I’m not going to pretend to be a student of Augustine. I attempted to read the Confessions years ago and was bored by it. I know only the basics of his life’s story. However, others have studied his writings more carefully, and they can speak more capably than I.
The following article explains Augustine’s thought and provides 20 quotations which illustrate the absurdity of the idea that Augustine viewed the Eucharist as purely symbolic. this is Protestant wishful thinking.
St. Augustine’s Belief in the Real Presence
By David Armstrong
One of the great theological champions quoted by both Protestants and Catholics to bolster their perspective positions on the meaning of many theological issues is St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. He is best known for two of his writings, his “Confessions” and “The City of God,” and also for his devastating defense against the Pelagian heresy.
Because of this universal popularity, it is important to hear his personal testimony about the Real Presence* of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharistic bread and wine.
This great Church Father made many statements which have been traditionally seized upon by Protestant theologians as evidence of his adoption of either a purely symbolic or Calvinistic notion of the Lord’s Supper. Ludwig Ott, in his book Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, commented on this use:
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. pp.377-8:
During my own journey to the Catholic Church, I was voraciously studying people like Dollinger, Salmon and Kung, in order to refute Catholic claims to infallibility. I remember my own use of this approach. 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. But 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 of his remarks on the subject are taken into account, it is very difficult to argue that he didn’t accept the Catholic understanding of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. For Augustine, the Eucharist, 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.
Given this introduction, consider now the following statements made by St. Augustine which strongly support the opinion that He held to the true presence of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist: