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Baptists, Eucharist, and History 15 – Irenaeus on Christ’s True Flesh

Posted: July 30th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

We’re going to examine most of Chapter II, Book V, Against Heresies in today’s post. Before we start, I will note that Irenaeus is refuting a specific group of those who held that our corruptible flesh is incapable of incorruption and resurrection. This was likely one of the gnostic groups, but I’m struck by the similarity of this issue to the one Paul faced in the Church of Corinth and which built up to the magnificent 1 Corinthian 15. The group Paul was addressing had no problem believing in the specific resurrection and glorification of Jesus. Rather, they did not believe our corruptible bodies would be resurrected. Irenaeus seems to be refuting a similar line of thought.

But vain in every respect are they who despise the entire dispensation of God, and disallow the salvation of the flesh, and treat with contempt its regeneration, maintaining that it is not capable of incorruption. But if this indeed do not attain salvation, then neither did the Lord redeem us with His blood, nor is the cup of the Eucharist the communion of His blood, nor the bread which we break the communion of His body. For blood can only come from veins and flesh, and whatsoever else makes up the substance of man, such as the Word of God was actually made. By His own blood he redeemed us, as also His apostle declares, “In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the remission of sins.” And as we are His members, we are also nourished by means of the creation (and He Himself grants the creation to us, for He causes His sun to rise, and sends rain when He wills). He has acknowledged the cup (which is a part of the creation) as His own blood, from which He bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of the creation) He has established as His own body, from which He gives increase to our bodies.

Basically, if our bodies cannot attain salvation, if they are not capable of incorruption, if they will not thus be resurrected, then the Lord did not redeem us with his blood, the cup is not the communion of his blod, and the bread is not the communion of his body. All of that comes only from a body like ours. Jesus, the Word of God, acknowledges the cup as his blood and establishes the bread as his body. And through both, he nourishes our body and our blood.

The interesting thing again here is that as Irenaeus makes his argument he simply assumes that everyone knows the Christian confession is that the wine and bread of the Eucharist are the body and blood of Jesus. I’m not sure, in our modern era, that the import is immediately obvious. St. Irenaeus, Bishop of the Church in Lyons, one-time student of St. Polycarp, who in turn learned from St. John and who was martyred, writing specifically against a raft of heresies the Church faced, apparently does not imagine and has not encountered any group that does not know that the Christian confession is that they consume life in the form of the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist. He assumes everyone knows that point.

When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God, and the Eucharist of the blood and the body of Christ is made, from which things the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they affirm that the flesh is incapable of receiving the gift of God, which is life eternal, which [flesh] is nourished from the body and blood of the Lord, and is a member of Him?—even as the blessed Paul declares in his Epistle to the Ephesians, that “we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones.” He does not speak these words of some spiritual and invisible man, for a spirit has not bones nor flesh; but [he refers to] that dispensation [by which the Lord became] an actual man, consisting of flesh, and nerves, and bones,—that [flesh] which is nourished by the cup which is His blood, and receives increase from the bread which is His body. And just as a cutting from the vine planted in the ground fructifies in its season, or as a corn of wheat falling into the earth and becoming decomposed, rises with manifold increase by the Spirit of God, who contains all things, and then, through the wisdom of God, serves for the use of men, and having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ; so also our bodies, being nourished by it, and deposited in the earth, and suffering decomposition there, shall rise at their appointed time, the Word of God granting them resurrection to the glory of God, even the Father, who freely gives to this mortal immortality, and to this corruptible incorruption, because the strength of God is made perfect in weakness, in order that we may never become puffed up, as if we had life from ourselves, and exalted against God, our minds becoming ungrateful; but learning by experience that we possess eternal duration from the excelling power of this Being, not from our own nature, we may neither undervalue that glory which surrounds God as He is, nor be ignorant of our own nature, but that we may know what God can effect, and what benefits man receives, and thus never wander from the true comprehension of things as they are, that is, both with regard to God and with regard to man. And might it not be the case, perhaps, as I have already observed, that for this purpose God permitted our resolution into the common dust of mortality, that we, being instructed by every mode, may be accurate in all things for the future, being ignorant neither of God nor of ourselves?

