Front Page Titles (by Subject) VII.: Eucharistic Doctrine - On the Mysteries and the Treatise on the Sacraments
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VII.: Eucharistic Doctrine - Ambrose, On the Mysteries and the Treatise on the Sacraments [387 AD]
On the Mysteries and the Treatise on the Sacraments by an Unknown Author, trans. T. Thompson, ed. with Introduction and Notes by J.H. Strawley (New York: Macmillan, 1919).
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The two treatises de Mysteriis and de Sacramentis have played an important part in the Eucharistic controversies of the Western Church. This is due to their pronounced teaching on the conversion of the elements into the body and blood of Christ, and the emphasis which they lay upon the words of institution as effecting this “consecration” or “change.” In both respects they mark an epoch in the history of the Western doctrine on the subject, and they have profoundly influenced later teaching. There is nothing parallel to their language in any Western writer before their time. The conception of a “conversion” of the elements into the body and blood of Christ was probably derived by Ambrose, as was so much else in his theology, from Greek sources. It appears for the first time (apart from some anticipations of it in Gnostic writers) in the Catecheses of Cyril of Jerusalem, and was elaborated with a special theory of his own by Gregory of Nyssa (Or. Cat. c. 37), with whose language Ambrose exhibits occasional parallels.1 Hitherto in the West, side by side with the tendency in popular teaching to identify the elements with the body and blood of Christ, we find, as in Tertullian, the bread spoken of as the “figure” (figura) of the body of Christ, or as “representing” (repraesentare)2 His body, though such language has a more definite sense than the corresponding English words, and suggests the idea of exhibiting or making present the sacred realities of which they speak, as when Cyprian speaks of the blood of Christ as “shewn forth” in the cup.3 Similar language is found in Jerome and Ambrosiaster. This stage of reflection is exhibited in the prayers of de Sacram. (iv. 5. 21), which speak of the oblation as “the figure (figura) of the body and blood of Christ,” and refer to it in mystical language as “this holy bread and cup of eternal life.” Nor was such language peculiar to the West. It finds a parallel in many Eastern sources during the fourth century, and it survives in the Liturgy of St. Basil,4 which (in the words introducing the Invocation) speaks of “offering the types (ἀντίτυπα) of the holy body and blood of Thy Christ.” Augustine is in the same line of tradition as Tertullian and Cyprian, though he advances upon their teaching and develops a theory of sacraments characterized by the distinction between the visible sign and the invisible reality.
But in Cyril of Jerusalem in the East (a.d. 347) and in Ambrose in the West, a new terminology appears, and the consecration of the Eucharist is represented as effecting a mysterious change in the elements by which they become the body and blood of Christ. Cyril of Jerusalem had already appealed to the miracle of Cana as affording a parallel to this change.1 By Ambrose such teaching is much developed. With him the consecration, effected by the words of Christ recited by the priest, is a miraculous act of God, to which parallels may be found in the miracles of Moses, Joshua, Elisha, and in the Virgin Birth, as well as in the act of creation itself. The word of Christ “which was able to make out of nothing that which was not,” is capable of “changing things which exist into that which they were not” (de Myst. ix. 51, 52). The author of de Sacramentis (iv. 4. 15-18) uses similar language. Like Ambrose, he appeals to the original act of creation, to the Virgin birth, to the crossing of the Red Sea, the waters of Marah, and the incident of Elisha making the axe-head to swim.
Ambrose does not hesitate to speak of the change effected as a “change of nature.”2 But a closer examination of his language shows that he has not clearly thought out all the implications of such teaching. Occasionally he falls back into the language still current in the West, as when he says that the flesh of Christ, which was crucified and buried, was certainly real flesh, and that therefore the Eucharist “is truly a sacrament of that flesh” (ix. 53), nor does he clearly face the question, to which the Schoolmen of later days paid so much attention, what becomes of the bread. On the other hand, he conceives of the body of Christ as a “spiritual body,” “the body of a divine Spirit, because Christ is Spirit,” and therefore capable of becoming “the ‘spiritual food’ of our souls” (de Myst. ix. 58).
The author of de Sacramentis shows a similar hesitation, when faced with the implications involved in this teaching of a miraculous change effected in the elements by consecration. Though he does not affirm so clearly as Ambrose the spiritual character of the Eucharistic food, he is alive to the materialistic conclusions which may be drawn from his teaching, and in this connexion speaks of receiving “the likeness of the death” and “drinking the likeness of the precious blood” (iv. 4. 20), or again he refers to the sacrament as being received “in a likeness” (in similitudinem), though this likeness bestows the “grace and virtue” of the reality (vi. 1. 3). Here again, as in Ambrose above, we see how naturally the older language current in the West reasserts itself. (See further, Introd. p. xviii, above.)
The train of thought opened up by Ambrose and his successor, the author of de Sacram., exercised a profound influence on later Western teaching. It encountered a rival influence in the more spiritualizing teaching of St. Augustine. In the Eucharistic controversies of the ninth century aroused by the “conversion” doctrine of Paschasius Radbert, and again in the controversies of the eleventh century, in which Berengar combated the growing belief in Transubstantiation, the rival schools of opinion appealed to the teaching of Ambrose and of de Sacramentis, as well as to that of Augustine, and attempted to harmonize their language in the fuller and more explicit treatment which was given to the subject during the period. Both treatises are appealed to as authorities by Ratramn (cent. ix.) in his opposition to Paschasius, by Berengar and his opponents Lanfranc and Witmund of Aversa (cent. xi.) and by Alger of Liège (cent. xii.). The teaching of Ambrose is the starting-point of those who maintain the identity of the elements with the body and blood of Christ in virtue of the conversion miraculously effected by consecration—the teaching finally formulated in the doctrine of Transubstantiation at the Council of the Lateran in 1216. Augustine is the authority appealed to by those who distinguished the visible sign from the invisible reality, and who tended to maintain a spiritual presence of power and efficacy—a view which passes in its more extreme forms into a purely figurative or commemorative idea of the sacrament.
A second feature in the Eucharistic teaching of de Myst. and de Sacram. is the emphasis which they lay upon the words of institution as effecting the consecration of the Sacrament. Speculation as to the “moment of consecration” in the Eucharist received an impulse from the very definite teaching of Cyril of Jerusalem. In his Catecheses he attributes the consecration to the operation of the Holy Spirit, Who is invoked in the Eucharistic prayer to “make (ποιεɩ̂ν) the bread the body of Christ, and the wine His blood”; and he adds, “for whatsoever the Holy Spirit touches is sanctified and changed.”1 How unfixed, however, were the conceptions of the “form” of consecration even in the latter part of the fourth century in the East is shown by Chrysostom, who sometimes attributes the consecration to the operation of the Holy Spirit, and elsewhere to the efficacy of the words of institution, recited afresh by the priest at every Eucharist.2 In Ambrose, however, and in the author of de Sacramentis, we find clear expression given to the view that it is the words of Christ “This is my body,” “this is my blood,” recited by the priest, which effect the consecration of the sacrament. The whole course of their argument rests upon the operative power of this word to “change the natures” of the sacramental elements into realities of a higher order. While in the East the teaching found in Cyril of Jerusalem became formulated later on in the doctrine that the Holy Spirit, invoked by the prayer of the priest, is the operative power which effects the sacramental mystery, the teaching found in Ambrose and de Sacramentis is the starting-point of the development which led to the later Western view that the “form” of the Sacrament is the recital of the words of Christ.
The authors of de Mysteriis and de Sacramentis, though they deal so fully with the nature of the Eucharistic gift, do not dwell at all upon the conception of the Eucharist as a sacrifice, though Ambrose in other works develops this aspect at some length. But in the prayers quoted in de Sacram., we have an interesting indication of the kind of language in which this idea found expression in the liturgical forms of the period. It is marked by a primitive simplicity. The oblation is spoken of as “a reasonable offering,” “an unbloody offering”—phrases common in early Christian writings—and it is compared to the gifts of Abel and the sacrifices of Abraham and Melchizedek. The sacrifice, in fact, is conceived of as commemorative and eucharistic, rather than as propitiatory. The Eucharist is the “thank-offering” of priest and people alike. The language of the Roman Canon, when studied by itself, and apart from later glosses and interpretations, exhibits much the same conception, and the long continuance at Rome, and in the West, of the practice of the people making their offerings of bread and wine served to perpetuate this conception, which is reflected in so many of the Secreta prayers in the later Roman service books.
[1 ]With the phrases in Ambrose, naturam convertere, naturas mutare, cp. Greg. Nyss. Or. Cat. 37, μεταστοιχείωσας τωˆν ϕαινο· μένων τὴν ϕύσιν, and with the use of species in de Myst. 52 (ut species mutet elementorum) compare the use of ε[Editor: illegible character]δος in Gregory, l.c.
[2 ]adv. Marc. iii. 19, i. 14.
[3 ]Ep. lxiii. 2, cp. ibid. 11, 13.
[4 ]See Brightman, Lit. E. & W. 329. 23 f.
[1 ]Cat. xxii. 2.
[2 ]Notice the phrases naturam mutare, naturam convertere, praeter naturam, which are of constant occurrence in de Myst. ix. 51-53. In de Fide iv. 10. 124 Ambrose uses the word transfigurare to denote this “change.”
[1 ]Cat. xxiii. 7.
[2 ]de Sacerd. iii. 4, in coen. appellat. 3; de Prod. Iud. i. 6.