Tertullian and Transubstantiation

by Luke Wayne
2/13/2018

Roman Catholic doctrine holds that, when a priest blesses the bread and wine of communion, they are literally transformed into the actual, physical flesh and blood of Jesus before they are eaten. While they still maintain the appearance, texture, and taste of bread and wine, they are actually no longer bread and wine at all but are instead Jesus' actual human body and blood. This is known as "Transubstantiation." Among the arguments that Roman Catholics offer in support of this teaching is the claim that some of the early church writers supposedly make reference to 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. Among the men to whom they often appeal in making this claim is the late 2nd/early 3rd century Latin theologian, Tertullian,

Feeding on the Body and Blood?

Roman Catholics love to point out that Tertullian wrote:

"the flesh feeds on the body and blood of Christ, that the soul likewise may fatten on its God," (On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Chapter 8).

This, they claim, is a clear reference to transubstantiation and thus proves the ancient pedigree of their teaching. Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, even if Tertullian did teach Transubstantiation (which, as we will see, he did not), it would not do anything to prove transubstantiation true. Tertullian is far from infallible. His traditions, philosophies, and ideas must be held to the light of Scripture like anyone else's. We answer to what God revealed through His Spirit in His perfect and inerrant word. If any tradition, however early, is contrary to Scripture, we are not bound by it. This, however, is what makes Tertullian such an interesting figure to examine here. In his writings, he actually addresses the key passages of Scripture relevant to this issue and concludes from them the exact opposite of what Roman Catholicism requires. Thus, Tertullian not only personally believes a position quite opposite that of transubstantiation, he affirms that Scripture teaches the opposite position, which is far more important. He is, of course, not an infallible interpreter of Scripture, but his position is at least worth noting.

In context, when Tertullian wrote the words quoted above, he was writing in defense of the Resurrection of the Flesh against those who claimed that only our souls or spirits would persist in existence. As part of his case, he argued for the importance of physical flesh in Christian teaching on the spiritual life of the believer. To quote the section more fully, he says: 

"Now such remarks have I wished to advance in defense of the flesh, from a general view of the condition of our human nature. Let us now consider its special relation to Christianity, and see how vast a privilege before God has been conferred on this poor and worthless substance. It would suffice to say, indeed, that there is not a soul that can at all procure salvation, except it believe whilst it is in the flesh, so true is it that the flesh is the very condition on which salvation hinges. And since the soul is, in consequence of its salvation, chosen to the service of God, it is the flesh which actually renders it capable of such service. The flesh, indeed, is washed, in order that the soul may be cleansed; the flesh is anointed, that the soul may be consecrated; the flesh is signed, that the soul too may be fortified; the flesh is shadowed with the imposition of hands, that the soul also maybe illuminated by the Spirit; the flesh feeds on the body and blood of Christ, that the soul likewise may fatten on its God. They cannot then be separated in their recompense, when they are united in their service. Those sacrifices, moreover, which are acceptable to God—I mean conflicts of the soul, fastings, and abstinences, and the humiliations which are annexed to such duty—it is the flesh which performs again and again to its own especial suffering," (On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Chapter 8).

The overall argument here is that outward rituals like baptism, communion, anointing with oil, laying on of hands, and others point to the value of the flesh. He does, indeed, refer to taking communion as feeding on the body and blood of Christ, but what does he mean by that? Tertullian's point is that the flesh of the person eating is important. It in no way hinges on a literal interpretation of "body and blood" with regard to the elements. To figure out whether or not he means this literally, it is helpful to look at a passage where he was writing more specifically on that subject.

The Symbol Points to the Reality

In His refutation of the Gnostic heretic, Marcion, Tertullian addresses the last supper directly. Here, he is not merely dealing with the importance of our flesh. Instead, he is attempting to refute Marcion's claim that Jesus was pure spirit and had no physical flesh at all. Thus, here Tertullian is concerned with the literal body and blood of Jesus in its relation to the supper, which is exactly what we want to know:

"When He so earnestly expressed His desire to eat the Passover, He considered it His own feast; for it would have been unworthy of God to desire to partake of what was not His own," (Five Books Against Marcion, Book 4, Chapter 40).

Tertullian begins walking through the narrative of the last supper from the gospels, and first notes that Jesus is the creator God who made the physical world and whose feast the Passover meal is.

"Then, having taken the bread and given it to His disciples, He made it His own body, by saying, 'This is my body,' that is, the figure of my body. A figure, however, there could not have been, unless there were first a veritable body. An empty thing, or phantom, is incapable of a figure," (Five Books Against Marcion, Book 4, Chapter 40).

Tertullian here speaks of Jesus' words, "this is my body." He explains that this didn't literally make the bread into Jesus' actual physical body, but rather meant that it was the symbol of His body. Tertullian then points out that making the bread the symbol of the body means nothing if there is no real body to which the symbol refers. Thus, while the bread is obviously a symbol, the symbol points to a reality, namely, Jesus' actual body that hung on the cross for us. Tertullian goes on:

"If, however, (as Marcion might say,) He pretended the bread was His body, because He lacked the truth of bodily substance, it follows that He must have given bread for us. It would contribute very well to the support of Marcion’s theory of a phantom body, that bread should have been crucified!" (Five Books Against Marcion, Book 4, Chapter 40).

Tertullian proceeds to mock Marcion, showing that if Jesus had no body and thus declared the bread to really be His body since He had no real, physical body, then it must have been literal bread that was nailed to the cross rather than flesh. Obviously, this argument does not apply directly against Roman Catholics, who do believe that Jesus had a real body of flesh. Still, it further underscores Tertullian's conviction that the bread was a symbol of the body and not Christ's actual body. Tertullian then goes on to cite a few Old Testament examples that he believes use bread symbolically to speak of Christ, afterward concluding:

"And thus, casting light, as He always did, upon the ancient prophecies, He declared plainly enough what He meant by the bread, when He called the bread His own body," (Five Books Against Marcion, Book 4, Chapter 40).

So, bread is a symbol chosen specifically because it has prophetic significance as such. Tertullian goes on:

"He likewise, when mentioning the cup and making the new testament to be sealed 'in His blood,' affirms the reality of His body. For no blood can belong to a body which is not a body of flesh. If any sort of body were presented to our view, which is not one of flesh, not being fleshly, it would not possess blood. Thus, from the evidence of the flesh, we get a proof of the body, and a proof of the flesh from the evidence of the blood," (Five Books Against Marcion, Book 4, Chapter 40).

According to Tertullian, the cup is not declared to literally be Jesus' blood or to contain His blood, but rather to have been mentioned when Jesus was making a new covenant which was to be sealed in His blood. Thus, beginning to end, Tertullian sees in the last supper a set of symbols which point perfectly and powerfully to the reality of Jesus' body which was crucified and His blood which was shed to seal the covenant. According to Tertullian, when Jesus says in the gospels, "this is my body," He meant it symbolically.

Eat my Flesh, Drink my Blood

Tertullian elsewhere expounds on John 6 and Jesus' discourse on eating His flesh and drinking His blood.

"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," (On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Chapter 37).

This is pretty straightforward. Tertullian points out that the crowd misunderstood Jesus' teaching, falsely thinking that He was talking about literally eating His flesh and drinking His blood. Instead, we are to "devour Him with the ear, and to ruminate on Him with the understanding, and to digest Him by faith." The passage is not about eating transubstantiated communion elements. It's not about literal, physical human meat and blood. It is about hearing, believing, and receiving salvation in Jesus Christ through faith. "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." Salvation through faith in Christ, not through sacramental consumption of His human body. Tertullian is certainly clear that this is his understanding of the passage, and it is derived straight from the text.

Conclusion

Tertullian clearly states that the bread and cup are symbols. He explicitly interprets Jesus' words at the last supper this way and is also clear that Jesus was speaking figuratively in John 6 when He spoke of eating His flesh and drinking His blood. Tertullian had absolutely no concept of transubstantiation, and he drew his views directly from the relevant passages in the gospels. Thus, far from being an example of early belief in Roman Catholic dogma, Tertullian is actually an example of an ancient reader who took it as obvious that Jesus was using simple metaphors rather than making woodenly literal statements, and that the bread and wine rather pointed to the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ in which we must place our faith for salvation.