In a recent tweet, I quoted J. C. Ryle’s trenchant statement about the Roman Catholic mass: ‘The Romish doctrine of the real presence, if pursued to its legitimate consequences, obscures every leading doctrine of the gospel.’ This appeared in an article by Ryle, entitled ‘Why were our Reformers burned?’, published in the volume, Light from Old Times. Someone asked, in reply to my tweet, whether I can explain Ryle’s statement. How precisely does the doctrine of the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Roman Catholic eucharist obscure every leading doctrine of the gospel? That is a good question.
The first thing to note is that Ryle’s original statement was even more trenchant: he added that it ‘interferes with the whole system of Christ’s truth’. He went on briefly to explain these uncompromising statements. He alleged that the doctrine of the real presence spoils the Ryle, Lightdoctrines of Christ’s finished work on the cross, his priestly office, the Christian ministry and Christ’s human nature.
These are serious claims. Can they be substantiated? I believe so. Note, though, that Ryle’s comments apply to the doctrine of the real presence ‘if pursued to its legitimate consequences’. He is pointing out the radical and necessary inconsistencies between that doctrine and the ‘leading doctrines of the gospel’. He is not alleging that everyone who participates in a Roman Catholic mass consciously believes or understands these things in this way.
How can we justify Ryle’s claim? The Roman Catholic doctrine of the real presence teaches that the bread and wine in the eucharist become in substance the true body and blood of Jesus Christ, though not in a manner which is apparent to the physical senses. This has the following necessary consequences.
It significantly impairs the finality of Christ’s atoning work on the cross. The letter to the Hebrews teaches very clearly that Christ’s death at Calvary dealt with sin finally and completely. Hebrews underlines this with its repeated use of the phrase ‘once for all’ in relation to Christ’s sacrifice of himself for sin. By contrast, the Roman eucharist ‘re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross’ in the elements; there, ‘the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994, paras. 1366, 1367). Though the Catechism emphasises the unity of the eucharistic sacrifice with that of Christ at Calvary, asserting that they are ‘one single sacrifice’ (para. 1367), the teaching that the eucharist involves the notion of sacrifice at all, coupled with the understanding of the elements as being really and substantially the body and blood of Christ, inevitably detracts significantly from the once-for-all nature of the historical event of the crucifixion. The Catechism is clear: the eucharistic is not merely a memorial of that event; rather, it makes that event present in the liturgy, by means of the change in the elements. The mass is sacrificial in nature. Yet the gospel teaches that Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary is unrepeatable and unique. This ‘leading doctrine’ of the gospel is obscured by the doctrine of the real presence.
Another leading gospel doctrine which is obscured by this Roman Catholic teaching is that of the priesthood of Christ. Again, Hebrews is very clear that Christ is the final priest and that he continues as such for us all for the rest of time. His priestly work completed, he has sat down at the Father’s right hand (Heb. 1:3; 4:14-16; 5:9-10; 6:20 – 7:28; 9:11-14, 27-28; 10:11-14). No more priestly work of any kind is required. Yet the doctrine of the real presence requires the work of a priest – an ordained Roman Catholic man – to bring about the real presence in the eucharist (Catechism, para. 1566). Though, again, the Catechism is at pains to make clear that this priesthood is dependent upon and one with the true, unique priesthood of Christ (para. 1545), yet it is paul-hebrewsnevertheless a priesthood. By contrast, gospel ministers are not priests at all (except in the sense that all members of Christ’s kingdom are priests, 1 Pet. 2:9). Gospel ministers make no claim to perform any function which, in and of itself, brings God and humans together. All that the gospel minister does is to proclaim the good news, by faith in which anyone may, for him or herself, draw near to God through Christ, our only priest. The priesthood of Christ, then, is another leading gospel doctrine which is obscured by the doctrine of the real presence.
The doctrine of the real presence plays havoc with the biblical doctrine of the person of Christ. This latter involves the affirmation of the true humanity of Christ and the truly human nature of his physical body, since his miraculous conception in the womb of the virgin Mary and forever more. A truly human body can be in only one place at once. The body of Christ is now in heaven, seated at God’s right hand. Jesus Christ was quite clear, when on earth with his disciples, that after his death he could not continue with them physically (Jn. 16:4-7). Hence a teaching that the true body and blood of Christ is really present upon earth in the eucharist, wherever that may be celebrated, flies in the face of the doctrine of the true humanity of Christ. And if he does not share, and continue to share, in our humanity, he cannot be our Saviour (Heb. 2:5-18). The claim that Christ’s physical body is present in the eucharist thus obscures this leading gospel doctrine.
A vital part of the Roman eucharistic liturgy is the adoration of the elements. Because they are supposed to have become the very body and blood of our Saviour, the elements are to be adored and venerated. Even outside the eucharist, ‘reserved’ elements are to be treated in this way. (Catechism, para. 1378). If the doctrine of the real presence were true, this is logical and right. Protestants have always denied it, however, and held such adoration to constitute idolatry: this judgment may appear harsh, but it must be right if the elements are indeed nothing but bread and wine. They deserve no worship or adoration and to offer that to them is to fall into the terrible sin of idolatry. The gospel, by contrast, demands that we worship alone the triune God, the creator and not his creation.
The doctrine of the real presence obscures the biblical understanding of saving faith. It does this by re-directing, at least to some extent, the attention of faith from the finished work of Christ at Calvary to the eucharist. Confidence for the forgiveness of sins is placed, at least in part, in the very act of participating in the eucharistic liturgy, instead of uniquely in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
Finally, the biblical view of grace is distorted by the doctrine of the real presence. The teaching of the Scriptures is that God’s grace comes freely to all who place their trust for-by-grace-are-ye-saved-headwaters-baptist-churchwholly in Christ for salvation (Eph. 2:8-10; Tit. 2:4-7). By contrast, the doctrine of the real presence, taken with the entire Roman Catholic understanding of the sacraments and of the unique role of the church in dispensing grace through those sacraments, redefines grace to mean something which is acquired only through the institution of the church by means of the stipulated sacraments. This idea lies at the very heart of the Roman Catholic system. It contradicts fundamentally the Protestant understanding that the believer – any believer – stands in direct relationship with God through Jesus Christ alone, without the intervention of any other person or institution. In this way also, the doctrine of the real presence substantially obscures a leading gospel truth.
In a short article like this, it is not possible properly to do justice to this topic. However, the above thoughts are offered in vindication of Ryle’s claims. He makes clear elsewhere in the same article that the denial of the real presence was the great truth for which the English reformers in the 16th century gave their lives, particularly during the reign of Queen Mary: ‘in every case’, he wrote, ‘their refusal to admit the doctrine [of the real presence] formed one principal cause of their condemnation’. Men and women were prepared to be burned to death for this, such was their understanding of the terrible, soul-destroying nature of the doctrine of the real presence. I believe that their, and Ryle’s, estimate of that doctrine is fully justified.
 First published, 1890; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2015; the quotation is on p. 38 of this latter edition.