Sacrifice and the Eucharist

John Stephenson

As the uniquely Christian form of worship, the Eucharist is studied by ‘systematic’ theologians in terms of its coherence with revelation as a whole, and by ‘dogmatic’ theologians in light of historic definitions that still impact the churches of today. Examination of ‘eucharistic sacrifice’ thus presents scholars and students with a cross section of systematic and dogmatic theology as practised within the church at large and among the still separated churches that comprise present-day Christianity. While few would deny connection between ‘Eucharist’ and ‘sacrifice’, historic language of ‘sacrifice’ concerning the central act of Christian worship has often been tantalisingly imprecise. This article explores the relation between the multifaceted phenomenon of sacrifice in Old Testament religion and its development in Jesus’ own understanding of his ministry and death, and in the New Testament church’s practice of the Eucharist. Having identified three distinct motifs of ‘eucharistic sacrifice’ (thanksgiving, sacrificial banquet, propitiatory sacrifice), the article examines their roots in the text of the New Testament and the ways in which they have taken form in the worship and theology of the church. The historical review that forms a major part of the article builds up to the sixteenth-century clash between Martin Luther (joined by all other contemporary Protestants) and the Roman Catholic Church. Moving back into ‘systematic’/’dogmatic’ gear, the question is raised whether the Orthodox account of the relation of Eucharist to sacrifice might supply a path towards overcoming sixteenth-century antinomies, leading to an examination of the treatment of this topic in historic and recent Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran theology. As the article deliberately adopts an eirenic approach to a long-controversial area of theology, its author admits that the material covered here still ignites strong passions within divided Christianity.

1 Introduction

1.1 Eucharistic sacrifice in churchly discipline of dogmatics

Since apostolic times, the church has continuously celebrated the rite instituted by Jesus in the upper room shortly before his arrest and violent death (1 Cor 11:23–25; Matt 26:26–28; Mark 14:22–24; Luke 22:14–20). Known variously as Mass, Eucharist, Holy Communion, Breaking of Bread, or Lord’s Supper, the celebration of the Eucharist precedes the scripture that attests to its institution and monitors its practice. The following discussion of the connection between the Eucharist and the multi-layered notion of sacrifice falls under the heading of dogmatic or systematic theology. This discipline uses data drawn from its sister branches of study – exegetical and historical theology. It endeavours, as systematics, to give a coherent exposition of the content and implications of divine revelation. As dogmatics, it respects and expounds decisions of prestigious church councils and other confessional statements that exercise ongoing authority among the Christian churches. The field of systematics/dogmatics employs academic skills and tools in the setting, and for the benefit, of the Christian church(es); not by accident did the major Reformed dogmatician of the twentieth century, Karl Barth, title his magnum opus Church Dogmatics.

Joseph Ratzinger has shown how, in the life of the church, the various topics (loci) of dogmatics arose from core teachings (the Ten Commandments, the creeds of the church), prayers (‘Our Father’), and rites (baptism, penance, Eucharist) that – except for the Creeds – the Old and New Testaments present as instituted by God himself. The ecumenical flavour of much modern dogmatic theology is discernible in the compliment paid by Joseph Ratzinger, a future pope, to Reformation theologian Martin Luther, who was himself no eirenic figure:

It is assuredly worthy of note that Luther, for instance, based his Catechisms, not on a carefully considered system of proofs, but quite simply on what are called the loci, the principal deposits of faith, which he gathered together and explained: the Ten Commandments, the Our Father, the sacraments, the confession of faith. In doing so, it might be added, he followed the most ancient catechetical traditions and thus differed in no formal way from the Catholic Church. (Ratzinger 1987: 130–131)

The common roots of all dogmatic theology encourage its practitioners, in all confessions, to undertake their discipline in the service of improved relations among the churches. As different – in part incompatible – forms of eucharistic sacrifice are offered in the various church traditions, the unity sought by Jesus in his ‘high-priestly’ prayer (John 17:11) and the common worldwide doxology envisaged by Paul of a single people of God composed of Jews, Greeks, and ‘barbarians’ (Rom 15:8–12) remains imperfectly realized. At least some contemporary treatment of eucharistic sacrifice aims to transcend historic divisions in the service of the universal communio (communion) intended by the church’s founder, Jesus Christ.

Far from standing in isolation, the Eucharist and its sacrificial dimension interact with other major dogmatic loci concerning God (Trinity), Christ (Christology), the Holy Spirit (pneumatology), humanity (anthropology), sin (hamartiology), and the church (ecclesiology). Treatment of the topic of eucharistic sacrifice demands attention to the central New Testament motif of the passion and death of Christ, understood in sacrificial terms as achieving vicarious atonement for the sin of the world. Christ is here seen as both offering priest and sacrificed victim. Nor may this exercise in dogmatics be pursued apart from the fourth longstanding discipline of theological study: practical theology. What churches believe concerning eucharistic sacrifice is manifested in their liturgical rites. Hence the current Roman Catholic position must be ascertained not only from past formal dogmatic statements and the sixteenth-century ‘Tridentine’ Mass, but also in light of the missal of Paul VI, with its four alternative Eucharistic Prayers. The historic Council of Trent has been ‘updated’ in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC: 1356–1372). Recent revisions to the rites of liturgical churches of Reformation heritage (e.g. Anglican, Lutheran) indicate theological development in these communions. Liturgy and actual worship practice may be regarded as ‘primary’ theology, in comparison with which the literary heritage of reflection, accumulated over twenty centuries, takes a lower place as mere ‘secondary’ theology: ‘Leitourgia establishes theology in the way community establishes individuals’ (Fagerberg 1992: 200).

1.2 Contemporary divergences within dogmatics

As historically practised, dogmatics presupposes that God has given a once-for-all revelation of himself in the man Jesus of Nazareth. This revelation is attested in the Old and New Testaments and entrusted to the church: ‘For in him the whole fullness of Godhead dwells bodily’ (Col 2:9). Contemporary Christianity is marked by the Eastern schisms (provoked by opposition to the third and fourth ecumenical councils); by the almost millennium-long split between East and West; and by the multiple fractures of the sixteenth century that have, in the past hundred years, been amplified by the emergence of Pentecostal Christianity as a force in its own right. In the early twenty-first century, different perceptions of the essence of Christianity have given rise to stark divisions within all confessional families and denominations through the response of clergy and laypeople alike to the question whether the content of Christian faith is an unalterable given, to be handed on intact from generation to generation (Heb 1:1–2; CCC: 66) as ‘the faith once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3) – or whether it is a pliable reality that may be adapted according to the needs and aspirations of ages subsequent to the earthly time of Christ. Consensus is lacking between those theologians who align themselves with CCC: 66 and with part one of the Vatican document Dominus Iesus (2000), and those who do not. These statements of the Roman magisterium, which have generated controversy even within the Roman Catholic Church, uphold the traditional claim of the uniqueness and exclusive truth of the Christian religion.

Most scholars acknowledge a historical ‘development of doctrine’ and welcome further unfolding of what is implicit in the unchangeable deposit of faith at the heart of Christianity. However, debate swirls around the issue of when development becomes destruction. According to Maurice Wiles, Paul is mistaken in assuming the historicity of Adam and Eve, calling into question the basis on which Paul depicts Christ as a second Adam (Wiles 1978: 68) or, as Joseph Ratzinger puts it, the ‘Exemplary Man’ (Ratzinger 2004a: 234). On the other hand, CCC: 390 says: ‘The account of the Fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man’ (emphasis added). Ecumenism internal to Christianity has to some extent been overtaken by the study of theology from an interfaith perspective. Those who follow John Hick in adopting a ‘pluralist’ approach to religious truth consistently demand a thoroughgoing reconstruction of the historic dogmatic edifice (Hick 2004; cf. Ratzinger 2004b).

1.3 Pinpointing ‘sacrifice’ to ‘latreutic sacrifice’

Sacrifice is a phenomenon common to religions in general, not just to Christianity in particular (see Sacrifice in the Old Testament; Christianity and Graeco-Roman Paganism). ‘By sacrifice in the widest sense of the term we understand the surrender of a thing to another person, in order to manifest to him our love and esteem’ (Scheeben 1957: 432). As a loan word taken from Latin into English, ‘sacrifice’ is a compound of sacer (‘holy’) and facere (‘make’). Deliberate human activity must take place for things and/or people to be made holy: ‘To sacrifice [opfern] is to present [darbringen] to God’ (Löhe 2011: 129). Biblical language of sacrifice cannot be understood apart from the distinction between the holy and the common (or ‘profane’), a theme dramatically injected into twentieth-century theology by Rudolf Otto in his The Idea of the Holy (1923; originally published in German as Das Heilige, 1917). Holiness and its implications have been registered in most, if not all, religious traditions; for example, ‘[i]n ancient Rome, something that was holy “belonged to the gods” after being removed from the realm of the profane’ (Borgeaud et al. 2012: 380). Even sharper is the difference between the holy and the unclean. According to historic Christianity, God’s holiness requires atonement to be made so that sinful humankind can be admitted to his gracious presence.

Even in the most ‘low church’ settings, in which ritual and liturgy are not emphasized, observance of what Christ instituted in the upper room invariably adopts a ritual form. As they celebrate the Eucharist to the glory of God, participants in Holy Communion intend not only to receive gifts from God but also to pay him homage and honour. At the time of his break with the church authorities in Rome, Luther massively emphasized the ‘gift’ quality of the Eucharist, as a ‘catabatic’ (downward) movement on God’s part. But, a decade later, Luther urged those who did not intend to commune on a given Sunday to make a point of attending Mass:

Although I receive no other benefit from it, I still want to be present to the praise and glory of my God; I want to help in upholding his divine glory and also have a share in making him into a true God. (Luther’s Works, hereafter AE; 1955: 109)

The whole earthly life of Christ, from his conception onwards, is understood in the New Testament as a joyful giving back to God the Father what the Father first bestows on the Son (John 17:4). The Son’s rendering to the Father of what C. S. Lewis labelled ‘gift love’ (Lewis 1988: 7) swells and spreads from Christ, as the Head of the Church, to suffuse all members of his mystical body. According to M. J. Scheeben: ‘The most sublime function of the God-man is the infinite glorification of God, which He is to achieve in Himself and in His mystical body’ (Scheeben 1957: 431). Scheeben used the expression ‘latreutic sacrifice’ (from latreia; Rom 12:2) in this context: ‘[I]n latreutic sacrifice the full capabilities and highest meaning of sacrifice are realized. All other kinds of sacrifice are contained in it, are based on it, and are subordinate to it’ (Scheeben 1957: 431). Ratzinger continues in the same vein: ‘God does not seek bulls and goats but man; man’s unqualified Yes to God could alone form true worship’ (Ratzinger 2004a: 285; Clark 1960: 252–253). The more dogmatics orients itself to the notion of latreutic sacrifice, the more success it may have in accessing scriptural fullness and resolving the impasses left in the wake of sixteenth-century church conflicts.

1.4 Motif 1: eucharistic sacrifice as offering of thanksgiving

Writing of the Ordinary (i.e. the stable portions as opposed to the ‘Proper’ – daily or weekly changing – portions) of the Mass, Luther thought that ‘the Gloria in Excelsis, the Alleluia, the Lord’s Prayer, the Preface, the Sanctus, the Benedictus, and the Agnus Dei’ (Admonition Concerning the Sacrament, 1530; AE: 38 [vol. 123]) were especially suited to giving voice to the sacrifice of thanks and praise which forms an essential element of the Eucharist:

[The Christian] carries out the highest office of a true priest in a twofold way: By thanking, praising, and glorifying God he performs the most beautiful sacrifice, the supreme worship of God, and the most glorious work, namely, a thank offering. (Admonition Concerning the Body and Blood of our Lord, 1530, AE: 111–112 [vol. 38])

All branches of the Christian theological tradition concur with this sentiment, which is an uncontroversial component of theologies of eucharistic sacrifice. As Christian celebration of the Eucharist takes over the berakah (blessing and thanksgiving addressed to God) structure of Jewish prayer, ‘the Eucharistic prayer is the fundamental form of the Eucharistic sacrifice, the oblatio rationabilis [cf. Rom 12:2] of which the Mass itself speaks’ (Duffy 2009: 11). Ratzinger unfolds the New Testament understanding of sacrifice not as man’s anabatic (upward-striving) attempt to appease God’s wrath, but from the perspective of God’s initiative-taking catabatic (downward-moving) act of reconciling humanity to himself in Christ (2 Cor 5:19):

God does not wait until the guilty come to be reconciled: he goes to meet them and reconciles them […] Worship follows in Christianity first of all in thankful acceptance of the divine deed of salvation. The essential form of Christian worship is therefore rightly called Eucharistia, thanksgiving. In this form of worship human achievements are not placed before God; on the contrary, it consists in man’s letting himself be endowed with gifts; we do not glorify God by supposedly giving to him out of our own resources – as if they were not his already! – but by letting ourselves be endowed with his own gifts and thus recognizing him as our only Lord […] Christian sacrifice does not consist in a giving of what God would not have without us but in our becoming totally receptive and letting ourselves be completely taken over by him. Letting God act on us – that is Christian sacrifice. (Ratzinger 2004a: 283, original emphasis)

1.5 Jesus’ sacrificial death

The words used in the institution of the Eucharist in John’s Gospel already understand the death of Jesus as a self-offering. They assume the context of the Old Testament sacrificial system, with Christ (John 6:51, 53–55) specifying his surrendered physical existence in terms of the cultic vocabulary of Deut 12:27. The New Testament counters the devastation wrought by the first Adam by picturing Christ as the new, second Adam (Rom 5:12–21; 1 Cor 15:22, 45) who offers his life as a ransom for many (lutron anti pollōn: Matt 20:28; Mark 10:45); as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29, 36); and as the one whose atoning blood sprinkles the mercy seat (hilastērion en tō autou haimati; Rom 3:25) in the heavenly temple (Heb 8:2; 9:12). The sacrificial cultus of the Old Testament (see Sacrifice and the Old Testament) is here seen as fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus the Messiah.

The notion that ‘Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures’ (1 Cor 15:3) has been present in Christianity from the outset, but some liberal Protestants have called into question the understanding of the death of Jesus in terms of ‘propitiatory’/‘expiatory’ sacrifice (see Rom 3:25). Rendering the Greek hilasterion as ‘expiation’ throws emphasis on the atonement’s effect of cancelling sin and purifying the sinner, while ‘propitiation’ highlights Jesus’ personal act of averting God’s wrath, hence bringing into relief the effect of the atonement upon God (Franzmann 1968: 70–72). Oliver Crisp calls for clear distinctions between various models of vicarious atonement, which tend to be confused and conflated in lazy theological discourse (Crisp 2020); ‘vicarious’ here emphasizes the innocent Christ taking the place of guilty humankind and suffering and acting on its behalf. Anselm’s doctrine of ‘satisfaction’ (which pictures the value of the voluntary sacrifice of the man who is God as infinitely outweighing the totality of human offences) is not identical with the notion of ‘penal substitution’ (i.e. Jesus’ bearing the wrath of God that must otherwise fall with full force upon sinners) – a model that can appeal to the authority of Luther, John Calvin, and Karl Barth. The Anselmian model dominated Roman Catholic theology until the middle of the twentieth century; as Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar said in the 1960s, it was ‘the classic [doctrine] until almost thirty years ago, but nearly unanimously abandoned since’ (von Balthasar and Speyr 2010: 18). Ratzinger admitted that Anselm’s model (and, by implication, ‘penal substitution’) can present a caricature, inviting attack from feminist theology as ‘cosmic child abuse’ (Marshall 2015: 514):

When considered in the vulgarized form that has to a great extent shaped the general consciousness, it looks cruelly mechanical and less and less feasible […the Anselmian system] can make the image of God appear in a sinister light. (Ratzinger 2004a: 231, 233; see also 281)

While much conservative Protestantism upholds the model of penal substitution, von Balthasar speaks for many Roman Catholics by acknowledging Jesus as ‘substitute’ for the human race, while also backing away from the penal dimension that is admittedly present in the thought of Aquinas (von Balthasar and Speyr 2010: 34, 96).

Bloody human sacrifice as such falls under the sharpest condemnation of biblical religion (e.g. Lev 18:21 and other passages). However, in the unique case of the free self-offering of the Son of God, the Christian faith understands freely offered bloody sacrifice to be an instrument of love (1 John 4:10).

In his account of the Old Testament cultus, Roy E. Gane has shown how the God of Israel himself took responsibility for the sins he graciously forgave, permitting his holy place and its altar to be polluted by human iniquity that was then consumed through the purificatory rites of the Day of Atonement. Especially helpful is Gane’s description of how the Aaronic priests daubed sacrificial blood up to and away from the ark of the covenant in the holy place, depicting the two-way process of atonement. Without the Levitical sacrificial system, the New Testament’s account of Jesus as the bearer of the world’s sin – and of the forgiveness he won being dispensed through the preaching of the spoken gospel, baptism, absolution, and the Eucharist – can make no sense. As the church sings with Aquinas: ‘Thy blood, O Lord, one drop has pow’r to win Forgiveness for our world and all its sin’ (‘Thee we adore’, stanza 4, Lutheran Service Book 2006: 640). Apart from this understanding, anchored in the words Jesus spoke over the bread and the cup, the second and third motifs of eucharistic sacrifice surveyed below are bereft of foundation.

As they present Christ’s atonement, Paul, John, and the author to the Hebrews all deliberately draw from a word group used by the Septuagint (LXX) translators to describe the Old Testament sacrificial cultus, especially its account of the annual Day of Atonement. Nine times in Leviticus 16 the aorist of exilaskomai, a variant of hilaskomai, is used by the LXX to translate the Hebrew kipper (cover, atone). Meanwhile, the ‘mercy seat’, i.e. the cover on the ark (Lev 16:15), in Hebrew ha kiporeth, is rendered by the Greek hilastērion. Heb 2:17 pictures Christ as sharing in human nature for the purpose of becoming a merciful and faithful high priest eis to hilaskesthai (RSV ‘to make atonement’) for the sins of the people. In Rom 3:25, God put Christ forward as hilastērion en tō haimati autou, a place or means of expiation or propitiation in his blood. Concerning the use of hilaskomai in the LXX, ‘it would be useless to deny that the idea of substitution is present to some degree’ (Kittel 1995: 310).

The Hebrews text just cited (note the present tense infinitive) allows for Christ’s high priestly work to encompass more than his bloody death. It centres on his bringing of his atoning blood into the heavenly sanctuary, and his dispensation of it to the church for its purification and sanctification. It is significant that 1 John twice uses a term that occurs twice in Ezekiel (hilasmon, accusative singular [44:27]; and once in a variant form, exilasmou, genetive singular [45:19]) to describe Jesus himself as the hilasmos, for our sins (1 John 2:2; 4:10). Like Paul in Rom 3:25, John underscores how ‘the blood of Jesus his Son is cleansing us from all sin’ (1 John 1:8). Some are reluctant to render kipper and its equivalent hilastērion as ‘propitiation’, since this word could give the impression of Jesus buying off the wrath of a vengeful deity; in trinitarian theology, this would be to set God against himself. The often-preferred rendition ‘expiation’ allows for the understanding that God’s grace and love provide atonement by having his incarnate Son take responsibility for human sin and its consequences. In this way, God takes humanity’s burden on his own shoulders, draining through himself the poison of its misdeeds.

1.6 Motif 2: eucharistic sacrifice as participation in sacrificial banquet

Broad interconfessional agreement marks our second motif: namely, the understanding of the Eucharist as a sacrificial banquet to be partaken of by the faithful (CCC: 1382). This aspect of the rite takes on different intensity according to whether the consecrated and distributed elements of bread and wine are believed to be Jesus’ actual body and blood, symbols of their absent reality, or instruments somehow effecting participation in them. The priest’s post-epiclesis prayer (i.e calling on the Holy Spirit, following the words of institution) in the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom strikes a common chord:

That they [the Lord’s body and blood] may be unto them that partake thereof unto vigilance of soul, the remission of sins, the communion of thy Holy Ghost, the fulfilment of the Kingdom of heaven; and for boldness to approach, neither unto judgment not unto condemnation. (Orthodox Liturgy 1982: 77)

According to Luther, ‘[we] go the sacrament because we receive there a great treasure, through and in which we obtain the forgiveness of sins’ (Large Catechism 1529 5.22; Luther 1959a: 449). As in the peace/wellbeing offerings of the Old Testament, the Eucharist as sacrificial banquet effects communion between God and his human creatures. This second motif has been prominent in recent Lutheran dogmatics (Sasse 1985: 88–89; Stephenson 2003: 111–115; Kleinig 2003): the sacrament of the altar is a sacrificial meal, hosted by Jesus himself, in which he distributes the fruits of his atoning work by vouchsafing participation in his body and blood. Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth demonstrates the presence of the motif in seventeenth-century Anglicanism, calling it ‘not a Sacrifice, but a Sacrificial Feast’ (Clark 1960: 517, n. 10). This emphasis might be acceptable to those in the Reformed tradition who follow Calvin in his Traité sur la sainte Cène of 1541. There, Calvin teaches that although the mouths of communicants do not receive Christ’s body and blood, their souls participate in these realities when lifted by the Holy Spirit to the heavenly places.

1.7 Motif 3: eucharistic sacrifice as propitiatory sacrifice offered by celebrant

Our third motif understands the Eucharist as a propitiatory sacrifice, provided by God for the church (through its ministers) to offer back to him. Chapter Two of the Council of Trent’s Decree on the Sacrifice of the Mass (17 September 1562) counters the decades-long critique from Lutherans and Reformed churches with the teaching that what Christ offered as he shed his blood on the cross is ‘contained and offered in bloodless manner’ in the Sacrament of the Altar:

This is a truly propitiatory sacrifice (vere propitiatorium) […] For it is one and the same victim here offering himself by the ministry of his priests, who then offered himself on the cross: it is only the manner of offering that is different. (Tanner 1990: 733 [vol. 2])

Debates on related topics such as indulgences, justification, and purgatory were raging when the Tridentine fathers argued that this form of eucharistic sacrifice

is quite properly offered according to apostolic tradition, not only for the sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other needs of the faithful who are living, but also for those who have died in Christ but are not yet fully cleansed. (Tanner 1990: 734 [vol. 2])

The crux of ongoing interconfessional debate is whether the church’s/celebrant’s act of offering is itself propitiatory. This dimension of eucharistic sacrifice remains the most controversial component of its interlocking themes, and the one where ecumenical rapprochement is still incomplete.

1.8 Ongoing application of Levitical regulations to sacramental life of the church

Because the eucharist is better understood as the consummation rather than simple abolition of the Old Testament sacrificial system, it comes as no surprise that Levitical regulations have often and widely been applied to the sacramental life of the church in general and to the Eucharist in particular. Not only Roman Catholics and Orthodox, but also Anglicans and Lutherans (as sacramental Protestants) see the need for purification before approaching the altar. Classical Lutherans received absolution in private confession, a rite today mainly replaced by the imparting of general absolution. Formulae of penitence prior to receiving Holy Communion are a feature of most liturgies, unsurprisingly so given the prescription of the Didache, one of the earliest post-biblical documents recording church practice: On the Lord’s own day gather together and break bread and give thanks, having first confessed your sins so that your sacrifice (hē thusia humōn) may be pure (Didache 14:1; Holmes 2007: 365).

The fast of the Old Testament Day of Atonement is echoed and multiplied in the Orthodox requirement that no food be eaten from midnight prior to receiving the sacrament. This ancient regulation has been modified into a token one-hour fast from solid food and other drink besides water in Roman Catholicism following the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II). Lutheranism formally acknowledges the value of the eucharistic fast (Large Catechism 1529: 5.37; Luther 1959a: 19, 450–451; Small Catechism 1529: 5.4; Luther 1959b: 352). The Ethiopian branch of the Oriental Orthodox Church baptizes male infants forty days and female infants eighty days after birth (cf. Lev 12:2–8). While historic Eastern Orthodoxy applied Levitical legislation to much of its sacramental life (Butcher 2015: 344), such practice has recently diminished, being retained mainly in certain parts of Russia. Parallel to the duty of Old Testament priests to refrain from marital intimacy while actively serving in the Temple, married Orthodox priests (who rarely celebrate a daily Divine Liturgy) are to abstain from intercourse the night before celebrating the Divine Liturgy and also on fast days. As Roman Catholic priests normally celebrate a daily Mass, the celibacy requirement has been defended not only as a suitable discipline based on the example of the Lord himself, but also as a practice of ‘perfect and permanent continence’ (Code of Canon Law 1985: #277) called for by the priest’s daily handling of holy things.

2 Exegetical foundations

2.1 Sedes doctrinae/textual bases

New Testament scholars have made varying judgements concerning the historicity of the Pauline (1 Cor 11:23–25) and Synoptic (Matt 26:26–28; Mark 14:22–24; Luke 22:19–20) accounts of the institution of the Eucharist, and of the Johannine (John 6:53–58) parallel to these passages. In this process, judgements are determined not only by the impression made by the text but also by the mindset brought by exegetes to their task. The roots of all theologies of eucharistic sacrifice are to be sought in interpretations of the scope of the mandate spoken by Jesus in the upper room: ‘This do in remembrance of me’. From this imperative, wide consensus has emerged that the church is to repeat (or, better, continue) the rite Jesus inaugurated, and hence that the church (acting through its ministers) is to do and say what the Lord himself said and did on that occasion. The institution narratives may plausibly be interpreted as establishing a rite that is, structurally speaking, a ‘sacrifice’ (Bicknell 1925: 515–517; Spens 1926: 430f.; Jenson 1984: 338, 349f.). It is certainly an offering of thanks, a commemorative sacrifice, and a partaking of holy things (that is, the body and blood of Christ). Paul considers the Lord’s Supper of his churches analogous to Jewish and pagan sacrificial meals (1 Cor 10:18–22).

The writer to the Hebrews presents Jesus as the Priest according to the order of Melchizedek prophesied in Ps 110:4. In Hebrews 7–9, the exalted Christ is described as exercising a liturgical ministry in the heavenly sanctuary, on which the first and second temples were patterned (Exod 25:40). Having offered a once-for-all sacrifice of himself (Heb 9:26; 10:12), he has entered the holy place, taking with him his own blood (Heb 9:12, 24), there to perform a priestly act of intercession for his people (Heb 7:25; 8:1–3). If, as is likely, Heb 13:10 and 12:18–24 describe the Eucharist of the worshipping community on Earth, Hebrews richly resources a perspective on eucharistic sacrifice where Christ’s heavenly intercession takes place concurrently with sacramental celebrations here below.

2.2 Participation in Christ’s sacrificial body and blood

In the words of institution, Christ interpreted his upcoming death as the definitive sacrifice for the world’s sin. The first sacrificial dimension of the rite is obvious: Jesus gives, as food to his disciples, what he offers to the Father, already by way of anticipation (‘proleptically’) at table, and then in bloody fashion on the cross the next day. He invites them to partake of a sacrificial banquet, understood more or less realistically according to whether his body and blood are believed to be substantially present in the consecrated and distributed elements of bread and wine. In identifying bread as his body (‘flesh’ [sarx] in the Johannine version, John 6:53–56) and wine as his blood, Jesus deliberately availed himself of the language of the Old Testament sacrificial cultus (Deut 12:27). Already, for this reason, the Eucharist may not be excised from the umbrella category of sacrifice.

2.3 Thanksgiving

Because the rendering of thanks to the Father is embraced in Christ’s command ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ (1 Cor 11:24–25; Luke 22:19), celebration of Holy Communion necessarily involves the specific giving of thanks, whether in Proper Preface (a part of the liturgy that introduces the Service of the Sacrament that is preceded by the Service of the Word) or Eucharistic Prayer or both. This form of eucharistic sacrifice is evident in the technical term Eucharist (‘Thanksgiving’) itself, which first surfaced in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch at the turn of the second century. Hartmut Gese deepened appreciation of this motif with his demonstration that Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist may be understood as a unique instance of the peace/wellbeing offering from the Levitical system, known as tōda sacrifice (Lev 7:12). This voluntary offering took the shape of a communal celebration of an act of divine deliverance performed for an individual, with certain psalms (e.g. Ps 22; 40:1–12; 51; 69) corresponding to this genre (Ratzinger 1986: 54). Jesus is here pictured as trusting in the Father in such a way that he goes into his death anticipating his swift glorification, which he bids the future church celebrate as his ongoing tōda. According to Gese:

In the old tōda the man who had experienced deliverance provided a sacrificial animal as a sacrifice for himself and the community. However, the Risen Lord has given himself; the sacrifice is his sacrifice, his physical, earthly existence, offered up for us […] Because of its sacredness as a sacrifice, the food of the sacred meal represented by the sacrificial bread is the body of Jesus […] The bread does not signify the body of Jesus in a metaphorical sense; in its very nature, as the substance of the meal eaten in tōda sacrifice, it is the sacrifice of Jesus. (Quoted in Ratzinger 1986: 57)

In this context, it is worth noting how Jer 33:11 persuaded at least four rabbis that the thank-offering would be the only form of sacrifice practised in the messianic age (Strack and Billerbeck 1926: 246 [vol. 1]).

