St. Augustine’s Belief in the Substantial Real Presence

St. Augustine’s Belief in the Substantial Real Presence October 11, 2018

The great Church Father makes many statements which have been traditionally seized upon as evidence of his adoption of either a purely symbolic or Calvinistic notion of the Lord’s Supper. This consideration will be dealt with first, before consulting the primary materials:

I. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, translated by Patrick Lynch, edited by James C. Bastible, Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books, 1974 (orig. 1952 in German), 377-378:

The Eucharistic doctrine expounded by St. Augustine is interpreted in a purely spiritual way by most Protestant writers on the history of dogmas. Despite his insistence on the symbolical explanation he does not exclude the Real Presence. In association with the words of institution he concurs with the older Church tradition in expressing belief in the Real Presence . . .When in the Fathers’ writings, esp. those of St. Augustine, side by side with the clear attestations of the Real Presence, many obscure symbolically-sounding utterances are found also, the following points must be noted for the proper understanding of such passages: (1) The Early Fathers were bound by the discipline of the secret, which referred above all to the Eucharist (cf. Origen, In Lev. hom. 9, 10); (2) The absence of any heretical counter-proposition often resulted in a certain carelessness of expression, to which must be added the lack of a developed terminology to distinguish the sacramental mode of existence of Christ’s body from its natural mode of existence once on earth; (3) The Fathers were concerned to resist a grossly sensual conception of the Eucharistic Banquet and to stress the necessity of the spiritual reception in Faith and in Charity (in contradistinction to the external, merely sacramental reception); passages often refer to the symbolical character of the Eucharist as ‘the sign of unity’ (St. Augustine); this in no wise excludes the Real Presence.

II. Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. 4, edited by Angelo di Berardino, tr. Placid Solari, St. Augustine chapter (VI) written by Agostino Trape, Allen, Texas: Christian Classics, 1950, 449-450:

His thought [on the sacraments] has been widely studied but has not always been expounded in an unequivocal manner. Here as in other instances, it is necessary to keep in mind the various aspects of the dogma which he illustrates and defends. Thus……..his insistence on the ecclesiological symbolism of the Eucharist does not obscure his explicit affirmations of the real presence (the bread is the Body of Christ and the wine is the Blood of Christ: Serm. 227; 272; In ps. 98, 9; 33, 1, 10) and of the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist (De civ. Dei 10, 19-20; Conf. 9, 12, 32; 13-36).

III. In a paper I recently wrote detailing in more technically theological fashion my odyssey to the Catholic Church (recalling the period in which I was voraciously studying people like Dollinger, Salmon and Kung, in order to refute Catholic claims to infallibility), I recounted my own use of the approach I am now critiquing:

I claimed that St. Augustine . . . adopted a symbolic view of the Eucharist. I based this on his oft-stated notion of the sacrament as symbol or sign. I failed to realize, however, that I was arbitrarily creating a false, logically unnecessary dichotomy between the sign and the reality of the Eucharist, for St. Augustine — when all his remarks on the subject are taken into account — clearly accepted the Real Presence. The Eucharist — for Augustine, and objectively speaking — is both sign and reality. There simply is no contradiction.

A cursory glance at Scripture confirms this general principle. For instance, Jesus refers to the sign of Jonah, comparing the prophet Jonah’s three days and nights in the belly of the fish to His own burial in the earth (Mt 12:38-40). In this case, both events, although described as signs, were quite real indeed. Jesus also uses the terminology of sign in connection with His Second Coming (Mt 24:30-31), which is believed by all Christians to be a literal event, and not symbolic only.

Now, on to St. Augustine’s statements which very strongly support the opinion that He held to the Real Presence in the Eucharist:

IV. From Ott, ibid.:

1) The bread which you see on the altar is, sanctified by the word of God, the body of Christ; that chalice, or rather what is contained in the chalice, is, sanctified by the word of God, the blood of Christ. (Sermo 227; on p. 377)

2) Christ bore Himself in His hands, when He offered His body saying: “this is my body.” (Enarr. in Ps. 33 Sermo 1, 10; on p. 377)

3) Nobody eats this flesh without previously adoring it. (Enarr. in Ps. 98, 9; on p. 387)

4) Referring to the sacrifice of Melchizedek (Gen 14:18 ff.):

The sacrifice appeared for the first time there which is now offered to God by Christians throughout the whole world. (City of God, 16, 22; on p. 403)

Ott cites other references or beliefs of St. Augustine:

A) Interpretation of Jn 6:51b-58 as referring to the Eucharist (p. 374)

B) Christ was both the sacrificing Priest and the sacrificial Gift in one Person (City of God, 10, 20; Ep. cf. 98, 9; on p. 406)

C) The sacrifice of the Mass is that foretold by Malachi [1:10-11] (Tract. adv. Jud. 9, 13; on p. 406)

D) The Mass is a propitiatory sacrifice bringing about remission of sins and the conferring of supernatural gifts (De cura pro mortuis fier. 1, 3; 18, 22; Enchir. 110; on p. 413)

V. William A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. 3, edited and translated by Jurgens, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1979:

