The Early Church and the Sacrifice of the Mass

William Perkins
The Problem of Forged Catholicism

It is impossible for any popish divine in the world to show out of the true monuments of the councils and fathers, and out of their natural sense and meaning, that the faith of the present Church of Rome is truly catholic in those points wherein it dissents from the reformed churches of the gospel.

The Sacrifice of the Mass.

1) The Popish Sacrifice Differs from the Sacrifice Spoken of by the Early Church Fathers.

A sacrifice of Christ in the mass, being proper, real, and propitiatory for the living and the dead, in the hand of the priest, was not admitted into the Church for the space of twelve hundred years after Christ, for it was not known in Lombard’s time, lib. 4, dist. 12. And it differs in all respects from the sacrifice that the fathers speak of.

For first, they held the sacrifice without transubstantiation, as hereafter shall be manifested; but this is not so held. Second, the fathers’ sacrifice was offered by the whole church, being the oblation of all the faithful. “We all,” says Justin, in dialogo cum Triphone, “how many soever we be that are called after the name of Jesus Christ, are made truly the priests of God, as He Himself testifies, saying that everywhere He would have pure and acceptable sacrifices offered Him.” And this is also proveable out of Augustine, Contra Faustum, lib. 20, cap. 18. Now the popish sacrifice is offered by the priest. Third, the fathers’ sacrifice was sanctified by the faith of those that offered. “Every man’s sacrifice,” says Augustine, Contra literas Petilian, lib. 2, cap. 52, “is such as—he himself is that comes to receive it. All things are pure unto the pure. Yes, in the very missal the priest prays unto God to accept that sacrifice as the sacrifice of Noah, whereas on the contrary side, the papist’s sacrifice sanctifies those that do offer it.Fourth, the fathers’ sacrifice was the whole action of the Supper; this new one is but the offering of the bread.

To knit up all in a word, that was a typical and figurative sacrifice; this a substantial one accounted, wherein Christ Himself is offered unto God.

2) What the Early Church meant by “sacrifice.

The fathers used to call the Supper of the Lord, or the whole action of the Supper, a sacrifice, as they did also the whole form of God’s religious worship, and that for divers respects and in divers meanings.

First, because there was therein an offering and giving of alms, bread, wine, etc., which are a spiritual sacrifice out of which the signs themselves in the communion of the Eucharist were taken and the alms were bestowed upon the poor.

But Christ,” says Irenaeus, lib. 4, cap. 32, “giving counsel to His disciples to offer the first fruits of His creatures unto God, not as to one that stood in need thereof, but to show themselves neither unfruitful, nor ungrateful, took the creature of bread, and gave thanks, saying this is my body. And in like manner He confessed the cup, which unto us is of a creature, to be His blood, and taught us a new oblation of the New Testament, which the Church receiving from the apostles offers throughout the universal world unto God that gives us nourishment, being the first fruits of His gifts in the New Testament.

You are rich and wealthy,” says Cyprian, lib. de oper. & Eleemos., “and do you think that you do celebrate the Lord’s mysteries when you never regard the alms basket? Coming to these mysteries without sacrifice, and taking part of that sacrifice which the poor has offered?” “Among those, one Hilarius,” says Augustine, Retract., lib. 2, cap. 11, “being moved, spoke bitterly against a custom then used at Carthage, of singing hymns out of the Psalms at the altar, either before the oblation, or after the offering was distributed to the people.” “It is lawful to offer nothing at the altar,” says the fourth canon of the apostles, “but fresh ears of corn,—and incense at the time when the holy oblation is celebrated.” And the Roman missal says, “Lord receive the prayers of Thy people, with the oblations of their sacrifices….

Second, they used the name of sacrifice metonymically, because in these oblations there was a representation of that sacrifice that was offered upon the cross, or like a spectacle or show wherein the sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood accomplished on the cross is showed and delineated unto the eyes of the faithful, described as it were in a table. And in this sense, it is called unbloody, as a tragedy which represented some bloody war is called an unbloody war. For signs and images are called by the names of those things whereof they are signs and images, so that by this it appears that an unbloody sacrifice is no real sacrifice.

