Bread of Christ
I am the wheat of God and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Ignatius of Antioch, circa A.D. 107
The Lord’s Supper, a Protestant Sacrament
The Lord’s Supper was a memorial. Or a symbol. Or a picture. I had never belonged to a church where the bread of communion is really “the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ.” In my Baptist and Presbyterian worlds, we learned:
“The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate His second coming.” (Baptist Faith and Message, 1963).
“The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ’s appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, The Shorter Catechism at Q&A 96).
These are just two ways Protestants have interpreted Holy Communion. There are others, some significantly different (Anglican and Lutheran, for example). That bothered me. This is a major piece of the Faith. Since Protestants rely on the same Scriptures to understand and teach and administer Holy Communion, more than one interpretation signifies a major problem. What if we looked into Church history, maybe that will clear up the confusion? Yes, actually history will shed light on the matter, but not before adding to the problem. If there was obscurity on the face of competing interpretations of the Protestant Sacraments, history will introduce thick fog before the way is clear again.
Church history, not to be ignored
John Henry Cardinal Newman was a nineteenth-century vicar in the Anglican communion. We will cover him in more detail later.
Suffice for now, after studying the heresies of the Church’s first six centuries, this holy priest and scholar’s conscience required him to give up his livelihood and enter the Catholic Church. One of Cardinal Newman’s most quoted lines comes from the following context:
“Whatever be historical Christianity, it is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this. And Protestantism has ever felt it so. I do not mean that every Protestant writer has felt it; for it was the fashion at first, at least as a rhetorical argument against Rome, to appeal to past ages, or to some of them; but Protestantism, as a whole, feels it, and has felt it. This is shown in the determination of dispensing with historical Christianity altogether, and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone; men never would have put it aside, unless they had despaired of it. . . . To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.”
John Henry Cardinal Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Introduction at Sec. 5.
Remember, our subject concerns the Body and Blood of our Lord – – the Sacrament we receive from Jesus just before He entered into His passion. The study of history took me to the Church Fathers. The Church Fathers were leaders of the primitive church in the centuries that followed the death of the last apostle. What did they believe and teach? Was it the same as or different from the traditions I had received nineteen centuries later? What did the Church Fathers teach about the Body and Blood of our Lord? Certainly, being so close to the source, the witness of the Church Fathers should carry weight.
What if there was a man who sat at the feet of the disciple whom Jesus loved; and that man later became a bishop in the early church; and that man witnessed to the faith with his blood? There was such a man. Ignatius of Antioch. Already you know that Antioch was a special church. After the persecution in Jerusalem broke out (that resulted in the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr), the gospel began to spread among Greeks in Antioch where “[t]he hand of the Lord was with them and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.” (Acts 11:21, NAB). After his conversion, Saul (renamed Paul), along with Barnabas, met with believers in Antioch for a year “and taught a large number of people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.” (Act 11:26, NAB).
Ignatius, Bishop off Antioch
Traditions says Ignatius learned under the Apostle John himself. John died in Ephesus in the year A.D. 100. Seven years later, Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch, was in chains, being led to the Imperial City by 10 cruel Roman soldiers. The more Ignatius showed them kindness, the more vicious they became. In Rome, Ignatius would be fed to wild beasts. A depraved crowd filled with blood-lust would cheer as this holy leader of the primitive church gave the ultimate testimony for his Lord. The Roman Emperor Trajan had pronounced the sentence on Ignatius while in Antioch. Accordingly, Ignatius knew his sentence even as he made the almost-year-long journey to Rome. How does Ignatius help us with Holy Communion?
In A.D. 107 there were dissenters (gnostics, called Docetists), perverting the gospel. Actually, the Docetists date back to apostolic days. Their name comes from dokesis, meaning “appearance”. They denied that Jesus really came in the flesh. Given the warnings found in Sacred Scripture, you can see these gnostics at work in the church from the earliest days (see I John 4:2). The Docetists contended that Jesus only seemed to have lived and suffered and died. As he was being escorted to Rome in chains, Ignatius wrote letters to a number of churches. How could the early church recognize those who preached a false gospel? Ignatius wrote one such letter to the Church in Smyrna. As part of his epistle, the soon-to-be martyr warned the faithful, as follows:
“They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again. It is fitting, therefore, that ye should keep aloof from such persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the passion [of Christ] has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fully proved. But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils.”
https://www.ewtn.com/library/PATRISTC/ignatius_smynaeans.htm: “Taken from The Early Church Fathers and Other Works originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867 (Anti-Nicene Fathers I, volume 5, Roberts and Donaldson.) The electronic text obtained from The Electronic Bible Society was not completely corrected. EWTN has corrected all discovered errors.)”
Accordingly, the gnostics denied the Eucharist to be the Body of Christ. Did my tradition share any similarities with the Docetists? Well, I never denied that Jesus was fully man and fully God. However, did my understanding of Holy Communion look at all like the Docetist’s teaching? In addition to the gnostics of the first and second centuries, who else denied the bread is really the body of Christ? My Protestant churches did. Every church I ever belonged to, like the Docetists, denied that the bread is the flesh of Jesus Christ.
Was Ignatius proclaiming something novel? No, not if Jesus meant what He said in the Gospel of John, Chapter 6. There, the Apostle John records the words of Jesus to the same effect as found in the letter to the Smyrnaeans. Ignatius’ letter was written 7 short years after John died. On what authority did my Protestant tradition differ from the words of Jesus in the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John? On what authority did I hold a tradition contrary to the teaching of Ignatius of Antioch in 107?
We needn’t wonder how seriously Ignatius took his faith. He wrote to the Church in Smyrna while under a sentence of death. With what gravity would a person on the way to die convey his last words? Ignatius knew his days were short. Saint Ignatius testified to the gospel by going joyfully to the hungry beasts in the Coliseum. Tradition says all that was left of Ignatius were some bones, gathered up in linen and taken back to the Church in Antioch.
I did not go from wondering about the Protestant Sacraments directly to Saint Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the Church in Smyrna. There were steps in between I have not yet covered. We will get to questions of authority and unity, revealing fundamental problems within the Protestant framework. We will get to Cardinal Newman. Eventually, by God’s grace, I would find my way through the fog. The Lord used Saint Ignatius of Antioch as one of the beacons to help me find my way.
Thank you for reading and may God bless you as you say Yes to Him.