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Five Observations by Archbishop Usher touching our Saviour's speech of the eating of his flesh a

Archbishop James Usher

In Answer to a Challenge Made by a Jesuit in Ireland (1624) Archbishop Usher responds to the disputations of Jesuit William Malone concerning the Reformed religion, setting out the judgment of antiquity on the points questioned and proving the novelty of the Romish doctrines.

One such question concerned the "real presence of the body of Christ in the Sacrament of the altar", which Malone holds forth as being the agreed doctrine of the Doctors, Pastors and Fathers of the Church for 400 or 500 years after Christ.

The sum of the Reformed doctrine held by Usher and rejected by Rome is:

That in the receiving of the Sacrament we are to distinguish between the outward and the inward action of the communicant. In the outward, with our bodily mouth, we receive the visible elements of bread and wine; in the inward we do by faith really receive the body and blood of our Lord and are made partakers of Christ crucified.

Rome has however made such confusion of these things, that first they deny that after the words of consecration there remains any bread or wine at all to receive; and secondly they affirm that the body and blood of Christ is present under the visible forms of the bread and wine, that whoever (be they good or evil) receives the one consequently receives the other.

In his response to this particular challenge Usher deals specifically with Rome's distortion of the testimonies of Christ, in John chapter 6 and in the words of institution. In this article we set out, in summary, Usher's treatment of the former in which he plainly discovers the invention of the Romish doctrine and shows that from the beginning it was not so. (Matt 19.8)


The First Observation

First, that the question between our adversaries and us being, not whether Christ's body be turned into bread, but whether bread be turned into Christ's body, the words in St. John, if they are pressed literally, serve more strongly to prove the former than the latter.

Exposition of the First Observation

This observation may be clearly seen in the text, where our Saviour does not only say, "I am the bread of life", (verse 48) and "I am the living bread that came down from heaven" (verse 51); but also adds, "for my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed." which words, being the most forcible of all the rest, and those wherewith the simpler sort are commonly most deluded, might carry some shew of proof that Christ's flesh and blood should be turned into bread and wine, but have no manner of colour to prove the bread and wine are turned into the flesh and blood of Christ.


The Second Observation

Secondly, that this sermon was uttered by our Saviour above a year before the celebration of the Last Supper, wherein the Sacrament of his body and blood was instituted; at which time none of his hearers could possibly have understood him to have spoken of the external eating of him in the Sacrament.

Exposition of the Second Observation

The truth of this observation appears by the fourth verse, in which we find that this happened not long before the Passover, and consequently a year at least before that last Passover wherein our Saviour instituted the sacrament of his Supper. We willingly indeed do acknowledge, that that which is inwardly presented in the Lord's Supper, and spiritually received by the soul of the faithful, is that very thing which is treated of in the sixth of John; but we deny, that it was our Saviour's intention in this place to speak of that which is externally delivered in the Sacrament, and orally received by the communicant. And for our warrant we look no further than verse 53: "Verily, verily I say onto you, except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you." Wherein there is not only an obligation laid upon them for doing all of this, but also an absolute necessity imposed. Now, to hold that all they are excluded from life which have not had the means to receive the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, is as untrue as it is uncharitable.


The Third Observation

Thirdly, that by the eating of the flesh of Christ and the drinking of his blood, there is not here meant an external eating or drinking with the body, but an internal and a spiritual, effected by a lively faith and the quickening Spirit of Christ in the soul of the believer. For "there is a spiritual mouth of the inner man" as Saint Basil notes, "wherewith he is nourished that is made partaker of the word of life, which is the bread that cometh down from heaven." (St. Basil on Psalm 33)

Exposition of the Third Observation

This observation may be collected out of the first part of Christ's speech, in verses 35 and 36: "I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst. But I said unto you, That ye also have seen me, and believe not." But especially out of the last, verse 61 forward: "When Jesus knew in himself that his disciples murmured at it, he said unto them, Doth this offend you? What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before? It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life. But there are some of you that believe not." Which words Athanasius notes our Saviour to have used, that his hearers might learn, "that those things which he spoke were not carnal but spiritual. For how many could his body have sufficed for meat, that it should be made the food of the whole world? But therefore it was that he made mention of the Son of man's ascension into heaven, that he might draw them from this corporeal conceit, and that hereafter they might learn that the flesh which he spake of was celestial meat from above, and spiritual nourishment to be given by him. For the words which I have spoken unto you are spirit and life."

So likewise Tertullian: "Although he saith that the flesh profiteth nothing, the meaning of the speech must be directed according to the intent of the matter in hand. For, because they thought it to be a hard and an intolerable speech, as if he had determined that his flesh should be truly eaten by them; that he might dispose the state of salvation by the spirit, he premised, it is the spirit that quickeneth, and so subjoined, The flesh profiteth nothing, namely, to quicken, et cetera." (Tertul. de Resurrect. Carnis, cap. 37.) And because the word was made flesh, it therefore was to be desired for causing of life, and to be devoured by hearing, and to be chewed by understanding, and to be digested by faith. For a little before he had also affirmed that his flesh was heavenly bread, urging still by the allegory of necessary food the remembrance of the Fathers, who preferred the bread and the flesh of the Egyptians before God's calling." (Ibid)

Here we can add the sentence of Origen: "There is in the New Testament also a letter which killeth him that does not spiritually conceive the things that be spoken. For if according to the letter you do follow this same which is said Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, this letter killeth." (Orig. in Levit. cap. 10. Hom. vii).