We offer,” says Eusebius, lib. 1, ca. 10, de demanst., “an unbloody and reasonable sacrifice.” And Clement in his constitutions, lib. 6, cap. 23, says that all the bloody sacrifices of unreasonable creatures were by Christ changed into a reasonable, unbloody, and mystical sacrifice, which is celebrated in remembrance of His death, by the signs of His body and blood. “We celebrate an unbloody sacrifice by our duty in the churches,” says the Council of Ephesus unto Nestorius. In Basil’s Liturgy, the offering is called the unbloody sacrifice of mind and soul. And Lombard, in the 4th of his Sentences, dist. 12, denies that that which the priest offers is truly and properly a sacrifice, or immolation, but he will have it so called, because it is a memorial and a representation of the true and sacred immolation and sacrifice which was offered upon the altar of the cross. And a little after, “These annual commemorations do but only represent that which was done long ago, and so make us to be moved as if we saw the Lord upon the cross.” In like manner, Thomas Aquinas, 3 par., q. 83, art. 1, says that the celebration of the sacrament is called immolation for two reasons: first of all, because as Augustine says, signs are called by the names of the things whereof they are signs. Second, because by the sacraments we are made partakers of the death of Christ our Lord.

There is not therefore any iteration of that sacrifice which was finished upon the cross and is held by the fathers to be the only and singular sacrifice. So it is held by Augustine in three or four several places, viz. Enchirid. ad Laurent., cap. 33, and de Trinitate, lib. 3, cap. 13, and lib. 3, contra secundam epist. Pelag. cap. 6.

Third, the sacrament is called a sacrifice by a metonymy, because it is a commemoration, and also a representation, unto God the Father of the sacrifice of Christ offered upon the cross.

In this sacrifice,” says the author of the book de fide ad Pet., cap. 19, “there is a thanksgiving, and a commemoration of Christ’s body which He offers for us, and of His blood which He the same Christ shed for us.” “We offer no diversity of sacraments as the high priest,” says Chrysostom, Hom. 17, in Hebraeos, “but still one and the same, or rather we make a commemoration of a sacrifice.” And Ambrose, lib. 4, de sacram., cap. 6, says, “Therefore in memory of His passion, and resurrection…we offer unto Thee as a sacrifice…His bread…” But this oblation is intentional, not real, and it is by the fathers so called after Saint Paul’s phrase, as they call it unbloody. Look at Eusebius’s testimony afore-cited, lib. 1, de demon. Evang., and Clemens. And in this sense the faithful in their prayers do offer Christ as a sacrifice unto His Father for their sins, in being wholly carried away in their minds and affections unto that only and true sacrifice, thereby to procure and obtain God’s greater favor unto them.

Fourth, it is called a sacrifice because it is an application of the sacrifice offered upon the cross unto ourselves by faith, by which we are, as it were, newly sprinkled with the blood of Christ.

When you see God offered,” says Chrysostom, lib. 3, de Sacerdotie, “the priest bowed upon the sacrifice, and pouring forth his prayers thereupon, and all the communicants, as it were, purpled with that precious blood, do you think yourself to be upon the earth, or among mortal men? Or rather, are you not translated incontinently into the heavens, where being lightened of all carnal cogitations, you do with a pure and naked heart and soul, fall into contemplation of the celestial joys?” “Christ once died upon the cross, and then was offered up in Himself,” says Lombard, 4 dist. 12, lit. G., “but He is daily offered in the sacrament, because there is therein a remembrance of that which was done but once.” Thomas Aquinas, 3 p., q. 83, art. 1, says that the celebration of the sacrament is called a sacrifice because by the sacraments we are made partakers of Christ’s death. In this sense was the celebration and participation of the Lord’s Supper called the offering of the sacrifice until 869 years after Christ. See Regino Chron. libr. 2.

It remains now my son,” says Adrian the 2nd, pope, unto Lotharius, “that you come unto Saint Peter’s confession, where we, by God’s help, will offer the saving sacrifice, not as much for the health of your body, as your soul, wherein you must partake with us, that by this participation of Christ’s body, you may deserve to be incorporated again into the church, from whom you seemed to be separated.” And then the solemnity of the mass being ended, the pope invites the king unto the table of Christ, and taking the body and blood of the Lord in his hand, he speaks thus unto him: “If you do know yourself guiltless of this forbidden sin of adultery, come unto this table confidently, and receive this sacrament of eternal salvation to the benefit of your soul, and the forgiveness of your sins.

Fifth, it is called a sacrifice, because of the sacrifice of prayers, praises, and thanksgivings, from whence the whole supper is called the Eucharist.

Justin in Apolog. 2, reciting the manner of celebrating the Lord’s Supper used at that day among the Christians, says thus: “We all arise and offer our prayers, which being finished, bread, wine, and water is brought forth, and he that is chief offers his prayers and thanksgiving, as he can, and the people sing unto him.” “It is fitter,” says Irenaeus, lib. 5, cap. 34, “to offer our oblation unto God, and to show ourselves thankful unto God the Creator, in pure doctrine, and faith without hypocrisy, in some hope, in fervent love, offering the first fruits of all creatures unto Him. And this pure oblation the church only offers unto God the Creator, offering it with thanksgiving.

