Church Father Friday is the ongoing curation of Patristic texts. These short selections from church history remind us of where we’ve been, and what God has done throughout history for the Church. I pray these excerpts are a blessing to you.
Justin Martyr is often quoted in favor of Transubstantiation being the position of the early church (1). In his First Apology, he wrote that the Eucharist is only for those who have been regenerated and are in good standing in the church. He explains that it is “not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation… and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh” (2) He then goes on to summarize the Gospel accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper.
Did Justin Martyr Teach Transubstantiation?
Justin’s phrase “…is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh” is often presupposed to be one of the earliest Patristic sources affirming the transformation of the elements into the actual body and blood of Christ. Daly, Macy, and Raitt argue that “One can read here at least the background of what later could be expressed more precisely as the conversion of the elements of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ” (3).
However, there are some problems with assuming this, namely, Justin did not explain what type of transformation of the elements takes place at the Eucharist, he was simply explaining an effect of it. They are reading later understandings of the Eucharist back into Justin Martyr. Can one objectively show that Justin is speaking of the substantial change of the elements in this passage? It can be more accurately interpreted that Justin Martyr is referring to a spiritual change in the believer after partaking of the Lord’s Table (4). Besides this, no one in the Protestant tradition denies that Jesus Himself said that the bread was His body and the wine was His blood, therefore Protestants have no problem with Justin Martyrs language and the burden of proof is on supporters of Transubstantiation to show that he was speaking of an ontological change of the elements in Apology 1.66.
Simply assuming transubstantiation from this text is historically dubious because there is simply not enough context or evidence from this text to definitively declare it to teach Transubstantiation and it can just as easily be shown to support a spiritual understanding of Christ’s true presence. This selection from Justin Martyr doesn’t teach that the elements become the substance of Christ but rather was an attempt to highlight the spiritual blessings from the Lord’s Supper because when we eat of the bread and drink of the cup we “are nourished” (5). Proponents of Transubstantiation cannot assume that this section is an absolute 2nd-century confirmation of Transubstantiation because there is no reference to an ontological change in the elements, only observable changes in the believer.
1 – The Roman Catholic Catechism 1345
2 – Justin Martyr Apology 1.66
3 – Daly, Robert J, Gary Macy, and Jill Raitt. The Ecumenical Significance of Eucharistic Conversion. (Theological Studies 77(1) 2016), 12
4 – Stoffer, Dale. The Lord’s Supper: Believers Church Perspectives. Scottdale, (PA: Herald Press, 1997), 23
5 –Schreiner, Thomas R., and Matthew R. Crawford. The Lord’s Supper: Remembering and Proclaiming Christ until He Comes. (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2010), 108