Scholarly Evangelical views of Eucharist


(for staunch evangelicals)

One of the most solid doctrines I find in Catholicism is the notion of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Not only do Catholic scholars point out how in John 6 only literal words can be used, but there is also historical evidence from the early second century that the Eucharist was seen as the sacrafice re-presented, and as the actual Body and Blood of Christ.

I have read some evangelical apologetics which claim that Christ is speaking figuratively when he speaks of the Eucharist, and he speaks spiritually rather than literally–or something like that. I also understand that some Protestant churches still maintain some belief in Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist. Could some evangelicals please tell me what the scholarly attitudes of evangelicals towards the Real Presence, and how these evangelical scholars fit this in with certain evangelical theologies? I’m especially interested how groups that believe only in the symbolic nature of the Eucharist (such as the Baptists) interpret these defenses of the Real Presence made by Catholics and others.

I’m not trying to put the pressure on any evangelicals. Unlike some issues like the papacy, I unfortunately have yet to find any good defenses of why the Eucharist is symbolic, or why there is consubstantiation instead of transubstantiation. Thanks for any help!


Well the 1995 book by the evangelical William Webster (Church of Rome at the Bar of History) tries to force a couple Fathers into a purely “symbolical” (meaning Zwinglian) view. He gets this from Schaff who puts Tertullian, Cyprian, and a few others into the purely “symbolical” category. JasonTE and his “Catholic but not Byzantine”…err I mean “not Roman Catholic” series tries to force a few more. Also its true that St. Augustine seems to take John 6:51ff figuratively in one place, while literally in others. “This is my Body” he also seems to take symbolically in places, but literally in others. Luther did the same thing with John 6 (I remember distinctly reading his commentary on it), but he still took the real presence literally (consubstantiation). Anyway, not to confuse you. :stuck_out_tongue:

You will find the words “symbol” and “figure” and “type” used by some of the Fathers, but those same Fathers took the real presence quite literally. None that I know of took a purely symbolical (meaning Zwinglian or baptist evangelical) view. Transubstantiation is just a later term that more precisely defines that unanimous literal view of the Fathers. The patristic uses of the words (symbol or figure) was not the modern usage. A good example is St. Cyril of Jerusalem (he uses the term “figure” while also being the most explicit Father on the propitiatory nature of the Mass).

The two-volume source by Anglo-Catholic Darwell Stone, and JND Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines discusses all this in detail.

Here is my study of that in response to Webster and others. Maybe needs a little work…

Phil P


I know you were asking for a scholarly answer. I am afraid I cannot give it. It may however, help you understand why you are having trouble finding your answer.

I know when I was in the Evangelical church, there simply was no mention of any other position than a symbolic one. In fact, I don’t even remember doing a Bible study on John 6. It is hard to fathom as a Catholic. But, as a general run of the mill Evangelical, it just was not studied one way or another by the group I belonged to.

In a way, I guess it was a good thing, because my mind wasn’t cluttered up with wrong theology. It was through simply reading my Bible and the leading of the Holy Spirit that I was convicted of the Real Presence of Christ and came home to the Catholic Church.

God Bless,


a parishioner attended a bible study on John’s gospel at an evangelical church, and brought her notes in to me, asking for my comments. Most of the study was quite in line with Catholic teaching, but the lesson on Chapter 6 stressed symbolic, not literal interpretation, dwelling on the “spirit vs flesh” monologue. the conclusion was that the command to “eat my flesh and drink my blood” refered to reading and digesting the Word of God.


I think generally evangelical scholars are more likely than the rank and file to hold some kind of a Real Presence. Certainly this would be true of patristics scholars. I believe that many evangelical NT scholars, such as Craig Keener, would not see any evidence for more than a symbolic view.

I think most students of the Fathers would agree that a purely symbolic interpretation was unknown to them. My advisor (a Methodist minister and specialist in the Reformation era who has some strong background in patristics as well, having studied with Georges Florovsky at Harvard) distinguishes in his church history lectures between two basic patristic views–a sign/signified view (the physical bread and wine signify, and hence convey, the Body and Blood of Christ) and a “transformational” view which speaks of the bread and wine being transformed into the Body and Blood. However, he admits that Augustine, who is the main representative of the first view, also uses transformational language in other places. So it wasn’t so much an either/or as two different ways of thinking which the Fathers didn’t see as contradictory.

The best historical defence of a Protestant view of the Eucharist is actually by a Catholic, Gary Macy (OK, you guys probably wouldn’t count him as a Catholic, since he appears to be quite “liberal”–but in affiliation he definitely is a Catholic). His overview of the history of Eucharistic doctrine, The Banquet’s Wisdom, argues that there was a plurality of views about the Eucharist right up to the 13th century. He’s a specialist in medieval theology, and has written a more detailed book focusing on high medieval Eucharistic theology (which I haven’t read, though I have read an article containing a shorter form of the argument). He argues, for instance, that right up to Aquinas most Catholic theologians believed that you have to have faith in order to eat the Body and Blood of Christ, because Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is the sort of thing that can only be received by faith, not simply by the physical mouth. In other words, if a mouse or an unbeliever eats the Host, only bread is being received.

I suspect that most Protestant scholars would say something similar (indeed a staunchly Protestant colleague of mine cited Macy to me when I was denouncing Zwingli for having contradicted the Tradition)–namely that transubstantiation is one particular interpretation of a broader and less specific tradition.

In Christ,



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