In Defense of Repetition

1631 Book of Psalms
1631 Book of Psalms (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I’ve had a few conversations with people who found a distaste for Orthodoxy with a common theme, that of repetition.  You almost have to say it with a captial R, dripping with disdain.  After all, isn’t repetitious worship a major cause of the ills of Catholicism and high church protestantism.  What more do you need than Jesus’ words against “vain repetition” to tell you how destructive it is.  In the charismatic tradition I was raised in we wouldn’t be caught dead engaging in repetitious services.  We would hold only disdain for those poor Christians who actually read through a service book on a Sunday morning.  That’s dead religion.

Well, not so fast.  Allow me to rise in defense of repetition.  The disdain found in most of evangelical protestantism for repetition is as puzzling as it is knee-jerk, and yet this is such a common complaint that almost any convert has probably raised it, and any Orthodox responder has encountered it.  How many protestants of the free worship variety are willing to take an honest look at their own practices and recognize the repetition in them?  How many will take a fresh look at the effects and uses of repetition and see the positive benefits?  Not many, I believe, but this is a mistake.  Protestants who think that repetition is inherently spiritually dangerous and that their own practices are far from repetitious are wrong on both counts.  Rather, repetition is both beneficial and in fact necessary in the Church.

Repetition: By Any Other Name

First, let’s consider the common thought among evangelicals that they are anything but repetitious.  Feeling that extemporaneous actions equal true worship or true relationship, they strive to pray extemporaneously and do unplanned actions during worship.  However anyone who has been an evangelical or been around them for long will quickly realize that the extemporaneous prayer is anything but.  Themes and phrases are repeated.  Tones and patterns are very common.  In fact it’s a common complaint among evangelicals (I know this from first and second hand experience) that their prayer life has become something substandard because they feel it is too repetitious.  Extemporaneousness becomes a burden that’s impossible to bear.  Even when you strive to remove a set structure, or reject structures of the past, new structures blossom in their place.

The same is true with the corporate worship of an evangelical church.  If you are honest, how much actually varies from week to week, or even from year to year?  Sit down any evangelical of some duration and ask them how the order of service at their church will go.  They will be able to give you with some exactness what will happen on Sunday.  I always found it somewhat humorous that even the “unplanned” elements of a charismatic service will fall into a schedule and begin to happen at very consistent times.  I don’t need to belabor this point.  Merely recognizing and accepting that in fact repetition is just as common in evangelical prayer and worship as it is in Orthodox (or Catholic or any highly liturgic church) can help to dispel the automatic negative reaction.

Repetition: A Necessity

Repetition appears to actually be a necessary component in human relationships.  This can be positive or negative.  For someone who has emotional or relational disfunction this might be evident in serial abusive relationship.  In a healthier light a relationship that is functioning properly gains stability through repeated actions and experiences.  In any case you find that repetition is innate to human nature in our interactions with others.  Good or bad, repetition is everywhere.

Even when people intentionally try to remove repetitious elements in their Christian activities they are unsuccessful.  The Reformation saw a beginning of intentional disconnecting with the immediate past, and a process of reinvention that has only sped up over time.  While Luther and Calvin didn’t see themselves as re-imagining Christianity, that is exactly what is attempted by many modern Christians.  In some grander irony, though, intentionally shunning the historical actions of the church and coming up with something “fresh” does not remove repetition.  New traditions arise in their place.  Remove the creed, and a new creed will come up.  Remove old music, and a new standard line up emerges.  Fight the old prayer patterns and lo and behold, there’s a new pattern.  The result of removing a tradition isn’t the removal of tradition, it’s just the loss of the richness of what had been there before.  Orthodoxy has an old, rich soil of worship that has been well cared for.

Repetition is a very hardy breed.  It’s impossible to kill.  It’s something that has been with us as far back as we can see in Scripture.  Old Testament worship was strongly repetitive.  The hymnography of the Hebrews (Psalms) was highly repetitive.  Human nature shows itself to be consistent over long periods of time.  There’s nothing new about those patterns under the sun.  One must come to the conclusion that repetition is inherent in our nature due to its omnipresence.

Repetition: Foundation for Healthy Relationship

While much maligned, repeating activities and actions with a loved one is a great tool for building a relationship.  Any married couple can tell you after some years of marriage how their spouse will act in given situations, and while that is not always seen as a benefit it’s really is the foundation to a relationship, because it provides stability.  While variety provides nice interest, it’s the repetitious elements of a relationship that build connection.  Every time I leave the house I make sure and tell my wife that I love her.  I’ve repeated these words and this actions countless times, and yet my wife has never told me to stop being so repetitive.  “I love you” never ceases to be helpful in maintaining our relationship.  It would be ludicrous, in fact, to insist that terms of endearment must be new every time.  How many widows and widowers take great comfort in remembering the repetitive aspects of their dead spouse’s life.  They remember the way they drank coffee, or read the newspaper, or sang that one song over and over.  Those actions repeated over and over are the connectable ones.

The same is true for God.  If you think that God is impressed by your unique expressiveness then you misunderstand his changeless nature, and the worship structure that he set in place.  If you think that he is turned off by your repetitive actions then you malign the image you were made in the likeness of, that gave you the need for repetition.  The Old Testament shows repetition in worship.  Jesus participated in this repetitive worship structure, and so did the apostles.  Apparently repetition is a hallmark of relationship to God, just the same as it is with humans.  An ever changing worship only results in instability.

One possibility to consider is that while all this attention to finding new expressions of worship and life that is so prevalent in evangelical circles may go a long way to promoting interest, but completely fail at promoting growth.  Growth in the Christian life is not served by a continuous stream of unique experiences, any more than learning is served by this.  As a homeschooling parent I get to see this first hand, and I’m sure teachers would happily concur.  You introduce new concepts to children, but it’s the repetition that let’s them master the concept.  If every school day you just focus on the new, and never look back at older concepts, you will never help that child progress.  Our relationship with God cannot be dumbed down to just education about God, but certainly you can see how frequent, shared, common experiences are a healthy building block for relationships.

Repetition: Aid to Worship

Orthodox worship is repetitious in many ways.  Not in all, to be certain.  You could definitely make the case that Orthodoxy has less repetition than many protestant churches, though that might stagger the imagination.  When you dig into the mechanics of Orthodox worship you’ll be surprised by the amount of variation from day to day to week to week.  However, there is no doubt that many elements of the divine liturgy are repeated.  This pattern is quite Scriptural however.  The worship of Israel was extremely liturgical and repetitious.  Just like Orthodox worship, it has patterns and seasons that occur over time.  Just like Orthodox worship (and protestant too) it has elements repeated every day or week.  Even entire services are repeated every week.  Just like Israelite worship we have feasts, and just like Israelite worship we have fasts.  The similarities between the two are striking.

Let us be clear, however.  This is a good thing!  God instituted this form of worship for good reason.  It promotes healthy worship.  Having a clear pattern to our worship allows us to engage the changeless God in a way that is appropriate to Him, and not focusing on the new and innovative, which promotes us.  The aim of the modern evangelical church is to use modern marketing ideas to attract people.  The aim of ancient Christian worship is to rightly praise God.  Let’s not forget the model par excellence of praise found in Scripture, in Isaiah 6:

6:1 In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the sovereign master seated on a high, elevated throne. The hem of his robe filled the temple. 6:2 Seraphs stood over him; each one had six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and they used the remaining two to fly. 6:3 They called out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord who commands armies! His majestic splendor fills the entire earth!” 6:4 The sound of their voices shook the door frames, and the temple was filled with smoke.

You can see a mirror image in Revelation 4:

4:8 Each one of the four living creatures had six wings and was full of eyes all around andinside. They never rest day or night, saying: Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God, the All-Powerful, Who was and who is, and who is still to come!”

4:9 And whenever the living creatures give glory, honor, and thanks to the one who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 4:10 the twenty-four elders throw themselves to the ground before the one who sits on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever, and they offer their crowns before his throne, saying:

4:11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, since you created all things, and because of your will they existed and were created!”

Three huzzahs for repetition.  Better yet, three “Holy”s.  One of the most foundational prayers in Orthodoxy, that you’ll find repeated in most any service and in the private prayers of the faithful, is known as the Trisagion (which is a greek word meanly “thrice holy”) prayer.  In part it says:

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Glory to thee, our God, glory to thee.

O heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who art in all places and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life: Come and dwell in us and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O gracious Lord.

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal: have mercy on us.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal: have mercy on us.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal: have mercy on us.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

All-holy Trinity, have mercy on us. Lord, cleanse us from our sins. Master, pardon our iniquities. Holy God, visit and heal our infirmities for thy Name’s sake.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

That is a profoundly beautiful and repetitious prayer.  Notice the obvious patterning of the worship of heaven in it.  It rings with the Holy, Holy, Holy of heavenly worship!  You might also be interested to find out more about the Jesus Prayer.

Repetition: The Ancient Paths

An obvious benefit to repetition is that it aids in memorization.  This seems obvious, but I don’t think many people are also connecting the role of repetition in creating habits, good or bad.  Probably most people have heard that it takes 21 days of repetition to form a habit.  The reality of habit formation is much more complicated.  The duration of repetition to form a habit actually varies highly depending on the task.   The amount of time it requires to form a good habit can be as short as 18 days or as high as 254!  On average, it takes 66 days to reach a good habit plateau for our behaviors.  But for the diligent habit creator, what an amazing benefit a habit provides.  After the habit becomes ingrained it becomes somewhat automatic.  No more thought is required to enact the habit, and it becomes part of your makeup and hard to break.

The Orthodox Church establishes a daily, a weekly, a seasonal, and a yearly pattern to it worship, and given time this habit or worship becomes part of who you are.  The Church is famously conservative in maintaining the pattern of worship and prayer that has been handed down to it.  The liturgy is ancient.  The prayers are ancient.  When you go through the divine liturgy or pray the trisagion, you are echoing the lives of the saints from all ages.  Your worship is their worship.  Your prayer is their prayer.

In Jeremiah 6:16 it says:

The Lord said to his people: “You are standing at the crossroads. So consider your path. Ask where the old, reliable paths are.  Ask where the path is that leads to blessing and follow it.  If you do, you will find rest for your souls.”

Those who rail against the repetitious, the traditional, rail against connecting with those who have done this Christian life before, who know where the reliable paths are.  The modern protestant historical amnesia is one of the great tragedies of Christianity.  If you want to know how to pass along the faith, consider Orthodoxy, which has successfully passed on the faith unbroken for 2,000 years.  It is the envy of all when it comes to teaching the Christian life.  Protestants should take note.

Repetition: Essential to Community

One critique of Protestantism that you’ll hear from Orthodoxy is that it promotes individualism, not community.  I won’t spend time defending that critique, but rather I’d like to point out that repetition is an absolutely critical part of building community.  If you want a group of people to build relationship they must spend time together in shared action.  How can a group of people possibly come together to worship without actions that they all know by heart, and how can they know an action by heart if it is not repetitious.  The more unique an experience or activity is, the less it promotes community among a group.  The word community refers to “those who share things in common.  I’ll assert it again, you cannot have community with repetition.

I find it interesting that inside evangelical communities you can find this desire for communal action bubbling to the surface time and again, and resulting in the re-creation of the very elements of ancient Christianity that are often explicitly denied.  One such element is a creed.  Commonly evangelicals will decry the use of a creed (which is bizarre), and yet they consistently re-create their own creeds over and over (and over and over).  They decry liturgical worship, but they promote it within their own denominations by promoting certain patterns and actions.  They reject written prayers and end up with just as strongly pattern prayers that remain unwritten.  The need for pattern in creed, liturgy, and prayer is unspoken but cannot be suppressed.

Shane Claiborne
Shane Claiborne

And you know, it may not even be so unspoken any more.  Witness the efforts of Shane Claiborne and others to recreate a common experience suitable for western/protestant Christians in their Common Prayer book.  You can even get a pocket edition to take to church with you.  :o)  By the way, I mean no disrespect to Shane.  I own and have read most of his books, and I really appreciate his desire to live rightly with God.  We could all strive to be more like him in that.  I only wish that he would stop trying to recreate monasticism and common experience, and join the continuing life of the Apostolic Church that he obviously longs for.  Shane, come home!

Psalm 136

I’ll leave the matter of repetition now with one of the works of musical beauty inspired by God, in a sense a conversation of God with Himself, which is also a monument to repetition.

136:1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,

for his loyal love endures.

136:2 Give thanks to the God of gods,

for his loyal love endures.

136:3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords,

for his loyal love endures,

136:4 to the one who performs magnificent, amazing deeds all by himself,

for his loyal love endures,

136:5 to the one who used wisdom to make the heavens,

for his loyal love endures,

136:6 to the one who spread out the earth over the water,

for his loyal love endures,

136:7 to the one who made the great lights,

for his loyal love endures,

136:8 the sun to rule by day,

for his loyal love endures,

136:9 the moon and stars to rule by night,

for his loyal love endures,

136:10 to the one who struck down the firstborn of Egypt,

for his loyal love endures,

136:11 and led Israel out from their midst,

for his loyal love endures,

136:12 with a strong hand and an outstretched arm,

for his loyal love endures,

136:13 to the one who divided the Red Sea in two,

for his loyal love endures,

136:14 and led Israel through its midst,

for his loyal love endures,

136:15 and tossed Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea,

for his loyal love endures,

136:16 to the one who led his people through the wilderness,

for his loyal love endures,

136:17 to the one who struck down great kings,

for his loyal love endures,

136:18 and killed powerful kings,

for his loyal love endures,

136:19 Sihon, king of the Amorites,

for his loyal love endures,

136:20 Og, king of Bashan,

for his loyal love endures,

136:21 and gave their land as an inheritance,

for his loyal love endures,

136:22 as an inheritance to Israel his servant,

for his loyal love endures,

136:23 to the one who remembered us when we were down,

for his loyal love endures,

136:24 and snatched us away from our enemies,

for his loyal love endures,

136:25 to the one who gives food to all living things,

for his loyal love endures.

136:26 Give thanks to the God of heaven,

for his loyal love endures!

In Defense of Repetition

And Finally, We’re All In

On March 2nd all three of our kids were baptized and chrismated in to the Orthodox Church.  After a journey of a few years, we have all arrived at the Church, and we are very thankful to be here.  The journey of the convert is not an easy one, but it is rewarding at the end.  Now that this journey is over, a whole new one begins.  Now we must continually convert our hearts, taking up our cross, and following our Lord and Savior in His death and life.  I look forward to seeing my entire family grow in Christ-likeness as we pursue the spiritual life together!

And Finally, We’re All In


Just a short note to say, on February 10, 2013 my wife and I were chrismated.  Since I was already named for a saint I kept that for my Christian name, and took Mark the Evangelist as my patron saint.  My wife was more complicated, but we got something that she felt a strong connection with.  Getting chrismated and taking first communion was wonderful, and quite a blur.  There’s a LOT that happens all at once, and it took a while to sink in, but we’ve hit the ground running.

Now, to complete the race…


Can Orthodoxy Connect?

[To understand what this blog is, read this first.]

Christ is Risen!

[Oldest sister],

I’ve been whittling down my to-do list.  It seems to have grown up a bit, and that slowed me down in responding.  It seems like I’m saying that a lot.  Maybe my next New Years resolution will be not to keep apologizing for being a slow emailer. 🙂  This also got long, which slowed me down too.  I just can’t do small emails.

You brought up a lot of different points in a short space, so I’ll work down them and try to unpack my thoughts as I go…

When others are first experiencing worship with this denomination, it would not be easy to integrate without great effort…for a long while. I understand the Orthodox view of liturgy and the corporate gathering as service to God, but there’s a real need to people to feel a part quickly. I wonder how much of your (and my) church background allows us to make that jump more readily to the “what’s next?” in our worship experience. A deepening. But, if someone was coming from an irreligious background, I’m not sure they’d connect. Especially with the sound of the music and the feel of the worship facility and experience which are strongly nationalistic. Which makes me wonder why Orthodox churches in America don’t make some cultural adaptations to remove potential barriers to a Western audience. Thoughts on that?

I don’t really think that much in my background prepared me for the jump to high church, liturgical worship.  Low-church charismatic to high-church liturgy lover!  I had to work at it, but it has been worth it!  🙂

Here’s a couple thoughts…

The inside of an Orthodox church. Greek Orthod...

First, connection comes from receptivity not similarity.  I’ve read (and listened) to quite a bit on both sides of the conversion process, from those that made it to those who dropped it, or have no interest or are active opponents.  The pattern I’ve seen is that what makes a person connect or not connect to Orthodoxy seems to have little to do with how similar Orthodoxy is to the culture around it (assuming more similarity equals a lower barrier to entry).  The thing that makes a person persist in pursuing Orthodoxy is having a mental state of receptivity.  A receptive person will look past the obstacles, or even embrace the differences, and continue pursuing understanding, whereas a non-receptive person will walk away no matter how closely a church matches their culture and conventions.

It seems to me that it is actually an advantage to have the Church be quite obviously different than the surrounding culture (a perceived high barrier) while being very welcoming (actually a low barrier).  This puts a person immediately on notice that this is something different, perhaps even something not of this world, and yet open to outsiders.  While it does require more effort to assimilate a different culture it helps a person to see the church as something peculiar, and sacred.  Being a peculiar people may just be what this society needs.

So I’d say the key is that a receptive person needs to meet a receptive group of people who welcome outsiders.  The culture in that group may be very dissimilar from the seeker but connection is still very possible.  This has been our experience here.  The culture differences are formidable, but the people are so welcoming that it has made little difference.

Now certainly you are dead on right that there are adjustments that continue to need to be made to lower the barrier, removing artificial differences.  Orthodoxy has historically been a church of the people.  It has always been very good about bringing worship to the language of the people.  This may seem odd since what you see of Orthodoxy seems very ethnic, but historically it has been the norm that the Church takes on local characteristics aggressively (in a good way).  The Orthodox in America have been in a bit of a non-standard situation, but things are changing rapidly.  Sermons are almost universally in English.  The liturgy is about 70% in English in the average parish.  The music is about halfsies English/whatever.  That’s good, but there’s room for improvement.  I’d like to see the sermon and liturgy be all in English everywhere, and the music be mostly in English.  This would remove an artificial barrier that you sensed in your visit, and significantly aid in comprehension by the members of the church.

The OCA church we went to is a metro cathedral, which is at the end of the spectrum most likely to continue incorporating more ethnic elements.  Smaller parishes are the least likely to have strongly ethnic worship experiences (which might seem counter intuitive).  Most of the people in them are converts or descendants of immigrants, rather than immigrants themselves.  This is the case in my Greek parish, where the number of people who actually speak Greek natively is very low, and apparently most of those people strongly support moving even more of the service into English according to the priest.

The other thing that could be changed for sure is the music.  There are a variety of musical styles in use in Orthodox churches, but many people strongly identify with the byzantine chant.  These are the oldies but goodies, and in Orthodoxy old = good.  🙂  However, there is nothing stopping Americans from developing a liturgical musical style that is both informed by tradition and yet with a modern sensibility.  I know that certain American Orthodox composers are doing this sort of work already, to good effect.  I would enjoy seeing that music tradition develop, but I have found that I’ve come to very much enjoy byzantine chant done well too.  I’ll send you some good music that I think you will enjoy soon that demonstrates what Americans are already doing.

Second, attraction is much less important than maturity.  There is a group of people who, regarding how church worship should be properly formed, have come to the conclusion that assimilation of others is paramount and most easily accomplished by making for a painless entry into the life of the church.

I have come to view this thinking with some hesitation, and disagreement.  It seems to me that this seeker-sensitive model assumes that the most important function of the Sunday service is in how it attracts others to the church.  I can understand the drive to get people in and worry about the rest later.  I believe though that this merely attracts those who are marginally interested, presents them with a Christianity that looks like the culture around it and requires little to nothing from them, and removes the “heavy theology” from Sunday morning.  To me this seems like it misses the point of what Jesus asked us to do.  How do we produce disciples in this environment?   I believe this approach is counter-productive.

I’ve watched with some interest as Willow Creek has been coming to terms with the results of this in their church.  You probably heard about their Reveal study.  Finding that being seeker-sensitive has led to a lack of depth and maturity in their attenders has caused them no shortage of problems.  To fix the problem they are reversing course and moving back to providing weekend services that are geared to mature believers, or rather to maturing their believers.  I think this is a good thing.  Will their attraction rates diminish?  I don’t know.

Considering that the Church is a separate Kingdom, or the Body of Christ, or the Vine/Tree, or (fill in the blank with the appropriate metaphor) a necessary function of the Kingdom is to impart a culture.  The necessary function of the Body is to share DNA.  The necessary function of the Tree is to produce fruit.  So the Church imparts its culture, copies its DNA, and produces fruit.  I’d say that function of the Church is more important than its means of attraction.  To accomplish those functions the Church doesn’t need to adjust itself for the purpose of attraction, but rather call people to enter in to the life that is already present.  That requires a person to submit themselves to a different culture, true, but don’t think of that culture as Russian or Greek.  That is merely the external trappings.  The core of Orthodox culture is the 2,000 year old Church, that has some peripheral expression in a local ethnicity, and adjusting to that historic culture is the much more daunting task than adjusting to some Greek or Russian.  BUT, ultimately that is MUCH more intriguing. I’d still be attracted whether the local parish was Greek or Russian or Romanian or European or African or American, as long as the core culture was the historic faith.

Christ Pantocrator, detail of the Deesis mosaic

That being said, I do think it’s an important question to ask how people will be attracted to the Orthodox Church here in North America.  I don’t know those answers, but I’m interested in finding out how I can be a part of that attraction with the skills I have available.

I do know that the growth rate of Orthodoxy is very high.  And they are the second largest group of Christians on the planet.  It must be working for many.  🙂

The other question I had is how the Orthodox address the working gifts of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. I don’t just mean tongues, but rather the spiritual gifts which are to be in operation for the edification of the Body. These were corporate gifts given to the Body as outlined in the New Testament. With the high structure and lack of participation from the congregation, I see that this could potentially be overlooked.

I’m not sure there’s really a lack of participation, but I suppose it depends on what you mean.  If you mean people engaging with the worship of the Church then I’d say the Orthodox are highly participant in many ways.  The liturgy provides many different ways to engage in worship, more so than Protestant worship I’d say.  From discussion with you, and similar questions from mom, I believe that what you mean by participation is for individual members to use gifts from the Holy Spirit to edify the Body.  I think your issue here stems from a perception that the worship of the Church is “locked down and top down”.  Members don’t get input into it, and they are expected to just do what they are told by the leadership.  You see a lack of creativity and a consequent lack of engagement by the laity.  I hope to demonstrate why this is an incorrect perception of what’s going on, and that rather than being a non-creative and non-engaging worship that it is creative in the best ways and very beneficial for members.  I’ll also show how and where the gifts of the Holy Spirit are present in the Church and how they edify the Body.

What is Orthodox worship?
I’m really inadequate to even begin to lay out the theology and reality of Orthodox worship in the divine liturgy.  As you might imagine after 2,000 years of history the understanding of worship is very developed.  Any attempt on my part to explain it would be futile and misleading.  I’ll limit myself as much as I can in the hopes that I’ll stay on sure footing.

Instead of trying to write out an exhaustive explanation of what the liturgy is, let me just mention of few important characteristics.  The liturgy is a time of intense prayer and worship, but primarily it’s a vehicle for the Eucharist, if you will.  I think I’m ok in saying that.  The central aspect of the liturgy is the Eucharist, and all that prayer and worship is part of the process leading up to the Eucharist and preparing for it.  For a service that typically lasts around an hour and a half I’d say it has a very strong focus, and that focus is the corporate act of becoming the Body by ingesting the Body, if you get what I mean.

It would also be true to say that there’s a strong educational component.  Besides the sermon, the music, Scripture reading, and prayers are just dripping with theology.  He who has ears to hear, let him hear.  Surrounded by the icons you see the sweep of God’s plan through history and are in the presence of the great cloud of witnesses, praying with them.  He who has eyes to see, let him see.

It engages the senses and gives plenty of opportunity to act out your faith, and learn the faith you are acting out.  It’s very complex in many ways, but not in the sense that it is impenetrable.  I find it more complex in the sense that there’s always more to learn, and another level that you can engage it at.

I’ve grown to love the liturgy for what it is.  There are still difficulties in it, but it engages me in worship that doesn’t focus on my thoughts and feelings.  My kids connect with many parts of it too.  The more you do it, the better you like it and the more you get from it!

Where did it come from?
So, that’s a bit of what it is.  Now some history of it.  The liturgy done on a typical day is that of John Chrysostom, who was a bishop in the major Christian and Roman center of Constantinople in the 4th century.  He wrote it and it remains pretty much the same today, minor modifications not-withstanding.  It’s an awesome thought to recognize that when you go through the liturgy you are praying prayers that have been said for 1,600 years.

The Church of the Holy Wisdom, commonly known ...

Importantly though the liturgy of the Church didn’t start with Chrysostom.  It didn’t even start with the apostles.  A highly structured liturgy started with the Jews; a system given them by God.  Judaism was highly structured in its worship practices, and that didn’t stop when the temple was destroyed and Judaism shifted into the synagogue form in use at the time of Jesus and the apostles.

It’s common for Protestants to look back at the primitive church with the idea that it was started as a clean slate in terms of its worship practices.  I thought that way.  However, that’s not the case.  Jesus and the apostles were Jews whose worship was highly structured, and that didn’t change with the advent of Christianity.  Many of those practices bled across into Christianity and are still maintained in the Orthodox church.  The early Christians didn’t do the liturgy the same way the Orthodox do it today, for sure, but you can certainly say that it had structure.  In the writings of Paul and in early extra-Biblical writings like the Didache you can see that they had specific ways of handling the Eucharist and baptism, and you can find early creedal statements and prayers that were likely part of the earliest form of the liturgy, in common use.  By the mid 2nd century you can see in the writings of Justin the Martyr the same skeleton format of the liturgy in use at that time that Chrysostom used in his liturgy two centuries later.  The history of the liturgy has been a building of what was there previously into something more mature, something Paul would find very natural given his metaphors of the church being a temple built on a foundation.

This continuity of practice from the earliest times has served the Church well in many ways, but to give just one example, the uniformity across all the world has served to guide us to true doctrine.  This is extremely important.  Keeping a right worship is key to keeping a right (ortho) belief (doxa).  You can see this in the history of the development of doctrine in the early church as the Fathers fought against heresy.  Often the differentiator between the right belief and the wrong was the common practice of the church that everyone could point to.  Your worship is your belief, and your belief is your worship.  The two are deeply connected.  Athanasius used that very effectively against the Arians by pointing at their worship when it was disconnected from their theology in regards to the divinity of Christ.  St Basil did the same later in regards to the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

All of that preceding to say that the structure of the liturgy is something that grew naturally in the early Church, and far from being constricting it is something that served to protect the faith from doctrinal error and maintained unity for a very long time.  That’s not insignificant.  I particularly contrast that with the current state of Christian worship, where there are so many different ideas of what worship is and how to do it, and the state of unity and doctrinal consistency that is poor at best.  The two seem to go hand in hand.

Do members have creative input?  
Certainly members have creative input.  In worship they have creative input in all the same ways you’ll find in the Protestant church.  They bring their talents to the table in the singing, chanting, preaching, and ministries of the church.  There are as many if not more ways to engage creatively in the Orthodox church as there is in any other group of Christians.

How does that work with “high structure?”
The structure provides a framework for everything else that goes on.  Structure is not the enemy of creativity, and doesn’t hinder the work of God.  Without structure how can anything be done decently and in order?  God insists on structure, and the church has been using this structure for 2,000 years.  It’s been working this long.  If it ain’t broke…

What about the gifts of the Holy Spirit for edification?
Well, you can find Paul discussing how the Holy Spirit provides for the edification of the Body in a few spots in his letters.  Ephesians 4, 1 Corinthians 12, and 1 Corinthians 14 are all spots where he gives lists of various gifts, and of course there’s more discussion in 1 Corinthians on how best to use those gifts.  Allow me to cheat and combine the lists into a single one for easier discussion.

  1. Apostles
  2. Prophets
  3. Evangelists
  4. Pastors
  5. Teachers
  6. Gift of Wisdom
  7. Gift of Faith
  8. Gift of Healing
  9. Miracles
  10. Discernment of Spirits
  11. Tongues
  12. Interpretation of Tongues

I read through that list and I see every one of those gifts actively used in the Orthodox church (the exception being apostles, depending on your understanding of what that means)!  Gifts of healing, prophecy and miraculous powers are an integral part of the Orthodox life.  In that fashion I’d say the Orthodox church is very engaged and open (and expecting) the Holy Spirit to be active.  There are so many stories in the Orthodox church of God performing the miraculous that you wouldn’t believe it.  Well, maybe you would.  You remember Fr James the monk that we talked to in DC?  I can’t remember how many times in that single short conversation he talked about miraculous events happening.  That’s awesome!

