The Eucharist, Part 6: Irenaeus of Lyons

Note: This is part of this series on the Eucharistic liturgy found in the patristics. The series is an expanded response to FishEater’s “What the Earliest Christians Wrote About the Eucharist.”

The original liturgy:

The Roman liturgy:


The first quote is just the plain observation that Jesus spoke the words of institution (“he confessed”) over created agricultural products: bread and wine. If anything is to be noticed at all, it is that Jesus called created things his body and blood. This is hardly the basis for transubstantiation or the “real presence:” after saying the words of institution, the bread and wine remained created things. As we will see below, Irenaeus’ theology repudiates any notion of transubstantiation, but for now this quotation merely raises red flags.

We need only concern ourselves with the last two quotes. Before we begin, a warning is in order:

The last two quotes contain intentional mistranslations, which, frankly, fraudulently build a case for the Roman liturgy. Additionally, some other unquoted sections by Irenaeus have also been intentionally mistranslated. While mistranslations exist in all translations—as in Part 3: Justin Martyr—they are especially egregious here.

As an intellectually- and academically-oriented writer, I find this to be deeply offensive, especially because these mistranslations are not disclosed to modern readers by editors, apologists, and scholars. In addition to deceiving countless people, this helps to create unnecessarily hostile situations like the one that inspired this series, as well as cultivating overconfidence in Roman Catholics. It harms the possibility of dialogue

However, before we go into that, let’s first look at the wider context of Irenaeus’ other works to see if these quote snippets are taken out-of-context to support a Roman liturgy.

Fragments §7
This [custom], of not bending the knee upon Sunday, is a symbol of the resurrection, through which we have been set free, by the grace of Christ, from sins, and from death, which has been put to death under Him. Now this custom took its rise from apostolic times, as the blessed Irenæus, the martyr and bishop of Lyons, declares in his treatise On Easter, in which he makes mention of Pentecost also; upon which [feast] we do not bend the knee, because it is of equal significance with the Lord’s day, for the reason already alleged concerning it.

Why do I start here? Because in the modern Roman liturgy, the participants receiving the bread on Sunday kneel down. The early church forbid kneeling on Sunday on theological grounds:

Council of Nicaea, Canon XX

“Forasmuch as there are certain persons who kneel on the Lord’s Day and in the days of Pentecost, therefore, to the intent that all things may be uniformly observed everywhere (in every parish), it seems good to the holy Synod that prayer be made to God standing.”

Citation: Council of Nicaea, Canon XX (325AD)

But the Roman liturgy requires it! Such a “little” discrepancy really highlights how the Roman liturgy was subject to development over time: it was not original.

Fragments §37
Those who have become acquainted with the secondary (i.e., under Christ) constitutions of the apostles, are aware that the Lord instituted a new oblation in the new covenant, according to [the declaration of] Malachi the prophet. For, from the rising of the sun even to the setting my name has been glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure sacrifice; Malachi 1:11 as John also declares in the Apocalypse: The incense is the prayers of the saints. Then again, Paul exhorts us to present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. Romans 12:1 And again, Let us offer the sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of the lips. Hebrews 13:15 Now those oblations are not according to the law, the handwriting of which the Lord took away from the midst by cancelling it; Colossians 2:14 but they are according to the Spirit, for we must worship God in spirit and in truth. John 4:24 And therefore the oblation of the Eucharist is not a carnal one, but a spiritual; and in this respect it is pure. For we make an oblation to God of the bread and the cup of blessing, giving Him thanks in that He has commanded the earth to bring forth these fruits for our nourishment. And then, when we have perfected the oblation, we invoke the Holy Spirit, that He may exhibit this sacrifice, both the bread the body of Christ, and the cup the blood of Christ, in order that the receivers of these antitypes may obtain remission of sins and life eternal. Those persons, then, who perform these oblations in remembrance of the Lord, do not fall in with Jewish views, but, performing the service after a spiritual manner, they shall be called sons of wisdom.

