Monday, October 3, 2011

Did St. Ambrose Believe in the Real Presence?

On Thursday, I also noted that St. Augustine's mentor, St. Ambrose, wrote in the late 380s that the Eucharist “is the true Flesh of Christ which crucified and buried, this is then truly the Sacrament of His Body.”"  A Protestant reader, H.R. Diaz III, responded:
You're right, Joe; He does say that. And since he's basically quoting Scripture, he's right. However, he disagrees with Romanism [sic] when he further explains:

St. Ambrose
"58. Wherefore, too, the Church, beholding so great grace, exhorts her sons and her friends to come together to the sacraments, saying: "Eat, my friends, and drink and be inebriated, my brother." What we eat and what we drink the Holy Spirit has elsewhere made plain by the prophet, saying, "Taste and see that the Lord is good, blessed is the man that hopeth in Him." In that sacrament is Christ, because it is the Body of Christ, it is therefore not bodily food but spiritual. Whence the Apostle says of its type: "Our fathers ate spiritual food and drank spiritual drink," FOR THE BODY OF GOD IS A SPIRITUAL BODY; THE BODY OF CHRIST IS THE BODY OF THE DIVINE SPIRIT, for the Spirit is Christ, as we read: "The Spirit before our face is Christ the Lord." And in the Epistle of Peter we read: "Christ died for us." Lastly, that food strengthens our heart, and that drink "maketh glad the heart of man," as the prophet has recorded."

Ambrose, when read in context, does not here seem to be in harmony with Rome.
The mistake here is a basic one: yes, the Eucharist is spiritual food. But that doesn't mean that it's not the physical Body and Blood of Christ.

St. Paul describes the manna in the desert as spiritual food (1 Cor. 10:3). Does that mean that there wasn't physical manna? Of course not. Rather, St. Paul's point is that the manna existed primarily not to feed to the bellies of the wandering Israelites, but to strengthen their souls: it showed them that they had a loving God who cared about them, and that if they trusted in Him daily, He'd never let them down.

Jesus compares Himself to this Manna, and says that His Flesh will nourish us in the same way (John 6:51). So yes, undoubtedly, the Eucharist is spiritual Food. Or put more bluntly: nobody takes Communion because they're physically hungry. We're not doing it to fill our bellies (the portions are so tiny!), but to fill our souls (the portions are so infinite!).

I. How Ambrose Proves This Point

That this is Ambrose's point as well is obvious from reading the passage carefully.  Look at the arguments that Ambrose is making one at a time, including the parts that Diaz doesn't capitalize:
  • Wherefore, too, the Church, beholding so great grace, exhorts her sons and her friends to come together to the sacraments, saying: "Eat, my friends, and drink and be inebriated, my brother." 
The sacraments physically exist, but their purpose is spiritual, not physical. In other words, the Church isn't tell us to get physically drunk off of wine, obviously.  That's exactly the Catholic view.
  • What we eat and what we drink the Holy Spirit has elsewhere made plain by the prophet, saying, "Taste and see that the Lord is good, blessed is the man that hopeth in Him." 
So, if you want to know whether the Eucharist is actually Jesus, Ambrose points you to the Old Testament, specifically, to Psalm 34:8, which he treats as a Eucharistic prophesy.  It is.
  • In that sacrament is Christ, because it is the Body of Christ, it is therefore not bodily food but spiritual.
Diaz reads this as saying that the Eucharist isn't Jesus' Body, because It is spiritual food.  That's exactly backwards.

The manna in the desert and the water from the Rock in 1 Corinthians 10 were spiritual food and drink because they came from God, and were intended to nourish our souls rather than simply our bodies.  Ambrose just said that the Eucharist is spiritual food because it is the Body of Christ.  He's not saying, "the Eucharist is spiritual, so He's not really Present."  He's saying, "the Eucharist is spiritual because He's really Present."
  • Whence the Apostle says of its type: "Our fathers ate spiritual food and drank spiritual drink," 
That's Ambrose quoting 1 Corinthians 10, which I quoted above.  Paul is comparing the Body of Christ in the Eucharist to the manna in the desert, and the Blood of Christ in the Eucharist to the spiritual water from the Rock.  Ambrose just said that the manna and water are "types" (prefigurements) of the Eucharist.

So he also views 1 Corinthians 10 as being Eucharistic.  Which is it: see this post on Eucharistic Theology in St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians for more.