Even though those gifts are active, what you won’t see is all of them in the context of the liturgy.  Certainly it’s not fair to expect that in a service that has a clearly defined purpose centered on partaking of the Eucharist that it should be required to accommodate every other edifying event in the Body.  Many of them do occur in the course of the liturgy, but many of them don’t, and that’s fine.  There’s 168 hours in the week.  Only 1.5 are used up on a Sunday morning liturgy.  That leaves plenty of room for edification during other times.  🙂

So, when it comes to the Holy Spirit providing gifts for the edification of the Body I can say that all of the ones that I listed above are in use in the Orthodox Church.  You won’t typically find tongues used in public worship, but I find this to be quite in line with Paul’s admonitions in 1 Corinthians 14.  To my knowledge it’s not commonly emphasized in parish life like it would be as a distinctive of charismatic worship, but I don’t want to focus in on tongues as if that’s the only way the Spirit works.  The Orthodox church is highly engaged with the Holy Spirit.  They don’t equate that so strongly with tongues, though.  Those who have the gift are free to use it, in order and for edification.

Now, let’s look at 1 Corinthians 14.  The first part of the chapter Paul spends time demonstrating the proper way of using gifts to edify the Body of Christ.  That aside I want to look down at verses 26-40:

26 When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; 28 but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. 30 But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; 33 for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. 34 The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. 35 If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. 36 Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only? 37 If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. 38 But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 39 Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues. 40 But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.

What strikes me repeatedly in this discussion of how people should be acting in worship is how often Paul repeats that things must be done in order.  There’s a way to do things, and that denotes a certain structure.  However, a very common and very BIG mistake that is made over and over again when reading this passage is to equate “when you assemble” with “Sunday morning service.”  We know clearly that the early church assembled a LOT, and for very long periods of time.  Some of that was given to the Eucharistic meal, and we know that there was a structure to that.  The rest of the time was given to other things, such as singing psalms and hymns, reading Scripture, sermons, and prayer (according to Justin Martyr).  This would be the natural place for people to bring their edifying gifts to bear on the Body.

It would not be proper to have people exercising those gifts during the Eucharistic observance, any more than you would expect tongues and interpretation during a sermon today.  A time and a place for everything.  Those who have something to bring for edification, again, are free to do so, but properly and in order.  That time is normally not during the Eucharistic gathering, but there’s plenty of other opportunities for that.

I don’t see that this is a misstep for you; I can readily see why you would be attracted to considering this faith. But, admittedly (and understandably) this might be harder for someone else to grab onto…whether [your wife], or your children someday, or your neighbor, or an unsaved friend.

Like I said up above, the important thing is being open to it.  The rest follows in due course.  One nice thing about Orthodoxy is that it has a patience to it.  No one is rushing and pressuring you to join up.  They encourage you to take your time and work through the issues.  I can appreciate that.

I’ve had my issues with it, my doubts, my struggles, and emotional burn out.  [My wife] certainly has as well.  I don’t know if my kids will someday struggle with it, but that’s certainly not unique to Orthodoxy.  You can’t miss noticing the sense of panic in Christian headlines now days when they see the stats on kids leaving the church when they leave home.  I’ve read studies on the phenomenon, and I think the key for that is in the home.  If your kids truly believe the fundamentals of the faith, and especially that salvation is found in Jesus alone, they will remain Christians.  If you make God real and important in your life, your kids will too I believe.  Orthodoxy affords me wonderful opportunities to engage with a very obvious Christianity, and that’s really helpful.  I feel that the best thing I can do for my kids is to engage with Christianity as openly and honestly as I’m able to.  Orthodoxy helps with that.

In the end I think that Orthodoxy being different helps people connect with it.  If a person is seeking then Orthodoxy, once you become aware of it, really sticks out and just begs to be explored.  That’s a great thing.  Now it just needs to be more visible…

Love you,

Can Orthodoxy Connect?

Some talks on Ignatius

[To understand what this blog is, read this first.]


Oh, BTW, I don’t know if you’re still reading Ignatius or not, but if so…

English: Ignatius of Antioch, Russian: Игнатий...
St Ignatius, via Wikipedia
He recently had his feast day where the Orthodox celebrate his martyrdom. I saw these talks where Fr Andrew Stephen Damick talked through some big issues present in the writings of Ignatius. I know you have nothing but free time 🙂 and opportunity to listen to Orthodox talks, but…

I love you. I might try to get on the phone with you later today to see how things are going before you take off.


Some talks on Ignatius

Intercession of the Saints

[To understand what this blog is, read this first.]

Hey Mom,

Here’s the next issue I’m going to address, per our earlier conversation.  You said that you were having a hard time understanding prayer to and veneration of saints.  This is one of the biggie issues for Protestants.  This seems to be due to a misunderstanding of what’s going on, and an intense desire to have authentic worship of God.  Hopefully I can address some of those issues and make the practice understandable.  It’s an unfortunate turn of events that the intense reaction on this issue has caused Protestantism to lose contact with the Body of Christ that is no longer on this earth.

English: Simon the Zealot (Simon the Canaanite...
Simon the Zealot

I’m only going to be dealing here with asking for the intercession of the saints, or prayer to the saints.  Due to length I’d like to punt on dealing with veneration to saints and icons into another email.  I know that’s a big part of the puzzle for you as well, but this is just too long and I need to cap it off.  I think it’ll be easier to deal with that separately.  Hopefully you understand.I REALLY tried to keep this one brief, and I thought I would be able to, but it kept creeping longer.  Sigh.  I did my best.

But before I get into my discussion on the saints I’m going to first vent a little.  🙂  A couple Sundays ago at First Christian as they prepared for communion the pastor got up and read from one of the synoptic passages of the Last Supper and said, “Jesus said, ‘Take and eat, this represents my body.'”  I just about choked when I heard that.  I’d just spent so much time writing out the letter on the Eucharist so perhaps I was a bit touchy.  I know he meant well, but that’s NOT what Jesus said.  Sigh.  Okay.  On with the saints….

How do the Orthodox interact with the Saints?  The Orthodox have a strong respect for the saints, and generally want to have them be a part of their life.  On a personal level they will take a patron saint, which is a saint that they find meaningful for some reason that they will have a deeper connection with.  A person who is raised Orthodox will often have this saint picked for them at birth.  A convert will often choose their own based on their own reasons.  This patron saint is looked on as an example to be followed, and also something like a mascot.  That sounds odd, but has its own worth.  It’s great that these wonderful people are remembered from generation to generation, and this is one of the mechanisms by which that occurs.  They will have icons of various saints in their homes; typically the patron saints of those in their families or saints that are particularly meaningful for other reasons.  Orthodox Christians will include the saints in prayer, both personal and corporate.  In Orthodoxy you don’t tend to see as much identification of a saint with specific functions.  That seems to be more typical in Roman Catholicism, though there is a bit of that in Orthodoxy.  Orthodox Christians will pray to saints and ask them to intercede on their behalf to God.  They don’t ask them to act directly, nor do they ask for information.  They don’t replace prayer and worship of God with prayer and worship of saints.

Protestantism, particularly in America, is strongly individualistic.  This is the opposite of how Orthodox believers approach the Christian life.  They see themselves as part of the great community of saints that surround the Lord God of Sabbaoth (Hosts).  God is not alone, and we are not alone.  This under girds the reality of the Orthodox life with the saints.  This goes beyond merely acknowledging the reality of saintly humans, but goes deeper into the understanding that these people are part of the same Body with us, even though they are departed, and that has meaning in our lives.  We are never alone when we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.

Who are the saints? 
It is certainly correct to say that all Christians are saints.  The saints are the holy ones of God, called out for a new kingdom.  The term got overloaded by the Church over time to specifically refer to individuals of outstanding piety, usually martyrs early on, but without losing the initial, more general meaning.  Certainly personal holiness is something that increases over time in a Christian (hopefully), and isn’t an automatic.  You can see how the saints in heaven are seen as being perfected in Hebrew 12:22-23:

22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, 23 to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect

A person specifically called a saint then is a person who has attained that righteousness.  A saint isn’t “declared” by the Church as in Roman Catholic terms, but is recognized by the people of the Church and accepted by them.  Sometimes this is via miracles that occur in relation to a Saint’s bodily remains, as in the case of Elisha in 2 Kings 13:20-21, or their personal effects, like happened to Paul’s handkerchief in Acts 19:11,12.

Those who are still alive are called to look at other Christians who are exemplars of the faith, some of whom are “dead”, and some of whom are still living.  Thus the saints are respected (venerated) for being Christ-like.

What does it mean to “pray” to the saints?
The word “prayer” did not originally have the strong overtones of divine specific communication or entreaty.  In Middle English prayer was an entreaty to any other person, most often another human.  You can see in the origin of “prayer” that it originally just meant to “ask” or “question”.  Praying to the saints as understood by the Orthodox is simply that.  They ask (pray) another person to intercede with God on their behalf.  Prayer to the saints is NOT worship of another human.  It is not requesting them to act directly on your behalf for some need.  It is merely asking for the intercession of another person.

I was recently at the First Christian Church and saw an example of this in action.  At the end of the time of worship the leadership of the church came to the front and anyone who had a prayer was encouraged to come and pray with the leaders.  Why?  Why didn’t these people just pray to Jesus?  Well, of course, they could, and did, and were, but they were also doing as God commanded by asking others in the Body of Christ to pray with them.  Truly the prayer of the righteous man is effective!  The saints are righteous men and women.  It is reasonable then to seek their intercession on our behalf in the same way we do with other Christians here around us.  In other words, it’s not either/or, but both/and.  We should pray BOTH to Jesus, and ask other Christians living and departed to pray to Jesus on our behalf.

As an aside, while I am frequently using the phrase “pray to the saints”, the actual mechanism that is engaged would more clearly be described as praying with the saints.  The Saints aren’t the destination of the prayer; God is.  This is exactly the same as those people at First Christian who went forward to pray with the leaders of the church.  The destination of the prayer wasn’t the pastor.  The person was praying with the pastor to God.  Any time you see “pray to the saints” feel free to replace that mentally with “asking the saint to pray for me” or something similar.

I have to say that honestly I still have some tension on this issue.  I’m going to try and make the case below that asking the saints to intercede with us is normal, natural, and Biblically supported.  However, I do think that petitions should be directed to God alone (and of course worship is strictly directed to God).  Sometimes language that is used by the Orthodox in prayer skirts around the edges of presenting petitions, though I believe that this is intended as poetic language and that the intent is to ask for intercessions only.  I try not to judge the piety of others and read more into what they say than is actually intended, but yes, it does still bother me occasionally.

Historical Background

When did Christians first start praying to/for the departed saints?
There is some evidence that early Jews believed in intercession from the dead, both in the form of the paternal blessings passed down from Abraham to his children, and also 2 Maccabees, where Judas Maccabaeus sees the dead Onias and Jeremiah giving blessing to the Jewish army.  You can also find such intercession in Enoch 39:4, which is apocryphal but speaks to the idea of the practice in Judaism.  Take it for what it’s worth.  There’s also intercessions by angels, as in Zechariah 1:12 or in Tobit 12 who hear the prayers of those on earth and present them to God.  That is somewhat bound up in this subject, but I’m not going to address it.  Certainly intercession for others is all over the Old Testament.

In Scripture you can see an instance of Paul praying FOR a departed person in 2 Timothy 1:16-18.  Protestant commentators agree that Onesiphorus is dead at this point when Paul is writing.  This is not quite the same as prayer to a saint for intercession, but not entirely different either.  It’s just the reverse of the situation of asking a saint to pray for us.  Instead, we pray for them.  Moving on….

You can see prayers that were left on the epitaphs of the dead in the Roman catacombs and elsewhere in the early centuries, where Christians asked their dead loved ones to pray for them, or to asked other dead saints (Peter or Paul for instance) to pray for them.  You can see good examples in this book:  Chapter 5 is particularly instructive, and requests for the prayers of those who are dead can be seen on page 81, 93, and 94.

From this it seems that there is certainly good evidence for early practice of prayer to departed saints.  I’ve never seen anything in the historic record indicating a controversy over prayer to saints.

What do the early Christian writers say regarding prayer to saints?
Considering that the Church consistently fought many heresies, and most of the writings we have from the very early centuries deals with correcting heresies, it certainly seems that if there was an outcry against prayer to saints we would have some record of it.  Instead, nothing I can find.

Various (probably Philo and Agathopus who were with Ignatius):
[After the death of Ignatius and in a dream] “… some of us saw the blessed Ignatius suddenly standing by us and embracing us, while others beheld him again praying for us, and others still saw him dropping with sweat, as if he had just come from his great labour, and standing by the Lord.” (Martyrdom of Ignatius [A.D. 107 – 116])

Hippolytus of Rome:
[Speaking of the three youths in the fire in Daniel 30] “Tell me, you three boys, remember me, I entreat you, that I also may obtain the same lot of martyrdom with you…” (Commentary on Daniel, 30.1 [A.D. 202-211]

Clement of Alexandria
“In this way is he [the true Christian] always pure for prayer. He also prays in the society of angels, as being already of angelic rank, and he is never out of their holy keeping; and though he pray alone, he has the choir of the saints standing with him [in prayer]” (Miscellanies 7:12 [A.D. 208]).

“But not the high priest [Christ] alone prays for those who pray sincerely, but also the angels … as also the souls of the saints who have already fallen asleep” (Prayer 11 [A.D. 233]).

This next one will probably rankle a bit, since it’s a prayer to Mary (Theotokos), but it’s appropriate to the discussion.  It’s a prayer on John Ryland’s Papyrus, from Egypt, around 250 A.D:
“Beneath your compassion we take refuge, Theotokos.  Our petitions do not despise in time of trouble…”

Cyprian of Carthage
“Let us remember one another in concord and unanimity. Let us on both sides [of death] always pray for one another. Let us relieve burdens and afflictions by mutual love, that if one of us, by the swiftness of divine condescension, shall go hence first, our love may continue in the presence of the Lord, and our prayers for our brethren and sisters not cease in the presence of the Father’s mercy” (Letters 56[60]:5 [A.D. 253]).

Cyril of Jerusalem
“Then [during the Eucharistic prayer] we make mention also of those who have already fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition . . . ” (Catechetical Lectures 23:9 [A.D. 350]).

I’m including Cyril in the list even though he is out of the ante-Nicene period (but not by much) because he is clearly stating the theological position on prayer to the saints, and because this is still the same practice you’ll find in the Orthodox Church today.  It’s a two-fer!

