and blood, yet it is also still truly bread and wine. (This view is called consubstantiation.) For others, it is a curious spiritual presence which is and yet is not the body and blood of Christ. For still others, the Real Presence exists, not in a divinely miraculous change in the objective Eucharist, but in our subjective attitude toward it: if we believe it is the body and blood of Christ, it is. Otherwise, not. So great does the pandemonium become that, in 1577 in Ingolstadt, Germany, a book is published titled Two Hundred Interpretations of the Words, “This is My Body.

In response to this chaos, Catholic teaching simply plods forward repeating its old Eucharistic teaching like Christ rebuking the wind and waves. The paradox here is that the Church (which moments ago was attacked for innovating on the “simple word of Scripture”) is now attacked for “sticking to outmoded doctrine and refusing to change with the times.” But this is only because the Church is bound to grow deeply in what God has, in fact, revealed in “the Faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3) So its developments are always realized to preserve, not outmode or contradict, its ancient deposit of revelation.

And all this is done, as Scripture says, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit whom Christ promised would both “remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26) and “guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). That is why the Church gives no ground to the radical archconservative who repudiates all development in favor of the old (whether he be a St. Pius X Society member or a “Bible Christian” urging us back to a “New Testament Church”). It is also why the Church implacably opposes radical “dissenters” (from Zwinglian innovators to modern “Catholic abortion rights” advocates) who repudiate all Tradition in favor of novelty. For both extremes harm the mustard plant of the Faith either by hacking it back to the size and shape it was centuries ago, or by grafting on poison ivy branches, or by uprooting it entirely, planting a cactus in its place and calling that a mustard plant.

Against all this hidebound stubbornness and mindless faddism, Catholic orthodoxy stands as a sign of contradiction. But it stands because it has roots. And it has roots because it is well planted by the Owner of the Vineyard; roots which draw on springs of living water, roots that have made the Mustard Plant the largest of all garden plants, with big branches. And the branches continue to develop according to the plan of their Maker so that the birds of the air, the nations of the earth and people from every nation, tribe, people and language can rest in its shade.


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