Thomas Winger has argued that the New Testament itself likely contains a eucharistic prayer in Eph 1:3–14. This prayer of strongly Jewish flavour, which bears the solemn mark associated with liturgical language, would surely have reminded the letter’s recipients of Paul’s Sunday-by-Sunday prayer at the altar during his three-year sojourn in their midst (Winger 2015: 193, 201, 213).

2.4 Propitiatory sacrifice to be offered by the church?

The question arises whether ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ charges celebrants not only to consecrate and administer what the Lord has offered once-for-all in his sacrifice, but also to offer this reality to the Father for the benefit of the church. Can the Eucharist be considered a propitiatory sacrifice offered by celebrant (and congregation) for the living and the dead? Before dismissing this question, Christians of the Reformation traditions might profitably focus on a text often ignored in the context of eucharistic sacrifice. Wide consensus exists between most churches that the Eucharist is to be celebrated only by ordained ministers. In a dense passage of few words, which suffers from under-translation, at the end of his letter to the Romans, Paul pictures his ministry to date through imagery borrowed from the OT Aaronic priesthood. In order to bring fresh perspectives to bear on this topic and to avoid simply recycling longstanding debates, it would be well for dogmatic consideration of eucharistic sacrifice to consider the relevance of Rom 15:16 to this theme. Paul says that God, in his unmerited favour, has given Paul the concrete gift of becoming a leitourgos (a word familiar from LXX in the sense of a priestly or Levitical servant at the altar, e.g. Num 18:21) to the Gentiles. In a linguistic move that would be impossible in English, the noun ‘priest’ takes verbal form as Paul pictures his preaching and sacramental ministry as not only directed at its human recipients but also as a Godward offering of the gospel at the altar. The purpose is that the ‘offering’ (prosphora) of the Gentiles (not merely of their collection for the poor in Jerusalem, but of their whole selves) might be acceptable to God, ‘sanctified’ (itself a word with sacrificial overtones) in the Holy Spirit (see Brevint 1673: 90). It will be apparent to those familiar with New Testament Greek how this content-packed verse has suffered under-translation into English. Just as leitourgos conjures up more than a Protestant minister of the word, so the verb form of this word implies more than generic ‘worship’ when used of the clergy of the church of Antioch in Acts 13:2, a verse which gives the impression of the celebration of the Eucharist as an antitype of Aaronic priests serving in the first and second temples. These two verses encourage the view that celebrants are engaged in a ‘priestly’ task when they preside at the Eucharist.

2.5 Offering of ‘ourselves, our souls and bodies’

The New Testament foundations are open to interrogation on the relationship between two things: first, the congregation’s sacrifice of thanksgiving, in word and life and overall self-gift; and second, Christ’s own sacrifice, supremely exemplified in the crucifixion, believed to be mediated to communicants through consecrated bread and wine. Is the congregation’s role purely passive, or is its own self-giving inseparable from its reception of divine bounty? What is the relationship between the Eucharist and Paul’s deliberate usage of cultic terminology in Rom 12:1 and Col 1:21 and 1:28, where Christians are to ‘present’ themselves – and Paul as their shepherd ‘presents’ them – in the same way gifts are offered in the temple?

3 Review of historic tradition(s)

3.1 Paradosis/tradition: from singular to plural

The singular ‘tradition’ (paradosis) handed on from Christ to the apostles and transmitted by them to future generations has developed into a plurality of traditions, as controversies have led to schism. Because the New Testament church exhibited a plurality of expression, dogmatics faces the question of how much variety can be accommodated without interruption of eucharistic communion.

3.2 Didache

Intimations of future fractures are not apparent in the first testimonies to the Eucharist being subsumed under the heading of ‘sacrifice’. Both the Council of Trent (Tanner 1990: 733 [vol. 2]) and the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (Apology 24: 31–33; Tappert 1959a: 255) deem Mal 1:11a proof text for their respective (divergent) accounts of eucharistic sacrifice. However, as first applied to the Eucharist in Didache 14:3, Malachi’s prophecy of a pure worldwide offering to the Lord cannot be neatly slotted into the categories of eucharistic sacrifice distinguished above. Such categorization depends on the ecclesial-confessional lenses through which one reads the Old Testament and patristic texts. Rowan Williams underscores ‘the very fluid language of second-century writers about Christian sacrifice’ (Williams 1982: 6). The author of the Didache twice describes the Eucharist of the celebrating community as ‘your sacrifice’ (hē thusia hēmōn; 14: 1, 2; Holmes 2007: 364); LXX’s prosagetai at Mal 1:11 is rendered loosely through the cultic verb prospherein (14:3; Holmes 2007: 366).

Intimations of future fractures are not apparent in the first testimonies to the Eucharist being subsumed under the heading of ‘sacrifice’. Both the Council of Trent (Tanner 1990: 733 [vol. 2]) and the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (Apology 24: 31–33; Tappert 1959a: 255) deem Mal 1:11a proof text for their respective (divergent) accounts of eucharistic sacrifice. However, as first applied to the Eucharist in Didache 14:3, Malachi’s prophecy of a pure worldwide offering to the Lord cannot be neatly slotted into the categories of eucharistic sacrifice distinguished above. Such categorization depends on the ecclesial-confessional lenses through which one reads the Old Testament and patristic texts. Rowan Williams underscores ‘the very fluid language of second-century writers about Christian sacrifice’ (Williams 1982: 6). The author of the Didache twice describes the Eucharist of the celebrating community as ‘your sacrifice’ (hē thusia hēmōn; 14: 1, 2; Holmes 2007: 364); LXX’s prosagetai at Mal 1:11 is rendered loosely through the cultic verb prospherein (14:3; Holmes 2007: 366).

3.3 First Clement

1 Clement 40’s reminder of the duties of the Levitical priesthood leads up to Clement’s fuller treatment of the Christian ministry in chapters 42 and 44. Holders of episcopal office are described, in an obvious allusion to the Eucharist, as ‘those who have offered the gifts blamelessly and in holiness’, tous amemptōs kai hosiōs prosenenkontas (from prospherein) ta dōra tēs episkopēs (1 Clement 44:4; Holmes 2007: 104–105). Note the verbal overlap with Heb 8:3’s depiction of Christ’s duty as high priest ‘to offer gifts’ (eis to propherein dōra). Clement displays comfort using cultic sacrificial language for the Eucharist.

3.4 Ignatius of Antioch

Ignatius of Antioch, whose thinking revolves around the Eucharist, anticipates Cyprian’s claim that ‘outside the Church there is no salvation’ (extra ecclesiam nulla salus) with his warning that ‘one not within the altar (ean mē tis ē entos tou thusiastēriou) lacks the bread of God’ (Eph 5:2; Holmes 2007: 186).

3.5 Justin Martyr

In Dialogue with Trypho 117, and with Christian rejection of animal sacrifice in mind, Justin Martyr admits that ‘prayers and thanksgivings, offered by worthy persons, are the only perfect and acceptable sacrifices to God’ (Falls 1948: 328). Both there and in chapter 41 he invokes the Malachi prophecy and labels the ‘Eucharistic Bread and Chalice […] a sacrifice that Christ has commanded us to offer’ (Falls 1948: 209).

3.6 Irenaeus

Likewise, applying Mal 1:11 to the Eucharist, Irenaeus laid an anti-Gnostic stress on the goodness of the created elements of bread and wine presented as first fruits (primitiae) to God, teaching that

[Jesus] took that created thing, bread, and gave thanks, and said: ‘This is My body.’ And the cup likewise, which is part of that creation to which we belong, He confessed to be His blood, and taught the new oblation of the new covenant; which the Church receiving from the apostles, offers to God throughout all the world. (Against Heresies 4.5; Ante-Nicene Fathers 1979: 484 [vol. 1])

3.7 Cyprian of Carthage

Everett Ferguson speaks for many in attributing a certain novelty to Cyprian of Carthage, who, ‘in a bold step anticipating later developments, combined the idea of a sacrifice of the Eucharist and a real presence of Christ in the elements’ (Ferguson 2015: 132). According to Cyprian, ‘the Lord’s passion is the sacrifice we offer’ (Letter 63:17; Cyprian of Carthage 1964: 213). In much Protestant perception, Cyprian forms part of a fateful development in the history of theology (Lampe 1962: 181–185).

