I have, on a number of occasions, been asked to give my thoughts on the doctrine of transubstantiation. The following are some (very) unpolished thoughts on some general issues that are raised by the doctrine. I have decided against engaging in detailed analysis of any one particular defence of the doctrine due to the sheer number of such defences. It seems as if no two defenders of transubstantiation understand it in quite the same way. In addition to this there is quite a gulf between some of the more moderate scholarly arguments for transubstantiation and the beliefs of average Roman Catholics.
Giving thoughts on transubstantiation in such a manner is dangerous. The Reformed tradition has a long history of misrepresenting Roman Catholic Eucharistic theology. Whether it is on the subject of Eucharistic sacrifice (see Francis Clark’s Eucharistic Sacrifice and the Reformation
) or transubstantiation, Protestants have tended to present a grossly distorted view of the Roman Catholic doctrine. If you want to engage with transubstantiation rather than a straw man, you are probably best avoiding the treatments of transubstantiation that are to be found in Reformed books of systematic theology.
The following thoughts are chiefly concerned with many of the popular forms of the doctrine of transubstantiation that one will find online or on the street. I believe that there are possible forms of the doctrine of transubstantiation that are not susceptible to any of the following criticisms. I also appreciate that some might claim that I myself hold to transubstantiation of a kind (others might claim that I hold to a form of transignification). The claim would not be without warrant, although I see my position more as a variation on Calvin, than as a variation on Aquinas. I could quite happily subscribe to moderate forms of the doctrines of transubstantiation and Eucharistic sacrifice; the Roman Catholic doctrines I could not swallow are more in the area of Mariology and ecclesiology. Nevertheless, I would be reluctant to use the term ‘transubstantiation’ of the position that I hold, recognizing the potential for misunderstanding. Besides, it seems to me that the term ‘transubstantiation’ has been used to describe so many varying positions by defenders and critics that it is more than a little threadbare by now; I would prefer to dress my doctrine in smarter terminological attire.
My approach will focus upon certain of the questionable philosophical assumptions that often inform the doctrine of transubstantiation. Many of these questionable assumptions are shared by evangelical and Reformed critics of the doctrine of transubstantiation. These critics may sharply disagree with the defenders of the doctrine of transubstantiation, but in the area of philosophical assumptions they are frequently on the same operating table of thought.
Most of the following points have already been made by many authors. I don’t think that I will say anything particularly radical or new here, but I would be interested to hear other people’s opinions.
Symbol and Reality
Defenders of the doctrine of transubstantiation often presuppose a clear distinction between symbol and reality. Evangelicals are generally no less guilty on this point than are Roman Catholics. Both presume that if something is symbolic it cannot truly be real and, if it is real, it cannot truly be symbolic. Setting symbols outside of the realm of reality and reality outside of the realm of symbols is something that consistently takes place in both Roman Catholic and evangelical circles. One party says that the bread and wine are truly
the body and blood of Jesus Christ; the other party says, no, they are just symbols
of the body and blood of Jesus.
The doctrine of transubstantiation has been criticized by many on this point. One of the best criticisms of transubstantiation’s treatment of symbol and reality that I have come across is found in Alexander Schmemann’s book, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy
. Roman Catholics assert the ‘real’ presence over against those who argue for a more ‘symbolic’ understanding of the Supper. They think that somehow we need to get behind the matrix of symbols in which we find ourselves in order to encounter the ‘reality’. The symbol cannot communicate reality. In the doctrine of transubstantiation a discontinuity
between the symbol and the reality is affirmed. At some point in the celebration of the Eucharist the symbol is annihilated and replaced with the reality. Symbol and reality are not seen to indwell each other and constitute each other, rather the realm of reality lies ‘outside’ or ‘behind’ the realm of symbols. Somehow we must escape from symbols in order to encounter the reality.
At this point it is important to appreciate that there are a number of forms of the doctrine of transubstantiation that avoid certain of the criticisms that I am making here. Catherine Pickstock’s form of the doctrine in After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy
is a case in point.
