The Medieval Catholic View of the Real Presence in the Eucharist

Since I posted a piece on the Eucharist that looked to the perspective of the Early Church on the question of presence, I thought I’d add a piece on the medieval church, which is when the doctrine of Transubstantiation came into play.  That doctrine remains standard in the Roman Catholic Church and is a cause of separation between Protestant and Catholic since the Reformation age. 

On the question of whether Christ is present in the elements or in the community, or in some other way, is open for discussion.  Because I would agree with such figures as Keith Watkins that the Eucharist is a normative center (together with the Word) of worship, I would affirm a spiritual presence in the gathering at the Table.  But, that is a different issue from the question of whether the elements are transformed into the real body and blood of Christ, a doctrine to which I do not hold.

Therefore, since the Eucharist has been seen as a source of spiritual nourishment for the recipient of the elements, since at least the second century if not earlier, the question remains – in what fashion?

  In medieval Catholic tradition this nourishment of the spirit, which involved the person of Jesus Christ, was mediated through the mass.   Although the doctrine of transubstantiation did not become official Catholic dogma until the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, the idea of a change in the elements can be traced back to the second century.  But this idea developed over time and ultimately served to undergird the medieval priesthood, which was charged with providing this means of grace to the people.

            The doctrine of transubstantiation has been a key area of disagreement between Protestant and Catholic.  Even Protestants who affirm the concept of the real presence of Christ reject this particular understanding of the real presence. 

The church of the middle ages, and even before that, believed that the sacred actions of the priest led to the transformation of the Eucharistic bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.  One could understand Christ's presence either symbolically or literally.  Thus, Augustine defined the sacrament as an external, tangible sign of a reality that existed only in the realm of the spirit.  Thus Christ was present in the Eucharist spiritually but not physically.  Later theologians, however, desired to further define the Eucharist as being much more than a sign of spiritual reality. 

Paschasius Radbertus (ca. 831) wrote an important treatise entitled  De corpore et sanguine Domini,  (Of the Body and Blood of the Lord), which stated that after the consecration of the elements there was nothing there but the body and blood of Christ, though 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)."[i]

Although Radbertus' position met with considerable opposition, especially from his contemporary, Ratranmus,  his position became the dominant position in the Church.  But, it is worth considering the response of Ratranmus, who espoused a more symbolic and Augustinian view.  In his response to Radbertus, Ratranmus wrote:

[I]t is clear that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ in a figurative sense.  After the mystical consecration, when they are no longer called bread and wine, but the body and blood of Christ, as far as the external appearance is concerned, the likeness of flesh cannot be discerned in that bread, just as the actual liquid of blood cannot be seen . . .  How then can they be called the body and blood of Christ when no change can be seen to have taken place? . . .  As far as the physical appearance of both are concerned, they seem to be the things which have been physically created. However, as far as their power is concerned, in that they have been created spiritually, they are the mysteries of the body and blood of Christ.[ii]

 Ratranmus allows for presence, but it is figurative and the action of the sacrament happens inside the recipient not externally to the elements.    

The view of Radbertus, however, prevailed and was further developed by the Scholastic theologians, such as Peter Lombard wrote of the manner of conversion:

"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."[iii]

The Fourth Lateran Council gave further definition to the doctrine in 1215:

"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."[iv]

Strongly related to the doctrine of transubstantiation was the doctrine of sacrifice.  Sacrificial doctrine came to be dominant in the middle ages as a definition of the Eucharist’s meaning.  The Eucharist was seen as superior to the Old Testament sacrifices, since it was the fulfillment of the earlier system and the inauguration of the new.  Whereas the Levitical sacrifices were an anticipation of Christ's sacrifice on the cross, the Eucharistic sacrifice was a participation in that sacrifice.  The two sacrifices were seen as being one since the cross was only truly efficacious sacrifice, and the mass could only be dependent upon that original sacrifice.  The Eucharist, therefore could not be a punishment for sin, rather it was the representation of the mystery of the cross.  In spite of the mystery involved, the material sacrificed is Christ's body and blood in the form of bread and wine.  In addition the mass was related to Anselm's doctrine of substitutionary atonement.  For Anselm, it is Christ who is daily offering himself as a sacrifice, but the priest acts as his agent.  But whereas the original sacrifice blotted out original sin, the sacrifice of the mass blots out daily venial sins.  The priestly office of the medieval priest was derived from that of Christ himself, who served as priest, sacrifice, and altar.[v]

The emphasis on Christ's real presence, as defined by the doctrine of Transubstantiation and the doctrine of Eucharistic sacrifice led to the church of taking the step of venerating the host.  If the host (bread) had truly become the divine body of Christ, then it like Christ could be worshipped.  Thus the host was elevated and venerated, and it came to be believed that simply being in the presence of the host was sufficient to cleanse one from sin.  This meant that actually consuming the Eucharistic elements was unnecessary, for in the host the person of Christ became tangible and this was sufficient.  Only the priests therefore need to take the elements.   

[i] Radbertus quoted in Bengt Hagglund, History of Theology, (Concordia, 1968), 156.
[ii] “Ratranmus pf Corbie on the Real Presence” in The Christian Theology Reader.  Alister E. McGrath, ed., (Cambridge, MA:  Blackwell, 1995), p. 296.
[iii] Peter Lombard in Ray Petry, History of Christianity, (NY:  Prentice-Hall, 1962), 1:321.
[iv] Canon I:  the Creed, the Church, the Sacraments, and Transubstantiation," in Petry, History of Christianity, 1:322
[v] Jaroslav Pelikan, Growth of Medieval Theology, 136-37, 188-90.  Reinhold Seeberg, The History of Doctrines, (Baker, 1977), 2:134-35.


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