In the first two hundred years of the Protestant Reformation, there was little debate over whether the Eucharist is Jesus Christ’s flesh and blood. Protestants, other than a few fanatics such as Zwingli, generally agreed that Christ was present, somehow, in the Eucharist. Their disagreement with Roman Catholics was over how the Eucharist was Christ’s flesh and blood, and over the alleged sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist.
Protestants rejected the idea that the Eucharist was a literal sacrifice. Instead, it was merely a memorial where Christ’s sacrifice was remembered. Reformed theologian Matthew Henry in his magesterial commentary sums up for us the standard Protestant party line: “[W]e do this in remembrance of what He did for us, when he died for us; and for a memorial of what we do, in joining ourselves to him.”
In more modern parlance, Protestants simply feel like saying, “What part of ‘do this in remembrance of me’ do you not understand?!?”
Are We Understanding the Word “Remembrance” Correctly? The preceding rhetorical question seems to settle the question–the Orthodox and Roman Catholics have added Satanic doctrines to the plain teachings of the Scriptures. However, what people little realize is that the meaning of words such as remembrance, seemingly “plain” in English, are not so plain in the Greek.
In fact, the Greek term ἀνάμνησις which we commonly render as “memorial” or “remembrance” has two different meanings. One meaning is “memorial,” and this is rather non-controversial for those Protestants familiar with the term ἀνάμνησις. The other meaning modern etymologists ascribe to ἀνάμνησις not so surprisingly adds credibility to the traditional, Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist. We will cover this meaning later in the article.
The idea of a word having two legitimately different meanings is not something that only exists in the Greek language. We have a term for it in fact: homonym.
Misunderstandings that arise over homonyms can create all sorts of confusion. Let’s take for example the homonym “cabinet” and apply it to a situation I literally just made up on the fly:
In post-apocalyptic America 2049 AD, humanity has just begun recovering from a nuclear war of 2019, which claimed the lives of 99.99 percent of the Earth’s population. The survivors, desperate to bring back “the original America,” tasked archaeologists with digging up whatever they can find from the past so they can find out what it was like.
Shortly afterwards, the archaeologists unearthed a high school US civics textbook that spoke about how the US government worked. Sadly for these archaeologists, only 22 percent of its contents are intact. It is from this document that the New Founding Fathers are re-constituting the United Neo-States of America.
The documents have created no little controversy, however. The document reads, ‘The President must choose his cabinet’ before abruptly ending. A few old codgers maintain, “A cabinet is a body of advisers.” The new President dismisses this as “Satanic foolishness” and is more concerned with what color his new cabinet should be.
The Testimony of the Early Church. Before we get into arguing over the meaning of words, let’s reflect upon the example we just read. As we can see, confusion arose over the usage of the homonym “cabinet.” The foolishness of the new President was that he ignored the interpretation of the term given by old-timers that remembered how the US government functioned before the nuclear war. In result, his concerns over a literal cabinet were entirely misplaced, even though divorced from a correct understanding of American traditions it might have made sense linguistically.
In light of this, let us ask ourselves: Were the Reformers, in their reading of the Greek word “remembrance,” overly dismissive of the testimony of what the historical understanding of what the Eucharist was? Let’s allow one of the Reformers to speak for himself.
John Calvin, in response to the obvious fact that the whole Christian world traditionally maintained that the Eucharist was a sacrifice, wrote in Book IV, Chapter 18 of the Institutes that Satan “blinded almost the whole world into the belief that the Mass was a sacrifice and oblation for obtaining the remission of sins.”
Calvin was not entirely ignorant of Christian history, however. In the same chapter he contended that the early church fathers “use the term sacrifice, but they, at the same time, explain that they mean nothing more than the [mere] commemoration of that one true sacrifice which Christ, our only sacrifice.” Yet, merely a paragraph later, Calvin admits, “I see that those ancient writers have wrested this commemoration to a different purpose than was accordant to the divine institution, (the Supper somehow seemed to them to present the appearance of a repeated or at least renewed, immolation.)”
In short, Calvin was like the new President, dismissing what tradition showed him to be the historical understanding of the Eucharist in favor of his interpretation of what “the divine institution” (Christ’s words in Luke 22) meant.
Perhaps what gave Calvin peace of mind was that he was aware of only third to fifth century sources that called the Eucharist a sacrifice. He may have figured that 200 years would appear enough time for the early Church to start adding zany, new theology which ignored the plain words of the “divine institution.”
In retrospect, would such thinking be justified? Let’s consider the following second century sources written within a 100 years of the time of the Apostles:
But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving [lit. Eucharist] after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure (Didache, Chap 14).
For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth ] the unity of His blood; one altar (Ignatius, Philadelphians, Chap 4).
