Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Dialogue with an Evangelical on "Philosophical" Eucharistic Theology (vs. E.L. Hamilton)

By Dave Armstrong (2 October 2002)

E.L. Hamilton's words will be in green.


You ask, "Does anyone want to seriously argue that they denied baptismal regeneration or the Real Presence?", as if that sort of hypothetical exercise was itself meaningful.

It's not meaningful at all, because it is manifestly false. That's why I asked my rhetorical question. It makes a point.

Of course I don't want to argue that they denied these doctrinal slogans,

"Baptismal regeneration" is not a slogan. It is the precise title for one particular Christian doctrine, which has been held by the vast majority of Christians throughout history. "Real Presence" is more so a slogan, but a Protestant one, as it is, I believe, of Anglican origin.

I want to argue that they never meant them to function in the evolved modern senses in the first place. Let's focus on the "Real Presence" for the moment. (In part, to be honest, because I think that Catholics have some perfectly sound points in their favor with respect to baptismal theology, and thus I'm more inclined to want to study their perspective than to refute it...) Suppose you wanted to hop into a time machine to first century Rome, quiz Saints Peter and Paul on the subject, and bring their answer back to the present in order to settle, once and for all, what it probably the most embarassingly divisive issue in modern Christendom. I, by the way, fully support the project, and wish you well on your way. About time this bloody mess was straightened out. What I'd like to ask is, how are you going to pose the question?

I would ask, "do the bread and wine in a Christian service actually become the body and blood of Christ?" St. Paul would certainly understand that question, since he wrote that those taking the bread and cup "in an unworthy manner" were "guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Cor 11:27-30; cf. 1 Cor 10:14-22). Thus his answer would be a quick, "yes." Does he need Aristotelian philosophy of substance and accidents to know this? Nope. He doesn't even need Stoic or Epicurean or Platonic philosophy. He doesn't need any philosophy at all.

All he needs is Jewish realism, just as when he was converted, Jesus told him he was persecuting Him (Acts 9:3-6). Paul was persecuting the Church (Acts 8:3). The Church is the Body of Christ, in this incarnational, sacramental, biblical way of thinking. It is Jewish realism and historicism taken to another spiritual level.

This fairly terse little adjective-noun construct is loaded with all kinds of heavy freight, and I'm not even sure that translating back into Greek will be an entirely uncontroversial exercise in itself. (Presence parousia, or presence prosopon? Real alethinos, or do you want to get fancy and start playing around with hypostasis and ousias?) For "Presence", you need to establish that the sort of "presence" you have in mind is even stronger than Hebrew shekinah, which of course happens plenty of times throughout the OT with no implication of any need to alter some substance (of the tabernacle, etc) to "transubstantiate into God's body". For "Real", you need to come up with a way to make the assertion that Christ's Body is alethinos artos in a stronger (more literal) way than Christ Himself is alethinos ampelos. At some point, you're going to run into the universal pollster's temptation to stack the question in your favor.

John 6 and the Last Supper accounts, as well as Paul's literalism above, make this quite easily ascertained, which is why no one of note denied the doctrine until Zwingli. Even Luther left it untouched and damned to hell all those who denied it.

"Do you believe that the breaking of bread reveals Christ as present truly, or falsely?"

Well, thanks to Protestantism and liberal theology, now the very questions and terms are often meaningless. Catholics have to talk hyper-literally to get people to think in the original biblical terms, as it was presented by Jesus and Paul.

Well, maybe symbolism doesn't seem as "false" to Jews as it does to Thomists (to say nothing of modern rationalists). Want to ask? Back to the above problems. (Symbol semeion or symbol antitypos? etc) You're trying to take something from a class of overburdened ecclesial nonce-phrases, and propose that it could be projected "neutrally" back into a time when the axis of disagreement they lie along had not yet been defined.

This illustrates perfectly exactly what I oppose. You make a very simple thing complicated. But the Fathers unanimously took the literal view of the Eucharist. It's quite breathtaking.

It's an empty exercise, and doesn't yield either a "yes" or a "no", just a "we don't talk like that" (yet). Tell me what you mean by the "Real Presence".

The body and blood of Christ. Why is that so difficult to understand? Nothing in Paul's discussion of the Eucharist goes against a straightforward literal interpretation. If I say, "the body and blood of Dave Armstrong" you know exactly what that means. If I say, "my body aches today," you don't take that merely symbolically or "spiritually" or "mystically." If I say, "I gave blood at the Red Cross" you don't say I am only speaking allegorically. Yet when Jesus says, "This is My Body" and "This is My Blood" at the Last Supper, all of a sudden it is a spiritual meaning only. Very curious.