3.8 Augustine

Augustine’s famous testimony in City of God 10.6, eludes tidy confessional classification. David Knowles remarked that, as Augustine was always ‘ready to share, but not to define’, he – with the exception of his contribution to the Pelagian controversy – tends to disappoint ‘those who wish for clear-cut edges’ (Augustine of Hippo 1972: xxii—xxiii). Augustine’s lack of terminological precision is apparent in his wide-open definition of sacrifice itself:

Thus the true sacrifice is offered in every act which is designed to unite us to God in a holy fellowship, every act, that is, which is directed to that final Good which makes possible our true felicity. (Augustine of Hippo 1972: 379)

A kindred definition of the genus of sacrifice, from influential seventh-century father Isidore of Seville, is relevant in this context: ‘It is called a sacrifice in its capacity as a sacred deed, because it is consecrated by the mystical prayer in memory of the Lord’s suffering for us’ (Kidd 1958: 34). The focus on the gifts of grace at work in the members of the mystical body culminates in Augustine’s conclusion:

This is the sacrifice which the Church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar, a sacrament well-known to the faithful where it is shown to the Church that she herself is offered in the offering which she presents to God. (Augustine of Hippo 1972: 380)

Augustine’s conclusion is broad, and most believers of divided Western Christianity can find a home in it.

3.9 Paschasius Radbertus

In the ninth century, Paschasius Radbertus stamped a twofold mark on the church’s subsequent understanding of the Eucharist. First, he reiterated – and to some extent sharpened – the age-old belief in the ‘real presence’. This is the belief that the consecrated elements are the actual body and blood of Christ, a position concerning which Luther would later agree with Paschasius. According to Paschasius, the body of the Lord present on the altar is the same body, conceived and born of Mary, that hung on the cross. Paschasius’ second emphasis, however, would contribute to later medieval developments that sparked Luther’s protest: Paschasius stressed the identity of the sacrifice present on the altar with that enacted on the cross in such a way that, at the consecration of the sacrament, ‘Christ suffers anew (iterum patitur) and ‘his Passion is repeated in a genuine immolation or slaying (mactatio)’ (Jungmann 1976: 71). This unbloody mystical ‘slaying’ could be detected in such ritual gestures as the fraction of the host (i.e. the ritual breaking of the consecrated bread), and the giving of the body of Christ to be ground by the teeth of the faithful and the pouring of his blood into their mouths (Jungmann 1976: 72). In the long run, this interpretation was to sow the seeds of the impression that the medieval church denied the unrepeatability of Jesus’ once-for-all (eph hapax; Heb 10:10) suffering for the sins of the world. It hinted that something – an imperfect work of a fallen creature – needed to be added to the finished work of Christ.

3.10 Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas

A modest account of the relationship between eucharistic sacrifice and the once-for-all sacrifice on the cross was given by Peter Lombard, the initiator of scholastic theology, and by Thomas Aquinas, its most distinguished practitioner. In Lombard’s overall treatment of the sacrament of the altar, the chief emphasis is on a repeated refutation of Berengarius of Tours, who had contested Paschasius’ account of the real presence. Only one chapter or distinction, chapter 12 of Book 4 of the Sentences, is devoted to the topic of whether and how the sacrament of the altar is a sacrifice, a question to which Peter responds in the affirmative:

It may briefly be said that what is offered and consecrated by the priest is called sacrifice and oblation (sacrificium et oblationem), because it is a remembrance and representation (memoria et repraesentatio) of the true sacrifice and the holy immolation made on the altar of the cross. And indeed Christ died only once, namely on the cross, and there he was immolated in himself; but he is daily immolated in the sacrament, because in the sacrament is made a remembrance of what was done once. (Lombard 2010: 64)

Thomas Cranmer, who sided with Berengarius against the Lombard on the real presence, was content with the Sentences’ account of eucharistic sacrifice (Kidd 1958: 21).

Following Lombard, the Eucharist was portrayed as a relative (not absolute) sacrifice, as a memorial sacrifice, and as an image that effects repraesentatio (literally a making present again, whether in actuality or to the mind’s eye) of the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ. The precise sense of repraesentatio is of crucial import in subsequent and contemporary dogmatics: is it a making present of Christ himself in his body and blood with his finished work and its fruits? Or does it (the ‘re’ functioning as a trigger) involve the church’s addition to the ‘once-for-all’ that remains non-negotiable on the Protestant side while also being fully acknowledged by virtually all Catholics? Protestants inclined to hasty criticism should consider how

Thomas revealed a certain reserve in calling the Mass a sacrifice. For when he thought of sacrifice his mind turned immediately and totally to the sacrifice of the Cross; the suffering of Christ was a true sacrifice (verum sacrificium; ST 31, 74:4), a true immolation (vera immolation), of which the Mass is only a re-presentation (imago quaedam repraesentativa; 83:1). But insofar as this sacrament is the re-presentation (repraesentatur) of Christ’s suffering, in which he has offered himself to God as victim, it ‘has the nature of a sacrifice’ (rationem sacrificii habet; 79:7). (Jungmann 1976: 76)

Aquinas has been misrepresented in Protestant scholarship ever since Melanchthon attributed to him a statement that did not in fact come from his pen:

We therefore reject the error of Thomas when he writes, ‘The body of the Lord, once offered on the cross for the original debt, is daily offered on the altar for daily offenses so that in this the church might have a service that reconciles God’. (Apology of the Augsburg Confession 1531: 24, 62; Tappert 1959a: 260)


It is impossible that either St Thomas or his master [Albert, in whose works the sentence had originally, but wrongly been printed] could have committed themselves to [this] theological error […] Both, as trained theologians, uniformly teach that our Lord’s Sacrifice upon the Cross was the one propitiation for all sins, original as well as actual; and that the Eucharist, though a distinct, was no independent sacrifice, but drew all its efficacy from its relation to the Sacrifice of the Cross. (Kidd 1958: 62)

The fake news, broadcast by Melanchthon, even yet muddies the waters of interconfessional discourse.

3.11 Martin Luther and Lutheranism

The generations preceding the sixteenth-century Reformation witnessed an extended age of religious anxiety, whose proximate roots include the shock of the Black Death and the insecurity prompted by the coexistence of multiple rival popes between 1378 and 1415. The anxiety of a high mortality rate, and fears of an impending judicial encounter with a holy God, manifested in an ‘inflationary spiral’ of indulgences (Southern 1970: 136–143). It also led to a dramatic multiplication of eucharistic celebrations in the form of the offering of votive Masses for the living and also for the relief of penalties undergone by the suffering souls in purgatory. In his will, England’s King Henry VII cast aside the parsimony of a lifetime by funding the offering of ten thousand Masses for his soul. Peter Brown dates the rise of pious terror at the prospect of appearance at the divine judgment seat to the sixth century, when the development of ‘tariffed penance’ linked assurance of divine pardon to the discharge of penitential ‘satisfactions’; ‘[p]reviously, Christian believers had been, perhaps, happier and more confident of their salvation’ (Brown 2003: 262). Luther’s ‘rediscovery’ and rhetorically powerful articulation of the gospel cannot be appreciated apart from this spiritual climate in which he, with a ‘bruised conscience’ (Rupp 1953: 102–120), sought personal assurance of peace with God.

Luther’s lack of assurance of divine favour increased as he applied to his own use of the late medieval sacramental system Gabriel Biel’s maxim that ‘God does not deny grace to the one who does what in him lies – facienti quod in se est Deus non denegat gratiam’ (Oberman 1983: 132–134). What Biel intended as benign encouragement, the young Luther experienced as intolerable burden: was he truly contrite? Had he confessed in full? Had he completely discharged the penances laid on him? His ‘breakthrough’ came as he escaped the impression that the ‘righteousness of God’ (iustitia Dei), specified as the heart of the gospel in Rom 1:17, is retributive justice. Light dawned when he understood this image to speak instead of God’s gracious gift (Williams 1980: 142–158). As controversy erupted around Luther’s 95 Theses, he articulated the gospel as the indulgence of all indulgences. Thereupon Luther recalibrated the sacramental system as the overflowing dispensation of divine bounty.

In this process, Luther took pruning shears to the thick bush of the church’s longstanding use of sacrificial language in connection with the Eucharist. Since ‘[t]his Sacrament is the Gospel’ (Adoration of the Sacrament 1523; AE: 289 [vol. 36]) and the gospel is pure gift of God from above to below (catabatic/downwards, not anabatic/upwards in its movement), the body of Christ – ‘a divine sacrifice offered to God’ (AE: 357 [vol. 37]) – cannot possibly be an object directly offered by the church to the Father in the Eucharist. As contemporary systematic theology revaluates positions seemingly set in stone five centuries ago, the question for Lutherans is whether Luther’s notion of a ‘work’, supposedly offered autonomously to appease the wrath of an angry God, accurately summarizes the church’s historic testimony to the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist.

Luther’s theology did not grow in a vacuum but took shape within (and not outside) the late medieval church. As they denounce the propitiatory form of eucharistic sacrifice, the Lutheran confessions offer two specific critiques that are inseparable from the conditions and impressions of the first generation of adherents to the Wittenberg Reformation begun by Luther. In the Smalcald Articles, Luther accuses Rome of abandoning the once-for-all sacrifice of Calvary in favour of the multitude of sacrifices offered at successive Masses. He focuses on the role of the Mass as a money-making scheme enabling the clergy to fleece the laity in order to keep body and soul together in the most comfortable manner possible: a holy rite has been disgracefully commercialized (Smalcald Articles 2.2.6; Tappert 1955: 293). His root and branch condemnation of the propitiatory sacrifice of the Mass in Smalcald Articles 2.2 is a conclusion from the major premise articulated in Smalcald Articles 2.1, which sets forth the

first and chief article [...] that Jesus Christ our God and Lord, was put to death for our trespasses and raised again for our justification’ (Rom 4:25). He alone is ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). ‘God has laid upon him the iniquities of us all’ (Isa 53:6). Moreover, ‘all have sinned,’ and ‘they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, by his blood’ (Rom 3:23–25). (Smalcald Articles 2.1; Tappert 1955: 292)

Some Lutherans reading these New Testament texts still assume that the Roman Catholic Church categorically denies the truth of these verses, an assumption that forms the minor premise for the conclusion that follows:

I would suffer myself to be burned to ashes before I would allow a celebrant of the Mass and what he does to be considered equal or superior to my Saviour, Jesus Christ. Accordingly we are and remain eternally divided and opposed the one to the other. (Smalcald Articles 2.2.10; Tappert 1955: 294)

Modern Lutherans who grant Luther’s major premise are obliged to question whether, in the heat of fierce conflict, he rightly assessed the teaching of the Roman magisterium.

