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Augustine’s Sermon 272 and Transubstantiation

June 15, 2011

Some folks who allege that Augustine shared modern Rome’s view of the Eucharist like to point to Sermon 272. Since this sermon is quite short, it will be possible for me to go through the sermon from beginning to end, with my comments interspersed.



The infantes here are those who are newly baptized. Baptism of new converts typically took place at Easter, and Pentecost is only a few weeks later. These are relatively young believers, spiritual infants, though not physical infants. Some scholars seem to suggest that the sermon may actually have been on Easter rather than on Pentecost. Either way, this is a sermon aimed at those with a relatively small understanding of what is involved in Christianity.

Date: 408

Of course, the date is not in the original. Nevertheless, this is the approximate date (within a range of about 405 – 411) assigned to this sermon using the best available scholarship.

One thing is seen, another is to be understood

This line serves as key theme of the sermon. It is easy to see how this line, standing alone, might seem to fit well with transubstantiation. Of course, it also fits well with a bare symbolism view, and also with everything in between those two. So, let’s read on and see what Augustine says.

What you can see on the altar, you also saw last night; but what it was, what it meant, of what great reality it contained the sacrament, you had not yet heard.

What you can see on the altar is, of course, a reference to the communion elements. Apparently new converts were not given an explanation of the meaning of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper prior to baptism. However, now they are baptized and they are going to be instructed.

Notice Augustine’s word: the things on the altar contain the sacrament of a great reality. For Augustine, a sacrament is a picture. It is something that visibly illustrates something spiritual. The sacrament known as the Lord’s supper illustrates a great reality that Augustine is about to explain.

For Augustine if something pictures faith, it is the sacrament of faith. If something pictures love, it is the sacrament of love. Likewise, this is the sacrament of something, and that something is what is pictured by the sacrament.

So what you can see, then, is bread and a cup; that’s what even your eyes tell you; but as for what your faith asks to be instructed about, the bread is the body of Christ, the cup the blood of Christ.

You can probably easily see how this lends itself to the view of transubstantiation. After all, if Augustine were to hold to transubstantiation, he could say this. At the same time, though Augustine could say this and hold to a bare symbolic view or to anything in between. So, we must read on.

After all, Augustine is merely telling us that there is more to the situation than simply bread and a cup. It’s not just a snack.

It took no time to say that indeed, and that, perhaps, may be enough for faith; but faith desires instruction.

Notice that Augustine does not view the instruction and explanation of “this is my body” to be itself an essential. It’s enough that we by faith refer to the bread as the body of Christ and to the cup as his blood. Nevertheless, as Augustine observes, faith desires instruction. That instruction may not be strictly necessary, but it is wanted by those who have faith.

The prophet says, you see, Unless you believe, you shall not understand (Is 7:9).

You can see here that Augustine is, to some extent, prooftexting this principle from an Old Testament passage that may not really have been intended to convey such a general truth.

Isaiah 7:3-9
Then said the LORD unto Isaiah, Go forth now to meet Ahaz, thou, and Shearjashub thy son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller’s field; and say unto him, Take heed, and be quiet; fear not, neither be fainthearted for the two tails of these smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Rezin with Syria, and of the son of Remaliah. Because Syria, Ephraim, and the son of Remaliah, have taken evil counsel against thee, saying, “Let us go up against Judah, and vex it, and let us make a breach therein for us, and set a king in the midst of it, even the son of Tabeal:” thus saith the Lord GOD, “It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass. For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin; and within threescore and five years shall Ephraim be broken, that it be not a people. And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is Remaliah’s son. If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established.”

You may also note that it appears that Augustine is working with a Latin translation of the Septuagint, rather than a direct translation of the Hebrew original. Nevertheless, Augustine’s point (whether or not it is the point of the Hebrew text) is that first you believe, and then afterward you understand.

I mean, you can now say to me, “You’ve bidden us believe; now explain, so that we may understand.”

So you see, his point is that people can accept Jesus’ words that the bread and cup are his body and blood, but they still may desire (on the foundation of that faith) to have some explanation of those words. Augustine is planning to provide some explanation.

Some such thought as this, after all, may cross somebody’s mind: “We know where our Lord Jesus Christ took flesh from; from the Virgin Mary. …

I interrupt Augustine’s multi-sentence hypothetical comment (the “…” thus is my own as it is below, and not in the text). Notice that these new believers are familiar with the virgin birth.

“… He was suckled as a baby, was reared, grew up, came to man’s estate, suffered persecution from the Jews, was hung on the tree, was slain on the tree, was taken down from the tree, was buried; rose again on the third day, on the day he wished ascended into heaven. …

Again, I interrupt the hypothetical comment. Notice how Augustine summarizes the life of Christ. This summary is similar to what we might find in an ancient version of the so-called Apostles’ creed. There is no mention of descent into hell (as distinct from burial), but then again there is no reason to think that Augustine is trying to exactly copy the creed in his hypothetical objection.

“ … That’s where he lifted his body up to; that’s where he’s going to come from to judge the living and the dead; that’s where he is now, seated on the Father’s right. …

We’re almost finished with the objection. This objection fills out the rest of a basic life of Christ. He lived, he died, he was raised, he sits on the Father’s right, and he’s coming to judge the world.

“ … How can bread be his body? And the cup, or what the cup contains, how can it be his blood?”

Here is the question that allows Augustine to affirm transubstantiation, if that is his belief. Alternatively, it allows Augustine to explain that the bread and cup is a symbol or picture, or whatever else Augustine may think. In some sense, it is the perfect question to get at the matter of what the expression “this is my body” means to Augustine.

The reason these things, brothers and sisters, are called sacraments is that in them one thing is seen, another is to be understood.

This gets us back to the theme of Augustine’s sermon. Augustine is explaining that in every sacrament (in his understanding of sacraments, one thing is seen (the picture) and another thing is understood (the message conveyed by the picture). This, incidentally, rules out confession and penance from being a “sacrament” for Augustine. There is nothing in confession and penance that pictures something else, for him. So, even if Augustine had observed a modern Roman rite of confession and penance, he would not have termed it a “sacrament.”

Augustine provides more explanation:

What can be seen has a bodily appearance, what is to be understood provides spiritual fruit.

This provides a slightly more nuanced explanation. There’s a spiritual lesson to be drawn from what is understood by the things that are seen. This spiritual lesson provides spiritual fruit to the person.

So if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the apostle telling the faithful, You, though, are the body of Christ and its members (1 Cor 12:27).

This is really not good news for the transubstantiationists. Augustine’s explanation is to provide a spiritual lesson about our (believers’) relationship to Christ from this visible illustration of the bread and the cup.

So if it’s you that are the body of Christ and its members, it’s the mystery meaning you that has been placed on the Lord’s table; what you receive is the mystery that means you.

So, now Augustine clearly says that “you” have been placed on the Lord’s table. And that we receive is “you.” He means the believers themselves are on the table and that the believers receive themselves when they commune.

If Augustine means this in a transubstantiary way, his view is most curious. Are we transubstantiated into bread and wine? What an odd result!

But the result is much less odd if one realizes that Augustine just means to say that we are pictured and symbolized by the bread and cup. They illustrate us.

It is to what you are that you reply Amen, and by so replying you express your assent.

Again, Augustine is making his point emphatically, continuing the metaphor. He does not say, “It is to what you resemble …” but “to what you are.” Nevertheless, unless someone is going to take Augustine transubstantially speaking of us being physically present under the appearance of bread and wine, it seems obvious that Augustine is speaking metaphorically.

What you hear, you see, is The body of Christ, and you answer, Amen.

Here Augustine is explaining what he means by “what you are” – he means that they are the body of Christ. His reference to the “Amen” is a reference, we assume, either to a liturgical custom of the congregation saying “amen” after the words of consecration or perhaps simply to enthusiastic new converts saying it.

So be a member of the body of Christ, in order to make that Amen true.

Augustine makes a quick point of application. It is interesting to note that Augustine’s mentality here seems to be one of saying that we are united to Christ and part of his body by faith, not by baptism itself. If it were baptism itself, then these infantes would necessarily be members of the body of Christ.

So why in bread? Let’s not bring anything of our own to bear here, let’s go on listening to the apostle himself, who said, when speaking of this sacrament, One bread, one body, we being many are (1 Cor 10:17).

We can see that Augustine is relying solely on the authority of Scripture for his explanation regarding this sacrament. But Augustine’s explanation is one that is not friendly to transubstantiation. He draws his explanation from 1 Corinthians 10:

1 Corinthians 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.

Augustine notes that the passage is explaining that we are one bread, and he is referring that to the communion bread.

Understand and rejoice. Unity, truth, piety, love.

These are the four characteristics of the one bread, for Augustine.

One bread; what is this one bread? The one body which we, being many, are. Remember that bread is not made from one grain, but from many.

Here is how Augustine explains the metaphor. In a loaf of bread, it is not one grain of wheat, but numerous grains of wheat. Even so, one loaf comes from many grains.

When you were being exorcised, it’s as though you were being ground.

The exorcism he’s referring to here is when the new convert, prior to baptism (and associated with it), renounces the devil and all his works. Augustine likens this to them being ground like wheat is ground. Notice that now Augustine has shifted to explicitly using similes (“as though”).

When you were baptized it’s as though you were mixed into dough.

This is rather clever. You add water to flour to make dough. Augustine is spinning out this metaphor.

When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, it’s as though you were baked.

This would seem to be a reference to chrismation. Again, this is something of a clever hook by Augustine, since literal fire bakes, and since the Holy Spirit is sometimes described in terms of fire, although – of course – the oil with which the newly baptized were anointed was not lit on fire literally.

It is interesting to note as an aside that there is no mention of candles here. If Augustine’s church had made religious use of candles, one might expect to see them mentioned here to provide the literal fire. Then again, perhaps Augustine was simply attempting to connect Baptism (broadly construed to include the exorcism and chrismation) with the Lord’s Supper.

Be what you can see, and receive what you are.

This is just a re-emphasis of Augustine’s application above combined with his affirmation that the people of God are the bread and cup.

That’s what the apostle said about the bread. He has already shown clearly enough what we should understand about the cup, even if it wasn’t said.

Here Augustine allows for us to draw inferences from the text. Although it is not explicitly stated that “we are one cup,” Augustine concludes that we can see the same metaphor there.

After all, just as many grains are mixed into one loaf in order to produce the visible appearance of bread, as though what holy scripture says about the faithful were happening: They had one soul and one heart in God (Acts 4:32); so too with the wine.

Augustine hasn’t explicitly stated that the grains are united into a loaf, but the lesson is clear. He’s further explaining that there is a unity of soul and heart among believers (or at least should be). He’s about to explain this via the metaphor of wine.

Brothers and sisters, just remind yourselves what wine is made from; many grapes hang in the bunch, but the juice of the grapes is poured together in one vessel.

This is an easy metaphor to follow.

That too is how the Lord Christ signified us, how he wished us to belong to him, how he consecrated the sacrament of our peace and unity on his table.

Notice how Augustine calls the sacrament “the sacrament of our peace and unity.” That is because, for Augustine, “the sacrament of x” means “the physical illustration of spiritual reality x.” Here the “x” is “peace and unity.” Other times it may be “faith” or something else. In each case, Augustine means that the sacrament pictures the spiritual reality.

Any who receive the sacrament of unity, and do not hold the bond of peace, do not receive the sacrament for their benefit, but a testimony against themselves.

This is a particularly insightful comment of application. I hope that any schismatics who take communion will think about this. This is one way in which Paul’s warning can be understood clearly:

1 Corinthians 11:27-30
Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.

Turning to the Lord, God the Father almighty, with pure hearts let us give him sincere and abundant thanks, as much as we can in our littleness; beseeching him in his singular kindness with our whole soul, graciously to hearken to our prayers in his good pleasure; also by his power to drive out the enemy from our actions and thoughts, to increase our faith, to guide our minds, to grant us spiritual thoughts, and to lead us finally to his bliss; through Jesus Christ his Son. Amen.

These are not so much concluding thoughts as they are a general exhortation to godliness and piety. I’m tempted to try to tie these comments back into the main discussion of the sermon, but I think it would be a mistake not to treat them as more or less a general doxology.


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