Baptists, Eucharist, and History 12 – Justin Martyr on the Eucharist

This post concludes my reflections on Justin Martyr’s First Apology. I saved for last Chapter LXVI which focuses explicitly on the Eucharist.

And this food is called among us Eukaristia [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.

Justin begins by outlining three things that must be true of those who partake of the Eucharist among them. First, they must believe that the things taught are true. Since the person would actually be at the worship, this seems to be directed at those within the church who were adopting other beliefs. In other words, it’s not so much directed outward at the pagans, who would not have been present anyway, but inward at those like the gnostics.

Next they must have been washed — that is baptized.  (Washing was a common Jewish term for all their practices of ceremonial cleansings  that remained within the church for quite some time.) Although it’s not the topic of this series, I will note that Baptists also have a historical problem with our reduction of the mystery of Baptism to a mere symbol. Justin does actually speak more about it elsewhere in his apology, but it’s interesting to note that even here he describes it as for the remission of sins and unto regeneration. Both of those are, of course, what we would call biblical descriptions of baptism even though Justin did not yet have a New Testament Bible. Even absent the written texts, it is clearly part of what has been traditioned to him.

The requirement of baptism excluded those who were in the process of learning what it meant to be Christian. These came to be called the catechumens. The catechumenate developed as the church existed under persecution as an illegal religion under Roman law. The goal was to make sure that people understood what it meant to follow Christ and would be able to stand firm under torture and the threat of death. During this period it was still very much an unsettled question whether or not one who having turned to Christ, and then having denied Christ under persecution would ever be able to truly return to the faith.

And finally, those partaking must actually be living as Christ commanded us to live. In the words of the Holy Scriptures, they must obey his commands. And this, of course, is his command: That we love one another.

For the central purposes of this series, here is the key sentence.

For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.

There is quite a bit packed into this sentence, so I’m going to spend a little time unpacking it. First, Justin denies that we receive the elements as common bread and common drink. That certainly sets him at odds with the modern SBC Faith & Message. And perhaps sets him at odds with Zwingli. However, the next linkage is perhaps the most important. Justin connects the Eucharist to the Incarnation itself. Jesus took on flesh and blood for our salvation and as such we must consume his flesh and blood to receive it, to be nourished, and to be healed. This is the connection Jesus makes in John 6 fleshed out in practice. And then the very clear statement that the food which is blessed is the flesh and blood of Jesus.

I’ve been tempted at times to point out to my fellow Baptists that Bill Clinton was really just being a good Southern Baptist boy when he said, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” But I’ve always refrained because I’m not sure they would take it in the spirit intended. And yet that is exactly what those who take the “mere symbol” route are doing. History so far has been consistent with the usage of ‘is’ in Holy Scriptures regarding the Eucharist. The blessed bread is our Lord’s flesh. The blessed wine is our Lord’s blood.

I am going to continue stepping forward through that which we have preserved from the historical practice and understanding of the Church in this series. But right now, the oft-repeated liturgical phrase from Battlestar Galactica comes to mind about all we have examined to date.

So say we all.

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2 Comments

  1. Bruce
    Posted October 21, 2010 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    Wow, great stuff, Scott.
    I’m an American Baptist who has believed in the Real Presence since my college days. At the time was attending a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, and was challenged by their practice & belief. Anyway, after much study & prayer, I concluded the same thing you have-that the Eucharist truly is the Body & Blood of our Lord.

  2. Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    Thanks. I’ve been a lot of things over the course of my life, but I’ve not often been the sort of person who accepts something simply because someone tells me it’s so. I also love history and especially in a faith like Christianity, that thread of historical belief matters. In this lengthy series, I used excerpts to illustrate the continuous, unbroken thread of belief and practice from the first century all the way to nearer the time when Christianity was formally legalized. And there was no break or change. The things we find believed and practiced in the Church that wrote the Nicene Creed in the 4th century can fairly easily be traced back continuously to its founding. I used excerpts in this series, but I’ve read the whole of the documents from which I excerpted and I’m confident I’ve not distorted their context. I encourage anyone reading who wonders about that to read the source documents themselves.

    The core problem with the Zwinglian perspectives on Baptism, the Eucharist, and similar central matters of Christian belief and practice is that they are entirely 16th century innovations in the faith. Before then, the only people who believed even vaguely similar things, like the gnostics and the docetists, were clearly heretics (in the sense that they had chosen another faith or belief system than Christianity) and pretty much everyone recognizes them as such. And I don’t see how beliefs or ideas that were invented in the 16th century and which directly contradict all prior Christian belief and practice can be considered in any sense continuous or part of the same faith.

    Marcionites, Arians, Nestorians, and all the rest sincerely considered themselves “Christian,” but were rejected by the Church as a whole. I guess I don’t see how this is really any different. If the Zwinglian beliefs are as valid as the ones they contradict and are just as much a part of whatever we label “Christianity,” then why isn’t Arianism equally valid?

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