In Apology of the Augsburg Confession 24, Philipp Melanchthon charges that the Roman Church believed the Mass to discharge its benefits automatically by the sheer performance of the rite, apart from any penitence by the recipients, as though merely going through the motions is acceptable to God. Gottfried Martens, a contemporary confessional Lutheran theologian, has shown that Melanchthon’s critique of the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice is connected with his misunderstanding of the scholastic formula ex opere operato (‘in virtue of the work performed’). This expression that the medieval theologians interpreted as highlighting valid celebration of the Eucharist Melanchthon took as referring to its blessed reception (Martens 1997). Martens’ significant insight has not yet impacted Lutheran dogmatic reflection: ‘it becomes clear that, in unfortunate ways, people in the sixteenth century were speaking past each other’ (Walter 2015: 316).

3.12 John Calvin

Zwingli, Calvin, and the other fathers of the Protestant Reformation concurred with Luther’s judgement on the sacrifice of the Mass. Calvin condemned the perceived Roman doctrine (Institutes 18; Calvin 1960: 1429–1446),

contending against that opinion with which the Roman Antichrist and his prophets have infected the whole world: namely, that the Mass is a work by which the priest who offers up Christ, and the others who participate in the oblation, merit God’s favour, or it is an expiatory victim, by which they reconcile God to themselves. (Institutes 18.1; Calvin 1960: 1429)

In the second half of the sixteenth century the Church of England aligned with the Swiss pattern of Reformation. The English Reformers shared Luther and Calvin’s denunciation of the Sacrifice of the Mass (Clark 1960: 127–176), a position they articulated in the thirty-first of the Thirty-Nine Articles (which are printed in every edition of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer):

The offering of Christ once made is the perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual, and there is none other satisfaction for sin but that alone. Wherefore the sacrifices of Masses, in which it was commonly said, that the Priests did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits. (Bicknell 1925: 515)

3.13 Tridentine response and reaffirmation

Long before Rome delivered its definitive response to Lutheran and Reformed critiques at the Council of Trent, theologians committed to papal authority came to the defence of received doctrine and practice. The Pontifical Confutation of the Augsburg Confession took sharp exception to the charge brought in Augsburg Confession 24.21, which Melanchthon would shortly seek to substantiate with a quotation wrongly attributed to Thomas Aquinas:

Nor is it the case, as they assume we teach, that Christ’s suffering and death was on behalf of original sin and thus the masses were instituted for the sake of actual sin. Catholics have never subscribed to this teaching, and today, if asked, would deny being taught such a thing. The truth is that the Mass does not abolish sins – repentance is the remedy designed specifically for this malady. (Kolb and Nestingen 2001: 128)

However, the early anti-Lutheran polemicist Ambrosius Catharinus did at times supply grist to Melanchthon’s mill (Stone 1909: 70–75 [vol. 2]). Ongoing conflict was fostered not only by Catharinus but also by the Tridentine definition not standing alone in its opposition to the Protestant challenge. Some Catholic theologians of that age wittingly or unwittingly added to the impression – held by Lutherans, Reformed, and the infant Church of England – that Rome added to or even multiplied what Cranmer labelled Christ’s ‘full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world’ (Prayer of Consecration, Book of Common Prayer). Josef Jungmann points out that an argument emphasized by the Reformed theologians may have had the unintended consequence of pushing their Catholic opponents to double down on the thesis that the events of Christ’s passion are somehow, ‘mystically’, replicated in the sacramental rite. Jungmann writes that the Reformed writers’ Catholic opponents

evidently refer to the objection raised by Zwingli after 1523 and later repeated by Calvin and the English reformers: when Christ is offered in the Mass, he must be slain anew, for to sacrifice means to slay. The striking thing in the reaction of Catholic theology is that it never challenged this understanding of the notion. (Jungmann 1976: 88, emphasis added)

E. L. Mascall notes that the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Catholic polemicists untiringly contrasted the bloody immolation of Calvary with the unbloody immolation of the Mass, pointing out that:

Nevertheless, the domination of their thought by the idea of repetition has caused them to look for some ceremonial act, included in the celebration of the Mass, which depicts and, as it were, re-enacts the slaying on Calvary, and they have conceived the sacrificial character of the Mass as residing in this act. They have viewed the Mass rather as a kind of passion-play, differing from other passion-plays simply in the facts that it has been instituted by Christ and that he himself takes the role of the victim. Thus Melchior Cano, to take but one example, saw the fraction of the host as the essentially sacrificial act, re-enacting the breaking of Christ’s body on the Cross; with the startling consequence that a Mass in which the fraction was omitted would be no sacrifice at all. Others, such as Salmeron, Vasquez and Lessius, have located the essential sacrificial act in the separate consecration of the Body and Blood, typifying the separation of Christ’s blood from his body in his death. Others again, such as de Lugo and Franzelin, have conceived the transubstantiation of the elements as inflicting a kind of humiliation upon the glorified Christ, as reducing him sacramentally to a lower condition (status declivior), as producing a kind of kenosis (desitio) of the risen Lord. Whatever its weaknesses, and they are many, this last view has at least the advantage over the others that it associates the sacrificial character of the Mass with the consecration of the elements and not with something done to them after they are consecrated. But all these views have the inherent defect that they locate the sacrificial character of the Mass in some feature of it which is alleged to re-enact, in however ‘mystical’ or symbolic a way, the slaying of Christ on Calvary. They all envisage the Mass as a repetition, even if an ‘unbloody’ repetition, of Calvary. They naturally tend, in spite of the efforts of their exponents to avoid this conclusion, to make the Mass a sacrifice numerically different from Calvary, even if dependent upon it. (Mascall 1953: 85–87, original emphasis)

At the twenty-second session of the Council of Trent, held in September 1562, the assembled fathers confessed against Luther, Calvin, and all who would follow them outside Roman communion:

And so he, our Lord and God, was to offer himself once (semel) to God the Father on the altar of the cross, a death thereby occurring that would secure for them eternal redemption. But his priesthood was not to be eliminated by death. So, in order to leave to his beloved spouse the church a visible sacrifice (as human nature requires), by which that bloody sacrifice carried out on the cross could be represented (repraesentaretur), its memory (memoria) persist until the end of time, and its saving power be applied (applicaretur) to the forgiveness of the sins which we daily commit; therefore, at the last supper on the night he was betrayed, as the catholic church has always understood and taught, he announced that he had been appointed for ever a second priest in the order of Melchisedech, offered his body and blood to God the Father under the forms of bread and wine, and handed them on to the apostles under the same material symbols to be received by them (whom at that point he was making priests of the new covenant), and he commanded them and their successors in the priesthood to offer them by the words: Do this in remembrance of me etc. (Tanner 1990: 733 [vol. 2])

‘For it is one and the same victim here offering himself by the ministry of his priests, who then offered himself on the cross: it is only the manner of offering that is different’ (ch. 2; Tanner 1990: 733 [vol. 2]). The fathers of Trent may not be accused of crass Pelagianism (i.e. profession of justification by works), since the offering they purpose to present to God is his own pure gift.

Two major expositions of the Sacrifice of the Mass appeared in the early twentieth century. Following Anscar Vonier’s A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist (1925), Maurice de la Taille in his two-volume The Mystery of Faith (1940) is credited with a ‘sane and splendid account of the interrelation of the Supper, the Cross and the Church’s Sacrifice’ (Nichols 1991: 102; La Taille 1940): ‘it was in the Supper that Christ ritually offered the sacrifice of his Passion […] in the Supper, Christ offered his own body to the death in blood he was to undergo on the Cross’ (Nichols 1991: 102f.).

By the end of the twentieth century, in the context of ongoing controversy over the interpretation of Vatican II, some Catholic theologians were in full reaction against the understanding of eucharistic sacrifice evident from Trent through to the magisterial documents of Pope John Paul II (Daly 2000; Pomplun 2015: 348–349) Spirited and learned defence of the account of eucharistic sacrifice during this epoch refuted the Protestant charge that Rome officially teaches reiterated suffering and even ‘slaying’ of Christ during the celebration of Mass (Pomplun 2015: 352–359). Protestants would surely agree with Pius XII’s teaching that ‘now the eucharistic species under which He is present symbolize the actual separation of His body and blood’ (1947: 70). Yet old disagreements die hard: a contemporary Protestant historian can still write of ‘altars at which the priest enacted the repeated sacrifice of Christ’ and of ‘the re-enactment of the sacrifice’ (Holifield 2015: 380).

4 Dogmatic balance sheet and the way ahead

4.1 Light from the East

The absence of the Christian East as a confessional entity from the foregoing sketch calls for explanation. Orthodoxy arguably represents the most ancient ongoing embodiment of Christendom – its classic liturgies and their exposition could have featured in section 3.9, displacing Paschasius Radbertus. The purpose of reserving discussion of the Eastern church until this late stage is the opposite of diminishing its significance. To the contrary, Orthodoxy’s position was formulated well before the emergence of scholasticism and the Reformation and is thus providentially placed to transcend the divisions and antinomies that have preoccupied Western Christianity over the past five centuries. When incorporated into dogmatic reflection, the lively heritage of the Christian East may assist in overcoming the theological disputes and ecclesial schisms outlined in the preceding section.

Even before the finalization of the Divine Liturgies of saints John Chrysostom, Basil, and James, the fourth-century Greek fathers gave a unique perspective on the Eucharist that they understood as thusia or prosphora:

The Eucharist is a sacrifice, not so much because it is an action in which the community offers, but above all else because through it the sacrifice of Christ, his sacrificial death on the Cross, is made available to us. (Jungmann 1976: 44)

The ‘sacrifice’ itself is Christ himself in his body and blood (compare the account given of hilasmos, above), supernaturally made present through the consecration of the sacrament. Chrysostom describes this as being accomplished through the speaking of the words of institution alone (the Eastern church otherwise universally sees the verba [i.e. liturgical recitation of the words of institution] qua consecration as consummated through the epiclesis of the Spirit). What the church as such offers is ‘remembrance’ in doxologies and prayers. Chrysostom asks:

But do we not offer sacrifice every day? Yes, we do, but we do it in performing the memorial (anamnesin) of his death […] We do not perform [every time] a different sacrifice as did the High Priest in the Old Testament, but always the same, or rather, we perform the memorial of the sacrifice. (Quoted in Jungmann 1976: 45)

Cyril of Jerusalem teaches that once the sacrifice is upon the altar,

then we invoke God over this sacrifice of reconciliation for the universal peace of the Church, for the welfare of the world, for kings, soldiers, and confederates, for the sick, the oppressed, and all who stand in need of help […] for we believe that it will benefit immensely the souls for whom we pray when the holy and awe-inspiring Victim lies before us. (Quoted in Jungmann 1976: 46)

The fourteenth-century writer Nicholas Cabasilas expresses the heart of Orthodoxy’s understanding of eucharistic sacrifice:

Once these words [the institution narrative followed by epiclesis] have been said, the whole sacred rite is accomplished, the offerings are consecrated, the sacrifice is complete; the splendid Victim, the Divine oblation, slain for the salvation of the world, lies upon the altar. (Cabasilas 1960: 70)

The centre of the solar system of eucharistic sacrifice is Christ himself:

For after once offering himself and being made a sacrifice he did not end his priesthood, but is continually offering the sacrifice for us, by virtue of which he is our advocate before God for ever. (Cabasilas 1960: 71)

In Christ’s orbit, other offerings are made by the church: the elements as first fruits of creation, doxologies, thanksgivings, and intercessions of universal range for the living and the dead.

4.2 Lutheranism: case closed or door ajar?

David Hollaz (d. 1713), a theologian of Lutheran Orthodoxy active at the end of the seventeenth century, concedes Cabasilas’ bottom-line definition of eucharistic sacrifice. Applying Aristotle’s four-cause paradigm (according to which things have a formal, material, efficient, and final cause) to the Eucharist, Hollaz observed that while formaliter/formally, the rite is not ‘properly speaking a propitiatory sacrifice for the sins of the living and the dead’, it most certainly is or contains a propitiatory sacrifice when examined materialiter/materially:

A distinction must be made between sacrifice taken materially and formally (Distinguendum est inter sacrificium materialiter et formaliter sumptum). If we take it materially (Si materialiter sumamus), then in the Eucharist there is numerically the same sacrifice as there was on the Cross, that is, frankly the same reality and substance, I say, the selfsame Victim and sacrifice (hostia). If, truth to tell, we take sacrifice formally, that is to say, for the act of sacrificing (Si vero sacrificium accipiamus formaliter, siue pro actu sacrificandi), then – even though it is numerically one and the same Victim – we are not dealing with the same action or immolation in the Eucharist as was accomplished on the Cross. For oblation was made on the Cross through the true suffering and death of a living immolated reality, apart from which there can in no way be any [propitiatory] sacrifice, properly speaking. In the Eucharist, there is, truth to tell, oblation through prayers and through commemoration of the death or sacrifice offered on the Cross. (Quoted in Stephenson 2003: 114–115)

In other words, while neither celebrant nor congregation performs an act of propitiatory sacrifice, Jesus – the propitiatory sacrifice himself – is present on the altar and in the consecrated bread and wine. Hollaz – along with Hermann Sasse (1985: 89) – takes on board Trent’s repraesentatio, memoria, and applicatio, albeit with some modification. For Hollaz, pure divine activity is at work as Christ (speaking through his minister) effects his bodily presence; and also as Christ applies his benefits to each communicant (the communicant’s will must also be at work through a penitent disposition). The memoria discharged through prayer and thanksgiving is, meanwhile, the church’s act, albeit performed through the Holy Spirit bestowed by Christ upon his bride the church.

The rich resources of Lutheran devotional literature may help to bridge the impasse beheld by Luther in his Smalcald Articles. Since Christ the victim cannot be passively present on the altar or in the distribution and reception of the sacrament, a sixteenth-century Lutheran hymnwriter appeals to him in these terms:

Before the Father’s throne above
Recall your matchless deed of love
that he may lift my dreadful load. (Konrad Hubert, ‘I trust, O Christ, in You Alone,’ stanza 2; Commission on Worship of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod 1982: Hymn 357)

Jesus thus carries out his high-priestly intercession at the altar that stands at the point of intersection between heaven and Earth. A contemporary Lutheran poet preserves Lutheranism’s hallmark ‘monergism of grace’ (sole working of God, in the second and third articles of the Creed) in the fourth stanza of his ‘From Mary’s Womb Each Beat of Jesus’ Heart’:

Lest you in sin should doubt this to be true
See on this altar how it beats for you,
As Jesus’ heart once more on linen lies
In flesh and blood appealing to the skies (Reinhardt 2020: 40)

In his Confessio Catholica (1634–1637), Johann Gerhard likewise fused together the three motifs distinguished in this article, namely sacrifice of thanksgiving, participation in a sacrificial banquet, and propitiatory sacrifice:

In the celebration of the Eucharist ‘we proclaim the Lord’s death’ (1 Cor 11:26) and pray that God would be merciful to us on account of that holy and immaculate sacrifice completed on the cross and on account of that holy victim which is certainly present in the Eucharist […] that he would in kindness receive and grant a place to the rational and spiritual oblation of our prayer […] it is clear that the sacrifice takes place in heaven, not on earth, inasmuch as the death and passion of God’s beloved Son is offered to God the Father by way of commemoration […] In the Christian sacrifice there is no victim except the real and substantial body of Christ, and in the same way there is no true priest except Christ Himself. Hence, this sacrifice once offered on the cross takes place continually in an unseen fashion in heaven by way of commemoration, when Christ offers to His Father on our behalf His sufferings of the past, especially when we are applying ourselves to the sacred mysteries, and this is the ‘unbloody sacrifice’ which is carried out in heaven. (Plekon and Weicher 2006: 155–156)

Gerhard agrees with Peter Lombard that celebrant and congregation together make a ‘commemorative sacrifice’ of the propitiatory sacrifice.

4.3 Anglican ‘via media

Conservative evangelicals in the Anglican Communion often see no need to reconsider or revise the understanding of eucharistic sacrifice which was established at the end of the reign of Edward VI and in the early years of Elizabeth I. But, as a distinctively Anglican theology developed from the turn of the seventeenth century, this communion’s eucharistic theology progressed beyond Cranmer’s thinking while retaining his liturgical cadences. Daniel Brevint developed an understanding of the commemorative sacrifice that would be adopted by the sacramentally-focused Wesley brothers who founded Methodism (Brevint 1673). In the Oxford Movement, John Keble subscribed to the Thirty-Nine Articles while interpreting them in light of the consensus of the ancient church, a move that opened the door to understandings of eucharistic sacrifice that went even beyond that of the seventeenth-century Caroline Divines. In this context a question arose. While the celebrant does not directly ‘offer’ the Lord’s really present body and blood to the Father in intercession for his congregation and the wider flock, might he be considered assigned to ‘set it forth’, not only before the congregation but also before the Father, thereby ritually fostering and expressing memoria? William Bright’s hymn paraphrase of Unde et memores – an anamnesis (remembrance) prayer that follows the Words of Institution in the Roman Mass – gives an example of the Anglican ‘via media’ approach:

And now, O Father, mindful of the love
That bought us, once for all, on Calvary’s Tree,
And having with us him that pleads above,
We here present, we here spread forth to thee
that only Offering perfect in thine eyes,
The one true, pure, immortal Sacrifice.

According to Francis Clark, Bright here picks up the distinctively Scotist understanding of eucharistic sacrifice (Clark 1960: 263), which focuses on the church’s commemoration and pleading of Jesus’ unique sacrifice.

Luther assumed that ‘sacrifice’ immediately sounded the alarm of the intrusion of ‘works’ onto territory consisting wholly of gift. Rowan Williams contests that such language is instead, ‘so to speak, a constant confession of dependence on a single foundational event’ (Williams 1982: 21), a notion Williams finds holding a prominent place in the thought of the fourth-century Ephrem the Syrian. According to Ephrem:

Simeon the priest when he had received Christ in his arms so that he might present [offer] him to God, understood when he beheld him that he was not offering Christ but was himself being offered. For the Son is not to be offered to his Father by a servant; rather the servant is offered to the Father by the Son. (Quoted in Williams 1982: 21)

Williams suggests that ‘when the Son now comes to his servants to “be offered”, they (in confessing their dependence on him) yield their priesthood to him, and are offered to the Father at his hands’ (Williams 1982: 22; compare Luther 1520, ‘Treatise on the New Testament, that is, the Holy Mass,’ AE: 99 [vol. 35]):

As High Priest of our souls Jesus Christ presides through the Spirit in all our liturgical acts in his name, in such a way that while he is offered by us in prayer to the Father, in reality it is he who offers us to the Father in the identity of himself as Offerer and Offering. (Torrance 1975: 183–184, quoted in Williams 1982: 33)

4.4 Eucharistic sacrifice in an ecumenical climate and in post-Vatican II ecumenical dialogue

As late as the mid-1960s, Roman Catholic (Clark 1960) and Protestant (Hildebrant 1967) writers could judge the sixteenth-century divide insurmountable, offering learned and eloquent apologias for the opposing positions articulated during the first generation of the Reformation. Yet, in a setting of increasingly warm ecumenical relations, Lutheran (Brilioth 1930; Aulen 1958) and Anglican (Hicks 1930) theologians had already made moves towards interchurch rapprochement. Hicks widened the parameters of ‘sacrifice’ by challenging its equation with the death of the victim, focusing rather on the Godward offering of its life. Moreover, he received acclaim by calling for eucharistic sacrifice to be related to the high priestly work of Jesus in his state of glory. From the Catholic side, Joseph Ratzinger was able to articulate and approve the core concerns of Luther himself, as a springboard for an ecumenically fruitful account of eucharistic sacrifice (Ratzinger 2004a: 207–217).

With respect to the topic of the Eucharist, the 1970 Missal of Paul VI significantly altered the dogmatic state of affairs inherited from the sixteenth century. Jungmann termed the offertory prayers of the old rite (now known as the Extraordinary Form) ‘overblown’ (Jungmann 1976: 190). They have since been replaced, in the so-called Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, by Jewish-based table prayers over bread and wine that no longer cause offence to the separated churches. Moreover, the immediate post-consecration sacrificial wording of Eucharistic Prayers II-IV of the Mass of Paul VI has been significantly tempered, with Eucharistic Prayer III voicing Gese’s account of the thanksgiving (tōda) sacrifice. CCC’s deliberate rendering of repraesentatio as ‘making present’ (CCC: 1336) precludes any thought of the Church’s adding to the non-negotiable once-for-all (eph hapax).

Forward strides have been made in the bilateral dialogues held following the Second Vatican Council between the Roman Catholic Church and a variety of other church bodies. Of note in this context are the formal discussions on the Eucharist conducted between the Vatican and the Anglican Communion and the Lutheran World Federation (Meyer and Vischer 1984; Lutheran World Federation 2022) respectively – and most recently, with the ‘Confessional’ International Lutheran Council, whose members had hitherto enjoyed only observer status in these talks (International Lutheran Council and Roman Catholic Church 2021). Mention should also be made of the World Council of Churches’ 1982 Lima Document on Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (Faith and Order Paper 111). While not directly engaging the Roman Catholic Church, it nevertheless addressed its topics from an overall ecumenical perspective.

5 Spiritual benefits

5.1 From the perspective of the communicant

Consideration of eucharistic sacrifice fosters ‘christocentricity’ in each communicant who focuses on Jesus the high priest at the supper, on the cross, and in the Eucharist (at which Christ is chief celebrant). The relevance to each communicant of the interlocking themes of eucharistic sacrifice comes from their throwing the sacramental ball back into the communicant’s court. All Christian traditions highlight the motif of the gift of personal union with Christ in the act of receiving holy communion. In this event, the image of Christ the Shepherd giving himself to his sheep may eclipse the easily overlooked motif of what the believer, as a servant/handmaid, is henceforth to do for their Lord. The acquired virtue of justice includes not only the distributive justice whereby each receive their due (in the case of the Eucharist, by pure grace), but also the general justice which each renders to the greater whole. The communicant is called to cultivate thankfulness and love, gratitude to the Lord for creation and redemption, and love for their neighbour in intercession and well-doing. Prayer following Holy Communion includes asking the indwelling Lord, who accompanies communicants back into their everyday vocations, ‘Lord, what would you have me do?’

5.2 From the perspective of the community

Paul offers a bulwark against the individualism of much of historic Protestantism and modern culture by using first- and second-person plural verbs to speak of the rite he labels the ‘Lord’s (actually, the dominical) Supper’ (kuriakon deipnon; 1 Cor 11:20). Paul says to the Corinthians that things go wrong when ‘you’ (plural) meet for the sacramental service and ‘each one’ takes off on their own tangent (11:21). In the process of church-forming traditio, Paul delivered the oral sedes doctrinae (textual basis) of the Eucharist to ‘you’ (plural), with Jesus also expressing his mandate in second person plural imperatives (‘Do this’). Likewise, ‘we’ bless the cup of blessing, and ‘we’ break the bread (1 Cor 10:16), participation in which makes ‘us’ one body (1 Cor 10:17). In parallel with Augustine’s use of 1 Cor 12:12–13 as the springboard for his own account of eucharistic sacrifice (quoted above), Paul envisages the Eucharist not merely as a filling station from which to take spiritual refreshment but as the locus where communal proclamation is made: ‘For as often as you [plural] eat this bread and drink [plural] this cup, you [plural] proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Cor 11:26). Admittedly, the apostle also applies individual admonition in his commentary upon the eucharistic words, in the context of his solemn warning against unworthy communion (1 Cor 11:27–29); but even this necessarily individual-directed address culminates in the picturing of the effect of worthy versus unworthy communion on the whole assembly (1 Cor 11:3–32).

Eucharistic sacrifice as thanksgiving and remembrance/memory is itself formative and expressive of Christian life lived communally in the church and not as isolated individuals. Within living memory, pious Christians would each ‘make their communion’ in semi-oblivion of their neighbour. Lutherans and Anglicans are partially inoculated against this distortion of the Eucharist by their practice of receiving communion not in the pew but gathered at the altar rail. But in how many non-Roman Catholic churches that lay emphasis on the communion of the sick and the housebound is encouragement given for friends and families to commune with the afflicted? How often does the celebrant neglect to commune with the solitary sheep of his fold? The festive quality of the Eucharist as sacrificial banquet is not highlighted by an ‘individual’ communion. Communion by its very name implies fellowship (koinonia), a communal sharing in the Passover Lamb once sacrificed, a ‘feast’ that is next to impossible to keep alone. Given their strictness about not eating from the midnight prior to the reception of communion, Orthodox churches have the practice of eating a meal together following the Divine Liturgy, having the delightful habit of inviting visitors of other and no confession to partake of their potluck, thereby fostering community. Eucharistic sacrifice, in the sense of the church joining its own self-offering to that of the Lord, likewise entails the practice and fostering of both sacramental and extra-sacramental koinonia. The community, even across confessional boundaries, is to offer a preview of the kingdom to come in its fullness at the Lord’s Parousia. Against Protestantism’s tendency to degenerate into factions, and Western secularist individualism (with its epidemic of tragic loneliness) making deep inroads into the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the motifs of eucharistic sacrifice encourage the fostering of community which, in its Christian sense, begins from the heart that beats on the altar and in the hearts of those whom Christ indwells.

6 Conclusion

For many Christians the issue of eucharistic sacrifice is settled according to the received teaching of the confessional family to which they belong. The unsettled question in today’s ecumenical climate is whether the sixteenth-century disagreements within Western Christianity can be resolved while preserving the integrity of the parties involved. A sentence written by a sixteenth-century Bishop of Durham, Cuthbert Tunstall – in the context of one of the first interchurch dialogues of the Reformation period – offers a perspective worth pondering that might yet help repair the broken net with which the universal church catches its fish:

It is for us a matter of astonishment that anyone should object to the Mass being called a sacrifice, since it has been the custom from ancient times, as well among the Greeks as among the Latins, so to describe it. For therein is consecrated the body and blood of the Lord in commemoration of his death, who, as Paul says, ‘offering one sacrifice for sins, for ever sitteth at the right hand of God’ and ‘by one oblation hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified’. Therefore, if Christ is priest, sacrifice and victim, wherever Christ is, there is our victim, there is our sacrifice. And if in the sacrament of the altar there is present the body of Christ and the true blood of Christ, how can one, while maintaining that truth concerning the Lord’s body and blood, deny that therein is our sacrifice? (Clark 1960: 536; emphasis added)

All consideration of the various aspects of eucharistic sacrifice should take its bearings from the past and present high-priestly work of Jesus, the church’s Lord. In today’s ecumenical climate it is vital that before a theologian, cleric, or layperson ventures a polemical remark against any church body’s account of eucharistic sacrifice, they verify the truth of their charge and make sure that the point to which they take exception still forms part of the confession of the ecclesial communion in question.

Christians’ faces have continually reddened with shame over the fact that the love meal has turned into the stuff of bitterest strife, that Holy Communion has turned into the shibboleth of separation – and woe to us if this were no longer the case. (Sasse 1941: 134)


Copyright John Stephenson (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Auer, Johann. 1995. A General Doctrine of the Sacraments and the Mystery of the Eucharist. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.
    • Bulgakov, Sergei. 2021. The Eucharistic Sacrifice. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
    • Farrow, Douglas. 2018. Theological Negotiations: Proposals in Soteriology and Anthropology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
    • Heron, Alasdair. 1983. Table and Tradition. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
    • Jungmann, Josef A. 1951. The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development. Translated by Francis A. Brunner. New York: Benziger.
    • Levering, Matthew. 2005. Sacrifice and Community – Jewish Offering and Christian Eucharist. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.
    • Stephenson, John R. 2019. ‘The Motif of Sacrifice in the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Mass’, Lutheran Theological Review 31: 68–98.
    • Stevenson, Kenneth W. 1989. ‘Eucharistic Sacrifice – an Insoluble Liturgical Problem?’, Scottish Journal of Theology 42, no. 4: 469–492.
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