Dialogue on Calvin’s & Patristic Eucharistic Theology

Dialogue on Calvin’s & Patristic Eucharistic Theology October 22, 2018

. . . Especially St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s Theology of the Eucharist

My two dialogue opponents are Reformed Protestant (Calvinist). Dr. Joel Garver‘s words will be in blue; Kevin Johnson’s in green. See the related paper, from five days earlier: John Calvin and St. Cyril of Jerusalem: Comparative Eucharistic Theology. Reference is made to it below.


I would like to particularly thank Joel for replying (though also Kevin, of course); I know he must be a very busy man (like all academics) and could find many better things to do, so I appreciate it, and I again express my great admiration for his fine work.

Well, I also still think you’re pretty much talking right past what Kevin is saying and what much of recent scholarship has indicated.

Perhaps so, but if so, I will have to be shown this by rational argumentation, with documentation (as I have tried to do). As for recent scholarship, I would be delighted to learn what it holds. I have neither the time nor money to follow all of that (even less now, after having started a part-time job that requires my services seven days a week), but if someone such as yourself can summarize it for me or send me to some links which do, I am all ears. Please teach us.

As you indicate, the fundamental question here is not whether Calvin rejected the late medieval doctrine that he identified with “transubstantiation” because, of course, he did. The question is [a] whether that late medieval doctrine was identical with that of Cyril and a number of the early Fathers when understood in their own immediate contexts and 

I think (based on what I know, be it a little or a lot) that the (“Roman”) Catholic doctrine is far closer to St. Cyril’s doctrine than Calvin’s is. Development is a given. The terminology and Aristotelian philosophical sophistication (as well as the theology itself) developed, but the essential components remain the same: however one calls it, this view entails a transformation of the bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ. Cyril clearly teaches this; so does the Catholic Church. Calvin does not. One can quibble about words all day long, but this is the bottom line.

[b] whether, when properly contextualized, Calvin coincides with Cyril in important ways that separate them both from the late medieval context.

Okay; well, again, teach us; show us where we have gone astray. I’ve done my work. Now, if my argument is to be overthrown I need to be shown by you or someone else at what point it went off: how it took anything out of context or (inadvertently, as it was surely not deliberate) misrepresented anything or drew wrong conclusions, etc. This can’t be done by simply making general statements. it has to be argued properly . . . Surely as a philosopher, you understand this. Whether you have time to do so yourself is something else, but you must agree that what I have produced will take a bit of work and time to overthrow.

On the question of the presence of Christ himself in the eucharist, when the Reformers speak of “transubstantiation” and reject it, they are speaking of a particular theory of Christ’s presence, cashed out in terms of substance and accidents, as those categories were communicated to them in the context of later medieval ontologies, which were either nominalistic or a kind thomism knocked out of shape by nominalism.

Perhaps so, but that doesn’t give them the excuse to co-opt transformational views like that of St. Cyril and make out that they were not so. This is as much about development of doctrine I think, than about eucharistic theology per se.

Earlier medieval and patristic notions of “substance” and how those were contextualized in the eucharist—seen not just as elements and words, but also as an action of the assembled Body of Christ and teleologically directed toward reception by the faithful—would not have necessarily been objectioned to by Calvin, had he a better grasp on them.

Good. I certainly agree that he (just like Luther) had a jaded view of Scholasticism due to the corruptions of that school of thought by nominalism. But he was sharp enough not to have made the wild statements that he made about Catholic teaching.

His own eucharistic views, I submit, are attempting to approach those patristic views, such as Cyril’s, though somewhat metaphysically handicapped by his own philosophical context. Indeed, depending on one’s ontology of “substance”—particularly after a century of revisionist thomism, renewed study of Christian neoplatonism, and so on—then Calvin’s own views might be termed “transubstantiation” (though, given the complexion of that term in his day, Calvin would likely turn over in his grave at the suggestion).

I need to be shown this. My extensive discussions on his eucharistic theology with Josh and Alastair on this blog were extremely interesting and (I think) fruitful, but I was not convinced at all that Calvin’s view can be defended as even internally coherent, let alone consistent with the broad views of the Fathers.

