In the previous article, we talked about Gottschalk of Orbais, and how this 9th century German monk argued for a view of God that did justice to the Biblical view of sovereign grace. We also mentioned how this monk was not alone, but had help from various prominent theologians and clergy from that time. One of these, another monk by the name of Ratramnus of Corbie (d. 870), was a prominent figure in his own right, and the subject of another theological controversy, this one involving the nature of the Lord’s Supper.

To begin with, it must be noted that the Lord’s Supper didn’t really receive any detailed exposition in early church period. Although some vague notion of Christ’s presence in the elements was believed by the early church fathers, the precise nature of this presence wasn’t really elucidated on or debated. There were different emphases, but these emphases were mostly the by-products of reflection on other areas of theology, such as Christology.[1]

Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan writes of this early period:

[T]he doctrine of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist . . . did not become the subject of controversy until the ninth century. The definitive and precise formulation of the crucial doctrinal issues concerning the Eucharist had to await that controversy and others that followed even later.[2]

Further on, Pelikan notes the limits to what can be discerned from the Patristic writings. He states that they held to a view of the Real Presence that did not involve a change of substance:

Yet it does seem “express and clear” that no orthodox father of the second or third century of whom we have record either declared the presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist to be no more than symbolic … or specified a process of substantial change by which the presence was effected … Within the limits of those excluded extremes was the doctrine of the real presence.[3]

This all changed in the mid-9th century, when a controversy erupted at the abbey of Corbie. The abbot, a monk named Paschasius Radbertus wrote treatise called De Corpore et Sanguine Domini (On the Body and Blood of the Lord). In it, he elucidated an early version of what would later be known as the doctrine of Transubstantiation. According to Radbertus, the substance of the bread and wine in the Eucharist are changed in such a way that they become “nothing but Christ’s flesh and blood” (I.2).[4] This happens in such a way, however, that they still appear to be bread and wine. He states, “the elements are not outwardly changed in appearance on account of the miracle but inwardly, that faith may be proved in spirit” (I.5).[5]

This sparked off a debate over Eucharistic theology, as his ideas were criticized by many theologians of his day, including John Scotus Erigena, Raban Maur, Gottschalk, and most notably, Ratramnus (who was from the same abbey as Radbertus). In response to Radbertus, Ratramnus responded with a treatise of his own, also titled De Corpore et Sanguine Domini. Interestingly, he observes at the beginning of it that there was no consensus on Eucharistic theology in his day. He writes:

For whilst some of the faithful say, that the mystery of the Body and Blood of Christ, which is daily celebrated in the Church, is performed under no figure, or veil, but with the naked exhibition of the Truth itself; others testify, that these things are contained under the figure of a mystery, and that it is one thing, which appeareth to the bodily senses, and another, upon which faith gazeth. There is then clearly no small diversity of judgment among them. And though the Apostle writeth to the faithful, “that they should all think and speak the same thing, and there should be no schism among them;” [1 Cor 1:10] yet by no small schism are they divided, who give utterance to such diverse opinions touching the mystery of the Body and Blood of Christ.[6]

However, he qualifies these statements, stating that the sacramental signs are distinct from the substance of Christ’s body and blood, though the former communicates the latter to its recipients.[7] Elsewhere, he states that “For according to the nature of the creatures, and their form as visible things, neither the bread nor wine have ought changed in them. And if they have undergone no change at all, they are nought else than they were before.”[8] He bases these arguments on Augustine’s statements, especially as found in his 26th tractate on the Gospel of John.[9] Pelikan would thus write that Ratramnus “could claim  the support of a long and distinguished Augustinian tradition in which the concept ‘body of Christ’ itself and the idea of ‘eating’ it in the Eucharist were part of a broader and more ‘spiritual’ way of speaking and thinking that went far beyond the Eucharist.”[10]

Over time, however, Radbertus’ views won the day. His ideas were eventually declared to be dogma in the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). Occasional voices of dissent would arise, such as Berengar and John Wycliffe, but real debate over the Eucharist would not arise until the Reformation.

Further Reading

Endnotes

[1] The rest of this article is taken from my essay, “De Corpore et Sanguine Domini: An Essay on the Eucharistic Presence,” Academia.edu, https://www.academia.edu/32693216/De_Corpore_et_Sanguine_Domini_An_Essay_on_the_Eucharistic_Presence

[2] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, 100-600, vol. 1, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (University of Chicago Press, 1975-1991), 166.

[3] Ibid., 167.

[4] Cited in Keith A. Mathsion, “The Meal That Divides,” in Tabletalk (April 2009), 15.

[5] Cited in Ibid.

[6] Ratramnus, On The Body and Blood of the Lord, trans. W. R. Whittingham (Baltimore, MD: Joseph Robinson, 1843), 22 (§ 2).

[7] Ibid., 51-52 (§§ 47-49).

[8] Ibid., 29 (§ 14).

[9] Ibid., 41-44 (§§ 33-36). For the original quotes by Augustine, see Tractate XXVI on the Gospel of John: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf107.iii.xxvii.html

[10] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Growth of Medieval Theology, vol.3, The Christian Tradition, 78.

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