5) He took flesh from the flesh of Mary . . . and gave us the same flesh to be eaten unto salvation . . . we do sin by not adoring. (Explanations of the Psalms , 98, 9; on p. 20)

6) Not all bread, but only that which receives the blessing of Christ, becomes Christ’s body. (Sermons, 234, 2; on p. 31)

7) What you see is the bread and the chalice . . . But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the Body of Christ and the chalice the Blood of Christ. (Sermons, 272; on p. 32)

8) Christ is both the priest, offering Himself, and Himself the Victim. He willed that the sacramental sign of this should be the daily sacrifice of the Church. (City of God, 10, 20; on p. 99)

9) Not only is no one forbidden to take as food the Blood of this Sacrifice, rather, all who wish to possess life are exhorted to drink thereof. (Questions of the Hepateuch, 3, 57; on p. 134)

VI. Hugh Pope, St. Augustine of Hippo, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1961 (orig. 1937):

10) The Sacrifice of our times is the Body and Blood of the Priest Himself . . . Recognize then in the Bread what hung upon the tree; in the chalice what flowed from His side. (Sermo iii. 1-2; on p. 62)

11) The Blood they had previously shed they afterwards drank. (Mai  26, 2; 86, 3; on p. 64)

12) Eat Christ, then; though eaten He yet lives, for when slain He rose from the dead. Nor do we divide Him into parts when we eat Him: though indeed this is done in the Sacrament, as the faithful well know when they eat the Flesh of Christ, for each receives his part, hence are those parts called graces. Yet though thus eaten in parts He remains whole and entire; eaten in parts in the Sacrament, He remains whole and entire in Heaven. (Mai 129, 1; cf. Sermon 131; on p. 65)

13) Out of hatred of Christ the crowd there shed Cyprian’s blood, but today a reverential multitude gathers to drink the Blood of Christ . . . this altar . . . whereon a Sacrifice is offered to God . . . (Sermo 310, 2; cf. City of God, 8, 27, 1; on p. 65)

14) He took into His hands what the faithful understand; He in some sort Bore Himself when He said: This is My Body. (Enarr . 1, 10 on Ps. 33; on p. 65)

15) The very first heresy was formulated when men said: “this saying is hard and who can bear it [Jn 6:60]?” ( Enarr . 1, 23 on Ps. 54; on p. 66)

16) Thou art the Priest, Thou the Victim, Thou the Offerer, Thou the Offering. (Enarr . 1, 6 on Ps. 44; on p. 66)

17) Take, then, and eat the Body of Christ . . . You have read that, or at least heard it read, in the Gospels, but you were unaware that the Son of God was that Eucharist. (Denis , 3, 3; on p. 66)

18) The entire Church observes the tradition delivered to us by the Fathers, namely, that for those who have died in the fellowship of the Body and Blood of Christ, prayer should be offered when they are commemorated at the actual Sacrifice in its proper place, and that we should call to mind that for them, too, that Sacrifice is offered. (Sermo, 172, 2; 173, 1; De Cura pro mortuis, 6; De Anima et ejus Origine, 2, 21; on p. 69)

19) We do pray for the other dead of whom commemoration is made. Nor are the souls of the faithful departed cut off from the Church . . . Were it so, we should not make commemoration of them at the altar of God when we receive the Body of Christ. (Sermo 159,1; cf. 284, 5; 285, 5; 297, 3; City of God, 20, 9, 2; cf. 21,24; 22, 8; on p. 69)

20) It was the will of the Holy Spirit that out of reverence for such a Sacrament the Body of the Lord should enter the mouth of a Christian previous to any other food. (Ep. 54, 8; on p. 71)

It is difficult to conceive of anyone denying that St. Augustine believed in the Real Presence (or the Sacrifice of the Mass) after perusing all of this compelling evidence. His other symbolic utterances have been sufficiently explained and are easily able to be synthesized with the above beliefs. St. Augustine is indeed an “insufficient witness” to Protestant belief in a symbolic, or “dynamic” Eucharist.

One of the (hostile) Protestant participants in the public online List on which I posted the above paper, responded on 12/8/96:
It is in his death on the cross (during is incarnation on earth, while taking “the form of a servant”) that Christ was “both the priest, himself making the offering, and the oblation,” not in the Eucharist, which was the “sacramental symbol” of the true sacrifice. Christ is not offered at every mass — it was “one sacrifice,” the “supreme” and “true sacrifice.” 

St. Augustine’s symbolic language can be synthesized with his “realistic” language, because realism can co-exist with symbol while retaining its realism, as I illustrated from the undeniable biblical examples of the “sign of Jonah” and the “sign of the coming of the Son of man.”

The symbolic language can also (and indeed often does in Augustine) refer to other, more communal aspects of the Eucharist which complement (but are not contrary to) the “Real Presence” aspect of it. So there are at least two ways in which this can be explained as consistent with Catholic theology.

