20th-century icon of the Church fathers of the ecumenical council in Nicaea in 325 (Courtesy: Orthodox Church in America) [ source ]
John Calvin described the Sacrifice of the Mass as an "abomination unknown to the purer Church," and stated that "this perverse course was unknown to the purer Church. . . . it is absolutely certain that all antiquity is opposed to them, as . . . may be more surely known by the diligent reading of the Fathers" (Institutes, IV, 18:9). Contrary to Calvin's puerile, historically revisionist rhetoric, however, there is in fact a great deal of patristic support for the Catholic position on this matter (and this data is confirmed by reputable Protestant Church historians, as seen below):
[entire paper now available only in chapter 15 of my book, Biblical Catholic Eucharistic Theology; some excerpts from Protestant historians below]
Protestant Church historian Philip Schaff:
The Catholic church, both Greek and Latin, sees in the Eucharist not only a sacramentum, in which God communicates a grace to believers, but at the same time, and in fact mainly, a sacrificium, in which believers really offer to God that which is represented by the sensible elements. For this view also the church fathers laid the foundation, and it must be conceded they stand in general far more on the Greek and Roman Catholic than on the Protestant side of this question.
. . . In this view certainly, in a deep symbolical and ethical sense, Christ is offered to God the Father in every believing prayer, and above all in the holy Supper; i.e. as the sole ground of our reconciliation and acceptance . . .
But this idea in process of time became adulterated with foreign elements, and transformed into the Graeco-Roman doctrine of the sacrifice of the mass. According to this doctrine the Eucharist is an unbloody repetition of the atoning sacrifice of Christ by the priesthood for the salvation of the living and the dead; so that the body of Christ is truly and literally offered every day and every hour, and upon innumerable altars at the same time. The term mass, which properly denoted the dismissal of the congregation (missio, dismissio) at the close of the general public worship, became, after the end of the fourth century, the name for the worship of the faithful, which consisted in the celebration of the eucharistic sacrifice and the communion.
. . . We pass now to the more particular history. The ante-Nicene fathers uniformly conceived the Eucharist as a thank-offering of the church; the congregation offering the consecrated elements of bread and wine, and in them itself, to God. This view is in itself perfectly innocent, but readily leads to the doctrine of the sacrifice of the mass, as soon as the elements become identified with the body and blood of Christ, and the presence of the body comes to be materialistically taken. The germs of the Roman doctrine appear in Cyprian about the middle of the third century, in connection with his high-churchly doctrine of the clerical priesthood. Sacerdotium and sacrificium are with him correlative ideas.
. . . The doctrine of the sacrifice of the mass is much further developed in the Nicene and post-Nicene fathers, though amidst many obscurities and rhetorical extravagances, and with much wavering between symbolical and grossly realistic conceptions, until in all essential points it is brought to its settlement by Gregory the Great at the close of the sixth century.
. . . 2. It is not a new sacrifice added to that of the cross, but a daily, unbloody repetition and perpetual application of that one only sacrifice. Augustine represents it, on the one hand, as a sacramentum memoriae, a symbolical commemoration of the sacrificial death of Christ; to which of course there is no objection. But, on the other hand, he calls the celebration of the communion verissimum sacrificium of the body of Christ. The church, he says, offers (immolat) to God the sacrifice of thanks in the body of Christ, from the days of the apostles through the sure succession of the bishops down to our time. But the church at the same time offers, with Christ, herself, as the body of Christ, to God. As all are one body, so also all are together the same sacrifice. According to Chrysostom the same Christ, and the whole Christ, is everywhere offered. It is not a different sacrifice from that which the High Priest formerly offered, but we offer always the same sacrifice, or rather, we perform a memorial of this sacrifice. This last clause would decidedly favor a symbolical conception, if Chrysostom in other places had not used such strong expressions as this: "When thou seest the Lord slain, and lying there, and the priest standing at the sacrifice," or: "Christ lies slain upon the altar."
3. The sacrifice is the anti-type of the Mosaic sacrifice, and is related to it as substance to typical shadows. It is also especially foreshadowed by Melchizedek’s unbloody offering of bread and wine. The sacrifice of Melchizedek is therefore made of great account by Hilary, Jerome Augustine, Chrysostom, and other church fathers, on the strength of the well-known parallel in the seventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews.