There isn’t a huge list of writings on the subject to really pound the subject home, but there’s some good ones (plus Cyril).  It appears that prayer of the saints doesn’t get a lot of air time either for or against in the early writings, but as I said before, this just demonstrates to me that the practice was never a controversy, so there was never an outcry.  There’s plenty of evidence that the practice is present early on, and no indication that the practice was ever resisted.

I will say that most places where I find prayer in the early writings it is referring to petitioning God, as is right.  As I’ll mention below, this is in line with actual Orthodox practice where the vast majority of prayer is directed to God.  Some object that the quotes above don’t specifically say that someone asked the saints to pray for them.  I think that is quibbling over trivialities and I don’t see that it affects the conversation at all.  Those people will only be satisfied if every single writer spells out the entirety of the Orthodox understanding of prayer with the saints in detail.  I’m afraid we can’t go back in time and get their thoughts that specifically.

Up to the reformation the practice was normative in the church as far as I can tell, only being opposed by a couple heretical groups (not heretics because of this practice but because of other views, such as the world being created by the Devil), in the 10th and 12th century.

What about Lactantius?
One counter example I found referenced in the early writings is from a man named Lactantius, who was an adviser to Constantine.  Is unclear how important his works would have been, aside from his position with Constantine, since he was not a leader in the Church as far as I can tell, but we should look at them nonetheless to see if they indicate a problem with the practice of praying to the saints.

In his Divine Institutes, Book I, he says:
“They ought therefore to have understood from the mysteries and ceremonies themselves, that they were offering prayers to dead men.”

When you examine the context of what he is talking about it’s clear that what he is referring to men who over time came to be regarded as deities by various people, and were then worshiped (pagan gods).  He is not referring to prayers to saints.

In Book 2 he says:

“But if it appears that these religious rites are vain in so many ways as I have shown, it is manifest that those who either make prayers to the dead, or venerate the earth, or make over their souls to unclean spirits, do not act as becomes men, and that they will suffer punishment for their impiety and guilt, who, rebelling against God, the Father of the human race, have undertaken inexpiable rites, and violated every sacred law.”

Again, when read in context, he is constantly referring to pagan gods who are being worshiped as images of dead men who over time were exaggerated into gods.  His “prayers to the dead” is clearly referring to worship given to these dead men.  He is not at all referring to prayer to saints.  His entire aim in that section is clearly aimed at discounting pagan religions.  He is not instructing on Christian prayer or the particular act of prayer to saints.

What about Tertullian?
Another quote I’ve seen thrown out is by Tertullian in the work known as The Apology, and says:

“And if we speak of Paradise, the place of heavenly bliss appointed to receive the spirit of the saints, severed from the knowledge of this world…”

It seems that Tertullian is indicating that the saints have no knowledge of what’s going on on earth.  Well, two problems. First, this clearly contradicts Scripture.  Second, that’s not what Tertullian is actually saying.  If people would quote a bit more of the context you’d clearly see that Tertullian is talking about bits of Christian wisdom that match up to pagan ideas and fables, matching up hell against a river of flame in the regions of the dead called Pyriphlegethon, and heaven matched to the Elysian planes.  His “severed from the knowledge of this world”, when you see the whole sentence, looks different.

“And if we speak of Paradise, the place of heavenly bliss appointed to receive the spirits of the saints, severed from the knowledge of this world by that fiery zone as a sort of enclosure, the Elysian plains have taken possession of their faith.”

I think the most natural reading of what Tertullian is indicating is that the activities in heaven are removed from our awareness, not the reverse.  It’s important, however, not to make more of this section of comparison by Tertullian than can be warranted given what he is trying to do.  This is not a treatise on heaven or prayer, but rather on truth in pagan beliefs, and besides which using this quote against praying with the saints would again contradict Scripture which clearly indicates neither forgetfulness nor separation of those who are departed from the affairs on earth.

I’ve also seen quotes given by Athenagoras and Irenaeus.  They aren’t very convincing to me, so I’ll ignore them for the sake of what brevity I can wring from this subject, unless you’d like to dig in to them.  There’s a really good one from Clement of Alexandria where he defines prayer as only going to God, but I’m pretty sure this is a translation issue.  Greek had words used to reference communication specifically to God, whereas communication to humans used other words, but English isn’t that specific.  The general term prayer in English covers both communication directed to God, and that directed to other humans, so I don’t put much weight in Clement’s text as ruling out communication directed toward the saints (more on that later).  I see this as similar to the situation that exists in Greek for concepts of love.  We all know that Greek has multiple words to indicate different types of love, but English just doesn’t correspond, so we end up with “I love my wife” and “I love pizza”.  I believe the other quotes that are sometimes aired on this subject, such as the one from Clement, are species of this type of translation issue.

Prayer is something that is addressed a lot in the Fathers, as you’d expect.  Mostly they talk about how prayer is directed to God, but as I’ve read them I’m comfortable that they are addressing the issue of petitions made to God, which is interpreted into English as prayer, and not communication to other humans, especially departed saints, which is also, unfortunately, translated as prayer.  It does make for a somewhat uncomfortable read in some spots, but overall I’m satisfied that reading of the Fathers indicates an awareness of the practice of asking for intercession from the departed saints and an acceptance of it, in as far as it is addressed.

What about the Reformers?
The reformers are a mixed bag on this subject.  Luther seems to be generally in sympathy with the view, but strongly opposed any idea that the saints are co-mediators with Christ (the Orthodox also oppose that idea).  In early writings Luther says the saints in heaven intercede for those on earth:

“May Christ grant us this through the intercession and for the sake of His dear Mother Mary!  Amen.” (Commentary on the Magnificat)

Later writings by Luther do weaken this straightforward affirmation, but don’t eliminate it.  Calvin on the other hand was strongly opposed to intercession by the saints, so there you go.

Points of Agreement

The saints are alive and aware, not asleep.  I probably don’t need to stress this point too much.  I think that you are in agreement with the Biblical picture of the “dead” in Christ as being alive and aware.  I mention it just to paint the entire picture of why the Orthodox pray to saints.  So, let me throw out a list of passages dealing with this: Mark 12:26-27Hebrews 12:1Luke 20:37-38Luke 16:19-31Luke 23:43Revelation 4:4-11Revelation 5:8-10Revelation 6:9-11,Revelation 7:9-12Philippians 1:23-242 Corinthians 5:8Matthew 17:1-9Mark 9:2-10Luke 9:28-36.

Should we pray for one another?
Again, I know that this isn’t an issue for Protestants, but it’s part of the picture so I’ll put up some verses on this as well and move on:
Colossians 4:2-4Ephesians 6:18Colossians 2:1-5James 5:16

The Objections

Where’s the scriptural command to pray to saints?
Nowhere, but this argument does seem to cut both ways.  Scripture doesn’t clearly state that we are to pray to departed saints.  On the other hand, it doesn’t say not to.  It’s just silent on the subject.  Having already dealt with Sola Scriptura in a previous letter I’ll just point out that silence or ambiguousness of the Scriptures on a subject is not an argument against.  It is also unclear on the Trinitarian existence of God, but that does not make the fully realized doctrine developed over the first centuries non-Biblical.  The same is true about the full divinity and humanity of Christ.  Or the divinity of the Holy Spirit.  Or the make up of the Scriptures themselves.  All of these subjects are ambiguous or completely missing from Scripture, and yet are fully affirmed by all Christian groups.  Lacking clear statements for or against, the subject must be argued from parts of Scripture, logical affirmations, and the witness of historic practice.  Some people will say that Old Testament prohibitions against necromancy are the clear admonition against the practice, but this is wrong, and I’ll address that argument below as it is a fairly common objection.

I’d ask the question too of, should we expect to find much discussion of this practice in the New Testament?  Honestly, I don’t think so, and here’s why.  The Scripture is largely written up in the early years of budding Christianity.  Most of it is written up by the 60s and 70s.  How big was the population of dead and martyred saints at this time?  Probably pretty small.  I doubt that the Church had much time to accumulate much thought about the intercession of the departed saints at the time of writing the Scriptures.  Therefore I’d suggest that not finding much discussion of it there is not unexpected.  I think this practice is a natural development of the New Testament understanding of all Christians as a unified whole.

Isn’t prayer to the saints necromancy, and forbidden in the Old Testament?
No, it isn’t necromancy.  This is an extremely common objection to the intercession of the saints, and one that I find uncharitable and demonstrating an almost intentional obtuseness.  Necromancy is an occult practice, practiced by a witch or sorcerer, for the purpose of divination or uncovering hidden knowledge.  Literally the word necromancy means “divination by use of a dead body” in the Greek.  That’s not even close to asking a departed saint of God to pray for you.

Necromancy was a common practice in antiquity.  There are many known forms and they typically involved gathering bones from a dead body, or involving snakes apparently (weird), and with various incantations or meditative practices producing knowledge of the future, real or imagined.  There’s references to necromancy all the way back in Homer’s Oddysey, where Ulysses’ invokes dead souls by various rites, to consult with them.  There’s a common thread of getting advantage by gaining information from the dead in all necromantic rights.  This selfish practice is the opposite of members of the Church praying for one another.

Let’s look at three Old Testament passages commonly cited in connection with this.  First, Leviticus 20:27:
27 ‘Now a man or a woman who is a medium or a spiritist shall surely be put to death. They shall be stoned with stones, their bloodguiltiness is upon them.’ “

A medium/spiritist is one who has a dead person (or potentially a masquerading demon) speaking through them.  This is not at all relevant to intercession by a departed saint; apples and oranges.  To see this in operation one need only go to Acts 16:16 and see that this demonic manifestation of power bears no resemblance to intercession by saints.  All the Protestant commentaries I have access to make no relation to this verse and prayers to departed saints.

Next, Deuteronomy 18:10,11:
10 “There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, 11 or one who casts a spell, or a medium , or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead.

This passage is slightly more expansive than the one in Leviticus, but amounts to the same thing.  It forbids any Jew from being a medium, a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead.  As with Leviticus, the practice of calling of the dead is an occult practice of divination.  These practices were common to the Philistine religions that God was making sure they didn’t engage in.  It bears absolutely no resemblance to asking intercession of the saints.

Again, I can’t find a Protestant commentary that links this verse to the practice of prayer to the saints.

Finally, 1 Samuel 28:7-19.  It’s long so I won’t quote it here.  King Saul goes to a necromancer to call up Samuel when he can’t get an answer from God on how to proceed in battle.  It appears that she is actually successful, and Samuel is none too pleased.  So, is this the same as prayer with the saints?  No.  Saul 1) goes to a medium, who 2) engages in a necromantic rite, so that 3) he can gain information, and 4) Samuel spoke through the medium to Saul.  None of these are the same as prayer with the saints.  So, again this really doesn’t apply.

And again, no commentaries link this to prayer to the saints, that I can find.

How about some counter examples?  Take a look at the Transfiguration of Jesus in Luke 9:28-36.  Jesus engages in conversation with Moses and Elijah, who are dead physically.  The disciples see the dead men but don’t indicate any reluctance to engage with them, nor do they indicate any problem with Jesus engaging with them.  You could say that certainly Jesus is a special case, so perhaps this is something that’s ok for Him but not for us, but again the disciples show no hesitancy in dealing with their heroes returned from the dead.  From this I think we can clarify that contact with the dead is not the same as necromancy.

Here’s another example.  The Apostle John in Revelation speaks with the elders in heaven, in Revelation 7:13-17, having a two way conversation, but that’s not considered necromancy.

You could also look at Revelation 5:8.

Doesn’t praying to the saints makes the saints a mediator, instead of the ONE mediator Jesus?
This is a reference to the description of Jesus as the one mediator between God and man in 1 Timothy 2, and is one of the most common objections I’ve seen to the intercession of saints.  If you look at the context of the passage though, it completely reverses the argument.

1 First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, 2 for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. 3 This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.

Paul starts off instructing us to intercede for each other, even regarding non-Christians, that God would save all (v. 4).  Then he follows up immediately with the description of Jesus as the one mediator.  Clearly if Paul had in mind that Jesus’ role as a mediator in any way annulled our ability, and even duty, to pray for each other he wouldn’t have followed one with the other directly in that fashion.  Clearly the two are not contradicting in the least.  Instead, Jesus’ role as a mediator (v. 5 points back to v. 4) is the reason why we pray for everyone, making salvation possible for all.

Common objections using this verse confuse intercession with mediation.  Christ is the one mediator of a reconciliation between God and man.  The saints never mediate between us and God.  We are all, however, intercessors for each other.  These are two different things.  Now in some instances saints are referred to as mediators, but the context makes it clear that the references are more in line with what we would call intercession.

Praying for each other as Christians is simply what we do.  It is God’s will that we pray for each other, as expressed in Scripture I’ve already covered.

Does prayer to the saints equate to worship?
I’m not sure I need to spend much time on this assertion.  It seems patently false and easily dismissed.  Only by taking a very narrow and non-historical view of prayer could this is begin to make sense.  “Prayer” does not equal worship.  Prayer is communication.  When we ask other Christians that we know here on earth to pray for us we are not worshiping them, though we have just prayed for their intercession.  I think we are mostly tripped up by our own language here, and reading back our current thinking on prayer as divine specific communication into older texts and scripture.  It’s simply a case of defining things differently.  We need another English word to cover this!

How could the saints know our needs?  Would they care? 
Do the saints care about us or know our needs?  Well, as we can see in Hebrews 12:1 they are witnesses to our lives.  They can’t be witnesses unless they are aware of what goes on here on earth.  The saints aren’t omnipresent or omniscient, as God is, but then neither are angels and scripture clearly indicates that angels are aware of our prayers.  The most likely answer to this objection is that they are aware because God makes them aware.  There’s no need to ascribe to them Godlike powers, merely communion with God.  You can see this greater than normal awareness also in the Transfiguration, where Moses and Elijah are aware of the upcoming crucifixion, an event that hadn’t yet occurred in time.  Probably the knowledge came from God, again. You can also see saints in heaven with knowledge of what’s going on here on earth in Revelation (5:8-10), and also offering the prayers of the saints on earth up to God, which is pretty much the whole thing in a nutshell right there.  So, I’d say, yeah, the saints in heaven are aware of events on earth.

As to caring for us, I think that’s safe to say that they do.  The saints are considered saints because of their exemplary holiness, and that includes compassion for us here on earth.  Knowing how we go through trials and have needs here, why would we think they wouldn’t care?  We can also say that we are all one family, on heaven and on earth (Ephesians 3:15,commentary).  Paul said there should be no division so that we would all have the same care for one another.  Certainly that wouldn’t change after death.  We are one bodyone brideone vine in Christ that is commanded to love one another (John 15:14).  This isn’t changed by death, which cannot separate us from Christ.  This is both why the saints would care, and perhaps even an explanation for their knowledge of events on earth, though that is speculation on my part. They know because they are connected to Christ, as are we.

