Archive for the ‘Sermon 227’ Category

Augustine’s Sermon 227 and Transubstantiation

June 15, 2011

As with Sermon 272 (which we have already discussed), some folks who allege that Augustine shared modern Rome’s view of the Eucharist like to point to Sermon 227. It is easy to confuse the two sermons, since the numbers are so similar. Additionally, both sermons are short. Given the brevity of this sermon, it will be possible for me to go through the sermon from beginning to end, with my comments interspersed as with Sermon 272.


As noted previously, Easter was a time when new converts were baptized. This sermon was directed specifically to them.


Of course, there is no date on the sermon itself. Some scholars date this as early as 412-413, while other pick as late as 416-417. Part of me wonders whether this isn’t simply a second scribe’s copying down of the same sermon as sermons 272.

You are yourselves what you receive

This is the theme of the sermon. If you have read Sermon 272, than you can probably already see where this is going.

I haven’t forgotten my promise. I had promised those of you who have just been baptized a sermon to explain the sacrament of the Lord’s table, which you can see right now, and which you shared in last night.

You may recall a similar line in Sermon 272. These newly baptized people had taken communion the previous night and now see the elements on the Lord’s table.

You ought to know what you have received, what you are about to receive, what you ought to receive every day.

It seems that Augustine may be advocating daily communion. Perhaps he means “every day” either as hyperbole, or in some spiritual sense, but he may literally mean daily communion. Regardless, this shows that they had received communion the previous day and were about to receive it again.

That bread which you can see on the altar, sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ.

It may be that Augustine has already consecrated the elements and has now, in essence, interrupted the distribution of the elements to provide this homily. Alternatively, Augustine may not be referring to the consecration at all. He may just be referring to the fact that the word of God is what puts the elements to their sacramental use.

That cup, or rather what the cup contains, sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ.

This is just the same explanation applied to the cup. Some people seem to be willing to quote this sentence and the prior one in an effort to allege that Augustine held to transubstantiation. But, of course, such a statement is a statement that could be used by those who are bare symbolists in their view, as well as everyone in between.

It was by means of these things that the Lord Christ wished to present us with his body and blood, which he shed for our sake for the forgiveness of sins.

Here’s an interesting problem for those who think that Augustine is speaking after the consecration: Augustine is saying that “by means of these things” Christ wanted to present us with his body and blood. “These things” refers to something other than the body and blood. As you can see, Augustine is affirming that the elements are really bread and wine, and yet they present us with Christ’s body and his blood that he shed for our sake. If this is after the consecration, then Augustine definitely does not believe in transubstantiation. But perhaps it is before the consecration, so let us continue.

If you receive them well, you are yourselves what you receive.

Here we come back to Augustine’s theme, the same theme we saw in the previous sermon.

You see, the apostle says, We, being many, are one loaf, one body (1 Cor 10:17).

You will recognize this familiar theme from the previous sermon. Augustine is providing his exegesis of 1 Corinthians 10:

1 Corinthains 10:16-17
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.

That’s how he explained the sacrament of the Lord’s table; one loaf, one body, is what we all are, many though we be.

Notice that Augustine is pointing his listeners to the apostolic explanation of the sacrament. Augustine doesn’t simply use his creativity: he seems to try to stick to what the text says for his main point.

In this loaf of bread you are given clearly to understand how much you should love unity.

This lesson of unity is the same lesson we saw in the previous sermon.

I mean, was that loaf made from one grain? Weren’t there many grains of wheat? But before they came into the loaf they were all separate; they were joined together by means of water after a certain amount of pounding and crushing. Unless wheat is ground, after all, and moistened with water, it can’t possibly get into this shape which is called bread.

Here Augustine is providing the wind-up for his extension of the Pauline metaphor. His listeners, who understand how bread is made, are doubtless nodding along.

In the same way you too were being ground and pounded, as it were, by the humiliation of fasting and the sacrament of exorcism.

The exorcism mentioned here is the denunciation of the devil and all his works. One wonders whether the fasting required of those who were about to be baptized was austere or whether the denunciations requested prior to baptism were particularly onerous. In any event, Augustine finds the rigor of the fasting and the recantations associated with exorcism to be a suitable analogy for grinding and pounding.