What we need to appreciate is that reality dwells in the realm of symbols and symbols dwell in the realm of reality. Symbols and reality depend upon each other for existence. Take, for example, relationships. Is a man’s relationship to his fiancé real? The man writes love letters to his fiancé, he gives her flowers, he recites poetry to her, he shares meals with her, etc. One day they might get married. They will be married in a ceremony that is formed of many complex signs and symbols — spoken language, exchanged rings, lighted candles, movement up and down the aisle, etc. Does the ‘reality’ of their relationship somehow lurk ‘behind’ the countless symbols that are used? No. The symbols are the things that create, constitute and serve to maintain the relationship. Without the symbols the relationship has no reality whatsoever. Somehow, through the wedding celebration, God joins a man and a woman together so that they become ‘one flesh’.
Is this a magical intrusion of reality into a lifeless realm of symbols? How does a wedding ‘work’? Does the ring have some mystical powers? No, but something does really happen through the wedding celebration that cannot be adequately accounted for if symbols and reality are separated as many have supposed. Our relationships are all formed by exchanged signs and symbols. By the complex weave of signs and symbols within the wedding ceremony a new relationship is really constructed and not ‘merely symbolized’. In the Lord’s Supper we must think in terms of much the same thing. Something ‘really’ happens when the Lord’s Supper is celebrated, even though the Supper itself is symbolic through and through.
Relationships do not exist apart from symbols and this includes our relationship with God. Within the context of modernity, many people strive for the immediacy of presence. Somehow words and bodies are seen to get in the way of the immediate spiritual communion that we want with God and with each other. To have a relationship with God that is mediated by signs and symbols does not seem right. The Lord’s Supper and Baptism are seen by many to merely be signs and symbols that point to a relationship that exists elsewhere, usually in the inner soul of the individual, where neither language nor corporate rituals and ceremonies have any role in mediating that relationship.
Signs, Symbols and Creation
In Scripture, however, signs and symbols are not seen to get in the way of immediate relationship, because there is no relationship apart from signs and symbols. Just as the reality of my friendship with someone is inseparable from such things as shaking hands with them so our relationship with God is inseparable from such things as the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper does not merely teach us about our relationship with God; it actually serves to constitute and sustain our relationship with Him. Many evangelicals have thought that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are somehow superfluous to requirements and we can happily live the Christian life without them. However, just as hugs and kisses are not made redundant by words, as they do and convey far more than bare words could, so the Lord’s Supper and Baptism are not made redundant by the preached Word. They are necessary if we are to truly enjoy a full relationship with God. The preached Word brings us into and sustains our relationship with Christ on some levels that the sacraments do not. The sacraments also bring us into and sustain our relationship with Christ on a level that the Word alone cannot. They are not just didactic signs of a relationship with Christ that exists independently of them.
What I am arguing for here is a mediating position between those who say ‘reality, not symbol’ of our feeding on Christ in the Supper and those who say ‘symbol, not reality’. The reality and the symbols are inseparable.
Doctrines of ‘the sacraments’ have all too easily sustained a nature/grace dichotomy. Theologians have often argued over the number of sacraments. Roman Catholics argue for seven; Protestants generally argue for two. However, these debates often fail to give due attention to the fact that all of creation was designed to be sacramental and is still, in some sense, sacramental. Sacraments are all too often conceived of as some different order of reality from the rest of creation. Such understandings of the sacraments ensure that grace is always kept in an extrinsic relationship with creation. In opposition to this, I argue that grace is truly continuous with nature. The sacraments are not to be severed from the network of signs and symbols that we inhabit. Although I do speak about ‘the sacraments’, I see the sacraments as revelatory of the sacramental character of creation as a whole and not closed off from the rest of creation.
