Thoughts on Transubstantiation

As we wrestle with John 6:51-58, the text that I'm taking up tomorrow, and a text that has given many difficulties as to meaning and application, I've been working to some degree with John Calvin's perspective.

To understand Calvin one must understand him in context. On one hand was the Roman Church with its doctrine of Transubstantiation. On the other side were more Radical Protestants who wanted to rid the church of any idea of real presence. Calvin's view of a spiritual presence has been a helpful one for many. But, as we consider his position, and the broader Protestant position (reflected in my own Disciples tradition), it's helpful to have some understanding as to how the idea of Transubstantiation developed.

The doctrine of Transubstantiation is, of course, a reflection of a belief in the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament. It seeks to answer how this occurs. There was in the Medieval Catholic Church -- and even earlier -- a belief that through the sacred actions of the priest, the Eucharistic bread and wine were transformed into the body and blood of Christ. One could understand this presence either symbolically or literally.

Augustine defined the sacrament as an external, tangible sign of a reality that existed only in the realm of the Spirit. Therefore, Christ was present in the Eucharist spiritually but not physically. Later theologians, however, wanted to go further and define the Eucharist as being more than a sign.

Paschasius Radbertus (ca. 831) wrote an important treatise De corpore et sanguine Domini, in which he wrote that after the consecration there was nothing there but the body and blood of Christ, though it was perceived as being under the form of bread and wine. Thus the body that is received in the Eucharist is the same as that which was born of the virgin Mary. Radbertus wrote:

"What is perceived externally is a figure or mark, but what is perceived internally is entirely reality and no figure at all; and therefore nothing else is here revealed but reality and the sacrament of the body itself--the true body of Christ, which was crucified and buried, surely the sacrament of his body, which is divinely consecrated by the priest above the altar with the word of Christ through the Spirit: whence the Lord Himself exclaims, `this is my body' (Luke 22:19)." [quoted in Bengt Hagglund, History of Theology, (Concordia, 1968), 156.]

Although Radbertus' position met with some opposition, especially from those who wanted to maintain the Augustinian view, it was his view that would carry the day.

It was left to later Scholastic theologians to more fully develop this Medieval Eucharistic doctrine. Peter Lombard, for instance, wrote:

"To these we can reply as follows: That the body of Christ is not said to be made by the divine words in the sense that the very body formed when the Virgin conceived is formed again, but that the substance of bread or wine which formerly was the body or blood of Christ, is by the divine words made his body and blood. And therefore priests are said to make the body and blood of Christ, because by their ministry the substance of bread is made the flesh, and the substance of wine is made the blood of Christ; yet nothing is added to his body or blood, nor is the body or blood of Christ increased." [Quote from Ray C. Petry, A History of Christianity, (Baker, 1981), 1:321].

These definitions, which were emerging in the church had to wait for Fourth Lateran Council (1215) for official definition.

"There is one Universal Church of the faithful, outside of which there is absolutely no salvation. In which there is the same priest and sacrifice, Jesus Christ, whose body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine; the bread being changed (transubstantiatis) by the divine power into the body, and the wine into the blood, so that to realize the mystery of unity we may receive of him what he has received of us. And this sacrament no one can effect except the priest who has been duly ordained in accordance with the keys of the Church, which Jesus Christ himself gave to the Apostles and their successors." ["Canon I: the Creed, the Church, the Sacraments, and Transubstantiation," in Petry, History of Christianity, 1:322.]

Note here that great emphasis is placed both on the church as the home of the faithful and the centrality of the priest in bringing about this change in elements -- outside of which there is no salvation. You can see how powerful this makes church and priesthood, and the challenge that Protestantism posed to the church in the 16th century. If, as Calvin taught, it is the Spirit and not the priest who determines whether Christ is present, mediating to the faithful the signs of salvation, then the power of the church in society is weakened. We can also understand why some, including Ulrich Zwingli, wanted to go well to the other side of the equation, bypassing even Augustine's more symbolic understanding of presence. But, if John 6 has, as I believe it does, Eucharistic elements, can we move to a mere memorialism and have faithful understanding of the Eucharist?


Anonymous said…
There is one Universal Church of the faithful, outside of which there is absolutely no salvation.

These arguments and explainations are taking me back to grade school.

I felt even then this was a simple power grab. And a pretty low move at that. David Mc

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