I have never written, nor even attempted to write, a web page on the Eucharist (communion or Lord’s supper) in early Christian history. That is because I find the early Christian statements about the Eucharist to be too loose to provide precise, definitive answers on the ideas that divide Roman Catholics and some Protestants.
It has been very easy to say simply that the early churches—and the apostles—didn’t treat anything they did as “purely symbolic” or as “a public testimony.” Those two ideas are indefensible both Biblically and historically.
Today, though, I found a page—a Catholic page at that—which addresses the Eucharist/communion extremely well.
I was searching for early Eucharistic prayers on the web when I ran across a page called The Real Presence on Catholic.com.
I have more than my share of disagreements and battles with Roman Catholics. Almost all of the offense is because I deny their claim to be the one true church. I have several pages on Christian-history.org refuting their claim that the Roman bishop had papal authority in the early centuries of the church, and I think the horrendous behavior of the Roman hierarchy in medieval times is proof enough that it could not possibly, as an organization, be even “an” authority from God, much less “the” authority. (example)
Nonetheless, as an organization, they do have a lineage going back to the apostles, and their doctrines have evolved over the centuries from some original, apostolic doctrines. The more they have evolved, the less accurate they are, because the original job of the leadership of the Roman church, and every other apostolic church, was to preserve the teaching (also called “tradition”) of the apostles, not improve it (something which cannot be done).
It is unlawful to assert that [the apostles] preached before they had “perfect knowledge,” as some [i.e., gnostics] dare to venture to say, boasting themselves as improvers of the apostles. For after our Lord rose from the dead, they were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down, were filled, and had perfect knowledge.
When we refer them to the tradition which originates from the apostles and which is preserved by means of the succession of elders in the churches, they object to tradition, saying that they are wiser not merely than the elders but even than the apostles!
… [Irenaeus lists the Roman bishops up till his time here] … In this order and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition of the apostles and the preaching of the truth have come down to us. This is most abundant proof that there is one and the same life-giving faith, which has been preserved in the church from the apostles until now and handed down in truth.
Polycarp also was not only instructed by the apostles … but was also appointed bishop [lit. overseer]of the church in Smyrna … When a very old man, gloriously and most notably suffering martyrdom, [he] departed this life, having always taught the things he learned from the apostles and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. … Then, again. the church in Ephesus, founded by Paul and having John remaining among them until the times of Trajan [A.D 98], is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies III:1:1 – III:3:4, c. A.D. 185)
The Eucharist is one doctrine that has been taken to extremes in the idea of “Transubstantiation,” but the original tradition of the apostles is still easy to find in Roman Catholic teaching, backed up both by Scripture and by the writings of the earliest Christians.
The Real Presence on Catholic.com is an excellent defense of basic Roman Catholic teaching on the Eucharist. It avoids even discussing the excesses that “transubstantiation” has been taken to. As a result, it is the best short description and defense of apostolic teaching on the Eucharistic meal I have seen.
When I mention going overboard on “transubstantiation,” I mean, for example, that one Roman Catholic wrote to tell me that scientific tests have proven that the bread blessed in a Catholic Mass turns into actual human meat. This, of course, is a myth. I’m sure that most Roman Catholics would reject such an idea, and I know that it is not official Roman Catholic doctrine. On the other hand, there are numerous stories from the Reformation Era of Anabaptists who were tortured or put to death for refusing to acknowledge that the bread and wine of the Roman Catholic Eucharist was actual meat and blood. (Martyr’s Mirror preserves a number of interrogations conducted in the 17th century.)
By the sacraments we are made partakers of the divine nature, and yet the substance and nature of bread and wine do not cease to be in them. (“Pope” Gelasius, A.D. 490, as cited by Bingham’s Antiquities, Bk. xv, ch. 5, found in note 1911 of The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. I [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001 reprint]; The note in ANF says A.D. 490, but Gelasius was bishop of Rome from 492-496; I cannot explain the discrepancy.)
The word “Eucharist” is from the Greek word Ευχαριστια, which means “thanksgiving.” It is the word most commonly used by the early churches to refer to the communion meal or Lord’s Supper.
And this food is called among us Ευχαριστια, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes the things we teach are true, who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins and for the purpose of regeneration and who is living as Christ has commanded. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these, but in the same way that Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, we likewise have been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of his word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. (Justin Martyr, First Apology 66, c. A.D. 150)
You’ll find many more quotes and a great summation of early Christian teaching on the Eucharist at Catholic.com.