The Last Supper was an observance of the Jewish Passover. The Sacrifice of the Lamb (Jesus) - following Jewish ritual and ceremonial practices - was quite real. That wasn't symbolic. Yet Jesus' Body and Blood are reduced to mere symbols. So what would [Protestant Church historian Philip] Schaff make of that? Would he say that symbolism is a marvelous development of sacramental realism, since modern man is now so much more advanced than those "wooden literalist" first-century Jews? Why should symbol be more impressive or "spiritual" than physical, concrete reality? I think the tendency to anti-sacramentalism in Protestantism is ultimately anti-incarnational and a derivative of the antipathy to matter of ancient heresies such as the Docetics and Gnostics.

I'll bet that if you mean "a process by which the natural substance of bread and wine is totally displaced/transmuted into the substance of human flesh and blood, without altering the accidents", that you would have an enormously hard time even getting Peter and Paul to understand what you were talking about.

One needn't get into all that, as I have shown above. One can believe in the literal, substantial Eucharist without a whit of philosophical knowledge, just as one can believe in the Trinity or the Incarnation without the slightest knowledge of the Hypostatic Union, homoousios, filioque, kenosis, etc. The puddle of Christianity is shallow enough for a child to play in and deep enough for an elephant to drown in.

I just want to know why Catholics are so superlatively confident of their own philosophical neutrality that they think that the crime of failing to sign off on a rather peculiarly Aristotelian language set for Eucharistic doctrine (and so forth) should leave the rest of Christendom slapped with a permanent anathema.

The point isn't the philosophical categories, but that Jesus is truly present, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. The Orthodox and the Lutherans are realists, too; they simply use different words and expressions. All agree that it is ultimately a great mystery. We merely try to explain or comprehend it in a bit more detail. Orthodox object to our alleged "hyper-rationalism," yet they get into quite technical detail also when they discuss the filioque, the Divine Energies, and theosis, or divinization. Excessive "rationalism," then, is often in the eye of the beholder.

I do think the general consensus in the Fathers on many, many doctrines is fairly easy to ascertain, all things considered. If it is so extremely difficult to figure out what the ancient Church believed on the Eucharist, how is it that Catholic apologists can easily produce many sources such as the above which inform us that patristic beliefs were far closer to present-day Catholic beliefs than various (less sacramental or "realist") Protestant ones? If it is so hard, why can I make a good case using exclusively Protestant scholarly sources? I don't even need to go to the Catholics.

the self-assertion "I believe in the Real Presence" has different connotations to me depending on whether it is expressed by Eck, or by Martin Luther, or by John Brenz. "Real" is a subjective qualifier without any precise analytic definition, and "presence" is a category that can encompass any number of interpretations.

Then substitute transubstantiation or consubstantiation, or substantial presence. I explained how the realism and literalness is the key, and how Paul approached it, and how I would have approached it with Paul, if I had traveled in your hypothetical time capsule. I don't see any particular difficulty here at all.

In fact, recently a Lutheran pastor wrote to me, commending me on my accurate knowledge of consubstantiation and chiding many Lutherans for not realizing that Lutherans accept a realist, literal position. He also wrote that a Lutheran could believe in transubstantiation and remain a Lutheran in good standing (which indeed I already knew, as it was Luther's own position).

The "facts of history themselves", such as they are, can easily be associated with what certain people did, or said, but not so easily extended to how they felt about it, or what they meant. Words, like artifacts buried in sand, are prone to weather and rust with time, or are recut for newpurposes.

Fine as general sentiments, but they mean little unless you apply your epistemology to specific examples, such as the Eucharist. I have supplied nine Protestant scholars in support of my contention on the Eucharist as viewed by the Fathers. Do you wish to contend that they too (i.e., the scholars), can't be understood without taking four philosophy courses: philosophy of language, epistemology, logic, and analytic philosophy? I don't buy it. I think you're talking far more "academically" or "philosophically" than "Christianly." The philosophy has been raised to too high a level once again, usurping the place of faith and common sense. And I stand by common sense. To wax somewhat "Chestertonian": Common sense is far better than uncommon lack of sense.

What I want to impress on this debate is that these changes often (if not always) occur too slowly to detect easily. It is not sufficient to just say, "Well, this word is translated as 'regenerated' in my Bible, so I'll bet that my theology of baptism is the same as this author's". These points must be argued carefully, with attention to detail. (In the case of baptism, by the way, I'm a little more willing to admit that it is possible. I'm just saying it needs to be done properly.) Your desire to rush to the most literal interpretation (at least when it avails you) is, in my eyes, an admission that you are unprepared for, or disinterested in, this kind of painstaking etymological sifting. And I find that troubling.

I would distinguish between the absolute necessity of defining terms and of making the entire discussion an etymological rather than a theological one. You can show how someone is operating on false premises, inconsistent logic, or factual error, as the particular discussion proceeds. Simply talking about how lousy Catholic exegesis or apologetics is, accomplishes little or nothing, as it is an argument solely from authority, not of demonstration. The issues themselves have to be discussed in depth.

