See also “Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism, Part 2” by the author.
Sacramental Realism is a dogma which cannot be established from Scripture; in fact, is baldly in opposition to the New Testament presentation of spiritual efficacy, not through ritual act, nor through priestly mediation, but through receipt of Holy Spirit Baptism, as at Pentecost and continuing thereafter. Sacramentalists point to the wedding at Cana (John 2) and the miraculous multiplication of loaves associated with the Sermon on the Mount (John 6). But significantly there was no bread at Cana, no wine included on the Mount, no ceremonial act taking place at either location, no “institution” of a ritual or sacrament, nor connection with spiritual efficacy; moreover, all of these events took place prior to the Last Supper and to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
In fact, Christ’s statements in John 6 strikingly contradict the concept of spiritual efficacy in bread. Crowds continued to follow him for days after the miracle, asking him for more “bread from heaven,” by which they meant manna. Jesus reminded them, “Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness, and are dead” (6:58). No physical bread, even “from heaven,” is truly spiritual or eternal, and neither God’s presence, nor blessing, nor salvation are inherently associated with it.
The “breaking of bread from house to house” mentioned in Acts cannot be proven to describe any ceremony, but simple “table fellowship” common to both Jews and Gentiles. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 describes the confusion in Corinth of a fellowship meal with the Lord’s Supper, the former having degenerated into self-indulgent feasting on the part of some, devoid of true fellowship, and the latter similarly failing to include the responsibility of the believer to remember and identify himself with Christ’s sacrifice by “examining himself” in that light (see also 2 Cor. 13:5). He writes,
1 Corinthians 11:20 When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper. 21 For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken. 22 What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? ….
The idea of Sacramentalism is absent in Church history until it began to be developed by Cyprian (early 3rd century) and Athanasius (3rd-4th century), along with Sacerdotalism. The Didache (dated late 1st century) includes a recitation of the Eucharist ceremony of the time, which notably does not include any form of sacrament. Nor does the famous letter by Pliny to Emperor Trajan mention a sacrament, rather a fellowship meal afterward, in another location. Irenaeus and Tertullian spoke in seemingly realistic terms of the Communion elements relative to the body of Christ, but were actually contrasting the reality of Christ’s crucifixion, and his physical body, to the Docetism (denial of a physical Incarnation of Christ) of the Gnostics whom they opposed.
Yet committed Sacramentalists—if there be any other kind—just like Martin Luther, insist on a literal interpretation of “Take, eat, this is my body” at all costs. The passages in question are these:
Mark 14:22 And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body. 23 And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. 24 And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.
Matthew 26:26 And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. 27 And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; 28 For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.
Luke 22:19 And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. 20 Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you
1 Corinthians 11:24 And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. 25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. 26 For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord’s death till he come.
Note, among other details, that in two of the passages, Jesus specifically describes the purpose of the action to be “in remembrance of me” (in bold above); and further, that only in those same passages is it implied that the ceremony is to be repeated. Since the Last Supper is clearly a reflection of the Passover ceremony, with many parallels, the natural inference of the ceremony itself must be that it is to replace traditional observance of the Passover memorial, which is once a year. Yet there is no restriction of frequency stated, and it is commonly considered that new Christians in their enthusiasm soon began to gladly practice the observance of the Lord’s Supper, often, perhaps even before every meal (as Jews blessed their bread and many of us to this day say “Grace”). In the case of frequent and even casual observance, however, the act could hardly be imagined to have been officiated over by a priest and to have any salvific spiritual efficacy, as sacramentalists imagine.
Still sacramentalists insist on taking the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper literally as Christ’s body and blood, representing the “institution” of a sacrament, and being continually “for the remission of sins”—instead of being the afore-mentioned “remembrance,” and allowing the elements to be used figuratively to point to a greater, eschatological reality, which was yet to be fully realized, in Christ’s actual death on the cross for our sins.
There are many instances of figurative language in the New Testament and in Christ’s sayings. In the famous “I am” sayings, Jesus describes himself figuratively as the voice, the Light of the World, the door, the good shepherd, the road or path, and the vine, as well as the Bread of Life. There is none but arbitrary, dogmatic reasons to take “This is my body” any more literally than these statements.
In conclusion, let us examine an even closer, figurative parallel. Just as Jesus said, “Take, eat,” he elsewhere commanded, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24; par. Mark 8:34, 10:21; Luke 9:23). With the exception of a few ascetic fanatics in Church history, few have imagined that Jesus meant us to regard “Take up your cross” literally, as opposed to figuratively, by which it represents a greater reality—which certainly begs the question of the arbitrary insistence of sacramentalists upon taking with supreme literalness this one particular and debatable instance.
Copyright © 2015 Paul A. Hughes