To summarize: the problem with many forms of transubstantiation is that they do not pay enough attention to the intrinsic
relationship between symbol and reality. Through the symbol we participate in the reality. Both evangelicals and Roman Catholics are not very good on this point. Evangelicals see the relationship between the symbol and the reality as purely extrinsic; the symbol points to a reality outside of itself. The symbol is reduced to merely a means of knowledge about
God and salvation, rather than a means of knowledge of
God and salvation (i.e. by permitting us to participate in the reality that is symbolized). Roman Catholics all too often agree with evangelicals here; they have also thought in terms of an extrinsic relationship between the symbol and the reality.
The Form and Essence of the Sacraments
When the symbol bears only an extrinsic relationship to reality, Eucharistic theology will founder on the resulting dichotomy. Either reality will be prioritized at the expense of symbol, or symbol at the expense of reality. In many forms of transubstantiation the reality of Christ’s body and blood must annihilate the symbol in order to replace it with the reality. Quite apart from anything else, this serves to relegate the rich symbolism of the celebration the Supper to a role in which it is merely ornamental or didactic. The severing of ‘form’ and ‘essence’ in the Sacrament is something that needs to be criticized. Once the form/essence dichotomy has been presupposed, the liturgical form can be tinkered with far more readily. The sacrament and its liturgical form becomes — at best — a ‘means of grace’, rather than being gracious itself. The language of ‘means of grace’ suggests that some form of generic grace exists outside of and apart from such ‘means of grace’, which merely serve as channels to bring this grace to us
. It is best avoided for this reason.
The relationship between the liturgical form and the essence of the sacrament (i.e. the grace that the sacrament symbolizes) is variously understood. For many Roman Catholics the symbolic liturgical form somehow causes
the reality. For evangelicals the liturgical form illustrates
the reality. In this most Roman Catholics and evangelicals are agreed: symbol and reality do not mix. The symbolic liturgical form is not itself gracious, but serves to bring us into a form of contact with the reality that it symbolizes; it is at best the vehicle for grace and not to be confused with the grace itself. When the liturgical form is understood in such a manner, certain aspects of it can be dispensed with and the (extrinsic) relationship (either of causality or representation) that the liturgical form is intended to sustain with the reality can still be preserved intact. The liturgical form has been subjected to violence from those who hold to such positions. For example, if all that the sacrament is supposed to be is picture
the body and blood of Christ, the dominically instituted element of alcoholic wine, for example, can be substituted by some other reddish liquid. The wine is merely there to be a picture of Christ’s blood and its alcoholic character is supposedly unnecessary.
Others, who hold the position of transubstantiation, might view the liturgical form merely as ensuring the validity
of the sacrament, while remaining non-essential to the sacrament. Of course, as the liturgical form does little more than ensure the validity of the sacrament, anything beyond a minimal conformity to the dominically instituted liturgical form plays little more than a purely aesthetic or didactic role and can safely be dispensed with. In opposition to both of these positions the mutual interpenetration of form and essence, symbol and reality, in the sacrament must be stressed.
The Importance of the Eucharistic Liturgy
If the Eucharistic liturgy merely serves as the ornamentation and condition of validity of the miracle of transubstantiation that lies at the heart of the celebration, the result is a great discontinuity in the celebration. The miracle of transubstantiation is an invasion from outside, rather than a revelation from within the ceremony (a nature/grace dichotomy is clearly also at work here). Eucharistic theology all too easily becomes geared to isolating the various elements (or conditions of validity) within the liturgy that serve to cause the miracle of transubstantiation. In opposition to this approach, I believe that the Eucharist should be seen as one event with a number of interdependent elements.