Nothing you’ve said strikes against this in the least since you’ve neglected to explain what each of the historical figures actually meant within their own particular contexts and with their own assumptions about ontology and the like.

This is untrue, and (with all due respect) you must not have read my paper very closely, because I was making my argument in part by virtue of citing historians of doctrine, who made exactly these kinds of interpretations. Philip Schaff, for example, wrote:

In general, this period, . . . was already very strongly inclined toward the doctrine of transubstantiation, and toward the Greek and Roman sacrifice of the mass, . . .

He says that “the kind and mode of this presence are not yet particularly defined” and classifies Fathers in different categories, but gives transubstantiation a strong place. Then when he gets to Cyril he writes (emphasis added):

With the act of consecration a change accordingly takes place in the elements, whereby they become vehicles and organs of the life of Christ, although by no means necessarily changed into another substance. To denote this change very strong expressions are used, like metabolhv, metabavllein, metabavllesqai, metastoiceiou’sqai, metapoiei’sqai, mutatio, translatio, transfiguratio, transformatio; illustrated by the miraculous transformation of water into wine, the assimilation of food, and the pervasive power of leaven. Cyril of Jerusalem goes farther in this direction than any of the fathers . . . In support of this change Cyril refers at one time to the wedding feast at Cana, which indicates, the Roman theory of change of substance . . .

Schaff also cites Gregory of Nyssa, Hilary, and Ambrose as proponents of the transformationist view, and states that the last two “come nearest to the later dogma of transubstantiation.”

Furthermore, I cited J. N. D. Kelly along these lines. He described Cyril as the “pioneer of the conversion doctrine,” and states that “In the fifth century conversionist views were taken for granted by Alexandrians and Antiochenes alike.” Kelly is one of the leading experts on patristic doctrine. If you disagree with his conclusions or that of Schaff, then by all means make an argument and show how they are wrong.

But in any event, I have made the argument by citing them in agreement. As they are Protestants, they cannot be accused of a Roman bias. This is my usual methodology, because I am always anticipating the Protestant response. I cite almost all Protestant scholars, so I can undercut the objection of bias and the “party line,” etc.

The question of Christ’s presence is also distinct from that of the eucaharist as sacrifice, but Reformed theologians were willing to speak of a eucharistic sacrifice and even to admit that it was propitiatory (sometimes citing what they took to be Lombard and Aquinas’ understanding of that, in accordance with the Fathers). But they rejected what they understood the Roman church to be teaching on the subject as having departed both from Scripture and tradition

Well, they were wrong! They are not in accord with Tradition on this point. Schaff demonstrated that, and much more could be brought to the table, demonstrating it.

and, even in the midst of retrieving the tradition, they shied away from the traditional language because they perceived it as having been corrupted.

That’s fine. But whatever language is used, there are bottom line issues here:

1. Are the bread and wine literally transformed into the body and blood of Christ?

2. Can God do such a miracle, or is this not possible because Jesus is at the right hand of the Father?

3. Is it proper to adore the consecrated host, given #1 (from which it would seem to straightforwardly follow)?

4. Is the Mass a making present of the one-time historical sacrifice of Christ on Calvary?

5. What do the Fathers believe about these things, and what does Calvin believe?

My answers are: #1-4: yes; #5: Calvin greatly differs from the Fathers, because, by and large, they held to the same position on #1-4 as I presently am.

I think it would be best to isolate out the question of adoring Christ in the eucharist from the wider discussion, for several reasons.

First, one could very well hold to some version of transubstantiation and reject the kinds of fetishized treatments of the eucharistic elements to which Calvin is objecting, because one might worry about pushing the eucharist apart from the action of the assembly and from the faithful receiving it.

If He is really there, He is really there! I don’t know how else to say it. I don’t see how one thing can be separated from the other. Jesus is either present or not. If He is, He can and should be worshiped. If He is not, then He shouldn’t be (not in terms of attention upon the Host). You can’t have it both ways. If there is no worship permitted, then obviously Jesus isn’t there and the Real Presence is denied.

Second, “adoring Christ in the eucharist” to which the Father attest is not necessarily identical with “adoring the consecrated host”. After all, we know the adoration of Christ in the eucharist in the Fathers didn’t involve kneeling during the consecration, the kinds of reservation that arose later, and certainly not “eucharistic adoration” as that is practiced in later medieval period onwards.