There is one church in heaven and earth, and we care for one another, and pray for one another.

Can you have relationship with a departed saint?  Isn’t it better to have accountability with a person who is present?
As to whether you can have a relationship with someone who is in heaven I think it is reasonable to say that it will certainly not be the same type of relationship as with someone who is present.  That doesn’t make it less significant though; merely different.  The saint isn’t expected to come and walk on the beach with you, or go chit-chat at Starbucks.  But the saint is in a purified state, in the presence of God, and their prayers are therefore common with the will of God, making them effective (all effect is from God, of course).  Here again is a case of not making an issue either/or.  We don’t JUST pray to Jesus.  We don’t JUST pray to saints.  We should also have relationship with brothers and sisters still present and have accountability with them.  This is Biblical of course and the common practice of all Christians.  We just have an unfortunate position of cutting out anyone who has died here on earth but is alive and present with Jesus from our common body of communion.  We don’t acknowledge them, know who they are, or seek to be at one with them.

How much do Orthodox pray to the saints, versus to Jesus?  Isn’t this too much attention in the wrong place?
This may be somewhat surprising, but the answer to how much prayer goes to saints is, not that much.  For something that is by quantity a small portion of Orthodox practice it is surely made into something of huge proportions by opponents of the practice.  I typically do morning and evening prayers found in the Orthodox Study Bible, or a small Orthodox prayer book.  I looked to see how much time is given to asking the saints for intercession, or even just referencing the saints.  In the OSB out of about 3 pages of material for morning prayers you might find 2 or 3 lines that include even a reference to the saints.  The small prayer book is about the same, but includes a few extra lines about Mary.  The evening prayers have even less of a reference to saints.  In the divine liturgy you get frequent reference to the saints or requests to them to pray for us, but considering that the liturgy may last 2 to 2 1/2 hours, the percentage of time spent engaging the saints versus direct prayer to God is really minimal.  It’s there, but if quantity means anything (not that it does) certainly the vast majority of prayer is directed to God.

Can the saints answer our prayers directly?  Is it within their power to grant requests?
No, and no.  🙂  Neither proposition is Orthodox.

Summing Up
Saints in heaven are very highly respected by Orthodox believers.  There’s certainly no getting around that, nor do I think we need to.  This is an exemplary practice and Protestants engage in it as well.  We all highly respect Peter and Paul, Stephen for his martyrdom, etc.  I think it is clear that those in heaven are aware of our situation on earth, and desire to pray for us.  The act of piety on the Orthodox believer’s part of asking for those saints to pray for him demonstrates humility and oneness in the Body of Christ.  It is in line with Biblical mandates for how the Church is to act.  There is no smoking gun verse instructing us to ask saints in heaven to pray for us, but neither is there one against.  The practice doesn’t seem to be at all harmful, any more than asking our brothers and sisters here on earth to pray for us.  Historically it seems to be going on in the early church, and is referenced in various writings.  Claims that asking saints to pray for us amounts to necromancy I reject on all counts, as I do those claims that this is polytheism.  No worship is occurring.  Finally, this practice in no way replaces or diminishes prayer to God.  The vast majority of Orthodox prayer is made to God, and what little is directed at saints is merely asking them to intercede for us.

Given all that, I can find no reason to reject the practice.  The Protestant in me could wish for a smoking gun verse, for or against, but there just isn’t one. It’s not addressed.  Unfortunately this is true for a lot of the controversial points.  It makes sense why, of course.  If there was a definitive verse or verses, it wouldn’t be a controversy.  Instead it would be settled.  🙂  Sometimes life is not that simple.  Instead you have to look at the whole package of a position and say, what makes the most sense of Scripture and holds to the most consistent witness of history.  I think the balance of evidence weighs in favor of prayer to the saints, and I’d need much stronger objections raised than I’ve seen to decide that this is an aberrant practice and reject it.

There’s only so far I can let my own reasoning take me without resting in the Church, which has the promise of the Holy Spirit to guide it into all truth.  Some of these issues seem pretty straight forward to me.  Some don’t.  Actually I find Sola Scriptura and the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist to be two of the easier subjects to deal with, since there is ample Scriptural, historical, and philosophical support to decide in one direction for me.  Prayer to the saints is one that is somewhere in the middle.  It has decent support and makes a certain sense.  As I said earlier, I do still have tension sometimes when reading some of the stronger poetic language, but that’s mostly culture shock I think.  I take a deep breath, read it calmly, and accept that while it is not natural to my prayer life it is not something to be summarily rejected.  Most of the time, though, I happily enjoy a new found source of support when I ask the departed holy ones of God to pray for me.  I’ll take all the prayer I can get!

Love you,

Some other sites to reference on this subject:

Some extra audio on this subject:

Intercession of the Saints

The real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist

[To understand what this blog is, read this first.  If you’d rather just listen to audio, rather than read, skip to the bottom for links to audio.]

Hey Mom,

Here’s the next installment in the series, on the Eucharist, or communion.  It seems that I’m writing a book here.  I apologize in advance for the length, but I want to cover the ground thoroughly on this issue.

The Eucharist (which is a greek word meaning “thanksgiving”) is the central facet of Orthodox piety (or at least one of the most important).  It was instituted by Jesus, and since it is believed to be a direct means of sharing in the life of Jesus it is held to be extremely important.  The divine liturgy on Sunday morning is a 2-3 hour worship event that culminates in Christians partaking of the body and blood of Jesus, and not just in a metaphorical sense.  I can certainly understand how from a Protestant stand point this seems odd at best, and some form of devotional cannibalism at worst, but after adjusting to the “reality” of the idea it has become my main point of longing for Orthodoxy.  Having come to believe in the doctrine of the Eucharist as the literal Body and Blood of Jesus I now want very badly to join in.  I now see the beauty of the idea.  I can’t wait to enter the reality of it.

But that aside, let me lay out the “case” for the Eucharist for you.  The basic understanding of the Eucharist is summed up, in the words of Jesus, as “This is my Body”, and “This is my Blood.”  It’s very simple and straightforward.  The Orthodox understanding is not identical to the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, but does share a belief in the reality of the elements as body and blood.  The Orthodox understanding affirms that the bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of Jesus, but do not give any indication of the methodology used by God.  The Eucharist is a miracle, and a mystery.  It’s not necessary to understand the mechanics of how it works in order to affirm the truth of it, so I won’t address that any further unless it becomes necessary.  The argument for the Eucharist doesn’t need to include those details in order to work.  As Saint John of Damascus said, “If you inquire how this happens, it is enough for you to learn that it is through the Holy Spirit … we know nothing more than this, that the Word of God is true, active, and omnipotent, but in its manner of operation unsearchable.”

I am going to lay this Orthodox understanding along side the typical Evangelical Protestant understanding of communion as a symbolic only act.  The actual lay of the land in Protestantism is slightly more complex of course, with Lutherans basically holding an understanding of the Eucharist very close to Orthodox and Catholic understandings, traditional Reformed/Calvinistic Protestants also being somewhat close but making it very spiritual, and then those who follow after Ulrich Zwingli and go with a symbolic only understanding.  Since what I’ve mostly encountered is a Zwinglian understanding, that’s what I’m going to use as the counter position.

The argument for a literal Eucharistic understanding in a nutshell is two fold.  First, the consistent and universal understanding of the Church has been that the body and blood in the Eucharist is understood literally, up to and including some of the early Protestant Reformers.  Second, the straightforward and consistent reading of Scripture strongly supports a literal understanding of the Eucharist as the body and blood, rather than a symbolic understanding.  I’ll unpack both of those to deal with specific passages in more depth, and illustrate the early understanding of the Church about the Eucharist to show how strongly the literal notion of the Eucharist is supported by Scripture and Tradition.

Historical Support
Of all the historians I’ve read or seen referenced, I’m not aware of any that would deny the Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist in the early church.  This is important because I have frequently seen people make the bold assertion that the doctrine of the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist didn’t come about until the 9th century.  This is completely wrong.  The doctrine is clearly present from the very earliest stages of Church life as I’ll demonstrate.  The first time the doctrine becomes an issue to be debated in the Church is in the ninth century, and in a very small way.  This is the incident that spawns the references to the “generation” of the doctrine in the ninth century.  Such a view of history just demonstrate ignorance, sometimes willful.

The first time their is widespread disbelief in the real presence is by the branch of the Protestant Reformation led by Ulrich Zwingli in the 16th century.  I’ve read various apologists for the symbolic understanding of the Eucharist and not one can enlist the aid of the Church Fathers.  Most will make only oblique references to the Fathers and mention that perhaps they weren’t all unanimous, but none can actually provide solid examples of non-unanimity in the Fathers.  There’s a few proof text quotes, taken out of context and easily dismissed, but by and large the apologists are silent on the subject.  Tellingly so, I believe.  It’s fairly obvious why they don’t want to grapple with the early Church understanding of the Eucharist, because it is so strongly opposed to a merely symbolic understanding of the Eucharist.  Now, this is not to say that the early Church holds ONLY a literal understanding of the Eucharist.  It is understood in both literal and symbolic terms, without confusion, and without exclusion.  The literal body and blood are always there, though, but sometimes the symbolic is also referred to.

Now some of these apologists will move the issue by agreeing that indeed, the Church Fathers understood the Eucharist to be the literal body and blood, but that the Fathers did not believe in the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation.  Dr. James White ( takes this tack, and he’s a major player in the apologetics space.  I’m fine with that tack.  He cedes the point of the early, literal understanding while making his sticking point merely that the fathers didn’t hold to the fully realized doctrine of transubstantiation the Roman Catholic Church came out with at the Council of Trent in the 1500s.  This does nothing to detract from the clear understanding of the early church in the literal presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements, or to refute the Eastern Orthodox understanding.

Another Protestant apologist, William Webster, in his book “The Church of Rome at the Bar of History”, p. 117 says:

From the beginning of the Church the Fathers, generally expressed their belief in the Real Presence in the eucharist, in that they identified the elements with the body and blood of Christ, and also referred to the Eucharist as a sacrifice…”

Before I throw out any of the early Church writings, here are statements from protestant historians that verify that I’m not just pulling quotes that present one side of the story. [I got this basic list from another site on the net.  I have modified it by adding in some different quotes that I thought were better.]

1) Otto W. Heick, A History of Christian Thought, vol.1, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965, 221-222:

The Post-Apostolic Fathers and . . . almost all the Fathers of the ancient Church . . . impress one with their natural and unconcerned realism. To them the Eucharist was in some sense the body and blood of Christ.

2) Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., rev. by Robert T. Handy, NY: Scribners, 1970, 90-91:

By the middle of the 2nd century, the conception of a real presence of Christ in the Supper was wide-spread

3) Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, v.3, A.D. 311-600, rev. 5th ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, rep. 1974, orig. 1910, 492, 500, 507:

The doctrine of the sacrament of the Eucharist was not a subject of theological controversy . . . till the time of Paschasius Radbert, in the ninth century . . . In general, this period, . . . was already very strongly inclined toward the doctrine of transubstantiation, and toward the Greek and Roman sacrifice of the mass, which are inseparable in so far as a real sacrifice requires the real presence of the victim.

On p. 96: 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.

4) J.D. Douglas, ed., The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, rev. ed., 1978, 245 [a VERY hostile source!]:

The Fathers . . . [believed] that the union with Christ given and confirmed in the Supper was as real as that which took place in the incarnation of the Word in human flesh.

5) F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford Univ. Press, 2nd ed., 1983, 475-476, 1221:

That the Eucharist conveyed to the believer the Body and Blood of Christ was universally accepted from the first . . . Even where the elements were spoken of as ‘symbols’ or ‘antitypes’ there was no intention of denying the reality of the Presence in the gifts . . . In the Patristic period there was remarkably little in the way of controversy on the subject . . . The first controversies on the nature of the Eucharistic Presence date from the earlier Middle Ages. In the 9th century Paschasius Radbertus raised doubts as to the identity of Christ’s Eucharistic Body with His Body in heaven, but won practically no support. Considerably greater stir was provoked in the 11th century by the teaching of Berengar, who opposed the doctrine of the Real Presence. He retracted his opinion, however, before his death in 1088 . . .

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.

6) Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971, 146-147, 166-168, 170, 236-237:

By the date of the Didache [anywhere from about 60 to 160, depending on the scholar]. . . the application of the term ‘sacrifice’ to the Eucharist seems to have been quite natural, together with the identification of the Christian Eucharist as the ‘pure offering’ commanded in Malachi 1:11 . . .

The Christian liturgies were already using similar language about the offering of the prayers, the gifts, and the lives of the worshipers, and probably also about the offering of the sacrifice of the Mass, so that the sacrificial interpretation of the death of Christ never lacked a liturgical frame of reference . . .

. . . the doctrine of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, which did not become the subject of controversy until the ninth century. The definitive and precise formulation of the crucial doctrinal issues concerning the Eucharist had to await that controversy and others that followed even later. This does not mean at all, however, that the church did not yet have a doctrine of the Eucharist; it does mean that the statements of its doctrine must not be sought in polemical and dogmatic treatises devoted to sacramental theology. It means also that the effort to cross-examine the fathers of the second or third century about where they stood in the controversies of the ninth or sixteenth century is both silly and futile . . .

Yet it does seem ‘express and clear’ that no orthodox father of the second or third century of whom we have record declared the presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist to be no more than symbolic (although Clement and Origen came close to doing so) or specified a process of substantial change by which the presence was effected (although Ignatius and Justin came close to doing so). Within the limits of those excluded extremes was the doctrine of the real presence . . .

The theologians did not have adequate concepts within which to formulate a doctrine of the real presence that evidently was already believed by the church even though it was not yet taught by explicit instruction or confessed by creeds . . .

Liturgical evidence suggests an understanding of the Eucharist as a sacrifice, whose relation to the sacrifices of the Old testament was one of archetype to type, and whose relation to the sacrifice of Calvary was one of ‘re-presentation,’ just as the bread of the Eucharist ‘re-presented’ the body of Christ . . . the doctrine of the person of Christ had to be clarified before there could be concepts that could bear the weight of eucharistic teaching . . .

Theodore [c.350-428] set forth the doctrine of the real presence, and even a theory of sacramental transformation of the elements, in highly explicit language . . . ‘At first it is laid upon the altar as a mere bread and wine mixed with water, but by the coming of the Holy Spirit it is transformed into body and blood, and thus it is changed into the power of a spiritual and immortal nourishment.’ [Hom. catech. 16,36] these and similar passages in Theodore are an indication that the twin ideas of the transformation of the eucharistic elements and the transformation of the communicant were so widely held and so firmly established in the thought and language of the church that everyone had to acknowledge them.

