In our last installment we saw that Catholic convert, Jeremy de Haan discovered a man named Peter Kreeft, who also converted to Rome from the Reformed Faith. According to de Haan, this resulted in his being confronted with one particular question that unsettled him.
If a modern Catholic and a modern Protestant could hop in a time machine and travel back to the early Church, which of the two would feel more at home?
After posing the question, de Haan adds, “I never looked much into it.”
Seriously? Are we to believe that a Reformed seminarian, in his fourth year of training, had never taken a class on Early Church History or Ecclesiology? This is almost incredible. But more than anything, such a statement comes off as a groping effort to connect with and relate to one’s own intended audience. De Haan’s alleged ignorance of church history only has meaning for those who are themselves ignorant of the same. Really this is nothing more than a clever piece of marketing propaganda: the introduction of a false dilemma followed by the discovery of a life-changing solution.
De Haan writes,
A couple weeks into the first semester I came across the philosopher Peter Kreeft’s conversion story on YouTube. I’d read a little of Kreeft’s writings before, and they impressed me as being from the pen of a thoughtful and godly man … Here was a man who seemed trustworthy and thorough in his thinking, who grew up very similar to me, yet who had looked seriously at the Catholic faith and was compelled by what he found to leave the Reformed faith … According to Peter Kreeft, it was discovering that the early Church was essentially Catholic that eventually led him into the Catholic Church. I knew then that I had to look into this myself.
Notice here that de Haan finds the solution to his problem in a man who fulfills all the necessary criteria. Peter Kreeft was not only thoughtful, godly, trustworthy, thorough in his thinking, and serious in his study of the Catholic faith – but more than that – he also had a Reformed background. In a round about way the message here is this: I had a serious question about early Church history, but I didn’t need to consult my seminary professors. Peter Kreeft was an equally viable option in my opinion. And therefore, if I didn’t feel the need to consult my professors – then Why should you?
As if it’s not clear enough already, de Haan was already Catholic; in heart if not by mouth. And perhaps not even by education but certainly by desire. This is what it looks like when a man is seeking to become what he already is. He seeks his counselors in accord with his convictions. That way, he can only conclude what he’s already embraced.
So a few days later, de Haan read (for himself) the letters of Ignatius.
So I read his letters, and it was evident quite quickly that the faith this man wrote about was not the Reformed faith.
Evident? Of course it was. How could it not be evident when the evidence is viewed in light of a foregone conclusion?
De Haan offers a quote from Ignatius,
The heretics abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again.
In perfect marketing fashion de Haan offers no explanation of this quote and no defense of his conclusion. And while he did deny that Ignatius held a view consistent with Reformed Theology – we have already seen that de Haan is no water mark for determining what is or is not Reformed. And so it all just begs the question, Does the quote that de Haan provides here prove that Ignatius held a view that is distinctively Roman Catholic? The answer is No.
To begin with, Ignatius is simply using what is known in Reformed Theology as sacramental language. This kind of thing occurs often in Scripture – even with regard to the two natures of Jesus Christ. While it is common for a characteristic proper to one nature to be attributed to the whole person, there are also examples where a characteristic proper to one nature is ascribed to the other nature itself.
For example, the Scriptures not only tell us that “God purchased the Church with his own blood” (Acts 20:28), but we also read that “no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man which is in heaven” (Jn. 3:13). Obviously the blood of Jesus Christ though he be true God, pertains only to his manhood. Equally obvious is the fact that his “coming down from heaven” though he be a true man, pertains only to his Godhead.
To take these scriptural statements literalistically is to deny the historic doctrine of the Incarnation – as it was formulated in the Council of Chalcedon (451). So in Reformed theology, we recognize that this is only a literary device of Holy Scripture. Historically it has been called the communicatio idiomatum (communication of attributes or properties) and it applies to the sacraments as well. This is where the sign is spoken of as if it were the thing signified. So Jesus calls the bread which signifies his body, “my body.” Likewise he calls the wine “the blood of the covenant.” Contrary to de Haan’s assumptions there is nothing Roman Catholic about sacramental language – whether found in Scripture or in Ignatius of Antioch.
In addition to these proven theological categories, we should also note that Ignatius wrote his epistles against the backdrop of Gnostic and Docetistic heresies that were plaguing the Church of his day. These sub-Christian sects denied that God took to himself a true and complete human nature in Jesus Christ. They claimed that because matter is inherently unholy (which it is not) the Divine Word could not have become true Man. According to the Docetists, Jesus only appeared to be a man. Ignatius’ statement therefore, was a rejection of those who denied that the Eucharist signified the true body of Jesus Christ, in which he truly suffered and in which he was truly raised. Strong sacramental language is an instrument for warding off all those who deny the reality of the thing signified in the sacrament itself. Again, no Catholic doctrine here.
Sacrament or Sacrifice?
However, there are two things even more fundamentally wrong with assuming that Ignatius held to a view of the Eucharist distinctive to Roman Catholicism. First, if the strong sacramental language in Ignatius implies that he at least believed in the real presence of Jesus Christ, let it be clearly stated that we do too. In Article 33 of the Belgic Confession of Faith we see that the sacraments “are not empty or meaningless so as to deceive us, for Jesus Christ is the true object presented by them.”
Therefore we read in Article 35,
We err not when we say that what is eaten and drunk by us is the proper and natural body and the proper blood of Christ.
In other words, Reformed Christians do not disagree with Roman Catholics regarding the fact of Christ’s presence but only the mode of Christ’s presence. Likewise, we do not differ with Rome about the fact of partaking of Christ’s flesh, but only the manner in which we do so.
And so the Confession continues,
But the manner of our partaking of the same is not by the mouth, but by the spirit through faith.
Second, Ignatius mentions nothing about a “change of substance” in the bread nor does he suggest that the Lord’s Supper is a “propitiatory sacrifice.” These are Roman Catholic distinctives, and they are curiously absent from his writings. With regard to the latter some Catholics insist that Ignatius taught by implication that the Eucharist was a literal “sacrifice” because he said that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated at “the altar.”
Let no one deceive himself, whoever keeps away from the altar deprives himself of the divine bread. (Letter to the Ephesians 5:2)
Catholics see in these words an allusion to Hebrews 13:10 which reads,
We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle.
The problem however is that Reformed Christians agree with this allusion. But we simply understand the “altar” in both cases to be symbolic and metaphorical. It should also be noted that not all Roman Catholics are willing to read later Catholic dogma back into the words of Ignatius.
Joseph A. Jungmann the renowned Jesuit historian, in his massive work on the history of the Mass, writes,
In Ignatius of Antioch, it is true that θυσιαστήριον is not yet the material alter of sacrifice. (The Mass of the Roman Rite, pg 25)
In other words, the literal sacrificial nature of the mass had not yet been invented. With good reason then, the Reformed hold that in Ignatius the Eucharist is a true but spiritual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. After all, the term “Eucharist” literally means, “a giving of thanks,” so that such language is thoroughly consistent with the Word of God.
Therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name. (Heb. 13:15; see also 1 Pet. 2:5)
(to be continued)