Even Jaroslav Pelikan, the source [my opponent] attempted to use against me (and one of my favorite Church historians), alludes to this option in the following somewhat ambiguous, paradoxical summary, on the same page as the citation he gave:

It is incorrect, therefore, to attribute to Augustine either a scholastic doctrine of transubstantiation or a Protestant doctrine of symbolism, forhe taught neither — or both –– and both were able to cite his authority. (The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971, 305, emphasis added)

And this after Pelikan had just given several examples of rather obvious and extreme Eucharistic realism and literalism (many if not all included in my own proofs). The simple fact of the matter is that Augustine speaks in both ways. But we can harmonize them as complementary, not contradictory, because Catholics, like Augustine himself, tend to think in terms of “both/and” rather than the dichotomous “either/or” prevalent in Protestantism. Thus, when some Augustinian symbolic Eucharistic utterance is found, it is seized upon as “proof” that he thereby denied the Real Presence.

This is neither logically compelling, nor scholarly, since there are many of his statements which clearly indicate that he held to the literal, Real physical Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the Sacrifice of the Mass, and the priesthood, which makes no sense without sacrifice, and the efficacy of the Mass (as well as other prayers) for the aid of the dead in purgatory, etc.

In other words, Catholics have a cogent explanation for both types of language in Augustine, whereas I haven’t seen anyone who denies that Augustine held to Real Presence, explain statements such as the twenty I compiled, as “symbolic” only. Accordingly, [my opponent] has totally ignored those, and with very good “reason,” given his premises. On the other hand, I’ve openly dealt with his particular objection and presented my twenty citations as compelling evidence which utterly contradicts his interpretation of Augustine’s Eucharistic views. Fair observers, therefore, can see who has straightforwardly faced the issue head on.

Apparently lacking a reasonable response (what else could I conclude from his silence?), instead [my opponent] offers the following mockery of my (and Catholic) views:
This is weak at best. Is it possible that he believed it was both a reality and a sign? Sure – anything’s possible – would you like to buy some ocean-front property in Arizona? But if it’s so clear that he “never for a moment” doubted or denied the “Real Presence,” it shouldn’t be hard to argue from his writings, rather than arguing from silence or misquotes. In fact, the passage I quoted in full from the City of God mitigates against your claim, since Augustine differentiated between the “reality” of Christ’s death on the cross and the “sacramental symbol” celebrated in the Church. 

Any “differentiation” is in a complementary, not contradictory sense, for there are still the abundant citations in which he explicitly upholds the Real Presence. That being the case, he must have either contradicted himself, changed his mind, or else my “take” on the situation is correct. The communal (“symbolic” if you will) aspects of the Sacrifice of the Mass, to which Augustine refers, are totally consonant with Catholic theology, and are discussed, e.g., in the following passages from the new Catechism of the Catholic Church (Liguori, Misouri: Liguori Publications, 1994):

1359 The Eucharist, the sacrament of our salvation accomplished by Christ on the cross,is also a sacrifice of praise in thanksgiving for the work of creation. In the Eucharistic sacrifice the whole of creation loved by God is presented to the Father through the death and the resurrection of Christ. Through Christ the Church can offer the sacrifice of praise in thanksgiving for all that God has made good, beautiful, and just in creation and in humanity.

1360 The Eucharist is a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Father, a blessing by which the Church expresses her gratitude to God for all his benefits, for all that he has accomplished through creation, redemption, and sanctification. Eucharist means first of all ‘thanksgiving.’

1361 The Eucharist is also the sacrifice of praise by which the Church sings the glory of God in the name of all creation. This sacrifice of praise is possible only through Christ: he unites the faithful to his person, to his praise, and to his intercession, so that the sacrifice of praise to the Father is offered through Christ and with him, to be accepted in him. (emphasis in original)

1372 St. Augustine admirably summed up this doctrine that moves us to an ever more complete participation in our Redeemer’s sacrifice which we celebrate in the Eucharist:

This wholly redeemed city, the assembly and society of the saints, is offered to God as a universal sacrifice by the high priest who in the form of a slave went so far as to offer himself for us in his Passion, to make us the Body of so great a head . . . Such is the sacrifice of Christians: “we who are many are one Body in Christ.” The Church continues to reproduce this sacrifice in the sacrament of the altar so well-known to believers wherein it is evident to them that in what she offers she herself is offered. (City of God, 10,6: PL 41, 283; cf. Rom 12:5)

2643 The Eucharist contains and expresses all forms of prayer: it is ‘the pure offering’ of the whole Body of Christ to the glory of God’s name [Note: cf. Mal 1:11] and, according to the traditions of East and West, it is the ‘sacrifice of praise.’ (emphasis in original)

Obviously, then, since this aspect of the Eucharist is presented openly and repeatedly in the Catechism (even quoting St. Augustine), it is not seen to be at all contradictory to the “Real Presence” essence of the Eucharist. And indeed it isn’t, unless one creates unnecessary dichotomies in order to salvage one’s own theological views . . .

I continue to eagerly await an explanation of my twenty proofs of St. Augustine’s espousal of the Real Presence. And if no one is able or willing to do so, I would say that intellectual honesty and historical objectivity compels Protestants to concede this point, which is illustrative of too-common Protestant misuse (conscious or not) of the Fathers.


(originally 1996)

Photo credit: Saint Augustine, by Antonio Rodríguez (1636-1691) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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