7) J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, San Francisco:Harper & Row, 1978, 440:

Eucharistic teaching, it should be understood at the outset, was in general unquestioningly realist, i.e., the consecrated bread and wine were taken to be, and were treated and designated as, the Savior’s body and blood.

On pg 196: [T]he Eucharist was regarded as the distinctively Christian sacrifice from the closing decade of the first century, if not earlier.

8) Carl Volz, Faith and Practice in the Early Church, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1983, 107:

Early Christians were convinced that in some way Christ was actually present in the consecrated elements of bread and wine.

9) Maurice Wiles and Mark Santar, Documents in Early Christian Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge, 1975, 173:

Finally, John Chrysostom and Augustine explore the social connotation of participation in the Eucharist: the body of Christ is not only what lies on the altar, it is also the body of the faithful.

When I discussed this with [my wife] she asked insightfully, “then why didn’t these historians believe in the real presence?”  Well, to begin with, we don’t know that they didn’t.  There’s more to being Protestant than a symbolic understanding of communion.  Second, we can never know why men choose the things they choose.  I recently heard of a Jewish rabbi with a doctorate in New Testament (go figure) who wrote a book defending the resurrection of Jesus.  Why did he remain a Jew?  He came to believe that Jesus was the messiah for gentiles.  Who knows what goes on in men’s minds.  Third, some historians did convert.  I know that Jaroslav Pelikan, quoted above, who was an esteemed Lutheran historian became Orthodox before he died.

Church Fathers
From that you can see that there’s a consensus by historians, protestant no less, that the early church held to a literal understanding of the Eucharist.  Now with that backdrop, here’s some quotes from the early Church on the topic.  I’m cherry picking to pull some quotes from various writers, and all before Constantine legalizes Christianity in the early 300s.  There are more quotes that could be pulled on this subject, but given space I want to go shallow but broad, rather than deep with any particular writer.  Now, in chronological order:

Didache, 9:2; 14:1, circa 90 A.D.:

Regarding the Eucharist … Let no one eat and drink of yourEucharist but those baptized in the name of the Lord; to this, too, the saying of the Lord is applicable: Do not give to dogs what is sacred.

On the Lord’s own day, assemble in common to break bread and offer thanks; but first confess your sins, so that your sacrifice may be pure. However, no one quarreling with his brother may join your meeting until they are reconciled; your sacrifice must not be defiled. For here we have the saying of the Lord: In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice; for I am a mighty King, says the Lord; and my name spreads terror among the nations.

This doesn’t speak directly to the literal body and blood of Christ, but it is the earliest (probably) non-Biblical reference to the Eucharist and it calls the Eucharist both “sacred” and a “sacrifice”.  Neither of these fits very nicely with a symbolic only view of the sacrament.  Not a slam dunk, but worth mentioning.

Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to Smyrnaeans, 7,1 (c. A.D. 110):

Consider how contrary to the mind of God are the heterodox in regard to the grace of God which has come to us. … They 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.”.

Ignatius considers failure to see the Eucharist as the flesh of Christ as a distinctive mark of non orthodox (small o).  There are other quotes from Ignatius that could be dropped in here.  He also notably called the Eucharist the “medicine of immortality,” indicating his high respect for the effectiveness of the Eucharist as a means of God’s grace.

Justin Martyr, First Apology, 66 (c. A.D. 110-165):

“For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”

Justin was writing a somewhat “open letter” to the emperor in order to help him understand Christianity, and cease persecuting Christians.  He describes many things about how Christianity works, including how they felt about the Eucharist.  He’s clear that after being blessed by prayer the Eucharistic bread and wine is now the flesh and blood of Jesus.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies, V:2,2 (c. A.D. 200):

“He acknowledged the cup (which is a part of the creation) as his own blood, from which he bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of creation) he affirmed to be his own body, from which he gives increase to our bodies.”

Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, 2 (ante A.D. 202):

“For the blood of the grape–that is, the Word–desired to be mixed with water, as His blood is mingled with salvation. 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.”

Origen Homilies on Exodus 13,3 (c. A.D. 184-253):

I wish to admonish you with examples from your religion. You are accustomed to take part in the divine mysteries, so you know, when you received the body of the Lord, you reverently exercised every care lest a particle of it fall, and lest anything of the consecrated gift perish. You account yourselves guilty, and rightly do you so believe, if any of it be lost through negligence. but if you observe such cation in keeping His Body, and properly so, how is it that you think neglecting the word of God a lesser crime than neglecting His Body?

Look at how carefully the Christians treated the Eucharistic meal, and because it was the body of Jesus.

Tertullian, Against Marcion, 40 (A.D. 212):

“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…He did not understand how ancient was this figure of the body of Christ, who said Himself by Jeremiah: ‘I was like a lamb or an ox that is brought to the slaughter, and I knew not that they devised a device against me, saying, Let us cast the tree upon His bread,’ which means, of course, the cross upon His body. 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. 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.”

I’ve seen this quote from Tertullian used by Dr. James White, but JUST the portion where he says “figure of my body”.  White loves to use this truncated quote to “prove” that Tertullian did not actually believe in a literal presence of Jesus’ body, but reading the entire quote makes it clear that his using “figure” in no way indicates that Tertullian does not see a literal presence.

One other early writer that is sometimes thrown out as having a symbolic understanding is Eusebius of Caesarea.  In one of his writings he refers to the Eucharistic wine and bread as symbols, but this is not unknown in the fathers.  Many others also referred to them as symbols while also referring to them as literal.  Their understanding encompassed both modes as is seen in their writing, and that is still the case today in the Orthodox Church.  The elements are seen as symbols, while at the same time being real.  It’s both/and, not either/or.

I’ve spent a lot of time building up this case for a “universal” understanding of the Eucharist as real, but I have to admit that the situation is slightly more complex than I’d like to portray it.  I’m trying to make a strong case for a realist position, and it would be nice to say that every single time someone in the early church wrote about the Eucharist is was in astonishingly literal terms.  That would be nice, but not the truth.  Many times the writings are more ambiguous than those I’ve quoted, and in the case of Augustine there’s a LOT of language that works really well for the symbolic view because the Eucharist is referred to as a symbol.

It is very important to understand what the word “symbol” meant to the Fathers. In the Greek (which is how the majority of the Fathers would be using it), the word does NOT mean substitution or in place of. It is a compound word made up of sym (meaning together) and ballon (meaning to throw). Thus, a symbol is something where two unlike things are thrown together. Thus, the Eucharist is a symbol because the mundane bread and wine are thrown together with the divine presence of Christ. The eucharist is BOTH bread and wine AND the body and the blood of Christ. This is how it is a symbol.

The truth is that there’s a mix of both types of language, and honesty does require that proviso.  Apologists for both sides will rarely admit that, but that’s what I see.  I think it’s a mistake to take only some of these quotes and construct a view of the Eucharist that issimplistically allied with a literal only view, or only the symbolic, but doesn’t match what the Church actually believed.  Truly they did believe in the real presence of the body and blood in the Eucharist, but they also simultaneously affirmed that there were “symbolic” meanings as well.

It’s also necessary to always keep in mind that any one particular writer is not the authoritative spokesman for the Church.  This is not an Orthodox understanding of how the Church works, and so no one particular writer, even one as prominent as Augustine, can be used as the absolute yardstick for understanding the mind of the Church.

The quotes above are pretty much a who’s who of ancient Christian writings, prior to Constantine (nothing changes after him).  I think that’s a pretty fair and widespread display of thought in the Christian community early on.  Particularly Ignatius and Irenaeus demonstrate the early (within the first century of Christianity) and widespread (Ignatius in the far east and Irenaeus in the far west) belief in the literal presence.  Certainly when I first started reading the patristic literature and ran  up against these writings I had to squirm quite a bit.  Like the first historian I quoted above said, the Fathers seem quite natural and unconcerned in their discussion of the literal presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.  Why did it make me uncomfortable, but to them it seemed quite natural and even necessary?

I’ve seen various apologists go halfway down the road and say that of course everyone believed in the presence of Jesus in communion.  It’s real, but only spiritual.  Certainly there is a spiritual truth to the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, but it’s quite clear from the various quotes above (buttressed by the understanding of the protestant historians) that what the Church taught was that Jesus’ body and blood were in the Eucharist, not just a “spiritual presence” that really doesn’t fit what they are saying.

What about the Reformers?  I’m not going to go in depth into the Reformers except to say that in general, Luther held to a literal understanding of the Eucharist and John Calvin was close.  Ulrich Zwingli is the source of the current symbolic only thinking.  I understand of course that just because Luther supported a literal understanding doesn’t make it true, but certainly it demonstrates that a literal understanding is not necessarily a Protestant position.  As an aside, you might remember from my Sola Scriptura letter that the Reformation only maintained an outward unity for 10 years.  This was the issue that broke the unity.

Zwingli said:

In the words: “This is my body,” the word “this” means the bread, and the word “body” the body which is put to death for us. Therefore the word “is” cannot be taken literally, for the bread is not the body and cannot be . . . “This is my body,” means, “The bread signifies my body,” or “is a figure of my body.”

(On the Lord’s Supper, 1526; in Bromiley, 225)

So basically, Zwingli says it can’t be the body of Jesus because God can’t do that?

Luther speaks directly to the symbolic understanding:

[S]ince we are confronted by God’s words, “This is my body” – distinct, clear, common, definite words, which certainly are no trope, either in Scripture or in any language – we must embrace them with faith . . . not as hairsplitting sophistry dictates but as God says them for us, we must repeat these words after him and hold to them.
(Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, 1528; in Althaus, 390)

Luther wrote on the same scriptural text as Zwingli and said:

[T]his word of Luke and Paul is clearer than sunlight and more overpowering than thunder. First, no one can deny that he speaks of the cup, since he says, “This is the cup.” Secondly, he calls it the cup of the new testament. This is overwhelming, for it could not be a new testament by means and on account of wine alone. 
(Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments, 1525; LW, 40, 217)

In one of his other writings (not to Zwingli) regarding another theologian who removed the sacramental understanding of the Eucharist he said:

He [the theologian Karlstadt] thinks one does not see that out of the word of Christ he [Karlstadt] makes a pure commandment and law which accomplishes nothing more than to tell and bid us to remember and acknowledge him. Furthermore, he makes this acknowledgment nothing else than a work that we do, whilewe receive nothing else than bread and wine.
(Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments, 1525; LW, 40, 206)

I confess that if Karlstadt, or anyone else, could have convinced me five years ago that only bread and wine were in the sacrament he would have done me a great service. At that time I suffered such severe conflicts and inner strife and torment that I would gladly have been delivered from them. . . . But I am a captive and cannot free myself. The text is too powerfully present, and will not allow itself to be torn from its meaning by mere verbiage.
(Letter to the Christians at Strassburg in Opposition to the Fanatic Spirit, 1524; LW, 68)

“I have often enough asserted that I do not argue whether the wine remains wine or not.  It is enough for me that Christ’s blood is present; let it be with the wine as God wills.  Sooner than have mere wine with the fanatics, I would agree with the pope that there is only blood.”
(Luther’s Works, vol 37, page 317)

Biblical Support
I wanted to set the stage with historical support so that as I’m talking through various Scripture passages you can see that what I’m arguing for as the normative or default reading of the Scripture is actually in line with what the early Church understood the Scripture to mean.  If it comes down to just dueling interpretations it will be hard to accept so radical a difference as the real presence.  But I believe that keeping to a straightforward and literal reading of Scripture, in addition to the consistent understanding of the early Church leads to a very strong position of believing in the literal presence of Jesus in the Eucharistic meal.

For the scriptural passages I’m going to be looking at Matthew 26:26-29Mark 14:22-25Luke 22:14-20John 6:25-711 Corinthians 10:14-181 Corinthians 11:17-34, and Hebrews 9:26.  It’s also mentioned in Acts 2:46 and 20:7, but I won’t be talking about those passages.  I think I’ll be spending most of my time in John 6, so I will deal with that last.

The Matthew, Mark and Luke passages are synoptic accounts of the Last Supper.  I’ll take the Matthew passage as representative of the other two.

26 While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” 27 And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. 29 “But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.”

Mark is almost identical, while Luke includes additional detail.  Before moving into a couple of objections made using these verses let me just point out that the language here is dangerously straight forward.  “This is my body.”  “This is my blood.”  This is exactly the language that gave Martin Luther such fits, and which he found inescapable.  In Mark it is identically straight forward.  In Luke it is identically straight forward.

Did the wine change?
Now I included verse 29 from Matthew because it has been the point of some resistance by Protestant apologists.  Some apologists say that since Jesus refers to the cup in v. 29 as wine, after he had blessed it, He indicates that no change has taken place.  There are some problems with this.  The account in Luke, which is the more detailed account, has that part moved to before the consecration.  You can’t determine the exact chain of events from the passages, therefore, because they differ.  Luke is the more detailed account, so certainly you could err on the side of Luke getting the order correct, or at least that it does not matter.  Where this phrase was in the conversation could make quite a difference in understanding, though you don’t have to insist that Jesus means anything of the sort.  If the phrase comes first then it most certainly does not refer to the Eucharistic meal, and in fact, that is the understanding of St Clement of Alexandria, who affirms the meaning implicit in the order of Luke (Clement, The Instructor, 2, 2).

Second, Luke indicates that the meal was already ongoing when Jesus blessed bread and wine, and thus the natural understanding of His statement in v29 is that Jesus is referring to the ongoing meal as what he would not enjoy again, since He was about to die.  And we certainly know that Jesus did eat with His disciples following His resurrection, so this is plausible.  In this case, why would Matthew (and Mark) mention the fruit of the vine at all?  Clement says it is to make sure that we know that Jesus was drinking wine, so that we would know how to perform the Eucharist.  If you look at Matthew 26 you can confirm that indeed there is no mention of wine prior to verse 29.  Mark is identical.  Regardless, you can’t force that statement to be a denial that the wine became His blood.

How could this be a true Eucharist if Jesus is still alive?
Another objection that is made by apologists is that both Orthodox and Catholics understand that Jesus isn’t just showing how the Eucharist should be done after His resurrection, but that this is in fact the first Eucharistic meal and a participation in his crucifixion, but that wouldn’t happen until the next day.  All this time bending gives the apologists head aches, apparently, and so they say this proves that this wasn’t literally connected to Jesus’ actual body and blood, which had not yet been crucified.  To that I merely have to say, do you limit God?  Who are they to say God could not accomplish this sharing across time and space?  James White raises this protest in his book The Roman Catholic Controversy (p. 176), but yet He has no problem with God being able to change bread and wine into body and blood (same book p. 165).  So Dr. White believes God can do miracles.  Just not all miracles.  Time apparently is a barrier to Him.

The same objection in a different form says that this Eucharistic meal could not be the literal body and blood of Jesus, since He would then be holding in his hands his actual body.  Body holding body.  It seems fantastic, but again, how can we limit the mystery of God?  This objection was anticipated by the writer Aphraates in the early 4th century, but apparently caused him no heart burn.  He recognizes the difficulty and rests in God’s mystery.

Interestingly I’ve seen it said (and here I won’t claim any particular expertise) that the greek in these passages uses a present participle in verse 28 which means that it should correctly be translated as “this is My blood of the covenant, which is being poured out…”  That would indicate the exact time bending that gives Dr. White such head aches.  I don’t hang anything on this since I have no in depth knowledge of the language, but if so it’s an interesting indication of Jesus indicating the presence of His blood as sacrifice right at that particular time.

Neither of these objections to the power of God to achieve His will merits any consideration in my mind.

How many times must Christ be crucified?
Let me now jump over to Hebrews 9:26, since this bears on the objections above.  The passage says:

26 Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.

Protestant apologists point to this verse as an obvious objection to the daily/weekly Eucharistic sacrifice.  How could the Eucharist be a sacrifice and the actual presence of Jesus’ body and blood if Hebrews says He was crucified once, and suffered once, not many times?  This objection only demonstrates a misunderstanding of what the Eucharist is by Protestants, not an actual impediment.  The Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist isn’t that it is a new sacrifice of Jesus, but rather a joining of the present time/space to the one time sacrifice of Jesus accomplished 2,000 years ago.  The crucifixion is in some sense brought into the here and now, or we are brought to it, or both.  A connection is made, and we partake of the body and blood and the sacrifice of Jesus.  However, this is not a new crucifixion taking place.

Isn’t this all cannibalism?
One objection is that believing in the literal presence of Jesus in the Eucharist makes Christians into cannibals.  This is a valid objection, and one that did give me pause.  Certainly understanding the Eucharist in literal terms, or looking at the various Eucharistic passages in literal terms does seem to call for actions that are without precedent in the Old Testament moral code.  (Actually reading over the reasoning that God gives for some of His commandments on blood in the OT is very interesting and somewhat germane.  It’s likely that the injunction against drinking blood in Leviticus 17:10 may only apply in non-sacrificial circumstances.)

Now, is it actually cannibalism?  I’ll offer a few thoughts.  First, cannibalism involves eating the dead.  Jesus is living.  Second, cannibalism is a sinful activity.  How could we attribute a command of God to eat and drink as sinful?  Eating the Eucharist does nourish the Christian’s body and soul, but does not diminish Christ’s body at all.  The Eucharist is non-violent.  It doesn’t seem to match up to cannibalism.

Also, this situation where two commands from God are apparentlypitted against each other is not unique.  The most obvious example of a similar situation is from the Old Testament.  God instructs the Israelites that they are not to kill.  He then proceeds to send them on a very long campaign of war with instructions to kill men, women, children, and livestock.  This seeming dichotomy is in the same time frame as the OT laws against killing, so it’s not even just a culture drift over time.  Apparently there’s a contradiction, but upon reflection I don’t believe that there is.  God’s first command is a general one, and is indeed consistent with the moral tone of the entirety of Scripture, Old and New.  It isn’t a good thing for people or nations to go around killing people for their own purposes.  However, in some cases it is necessary, such as in the case of self-defense (personal or national), or when God deems it necessary for whatever inscrutable reason.  The situations are not the same, and sometimes God’s specific command can cause a person to do something that God’s general command would not allow.  Certainly God in His amazing wisdom and purity is much more capable than we are of determining proper moral course in a situation.

Given the precedent we can see that Jesus may have good reason for instructing us to ingest Him.  The act brings life (“the life is in the blood”) and is not morally reprehensible when done with God in the same ways it WOULD be when done with a human being.  This philosophical objection here then requires some personal judgment to decide how it should be viewed, but given the preponderance of other evidence I think I am justified in dismissing this thought.

Interestingly, by making this objection the person is somewhat solidifying the case against a symbolic understanding.  An early charge against Christians by the Roman government was that they were cannibals.  This was most likely due to a misunderstanding of the Eucharistic meal (and got horribly botched in translation, but there you go).  So this is certainly not a new accusation, but it’s interesting to note that the original source of this objection is from non-Christians against Christians.

Just a memorial?
Ok, back to Luke 22.  One other interesting addition in Luke 22 is the phrase “do this in remembrance of Me.”  Protestants will argue that this means that partaking of bread and wine (crackers and grape juice?) is merely a means of publicly unifying in remembrance of Jesus’ crucifixion.  The problem is in the “merely”.  The phrase is clearly indicating that the Eucharist is a memorial, or remembering.  That does not, however, say anything about what else it is.  You can have a remembrance that is strictly mental and emotional, or one that is based around a physical object or action.  Either is possible and both could be indicated.  Which is meant in Luke 22?  The most we can say is, from that phrase alone, we can’t tell.  It doesn’t tell us anything one way or another, because while it talks about “remembrance”, we can’t forget that it also says “do this”, which is the central point of that phrase.  The remembrance is just the “why”.

Orthodox theologians will say that the greek word that is translated as “remembrance” (anamnesis) is more active than merely mentally recollecting.  I can’t say for sure if this is the case.  The same word is used in the NT in only two other situations as far as I can see.  It’s used in 1 Corinthians when it quotes Luke 22 (no help there) and in Hebrews 10:3.  I’m not sure it’s appropriate to draw any conclusions from that verse, but you can do with it what you will.  Perhaps its use there indicates a more active remembrance, though the object of remembrance is opposite what the Eucharist is remembering.

Eucharist creates unity
Now I want to take a look at 1 Corinthians 10:14-18 which says:

14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to wise men ; you judge what I say. 16 Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ ? 17 Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body ; for we all partake of the one bread. 18 Look at the nation Israel ; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar?

First I’d point out that that again there is very straight forward language in verse 16 saying that the wine is the blood of Christ and the bread is the body of Christ.  Beyond that it says that by partaking we are sharing in the blood and body, showing that we actually take it in and are nourished by it.

Second, note that in 17 Paul identifies the Eucharist as a means (baptism is also elsewhere seen as a means) of creating the unified body of Christ out of the individual members.  It is because there is one Body, shared by all the Christians in the Eucharist, that we are one Body.  I find this interesting.  It also bears out a certain practical proof in that the Orthodox, who have an understanding of a literal Eucharist also display an amazing degree of unity.  Food for thought.

So, here you have strong language indicating the literal presence!

Rightly judging…
Skipping ahead to the next chapter of 1 Corinthians I want to take a look at chapter 11 verses 17-34.  It’s a bit long so I won’t quote it all here.  You can open the link in a window and just look at the text there.

Paul lays into the Corinthians in the first section because they were eating the love feast together (and getting crazy) to the point where some didn’t eat the Eucharistic meal, and apparently some were so drunk they couldn’t even tell when the Eucharist was given to them.  He reiterates the words of Jesus from the last supper, again with very straight forward language that the body and blood were literally present.  Then he indicates the seriousness of the Eucharistic meal by saying that if you partake unworthily you are guilty of the body and blood of Christ?  Why?  Because it is symbolic?  No, because it IS the body and blood of the Lord?  In all the new testament there’s only a handful of things that are handled this severely.  Paul says that some people have died because of this practice of the Corinthians!

Another interesting thing happens in verse 29.  Paul says that the judgment of God comes from the Corinthians not judging the “body” rightly.  Could this possibly mean that the Corinthians were getting drunk and unable to tell when the food they were eating was actually the Eucharistic body of Jesus?   Perhaps.  The only nearby mention of a “body” is the body of Jesus in verse 27.  However, it could be that the judging is tied to the judging mentioned in verse 31 and so refer to judging their own bodies.  I can’t tell for sure, and merely mention it as a possibility.  However it is intriguing.

Nevertheless, you have strong language indicating the literal presence of the body and blood here!

I’ve seen people object that Paul still refers to the wine and blood as wine and blood in verse 27, after it has been blessed.  Shouldn’t he now refer to it as body and blood.  Certainly that would have been nice, but not necessary.  The majority of the language is quite clear, and the same verse even says that ingesting unworthily makes you guilty of Jesus’ body and blood.  I think that’s clear enough.

Dr. James White complains about this passage that you don’t see the Roman Catholic transubstantiation language here, but just a reference to the Lord’s supper which obviously indicates that this is just a simple meal.  Nothing more.  He chastises Catholics for putting medieval doctrines back into early Scripture.  I’d chastise him for the same.  He’s reading it in the EXACT same manner by insisting that doctrinal language somehow make its way back 1,200 years to Paul to be written into this section of Scripture.  Paul isn’t debating the issues of the 1,200s.  He’s telling the Corinthians to take the Eucharist seriously.  We are left with a passage that isn’t a dogmatic statement about the Eucharistic meal but that has oblique information about it.  White shouldn’t ask more than is reasonable for the time and purposes of Paul.  He won’t get a definitive statement to the issues we’ve only created in the last few centuries.

John 6: The Main Event
Ah, the moment we’ve all been waiting for.  This is the central Eucharistic passage in the Bible.  If there is a battle ground passage, this is it.  It’s got something to offer everyone, but before I get into John 6 let me quickly recap what I’ve tried to demonstrate so far.  Historically the Church has understood all of these passages to indicate a literal presence of the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist.  I’ve given you Protestant historians, Church Father quotations, and even Protestant Reformers to back up that claim.  I’ve also run through three gospel accounts of the last supper and two references from Paul to the last supper, ALL of which include strong and straight forward language demonstrating the literal presence of Jesus’ body and blood.  So far so good I think!

On John 6 Martin Luther said:

All right! There we have it! This is clear, plain, and unconcealed: “I am speaking of My flesh and blood.”
(Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 6-8, 1532; LW, 23, 133-135)

No pressure, right?  🙂  Again, this text is quite long, so I won’t try and quote it here.  Instead I’ll merely link to it and let you have it up in a browser window to reference.

In reviewing various arguments on chapter 6 I was again reminded of how often I saw argumentation by declaration in regards to this subject.  Over and over I see people just repeating the assertion that John 6 (and the others) must not be taken literally.  The reasons given are usually small to none, but the declarations are constant.  I hope to do a little better job in the other direction.

Getting the big picture.
This is such an interesting passage to read through.  It’s quite a lot of back and forth, and it builds and builds into verse 58.  Jesus had just done a miracle to feed the 5,000 (related earlier in chapter 6), he walks across water to escape the crowd who want to crown Him as king and comes to the other side of the sea, and then the people he fed follow and find him over there.  Jesus says they are just following him around because He can feed them, not because they really believe in His message.  That’s interesting, but in that culture a man who can produce food miraculously is quite an asset.  The Jews reference God feeding them through manna (perhaps they are looking for another free ride), but Jesus takes a hard turn and starts the conversation on another path.

In verse 27 He tells them there’s food that produces eternal life.  They ask Him how they can get some.  He tells them to believe in Him.  They circle right back around to where they started and ask for food again, through the hint of manna.  Jesus clarifies for them that the manna came from God the Father, and that He sends the bread out of heaven.  They ask for some, still thinking of the full bellies from the earlier feeding I believe (v34).  Then it starts getting weird for the Jews.

Jesus says that He is the bread of life (v35) sent by the Father, for those who come to Him and believe (36-40).  The Jews start getting angry because Jesus says that God is His father, but they “know” that His parents are Mary and Joseph.  He didn’t come from heaven.  At least they weren’t still worried about getting hand outs.  Now they are concerned that Jesus is overreaching in his theological statements into the territory of blasphemy.  Jesus tells them to stop grumbling, and that God will teach them the truth, that they must believe (v 43-47).  What is it they must believe?  That Jesus is the bread of life (v 48.  In v 47 many major versions omit the “in me” since it is missing in some manuscripts).  He clarifies that the bread from heaven isn’t manna, which a person can eat and then still die, but if they will eat the bread of life (which He said was himself) they will live forever (v 51), oh and by the way it’s His flesh.

Now the Jews go even more nuts.  They aren’t worried about his origins now.  This man is telling them they are supposed to eat his flesh (v 52)!  Crazy!  The Jews take Him literally.  Now, what you would expect at this point is that Jesus would back up and correct their obvious misunderstanding, right?  They are taking him literally, but He doesn’t correct them.  Instead, he makes it even clearer what they must do.

53 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 yourselves. 54 “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 “For My flesh is true food, and My blood istrue drink. 56 “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. 57 “As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. 58 “This is the bread which came down out of heaven ; not as the fathers ate and died ; he who eats this bread will live forever.”

Talk about your all time clarification.  Not only does he not say, “No wait!  I meant that metaphorically.” he says “truly, truly, unless youeat the flesh and drink the blood you have no life in you.”  Before when he talked about eating he said to eat the bread.  Now he’s straight out saying “eat My flesh”.  And he goes one further and adds in “drink My blood.”  Much more direct.  Much more clear.  It’s also interesting to note that during the conversation prior to verse 53 the greek verb used by everyone is a generic verb phago.  It’s a form that just generally means to ingest something, and can be used figuratively.  When Jesus cranks up the literalness in verse 53 He also cranks up the greek verb to a new one, trogo, starting in verse 54 that means to “gnaw” and “crunch”.  It’s much more physical, and not seen in a symbolic sense in the rest of the NT (unless you’re going to insist that He’s using it symbolically here and then there’s only one instance).

You can feel the crescendo in what Jesus is saying.  He continues with about as unequivocal a statement as you could hope for in verse 55 when He stresses to His listeners that His flesh is true food, and His blood true drink.  He clearly wants to leave no room for doubt or error.  Not only is He the bread of life, in a metaphoric sense, but He very clearly tells his listening crowd (some of whom are His disciples) that they must eat Him in a literal sense.