‘I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord; and I will not accept your sacrifices at your hands: for, from the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same, My name has been glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure offering: for My name is great among the Gentiles, says the Lord: but you profane it.’ Malachi 1:10-12 [So] He then speaks of those Gentiles, namely us, who in every place offer sacrifices to Him, i.e., the bread of the Eucharist, and also the cup of the Eucharist, affirming both that we glorify His name, and that you profane [it] (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chap 41).
To be fair to Calvin, scholarship in the 16th century did not yet affirm the authenticity of Ignatius’ work and the Didache was not discovered until 350 years later. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that Calvin simply forgot the passage from Justin Martyr in question, or skipped over a page in his personal reading of the book. It was not like Calvin was able to Google the passage in the case he missed it. He would have had to travel to a library by foot or horse in order to find Saint Justin’s book again.
It is wise to defend Calvin some more. We must keep in mind that the study of the Greek language was still rather new in the West and the meaning of “memorial” was not entirely understood. So, Calvin at least had some justification to look at his 16th century Greek to Latin lexicon and conclude that all this talk of “sacrifice” is seemingly extrabiblical.
The Greek Meaning of “Memorial” (ἀνάμνησις). Thankfully for us, since the Industrial Revolution, scholarship in the field of languages has greatly improved. With these improvements in scholarship, Protestant, Catholic, and secular etymologists have concluded that the term “memorial” or “remembrance,” which is the focal point of all of this contention, has a meaning consistent with the traditional understanding of the Eucharist.
For example, in Liddell and Scott’s A Greek-English Lexicon, the Greek term “memorial” explicitly has “memorial sacrifice” as one of its definitions.
Other lexicons agree. In Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, the word for “remembrance”/”memorial” is defined as follows:
…ἀνάμνησις ἁμαρτιῶν in offering sacrifices there is a remembrance of sins, i. e. the memory of sins committed is revived by the sacrifices…
In other words, Thayer’s agrees that a “remembrance”/”memorial” is specifically a “memorial sacrifice.”
This is why even modern Protestant scholars are able to concede what Calvin could not. In the words of Anglican early Church scholar JND Kelly:
It was natural for early Christians to think of the Eucharist as a sacrifice. The fulfillment of prophecy demanded a solemn Christian offering, and the rite itself was wrapped in the sacrificial atmosphere with which our Lord invested the Last Supper. The words of institution, ‘Do this’ (touto poieite), must have been charged with sacrificial overtones for second-century ears; Justin at any rate understood them to mean, ‘Offer this.’ . . . The bread and wine, moreover, are offered ‘for a memorial (eis anamnasin) of the passion,’ a phrase which in view of his identification of them with the Lord’s body and blood implies much more than an act of purely spiritual recollection (J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p. 196–7).
The Word “Memorial”/”Remembrance” In the Scriptures. Another thing Calvin nor any of the Reformers had access to were searchable databases to verify the claims of scholars they disagreed with. For example, if someone presented to Calvin a Greek to Latin lexicon that made clear that a memorial was a sacrifice in early Greek, he could have simply accused them of lying or of presenting one Greek usage and drawing the wrong conclusion.
Thanks to ready access to information, such tenuous argumentation is more difficult to maintain today. For example, in the New Testament the term ἀνάμνησιν is used four times. Three of the references are explicitly pertaining to the Lord’s Supper. In Heb 10:3, it pertains to the sacrifices of the Old Covenant:
For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshipers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins. But in those [sacrifices] a reminder [ἀνάμνησιν, i.e. “memorial sacrifice”] of sins year by year (Heb 10:1-3).
Here, we see the term “remembrance” explicitly used in a sacrificial context. It is true, however, that one can simply read the term “reminder” as a mere-reminder of sins committed instead of a euphemism for a “memorial sacrifice.” This is because one may rhetorically ask, “What kind of sacrifices have a memorial sacrifice? Isn’t that redundant?”
However, this is mitigated against by the same term’s usage in the Old Testament in its original Greek translation (LXX):
Also in the days of gladness and in your feasts, and at the beginning of your months, you shall blow the trumpets over your whole burnt offerings and the sacrifices of your peace offerings, and they shall be a remembrance [ἀνάμνησις, i.e. memorial sacrifice] for you before your God (Num 10:10).
You shall put pure frankincense with salt on each row, that it may be to the bread for a memorial [ἀνάμνησιν, i.e. memorial sacrifice], even an offering made by fire to the Lord (Lev 24:7).
In both passages, we can see how a sacrifice can, in a seemingly redundant sense, be presented as a memorial sacrifice. This is especially clear in the latter passage, where the frankincense is not our reminder, but it is “to the bread…a memorial…an offering made by fire to the Lord.” In other words, it is the bread’s “memorial sacrifice.” After all, bread does not need to be a reminded of anything.