Those who view the Eucharist as a series of independent actions that serves to cause the miracle of transubstantiation risk turning the Supper into some form of religious fix that is received by mechanistically following some prescribed ritual. By atomizing worship, separating it into lots of discrete actions, we will end up facing unhelpful questions. We will begin to wonder what ‘extra’ thing each element of worship gives us
. If the celebration of the Eucharist is seen as self-contained and independent of the other elements of the church’s corporate worship, people will begin to wonder what it is that the Eucharist gives us that the preaching of the Word or corporate prayer does not give us. However, if the Eucharist is perceived to be an integral part of a complete service of covenant renewal, such questions will not bother us in the same way. The Word, Baptism and the Eucharist all serve to save us. However, they were not designed to save us in abstraction from each other. They are all interdependent. Many evangelicals have the idea that Baptism and the Supper are somehow surplus to requirements and that the preached Word is all that we need. They are quite wrong
. However, those who believe that Baptism or the Eucharist somehow give us some saving blessing that comes independently of the preached Word (as some ‘added extra’, for example) are equally wrong. The preached Word, Baptism and the Eucharist all work together. If our corporate worship has the Word, but does not conclude with a celebration of the Eucharist, the Word has not achieved its purpose. If we celebrate the Eucharist apart from the proclamation of the Word the Eucharist will not achieve its purpose either. They are quite interdependent.
Many popular forms of the doctrine of transubstantiation cut loose the celebration of the Eucharist from its moorings within the corporate service of covenant renewal as a whole and see it as an independent unit that functions by itself. They also atomize the liturgy of the Eucharist itself and fail to see its coherence and unity and the interdependence of each element upon each other element and also upon the Eucharistic liturgy as a whole. As a result they end up with an understanding of the Eucharist in which the Eucharist can, independently of the Word, confer a ‘Eucharistic grace’ in a mechanistic manner.
The Elements in the Eucharistic Celebration
One of the key issues here is the manner in which the elements of bread and wine are regarded. Most Catholics that I have come across understand the elements to be the body and blood of Christ in a manner that holds true even when they are abstracted from the context of the Church’s celebration of the Eucharist. Somehow the bread and the wine have once and for all ceased to be what they once were and have become a different thing entirely. This is a key area of disagreement. I truly believe that it is the body and blood of Christ that we receive in our eating and drinking, but I could never regard the bread and the wine as the body and blood of Christ outside of the context of the Supper. Within the context provided by this world, the bread remains bread and the wine remains wine. This does not mean that nothing really takes place in the celebration of the Eucharist. The context in which we partake of the bread and the wine is not the context provided this world; rather, we partake within a context established by the Holy Spirit. Within the context provided by the Church’s Eucharistic celebration the bread really is the body of Christ and the wine really is the blood of Christ. This is not a matter of playing with language. The manner in which the elements are the body and blood of Christ cannot be explained by the categories provided by this world. The bread is the body of Christ and the wine is the blood of Christ only as we exist within the environment of the new world order created by the Holy Spirit.
In the celebration of the Supper we feed on the body and drink of the blood of the man Christ Jesus. How exactly this happens is mysterious and defies easy explanation. By claiming that it is the work of the Spirit that makes the Supper what it is, I am not trying to water down the reality of our participation, as if our participation was merely something ‘spiritual’ (as opposed to ‘material’). The work of the Spirit in the Supper is not limited to the region of our minds and emotions. The Spirit’s work in the Supper does no, I believe, result in ‘leaving behind’ our physical bodies, or the physical elements of bread and wine. Rather the physicality of our bodies and the elements are interpenetrated by the Spirit, who translates them into a place of communion — a foretaste of the renewed creation. The Supper cannot be reduced to the sursum corda
A change really does take place in the celebration of the Supper. This change is not limited to the elements, but includes every part of the celebration, including those who participate. The Spirit translates both us and the elements into the new creation environment of Christ Himself. In this change the bread never ceases to be bread, the wine never ceases to be wine and we never cease to be created human beings. However, in this change the bread, the wine and the celebrating community become something far greater as they become the place of Christ’s peculiar presence.
Christ is received in the sacrament through the work of the Holy Spirit. What we receive is not merely the Holy Spirit in our hearts, nor is it merely the benefits of Christ’s work. What we receive in the Supper is Christ Himself. The Christ that we receive is the incarnate Christ, and not a disincarnate Christ. We eat of His flesh and drink of His blood.
(To be continued)