Did the Church Fathers teach transubstantiation?

Hi! I’m familiar with the quotations of the Church Fathers regarding the Catholic understanding of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I’ve been reading the Church Fathers and it seems to me that, from the perspective of an average reasonable person, they all hold to some belief in the Real Presence.

Still, I can’t discount some of the arguments that Protestants make regarding their interpretation of what the Church Fathers taught. A common line of argumentation I find in Protestant apologetics is that Catholics take the Church Fathers out of context, and they insist that they taught only a symbolic presence instead.

These websites are examples of their proof-texts:




So what do we say about the Protestant interpretations of the Church Fathers’ writings? It all seems complicated and difficult to tell when a particular Father is speaking literally or metaphorically (it doesn’t help that the Alexandrian and Antiochene Schools had very different exegetical traditions!).

Is it right to say that the Church Fathers were unanimous in their teaching of the Real Presence? Or can we say that they taught some version of the Real Presence, but not exactly transubstantiation as we know it?

And there’s this matter about historical controversies regarding the development of doctrine. One of the sites above says that the Catholic Church removed Clement of Alexandria from the Roman Martyrology because he spoke too figuratively, and thus was potentially wrong regarding the Eucharist. And then there’s this thing about the Carolingian Eucharistic Controversy, where the Protestants say that the mere fact that there was opposition to St. Paschasius Radbertus’s teaching shows that there was no consensus during the first millennium.

Bottomline is that I’m annoyed when Protestants quote from the Church Fathers, who are our patrimony, against us. And I have no way of telling whether their interpretation of the Fathers is right or wrong because I have no historical, linguistic, or exegetical training. So thoughts?

Yes, the Church always believed in the Real Presence. However, it’s important to realize that ‘transubstantiation’ doesn’t teach that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist; it teaches how that is the case! In other words, one doesn’t have to know transubstantiation in order to assert Real Presence.

And, in fact, that’s precisely the case we see in history. The development of the notion of transubstantiation depends on a particular philosophical underpinning, based on Aristotelian thought. Access to this basis was not available until (roughly) the time of Aquinas. Therefore, it’s not possible that anyone would have come up with a belief in transubstantiation before that time.

However, the question to ask is one that simply wonders, “did the Church always believe that Jesus was truly present in the Eucharist?” … and they did! In the early Church, they didn’t know how it was so, but they always believed that it was so.

And there’s this matter about historical controversies regarding the development of doctrine. … the Protestants say that the mere fact that there was opposition to St. Paschasius Radbertus’s teaching shows that there was no consensus during the first millennium.

There’s controversy about the moon landings; some people say that they never happened. However, that doesn’t imply that “there is no consensus” that they were real. They can make the case that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”, but in order to demonstrate their case, they need to show the fire, not just imply that it was there… :wink:

And I have no way of telling whether their interpretation of the Fathers is right or wrong because I have no historical, linguistic, or exegetical training. So thoughts?

Go look for books on the history of the Eucharist from Catholic publishing houses. One such book that comes to mind is Gary Macy’s “The Banquet’s Wisdom”.

The Orthodox Churches believe in the Real Presence, but do not ‘teach’ transubstantiation. They just trust and God and believe that it happens.

This has really been on my mind of late. I can very much see the Real Presence, but Transubstantiation seems to move that to a different thing.

The thing that stands out to me is in John 6, after saying “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life…”, he shortly after says “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit and they are life.”

This does not promote to me that we need to eat his literal flesh. To clarify, I think of Real Presence as His Spirit being present.

I am a learning, hopefully growing Christian - trying to stay open minded, and learning to love first.

Well, to be fair, it’s not “shortly after” the Bread of Life discourse. John tells us that Jesus gave the Bread of Life discourse at “Capernaum… across the sea” (6:24-25). Then, later, Jesus is speaking in the synagogue in Capernaum. Then, even after that, the disciples murmur, and as a result Jesus says in response, “does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” (6:61-62)

In other words, Jesus is challenging them: they haven’t believed Him because they’re looking at a man and seeing flesh, whereas Jesus – who is God – challenges them to see in Him the Spirit of God (which they would understand if they’d see Him “ascending to where he was before” (i.e., ‘heaven’)). Simply put, He’s not telling them “don’t worry about my teaching about eating my flesh”, He’s telling them “don’t see me as ‘flesh’, see me as God – as ‘spirit’ in heaven!” And, He follows up by saying “the words I have spoken to you are spirit and life”! What are those words, which aren’t “to no avail” and which “give life”? “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.”