Posture is far less important than the internal attitude and action of worship. Worship of God, by nature (like idolatry) is an internal action of the will and the spirit which can be expressed in many ways. So whether the fathers knelt or not does not decide this question one way or another. Most Catholics in most countries (and most Orthodox) do not kneel, but that doesn’t mean that they believe any less in the Real, Substantial Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. They are worshiping by standing.

First, I want to thank you for a response that obviously took some work to research and put together.

You’re most welcome. And thank you, as always, for your gracious, gentlemanly dialogical approach.

I have a couple of observations as well as a question or two immediately for you. First, I hope you will note that the primary link between Calvin and Cyril is in regards to the Real Presence. No one is claiming that their views are practically identical in all respects (and I don’t think you made that claim either).

Sure, but that is a notoriously nebulous term, used in all kinds of ways. I sought to demonstrate that when it is applied to Cyril, it meant something highly akin to transubstantiation — which you in tern made out to be a late medieval invention (or corruption). Secondly, David Willis, whom you cited in agreement, expressly tied in the notion of transubstantiation and Real Presence, stating that Calvin rejected the former.

But since Cyril seems to have accepted it in a less developed form, it is relevant to discuss it. All these things are tied in together. Overall, Calvin’s view was not all that similar to Cyril’s from what I can see. I’m not convinced at all. If I am wrong about that, then show me. State your case, and document, as I have done.

Second, classic Protestants use the term Real Presence to speak to the What of what is present in the sacrament, in other words, it speaks of Christ being present in the sacrament. Calvin’s view, like that of the other magisterial Reformers (save Zwingli) is that Christ was present in accordance with his nature as defined by Chalcedon–both man and God really present in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

Yes, but like I said, these are a bunch of high-sounding words. We don’t really know what is meant by them unless we dig deeper and examine exactly what both Calvin and the Fathers believed. The fact that they adored Jesus in the consecrated host and regarded the Mass as a sacrifice indicates quite a bit about their eucharistic theology. What they believed, Calvin regarded as the grossest abomination, idolatry, sacrilege, etc.

This is what I demonstrated, I think, in my post: the disconnect between Calvin and the Fathers on this one. I don’t see that this is rocket science. I think it is all rather obvious and I don’t understand how Reformed think differently. Hopefully, you can at least help me understand how that can be, as I am truly puzzled. As in most of these discussions, we won’t persuade each other away from our positions, but we can at least reach a much better mutual understanding and achieve some constructive discussion.

What is not treated with this issue generally by Protestants is the question of the sacrifice of the Mass and the nature of that sacrifice. While I will grant you that it is perhaps difficult to conceive (especially from the side of Roman Catholicism) that we can speak of the Real Presence without speaking of the sacrifice of Christ, much of Protestantism is all about making the proper distinctions to emphasize certain truths over others depending on what is in question. I hope that is understandable.

Yes, but it needs much further discussion. I think the crux of the discussion comes down to whether Protestantism or Catholicism more closely reflects patristic thought. If the appeal wasn’t made to the Fathers, there wouldn’t be nearly the amount of controversy. But because they are brought in, now we have a factual matter that can be ascertained by recourse to the fathers’ writings and scholarly summaries of their views (such as that of Schaff or Kelly or Pelikan, etc.).

So, for the moment, I will be side-stepping your comments on the nature of how the Fathers viewed the sacrifice of the Mass. I am hopeful you will agree that it has developed over the centuries, though we might disagree as to the degree to which it developed.

Absolutely. All doctrines develop. It’s a given.

At any rate, I would just ask you to remember the original comments of my blog entry were to point to a highly specialized and technical journal article that did not treat the whole of the matter.

Fair enough. Nevertheless, you made statements about the supposed late origins of transubstantiation which (I submit) are not consistent with the facts of the matter, as ascertained through historical analysis.

Here I will let you in behind the curtain for a moment. I’m honestly not sure I’ve completely grappled with the idea of the Fathers’ view (and the overall Catholic view) of the sacrifice of the Mass. There are issues I see regarding the Incarnation and how it relates to the Real Presence that I have not fully worked out, that bear more research and discussion, as well as a lot more reading. So, I don’t feel fully prepared to comment on that aspect of your post.

That’s fine. I respect that. Kudos to you for wanting to study the issue more.

Regarding Cyril, I do have a couple of questions. You quoted Cyril as follows:

Moreover, the things which are hung up at idol festivals, either meat or bread, or other such things polluted by the invocation of the unclean spirits, are reckoned in the pomp of the devil. For as the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist before the invocation of the Holy and Adorable Trinity were simple bread and wine, while after the invocation the Bread becomes the Body of Christ, and the Wine the Blood of Christ, so in like manner such meats belonging to the pomp of Satan, though in their own nature simple, become profane by the invocation of the evil spirit. (Cyril of Jerusalem, Five Catechetical Lectures to the Newly Baptized, First Lecture on the Mysteries, 19.7)

1. Given the nature of the parallel between what is sacrificed to Satan and the Eucharist, are you prepared to argue that Cyril here is saying that the meat sacrificed to idols is changed in the same manner as the bread and wine (i.e. that it changes substance and ceases to exist)?

I don’t think the analogy requires that. The category of “profane” is a spiritual or subjective one. That gets into Pauline discussions of “meat sacrificed to idols” and so forth. No one would argue that it ceases to be meat. But it is meat unfit for Christians because of the implications of how it is used. Cyril is not speaking in those terms regarding the Eucharist. There he uses unbridled realism and literalism (just as St. Paul himself does).

2. If not, what necessitates my taking this quote to mean the elements are transubstantiated into the Body and Blood of Christ?

One interprets it in conjunction with other statements from Cyril, just as cross-referencing is used in Scripture study. And just read other statements from the very same work, which I have provided. it’s quite clear what he means, just as Calvin is pretty clear when all his statements on a given subject are taken into account.

3. Isn’t it clear that Cyril here, by invoking the parallel to meat sacrificed to evil spirits being profaned is not speaking of a change in the substantial nature of the elements as much as he is their sacred use? To argue otherwise means you must recognize a change of substance in the meat otherwise there is no reason for the parallel.

You have to interpret it in light of his other statements. I don’t think your analysis of the analogy itself holds. It is a partial comparison. Likewise, I have made an analogy to transubstantiation (in my first book) of water being ice, or steam, or liquid (an accidental as opposed to a substantive or essential change). That was not an absolutely exact analogy, but it is still an analogy (or parallel), in that what changed is reversed: accidents change rather than substance.

I believe that is Cyril’s meaning here. It was not intended as a comprehensive analogy. Otherwise, he contradicts himself in the same work, and you have to explain what he meant by the other statements that I cited. You don’t resolve your difficulty by making this argument, because you still have the other texts to deal with, and presumably, Cyril was self-consistent, or sought to be, anyway.

4. How would you defend the idea that your look at Cyril is something other than anachronistic for nowhere (and here Schaff agrees with me, though he states his case not as strong) is it necessary for us to see the essential elements of transubstantiation in Cyril, especially given the above passage in reference to pagan sacrifices?

You have merely taken one passage and made out that it contradicts this interpretation. I don’t think it does, and I have explained why. My view involves no anachronism because it is based on documented statements and interpretations by Protestant scholars (cited again above) who have no stake in making out that Cyril believed something that (prima facie if nothing else) looks more “Catholic” than “Protestant.” I wasn’t the one who claimed that he went further in this regard than any other Father. That was Schaff.

I wasn’t the one who called him the “pioneer of the conversion doctrine,” or who opined, “In the fifth century conversionist views were taken for granted by Alexandrians and Antiochenes alike.” That was J. N. D. Kelly (not a Catholic, that I know of). If my view is anachronistic, then so is theirs. Or do you somehow separate their opinions from mine simply because I am a Catholic and they are not (even though on this point we are greatly in agreement)?

It’s just the historical facts of the matter . . . the notion of conversion of the elements is the essence of transubstantiation, and many fathers (including Cyril) clearly believed this. What is anachronistic is the incessant reading back into the Fathers Protestant views. This is most often dome with regard to sola Scriptura, but also in this area and many others, and never more than with St. Augustine.

