Francis Chan has believed that the communion was a symbol only for his whole life. In fact, he used to view anyone who believed in transubstantiation, or who saw the bread and the wine used for communion as more than just the bread and the wine, as “Catholic” and potentially “superstitious.” Chan said it struck him as “almost silly” and even “heretical” to take this view of communion. However, at the urging of his friends and fellow ministry leaders, Hank Hanegraaff and K.P. Yohannan, Chan says he decided to study early church history to discover what they believed about communion, or the Eucharist. While he admits he doesn’t “know where I land yet,” Chan is seeking to understand the incarnational view of the Eucharist that faith traditions such as the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches take.
Helping him on his journey, Hanegraaff and Yohannan sat down recently during a podcast episode of Hanegraaf’s Bible Answer Man to explain the incarnational view of the Eucharist that Christians have held for centuries now. As you may recall, Hanegraaff made waves in the evangelical church a few years ago when he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy.
The main crux of the argument that Hanegraaff and Yohannon present is that the doctrines of Christianity were built by the apostles and then originally passed down orally. Later, they were written down in the Bible. The Bible, they explain, wouldn’t even exist without the church. In other words, the two gentlemen believe the early church’s belief on this subject should inform our understanding of the Eucharist.
The Early Church Believed in Transubstantiation
For the first 1,000 years of church history, Hanegraaff explains, the Church was “undivided at the table” in their belief about the Eucharist. “The early church uniformly believed that when you partook of the Eucharist, you were partaking of the real presence of Christ,” Hanegraaf said. When Jesus said “This is my blood. This is my body,” Hanegraaff says he wasn’t speaking metaphorically. It was a hard saying and many of his followers left because of it.
Another Scriptural support for early church’s view of the Eucharist is found in 1 Corinthians 11:27, when Paul is warning the church about taking communion in an “unworthy manner.” Hanegraaff asks, if the Eucharist is merely a symbol, as the Protestant tradition holds, why would Paul warn that partaking in what he calls “the body and blood of the Lord” in the wrong state could cause illness?
Moving beyond Scripture, Hanegraaff then begins to explain how the Church’s views of the Eucharist started to change and create a rift among faith traditions. Starting with the schism between the Western Church and the Eastern church after 1,000 years of unity, Hanegraaff said this is the beginnings of the western church shifting its thinking about the Eucharist, although it wasn’t until much later that the Protestants would adopt the symbolic view of the Eucharist. Around this time, in western culture the age of rationalism was emerging and the church was being influenced by scholasticism and a desire to explain everything. The church trying to explain the Eucharist, Hanegraaff says, is akin to trying to do the impossible. That is, trying to take a mystery and put it into words. Hanegraaff clarified that at this time, all western Christians still believed in the actual presence of Christ in the Eucharist, that is transubstantiation, but they sought ways to explain the phenomenon.
On the other hand, the Eastern church was content in their belief that the Eucharist is a mystery and didn’t attempt to explain it.
Fast forward another 500 years to the Reformation. This is when things start to change in the western church. Shortly after Martin Luther’s 95 theses moment, he and a fellow Reformation leader, Ulrich Zwingli, got into a debate about the Eucharist. Luther held to the literal understanding of the Eucharist while Zwingli pressed him explain how the bread and the wine could possibly be Christ’s body. Hanegraaff says that Luther responded, “If you can explain to me how Christ is one person with two natures, I will explain to you how Christ can really be present in the Eucharist.”
Hanegraaff went on to unpack Luther’s argument: In our humanity, we can’t fully comprehend things like the trinity, for instance, but this is a core tenant of our faith and something that we accept as a mystery. While Luther might have won the debate with Zwingli, Hanegraaff says that Zwingli won the war. The two went their separate ways and fissures in the Reformation movement started happening. Hence, we have innumerous iterations of the Reformation church (also known as Protestantism) to this day that often fight like siblings. To the point where some protestants believe a literal understanding of the Eucharist is akin to “the sin of worshipping bread.”
The Symbol Becomes Reality Through Faith
At this point Yohannan chimed in and explained his understanding of faith and the Eucharist. He gave the example of the serpent on the staff used by the Israelites while they were wandering in the desert and suffering from snakebites. God through Moses instructed them to look upon the serpent and they would be healed. How can this happen? Yohannan asks. The answer, he believes, is where faith comes into the picture. The Israelites were healed by the serpent on the staff—a symbol—because of their faith in what God said he would do.
In other words, “The symbol becomes reality when we believe.”
Yohannan went on to talk about how the Eucharist has transformed him personally. Saying he used to be prideful, he believes receiving the elements—Christ’s body and his blood—by faith has transformed him from the inside out. This is an experiential thing, to be sure, but Yohannan makes the case that faith must be experiential for it to be genuine. The thing that matters with the Eucharist, Yohannan says, is how does our “heart faith” respond to it? One person, for instance, can receive the elements and not react to it. But another, who has faith and believes, can be transformed by it.