He can’t make it any clearer: His words (which are ‘spirit and life’) tell us how to gain that life: eat his body and drink his blood. :shrug:

This does not promote to me that we need to eat his literal flesh. To clarify, I think of Real Presence as His Spirit being present.

And yet, that’s not what He said. When he wanted to say that his spirit would be present, he said it! (“Where two or three gather in my name, there I am in their midst”)… but when he wanted to say that it was more than a spiritual presence, he said that, too! And the disciples got it. They understood how difficult a teaching this was, and they hesitated. And Jesus didn’t back off one step from the teaching, but rather, reaffirmed His words. :thumbsup:

I am still in the learning stage as well, so transubstansiation is outa my league. However, I do know in John 6:63 Jesus isn’t speaking of his flesh. He is contrasting between the Spirit’s ability to enlighten our minds, see John 14:26, and human reason’s inability to comprehend revealed truths apart from faith, see John 8:14.

This is how it is explained in the Ignatius study bible. This interpretation makes perfect sense to me. If Jesus words cleared up what he said and the disciples understood they didn’t need to eat his literal flesh why didn’t everyone come back. Notice right after this in verse 66 it says many of his disciples drew back and no longer walked with him. If Jesus cleared up the misunderstanding why would he continue in verse 67 “Will you also go away”?

Let me know what you think of this interpretation.


The thing that bothers me here is your statement that the early Church fathers are our patrimony, not the Protestants. That is not true. They are the patrimony of every Christian, as Protestantism came from Catholicism. They have every right to read and examine the Church Fathers as we do, however, the case is that they do not always interpret them in the light of Sacred Tradition, and historical Catholic tradition and it leads to error. We cannot claim exclusive rights to the ECF’s, they are the heritage of all Christians.

What we CAN claim exclusive right to, is the correct understanding of the ECFs. Protestants will try to bend and warp their teachings (as they did the Bible before them) to their doctrines. That is why Protestants will claim St. Patrick was a Protestant. :wink:

And that is what I said, their interpretation is in error. But they are still part of the heritage of all Christians.

The section I am referring to is John 6:53 thru 6:63. This looks to me like a continuous conversation, that He clarifies at the end.

Let me know what you think please, as it looks really clear.

Ignatius of Antioch (first century bishop and martyr, student of John the Apostle) did write about the Eucharist “to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ”.

He wrote “Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist which is administered by the bishop or by one to whom he has entrusted to it.”

He wrote, “take heed to have one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to show forth the unity of his blood, one altar, as there is one bishop…”

The Didache also touches on the prayers of consecration of the Eucharist.

To me, this supports the concept of a change to body and blood.

That said, I see the Reformation as a break from the Church. Once you reject the authority of the Church and its bishops, according to Ignatius of Antioch, you are not in the same church and tradition.

This is what I posted earlier on those verses, I don’t think it is one continuous conversation. However, even if it is one conversation Jesus lets us know that he does clarify in the end that he was speaking literally. Verse 67: “Will you go away as well”

Let me know what you think.

The History of Eucharistic Adoration
Development of Doctrine in the Catholic Church
by John A. Hardon, S.J.


Seriously searching on this one, no offense please.

If he is speaking literally, did he literally say in 6:63-64 “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.”

What do you make of this statement please? This is a hard one for me to not see as Jesus clarifying he didn’t mean to literally eat his flesh.

In 6:67 when He asked “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered him, "Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.

This was in alignment with what Jesus said in 6:63. Peter didn’t say you alone have the flesh of eternal life, but the words.

I wish I had all the answers but I am just a newbie around these forums. So I will direct you to the master…


Tim goes into some depth to answer all of your questions much better than I ever could.

Let me know what you think.

Markie Boy, it may help to note that even transubstantiation does not claim that we are literally chewing on bits of Jesus and can argue over who gets the drumstick.

We believe that Jesus is wholly and entirely present in the Eucharist – not just in spirit, but all of Him, glorified flesh and blood along with His human soul and the Divine Nature.

But that presence is such that ALL of Him is present in the tiniest droplet of “wine” or particle of the Host. He is not divided up or cannibalized by anything that occurs, neither the breaking of the Host by the presiding priest nor the chewing and digesting by those who receive.

So we believe that He is present in Body as well as in Spirit, but not in a crudely physical manner. Really, the main difference between transubstantiation and the closest Protestant counterparts is not the claim that all of Jesus (including His body) is present, but the claim that anything that could rightly be called “bread” or “wine” is entirely *absent *, even though their sensory appearances remain.