There is another Greek term that is considered a synonym and “is used interchangeably” with ἀνάμνησις “in the classical Greek” according to Thayer’s lexicon–ὑπόμνησις (“reminder.”) This term is used three times in the New Testament, none of which in a sacrificial context. Yet, in the LXX, it is used six times in Leviticus and twice in Numbers in a sacrificial context. In its usage in Num 5:26, it is clear what is spoken about is not a mere reminder, but a kind of sacrifice:
The priest shall take a handful of the meal offering, as its memorial [μνημόσυνον], and burn it on the altar…
Obviously, the handful that is burned on the altar is not our reminder in that passage. It is “its memorial” or in other words the meal offering’s “memorial sacrifice.”
It is worth pointing out that in the LXX, the words that mean memorial (ἀνάμνησιν and μνημόσυνον) do not always mean “sacrifice.” Rather, they sometimes do, indicating that “memorial sacrifice” is a legitimate rendering of the term.
Did the Early Church Understand the Problem with Homonyms? For us moderns, far removed from the days where Koine Greek was spoken and embroiled in doctrinal controversies that obfuscate the matter, the confusion created by the term “memorial” is forgivable. Almost two years ago I underwent a study of Saint Chrysostom’s view of the Eucharist and smugly concluded that Chrysostom viewed the Eucharist as a mere memorial. Yet, in that same article, it is painfully obvious that I attempted explaining away the fact that Chrysostom, even when calling the Eucharist a “memorial,” obviously meant more by the the term.
For example, Saint Chrysostom wrote, “He has bound up the memorial of the benefit with the mystery [“Sacrament” in English]” (Homily 82 on Matthew). Here, we see Chrysostom is aware that the Eucharist is indeed a visible reminder, but at the same time something more.
Yet, some of my confusion was understandable. I did not realize that when Chrysostom was speaking of a “memorial,” the word was not being translated correctly. Rather, translator should have rendered the term as “memorial sacrifice.” In fact, we can see Chrysostom explaining the term as such, attempting to clear up any confusion that may arise when we contemplate how on Earth the priest in an Orthodox/Catholic Church offers the Eucharist as a sacrifice when in fact there was just one sacrifice of Jesus Christ that forgives sins for all time:
He is our High Priest, who offered the sacrifice [on Calvary] that cleanses us. That [sacrifice on Calvary] we offer now also, which was then offered, which cannot be exhausted. This is done in remembrance of what was then done. For (says He)
do this in remembrance of Me. It is not another sacrifice, as the High Priest, but we offer always the same, or rather we perform a remembrance [lit. ἀνάμνησιν, i.e. “memorial sacrifice”] of a Sacrifice.
But since I have mentioned this [memorial] sacrifice, I wish to say a little in reference to you who have been initiated; little in quantity, but possessing great force and profit, for it is not our own, but the words of Divine Spirit . What then is it? Many partake of this [memorial] sacrifice once in the whole year, others twice; others many times (Homily 17 on Hebrews, Paragraphs 6 and 7).
In short, we can conclude two things.
- Chrysostom obviously parses the Greek in that “reminder,” as it is translated by a Roman Catholic translator, should be in fact rendered “memorial sacrifice.” We know this because we literally see him call the “reminder” a “sacrifice” in the very next sentence.
- The “memorial sacrifice” of the Eucharist is not “another sacrifice.” Christ is sacrificed once and for all. Rather, “we offer always the same” sacrifice that was on Calvary. The mystery is that the Eucharist exists outside of time.
Ironically, if Calvin and the other Reformers understood 1. the Greek better and 2. Chrysostom’s homilies on Hebrews, they would have never rejected the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist (which is substantially the same as the Orthodox doctrine.) Quite frankly, accusing the Orthodox or Roman Catholics of masquerading in repeating the sacrifice of Christ is idiotic and completely ignores the theological rationalizations that have been given for the Eucharist for nearly 2,000 years. I am personally not without sin in this regard.
Conclusion. As a former Protestant, I am well aware of the difficulties that Protestant-traditions of men pose us. They confuse our interpretation of the Scriptures. In the preceding, I have shown that the main Protestant objection to the Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist is entirely predicated upon 1. shoddy exegesis and 2. shoddy lexicography.
I would like to conclude this article by invoking the passage Jesus Christ probably had in mind in John 3:14-16. It is Wisdom 16:5-7–
For when the terrible rage of wild animals came upon your people and they were being destroyed by the bites of writhing serpents, your wrath did not continue to the end; they were troubled for a little while as a warning, and received a symbol of deliverance to remind [ἀνάμνησιν] them of your law’s command. For the one who turned toward it was saved, not by the thing that was beheld, but by you, the Savior of all.
In this case, the reminder was not a “memorial sacrifice.” It was a snake that the Jews looked towards to remember their deliverance in the wilderness. By looking to the symbol, they were saved by the God whose deliverance they were reminded of.
In the same way:
[J]ust as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
When the cup of the Eucharist is lifted up and we partake in the memorial that, bound up in it, has the benefit bestowed to us in Christ’s atoning death on the cross, we truly taste and see the Lord is good. The memory is made a reality for us in the Eucharist.
To Him who is lifted up, our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, be the praise, honor, and glory forever. Amen.