Then in your comments at your blog post, you wrote:

If you can show me how Cyril is definitively teaching the elements of transubstantiation (I do not think it is even necessary to bother with needing to see the technical language) in the quote I put in the blog entry, then I think you would have a case. But, until that one is explained we should view the other bare quotes on the subject with some suspicion.

I’ve done that by providing several quotations and citing experts on patristic theology. Your methodology here is backwards. You don’t seize on one statement that looks like it might read “Protestant” and then ignore other relevant statements and become suspicious of them because they don’t fit into your assumed interpretation of one. This is a circular argument.

You need to interpret all the statements in harmony, just as you would when you approach the Bible. You interpret the less clear in light of the more clear. That is, unless you want to assume that Cyril and other fathers were characterized by internal inconsistency. That strikes me as a more “liberal” attitude towards patristics, and lacking a proper charity and sympathetic “identification” with the subject under consideration (Cyril). I think, therefore, that you are far more guilty of the very thing you accuse us of (anachronism and selective citation).

I gave several citations and have now given my explanation of the “problem” that you raised. You have simply stated your position and then adopted a stance of “suspicion” towards the quotes that don’t seem to fit into your view (and then used the tired recourse to “out of context”).

“Pontificator” [Fr. Alvin Kimel] hit the nail on the head in another comment on your blog:

I do not interpret Cyril as teaching transubstantiation, as explicated by Thomas Aquinas, just as I do not interpret Ignatius of Antioch as teaching the homoousion. There is such a thing as development of doctrine. We should not expect to find a scholastic precision in the early Fathers on a matter that was never seriously disputed.

You wrote, in turn, on his blog:

I guess what I don’t understand is why Roman Catholics will grant that the Orthodox view is legitimate even though it can’t really be spoken of with the same categories in mind, yet a high Protestant view like Calvin’s is simply something other than catholic.

That’s easy: the Orthodox view incorporates the essential notions of transformation and literal presence of Jesus’ body and blood, and allows adoration, and the notion of sacrifice. Calvin;’s position (especially when closely scrutinized) denies all three of these things. Therefore it is neither in accord with Tradition nor catholic. It is a novel innovation and a corruption of previous received eucharistic doctrine.

I also don’t buy this unanimity in the Fathers concerning this issue.

It’s about as unanimous as any doctrine gets, in its main outlines.

More research is required, but both Augustine and Ratramnus (and, though disputed, Cyril) viewed this issue of a change in the elements differently than what is currently being held up as the standard of orthodoxy.

There is no essential difference between Augustine’s view and the Catholic one, because for Augustine, “sign” and reality can be one and the same. They need not be dichotomized, as in so much of Protestant thought.

It is more than just a matter of avoiding special terms put forth by the scholastics in the High Middle Ages and there is a fair level of diversity on these issues which I have not seen addressed by those towing ‘the party line’.

I addressed whatever diversity there truly was by citing Schaff, who stated that there was such diversity in some respects. But the transformation view was still the most prominent one, and it was held by Cyril. Therefore, it is wrongheaded to claim that Calvin’s view closely approached Cyril’s (even if you want to restrict that to the issue of the “real presence” — however you define that — alone).

If Cyril would be regarded as a blasphemous, sacrilegious idolater by Calvin (assuming the latter applies his indignation consistently), then how can it be said that Calvin’s view is so close to Cyril’s? He is just one more ignorant idolater, just like all of us hopeless “papists.”

Thanks for the discussion. I await any reply from either of you with great eagerness.


(originally 6-19-04)

Photo credit: The Young John Calvin (anonymous, 16th century) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


"Amen! I'll be getting to that, too, in due course."

Did Pope Innocent III Forbid the ..."
"There is a continuum of “undecided” since most people do not have absolute knowledge one ..."

Pearce’s Potshots #23: God’s True Mercy ..."
"Council of Trent: "In addition, in order to restrain insolent clever persons, [the Synod] decrees ..."

Did Pope Innocent III Forbid the ..."
"Thanks for your comment. This article was from my friend Paul Hoffer, not me."

Jewish 1st Century Belief in Purgatory ..."

Browse Our Archives

error: Content is protected !!