Why do I cite this next? Because it is nothing like the Roman liturgy!

Irenaeus identifies the sacrifice mentioned by Malachi as prayer, then identifies the acceptable sacrifices as those of service, prayer, praise, blessing, and the bringing forth of fruits—agricultural products—for nourishment. He’s describing the (2) eucharist and (3) oblation: the tithe and the prayers, praise, and service of thanksgiving that are offered together as a sacrifice to God for use by the poor. It is precisely as we saw in Justin Martyr: “to use it for ourselves and those who need, and with gratitude to Him.”

Then, upon completion of the (3) oblation, Irenaeus describes the (4) epiclesis where the Holy Spirit is invoked upon the already sacrificed eucharist in order to make the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ.

Shall we talk more about how the purpose of the tithe of food is for nourishment? Or how the body and blood of Christ are “antitypes” (that is, figures)? Or that these acts are performed as a spiritual remembrance? The Roman liturgy is absent and in its place the true liturgy of the church.

Now, let’s move to “Against Heresies”, which very long.

Against Heresies
Pretending to eucharist (eucharistein; εὐχαριστείν) cups mixed with wine, and protracting to great length the word of invocation (epicliseos; ὲπικλήσεως), he contrives to give them a purple and reddish color, so that Charis, who is one of those that are superior to all things, should be thought to drop her own blood into that cup through means of his invocation (ὲπικλήσεως), and that thus those who are present should be led to rejoice to taste of that cup, in order that, by so doing, the Charis, who is set forth by this magician, may also flow into them.

Citation: Irenaeus of Lyons. “Against Heresies.” Book 1. §13.2

Once again, the English translations hide the meaning of the Greek. This is especially egregious, because the word (2) “eucharist” is replaced with (4) “consecrate.” This is a rather plain attempt to merge the two into one unit, as in the Roman liturgy, for in the English translation it looks as if the Epiclesis coincides with the Eucharist. But Irenaeus describes a Eucharist that takes place prior to and separate from the consecration in the words of institution (or invocation; epiclesis).

For reference to the Greek words highlighted above, see Roman Catholic J.P. Migne’s Patrologia Graeca (1857–1866) in vol VII, 580. In a footnote at 579n Migne translates this to Latin as “Consecrare, inquam, non gratias agere.” which translated is “To consecrate, I say, not to give thanks.” Migne inserts his opinion in Latin, while acknowledging the original Greek. So simple is it to rewrite history, 1984-style. But, most insidious, is that it is very hard for Protestants to know that this intentional mistranslation has taken place.

Against Heresies
 [Marcus] imagines that the emblem of this utterance is found in Amen, which we pronounce in concert. 1 Corinthians 14:16

Citation: Irenaeus of Lyons. “Against Heresies.” Book 1. §14

This is a passing reference to the (3) Oblation which concludes with a corporately spoken “Amen.” It is a reference to 1 Corinthians 14:16…

1 Corinthians 14:16
Otherwise, if you praise with the spirit, how will anyone who is unlearned say “Amen!” at your giving of thanks (eucharistia; εὐχαριστία), seeing he does not know what you are saying?

…upon which it is established that the Amen spoken in the Eucharist is Apostolic, which is why it has been referenced by many of the writers we examine in this series. The early church understood Paul’s instructions for the Eucharist—the literal giving of thanks—to conclude with a corporate “Amen.”

The “Amen” forms a hard stop between the (1-3) sacrifice of the eucharist—the tithe—and the (4-5) celebration of the Lord’s Supper of consecrated elements. In the modern era, with fiat money having replaced agricultural products in the tithe, Protestants have largely separated the observance of the former and that of the latter. Churches still purchase the elements from out of the eucharist—tithe—but they no longer observe these ceremonies at the same time. It is why Protestants don’t call the Lord’s Super “the Eucharist,” as do the Roman Catholics: because they are separate observances, only related by where the elements come from.