. . . Cyril of Jerusalem, in his fifth and last mystagogic Catechesis, which is devoted to the consideration of the eucharistic sacrifice and the liturgical service of God, gives the following description of the eucharistic intercessions for the departed:
"When the spiritual sacrifice, the unbloody service of God, is performed, we pray to God over this atoning sacrifice for the universal peace of the church, for the welfare of the world, for the emperor, for soldiers and prisoners, for the sick and afflicted, for all the poor and needy. Then we commemorate also those who sleep, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, that God through their prayers and their intercessions may receive our prayer; and in general we pray for all who have gone from us, since we believe that it is of the greatest help to those souls for whom the prayer is offered, while the holy sacrifice, exciting a holy awe, lies before us."
This is clearly an approach to the later idea of purgatory in the Latin church. Even St. Augustine, with Tertullian, teaches plainly, as an old tradition, that the eucharistic sacrifice, the intercessions or suffragia and alms, of the living are of benefit to the departed believers, so that the Lord deals more mercifully with them than their sins deserve.
(History of the Christian Church, Vol. III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity: A.D. 311-600, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974, from the revised fifth edition of 1910; §96. "The Sacrifice of the Eucharist,” 503-508, 510)
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church:
It was also widely held from the first that the Eucharist is in some sense a sacrifice, though here again definition was gradual. The suggestion of sacrifice is contained in much of the NT language . . . the words of institution, 'covenant,' 'memorial,' 'poured out,' all have sacrificial associations. In early post-NT times the constant repudiation of carnal sacrifice and emphasis on life and prayer at Christian worship did not hinder the Eucharist from being described as a sacrifice from the first . . .
From early times the Eucharistic offering was called a sacrifice in virtue of its immediate relation to the sacrifice of Christ.
(Cross, F. L. and E. A. Livingstone, editors; 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, 1983, 476, 1221)
Protestant historian J. N. D. Kelly:
[T]he Eucharist was regarded as the distinctively Christian sacrifice from the closing decade of the first century, if not earlier. Malachi’s prediction (1:10 f.) that the Lord would reject the Jewish sacrifices and instead would have 'a pure offering' made to Him by the Gentiles in every place was early seized [did. 14,3; Justin, dial. 41,2 f.; Irenaeus, haer. 4,17,5] upon by Christians as a prophecy of the eucharist.
The Didache indeed actually applies [14, 1] the term thusia, or sacrifice, to the eucharist, and the idea is presupposed by Clement in the parallel he discovers [40-4] between the Church's ministers and the Old Testament priests and levites . . . Ignatius's reference [Philad. 4] to 'one altar, just as there is one bishop', reveals that he, too thought in sacrificial terms. Justin speaks [Dial. 117,1] of 'all the sacrifices in this name which Jesus appointed to be performed, viz. in ther eucharist of the bread and the cup, and which are celebrated in every place by Christians'. Not only here but elsewhere [Ib. 41,3] too, he identifies 'the bread of the eucharist, and the cup likewise of the eucharist', with the sacrifice foretold by Malachi. For Irenaeus [Haer. 4,17,5] the eucharist is 'the new oblation of the new covenant', . . .
It was natural for early Christians to think of the eucharist as a sacrifice. The fulfillment of prophecy demanded a solemn Christian offering, and the rite itself was wrapped in the sacrificial atmosphere with which our Lord invested the Last Supper. The words of institution, ‘Do this’ (touto poieite), must have been charged with sacrificial overtones for second-century ears; Justin at any rate understood [1 apol. 66,3; cf. dial. 41,1] them to mean, ‘Offer this.’ . . . Justin . . . makes it plain [Dial. 41,3] that the bread and the wine themselves were the 'pure offering' foretold by Malachi . . . he uses [1 apol. 65,3-5] the term 'thanksgiving' as technically equivalent to 'the eucharistized bread and wine'. The bread and wine, moreover, are offered ‘for a memorial (eis anamnasin) of the passion,’ a phrase which in view of his identification of them with the Lord’s body and blood implies much more than an act of purely spiritual recollection. Altogether it would seem that, while his language is not fully explicit, Justin is feeling his way to the conception of the eucharist as the offering of the Saviour's passion.
(Early Christian Doctrines, San Francisco: Harper & Row, fifth revised edition, 1978, 196-197)
[T]he eucharist was regarded without question as the Christian sacrifice.
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