So we’ve not found any historical evidence to date for the modern Baptist view, the 1689 London Confession, and Zwingli’s view. In fact, the ‘mere symbol’ (or even not-so-mere) approach seems flatly contradicted. The above also seems to specifically negate Calvin’s idea of a purely “spiritual meal”. Irenaeus rejects the idea that when Paul speaks of us as members of Christ’s body he is speaking in a purely spiritual sense. And he grounds that rejection in part in the Eucharist.

5 Comments on “Baptists, Eucharist, and History 15 – Irenaeus on Christ’s True Flesh”

  1. 1 mike said at 9:41 am on July 30th, 2009:

    …theres so much for me to digest here..i have to think these things through in my mind in a similar fashion of working a rubix cube…your teaching makes better sense than what i currently hold as “doctrine”….im having to re-think my concept of “Salvation” and “The Church” ..”The Eucharist ” and so much more….i feel like im in seminary…i appreciate this blog…

  2. 2 Scott said at 7:34 pm on July 30th, 2009:

    Having a fairly pluralistic background, a big difference with Christianity is that it is centered around specific historical claims centered around Jesus of Nazareth as the fullness of the revelation of God in a specific place at a specific time teaching and doing specific things. It’s appeal to history is so strong that the historical belief matters in ways that do not necessarily have the same strength in other religions.

    I’m specifically exploring one way my own Baptist tradition has become disconnected from the history of our faith, both in interpretation of the Holy Scriptures and in practice. But in truth, much of American Christianity has become almost completely unmoored from any historical anchor. The song “Freefalling” comes to mind for some reason.

    Thanks. I’m glad you find it helpful.

  3. 3 Greg said at 9:08 am on September 24th, 2009:

    It was Irenaeus in part that ultimately led me to Orthodox Christianity. The early Christians were unambiguous and explicit about their understanding of the Eucharist. I was also deeply impacted by Ignatius of Antioch – he was a disciple of John the Evangelist and was the successor of Peter as Bishop of Antioch. This convert perspective (a Pentecostal minister), reflects on how his understanding of the early Church ultimately brought him “east”:


    Have you attended an Orthodox Divine Liturgy?

  4. 4 Scott said at 10:47 pm on September 24th, 2009:

    Thanks, I’ll read the post later. I love conversion stories. Earlier in this series I had posts on St. Ignatius of Antioch. The series is hardly comprehensive, but does survey the first centuries fairly well.

    I have not attended an Orthodox Divine Liturgy at this point in time, though I probably will at some point.

    However, that comes with caveats. In and amidst the many different things (Christian and not) I was exposed to and followed growing up are all the liturgical Christian traditions except Orthodoxy.

    I went to a Roman Catholic school (as a non-Catholic) for three years, have always had Roman Catholic family members, and am married to a lapsed Roman Catholic.

    I went to an Episcopal school one year and a bit of another and have some vivid early memories of Anglican liturgy.

    My wife and I were married in a Lutheran Church and my younger son was baptized as an infant in that same church. The pastor of that church had a fair amount to do with my turn toward Christianity.

    Growing up I had some experience of Jewish liturgy, so I can recognize the common roots of Christian liturgy. One of my cousins married into a Jewish family.

    I’ve also attended Eastern Rite Catholic liturgies, which are extremely similar to Orthodox liturgies.

    And, in recent years, I have listened to some Orthodox liturgies. And watched a few videos of portions of them.

    So I’m not exactly ignorant of liturgy in spite of the fact that I’ve only really been Christian within the context of an SBC church.

  5. 5 Greg said at 8:10 am on September 28th, 2009:

    I forgot to mention: I grew up in an sb church, for whatever it is worth.