Book 10 of Augustine’s City of God is dedicated to rebutting the Platonists and their understanding of worship. Throughout the book, Augustine regularly returns to the topic of sacrifice. He explains to whom it is due, what it is, how the “true” sacrifice is found in Christ’s death on the cross, and in what way Christians continue to sacrifice through their worship in the 4th century. Of particular interest in the manner in which Augustine connects the Eucharist to this new Christian sacrifice. As we will show, Augustine argues that the Eucharist is both a memorial to that past sacrifice made by Christ and a new sacrifice, not of Christ but of Christians, made to God in response to the past work of Christ on the Cross.
Contrary to popular assumptions and characterizations today, Augustine faulted the Platonists for being too polytheistic. They had an insufficient understanding of the unity and singularity of “the Principle” (City of God, 10.24), and they often gave “worship” to angels (including evil angels) and other created beings (10.3). And so it is the doctrine of “sacrifice” to which Augustine appeals in order to show how illogical this false worship is.
But, putting aside for the present the other religious services with which God is worshipped, certainly no man would dare to say that sacrifice is due to any but God. Many parts, indeed, of divine worship are unduly used in showing honor to men, whether through an excessive humility or pernicious flattery; yet, while this is done, those persons who are thus worshipped and venerated, or even adored, are reckoned no more than human; and who ever thought of sacrificing save to one whom he knew, supposed, or feigned to be a god? (10.4)
Here we see a distinction between worship and sacrifice, and we also see that Augustine feels that, in his day, “many parts” of worship are “unduly used” to show honor to men. In his mind, this is a mistake. However, even given the prevalence of this error, Augustine believes that no one would claim to “sacrifice” to anything less than a god. Thus when Augustine speaks of “sacrifice,” he is primarily speaking of one of the highest forms of “worship,” and a form a worship which should only be offered to God. Later in chapter 7, this theme is repeated with Augustine stressing that the angels in heaven do not receive sacrifices but rather encourage us to offer them to God.
In the next chapter, Augustine rejects that idea that sacrifices are “needed” by God or something by which He “profits” (10.5). Sacrifices are things which God commands for our good and benefit, and indeed, the outward aspect of the sacrifice is meant to serve as a symbol of the true sacrifice, the human qualities of repentance, faithfulness, gratitude, and praise.
While perhaps not strictly synonymous, Augustine does define the terms “sacrifice” and “sacrament” along the same lines, and sacraments are sometimes called sacrifices and sacrifices are sometimes called sacraments. Both are kinds of signs. As he put it in On Christian Doctrine, Augustine defines a sign as “a thing which, over and above the impression it makes on the senses, causes something else to come into the mind as a consequence of itself” (2.1.1). Sacraments are themselves signs, as we are told a few chapters later in that same book “in the sacrament of His body and blood He signified His will through the sense of taste…” (2.3.4) and countless other places throughout Augustine’s work. In book 10 of City of God, the same thing is said about sacrifices:
And the fact that the ancient church offered animal sacrifices, which the people of God now-a-days read of without imitating, proves nothing else than this, that those sacrifices signified the things which we do for the purpose of drawing near to God, and inducing our neighbor to do the same. A sacrifice, therefore, is the visible sacrament or sacred sign of an invisible sacrifice. (City of God 10.5)
Augustine appeals to Psalm 51 to substantiate this belief, particularly verses 16-17:
Observe how, in the very words in which he is expressing God’s refusal of sacrifice, he shows that God requires sacrifice. He does not desire the sacrifice of a slaughtered beast, but He desires the sacrifice of a contrite heart. Thus, that sacrifice which he says God does not wish, is the symbol of the sacrifice which God does wish. God does not wish sacrifices in the sense in which foolish people think He wishes them, viz., to gratify His own pleasure. For if He had not wished that the sacrifices He requires, as, e.g., a heart contrite and humbled by penitent sorrow, should be symbolized by those sacrifices which He was thought to desire because pleasant to Himself, the old law would never have enjoined their presentation; and they were destined to be merged when the fit opportunity arrived, in order that men might not suppose that the sacrifices themselves, rather than the things symbolized by them, were pleasing to God or acceptable in us. (ibid)
Here we see that the outward form of the sacrifice is really only a sign or symbol of the sacrifice. The true sacrifice in Psalm 51 is the reality of the contrite and humble heart, and it is this truth which is symbolized by the death of the animal. Thus while the slaughtering of the animal is commonly spoken of as the sacrifice, the most proper way to speak of it would be to say that it was the sacrament or sign of the sacrifice. Augustine says precisely this, “for that which in common speech is called sacrifice is only the symbol of the true sacrifice.” The true sacrifice was always the quality of the human heart which was bringing the offering. Augustine believes that this same sacramental distinction applies to the New Covenant and its sacrifices.
A little later in Book 10, Augustine explains the signification at work in Christian sacrifice:
…these visible sacrifices are signs of the invisible, as the words we utter are the signs of things. And therefore, as in prayer or praise we direct intelligible words to Him to whom in our heart we offer the very feelings we are expressing, so we are to understand that in sacrifice we offer visible sacrifice only to Him to whom in our heart we ought to present ourselves an invisible sacrifice. (10.19)
Ourselves and Every Good Work
When Augustine speaks of “true” sacrifices, there are two appropriate objects in view. On the more general level he can say, “a true sacrifice is every work which is done that we may be united to God in holy fellowship, and which has a reference to that supreme good and end in which alone we can be truly blessed” (10.6). Thus the Christian’s acts of mercy, on the condition that they are done “for God’s sake,” are true sacrifices. In fact, the individual Christian’s body and soul are also sacrifices, and, taken collectively, “the whole redeemed city, that is to say, the congregation or community of the saints” is offered to God as a sacrifice (ibid).
While it is true that individual Christians are sacrifices and offerings to God, even these “true” sacrifices can only be acceptable through the work of a Mediator. Jesus Christ, acting as our High Priest and Mediator, offered the “supreme and true” sacrifice (see City of God 10.20) in which we can now offer our sacrifices, that is ourselves, to God. Augustine explains:
Since, therefore, true sacrifices are works of mercy to ourselves or others, done with a reference to God, and since works of mercy have no other object than the relief of distress or the conferring of happiness, and since there is no happiness apart from that good of which it is said, “It is good for me to be very near to God,” it follows that the whole redeemed city, that is to say, the congregation or community of the saints, is offered to God as our sacrifice through the great High Priest, who offered Himself to God in His passion for us, that we might be members of this glorious head, according to the form of a servant. For it was this form He offered, in this He was offered, because it is according to it He is Mediator, in this He is our Priest, in this the Sacrifice. (10.6)
We see that both Christians and Jesus Christ himself are offered to God in the true sacrifice. Jesus’ priestly office and role as Mediator allows us to then offer ourselves as sacrifices to God as we are united to Him by faith.
Augustine even distinguishes the way in which the two natures of Christ operate in this sacrifice, noting that it was the humanity of Christ which was offered to the deity. Augustine even says that this distinction shows how strict the prohibition is against offering sacrifice to creatures. Christ’s humanity was not the recipient of the sacrifice, but rather it was the sacrifice which was offered to God:
And hence that true Mediator, in so far as, by assuming the form of a servant, He became the Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, though in the form of God He received sacrifice together with the Father, with whom He is one God, yet in the form of a servant He chose rather to be than to receive a sacrifice, that not even by this instance any one might have occasion to suppose that sacrifice should be rendered to any creature. Thus He is both the Priest who offers and the Sacrifice offered. (10.20)
Jesus is both the priest and the sacrifice, and yet these roles are specifically assigned to His varying natures. It is through the humanity of Christ which the Church on earth offers herself: “she herself is offered in the offering she makes to God” (10.6).
Subsequent controversy in the history of the church has greatly confused and distorted our understanding of expressions like “Eucharistic sacrifice” with loaded definitions being presumed by all sides. For his part, Augustine presumes certain common understandings which he has laid out in other works or in other parts of City of God, and he maintains that in the Eucharist two “sacrifices” are made: a memorial or commemoration of the past sacrifice of Christ on the cross and a present “sign” of the Church’s offering herself, which is to say a collective offering of the various individuals offerings every Christian is expected to continually make.
A Memorial Sacrifice
The uses of “remember,” “memorial,” and “commemoration” are hotly disputed in contemporary polemics, but for Augustine they seem fairly straight-forward. In City of God 10.3 he writes, “to Him, by solemn feasts and on appointed days, we consecrate the memory of His benefits, lest through the lapse of time ungrateful oblivion should steal upon us.” The “memory of His benefits” is consecrated because “the lapse of time” would otherwise cause us to become ungrateful. As we have already seen from On Christian Doctrine, Augustine stated that a sign, “causes something else to come into the mind as a consequence of itself” (2.1.1). And in the Reply to Faustus he writes, “Before the coming of Christ, the flesh and blood of this sacrifice were foreshadowed in the animals slain; in the passion of Christ the types were fulfilled by the true sacrifice; after the ascension of Christ, this sacrifice is commemorated in the sacrament” (20.21). There we clearly see a foreshadowing prior to the actual passion of Christ, an actual fulfillment in “the true sacrifice,” and then a commemoration of that true sacrifice afterwards in the sacrament.
Augustine says much the same thing again in City of God 10.20:
Thus He is both the Priest who offers and the Sacrifice offered. And He designed that there should be a daily sign of this in the sacrifice of the Church, which, being His body, learns to offer herself through Him. Of this true Sacrifice the ancient sacrifices of the saints were the various and numerous signs; and it was thus variously figured, just as one thing is signified by a variety of words, that there may be less weariness when we speak of it much. To this supreme and true sacrifice all false sacrifices have given place.
Here we see the “supreme and true sacrifice” referring to the actual death of Christ on the cross (this language is directly paralleled in On the Holy Trinity 4.13.17 1), and the “sign” of that sacrifice formerly appeared in the Old Covenant sacrifices and now appears in the sacrifice of the Church. This sacrifice of the Church is not necessarily limited to the Eucharist, since in some ways all the acts of mercy and service are themselves sacrifices, but it does include it.
The Church Sacrifices Herself
In addition to the commemoration of the past sacrifice of Christ, the Church also daily offers herself as a sacrifice, even through “the sacrament of the altar.”
Accordingly, when the apostle had exhorted us to present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, our reasonable service, and not to be conformed to the world, but to be transformed in the renewing of our mind, that we might prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God, that is to say, the true sacrifice of ourselves, he says, “For I say, through the grace of God which is given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. For, as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another, having gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us.” This is the sacrifice of Christians: we, being many, are one body in Christ. And this also is the sacrifice which the Church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar, known to the faithful, in which she teaches that she herself is offered in the offering she makes to God. (City of God 10.6)
Augustine repeats this again in 10.20, “And He designed that there should be a daily sign of this in the sacrifice of the Church, which, being His body, learns to offer herself through Him.” And we even see it in an interesting passage in Book 17, one sometimes too-easily misread:
For when he says in another book, which is called Ecclesiastes, “There is no good for a man, except that he should eat and drink,” what can he be more credibly understood to say, than what belongs to the participation of this table which the Mediator of the New Testament Himself, the Priest after the order of Melchizedek, furnishes with His own body and blood? For that sacrifice has succeeded all the sacrifices of the Old Testament, which were slain as a shadow of that which was to come; wherefore also we recognize the voice in the 40th Psalm as that of the same Mediator speaking through prophesy, “Sacrifice and offering Thou didst not desire; but a body hast Thou perfected for me.” Because, instead of all these sacrifices and oblations, His body is offered, and is served up to the partakers of it. (17.20)
Read only in the limited context, that last line would seem to suggest only the offering of Christ Himself–“His own body and blood,” with the church being understood as “the partakers of it.” And yet a few sentences earlier we read:
Here certainly we perceive that the Wisdom of God, that is, the Word co-eternal with the Father, hath builded Him an house, even a human body in the virgin womb, and hath subjoined the Church to it as members to a head, hath slain the martyrs as victims, hath furnished a table with wine and bread, where appears also the priesthood after the order of Melchizedek, and hath called the simple and the void of sense, because, as saith the apostle, “He hath chosen the weak things of this world that He might confound the things which are mighty.”
In addition to the Church being understood as joined to Christ’s body, Augustine also says that God has “slain the martyrs as victims.” And so, taken with all that we have already read from City of God and elsewhere, we can credibly say that the both Christ and the Church (understood as all Christians) are offered to God as a sacrifice in the Eucharist. 2
We have here attempted to demonstrate the various aspects of Augustine’s understanding of sacrifice and especially Eucharistic sacrifice, principally from his City of God. We make no attempts to claim every aspect of Augustine’s theology on other matters, and we certainly do not wish to defend some of his more imaginative exegetical conclusions. Nevertheless, as Calvin said long ago, there is also nothing objectionable in Augustine’s theology of sacrifice. In fact, much of it is the very same sort of thing which appears in Reformed theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries, especially some of the Anglican churchmen.
The true sacrifice offered to God is first and foremost the death of Christ on the Cross, but then afterwards every Christian can offer true sacrifices, not simply a reenacting of that sacrifice but, in fact, a continual sacrifice of themselves through love, service, and good works. The sacrifice of the Church then is a sacrificing of herself, imitating Christ and following after Him.
Steven Wedgeworth is the pastor of Christ Church in Lakeland, Florida. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Trust. A graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS), Steven lives in Lakeland, FL with his wife, son, daughter, and two terriers.
The Calvinist International is a forum for research, resourcement, and renewal of Christian wisdom.