This seems like a good place to bring this series to a close. I believe I’ve demonstrated what the Internet Monk called “the historical problem” with the Baptist understanding of the Eucharist. I’ve meandered through the writings of the early church, the church under persecution, from the first century to the third century. Consistently, from the writings of the Holy Scripture in the New Testament, to those taught by the apostles, those taught in turn by them, and onward from generation to generation, all those we would consider in any sense “orthodox” confess that the bread and wine are the body and blood of our Lord. It was a matter of great mystery and power. The Eucharist equipped the people of God so that they might stand under persecution. Even those like the early gnostics, who rejected the goodness of the material world and the Incarnation itself, understood the confession of the Church and so refused to partake of the Eucharist.
There is simply no place from the foundation of the Church and the writing of the Holy Scriptures, to the end of persecution in the fourth century where the teaching and practice of the Eucharist changed from one thing into something else. There is no point in time where the early Church believed anything different, taught anything different, or practiced anything different. Instead, there is a deep unity and consistency.
After this period, of course, Christianity became a legal religion and we have many more preserved writings, all of which maintain the same tradition. The oldest Christian liturgy still in use today is the liturgy of St. James the Just. We know it was certainly in use by the fourth century and may date much earlier in the Apostolic See of Jerusalem. This is the liturgy that St. Basil somewhat shortened and which St. John Chrysostom further abbreviated. This liturgy is thus the source for the Divine Liturgy most commonly used in Orthodox Churches. Spend time with the whole text (and remember that it is sung), but this tiny excerpt leaves no doubt about what those participating believed about the Eucharist.
Your same all-holy Spirit, Lord, send down on us and on these gifts here set forth, that having come by his holy, good and glorious presence, he may sanctify this bread and make it the holy body of Christ, and this Cup the precious blood of Christ, that they may become for all those who partake of them for forgiveness of sins and everlasting life. For sanctification of souls and bodies. For a fruitful harvest of good works. For the strengthening of your holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, which you founded on the rock of the faith, so that the gates of Hell might not prevail against it, delivering it from every heresy and from the scandals caused by those who work iniquity, and from the enemies who arise and attack it, until the consummation of the age.
A great mystery? To be sure. Nevertheless, this was the confession of all Christians from the first century through to the sixteenth. Yes, in the thirteenth century St. Thomas Aquinas used the language of Aristotle in an attempt to rationally explain the mystery. And because most people don’t really approach the world through the lens of Aristotle, the theory of “transubstantiation” has certainly been poorly understood and ill-used at times. St. Thomas was himself simply trying to make rational sense of the mystery of the Eucharist using terms and symbols with which he was familiar. Transubstantiation actually says that the substance or the true reality becomes the body and blood even while the accidents, that is the parts we can see, touch, smell, and taste, remain sensibly bread and wine. St. Thomas would probably have been better served to leave it a mystery beyond explanation.
As we observed earlier in this series, of the sixteenth century reformers Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, only Luther maintained a perspective of the Eucharist at all consistent with the entire preceding history of the Church. Like St. Thomas Aquinas, Luther probably would have been better served leaving the change of the bread and wine into the body and blood a great mystery. But he was a product of both medieval Roman Catholicism and the early modern era and felt constrained to attempt to rationalize it in his theory of consubstantiation. Nevertheless, he locates the body and blood of Christ with the bread and wine of the Eucharist in a real way.
Calvin and Zwingli? They both essentially invented new ideas about the Eucharist. Their ideas are sixteenth century innovations that didn’t exist before they conceived them. Unfortunately, they ended up having more influence over Protestantism than Luther did. Luther’s teaching remained largely limited to Lutherans. Calvin’s had broader influence. While some version of Zwingli’s teaching on the Eucharist has become the norm for most of Protestant belief and practice. It can be fairly said that those who follow Zwingli or Calvin in their teaching of the Eucharist are practicing a faith that is less than five hundred years old rather than one that is more than two millenia old.
Is that a historical problem?
I would call it one.