These posts are primarily directed against popular forms of the doctrine of transubstantiation. Whilst some of the following points might also apply to more scholarly defences of the doctrine, I appreciate that there are forms of the doctrine of transubstantiation that do not differ that significantly from my own understanding of the Eucharist.
Peter Leithart, in The Priesthood of the Plebs: A Theology of Baptism
, has drawn attention to the error of ‘sacramental Marcionism’. Many theologians have created a very sharp distinction between the sacraments of the Old Testament and those of the New. Whilst some might argue that the OT sacraments did not communicate Christ, but were mere symbols of the realities received by the Church, Paul uses quite ‘realistic’ language when speaking about the food and drink received by the OT Israelites in 1 Corinthians 10:1-4. Whilst Paul is clearly trying to present the OT story in such a way as to highlight the connection between the Corinthian Christians and the OT Israelites, I still believe that we need to give his language due weight. Paul clearly parallels the spiritual food and drink received by the OT Israelites with that received by the Church (cf.1 Corinthians 12:13).
There are clear differences between the sacraments of the Old and those of the New Testament. However, there is also a firm relationship. The sacraments of the New Testament are not a movement into reality from the ‘merely symbolic’ sacraments of the OT. 1 Corinthians 10 should at least teach us that, in some sense at least, the sacramental order of the OT granted a real participation in Christ in a manner analogous to the manner in which the sacraments of the NT grant us a participation in Christ.
The Eucharist, while clearly differing from the Passover, tithe feasts, peace offerings, and various other OT rituals it fulfils, is not somehow a different type of thing altogether. Leithart writes:—
Though Augustine refuses to elaborate the reasons for the change in rites, he offers a brief but immensely provocative metaphor as explanation. Just as verbal signs — the letters of a written verb and the sounds of a spoken verb — vary according to the time the verb indicates, so the rites of the church develop to show a shift in “tense,” from anticipation to fulfilment….
By this combination of metaphors, Augustine underscores his repeated insistence that sacramental “substance,” or, continuing the analogy, the “verbal root,” remains the same in both Testaments. Christ is the Verbum spoken, offered, and received in the word and sacraments of both Old and New. Moreover, just as a conjugation is not a transition from language to not-language but a transformation from one linguistic form to another, so also the transition from Old to New remains within the economy of linguistic and cultural signs. The New is a radically fresh and surprising variation on the themes of the preceding movement but it is not a wholly new musical departure.
Leithart goes on to claim that ‘the New is meaningful only by virtue of its difference
from the Old.’ The Eucharist can be properly understood only as a conjugation of the rites of the OT.
A number of defenders of transubstantiation have been decidedly reluctant to adopt such an approach. There is an implicit Marcionism in the manner in which they relate the sacraments of the NT to those of the OT. If we are going to understand what the Eucharist really means, it will be against the backdrop of the OT rites and narrative (on which subject I recommend Leithart's Blessed Are the Hungry
). The doctrine of transubstantiation, with its focus on the change that occurs in the sacramental elements, has produced a sharp discontinuity between the Eucharist and its OT precursors, where no such change is spoken of.
I do not believe that relating the Eucharist so closely to OT sacraments needs to be seen as an emptying or even as an ‘immanentization’ of the sacrament. OT sacraments were a real participation in the redemption that was yet to come in Christ. Their full reality was not yet. In a like manner the Eucharist is a real participation in an eschatological redemption that is, nevertheless, still ‘not yet’.
Presence and Absence
Far too many doctrines of the Lord’s Supper presuppose a sharp distinction between presence and absence. They presume that either Christ is either present or absent; it is impossible to have both at the same time. The doctrine of transubstantiation often leads to a form of ‘fetishized’ presence, where the manner in which Christ’s presence exceeds and transcends the elements is not adequately treated. In particular, the doctrine of the ascension entails a real absence of Christ. The presence of Christ that we speak of in the Supper must be one that permits the words ‘until He comes’ to retain their force. Far too many forms of the doctrine of transubstantiation simply dissolve this eschatological tension in an unbiblical manner.
There is a fuzzy boundary between presence and absence. Nothing is ever simply present or absent. Even the temporal ‘present’ itself is never fully present. In some sense, the meaning of certain events that happened today is something that will be continuous deferred in various ways. It is like a piece of music, the meaning of one movement in a symphony cannot be fully appreciated apart from all previous movements that it modifies and that modify it and all subsequent movements that it modifies and that modify it. No note finds its meaning within itself; rather, its meaning is found by virtue of its place within a sequence of notes. Nor can its meaning be fully appreciated apart from the context in which the symphony is composed, first performed and apart from all subsequent performances. It is like a life story: the way that you recount the early period of a person’s life story is always coloured by what happens next. Problematizing simplistic binary oppositions between presence and absence is very important when dealing with many popular forms of the doctrine of transubstantiation.
Getting our Redemptive Historical Bearings
When understanding the presence of Christ in the Supper we must start by taking our bearings in redemptive history. Forms of the doctrine of transubstantiation have generally been developed with scant regard for the redemptive/covenant historical situation in which we find ourselves. The Church exists between the Ascension and the Second Coming of our Lord. It is the presence of Christ that constitutes the Church as the Church. However, the time between the Ascension and the Second Coming is a time of genuine absence. This lends a genuine ambiguity to the existence of the Church. As Douglas Farrow has observed, the Church has often been wont to transfer the ambiguity of its own existence onto Christ. There is a tendency to normalize the Church’s own situation and problematize the situation of Christ. The reality of this passing world is made normative and the presence of Christ in the Eucharist must be explicable within the categories provided by this world.
Transubstantiation all too easily presumes the validity of the categories of this world to explain what takes place in the Supper. Christ must be brought down to earth again every time the Eucharist is celebrated. This ‘bringing down to earth’ of Christ need not involve any idea of a local presence of Christ (denied by Aquinas and others). All that it needs to involve is Christ’s being subjected to the brokenness of our time and world order once more. The doctrine of transubstantiation often does not take enough account of the fact that the presence of the risen and ascended Jesus Christ can no longer be accounted for by the categories provided by our cosmologies.
One of the great insights in John Calvin’s Eucharistic theology (although the eschatological dimension of the Supper is generally muted in Calvin) is that it is our reality that is out of joint and needs to be reorientated to Christ, rather than vice versa
. In the Eucharist it is not Christ who is brought down to us, but we who are raised up by the Holy Spirit to enjoy the presence of Christ in the heavenlies. Christ is at a distance from us because of the disjointedness of our reality. Both the time and the place in which Christ exists are removed from our own. However, the Holy Spirit is able to bring together things that are separated. Rather than Christ being brought down again into the structures of our broken world, in the Eucharist, by the work of the Holy Spirit we are given a foretaste of the world reorientated to His reality.
The presence of Christ in the Supper is the presence of the eschaton and all that that entails. It is from the celebration of the Eucharist that the Church derives its identity as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16). The presence of Christ in the Supper is not a presence that excludes absence or removes any ambiguity to the Church’s existence. The revelation of the Church’s true existence awaits the future coming of Christ (Colossians 3:3-4; 1 John 3:2). However, in the interim each celebration of the Eucharist is a mini-Parousia
The doctrine of transubstantiation risks denting the Church’s hope for the future. If Christ is fully present every time that the Church celebrates the Eucharist, for what greater presence are we eagerly waiting? Whilst I realize that those who hold the doctrine of transubstantiation seldom deny the doctrine of the Second Coming, I believe that the doctrine of transubstantiation has the tendency of obscuring it.
Presence in the Elements
The doctrine of transubstantiation has focused on the presence of Christ in the elements. All too often a form of ‘fetishized’ presence is taught. The substance of Christ is fully present in the form of mute bread. The presence of Christ in the bread is so emphasized (the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to utraquism merely reinforces this) that justice is not truly done to the fact that the presence of Christ embraces the whole ceremony. Such an exclusive emphasis on the presence of Christ in the bread leads to a number of problems. Perhaps the chief of these problems is the elevation of the Church’s position relative to Christ. The Church is seen to be the chief active agent, rather than Christ. Christ’s agency in giving Himself to the Church is not as prominent as the agency of the Church, which gives us this Christ in the depersonalized form of bread. Of course, this form of the doctrine of transubstantiation is not to be confused with the form held by Aquinas and many other modern theologians. Nevertheless, it has had a significant number of adherents in the pews of Roman Catholic churches over the years.
As I have already hinted, the presence of Christ in the Supper must not be limited to the bread and the wine, but must be extended to embrace the whole ceremony. We must start with a very clear perception of the Christ of the gospels who has ascended to sit at the right hand of the Father. The incarnate Christ did not cease to be; Jesus Christ is still a man for us and our salvation. In the Supper He permits us to feed on Himself in the eating of bread and the drinking of wine. The presence of Christ in the bread and the wine is not a presence that is to be gazed upon, nor is it a presence that can be abstracted from the action itself (as Catherine Pickstock observes). His presence in the bread and the wine is a presence in the form of gift. Consequently, to fetishize the presence of Christ in the elements apart from receiving the elements in our mouths subverts the whole purpose of the Supper.
The presence of Christ in the elements cannot be properly understood outside of the context provided by Christ’s giving of Himself in the bread and the wine and our receiving of them. We must always remind ourselves that the Eucharist is an action
and not the elements
alone. It is not the bread and wine in abstraction that are the place of the presence of Christ, but the bread and wine as given by Christ and eaten and drunk by us. As the bread and the wine are situated in this movement they are quite truly the body and blood of Christ.
One of the problems with some forms of the doctrine of transubstantiation is that, through their treatment of the transubstantiated bread as some ‘new thing’, they have tempted people to treat the elements primarily as things to be gazed at, rather than as food to be eaten. Once the elements are treated in such a manner, they can actually become darkened to our sight. The appearance of bread ends up hiding the body of Christ, rather than really revealing it. However, if we affirm that the presence of Christ in the elements is the presence of Christ as the gift of food, the bread actually serves to reveal the body of Christ in this sense and does not obscure it.
Presence versus mere ‘There-ness’
As Leonard Vander Zee and others have observed, there is a difference between being ‘present’ and being ‘there’. A table or a chair is not present
in a room; it is merely there
. In a like manner, merely being in the proximity of someone’s body is not the same thing as enjoying their presence. As I have already claimed, there is no sharp division between presence and absence. Personal
presence is known as we relate to other people.
In the name of ‘real presence’, many (but not all) Roman Catholics are actually encouraging us to adopt an attenuated form of presence that falls far short of the sort of presence that I believe that we need to be arguing for. The body of Christ may be there
, but His personal presence
is not really stressed. The danger is that the ‘mute substance’ (as Farrow terms it) of Christ in the transubstantiated bread becomes malleable in the Church’s hands. The Church can all too easily project its own persona onto Christ when it is no longer confronted by Christ as active in the Eucharist. I wonder whether, if we paid more attention to personal modes of presence, some of the Protestant reservations about Eucharist sacrifice might begin to be dissolved.
Whilst the doctrine of transubstantiation often carries the danger of depersonalizing the presence of Christ, I believe that Calvin’s doctrine of the Eucharist more fully captures the personalism of the event.
(to be continued