The Eucharist and Baptism

Copyright 2005 by Adam Janke | Adam is a student of Theology and Catechetics at Franciscan University of Steubenville where he serves as President of the St. John Bosco Society for Catechetics

Both baptism and the Lord's Supper were instituted during the life and ministry of Jesus Christ as they are recorded in the Sacred Scriptures. Christians have debated how these events are to be interpreted, and how they must be taught and understood as doctrines. The interpretation of these actions has been of central concern for those who attack the Church on the basis that they believe these two actions are not sacraments, but are ordinances only. Viewing the Eucharist and baptism symbolically is common in Protestant circles who describe themselves as Reformed Protestants. In order to achieve positive ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Reformed Protestants, especially those who consider themselves Baptists and Fundamentalists, we must understand their arguments for choosing the interpretation of the texts that they do, as well as the Catholic understanding of the doctrines. The Catholic Church, through nearly two thousand years of study, has stood fast that both the Eucharist and baptism are efficacious for salvation and stand together with Scripture and Tradition when affirming these doctrines.

To lay the groundwork for considering these two ritual actions as sacraments we must understand how to approach the scriptures in light of Tradition. Fundamentalists, like all Protestants, will claim that each individual person can go to the “Bible alone”, and if they pray sincerely, will receive from the Holy Spirit truth without error concerning doctrine. Scripture, however, is often very ambiguous and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. If a person is to take scripture only at face value, each interpretation may indeed make some logical sense. As an example, Arius understood Mark 10:18 literally and insisted that Jesus was not equal to God because, Jesus stated that no one is good but the Father. The literal interpretation of this passage would vindicate Arius. However, the Bible is not meant to be taken literally only. That is not how it was written, or why it was written and betrays the essence of what Scripture is. St. Athanasius recognized this when he wrote very early in the life of the Church: “Let us note that the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning, which the Lord gave, was preached by the Apostles, and was preserved by the Fathers. On this was the Church founded; and if anyone departs from this, he neither is nor any longer ought to be called a Christian.”[1] St. Athanasius recognized the need for a Magisterium, a teaching authority which would guide the interpretation of the scriptures, to keep the Christian community free from believing error. Those who believe in Bible alone doctrines have in essence made themselves each a Magisterium of one. Even within the pages of Scripture itself we see St. Paul insisting that those who would give preference to their own interpretations and forsake the Tradition that the ecclesial leaders were passing onto them were to be shunned and condemned (2 Peter 1:20, 3:15-16).

If the Bible is ambiguous, and Christians have a need for a proper and authoritative interpretation, then Tradition cannot be ignored. Throughout the centuries Christians have depended on the learned men who have set out to understand truth and whose teachings have been accepted by the Church, the bride of Christ as authentic and true. These Fathers of the Church provide a source of truth as accepted and developed by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, that Church which was founded by Christ. They accomplish the same task for the Church that the apostles provided after the last apostle died through apostolic succession. They handed on the truth, and to ignore our ecclesial leadership, to ignore the voice of thousands of years of Christian Tradition for self-study as our authority is arrogance at best. Especially in the first few hundred years when we have the lessons of great men of God who were disciples of the original apostles themselves. Though Origin was a controversial figure in the early Church the following proves the point: “The teaching of the church has indeed been handed down through an order of succession from the Apostles, and remains in the Churches even to the present time. That alone is to be believed as truth which is in no way at variance with ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition.”[2] St. Paul commands the Church at Corinth to listen to the Traditions that have been handed onto them by the Apostles.[3]The evidence of the nature of Protestantism today should be enough to verify this truth. When each man, with a sincere heart, searches out the scriptures under the guise of “Bible Alone” and becomes his own Magisterium, his own measure and judge of truth, we find that the Holy Spirit does not lead “everyone” to inerrant truth, but rather he leads the bride, the Church, to all truth. Two men, who both dearly love Jesus Christ and have faith in Him, can come to two different conclusions on how the Eucharistic narratives are to be interpreted. Both interpretations may make sense, and even be logical in accordance to what scripture says, but both cannot be ultimately correct, especially if we believe in absolute truths, and that the Bible teaches them. 