And the sayings which everywhere occur in St. Augustine's Tractates upon John: "Why preparest thou thy teeth and thy belly? Believe, and thou hast eaten.", "For this is to eat the living bread, to believe in him. He that believeth in him, eateth. He is invisibly fed, because he is invisibly regenerated. He is inwardly a babe, inwardly renewed: where he is renewed, there is he nourished." (Tract. 26).


The Fourth Observation

Fourthly, that this spiritual feeding upon the body and blood of Christ is not to be found in the Sacrament only, but also out of the sacrament.

Exposition of the Fourth Observation

The fourth proposition necessarily follows upon the third. For if the eating and drinking here spoken of be not an external eating and drinking, but an inward participation of Christ by the communion of the quickening Spirit, it is evident that this blessing is to be found in the soul, not only in the use of the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, but at other times also.

"We are said to drink the blood of Christ," saith Origen, "not only by way of the Sacraments, but also when we receive his word, wherein consisteth life; even as he himself said: the words which I have spoken are spirit and life." (Origen in Num. cap. 24. Hom. xvi).

Upon which words of Christ Eusebius paraphrases after this manner: "do not think that I speak of that flesh wherewith that I am compassed, as if you must eat of that; neither imagine that I command you to drink my sensible and bodily blood: but understand well, that the words which I have spoken unto you are spirit and life. So that those very words and speeches of his are his flesh and blood, whereof who is partaker, being always therewith nourished as it were with heavenly bread, shall likewise be made partaker of heavenly life. Therefore let not that offend you, said he, which I have spoken of the eating of my flesh and of the drinking of my blood; neither let the superficial hearing of those things which were said by me of flesh and blood trouble you. For these things, sensibly heard, profit nothing; but the spirit is it which quickeneth them that are able to hear spiritually." (Euseb. lib. iii. Ecclesiast. Theologian.)


The Fifth Observation

Fifthly, that the eating of the flesh and the drinking of the blood here mentioned is of such excellent virtue, that the receiver is thereby made to remain in Christ and Christ in him, and by that means certainly freed from death, and assured of everlasting life. Which seeing that it cannot be verified of the eating of the Sacrament, (whereof both the godly and the wicked are partakers), it proves, not only that our Saviour did not here speak of the sacramental eating, but further also, that the thing which is delivered in the external part of the Sacrament cannot be conceived to be really, but sacramentally only, the flesh and blood of Christ.

Exposition of the Fifth Observation

The final point is often repeated by our Saviour in this sermon, as in the following verses:

50 This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die.

51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever:

54 Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life;

56 He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.

58 This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever.

Whereupon Origen rightly observes the difference that is between eating of the typical or symbolical, (for so he called the Sacrament) and the true body of Christ. Of the former he this writes: "That which is sanctified by the word of God and by prayer, does not of its own nature sanctify him that uses it. For if that were so, it would satisfy him also which does eat unworthy of the Lord; neither should anyone for this eating be weak, or sick, or dead. For such a thing does Paul show, when he says, for this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep." (Origen in May. xv) of the latter, this: "Many things may be spoken of the Word itself, which was made flesh, and true meat; which whosoever eateth shall certainly live for ever: which no evil person can eat. For if it could be, that he who continues in evil might eat the Word made flesh, (seeing he is the Word and the bread of life,) it should not have been written: "Whosoever eateth this bread shall live forever." (Ibid)

The same difference does St. Augustine make between the eating of Christ's body sacramentally and really. For having affirmed that wicked man "may not be said to eat the body of Christ, because they are not to be counted among the members of Christ;" he afterwards adds: "Christ himself says, He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, remaineth in me, and I in him, showing what it is, not sacramentally, but indeed, to eat the flesh of Christ and drink his blood; for this is to remain in Christ, that Christ likewise may remain in him. For he said this, as if he should have said, He that remaineth not in me, and in whom I do not remain, let not him say or think that he eateth my flesh or drinketh my blood." (Ibid)

And in another place Augustine expounds those words of Christ here alleged, he thereupon infers this: "this is therefore to eat that meat and drink that drink; to remain in Christ, and to have Christ remaining in him. And by this, he that remaineth not in Christ, and in whom Christ abideth not, without doubt does neither spiritually eat his flesh or drink his blood; although he do carnally and visibly press with his teeth the Sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, and so rather eateth and drinketh the Sacrament of so great a thing for judgement to himself, because that, being unclean, he did presume to come unto the Sacraments of Christ." (Evangel. Johan. Tract. 26).


Our conclusion therefore is this:

  1. The body and blood of Christ is received by all unto life, and by none unto condemnation.

  2. But that substance which is outwardly delivered in the Sacrament, is not received by all unto life, but by many unto condemnation.

  3. Therefore that substance which is outwardly delivered in the Sacrament, is not really the body and blood of Christ.

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