Thank you. I am really working on this, as I am not sold the protestant view is right. I am trying to learn, so thank you all.


That’s right Markie Boy. Jesus WAS trying to clarify that it was NOT in a cannibalistic sense that he spoke, which is what the carnal Jews supposed.

That is why he ALSO said in verse 62, “What if you should see the Son of Man ascend to where He was before?” IOW, in his flesh, entirely.

Jesus does not give a complete understanding (according to the Gospel of John) at this time. Instead he waits for the Last Supper to reveal the completion of the Sacrament.

Re: spirit, remember that there is more than one meaning for the Greek “pneuma” and the Hebrew “nephesh”.

  1. Air, wind.

  2. Breath, lifebreath, life.

  3. Spirit.

God’s Word created all things, and His breath/Spirit played upon the waters at the beginning. Jesus’ Word also commands all things, being able to still the seas, command demons, destroy fig trees, and heal both body and soul.

God brought humans to life, in one of the Genesis accounts, by breathing His breath into them, and making Adam a living “lanephesh” (being, soul).

Paul talks in 1 Corinthians 15:45 about how God made the first Adam a living soul, and that the second Adam was a life-giving or life-making spirit (pneuma zoopoion). John would have expected his readers in Asia Minor to know Paul’s letter, and Paul probably knew about Jesus’ bread of life talk.

Also, remember that John tells us that Passover is “near at hand.” Manna is very much in people’s minds, but so is the Passover Lamb and the unleavened bread and the blessing cup of wine.

So let’s read Jesus’ comments again:

The Jews therefore argued among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

Then Jesus said to them, "Amen, amen I say to you: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood has everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day.

"For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father has sent me, and I live by the Father; so he that eats me also shall live by me.

“This is the bread that came down from heaven. It is not like the manna your fathers ate and are dead. He that eats this bread shall live for ever.”

These things he said, teaching in the synagogue, in Capharnaum.

Therefore, many of his disciples, hearing it, said, “This word logos] is hard, and who can listen to it?”

But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples murmured at this, said to them, "Does this scandalize you? Then what if you shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?

“The spirit is the life-giving one to pneuma estin to zoopoion]. The flesh profits nothing. The things rhemata] that I have spoken to you: it is spirit and it is life pneuma estin kai zoe estin]. But there are some of you that do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning, who they were that did not believe, and who he was, that would betray him.) And he said, “Therefore did I say to you that no man can come to me, unless it be given him by my Father.”

After this many of his disciples went back; and walked no more with him.

My take on this is that Jesus is saying, “I am God. I have the life-giving lifebreath in Me, and I can give it to you if I feel like it. Your flesh isn’t going to profit from it right now, but your soul will. And I just told you what to do, and those words are lifebreath and life to you, and yet some of you don’t BEEELLIIIEEEEVE ME! Oh, well, nobody can come to me unless the Father gives him faith to follow me, so hasta luego, disciples who are leaving.”

The other thing to look at, if you want to get super-close in your reading, is that Jesus talks a lot about “my flesh” (or “the flesh of me”, he sarx mou, mou ten sarka, and even “my flesh indeed” as he gar sarx mou) in his discourse.

But “the flesh” (to sarx) is a lot more remote expression. Usually it means “that other guy’s flesh” or “flesh in general.” For example, in another Gospel, you get “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And in that case, it definitely means “that other guy’s spirit is willing, but that other guy’s flesh is weak.” Jesus doesn’t use it (without “mou”) for His flesh at any time in the discussion, so why would he bring it up at the end? Why would “mou” suddenly go away? This is also why many translations assume that Jesus is saying that “the [Holy] Spirit is the life-making one,” because otherwise He would have used “mou” there, too. (Though it could also mean that if we abide in Jesus, our spirit is also a lifegiving one, because it’s His spirit in us.)

I don’t know Greek, so I don’t know if this is a meaningful distinction. But it seems interesting.

Also, I do want to point out, “This Logos is hard. Who can listen to him?” Jesus is the Word, and we often don’t listen to him. Let’s pray that the Father gives us faith to really listen, and not to just be inadvertent prophets like the disciples who left.

I know some people may take offense at this, but…If I had been present at the Bread of Life discourse, having just heard Jesus say you must eat My flesh, and call His flesh real food, and I replied, “you are saying eat your flesh symbolically right Jesus?” If He said “yes,” I would have to reply “who cares if your flesh is real food then, if we are just going to be eating it symbolically.”

I truly believe, if it is just a symbol, then it is a waste of time.

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