Then, with this understanding about the nature of the Holy Scriptures and their interpretation, some Protestant Christians today insist still that the Eucharist and baptism have no role to play in the economy of salvation, but they are merely outward signs that in no way accompany any grace in the life of the disciple. For the Eucharist typically these Protestants will insist that the remembrance of Luke 22:19 meant that the entire purpose of the Lord’s Supper was to be a meal in which the Christian would call into his mind the work of Jesus Christ and then eat a piece of bread. Charles Ryrie, a well known fundamental theologian considers the Lord’s Supper an “ordinance”.[4] Although he recognizes that in the early Church water was mixed with wine, he doesn’t know what to do with the data, given that it is liturgical in nature, and instead goes on to attack the idea that “fermented wine” was used in the Last Supper, insisting that the “wine” wasn’t really wine, but was likely only grape juice. Instead of considering a solid and logical conclusion to the data he circumvents the first question of why they did this for another question. Systematically he refers to four main reasons for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. These are a remembrance; a proclamation of his death; an assurance of his second coming; a time of fellowship with Christ and His people.[5] None of these reasons is wrong in themselves, however a fuller and more correct understanding is found within the teachings of the Catholic Church. 

Along with the Lord's Supper, the only other sacrament rendered in the fundamentalist sect is baptism. This is also considered to be an “ordinance” and has no role of grace in the life of a believer. To the fundamentalist it is simply a ritual without grace which is given as an act of association with the local church that they intend to join. Theologian Charles Ryrie, despite strong biblical evidence to the contrary is very careful to note, that despite that scripturally baptism is associated with union with Christ, forgiveness, making disciples, and repentance, any real connection must be rejected, and these can only serve as points of reference.[6] Ryrie insists that all of the passages correlating baptism with redemption can only be taken as associations. It takes this type of dichotomy though, to be able to rationalize the type of complete rejection of true understanding of scripture that Ryrie is attempting to make. He even goes so far as to insist “the Fathers did support infant baptism, often relating it to circumcision…some in the early church taught baptismal regeneration, which is heretical.”[7] In removing himself from Christian history, tradition, and even sometimes sound biblical exegetical principles, Mr. Ryrie is left to guessing at the interpretation of the scriptures at best. While he is reading infallible Truth when he reads the scriptures, and thus is likely to believe some truth, he is hardly led into all truth, rather, holding fast to many heresies that the Church fought hard to defeat throughout its sojourn on this earth. Serving as his own authority on biblical interpretation he has come to conclusions which are quite anti-biblical. 

With these two doctrines, then, the Catholic Church looks to the Tradition handed onto us to understand what they mean. Protestants often look to like-minded people as testimony to their own claims about scripture. There is no lack of commentaries on scripture by Protestants. The question then is why do they reject, outright, the weight of the testimony by the early Church? Mr. Ryrie has no idea what to do with the mixing of water and wine, a liturgical action of the Church today, because he has no choice but to reject the writings of the very Christians who explain the action. The early Fathers of the Church are not ignorant of the scriptures. St. Jeromeinsisted that ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ. Their expositions and commentary on the Christian faith and life are invaluable to Christians today. They fought heresies that tried to destroy the Christian Church in early times, and many of them came very close to doing that. To ignore their testimony is to put oneself in danger of making the same mistakes over again. Also, to downplay the testimony of the Fathers of the Church, of Christians for 1600 years, is to insist that there were no true Christians, or exceedingly few, for 1600 years immediately after the times recorded in the scriptures. Mr. Ryrie even insists that Ignatius is a heretic though he admits he was one of the closest of all to the original Apostles! Protestants cannot deny that the church was Catholic for 1600 years, so the logical conclusion must be that the gates of hell have prevailed and the Church is now pagan. This response to their doctrines on these two sacraments though will not take such a rash approach. 

If the early church is to offer any evidence on the sacraments it is this that they offer – that baptism is regenerative and causes man to be born again; that the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Jesus Christ dwelling with man today. Both then, are sacramental and instituted as so by Jesus Christ to which they are recorded in scripture. They are sacramental because they convey God’s life, God’s grace to us. For the Eucharist, St. Ignatius gives strong testimony to what the Church has always believed. “Heretics abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.”[8] Of all of the teachings on the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, John 6 is the most convincing. After Jesus multiplies the fish and the loaves of bread, miraculously, he gives his discourse on the bread of life. “The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said to them ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.’”[9] Some fundamentalists go on though to insist that John 6:63 refutes everything Jesus just said, and that he really wasn’t talking about literally consuming the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. This is absurd however as  Jesus would not contradict what he just said; Jesus would not be a “Good Teacher” if his disciples misunderstood him, but even desiring truth, he did not in some way correct their error; and the passage obviously refers to his own flesh, flesh that is not merely flesh alone like that of the lambs that were slaughtered in the Old Testament, but rather the flesh of the Son of God divine, full of spirit and life. It is the only honest way to reconcile the apparent contradiction that fundamentalists insist that scripture is making. The Eucharist has symbolic elements, to be sure, and we must not deny the fundamentalists this. Yet, the cross has in it a great deal of symbolism, but no fundamentalist is going to say that the event of the cross is only a symbol. 