Now there is a discrepancy in the text:

Against Heresies
“For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the summons (ecclesin; έκκλησιν) of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly…”

“For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation (epiclesin) of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly…”

Citation: Irenaeus of Lyons. “Against Heresies.” Book 4. §18.5

Translators saw summons and did not know what to do with it. Elsewhere in the text Irenaeus used the term “epiclesin” in other contexts, so not knowing what to do with the implied theology of “ecclesin,” they instead assumed that the word chosen was a mistake. So they switched it out with invocation.

Once again we cite J.P. Migne (Patrologia Graeca, vol VII, 1028n) who made a note that he preferred invocation. I bet he did! This change alters the text to make it seem like the (2) Eucharist receives the (4) invocation, that is, it was the invocation that turned it into the Eucharist. This is a rather plain attempt to insert the Roman liturgy onto the lips of Irenaeus.

So if “summons” is correct, who is doing the summons? What does it mean?

Malachi 3:10
Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.

It is God himself who has summoned the tithe into the storehouse. Irenaeus simply continues his referencing of Malachi (as he did in Fragmant 37 above in reference to Malachi 1:11).

Of course if the mistranslated version was correct, Irenaeus would have been logically contradicting himself (e.g. with Fragment 37) by portraying multiple liturgical orders. Nonetheless, this version is very popular among Roman Catholic apologists. Now, you will not be surprised to note that FishEater has indeed cited the mistranslated version.

Against Heresies
The oblation of the Church, therefore, which the Lord gave instructions to be offered throughout all the world, is accounted with God a pure sacrifice, and is acceptable to Him; not that He stands in need of a sacrifice from us, but that he who offers is himself glorified in what he does offer, if his gift be accepted. For by the gift both honour and affection are shown forth towards the King; and the Lord, wishing us to offer it in all simplicity and innocence, did express Himself thus: Therefore, when you offer your gift upon the altar, and shall remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then return and offer your gift. Matthew 5:23-24 We are bound, therefore, to offer to God the first-fruits of His creation, as Moses also says, You shall not appear in the presence of the Lord your God empty; Deuteronomy 16:16 so that man, being accounted as grateful, by those things in which he has shown his gratitude, may receive that honour which flows from Him.

Citation: Irenaeus of Lyons. “Against Heresies.” Book 4. §18.1

Here Irenaeus discusses the Eucharist as a gift, which is the same language when we looked at Clement of Rome’s Eucharist. The tithes are the firstfruits of created things, and they are offerings of thanksgiving and gratefulness.

Against Heresies
And the class of oblations in general has not been set aside; for there were both oblations there [among the Jews], and there are oblations here [among the Christians]. Sacrifices there were among the people; sacrifices there are, too, in the Church: but the species alone has been changed, inasmuch as the offering is now made, not by slaves, but by freemen. For the Lord is [ever] one and the same; but the character of a servile oblation is peculiar [to itself], as is also that of freemen, in order that, by the very oblations, the indication of liberty may be set forth. For with Him there is nothing purposeless, nor without signification, nor without design. And for this reason they (the Jews) had indeed the tithes of their goods consecrated to Him, but those who have received liberty set aside all their possessions for the Lord’s purposes, bestowing joyfully and freely not the less valuable portions of their property, since they have the hope of better things [hereafter]; as that poor widow acted who cast all her living into the treasury of God.

Citation: Irenaeus of Lyons. “Against Heresies.” Book 4. §18.2

Here Irenaeus connects the Eucharistic tithe offering to the offerings of the Jews, noting that they have changed merely in form while still fulfilling the same purpose. These tithes are still the offerings of thanksgiving prescribed in the Old Testament. Irenaeus’ reference to the widow makes the same point that Clement of Rome did, as we noted in part 5.

Against Heresies
Inasmuch, then, as the Church offers with single-mindedness, her gift is justly reckoned a pure sacrifice with God. As Paul also says to the Philippians, I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things that were sent from you, the odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, pleasing to God. Philippians 4:18 For it behooves us to make an oblation to God, and in all things to be found grateful to God our Maker, in a pure mind, and in faith without hypocrisy, in well-grounded hope, in fervent love, offering the first-fruits of His own created things. And the Church alone offers this pure oblation to the Creator, offering to Him, with giving of thanks, [the things taken] from His creation.

