Transubstantiation is the Roman Catholic teaching that the bread and cup of the communion meal are literally transformed into the actual, physical flesh and blood of Jesus. The bread ceases to be bread, and the wine ceases to be wine. They are transformed into the human flesh of Jesus' body. While they still outwardly appear to be bread and wine, in reality (so the Roman Catholic says) they have changed completely in their essential substance. An invisible miracle is said to have occurred each time a priest pronounces the blessing over the cup and wafer. Roman Catholics often try to support this teaching by claiming that some of the earliest church fathers believed it. This, they claim, shows that the doctrine is not a late invention but is, in fact, an Apostolic tradition that goes back to the very beginning of Christianity. One such early church father is the second-century writer Clement of Alexandria.
Clement on the Supper
While Roman Catholics are far more likely to cite Ignatius of Antioch or Justin Martyr to make their case, some attempt to further bolster their claims by throwing in the words of Clement of Alexandria, where he says that "to drink the blood of Jesus is to become partaker of the Lord’s immortality." This, they insist, implies that we are actually drinking the literal blood of Jesus when we take communion. Ironically, however, when one looks the quote up in context, Clement is making exactly the opposite point! He writes:
“And the blood of the Lord is twofold. For there is the blood of His flesh, by which we are redeemed from corruption; and the spiritual, that by which we are anointed. And to drink the blood of Jesus, is to become partaker of the Lord’s immortality; the Spirit being the energetic principle of the Word, as blood is of flesh. Accordingly, as wine is blended with water, so is the Spirit with man. And the one, the mixture of wine and water, nourishes to faith; while the other, the Spirit, conducts to immortality. And the mixture of both—of the water and of the Word—is called Eucharist, renowned and glorious grace; and they who by faith partake of it are sanctified both in body and soul. For the divine mixture, man, the Father’s will has mystically compounded by the Spirit and the Word. For, in truth, the spirit is joined to the soul, which is inspired by it; and the flesh, by reason of which the Word became flesh, to the Word.” (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 2).
Thus, Clement plainly teaches that the "blood" that we partake of at communion is not literally the physical blood of Jesus' human body. It is a spiritual reality by which we partake of Jesus by faith and are thus renewed within. Thus, far from even vaguely implying or implicitly assuming transubstantiation, Clement rather blatantly distinguishes the literal, physical flesh and blood of Christ from that of which we partake in communion. For Clement, we partake of Christ and are nourished by faith and obedience, not by invisibly conjuring His literal body to eat. We do not literally eat Jesus' human flesh nor drink His physical blood. Such imagery is figurative, representing a spiritual reality. Clement elsewhere states:
“Thus in many ways the Word is figuratively described, as meat, and flesh, and food, and bread, and blood, and milk. The Lord is all these, to give enjoyment to us who have believed on Him. Let no one then think it strange, when we say that the Lord’s blood is figuratively represented as milk. For is it not figuratively represented as wine?” (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 1, Chapter 6).
Clement here not only explicitly states that the blood is "figuratively represented" as wine, he does so in such a way that assumes his readers already know this and take that much for granted! This seems to have remained the view in Alexandria for some time even after Clement. Origen, for example, likewise viewed the supper as figurative and spiritual, referring to the communion bread as "a symbol of gratitude to God."1 Thus, if the Roman Catholic is truly interested in what the second-century Christian writers taught, Clement is indeed an interesting example for them to consider, but as one who would have rejected their position (had such a position even existed at that time).
Clement on John 6
Also relevant are Clement's words about what Jesus meant in John 6 when He spoke of "eating His flesh and drinking His blood." Roman Catholics universally claim that this passage is about partaking of transubstantiated communion elements and thus literally eating Jesus' human flesh and drinking His physical blood. Clement, however, sees the passage in quite another way. He explains:
“The Lord, in the Gospel according to John, brought this out by symbols, when He said: ‘Eat ye my flesh, and drink my blood;’ describing distinctly by metaphor the drinkable properties of faith and the promise,” (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 1, Chapter 6).
To Clement, not only is the passage not about the physical nature of the communion elements, it isn't about communion at all! "Eat my flesh and drink my blood" was not a command to partake of communion. The Lord's supper wasn't even in view. Instead, it was a figurative call to faith and the promises of God in the gospel. He elaborates:
“The Word is all to the child, both father and mother and tutor and nurse. ‘Eat ye my flesh,’ He says, ‘and drink my blood.’ Such is the suitable food which the Lord ministers, and He offers His flesh and pours forth His blood, and nothing is wanting for the children’s growth. O amazing mystery! We are enjoined to cast off the old and carnal corruption, as also the old nutriment, receiving in exchange another new regimen, that of Christ, receiving Him if we can, to hide Him within; and that, enshrining the Saviour in our souls, we may correct the affections of our flesh. But you are not inclined to understand it thus, but perchance more generally. Hear it also in the following way. The flesh figuratively represents to us the Holy Spirit; for the flesh was created by Him. The blood points out to us the Word, for as rich blood the Word has been infused into life; and the union of both is the Lord, the food of the babes—the Lord who is Spirit and Word,” (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 1, Chapter 6).
Thus, Clement sees Jesus calling men to come in child-like faith and be nourished by the Word and the Spirit through the inner, supernatural work of regeneration. This is about the life-changing power of the gospel and the inner reality of the Holy Spirit. Clement is not speaking about the Eucharist, much less about its physical substance. And he was not alone in this understanding. Tertullian, a leader in the Latin West from around the same time as Clement, offered the same essential view of the passage:
"Now, because they thought His discourse was harsh and intolerable, supposing that He had really and literally enjoined on them to eat his flesh, He, with the view of ordering the state of salvation as a spiritual thing, set out with the principle, 'It is the spirit that quickeneth;' and then added, 'The flesh profiteth nothing,'—meaning, of course, to the giving of life. He also goes on to explain what He would have us to understand by spirit: 'The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.' In a like sense He had previously said: 'He that heareth my words, and believeth on Him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation, but shall pass from death unto life.' Constituting, therefore, His word as the life-giving principle, because that word is spirit and life, He likewise called His flesh by the same appellation; because, too, the Word had become flesh, we ought therefore to desire Him in order that we may have life, and to devour Him with the ear, and to ruminate on Him with the understanding, and to digest Him by faith," (Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Chapter 37).
Thus, the earliest Christian readers saw the plain meaning of John 6 roughly the same way that Protestants read it today. The understanding that John 6 teaches anything remotely like transubstantiation is a later novelty absent in the second-century church fathers.
Scripture alone is the sole, infallible rule of faith for Christian doctrine and practice. Even if some very early church father had taught transubstantiation, we would still reject the teaching because it is contrary to God's word. That said, it is useful to be able to show our Roman Catholic friends and neighbors that, on this issue, the church fathers closest to the time of the New Testament are actually all on our side. Transubstantiation is a later development contrary not only to Scripture but even to the traditions of the earliest Christian churches.
- 1. Origen, Against Celsus, Book 8, Chapter 57