  • for the Body of God is a spiritual Body; the Body of Christ is the Body of the Divine Spirit: for the Spirit is Christ, as we read: "The Spirit before our face is Christ the Lord." 
Read this passage carefully.  Ambrose says that Christ's Body is inherently spiritual, because It is the Body of the Divine Spirit.  So if Diaz's reading is correct, Ambrose would be denying Christ's physical Presence, not just in the Eucharist, but entirely.  That'd make Ambrose a Gnostic, which he wasn't.  Instead, Ambrose is saying that the actual Body of Christ is what's spiritual.  Which is yet another example of how he affirms that the Eucharist is the actual Body of Christ.
  • And in the Epistle of Peter we read: "Christ died for us." Lastly, that food strengthens our heart, and that drink "maketh glad the heart of man," as the prophet has recorded."
In case any more nails were needed in this argument's coffin, Ambrose provides them here. He just equated the Eucharist with the same Body of Christ that died on the Cross. And obviously, Christ was physically Present there, or our sins weren't forgiven.

So needless to say, every single thing that Ambrose says argees with “Rome,” or more accurately, the Roman Catholic Church. But let's go back to the parallel that Ambrose and St. Paul draw between the manna and water in the desert and the Eucharist.

II. More from St. Ambrose on the Eucharist

The quote Diaz pulls is from a beautiful sacramental writing by St. Ambrose called On the Mysteries, in which he promises to “take great pains to prove that the sacraments of the Church are both more ancient than those of the synagogue, and more excellent than the manna.” After doing the first of those two things, he turns to the second, saying:
47. We have proved the sacraments of the Church to be the more ancient, now recognize that they are superior. In very truth it is a marvellous thing that God rained manna on the fathers, and fed them with daily food from heaven; so that it is said, "So man did eat angels' food." But yet all those who ate that food died in the wilderness, but that food which you receive, that living Bread which came down from heaven, furnishes the substance of eternal life; and whosoever shall eat of this Bread shall never die, and it is the Body of Christ.

Jacopo Tintoretto - Moses Drawing Water from the Rock (1577)
48. Now consider whether the bread of angels be more excellent or the Flesh of Christ, which is indeed the body of life. That manna came from heaven, this is above the heavens; that was of heaven, this is of the Lord of the heavens; that was liable to corruption, if kept a second day, this is far from all corruption, for whosoever shall taste it holly shall not be able to feel corruption. For them water flowed from the rock, for you Blood flowed from Christ; water satisfied them for a time, the Blood satiates you for eternity. The Jew drinks and thirsts again, you after drinking will be beyond the power of thirsting; that was in a shadow, this is in truth.

49. If that which you so wonder at is but shadow, how great must that be whose very shadow you wonder at. See now what happened in the case of the fathers was shadow: "They drank, it is said, of that Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. But with many of them God was not well pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things were done in a figure concerning us." You recognize now which are the more excellent, for light is better than shadow, truth than a figure, the Body of its Giver than the manna from heaven.
This is rather clear. The spiritual water he's referring to is the water in the desert which came from the Rock, who St. Paul says was Christ (see 1 Cor. 10:1-4). So the people were being spiritually fed by Christ giving them the bread of angels, and water flowing from Himself. These things, of course, were spiritual food and drink, but were physically present. And Ambrose says that this is only a shadow of the reality of the Eucharist. I don't see how this passage could possibly make sense unless Ambrose believed that the Eucharist was actually the Body of Christ... like he says.

In case there's any question that he means physical Presence, not the general spiritual Presence enjoyed wherever two or more are gathered, Ambrose continues:
50. Perhaps you will say, "I see something else, how is it that you assert that I receive the Body of Christ?" And this is the point which remains for us to prove. And what evidence shall we make use of? Let us prove that this is not what nature made, but what the blessing consecrated, and the power of blessing is greater than that of nature, because by blessing nature itself is changed.
So already, we can see that Ambrose is defending the position that the Eucharist is not actually bread, but is the Body of Christ.  To support this position, he gives the example of Moses' miracles, before hitting something of a crescendo:
52. We observe, then, that grace has more power than nature, and yet so far we have only spoken of the grace of a prophet's blessing. But if the blessing of man had such power as to change nature, what are we to say of that divine consecration where the very words of the Lord and Saviour operate? For that sacrament which you receive is made what it is by the word of Christ. But if the word of Elijah had such power as to bring down fire from heaven, shall not the word of Christ have power to change the nature of the elements? You read concerning the making of the whole world: "He spake and they were made, He commanded and they were created." Shall not the word of Christ, which was able to make out of nothing that which was not, be able to change things which already are into what they were not? For it is not less to give a new nature to things than to change them.