Now we make offering to Him, not as though He stood in need of it, but rendering thanks for His gift, and thus sanctifying what has been created. For even as God does not need our possessions, so do we need to offer something to God; as Solomon says: He that has pity upon the poor, lends unto the Lord. Proverbs 19:17 For God, who stands in need of nothing, takes our good works to Himself for this purpose, that He may grant us a recompense of His own good things, as our Lord says: Come, you blessed of My Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you. For I was an hungered, and you gave Me to eat: I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink: I was a stranger, and you took Me in: naked, and you clothed Me; sick, and you visited Me; in prison, and you came to Me. Matthew 25:34

Citation: Irenaeus of Lyons. “Against Heresies.” Book 4. §18.4,6

Having established the basis for the eucharist—thanksgiving—offering of the tithe in the church, Irenaeus now notes that its purpose is to help those in need, especially by giving them food and drink. Even here we are still back where we started in Part 2: The Didache. Irenaeus spends a lot of words setting up the scriptural foundation of the Eucharist as a thanksgiving tithe offering. As before, the Roman liturgy is absent, for the Roman liturgy has no conception of the Eucharist as an offering or sacrifice to God of food for those in need. Even when translators swap out one word for another, it just creates a Frankenstein’s monster of an irrational mess that still fails to conform to the Roman liturgy.

Against Heresies
He has acknowledged the cup (which is a part of the creation) as His own blood, from which He bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of the creation) He has established as His own body, from which He gives increase to our bodies. When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God, and the Eucharist of the blood and the body of Christ is made, from which things the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they affirm that the flesh is incapable of receiving the gift of God, which is life eternal, which [flesh] is nourished from the body and blood of the Lord, and is a member of Him?— even as the blessed Paul declares in his Epistle to the Ephesians, that

we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones. Ephesians 5:30

He does not speak these words of some spiritual and invisible man,

for a spirit has not bones nor flesh; Luke 24:39

but [he refers to] that dispensation [by which the Lord became] an actual man, consisting of flesh, and nerves, and bones — that [flesh] which is nourished by the cup which is His blood, and receives increase from the bread which is His body. And just as a cutting from the vine planted in the ground fructifies in its season, or as a grain of wheat falling into the earth and becoming decomposed, rises with manifold increase by the Spirit of God, who contains all things, and then, through the wisdom of God, serves for the use of men, and having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ; so also our bodies, being nourished by it, and deposited in the earth, and suffering decomposition there, shall rise at their appointed time, the Word of God granting them resurrection to the glory of God, even the Father, who freely gives to this mortal immortality, and to this corruptible incorruption, 1 Corinthians 15:53 because

the strength of God is made perfect in weakness, 2 Corinthians 12:3

in order that we may never become puffed up, as if we had life from ourselves, and exalted against God, our minds becoming ungrateful; but learning by experience that we possess eternal duration from the excelling power of this Being, not from our own nature, we may neither undervalue that glory which surrounds God as He is, nor be ignorant of our own nature, but that we may know what God can effect, and what benefits man receives, and thus never wander from the true comprehension of things as they are, that is, both with regard to God and with regard to man.

Citation: Irenaeus of Lyons. “Against Heresies.” Book 5. §2.2,3

Earlier, when Irenaeus had been discussing our unconsecrated tithe offerings, he described how they enrich us spiritually. Here he talks about how the consecrated bread nourishes us physically. I shared this very long quotation because the physicality of his description when discussing the consecrated bread is very clear. What, then, is the significance?

First, Irenaeus mentions that the bread and wine are part of creation. They are created things. They are not in the appearance of created things (i.e. it isn’t transubstantiation: the species of bread, the substance of Christ’s real flesh). It is very real, very visceral, very created.

Second, Irenaeus treats the elements as if they are digested and used to build the substance of the flesh, which, if they were actually fully bread and wine, they would do. Many Roman Catholics would find this concept utterly heretical.

Third, Irenaeus describes the bread metaphorically in terms of how it starts as seed, dies, and eventually is turned into food that we eat. This is a figurative symbol of our own death and resurrection.

Fourth, Irenaeus wrote this to contest the Gnostics, to argue that Jesus had a real, physical body and that we retain a body of flesh when we die, just as the risen Christ still has physical flesh that will one day consume actual physical wine at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb. This is not transubstantiation because, as we saw in our examination of Fragment 37 and in our analysis here, the bread and wine remain very real, very created. This is made even clearer elsewhere:

Against Heresies
For the new flesh which rises again is the same which also received the new cup. And He cannot by any means be understood as drinking of the fruit of the vine when settled down with his [disciples] above in a super-celestial place; nor, again, are they who drink it devoid of flesh, for to drink of that which flows from the vine pertains to flesh, and not spirit.’

Citation: Irenaeus of Lyons. “Against Heresies.” Book 5. §33.1

Of course for Christ and the disciples to drink the fruit of the vine, they must have physical flesh! Notice too that the newly risen flesh comes from the cup, not the bread.

In summary, what Irenaeus describes is very much not what Rome teaches. FishEater’s use of this quotation does not evidence a Roman liturgy.

But there is a more significant problem with the translation. Notice how the passage FishEater cited hinges on this key phrase:

Against Heresies
When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God, … the Eucharist of the blood and the body of Christ is made…

Citation: Irenaeus of Lyons. “Against Heresies.” Book 5. §2.3

There are two versions Against Heresies. A Latin translation that is more complete, and a fragmentary Greek original version. However, in this particular passage, the two sources do not agree. We will let Phillip Schaff explain:

Ante-Nicaean Fathers, Volume I

The Greek text, of which a considerable portion remains here, would give, “… the Eucharist becomes the body of Christ.”

Citation: Phillip Schaff, “Ante-Nicæan Fathers, volume I“, note 4462

And so the passage should read:

Against Heresies
When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God, … the Eucharist becomes the body of Christ.…

Citation: Irenaeus of Lyons. “Against Heresies.” Book 5. §2.3

In 1885, the translators Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut simply chose the Latin over the original Greek when they rendered the passage into the English version we have now, the one that the Roman Catholic apologists all use to imply that the Eucharist is created at the consecration rather than before it. They knew precisely what they were doing, and they’ve deceived countless numbers of Protestants and Catholics in the process. Had they rendered it accurately, it would be explicitly opposed to the Roman liturgy, which of course it is!

If Irenaeus wanted to say that the the bread and wine became the eucharist and the blood and body of Christ at the same time, he would only needed to have said:

Against Heresies
When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God, … the Eucharist is made…

Citation: Irenaeus of Lyons. “Against Heresies.” Book 5. §2.3

But he added the qualifier “the Eucharist of the blood and the body of Christ is made” because he had to qualify which Eucharist he was talking about. He was distinguishing between the unconsecrated and the consecrated eucharist. Even mistranslating the passage cannot hide this subtle point.

In this examination alone, we’ve found three intentional mistranslations that changed the original text from a Protestant-style liturgy into a Roman liturgy. These mistranslations are then commonly repeated by apologists as if they were real. I cannot adequately express precisely how offensive this is to the truth. I cannot even imagine how many Roman Catholics have been deceived by this, arrogantly proclaiming the truth to be on their side, even as they were as far from it as possible.



  1. Pingback: The Eucharist, Part 8: Interlude

  2. Pingback: The Eucharist, Part 10: Origen of Alexandria

  3. Pingback: The Eucharist, Part 12: Hippolytus of Rome

  4. Pingback: The Eucharist, Part 11: Cyprian of Carthage

  5. Pingback: The Eucharist, Part 13: Aphrahat the Persian Sage

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *