The late Francis A. Schaeffer, founder of the Christian fellowship center L’Abri in Switzerland, was one of the most prolific and popular Protestant writers of this century. He perhaps has had greater understanding of, and more influence over, Evangelical Christians than has any other writer in modern times.
When he titled his 1968 book on modern evangelism The God Who Is There, he captured in those words the very heart of Evangelical Christian life. Evangelicals, almost more than anyone else, keep God ever present in their lives. He is there in their thoughts and in their words, not only in their prayers and devotions, but also in their everyday conversations. They know and love the Bible and can recite the life of Christ from memory: the roads he walked, the words he spoke, the people he touched, his Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension.
It is by weaving the Jesus Christ of Scripture into the common fabric of their daily lives that Evangelicals keep themselves Christ-centered, and it is by knowing the Christ of Scripture so intimately that they are able to witness to others about the God who is really there.
Schaeffer’s title, though, was intended to do more than affirm the Evangelicals’ way of life. It was intended to challenge them to become something beyond what they traditionally have been, that is, something more than “Bible Christians.”
Schaeffer, whose work chronicles the debilitating effect of existential theology on the ability of modern Christians to believe in eternal, unchanging truths, challenged Evangelicals to look, not only at the Bible, but also at Christian history for evidence of Christianity’s unchanging truths. In an age when liberal theologians are attempting to redefine Christian truth, Schaeffer invited Evangelicals to use the continuity of Christian history as a witness to the fact that the content of Christian truth has never changed.
This, of course, has always been one of the primary tools used by the Catholic Church for refuting innovations in doctrine, but it would be something new for many Evangelicals, who look only to the Bible to preserve what is true in Christianity. Schaeffer rightly asserts that the God who is in Scripture will also be evidenced in history, in the years following the apostolic times, in the centuries of the great creeds, and in the teaching and beliefs of Christians in all subsequent ages, right up to the present. Schaeffer called on Evangelicals to know and understand this history and to see “who stands in the continuity of the Church,” the better to be able to combat the effects of the new theology.
The great irony that awaits Evangelicals who would earnestly follow Schaeffer’s advice is that they will find that Evangelical Christianity itself stands outside that continuity, not only on issues of the institutional Church, but also on one of the most fundamental and enduring Christian doctrines, which is the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Admittedly, this truth is radical, so radical that when Christ announced it, it shook the faith of his disciples. But it was precisely those disciples with the strongest faith in Christ himself, those who could not imagine a life without him, who were able to accept what he said at face value. It is ironic, therefore, that Evangelicals, who have such a great faith in Christ in this modern age, would not have faith enough to believe his words when he told his followers, “I myself am the living bread come down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread he shall live forever; the bread I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:51).
It is even more ironic in that Scripture tells us that those who could not accept the literal meaning of his words ceased to be his followers. When the disciples balked at what they were being asked to believe, Christ did not quell the unrest by telling them that he had been talking about only a memorial meal. Instead, he affirmed their worst fears. Like a father laying down the law to his children, he told them even more firmly that it was his very blood and his very body that would be their food and drink.
John recorded this historic event, and the Church set it in the canon of sacred Scripture, to be an aid for Christians in all times coming to grips with this truth, the truth that would come to be known as the “hard saying.” The confrontation that resulted after Christ said that the bread he would give would be his flesh is worth repeating here in its entirety:
“At this the Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, `How can he give us his flesh to eat?’ Thereupon Jesus said to them: `Let me solemnly assure you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. He who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink. The man who feeds on my flesh, and drinks my blood, remains in me, and I in him'” (John 6:52-56).
Truly, this was a hard saying, perhaps the hardest ever communicated to his followers. Those that could not stand to hear it resolved to walk with him no longer. Jesus knew what was on their minds and in their hearts and must have watched their departure with sadness. This was the first split among his followers over doctrine. It could not have occurred over the institution of a memorial meal, for life in the ancient world, and Jewish life in particular, had long been punctuated by such meals. If Jesus was instituting a memorial, it would have been accepted as a blessing, and any who were walking away would have been called back and told of their misunderstanding. As it was, both those who walked away and those who remained understood what they were being asked to believe.