53. But why make use of arguments? Let us use the examples He gives, and by the example of the Incarnation prove the truth of the mystery. Did the course of nature proceed as usual when the Lord Jesus was born of Mary? If we look to the usual course, a woman ordinarily conceives after connection with a man. And this body which we make is that which was born of the Virgin. Why do you seek the order of nature in the Body of Christ, seeing that the Lord Jesus Himself was born of a Virgin, not according to nature? It is the true Flesh of Christ which crucified and buried, this is then truly the Sacrament of His Body.
So in saying the words of consecration through the priest, Christ turns the bread and wine into His Flesh and Blood -- the same Flesh of Christ that was crucified and buried.  This is exactly what Diaz claims Ambrose doesn't believe.  And you know where Ambrose makes this incredibly obvious declaration of faith in the Real Presence of the Eucharist?   Five paragraphs before Diaz's proof-text.

III. Conclusion

The reason that I bring this up, and address it in full, is because I want readers, both Catholics and Protestants, to remember this when they hear Protestants claiming that such-and-such Church Father denied the Real Presence. Every single time, it has been my experience that said Protestant either had no idea what he or she was talking about, or was stretching the truth. They'd either misunderstood a passage, pulled a sentence out of context, or simply copy-pasted from some Protestant apologetics lists, without ever checking their facts.

Any serious reading of the Fathers (that is, anyone reading to hear what the Fathers teach, rather than simply mining for proof-texts) will lead the reader to the conclusion conceded by the Protestant historian J.N.D. Kelly in Early Christian Doctrines: namely, that during the early Church period, “Eucharistic teaching, it should be understood at the outset, was in general unquestioningly realist, i.e., the consecrated bread and wine were taken to be, and were treated and designated as, the Savior’s body and blood.

You might, like Catholics, carry on the faith of the early Church.  Or you might, like J.N.D. Kelly, think that the Fathers were wrong.  But you can't credibly claim that they taught something other than they did.  You're entitled to your own beliefs: to accept or reject the Faith the Fathers hand on.  But you're not entitled to your own facts: you can't simply recreate history to make the early Church a Protestant one.

4 comments:

  1. Well written, Joe. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Joe, I'm not trying to change history or make Ambrose a Protestant. I am telling you that I disagree with your interpretation. Granted, I'm not infallible, so I could be wrong. But Ambrose doesn't seem to be in agreement with Rome on the issue of transubstantiation.

    Why do I say this?

    Because the efficacy of the sacraments throughout his writing rests upon that which is spiritual - the Word, without which the waters of baptism are nothing, the Word of the Gospel apart from which the wood is just wood. When Ambrose speaks of the Body of Christ being His Spiritual Body, it is more fitting to the context of the writing as a whole.

    I didn't just cherry pick something that looked like it supported my position. I picked a section that, I thought, summarized what he was trying to communicate to those for whom he was writing. This is very different from cherrypicking.

    ReplyDelete
  3. H.R. Diaz,

    I can't tell if the problem is that I'm just not understanding what you're saying, or if it's that you're misreading Ambrose, misunderstanding Catholicism, or both.

    Maybe we should just establish the basics to start. If you're going to claim that Ambrose disagrees with "Rome" (by which I you actually mean "the Roman Catholic Church" or "the Catholic Church"), try showing how Catholics believe something Ambrose denies, or Ambrose believes something Catholics deny.

    So far, you've showed that Ambrose taught that the Eucharist is spiritual food... which we still believe today. That's an agreement.

    Now you've moved on to saying that "the efficacy of the sacraments throughout his writing rests upon that which is spiritual - the Word, without which the waters of baptism are nothing..."

    Again, we agree. As I said in the original post: "So in saying the words of consecration through the priest, Christ turns the bread and wine into His Flesh and Blood -- the same Flesh of Christ that was crucified and buried."

    So the Word (Christ) through the word (the prayer of consecration) turns the bread and wine into the Eucharist. If that's what you're saying Ambrose taught (and whether you say it or not, it is), it's certainly in harmony with what the Catholic Church teaches.

    Where, then, is the disagreement between what Bishop Ambrose taught and what Catholics proclaim today?

    In Christ,

    Joe

    ReplyDelete
  4. Kelly -- forgot to say thank you. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete