Skip to comments.Radbertus & Ratramnus: A Ninth Century Debate over the Lord's Supper
Posted on 04/08/2004 9:08:23 AM PDT by HarleyD
In the middle of the ninth century, an important debate arose over the nature of the Lord's Supper. Two monks of the same monastery in Corbie had outlined differing conceptions of the Lord's Supper in two respective tracts. The first monk, Paschasius Radbertus, had emphasized the reality of Christ's bodily presence in the bread and wine, while Ratramnus, his opponent, focused on the important difference between the sacramental signs and the thing signified. This paper will look at these two sacramental theologies, and will seek to evaluate both of these views in light of later eucharistic development. The conclusion reached by this paper is that Radbertus, although there are some notable exceptions, does appear to conceive of the Lord's Supper in a way not inconsistent with what later comes to be known as transubstantiation, the official position of the Roman Catholic church. Ratramnus on the other hand, being critical of this view, emphasized the spiritual presence of Christ in the sacrament, a view which bears a close, although not identical, resemblance to the Eucharistic theology of John Calvin and the Reformed tradition.
Before I begin bearing out the assertions of my thesis, a little historical background will no doubt be helpful. Paschasius Radbertus wrote his little tract "De Corpore et Sanguine Domini" for a friend in 831, and later revised it and sent it as a gift to Charles the Bald in 844. Ratramnus, on the other hand, wrote his tract of the same title on behest of King Charles personallyprobably somewhere between 845-850. Whether or not the King sought Ratramnus' assistance because he was concerned about some of the implications of Radbertus' position, cannot with certainty be established, but it does seem likely.
According to Paul H. Jones, Radbertus in his tract appears to have four important questions: 1) What is the relationship between the eucharistic body and the historical body of Christ? 2) How it is that the real presence can be explained, given that the sacrament is celebrated in many places and at many times? 3) What is the difference between bread and wine before and after consecration? and 4) What is the relation between signs and things signified. Charles the Bald on the other hand, seemed to be concerned with only two of these questions. In his letter to Ratramnus for assistance on these matters, the King inquired concerning "whether that which in the church is received into the mouth of the faithful becomes the body and blood of Christ in mystery or in truth," and secondly, "whether it is that body which was born of Mary, suffered, died, and was buried" Ratramnus' tract then is an attempt to answer those two questions; i.e., whether or not the Supper is only a sign or a real body, and if it is a real body, is it the same as the one born of Mary or something else?
Radbertus when he set out to answer his questions identified the eucharistic body as that of the exact same historical body of Christ, and he asserted that this body was placed in the believer's mouth in reality, and not merely symbolically. But this being the case, how is Christ's "one" body available for everyone around the world? Radbertus finds the solution to this problem of time and locality in God's creative decree, "The Spiritfrom the substance of bread and wine daily creates the flesh and blood of Christ by invisible power...though outwardly understood by neither sight nor taste." In fact, he argues that just as the true flesh of Christ was originally produced by the power of God through the vessel of the Virgin Mary, the same holds true in the Eucharist as well where "true flesh is created without union of sex." He elaborates:
Do not be surprised, O man, and do not ask about the order of nature here; but if you truly believe that that flesh was without seed created from the Virgin Mary in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit, so that the Word might be made flesh, truly believe also that what is constructed in Christ's word through the Holy Spirit is his body from the Virgin
So what is in the sacrament is true body and blood, but only "veiled" to the senses as bread and wine. Commenting on this, Paul H. Jones writes, "Using the language of a later era, Radbertus inferred that the bread and wine were 'annihilated' although their appearances remained. This notion that at every Eucharist there is a new creation of the body of Christ represents Radbertus' most notable contribution to the tradition." Phillip Schaff found this monk's view so close to the Roman doctrine that he actually calls Radbertus "the famous promulgator of the doctrine of Transubstantiation." According to this historian:
He did not employ the term transubstantiation, which came not into use until two centuries later; but he taught the thing, namely, that 'the substance of bread and wine is effectually changed (efficaciter interius commutatur) into the flesh and blood of Christ,' so that after the priestly consecration there is 'nothing else in the Eucharist but the flesh and blood of Christ,' although 'the figure of bread and wine remain' to the senses of sight, touch and taste.
Paul H. Jones takes a slightly different view. While he does admit that Radbertus contributed to the tradition of transubstantiation, he is nevertheless not willing to state that he formally taught the doctrine.
Ratramnus on the other hand did not want to conceive of the sacrament in such a carnal manner. For this monk, the bread and wine were not so much "changed" into something different (ontologically speaking), but rather, they were "called" something different; "And although the Lord's body, in which he once suffered is one thing, and the blood, which was shed for the salvation of the world, is one thing, yet the sacraments of these two things have assumed their names, being called Christ's body and blood, since they are so called on account of a resemblance with the things they represent." Ratramnus then brings Augustine to bear on this point, "By virtue of their resemblance [sacraments] derive their names from those things of which they are sacraments." The point being made is that a sacramental sign is one thing, and the thing the sacrament points to (the thing signified) is another thing altogether. Therefore, the bread and the wine physically remain bread and wine after the words of consecration, but they represent the body and blood of Christ. Now, it should not be thought at this point that Ratramnus is advocating a bare memorialist position. While it is true that he teaches the bread and wine represent and recall to our minds the body and blood of Christ, he also says much more:
We are taught by the Saviour, as well as by Saint Paul the apostle, that that bread and that wine which are placed on the altar are placed there as a figure or a memorial of the Lord's death, so that what was done in the past may be recalled to memory in the present. Let it not therefore be thought that, since we say this, in the mystery of the sacrament either the Lord's body or his blood is not taken by the faithful when faith receives what the eye does not see but what it believes; for it is spiritual food, spiritually feeding the soul, and bestowing a life of eternal satisfaction.
Ratramnus writes elsewhere that "under cover of the corporeal bread and of the corporeal wine Christ's spiritual body and spiritual blood do exist." It is clear therefore from these two selections that this author is not advocating the same doctrine as that which would later be propounded by Ulrich Zwingli. Here, the signs not only represent, but also convey Christ's spiritual body and blood.
Ratramnus also takes a different view of the kind of body that is conveyed in the Eucharist. Radbertus, you will remember, held that there was absolutely no difference between the eucharistic elements and the historical body and blood of Christ. But Ratramnus argued that the two bodies were "not identical."
A great difference separates the body in which Christ suffered, and the blood which he shed from his side while hanging on the cross, from this body which daily in the mystery of Christ's Passion is celebrated by the faithful, and from that blood also which is taken into the mouth of the faithful...they differ between themselves as much as differ things corporeal and things spiritual, things visible and invisible, things divine and human.
Thus the person receiving the sacrament does receive Christ, but he receives Christ spiritually by faith. By conceiving of the sacrament in this way, Ratramnus avoided the difficult questions that Radbertus faced, such as how Christ's physical body could be available in many places and at many times, and yet in no way minimized the reality of Christ's presence. Paul Jones again is on the point, "Without compromising the integrity of sacramental signs or the necessity of faith for perceiving them, Ratramnus averred a real presence that permitted the elements to be more than mirages that concealed raw flesh and dripping blood." Thus, for Ratramnus, Christ's historical body was neither re-created nor multiplied. In his view of the Eucharist, Christ is a spiritual reality, not an ontological substance.
A Place of Agreement? It cannot be overstated that the mode of reception in the position of Ratramnus is faith. He himself elaborates:
Outwardly it has the shape of bread which it had before, the color is exhibited, the flavor is received, but inwardly something far different, much more precious, much more excellent, becomes known, because something heavenly, something divine, that is, Christ's body, is revealed, which is not beheld, or received, or consumed by the fleshly senses but in the gaze of the believing soul.
Elsewhere he writes, "...what is pressed by the teeth, what is broken into bits, is not considered, but what is in faith received spiritually." Believing Christians are the only ones who can avail themselves of Christ in the Supper, since he is spiritually present, and faith is the only link to the spiritual reality.
But it may be assumed that Radbertus, on the other hand, so tied Christ to the elements in the sacrament after the words of consecration that the mode of reception in his view would be through the mouth of the communicant, regardless of faith. But this is not the case, for Radbertus himself writes, "Let the man without faith consider that, unworthy as he is, he can receive worthy and sacred things, not, indeed, expecting anything except what he sees, nor understanding anything other than he feels with his lipIf there is any further power in it he does not sufficiently taste it by faith." Therefore both Radbertus and Ratramnus identify faith as the mode of reception. Radbertus however, will locate the corporeal presence of the true historical body of Christ in the mouth, but only to the faithful by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Making Assessments While I am not inclined to agree with Schaff's assessment that Radbertus was a bona fide transubstantiationist, I do think that he was very close to the position. He taught that the elements of bread and wine were ontologically "changed" into a new substance at the words of consecration. This change was not conceived along the same metaphysical lines as the traditional transubstantiation position was constructed, but the fact that some of the basic elements are there is self evident. Ratramnus on the other hand advocates a clear Augustinian distinction between the sign and the thing signified. The bread and wine physically remain what they are, but after the prayer of consecration they can be called something else by virtue Christ's spiritual presence. This bears a close resemblance to Calvin's understanding of the Lord's Supper as an example of sacramental metonomy. As he explains it himself in the Institutes, "on account of the affinity which the things signified have with their signs, the name of the thing itself is given to the sign figuratively, indeed, but very appropriatelyI say that the expression which is uniformly used in Scripture, when the sacred mysteries are treated of, is metonymical." Calvin also speaks of the Sacraments as food for the soul:
Thus when bread is given as a symbol of the body of Christ, we must immediately think of this similitude. As bread nourishes, sustains, and protects our bodily life, so the body of Christ is the only food to invigorate and keep alive the soul. When we behold wine set forth as a symbol of blood, we must think that such use as wine serves to the body, the same is spiritually bestowed by the blood of Christ; and the use is to foster, refresh, strengthen, and exhilarate. For if we duly consider what profit we have gained by the breaking of his sacred body and the shedding of his blood, we shall clearly perceive that these properties of bread and wine, agreeably to this analogy, most appropriately represent it when they are communicated to us.
Notice the similarity between Calvin's view here and that of Ratramnus above. Both men argue that the bread remains bread, even after consecration. But spiritually by faith, Christ is really and truly present for the feeding of our souls. Ratramnus uses almost the same language when he writes, "for it is spiritual food, spiritually feeding the soul, and bestowing a life of eternal satisfaction."
But lest we get ahead of ourselves, and proclaim Ratramnus to be proto-Reformed, there is an important difference between his and Calvin's view. Calvin is fond of saying that the Christ is "spiritually present" in the sacrament. By this he does not mean that Christ is only present as to his divine nature, but rather means that Christ is present according to both natures according to secret power and work of the Holy Spirit. According to Calvin therefore, Christ and all his benefits are given to the faithful in the Eucharist by the power of the Holy Spirit because he bridges the gap between heaven and earth. Ratramnus however does not conceive of the sacrament in these terms. Rather, Christ's body and blood in his view are made available in non-corporeal forms. For example, he writes "The spiritual flesh which is received in the mouth by the faithful and the spiritual blood...differ from the flesh which was crucified and from the blood which was shed." Calvin would never describe the sacrament as "spiritual flesh" or "spiritual blood." After all, it was real blood that did the atoning work, so what is the benefit in spiritual blood? Rather, Calvin focuses on the spiritual nature of our "partaking" of Christ and all his benefits. This is an important difference that cannot be overlooked.
Interestingly enough, Radbertus does not make this mistake. Repeatedly he speaks of spiritual feeding on Christ rather than feeding on a spiritualized Christ; "The sacrament is his true flesh and blood which man spiritually eats and drinks," and again, "We...spiritually take the flesh and blood for the sake of life eternal."
Conclusion In this ninth century Eucharistic debate, Paschasius Radbertus appears to have espoused a doctrine close to that of transubstantiationism, and his fellow monk, Radbertus, in opposing the implications of such a crass realism came close to the Reformed doctrine of the real presence. In each case there are a number of striking similarities to the later developed views, but there are also a number of very significant differences. These differences should make us leery of easy labeling and of committing anachronistic fallacies. Nevertheless, it is hoped that the paper has been a useful exercise in the pursuit of a better understanding of the history and development of the debate over the meaning of the Lord's Supper throughout life of the church.
Bennett, William J. E., The Eucharist: It's History, Doctrine & Practice (London: W.J. Cleaver, 1837)
Fahey, John F., The Eucharistic Teaching of Ratramn of Corbie (Mundelein, St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, 1951).
Herbert, Charles, The Lord's Supper: Uninspired Teaching (London: Seeley, Jackson & Halliday, 1879)
Jones, Paul H., Christ's Eucharistic Presence (New York: Peter Lang Publishers 1994).
Schaff, Phillip, History of the Christian Church, Vol. VI (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans )
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