Among the remaining were the twelve, and Jesus turned next to them. He would not give them the option of remaining in silence without submitting to this truth. When he pressed them on the issue, he did not ask if they understood what he was saying; he knew they did. He knew also that, understanding as they did, they would be inclined to run away. The question was whether they would stay in the face of the incredible demand being placed on their faith. The answer given by Simon Peter was that of a man who knew he would have to leave his Lord or submit to a harsh reality, and it was, indeed, an answer of submission: “Jesus then said to the twelve, `Do you want to leave me too?’ Simon Peter answered him, `Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe; we are convinced that you are God’s holy one'” (John 6:67-69).
This scene set the stage for the establishment of the New Covenant and the institution of the Mass as described in Scripture. Paul’s letter to the Christian community in Corinth reiterates the words that have become the very heart of the Mass: “I received from the Lord what I handed on to you, namely, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread, and after he had given thanks, broke it and said, `This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper, he took the cup, saying, `This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ Every time, then, you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:23-26).
Many Protestants, including Evangelicals, claim “remembrance” here implies that the body of Christ would not be present in the Eucharist, but the very next lines set the record straight: “This means that whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily sins against the body and blood of the Lord. A man should examine himself first; only then should he eat of the bread and drink of the cup. He who eats and drinks without recognizing the body eats and drinks a judgment to himself” (1Cor 11:27-29).
It is interesting that Protestants, who most often hold that the physical symbols of Christianity should not be the object of our devotion, who in earlier times took down and broke every other symbol of Christianity on the basis that the veneration of symbols is idolatry, interpret this passage to mean that the Christians in Corinth were sinning and dying for their sin, not against the body of Christ, but against a symbol of the body of Christ.
The earliest Christians accepted these words to the Corinthians as true, and this truth quickly be came the measure of orthodox belief. Ignatius of Antioch, one of the earliest defenders of the faith, who was martyred in the Colosseum around the year 107, warned his fellow Christians in a letter written while in route to Rome that “[h]eretics abstain from the Eucharist because they do not confess the Eucharist to be that very flesh of Jesus Christ which suffered for us.”
These are the words of a man who had lived during the end of the apostolic years, who is understood on good authority to have been an auditor of John, and who was the pastor of one of the most important churches in ancient Christendom, the church at Antioch, where Peter and Paul had spread the gospel.
Ignatius was followed by Christian writers spanning all the centuries and asserting the truth of the Real Presence: Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Thomas Aquinas, Alphonsus de Ligouri, John Henry Newman. There is continuity in the belief in the Real Presence from the days of Christ right up to present times. There is continuity too in the act that resulted from that belief, that is, in the sacred manner in which Christians have historically come together to partake of the Eucharist in the Mass.
The earliest Christians celebrated Mass with a ritual meal, but by 150 it already had become a separate celebration on Sunday mornings with readings and preaching. This was documented by Justin Martyr, the philosopher-turned-Christian who died for his faith in 165. Roman pagans also wrote about the sacred gatherings of the ancient Christians, and what they described was certainly something more than a fellowship meeting. Pliny the Younger had this to say of first-century Christians: “It is their habit, on a fixed day, to assemble before daylight and to recite by turns a form of words to Christ as a god. The contagion of this perverse and extravagant superstition has penetrated not the cities only, but the villages and the country.”
This is a harsh appraisal coming out of first-century Rome, where every religious ceremony imaginable had been practiced. Other early Roman pagans, such as Tacitus and Suetonius, were just as severe, referring to Christian practices as “abominations” and “wicked superstitions.” One of the early rumors circulated about Christians was that they were eating human flesh. That such a rumor arose among pagans is not surprising considering Jesus’ words about feeding on his flesh, and it helps confirm what the Christians believed about those words–that at Mass they were eating the very flesh of their Lord under the appearance of bread. Such a rumor would be unexpected, though, if Christians thought they were simply eating bread in remembrance of their Lord.
Since early Christians protected themselves through secrecy, Pliny’s information probably came from former Christians who had observed the liturgy of the Mass. The core of that liturgy was eventually documented and has been handed down to this day. One of the earliest written descriptions of the order of the Mass, written by Hippolytus almost 1,800 years ago, contains a Eucharistic prayer that reads almost word for word with what is said now in Catholic churches throughout the world. In the ancient version, the priest leads the congregation by opening the prayer as follows:
Priest: The Lord be with you.
Congregation: And with thy spirit.
Priest: Hearts up!
Congregation: We have them to the Lord.
Priest: Let us give thanks to the Lord.
Congregation: It is meet and right. In today’s Catholic Mass, the same prayer reads:
Priest: The Lord be with you.
Congregation: And also with you.
Priest: Lift up your hearts!
Congregation: We lift them up to the Lord.
Priest: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
Congregation: It is right to give him thanks and praise.
It was the Mass and the very words described above that sustained faithful Christians 100 years later when Rome, under Diocletian, tortured and martyred them. These Christians went to Mass and were told to lift up their hearts to the Lord, and they believed that it was the very body of their Lord that they consumed before being led away to martyrdom.
Their belief is substantiated by the fact that the Romans, once again, ridiculed them for it. The Diocletian persecutions were preceded by verbal attacks on the Christian community. Pagan intellectuals scoffed at such things as the Eucharist. Physical attacks quickly followed, with the Roman Emperor himself watching as the first church was broken into and Christian ornaments and books were burned. Bishops and priests were the first singled out for arrest. To understand this piece of Christian history, one must remember that these Christians were Catholics, and they suffered suppression and martyrdom, not so much for a personal belief in Jesus, but for their belief and membership in the Catholic Church he founded, with its authority, hierarchy, and sacraments, including the Eucharist. It was the Church with its teaching authority that was perceived by Rome as a foreign enemy on Roman soil.
This was the last Roman persecution–the Empire would soon deem Christianity a lawful religion–but it was not the last time people who believed in the Real Presence would cling to that belief in the face of severe persecution. If a Christian from the Diocletian period could be transported through time to Ireland in the seventeenth century, he might, in a tragic sense, feel at home under the persecutions carried out there by the Puritan Oliver Cromwell.
Once again, the people who were being suppressed, arrested, and martyred confessed the Eucharist to be the very flesh of Jesus Christ, and once again it was this belief and their membership in the Catholic Church that marked them out for persecution. A description of this period in The Irish World, edited by Brian De Breffny and published in 1977, bears a striking resemblance to Rome under Diocletian: “Through the country, churches were desecrated, sacred books and pictures destroyed, priests hunted down and banished. Those who contrived to remain disguised themselves as laborers or herdsmen.”
Thousands were martyred by Cromwell’s men, sometimes around the altars inside their own churches. The English and Irish had been fighting each other long before Cromwell came on the scene, but De Breffny relates that “even in a time and country where brutality was no rarity, Cromwell’s ruthlessness was extraordinary.” Cromwell, who also wreaked havoc in his homeland, felt justified in his actions because he considered the Catholic religion to be a perverse superstition and the Mass to be an abomination. Once again, the Catholic Church was treated as a foreign enemy.
Other persecutions of course have occurred, and the Mass has been ridiculed and suppressed even in such Catholic countries as France, Mexico, and Spain. But the Mass has survived, and Christians who adhere to the ancient Catholic faith are still being taught that it is the real body and blood of the Lord that they come together for in the Eucharist. In this they receive a doctrine that came from the lips of the Savior, that has prospered in the face of brutal suppressions, and that has been handed on by great Christian teachers and witnesses in every age.
Francis Schaeffer recognized that the mark of any true Christian doctrine is that it will have existed without change from the time of Christ to the present day. In challenging Evangelicals to look for this continuity, Schaeffer picked up the thread of a great truth, but failed to see where it ultimately leads.
If Evangelicals finish what Schaeffer started, they w ill be led by the continuity of history to a place where Christianity has a material reality as well as spiritual one, where the Church is a real, visible institution with well-trod halls and dusty closets as well as being the Mystical Body of Christ, where the water of baptism has real power to remove original sin and is not just a symbol of Christian initiation, and where, at the heart of the Church, resides, not a symbol of Christ, but the very body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.
Sixteen hundred years ago, John Chrysostom commented on the Eucharist in a way that could be used today as the perfect invitation to Evangelicals who love the Lord of Scripture to come to know and love the Lord in the Eucharist: “
You envy the opportunity of the woman who touched the vestments of Jesus, of the sinful woman who washed his feet with her tears, of the women of Galilee who had the happiness of following him in his pilgrimages, of the apostles and disciples who conversed with him familiarly, of the people of the time who listened to the words of grace and salvation which came forth from his lips. You call happy those who saw him . . . But, come to the altar, and you will see him, you will touch him, you will give him holy kisses, you will wash him with your tears, you carry him within you like Mary Most Holy.”
Anyone wishing to find the altar of which John Chrysostom speaks, where Christians come to know Christ on a more personal level, need only peer into the nearest Catholic Church.