Then came baptism, and you were, in a manner of speaking, moistened with water in order to be shaped into bread.

This is pretty self-evident. Baptism involves moistening of the person with water. The similarity to the adding of water to flour is pretty straightforward.

But it’s not yet bread without fire to bake it. So what does fire represent? That’s the chrism, the anointing. Oil, the fire-feeder, you see, is the sacrament of the Holy Spirit.

This is parallel to the third part of Augustine’s analogy in sermon 272. Notice here two interesting things. First, he confirms that he’s referring to the rite of chrismation when he speaks about the fire of the Holy Spirit. He’s talking about oil, which is fuel for fire. But notice that he calls the oil “the sacrament of the Holy Spirit.” Why? If you think that “sacrament of the body and blood” means transubstantiation, then consistently you might believe that Augustine thought that the oil was transubstantiated into the Holy Spirit.

Everyone else, I think, realizes that Augustine means that the oil (called chrism) symbolizes and pictures to us the Holy Spirit. It pictures the Holy Spirit, because it is the fuel for fire, and the Holy Spirit is symbolized by fire in Scripture.

Matthew 3:11 I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire:

Luke 3:16 John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire:

Acts 2:3 And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.

Notice it, when the Acts of the Apostles are read; the reading of that book begins now, you see. Today begins the book which is called the Acts of the Apostles.

Evidently, the Acts of the Apostles were going to be read later in the service. Whether Augustine also preached a sermon on Acts this same day or whether the reading was not for a homily, we’re not told. If there was another sermon coming, that would explain the brevity of this sermon.

Anybody who wishes to make progress has the means of doing so.

Progress in what? It’s not entirely clear what Augustine is referring to. The means for making progress, though, is clear: it is Scripture.

When you assemble in church, put aside silly stories and concentrate on the scriptures.

That’s the Augustine we Reformed folks know and love. He wants people to concentrate on the Scriptures. For him, the service is a place where people concentrate on the Scriptures. How far removed had the church of Rome and its Latin mass come by the time of the Reformation, when the Scriptures were (in the services) mostly tucked away in a language that people did not know.

We here are your books.

Do I need to point out that Augustine doesn’t mean that we are transubstantiated into books? Probably Augustine means that those who are reading the Scriptures serve a similar role to books for those who either can’t afford their own Bible or who do not know how to read.

So pay attention, and see how the Holy Spirit is going to come at Pentecost. And this is how he will come; he will show himself in tongues of fire.

He’s referring to Acts 2:3, which I already quoted above. Evidently, their reading from Acts was at least up to that point.

You see, he breathes into us the charity which should set us on fire for God, and have us think lightly of the world, and burn up our straw, and purge and refine our hearts like gold.

Who would think that one would find in Augustine talk about being “on fire for God”! But here it is. More interestingly, Augustine ascribes this fiery capacity to love that God breathes into us. Moreover, this fire is a purging fire that burns up the straw and refines our heart like gold. One wonders whether Augustine is alluding to 1 Corinthians 3:

1 Corinthians 3:11-16
For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire. Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?

Viewed as a commentary on 1 Corinthians 3:11-16, Augustine’s comments are interesting, because they suggest a purification of a man’s heart in this life through the action of charity breathed into the man via the Holy Spirit of God. In other words, an internal purification or sanctification that is the work of the Spirit.

But all of this explanation about how the Holy Spirit is represented by fire (and by oil, the fuel for fire) is an aside, and Augustine is about to come back to his point.

So the Holy Spirit comes, fire after water, and you are baked into the bread which is the body of Christ.

This reference to fire after water may be an allusion to the gospel passages I provided above, or possibly some kind of contemporary scientific reference with respect to the order of elements (fire and water being two of the four elements). Either way, Augustine fills out his metaphor by saying that the believers are baked into the bread, which bread is the body of Christ.

And that’s how unity is signified.

Notice how he says that unity is signified. He does not, of course, say that unity is transubstantiated, nor does he mean any such thing. What means here is that unity is pictured through the bread.

Now you have the sacraments in the order they occur.

Whether this is a reference back to the sacraments of baptism and chrismation (the most obvious sense to me in view of his “fire after water”) or whether he is referring to the pictures within the rite of Communion (the other obvious sense and perhaps preferable on the fact that this sentence is followed by “First”) is probably not crucial.

First, after the prayer, you are urged to lift up your hearts; that’s only right for the members of Christ. After all, if you have become members of Christ, where is your head? Members have a head. If the head hadn’t gone ahead before, the members would never follow. Where has our head gone? What did you give back in the creed? On the third day he rose again from the dead, he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father. So our head is in heaven. That’s why, after the words Lift up your hearts, you reply, We have lifted them up to the Lord.

I’ve kept this section a little longer since the wording may be a little hard to follow in pieces. Augustine is saying that it is proper to lift up our hearts, because we are members of Christ and Christ is our head (no mention of the bishop of Rome as our head, but that’s no surprise, since Augustine didn’t believe such a thing). Our head is in heaven, and so we properly lift up our hearts to the Lord, as members of Him. Remember, Augustine has in the background the metaphor of the one bread. That one bread is the body of Christ, and we – like grains – are members of that one bread, in Augustine’s explanation. Notice Augustine’s reference to the creed, as in the other sermon. He clearly assumes that these new converts are at least familiar with the creed and that they can recite it (give it back).

And you mustn’t attribute it to your own powers, your own merits, your own efforts, this lifting up of your hearts to the Lord, because it’s God’s gift that you should have your heart up above.

Augustine manages to squeeze a little of the doctrines of grace into this sermon as an aside.

That’s why the bishop, or the presbyter who’s offering, goes on to say, when the people have answered We have lifted them up to the Lord, why he goes on to say, Let us give thanks to the Lord our God, because we have lifted up our hearts.

Augustine is continuing to explain the liturgy of his particular church. It is clear, you see, that they had a particular liturgical form in which after the person who is offering says “lift up your hearts” the congregation replies “we have lifted them up to the Lord,” and then the person offering says “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God, because we have lifted up our hearts.” It’s a set form, and interactive, capturing the attention and participation of the congregation.

Augustine is pointing out that this thanks that our hearts are uplifted is done in recognition that it is entirely attributed to God’s gift, not our merit. This is just a continuation of his doctrines of grace tangent.

Let us give thanks, because unless he had enabled us to lift them up, we would still have our hearts down here on earth.

And here is an explanation of what Augustine is saying, namely that God enabled us to lift up our hearts, else we would not have been able to lift them up.

And you signify your agreement by saying, It is right and just to give thanks to the one who caused us to lift up our hearts to our head.

And here is the concluding line of the congregation’s response. The congregation actually acknowledges that God caused them to lift up their hearts to their head (meaning to Christ).

Then, after the consecration of the sacrifice of God, because he wanted us to be ourselves his sacrifice, which is indicated by where that sacrifice was first put, that is the sign of the thing that we are;

Evidently, the text of this sermon is “corrupt” here, and the translator has done his best to convey the sense. So, we should probably be careful about how much weight we place on the exact wording. Nevertheless, the point is that this sacrifice is a sacrifice of us! The bread is the sign of the thing that we are. As in the previous sermon, Augustine’s point is not one that is very helpful for transubstantiation. If Augustine’s terminology about the bread being the “sign” is to be taken in transubstantial terms, we ourselves would be transubstantiated. But if, instead, Augustine means for us to understand simply an ordinary sign, then the sermon makes more sense.

Incidentally, it should be noted that Augustine elsewhere speaks about us being the sacrifice, for example in City of God, Book X, Chapter 6 (“This is the sacrifice of Christians: we, being many, are one body in Christ. And this also is the sacrifice which the Church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar, known to the faithful, in which she teaches that she herself is offered in the offering she makes to God.”).

why, then after the consecration is accomplished, we say the Lord’s prayer, which you have received and given back.

In addition to the creed, it is apparent that they were expected to know the Lord’s prayer.

After that comes the greeting, Peace be with you, and Christians kiss one another with a holy kiss.

This practice of ritualistic kissing with the greeting ties in well with Augustine’s theme of unity in the body.

It’s a sign of peace; what is indicated by the lips should happen in the conscience; that is, just as your lips approach of peace; what is indicated by the lips should happen in the conscience; that is, just as your lips approach the lips of your brothers or sisters, so your heart should not be withdrawn from theirs.

I’m sure our modern (at least Western) sensibilities are a little troubled by this spectacle of the congregants kissing one another on the lips, but obviously it was not intended to have the erotic connotations that such kissing would have today. Moreover, notice how the kiss is called here the “sign of peace.”

In Sermon 61, on Almsgiving, Augustine had made a similar point: “After this the Pax Vobiscum [Peace be with you] is said. The kiss of peace is a significant sacrament. Give it and receive it in such a way that you will have charity. Be not a Judas. The traitor Judas kissed Christ with his lips, but in his heart he was plotting against Him. Perhaps someone is hostile in his feelings toward you, and you can neither dissuade nor convince him. You must bear with him. Do not return evil for evil in your heart. Love him, even though he hates you. Cheerfully give him the kiss of peace.”

Notice how there Augustine refers to this kiss as a sacrament and here a sign of peace. The words mean roughly the same thing to Augustine, with sacrament carrying a somewhat more specialized meaning. You see, for Augustine if the term “sacrament” is broadly understood there were not just two sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) but a myriad of sacraments, such as this kiss of peace. In any event, the point Augustine is making there and here is that the kiss symbolizes and signifies a spiritual reality that ought to be present.

So they are great sacraments and signs, really serious and important sacraments.

This is yet another reason to favor the slightly less obvious meaning, namely that it seems that Augustine is referring to each of the elements of the liturgy as themselves “great” and “serious” and “important” sacraments. Alternatively, he may be referring specifically to the sacraments of the body and blood.

Do you want to know how their seriousness is impressed on us?

Of course we do!

The apostle says, Whoever eats the body of Christ or drinks the blood of the Lord unworthily is guilty of the body and blood of the Lord (1 Cor 11:27).

Notice that again, for authoritative doctrine, Augustine appeals to Scripture.

What is receiving unworthily? Receiving with contempt, receiving with derision.

Augustine does not mean contempt for the elements or derision for them, but for our fellow Christians. After all, Augustine has just explained that they are a sacrament of unity. Contempt and derision are the enemy of unity.

Don’t let yourselves think that what you can see is of no account. What you can see passes away, but the invisible reality signified does not pass away, but remains. Look, it’s received, it’s eaten, it’s consumed.

Here again we can see Augustine’s sacramentology. The sacrament is a visible depiction of a spiritual reality. What is seen is material and transient. What is unseen is spiritual and enduring (whether that peace, or unity, or charity).

Is the body of Christ consumed, is the Church of Christ consumed, are the members of Christ consumed? Perish the thought! Here they are being purified, there they will be crowned with the victor’s laurels.

Notice that Augustine does not explain the sacrament in terms of transubstantiation unless you want to say that the bread becomes the church. Surely no one would say that. Notice as well that Augustine again points to purification and clearly identifies that place of purification as here.

So what is signified will remain eternally, although the thing that signifies it seems to pass away.

He means we (who are signified) will remain eternally, even though through digestion the bread and wine seem to pass away.

So receive the sacrament in such a way that you think about yourselves, that you retain unity in your hearts, that you always fix your hearts up above.

Here Augustine returns to his theme and application. Be unified! He also works in, quite resourcefully, his earlier theme about lifting up our hearts toward our head, namely Christ who is bodily in heaven (recall the hypothetical objection in the previous sermon).

Don’t let your hope be placed on earth, but in heaven.

Our hope is not in the bread and cup before us, but in Christ who is in heaven, which they symbolize. Augustine’s heavenly minded theme is thoroughly Biblical:

Matthew 6:19-21
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Let your faith be firm in God, let it be acceptable to God. Because what you don’t see now, but believe, you are going to see there, where you will have joy without end.

Augustine does not tell them that they see Christ now under a lying appearance of bread and wine. Instead, Augustine tells them that they will see what they don’t see now. They will see Christ in heaven, where also they will see the perfect unity, joy, and peace that the bread and wine symbolize.


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