Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:53-54)
The great majority of Protestant Christians reject the dogma of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. They do not believe that the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Instead, it is usually claimed that communion is merely a representation of the Body and Blood of Christ. The elements of communion remain mere bread and mere grape juice/wine. For example, the denomination to which I belonged, the Assembly of God, emphasizes that Christians do not really have the Body and Blood of Christ but are merely remembering what Christ did on Calvary. Most evangelical protestant communities adhere to the same doctrine. For Protestants, when Jesus said “eat my flesh and drink my blood” he meant it only symbolically.
In contrast to these protestant communities, the early and medieval Church understood the Eucharist to be truly the Body and Blood of Christ. From Ignatius of Antioch to Augustine, from John Chrysostom to Francis of Assisi, from Irenaeus and Leo the Great to Thomas Aquinas we are confronted with the universal witness of the early Church teaching that the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Christ. So universal was this belief that, unlike many other dogmas, only those who were outside the Church even questioned it. And yet this dogma is either ignored or vehemently rejected among a large portion of western Christians today.
This realistic understanding of the Eucharist was more than just an important doctrine of the Church. The reality of the Eucharist created the identity of the Church. For the early Christians, if a particular community did not have the Body and Blood of the Eucharist, that community was alien to the Church. So writes St. Ignatius of Antioch about the docetist heretics in the early second century:
“They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead.”
Those who reject the Real Presence of the Eucharist are excluded from the Church, so is the witness of the Apostolic Father.
But the protestant rejection of this dogma is not only a historical anomaly. It is a contemporary Christian anomaly. The belief in the real Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist is also found in contemporary eastern churches of the Orthodox, both Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian. It is central to their Christian Faith. To be clear, the overwhelming majority of all Christians in the world hold to this dogma. The protestant rejection of it is an anomaly to both Christian history and to the contemporary Christian communities throughout the world. Given this fact, a more pressing question arises: Why do protestants reject what most Christians have claimed to be one of the most important truths promulgated by the Church throughout all Christian centuries?
One possible explanation for this may be found in the protestant understanding of the nature of the Church. It appears that the nature of the Church and the nature of the Eucharist cannot be separated.
Our understanding of the Church is inseparable from our acceptance or rejection of the Eucharist. Church history reveals this connection. When surveying the historical and contemporary development of denominationalism we discern a pattern. The visible, hierarchic, historic churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, etc.) accept the dogma of the Eucharist while the more congregational or low Christian communities (Baptist, Assembly of God, non-denominational, Pentecostal, etc.) reject it. In other words, there is a striking correlation between those who reject the Divine Authority of a visible, hierarchic Church and those who reject Eucharistic realism. The nature of the Church and the nature of the Eucharist cannot be separated.
Let us put it another way. The historic churches of the Orthodox and Catholic traditions claim that Christ founded the visible institution of the Church. They hold that the visible Church has been given Divine Authority. But this is exactly what Protestantism rejects. Protestants deny that the Church is a visible institution possessing Divine Authority.
Given this historical correlation, we hypothesize the following principle: those who reject the Divine Authority of the institutional Church do in fact reject Eucharistic realism. Or more succinctly and positively: Eucharistic realism entails Ecclesial realism.
This will be no surprise to the theologians. As Newman has so forcefully taught us, no dogma is understood in isolation from the whole deposit of the Faith. The truths of the Faith are so intimately related that each of them casts light on the others, and the rejection of one casts a shadow on the whole. Side with Athanasius and you will be opposed to Nestorius, side with Nestorius and you will find yourself on the same road as Arius. If Mary is not the Mother of God, then Christ is not God. If Christ is not God then we have no true Sacrifice to offer God. Reject one truth of the Faith and you are on the road to unbelief. Patristic scholar William Jurgens succinctly relates the unity of dogmatic truths: “The Faith is a seamless robe. Cut it here, tear it there, excise a piece from it anywhere, and the whole of it unravels.”
The relation between the institutional Church and the Holy Eucharist is an instance of this general principle. The rejection of the Divine Authority of the Church has grave repercussions; the rejection of the Eucharist has grave repercussions. If you reject the former you will find yourself rejecting the latter; if you reject the latter you will find yourself rejecting the former. But what is the necessary connection between the Church and the Eucharist?
Only a Church which claims Divine Authority would dare say with any kind of realism and confidence: “This is my Body; this is my Blood.” Given their understanding of ecclesial authority, Protestants rightly reject this doctrine. How could the effect (the Body of Christ in the Eucharist) exceed the cause (fallible men)? How could any mere human institution make present the Infinite God, the Infinite Sacrifice? Only those churches which claim Christ as their First Cause and Founder can also claim that the Body and Blood are truly made present on their altars.
In light of this, it is not surprising that the Church and the Eucharist have often been given the same title: the Body of Christ. Because she has real Divine Authority the Church is able to give us His Body. Only the real Body of Christ (the Church) can give us the real Body of Christ (the Eucharist).