Lastly, it is called a sacrifice by a synecdoche because in the supper we offer ourselves unto God, to be consecrated unto Him, and serve Him in body and soul.

This is the sacrifice of the Christians,” says Augustine, de civit. Dei, lib. 10, cap. 6. “We, being many, are all one body in Christ, which also the church frequents in the sacrament of the altar, which is known unto all the faithful, wherein it showed unto them, that she is offered in that oblation, which she offers.” “But it is meet,” says Gregory, Dialog, lib. 4, cap. 59, “that when we do these things, we do sacrifice ourselves unto God in contrition of heart, because we that celebrate the mysteries of the Lord’s passion should imitate that which we do, for then shall it be a true sacrifice unto God for us, when we make ourselves a sacrifice.

3) The Fathers spoke after the Jewish manner.

The fathers when they use the word sacrifice do speak after the Jewish manner, alluding unto the worship and sacrifices of the law. So that in difference of the offerings of the law, they call the very signs an unbloody sacrifice. “Christ did first of all offer unto God the Father bread and wine, an unbloody sacrifice,” says Photius, in Oecumenium. And Damascus cites these words of Athanasius: “Omit not to burn oil and wax at the sepulcher, calling upon Christ the Lord, for they are acceptable unto God, and do return great recompense. For the oil and the wax are the burnt offering, and the offering of the unbloody sacrifice is the propitiation.

4) Sacrifice: A Metaphor for all acts of worship.

To sacrifice and to offer in the fathers is understood by a metaphor of the celebration, execution, and action of all ecclesiastical matters tending unto the worship of God. Origen, upon the epistle to the Romans, l. 2, for circumcise, says, offer the blood of circumcision. And Tertullian, lib. 4, against Marcion, calls thanksgiving, oblation. And writing unto Scapula, for to pray for Caesar, he puts, to sacrifice for the emperor. And he used this form of speech the more freely, because it was imputed as a crime against the Christians, that they would not sacrifice, nor offer for the emperor. So in like manner Eusebius, Demonst., l. 1, cap. 10, for to honor God, puts, “to sacrifice prayers and hymns.” And Cyprian, lib. 2, epist. 3, for to celebrate the communion, puts, “to offer the sacrifice of the passion.” And Epiphanius, Haeres. 79, for to preach the gospel, puts, “to sacrifice the gospel.” And Cyprian again, l. 3, 13 epi., serm. 5, de Lapsis, for to celebrate the Eucharist, puts, “to offer the bread and the cup.

5) Figuratively represented, not properly offered.

Sometimes, to offer sacrifice, and to offer the body and blood of Christ, is figuratively to represent them in the sacrament, not to offer any proper sacrifice, nor to offer properly. And in this sense, they say that Christ is crucified, and dead in the sacrament. But there is no mass, no not the canon of the mass at this day, that says that Christ’s body is really, properly, and substantially offered. But suppose it be a real sacrifice; do now but mark the blasphemies of the canon, which teaches, first, that Christ is out of the favor of His Father; second, that the Father accepts Christ’s body as the lamb out of the hand of Abel; third, that Christ has a mortal mediator, fourth, that there must be an angel to bear the body of Christ into heaven.

6) Melchizedek offered food to Abraham, did not offer Christ unto the Father.

Most of the fathers do hold that Melchizedek offered not bread and wine unto God, but unto Abraham expressly. So affirms Tertullian, Contra Judaeos; Ambrose, de Sacrum, lib. 4, cap. 3, and epist. ad Heb., cap. 7; Epiphanius, haeres. 55; Chrysostom, in Gen., hom. 36, and in Psal. 109, the author of the questions of both the testaments, q. 109; Damascene, de fide orthodoxa, libro 4, capite 14; and Lombard, libro 4, distinct. 8.

Besides, they make a similitude between him offering bread and wine unto Abraham, and Christ offering Himself unto us partly on the cross, partly in the Supper. Melchizedek never dreamed of offering Christ unto the Father in the Supper.

7) Senses in which the Supper is a true sacrifice.

The Supper of the Lord is called a true and full sacrifice, not in that Christ Himself is therein substantially offered, but it is true, both in the truth of representation and truth of the effect of the sacrifice of the cross, which we obtained in the communion; and likewise it is called true, because “Therein the church truly offers herself unto God,” as Augustine testifies, lib. 10, de civ. Dei, c. 20; and also because it is the figure of the truth, that is, of Christ offered, whom the sacrifices of the Old Testament did shadow. Jerome, in his commentaries upon Amos, ch. 5, says that, “To fast, to give alms, and to promise chastity, are true holocausts,” that is, whole burnt offerings.

8) “Missa” not the Popish Mass, but a dismissal after the sermon.

The phrase (missam facere) used in some of the fathers, viz. Ambrose, l. 5, ep. 33, does not signify to say the popish mass, but to dismiss some out of the assembly. “I, remaining in my duty, begin to dismiss them.” Thus says Suetonius, in Caligula, ch. 25. “And behold, after the sermon, the catechumenists are dismissed,” says Augustine, de temp., Sermon 237, fit missa catechumenis, “but the faithful will remain.” And hereupon the communion was called missa figuratively, because when it began, there was a dismission of some. And this order held for 600 years, as Isidore testifies, Origen, l. 6, c. 19. Now the popish mass observes no such custom. Therein is no dismission, nor do all that remain receive the communion; wherefore mass indeed is the excommunication of the people. Unto Gregory of Terwin, and Pope Gregory, it is a new phrase, and they out of propriety do use missa facere, for to celebrate the Supper. The word missa is but seven times (that I can find) in all the fathers that lived before these two, and that in a quite contrary sense.

9) “Mass” did not mean what Rome now means by it.

Besides, missa in the fathers signifies a public meeting to the communion, and to prayers, or the solemn dismission of that meeting, or even the form of their religious worship. Gregory Cassander, praefat. in preces suas, says that the name of mass and collect, and to make collects and masses, is all one in signification with συνάγειν, to meet together, συναγεισποιέίν, to make congregations, and έκκλησίαζειν, to gather together. And he adds that as there can be no mass where there is no collect, so there can be no collect wherein there is no mass. So Epiphanius, the translator of the Tripartite History, says that a collect is a prayer which is rehearsed in some collected congregation, and a mass, because there are dismissions of some from that congregation. Leo, epist. ad Dioscorum, distinguishes between the mass and the sacrifice. And the Mileuitane Council, cap. 12, takes prayers and masses both for one thing. So that the name of mass had in those days a far other signification than it has now.

10) The Table is an “altar” only figuratively.

The table whereon the communion is celebrated is called an altar, not properly, but by a figure and allusion. And hereupon sometimes it is called an altar, sometimes a table. “The table of my spouse,” says the author, lib. de cultu. agr. Dom. in Augustine, “has holy bread, and a holy cup.” “None say so,” says Augustine, con. lit. Petil. lib. 2, cap. 47, “but those that receive life from the Lord’s table, as Peter did.” And, ad Bonifac., epist. 50, “They rushed in upon Him with horrible violence and furious cruelty, with clubs and such like weapons, as He stood at the altar,—breaking down the wood of the said altar most barbarously.

And the fathers deny (some of them) that they have any altar properly taken. “Celsus,” says Origen, libro 8, contra Celsum, “says that altars, and images and temples, do fly from us, lest they should be built.” “Our altar,” says Clemens Alexandrinus, Strom. 7, “is an earthly gathering together of such as do apply themselves to prayers.” And a little after: “A just soul is a truly sanctified altar.” Arnobius, l. 6, contra gentes, says that the heathen did accuse the Christians, because they did not make them altars. About the 400th year the use of altars began, but not for sacrifice, but for the honor and memory of the martyrs, as the 5th Council of Carthage records, capit 14.

11) “Sacrifice” sometimes used improperly.

Sometimes the fathers do use the word sacrifice abusively. So does Saint Ambrose, in his book, Ad virginem lapsam. “If you had died as others do,” says he, “your parents would have sorrowed a little, because of natural affection. But they would have exulted in joy, that they had sent an unspotted virgin before them, a living sacrifice unto the Lord, and a propitiatrix for their sins.” And of his brother Satyrus: “Unto Thee Almighty God do I offer this innocent soul; unto Thee I offer this my sacrifice; accept of this brotherly gift, of this priestly duty. I do send these my sacrifices before me.

12) Oblation for the Dead vs. Oblation of the Dead.

The oblation for the dead, and the oblation of the dead, do differ greatly. The offering of the dead was money gathered of the living before their death, for the use of the poor. The other was money gathered by others, for to make commemorations for the dead, and to give thanks for them. Origen upon Job, libro tertio, says that the Christians did use to give meat and other gifts at the memorials of the dead, for the use of the poor, and the clergy. Augustine, de Confessio, lib. 6, cap. 2, says that his mother carried with her potage, bread, and wine, unto the memorials of the martyrs and saints. But yet Augustine reprehends this custom in his 8th book, De civitate Dei, c. 27: “Whosoever use to carry their banquets thither,” says he, “which truly the better Christians do not observe, (and in many places of the world there is no such custom) yet whosoever do this—they will have them sanctified there—in the name of the God of martyrs.

