Irenaeus Did Not Teach A Romanist Doctrine Of Eucharistic Sacrifice

When the minister consecrates (i.e., sets apart for sacred use) the elements of the Lord’s Supper (i.e., bread and wine), what happens? Does the substance of the elements change? Does the bread become something other than it was? Does it become the literal body and blood of Christ? Does it become the body and blood of Christ figuratively or sacramentally? These questions were first debated in the ninth century between Radbertus and Ratramnus, two monks in Corbie. In the late 13th century, the Western Church sided with Radbertus, who had argued that, at consecration, the elements become literally the body and blood of Christ. The substance of the bread and wine is replaced by the substance of Christ’s body and blood. His opponent, Ratramnus, argued that, at consecration, the elements become the body and blood of Christ figuratively or sacramentally. This debate continued intermittently but then heated up considerably during the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation when the Protestants rejected Radbertus’ theory and the thirteenth-century settlement in his favor.

In the Reformation and thereafter, one of the texts to which the Romanists appeal is Irenaeus’ response to the Gnostics in his Against Heresies. No one knows exactly when he wrote it, but it is best dated sometime in the period from the late AD 170s to the late 180s. Irenaeus (c. AD 130–200) was the Episcopos (i.e., the leading pastor) of Lyons.1 As a boy, he heard Polycarp (c. AD 69–155) preach and, of course, Polycarp had heard the Apostle John.

We usually refer to Irenaeus’ great work by its familiar Latin title, Adversus Haereses, but the Greek title is longer and translates as A Reproof and Overthrow of the False Knowledge. The false knowledge to which he referred was the claim by the Gnostics to have access to secret knowledge (that only they possessed) about a hierarchy of angels and principalities, about how the God of the Old Testament (Yahweh) is a minor deity, how the material world is both unreal and evil, and how the Gnostics are the true Christians, etc.

In book 4, chapter 17, section 5 (4.17.5) and in the first four sections of chapter 18, Irenaeus argued against the Gnostics on the basis of the Lord’s Supper. With all the Christians he defended the essential goodness of creation. By that he did not mean that there was no fall and consequent corruption of the world, but that in the beginning, when God spoke creation into existence, he made it essentially good. Matter, the physical world that we know through our sense experience, is not inherently evil because it is material. The immaterial or the spiritual is not inherently superior to the material as a matter of being.

As part of his case for the goodness of creation, he appealed to the fact that our Lord used physical bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. Were it the case, as the Gnostics argued, that the material world is inherently corrupt and corrupting, then our Lord would hardly have used bread and wine—but he did. Thus, the Gnostic view of the creation is falsified. It is contrary to the teaching of Christ.

Irenaeus wrote,

Again, giving directions to His disciples to offer to God the first-fruits of His own, created things—not as if He stood in need of them, but that they might be themselves neither unfruitful nor ungrateful—He took that created thing, bread, and gave thanks, and said, “This is My body.” And the cup likewise, which is part of that creation to which we belong, He confessed to be His blood, and taught the new oblation of the new covenant; which the Church receiving from the apostles, offers to God throughout all the world, to Him who gives us as the means of subsistence the first-fruits of His own gifts in the New Testament, concerning which Malachi, among the twelve prophets, thus spoke beforehand: “I have no pleasure in you, saith the LORD Omnipotent, and I will not accept sacrifice at your hands. For from the rising of the sun, unto the going down [of the same], My name is glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure sacrifice; for great is My name among the Gentiles, saith the LORD Omnipotent;”—indicating in the plainest manner, by these words, that the former people [the Jews] shall indeed cease to make offerings to God, but that in every place sacrifice shall be offered to Him, and that a pure one; and His name is glorified among the Gentiles.2

His great point is evident in the words “first fruits,” “created thing,” and “part of creation.” Jesus set apart created things for sacred use because they were good by his own design. He was using the things he himself had brought into existence. Subsidiary to that point, he notes that the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is the “oblation” of the New Covenant. An oblation is an offering. The question here is whether Irenaeus intended his hearers and readers to understand this offering literally or figuratively. That it was the latter is certainly the case. Jaroslav Pelikan says, it is “silly and futile” to “cross-examine” the fathers of the second and third centuries to see whether they agree with Radbertus or Ratramnus.3 To the degree such a question is anachronistic, we ought to agree with him.

The first reason why it is most unlikely that Irenaeus was thinking or speaking literally is because that way of thinking or speaking presupposes a set of categories that does not appear in this period. In the ninth century debate between Radbertus and Ratramnus, we can see evidence of Aristotelian distinction between substance (what makes a thing what it is) and accidents (non-essential properties of thing) applied to the Lord’s Supper. There is no evidence of that distinction in Irenaeus’ discussion of the Lord’s Supper.

Second, the doctrine of transubstantiation contributes nothing to his case against the Gnostics. Indeed, were Irenaeus arguing that the substance of the elements was transformed such that the elements are now literally Christ’s body, it would weaken his argument. Implicitly, in that view, grace wipes out nature. It is not at all clear how it helps his defense of the goodness of nature to argue that nature (bread) is miraculously eradicated in favor of the supernatural body of Christ (capable of ubiquity).

Third, such an interpretation not only does not fit the immediate context (4.16.5), but it does not fit the broader context. One of my great hermeneutical contributions is a two-word rule: keep reading. If we want to determine what Irenaeus was saying to his audience, in his context, then it is enormously helpful to see what else he says around the disputed words.

In 4.17.5, he quoted Malachi 1:10, 11—”in every place incense is offered to my name, and pure sacrifice…”. He immediately qualified what he meant: “The former people [the Jews] shall indeed cease to make offerings to God, but that in every place a sacrifice shall be offered to him…”. It is not at all evident that by this contrast he meant to signal that the literal sacrifices are finished but the metaphorical propitiatory sacrifice has been instituted in its place. The natural sense seems to be that the typological sacrifice has been replaced, in light of Christ’s death, with a figurative offering of praise. The Israelite bloody sacrifice has been replaced, mutatis mutandis, with a figurative sacrifice.

Further, we need not guess. In 4.17.6, Irenaeus specified that the “incense” (he was alluding to Rev 5:8) he has in mind is the prayers of believers. In that vein he continues in 4.18.1 to speak of the “offering of the church.” He explained what he meant by “first fruits.” In contrast to the literal first fruits of the Old Testament, in the New we are making figurative offerings of gratitude (4.18.6), in the Supper, using his good creation. Remember, one of the earliest words used for the Supper was eucharistia (i.e., thanksgiving).

In 4.18.2, he appealed to thank offerings as a class. They have not been done away with altogether. The Jews had offerings and so do Christians. They had sacrifices and so do we, “but the species alone has been changed.” The offerings and sacrifices are no longer made by slaves. The slaves consecrate some of their possessions to the Lord but as freedmen, we consecrate all our possessions to the Lord.

In 4.18.3, he argued that Cain’s offering was defiled because it was not offered with single-mindedness. He adds, “since God is not appeased by sacrifice…”. This is a biblical truth, but in this context it does not contribute to the Romanist appeal to Irenaeus, since they teach that by the propitiatory eucharistic sacrifice of the mass, God is appeased. What matters for Irenaeus is the intent and the heart, and to that end he quoted Matthew 23:27–28. He added to this line of argument, “[s]acrifices, therefore, do not sanctify a man, for God stands in no need of sacrifice; but it the conscience of the offerer that sanctifies the sacrifice when it is pure and thus moves God to accept it as from a friend.”

In sections 4 and 5, he lays out more completely his doctrine of the Supper. The Gnostics are inconsistent when the say that the Supper is the body and blood of Christ since they deny that (as mentioned above) Christ is the “Creator of the world.” How can the Gnostics “say that the flesh, which is nourished with the body of the Lord and with his blood, goes to corruption, and does not partake of life?” He demanded that the Gnostics change their view or cease from participating in the Supper. According to Irenaeus, what we offer to God in thanks is that God himself has given us. We are:

announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and the Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity (4.18.5).

Irenaeus had a high view of the Supper. The elements, when they are consecrated, become sacramentally (not literally) Christ’s body and blood. It may be that Romanists (and Anglo-Catholics) are unfamiliar with that way of speaking but the Reformed have spoken that way for centuries. For Irenaeus, the Supper is the body and blood of Christ. It does not become the body and blood. By the way, there is no indication here that the ubiquitous body and blood of Christ is considered to be “in, with, and under” the elements nor a mere reminder. The transformation that takes place is not literal or substantial. It is consecration, the setting apart of the common for sacred use. That is not a small thing but neither is it a miracle.

As we seek to understand Irenaeus’ words in these sections, we must always bear in mind his purpose, to refute the Gnostics. It is far from clear that anachronistic Romanist interpretation serves that end, whereas a sacramental or figurative reading of Irenaeus does this quite well.


1. The words presbyter and deacon are transliterations of the Greek words for elder and deacon. To transliterate is to write the words of one language in the letters of another. When we come to the office of bishop, however, we do not do this. It is almost impossible for us to use the word bishop without thinking of a crozier and the mitre and a mid-level regional manager of the church. It is anachronistic, however, to read third and fourth-century developments back into the late second century. Hence, I simply transliterate the Greek word for Irenaeus’ office. In that period, it signified something like “senior pastor” or “leading pastor.”

2. The quotation is taken from the Ante-Nicene Fathers series volume 1.

3. Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 1.167.

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