Just as scripture fully attests to the real nature of the Eucharist as the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ, so it does to the regenerative nature of baptism. Mr. Ryrie insisted that this is heresy only on the grounds that in Acts there are examples of people who have made an initial commitment to Christ are baptized. The testimony of 2000 years of Christian exegesis stands squarely against him. Tertullian is recorded as having said “happy is the sacrament of our water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free, into eternal life! But we, little fishes, after the example of our IXTHUS Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we safety in any other than by permanently abiding in water.”[10]  Ryrie admits, though, that the Church, at least until 1600 taught the regenerative power of baptism. The Church, for 2000 years now, has understood the covenantal nature of salvation, the filial nature of salvation, and why Christ instituted the sacrament of baptism. The scriptures do not intend to deceive or trick anyone when it records “For Christ also died for sins once and for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”[11] While the author was rather clear about the salvific nature of baptism, he ensures that there will be no confusion by stating clearly that our baptisms do not cleanse us outwardly, but rather inwardly, they save us from the wages of sin by taking care of the problem of original sin. Through baptism we are made firstborn sons of God, only accessible through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

If there is yet any doubt that they are sacramental, that they convey grace, one can look at the example of marriage. There is no way to understand it in any way other than as a sacrament. God’s grace is required in order to make the one flesh union between a man and a woman, not only physically, but spiritually as well. Baptism and the Eucharist are sacraments because they also convey the life of God in us; they are the action of God giving us His grace. In every sacrament there is an outward sign, a way in which we cooperate with the grace of God, and an inward action, the grace of God at work in us. While we cannot see the invisible grace of God at work, we know through the Sacred Scriptures, through Tradition, and through the Church that he is at work. 

Therefore, baptism and the Eucharist are efficacious for salvation. Often Protestants take scripture at face value, except when it disagrees with their notions of soteriology. Then the response is usually to argue that other passages ‘interpret’ the passages they disagree with. The status of these two sacraments though, as sacraments is clear in the Sacred Scriptures. To deny their importance in the economy of salvation is to uproot how God worked to reach His people Israel, through covenants as recorded in the Old Testament. The pattern of the old covenants always required the action of man, in faith, towards the grace of God. This is beautifully summed up in Abrahams willing sacrifice of Isaac. Our justification can not end at “Yes Lord”, we are justified through our free action towards God, in faith, by the grace that He gives us to approach him. Baptism and the Eucharist are both covenantal actions through the one mediator Jesus Christ in which we make our faith alive by cooperating with God’s grace. They are actions of faith, actions in which ultimately, it is the work of God that takes place to save man. 

BIBLIOGRAPHY 

Athanasius. “Four Letters to Serapion of Thmius,” Catholic Verse Finder. San Juan Catholic Seminars: Farmington, 2003.

Holy Bible, RSV-CE Edition 2. Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2006.

Ignatius, “Letter to Smyrnaeans,” Welcome to the Catholic Church [CD-ROM]. Harmony Media, 1996-2006.

Origen, “On the Fundamental Doctrines,” Catholic Verse Finder. San Juan Catholic Seminars: Farmington, 2003.

Ryrie, Charles. Basic Theology. Chicago: Moody Press. 1999.

Tertullian. “On Baptism,” New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia.

http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0321.htm (Accessed on 10 April 2006).

 

[1] St. Athanasius, “Four Letters to Serapion of Thmius,” Catholic Verse Finder. San Juan Catholic Seminars: Farmington, 2003. 1, 28.

[2] Origen, “Fundamental Doctrines,” Catholic Verse Finder. San Juan Catholic Seminars: Farmington, 2003. 1, preface, 2.

[3] 1 Corinthians 11:2. Holy Bible RSV-CE Edition 2. (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2006).

[4] Ryrie, Charles. Basic Theology. (Moody Press: Chicago, 1999), 492.

[5] Ibid., 492-3.

[6] Ibid., 488.

[7] Ibid., 489.

[8] St. Ignatius, ”Letter to Smyrnaeans”. Welcome to the Catholic Church [CD-ROM]. Harmony Media, 2006. Available from www.harmonymedia.com. 6,2,2.

[9] John 6:52-56.

[10] Tertullian, “On Baptism,” New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, Chapter 1, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0321.htm (Accessed on 10 April 2006)

[11] 1 Peter 3:18-21