13) Fathers incorrectly held that the Supper benefited the damned.

The fathers were of opinion that the oblation in the Supper did benefit the damned, as Augustine says, Enchirid, cap. 1000, to make their damnation more tolerable, which is also confirmed by Innocentius III, in capite cum Martha. de celebrat. Miss., in his decretals. And they held also that it helped the saints. Witness Cyril, catach. 5; Cyprian, epist. 34 and 37; Augustine, in his 22nd book, de civit. Dei, cap. 10; and Chrysostom, upon the Acts, hom. 21. Also they held that hereby their reward might be increased, according to Chrysostom, hom. 32, in Matth.

14) Commemoration of the dead.

These phrases, to offer for the dead and to sacrifice for their sleep, used in Tertullian and Cyprian, do signify nothing else but to rehearse their names in the communion and to give thanks for them, and to show other signs of joy by banquets, doales [gifts], etc. Look in Cyprian’s ninth epistle of his first book, and in his 14th epistle of his third book, as also in Chrysostom’s hom., de Martyribus. In this sense, the Lord’s Supper for 400 years after Christ was called an oblation, or a sacrifice for the dead, because there was therein continued a commemoration for the dead.

15) The Fathers explicitly reject “sacrifice” in the modern popish sense.

The fathers sometimes do plainly disallow this proper, real, external and often offered sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ for the remission of sins. Lactantius, in Epitome divin. Instit., capite 2, says that those things which are done with the hands, or without a man’s self, are no true sacrifices. “Truly I,” says Justin Martyr, contra Triphon., “do account prayers and thanksgivings, if they be performed by worthy men, for the only perfect and acceptable sacrifices unto God; for those only are the things which the Christians have received to execute.

We have our sacrifices,” says Cyril of Alexandria, l. 10, contra Julian, “namely, spiritual and mental…. For we offer unto God a sweet smell, all the virtues, faith, hope, charity, justice, continence, obedience, gentleness, perpetual praises, and other virtues. For this sacrifice, being not carnal, but pure and plain, in the incorporeal nature thereof is beseeming unto God. And the offerings of mental fragrancy are the means of a truly honest life.” And a little after: “Because we have served God better than they (the patriarchs), sacrificing spiritual things unto God, and using the Spirit instead of sensible fire, let not Julian accuse us, by asking us why we bring not sacrifices unto the altar.” And again, “We sacrifice mentally and spiritually the sweet savor of virtues, as it were, consecrating them unto God.” “Christ’s blood,” says Augustine, contra Advers. leg., lib. 1, cap. 18, “being the singular and only true sacrifice, was shed for us.

And indeed, the fathers ascribe the power of getting God’s favor, and the effect which they hoped of the sacrament, unto the prayers and alms then offered, not unto the operation of the act. “The greatest help of souls,” says Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystag. 5, “is the prayer of that holy and reverend mystery which is upon the altar.” “We entreat for the dead,” says Augustine, De cura pro mortuis, cap. 18, “either with the sacrifice of the altar, or of prayers, or of alms.” And Chrysostom, Hom. 3, in Philip., says that the people, lifting up their hands at the time of offering, did appease God’s anger in praying for the dead. “We call upon God for them,” says Bede, in Psal. 48, “by solemnizing of masses, and by alms deeds. So that the Supper of the Lord is called a propitiatory sacrifice, because it represents the sacrifice of the cross, and is the means that we, making our solemn prayers, do obtain our petitions.

16) Development of the Popish Mass.

The mass had this original: First, the Supper of the Lord was celebrated in most simple and plain manner. Second, it began to admit some increase of ceremonies, especially the offerings for the dead, which was but a gratulation for them, and a thanksgiving until 200 years after Christ. Third, prayers for the dead got entrance into the Supper, about the 400th year, and then came in Purgatory, and then redemption of souls from thence, by masses. About the 780th year of grace, Gregory’s mass was publicly taken up in the churches of Italy, whereas before, Ambrose’s mass was of more general use. Fourth, the disputations of the Transubstantiation began about the year of grace 840 and was concluded in the Council of Laterane by Innocent III, after which came in the offering of the body and blood of Christ upon the altar. And after that followed the inclosing of them, carrying them about, and adoration of them.


Therefore, when we do read these topical speeches of sacrificing and offering, in the fathers we must not believe that they did admit any other propitiatory sacrifice, but only the passion of Christ, being the only sacrifice of the whole world, nor that they were accustomed to celebrate the popish mass.


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