The starting point for all doctrine is Holy Scripture, and as the articles tell us, nothing can be required of a person to be believed if it is not grounded in Scripture. It would seem then that the place to start for understanding Anglican teaching on the Eucharist is with the most explicit passages on the subject, namely the institution narratives found in 1 Corinthians 11:20-34, Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24, and Luke 22:19-20.
All of the accounts have similar words. They each involve Jesus taking bread and wine, blessing or giving thanks, breaking the bread, and then saying “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood.” He then shares the Supper with His apostles and commands them to “Do this in remembrance of me.” Virtually all Christian bodies would acknowledge that last part, the need to follow the Lord’s command to repeat the ritual, although with varying degrees of frequency, and almost all would also agree with Paul’s assessment that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). Where the divisions that came out of the sixteenth century lie is in just what Jesus meant when He said that the bread is His Body and the wine is His blood. Is this a metaphor or a metaphysical reality?
More Than a Metaphor
Those who argue that Jesus was merely speaking metaphorically here point to the many seemingly metaphoric statements of Jesus in John’s Gospel. The argument goes that since Jesus says He is the door to the sheepfold (John 10:1-9) and that He is a vine with us as the branches (John 15:1-8), both of which must be metaphors because obviously Jesus is not a real door or a real vine, then He must also be speaking metaphorically when He says that bread and wine are His body and blood. The problem with this line of reasoning is two-fold. First of all, the metaphors that Jesus is employing in John’s Gospel cannot simply be dismissed as wordplay. Jesus really is a vine and He really is a door. He may not be a wooden door like you have on your house or a vine like you might have growing in your garden, but He is absolutely serious when He says that we can only enter the Kingdom through Him and that we can only be one with the Father if we are rooted in Him. More to the point, though, the words that Jesus uses in the context of John 10 and John 15, when He is talking about something completely different, do not help us to determine whether or not He is speaking metaphorically in His institution of the Holy Eucharist.
Within the context of the institution narratives themselves, there is nothing that would indicate that Jesus is speaking metaphorically. The only reason that anyone can or would come to such a conclusion is if they hold an a priori belief that it is impossible for such a thing to be true, the same kind of a priori belief that has led liberal Biblical scholars since the late nineteenth century to believe that the Resurrection must be a metaphor since we obviously know that people do not come back from the dead. In fact, the contextual indicators only reinforce the understanding that Jesus is speaking plainly here. In the 1 Corinthians passage, for instance, after Paul has quoted the words of institution, he says this:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (1 Corinthians 11:27-30)
Paul indicates not just that it is disrespectful to take the Supper this way but that it is downright dangerous, that not understanding that Christ’s Body is present and thereby treating the Supper as just another meal will literally destroy you.
Likewise, in John 6, Jesus provides an extended discourse about the Supper and the need to truly eat and drink of His flesh and blood. At the end of this discourse, we are told that many of His disciples grumbled and said “This is a hard saying, who can listen to it?” (vs. 60). Many of them chose to walk away after that day (vs. 66). If what Jesus is teaching here is all purely metaphoric, it is hard to understand why people would find the teaching difficult to accept. Difficult to understand, perhaps. But the text here indicates that the people who left Jesus that day abandoned their discipleship not merely because they did not understand what they were hearing but because they were scandalized by it.
The Teaching of the Fathers
Nevertheless, Jesus did not anticipate sixteenth century concerns and so did not append His statements, “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood,” with the words, “And by the way, I really mean it, this is totally not a metaphor, so don’t ever let anyone tell you that.” And so we might plausibly continue to deny the straight-forwardness of His words, were it not for the fact that the Fathers of the early Church universally confirm them. Examples abound. Saint Ignatius of Antioch, writing to the Smyrnaeans at the end of the first century, said “Note well those who hold heretical opinions about the grace of Jesus Christ that came to us; note how contrary they are to the mind of God… They abstain from Eucharist and prayer because they refuse to acknowledge the Eucharist is the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which the Father by his goodness raised up.” Likewise, Saint Justin Martyr, in his “First Apology,” written in the middle of the second century, said this:
This food we call the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things we teach are true, and has received the washing for forgiveness of sins and for rebirth, and who lives as Christ handed down to us. For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Savior being incarnate by God’s Word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the Word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus.
Similar accounts can be found in Saint Irenaeus, Saint Clement, the Didache, Saint Cyprian, Saint Athanasius, and a host of others throughout the early centuries of the Church. Only those who denied the reality of the incarnation also denied that Christ’s Body and Blood were truly present in the Eucharist. For fifteen centuries, the basic notion of the Real Presence was simply assumed by orthodox Christians. It was a fundamental teaching of the early Church that when Jesus said “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood,” that is exactly what He meant.
This Is My Body, But It Is Also Bread
Real Presence is a given, but the manner of that Presence is something else entirely. In the same passage cited above from Paul, where he explicitly reinforces the teaching of the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, he also continues to refer to the consecrated elements as bread and wine. References in Luke 24:13-35 and Acts 2:42 follow the same pattern.
The Fathers speak similarly at times. Ignatius says, for instance, in his letter to the Ephesians, “Come together in common, one and all without exception in charity, in one faith and in one Jesus Christ, who is of the race of David according to the flesh, the son of man, and the Son of God, so that with undivided mind you may obey the bishop and the priests, and break one Bread which is the medicine of immortality and the antidote against death, enabling us to live forever in Jesus Christ.” It would seem, then, that while we must acknowledge that what we receive in the Eucharist is really Christ’s Body and Blood, we also must acknowledge that it really is bread and wine, unless of course Paul, Luke, and Ignatius are also speaking “metaphorically.”
The Spiritual Nature of the Body
This mystery of the presence of Christ in the midst of the presence of bread and wine is a profound one, no less easy to parse than the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity. Still, this quote from Saint Ambrose helps us to begin to see how Scripture teaches us to think of the mystery:
Christ is in that Sacrament, because it is the Body of Christ; yet, it is not on that account corporeal food, but spiritual. Whence also His Apostle says of the type: `For our fathers ate spiritual food and drink spiritual drink.’ For the body of God is a spiritual body.
This is from Ambrose’s “On the Mysteries,” written in 391. His quote from Paul is from 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, in which Paul speaks of the people of Israel having received a kind of Baptism and a kind of Eucharist in the time of the Exodus, even though they would not have understood it as such. Paul says that they “ate the same spiritual food” and “drank the same spiritual drink” which came directly from Christ. And later in 1 Corinthians 15, when Paul is describing the resurrection of the dead, he says that our bodies themselves go from being “natural”–fallen, earthly, possessed of unclean desires, perishable–to being “spiritual” and “heavenly,” just like the body of the Resurrected Jesus.
So the question, which becomes the point of special departure for classical Anglican Eucharistic theology, is the question of what exactly it means to say that the Body of Christ which we receive is a spiritual body and that we receive it in spirit. We have to come to some understanding of the meaning of the Resurrection if we are to come to realize just what it is we feed upon in the Holy Mystery of the Lord’s Supper. The answer to this question established the teaching in the Formularies. It is taken for granted by the great Anglican Divines when they write about the Supper. Yet, in our own day this teaching is mostly obscure or misunderstood because we have been formed in a western Christian culture that bases its metaphysics largely on Greco-Roman philosophy and the Enlightenment rather than on the worldview of the Bible and the Fathers. As we shall see going forward, classical Anglicanism provides us with an alternative way of seeing the world, one in which the spiritual and the physical are not so diametrically opposed as we tend to assume.