This clearly left his audience stunned.  He was in a synagogue talking to his many disciples when He delivers this stunning bit of teaching, and they are indeed stunned.  In verse 60 they say, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?”  Indeed.  Jesus knows that they are grumbling and discomfited.  Does He finally relent and let them off the hook?  Does He tell them that it was all just a symbolic statement and they obviously didn’t understand Him correctly?  No, He does not.  He just asks (v 61) if they will let this teaching cause them to stumble?  Such an interesting thing.  He is watching them all deal with the reality of the harsh teaching, knowing that many are only following Him because He can feed their bellies.  He knows they will not believe, and consequently many of his disciples left Him (v 66).  He is left with the 12.  He asks them if they want to leave as well, but they stay with Him.  Who else has the words of life, Peter asks.  Unfortunately (or fortunately) those words include the command to eat His flesh.

I don’t believe there is anything paralleling this in the entire rest of the gospels.  Jesus delivers a hard teaching and drives it home with ever more literal language.  It’s quite startling in the straight forward language of it, and the results.  Now let’s consider various arguments used against a literal understanding of John 6.

Where’s the metaphor?
Probably the most common objection to a literal understanding in John 6 is that Jesus constantly uses metaphor in His teaching throughout the gospels.  Is it so hard to see that John 6 is just a very elaborate and drawn out metaphor?  I can grant that Jesus commonly uses metaphor, and metaphor is a possibility in Scripture.  That is not the same as saying that John 6 in fact IS metaphor.  Possible, but unproven.  You can read John 6 literally as well.  That is also a possibility.

Considering the way Jesus reiterates the truth that His body and blood must be eaten over and over in very straight forward language, it seems that the default understanding would be one that underscores the literal understanding of the Eucharist.  Apologists are quick to say, “prove that it’s literal.”  That can just as easily be turned the other way to say, “you prove that it’s metaphor.”  Considering that the early Church apparently understood John 6 literally, it seems the burden of proof is on those who would understand it symbolically.

Can we know that John 6 is metaphorical or literal?  There are significant differences in John 6 from other metaphoric passages that make it clear to me that John 6 is meant literally.

Let’s consider other passage in the same book, John, that are commonly accepted as metaphoric.  In 10:7 Jesus says that He is a gate.  In 10:9 He is a door.  In 15:1 He calls himself a vine.  You find similar statements in 8:1211:25, and 14:6 with the same structure, but in those the meaning is usually taken literally.  Judging strictly by the wording structure used by John you can’t just declare a statement as metaphor or literal statement since the same phraseology is used by Jesus in both contexts.

Jesus is a door… and a vine…and a gate…
Considering the text in chapters 10 and 15, which I would agree are metaphorical, you see that whenever Jesus uses metaphor he always includes His listeners in on the metaphor.  If Jesus is a gate, the people are sheep.  If Jesus is the vine, the people are branches.  They are included in the metaphor and so the metaphor serves to clarify the relationship of the listeners to Jesus.  In other words, the metaphor is inclusive.  Compare that to the ones in 8, 11, and 14.  These passages follow the same verbal pattern without being metaphors, and Jesus does not include the listeners.  There is no metaphorical extension.  Now look at the chapter 6 text again.  There also the listeners are not included in the potential metaphor of bread and wine, so it doesn’t match the other metaphorical mechanism Jesus used in 10 and 15.  If it’s metaphor he’s breaking the pattern of his wording in 10 and 15.  I am the vine and you are the branches.  It’s very clear.  I am the gate and you are the sheep.  Again, clear.  In chapter 6, not clear.

You also have Jesus breaking out of the parable almost entirely after the Jews demonstrate confusion in verse 52.  This also breaks the pattern of the other two clearly metaphoric passages.  Once they appear confused his language changes entirely (away from metaphorical I would sa

y).  It appears that he is clarifying the confusion, but in the wrong way.  He makes it more clear.  “Truly, Truly, I say.  My flesh is true food.  My blood is true drink.  He who eats me…”  Not very metaphoric language.

Another thing to consider is that in chapter 10 and 15, when Jesus uses metaphor, there’s absolutely no indication that his disciples thought Jesus was going to sprout leaves, or need his hinges oiled.  They didn’t appear to understand those literally at all.  The case is quite different in chapter 6. There all the listeners quite clearly understood him literally.  We can’t say that they were unaware of metaphor, or incapable of understanding it.  Clearly they did in other cases.  So they saw something different in this occasion.

Jesus was intentionally vague
One apologist (Dr. James White) I saw argued that Jesus was intentionally vague often times, especially when in the presence of unbelieving Jews, and that was why he was being super metaphorical in John 6.  You can see this in action in places likeMatthew 13:11.  This is true.  Is this the case here?  I’d have to say no for two reasons.  One, Jesus certainly had plenty of opportunity to clarify with the disciples privately, but he doesn’t appear to have.  He repeats this language almost verbatim in the upper room, with just the disciples present.  Surely He would clarify right before His death if He cared to.  Second, the same apologist claims that Jesus is using clear words in the first section (26-40?), before he starts asking people to eat him.  If that’s the case, then the objection is self defeating.  If Jesus is clear in the early section, then He is still clear in the later section.

Truly, Truly I say…
Jesus had a peculiar phrase (at least, peculiar to our 21st century ears) that he liked to say.  “Truly, truly.”  John liked to put the double emphatic on some statements.  In the other gospels its just a single, but I love the double in John because it’s special.  It’s special because when John whips out the double “truly”, Jesus is about to come out with the bottom line.  It’s going to be straight talk.  It’s not going to be pretty and happy, but it WILL be true.  It also doesn’t ever appear to be used as a prelude to metaphor.  I looked at all the instances in John (about 30 or so), and only in one instance does it appear that it might be used inside a metaphor.  That is in John 10 (sigh), which we looked at just above.  Just one time out of about forty, and even in chapter 10 when he uses it, he is emphasizing the truth of the statement it contains.  One is obliquely metaphoric (v 1) and the other is when He is explaining the early metaphor.  In chapter 6 He uses the double truly to emphasize that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood.  And there’s no follow up clarification.  I think this is indicative that Jesus is calling attention to the bottom line in chapter 6.

Jesus loses disciples over a misunderstanding?
Looking back at the ending of the chapter 6 passage you see Jesus losing many of his disciples, perhaps most, over his teaching.  Jesus knows that they are having trouble with His teaching, and that they would leave Him.  If they had misunderstood Him in such a horrible way as to turn a fairly innocuous teaching that they just needed to believe in Him into a cannibalistic instruction, wouldn’t He have just corrected them?  No correction is given.  The listeners walk away from Jesus and into likely damnation.

From this we can say that the listeners understood Him to be teaching literally, as did the disciples.  They don’t indicate that they understand a secret symbolic meaning of His words (and John didn’t insert one in as the author), but rather that there was no where else to go when asked if they would leave.  All the listeners heard a literal message, and Jesus left it at that.

Think back over what happened in John 6, culminating in the loss of so many disciples, and consider it from the viewpoint of a metaphoric understanding.  In that scenario what Jesus was trying to get across was that his disciples needed to believe in Him.  This was the important thing.  This wasn’t the first time Jesus had asked people to believe in Him.  He talks about belief extensively in the preceding chapters.  This isn’t new material.  Why then does Jesus let a misunderstanding about His words in chapter 6 cause so many to desert him if it was all a big misunderstanding?  To me that doesn’t make sense.

Maybe Jesus just didn’t want to correct the carnal Jews that were listening?  Perhaps, but then why doesn’t He make the disciples.  At the end He merely asks if they will desert Him too.  In any case, if the message was “just believe in me”, Jesus was being quite clear enough at the beginning.  There was no need to leave everyone in such a quandary.

Did Jesus ever explain Himself when listeners misunderstood His teachings?
Yes, He did.  In John 3 you see this happening with Nicodemus over being born again.  In many ways this isn’t actually a metaphor so much as it is a spiritual understanding of reality that is deeper than the merely natural, but Nicodemus doesn’t understand.  Jesus takes time to give him more and more information to help him understand.  Look at John 4:31-38.  Jesus is using a food metaphor, so this is definitely germane!  There’s confusion on the part of the disciples, so Jesus explains what He means.  There’s a similar situation in Matthew 16:6-12 but I’m sticking to the book of John.  Look at John 11:11-15.  His disciples don’t understand when Jesus says Lazarus is sleeping.  Again, not so much a metaphor as Jesus just understanding things so much more deeply than we do, but He doesn’t leave the disciples in confusion.  He clarifies.  Sometimes John as the author clarifies for Jesus, as he does inJohn 2:21-22 and 7:39.  Back in chapter 6 neither Jesus nor John clarify that the body and blood were metaphoric.

But the important part of what He was saying was about belief
Jesus does talk a lot about belief in chapter 6.  No matter how you slice it what He was saying required huge belief from the Jewish audience.  It was nothing like what they expected.  And noting that the passage places a strong emphasis on the belief of the audience does do anything to speak to whether the talk of body and blood is metaphorical or not.  I don’t see this as adding anything to the discussion.  What is interesting is if you consider verse 47 without the “in me” that some translations have.  Many major translations, like the New American Standard, omit that since it is missing in some manuscripts, and can be translated without it even when the greek words that make up that phrase are present.  Certainly it gives a different meaning to WHAT it was the Jews were to believe.  No one will deny that Jesus requires belief.

The flesh profits nothing
Some apologists will point out verse 63, where Jesus says, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.”  It seems that Jesus is back tracking here.  But is He really?  If what Jesus is saying there is in relation to his repeated (repeated, repeated) assertions to eat His flesh, then isn’t that quite schizophrenic?  “Eat my flesh!  It will profit you nothing!”  No, that certainly makes no sense.  So what is He saying?

If you read the context you can see that Jesus’ directions about eating his flesh and blood end at verse 58.  Most translations will demonstrate that understanding by adding a section header or spacing break at verse 59 and another after 65.  This later section is Jesus dealing with the after effects of His teaching.  He’s done, and now it just remains to see whether people will leave Him over this hard teaching.  It seems to me that Jesus is clearly talking in verse 63 about the listener’s ability to accept the truth of what He was saying, through the power of the Spirit.  The New American Standard even capitalizes spirit at the beginning of verse 63, but not at the end.  It appears they agree with me.  🙂  I think Jesus is saying the exact same thing that Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 2:14-16 and 1 Corinthians 3:1-3.  I wonder where Paul got his material?

It’s also important to note here a very subtle Protestant bias that flavors this text.  Note that nowhere does Jesus say “symbolic” in the text of verse 63.  He talks about spirit, but when Protestants read this text they typically understand the words as if they implied that the text of verses 54-58 should be interpreted “spiritually”, meaning symbolically.  Spirit vs flesh is not the same as symbolic vs real.  The verses should be read in a “spiritual” way, as in 1 Corinthians 2:14-16, but that doesn’t mean read them as symbols.  If I’m going to take anyone’s word for whether to read this passage as symbolic or not, it seems that the right people to make that call would be those closest in time and culture to the apostles who wrote it down, and they understood it literally.

Chapter 6 brings a posse
Another big difference between John 6 and the metaphoric passages in 10 and 15 is the repetition you find in the rest of Scripture.  Not only is this material repeated verbatim in the other Gospels in the Last Supper narratives, but you also see it repeated in 1 Corinthians 10-11.  The fact that this material is used over and over in very serious ways indicates that the intended understanding is most likely a literal one.

And the Fathers?
Well, one thing that I enjoy doing is looking at what St John Chrysostom says on a passage.  The advantage of looking at Chrysostom is that in his preaching he favored verse by verse expository style, so we have a lot of his thoughts on the New Testament in something like commentary form.  They were actually just sermons that were written down.  Anyway, if you care to see what Chrysostom says on John 6 for additional fun reading look here and here.  I find his discussion on verse 52, 55, and 63 particularly apropos.

In summation on John 6, Norman Geisler in his book Roman Catholics and Evangelics says that “Jesus’ words need not be taken in a literal sense” here (p. 261).  To that I reply, “says who?”  The words give every indication of being meant to be taken literally.  The direct listeners all took it seriously.  The author John didn’t interject a correction to the obvious literal meaning, though he does elsewhere in the same book.  Jesus didn’t interject a correction either, despite watching disciples walk away.  The material is repeated all over Scripture in a serious way.  The early understanding by Christians is a literal one.

Summing Up

I know this has been very long.  Perhaps longer than the huge letter on Sola Scriptura.  Hopefully you were able to make it through without losing track of everything.  To help put it all back in perspective, here’s my high level summation of what I attempted to show.

The understanding of the Eucharist as the literal presence of the body and blood of Jesus is one of the most venerable and central teachings of the Church historically.  Historians recognize the universality and antiquity of the idea.  It goes back to the beginning of the Church, and was held universally as far as we can tell.  It was believed without exception by the Church entire up through the Protestant Reformation, where the splinter group led by Ulrich Zwingli pioneered the first major and sustainable break with that unbroken tradition.  Even Martin Luther held to a real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and this formed the first schism within the Protestant community.  So historically the real presence seems virtually unassailable.

Biblically the real presence is strongly supported with many passages.  The literal and straightforward reading of Scripture is most easily supported internally with other Scripture, and makes the most logical sense of what is written.  It also matches up perfectly with the historical understanding present in the writings of the early Church.

If there was one doctrinal difference between Protestantism and Orthodoxy that is most clear cut I think it is this one.  I’ve read a lot of books, listened to debates, read articles and watched videos to try to hear all the possible angles and support for the various sides, and I found the weight of evidence for the historic doctrine of the real presence of the body and blood in the Eucharist to be overwhelming.  I am completely confident in the truth of it.

I find this to be very motivating in my desire to join the Orthodox church, and one of the clearest pictures to me of the danger inherent in the Protestant mindset that puts each individual in the position of determining doctrine for themselves without submission to the Body.  When the Church becomes just a collection of people that think like me then it ceases to have much value to me, and when it ceases to have value it also ceases to have influence and authority on what it means to be a Christian.  Whenever I’m in a protestant service now and we take communion, and I think about what this was intended to be it makes me very sad.  The Eucharist is supposed to be a direct participation in the life of Christ.  It is meant to be a means of sustaining your life, in all possible meanings, as a Christian.  It is supposed to be a great unifier to the Body.  Instead it’s just another way for us to experiment and play with reinventing Church.

This is just another plank in the bridge that led me over to Orthodoxy, but it’s a big one.  By it I gained trust in the Orthodox Church, and a clearer picture of the issues with Protestantism.  My course over the last few years hasn’t been over a single issue, but many issues like this one that I slowly worked through and gained confidence in.  I’ve already detailed my issues with Sola Scriptura, which is another major plank in the bridge.  Hopefully over time I’ll be able to demonstrate the rest of the issues in a way that is convincing and makes sense.

I’m glad that you and dad are finding the writings of Ignatius to be interesting and useful.  Keep your eye out for his mention of the Eucharist!


Here’s some audio for those that would rather listen:

The real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist