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Philip Schaff’s Reading of Augustine on the Eucharist

Nearly the entire collection of The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review is online here, and if you need other formats, then google books has most of the editions. In Volume 38, Number 1, from 1866, the great Philip Schaff has an essay titled, “The Patristic Doctrine of the Eucharist.” It exhibits Schaff’s usual careful scholarship, and while admitting a variety of views and inflections among the early church, Schaff denies that the actual doctrine of transubstantiation is present there. In this, Schaff’s reading style is very similar to that of Daniel Waterland’s, and he pays attention not only to the words themselves, but also to their rhetorical context and associated implications. He allows that some fathers did hold to a kind of local presence in the elements, though in an undefined and undeveloped way, yet he also clearly claims many of the most influential fathers for the “symbolical view,” which he says differs from the contemporary Reformed view in only minor details. Of these he includes Origen, Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, Theodoret, and Augustine.

Schaff explains Augustine’s views this way:

It is remarkable that Augustine, in other respects so decidedly catholic in the doctrine of the church and of baptism, and in the cardinal points of the Latin orthodoxy, follows the older African theologians, Tertullian and Cyprian, in a symbolical theory of the Supper, which however includes a real. spiritual participation of the Lord by faith, and in this respect stands nearest to the Calvinistic or orthodox Reformed doctrine, while in minor points he differs from it as much as from transubstantiation and consubstantiation. He was the first to make a clear distinction between the outward sign and the inward grace, which are equally essential to the conception of the sacrament. He maintains the figurative character of the words of institution, and of the discourse of Jesus on the eating and drinking of his flesh and blood in the sixth chapter of John; with Tertullian, he calls the bread and wine “figurae or signa corporis et sanguinis Christi” (but certainly not mere figures), and insists on a distinction between “that which is visibly received in the sacrament, and that which is spiritually eaten and drunk,” or between a carnal, visible manducation of the sacrament, and a spiritual eating of the flesh of Christ and drinking of his blood. The latter he limits to the elect and the believing, though in opposition to the subjectivism of the Donatists, he asserts that the sacrament (in its objective import) is the body of Christ even for unworthy receivers. He says of Judas, that he only ate the bread of the Lord, while the other apostles “ate the Lord who was the bread.” In another place: The sacramentum “is given to some unto life, to others unto destruction;” but the res sacramenti, i.e., “the thing itself of which it is the sacramentum, is given to every one who is partaker of it, unto life.” “He who does not abide in Christ, undoubtedly neither eats his flesh nor drinks his blood, though he cats and drinks the sacramentum (i.e., the outward sign) of so great a thing to his condemnation.” Augustine at all events lays chief stress on the spiritual participation. “Why preparest thou the teeth and the belly? Believe, and thou hast eaten.” He claims for the sacrament religious reverence, but not a superstitious dread, as if it were a miracle with a magical effect. He also expressly rejects the hypothesis of the ubiquity of Christ’s body, which had already come into use in support of the materializing view, and has since been further developed by Lutheran divines in support of the theory of consubstantiation. “The body with which Christ rose,” says he, “he took to heaven, which must be in a place . . . . . We must guard against such a conception of his divinity as destroys the reality of his flesh. For when the flesh of the Lord was upon earth, it was certainly not in heaven; and now that it is in heaven, it is not upon earth.” “I believe that the body of the Lord is in heaven, as it was upon earth when he entirely blotted out the guilt of man, and reconciled him with the righteous God. On the ground of this sacrifice of the eternal High Priest, believers have access to the throne of grace, and may expect their prayers and intercessions to be heard. With this perfect and eternally availing sacrifice the Eucharist stands in indissoluble connection. It is indeed originally a sacrament, and the main thing in it is that which we receive from God, not. that which we give to God. The latter is only a consequence of the former; for we can give to God nothing which we have not first received from him. But the Eucharist is the sacramentum of a sacrificium, the thankful celebration of the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross, and the believing participation or the renewed appropriation of the fruits of this sacrifice. In other words, it is a feast on a sacrifice. “As oft as ye do eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord’s death till he come.” (Biblical Repertory and Princetone Review Vol. 38, Number 1, January 1866, 55-57)

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. 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 Institute.