It lends credence to the [Protestant apologist] "Tim Enloe" theory of evangelical-to-Catholic conversion. Your "Why make it so complicated?" routine on the "This is my body/blood" language is, truth be told, not so distantly related to the "Call no man father" absolutum of Protestant polemics. It amounts to demanding that everyone in the debate stop asking such difficult questions, and just agree with you for the sake of making things less complicated!

But complexity, like "excessive rationalism", itself in the eye of the beholder. Apparently you feel that any symbolic understanding of the Eucharist "takes a simple thing and makes it complicated". To be honest, I don't know what to say to such a categorical assertion. Why is symbolism complicated? When a commercial comes on television, showing me an egg and announcing that it is "my brain", I don't find this particularly "complicated", such that the anti-drug message subsequently communicated by this analogy is thereby rendered unintelligible to anyone without a PhD in visual semiotics. The hermeneutic I use to unpack these sorts of unexpected assertions is highly context-sensitive, of course. If we are sitting together in a blood-bank, and you point to a clear bag full of viscous red fluid and say, "This is my blood", then I feel justified in taking you quite literally. If you pick up a bottle of cola, and say, "This stuff is my lifeblood", I would be obligated to recognize that a brown, semi-sweet carbonated liquid is dissimilar from blood in enough ways that a less literal interpretation would be recommended. This sort of thing, so far as I can tell, is "not complicated". When Jesus says, "I am the true vine", I do not thereby assume he is a member of the vegetable kingdom masquerading in human form. He doesn't have leaves, he is not rooted to the ground, and there is no record of the disciples plucking fruit from his body. When Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd", I do not assume that he was moonlighting in the lifestock industry. When Jesus is described as the cornerstone, I do not attempt to classify him as igneous, sedimentary, or
metamorphic. When he tells me to be born again, I do not look to be reimplanted into my mother's womb. When he promises to tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days, I don't feel cheated to find that the "temple" refers to his body. And in none of these cases do I feel that anything terribly "complicated" is going on, at least not so complicated that it lobbies hard in the direction of greater literalism. So when Jesus picks up an object, says "This is my body", and the object doesn't compositionally resemble human flesh, my first inclination is to go with the "symbolic" route. I assume that this was sufficiently obvious to the disciples that they didn't feel the need to ask questions at the time - as they frequently did when confused in other instances. I'm not saying that it's impossible that you are right, I just think that they burden of proof must initially be stacked in favor of the most natural and plausible alternative. And that ain't some convoluted business about "altered substance and unaltered accidents" that, absent a six-week crash course in Aristotelian metaphysics, would have left the disciples wondering if you were in need of an exorcism - probably one of the kind requiring prayer and fasting! There are some religious claims that are fairly uncomplicated: "Jesus was baptized by John", "Paul was a former persecutor of Christians who converted to Christianity", or "believers were first called Christians at Antioch". There are some religious claims that require heavy analysis, and even then remain opaque: "God is both three and one", "Jesus is the incarnate Logos", and "the Spirit is everywhere present and fills all things". Protestants think that communion belongs in the first category. Catholics think it belongs in the second. Catholic Eucharistic doctrine may be many things, but one think it is not is simple or transparently obvious. If it is true, then it is a peculiar exception to dozens of other cases where Christ used metaphorical language, in decidedly metaphorical ways, for indisputably metaphorical purposes.

Well-stated. But I think you prove something where you and I already agree: one must consider the context of the eucharistic utterances to determine their meaning. Are they the equivalent of Jesus calling Himself the "vine," the "door" and other such metaphors? I have done very extensive exegesis of them and have come to be even more convinced of the Catholic position. No one has shown me a superior interpretation to the Catholic view as of yet, in my opinion. I've found that Protestants are, on a whole, very reluctant to do comparative exegesis with Catholics. I think that is a shame. I wish I could find more people willing to do it.

As an exercise in reductio ad absurdum, one might consider reading the book of Revelation, and trying to conduct the same exegesis of "blood". Let's begin by looking at Rev 14:22, and noting that it specifies that only those who "wash their robes" have the right to enter the heavenly city. Washing, throughout the New Testament, is used as an abbreviation for baptism (Hebrews 6:2, for instance). Moreover, the only sort of "washing" ever described as a precondition for salvation is baptism. (As opposed to say, foot-washing, Jewish ritual purifications, or preparatory ablutions before prayers noted by certain patristic texts.) Washed in what? Well, John tells us back in 7:15: "They have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." And now it's off the races. "The blood of the Lamb. Why is that so difficult to understand?..." And after a few more vague rhetorical postures ("Breathtaking! Very curious! I don't need philosophy at all, all I need is Jewish realism!"), suddenly I'm insisting on the transubstantiation of baptismal water. (And if performed in street clothes, the transubstantiation of them into the substance of a white robe!) Of course, we both realize that Revelation is loaded with symbolic language, so none of us feel the slightest need to resort to such aberrant lexical transmutations. As is the Gospel of John. As are, at times, the letters of Paul. ("The rock was Christ." Do you feel the need to resort to transubstantiation to avoid "complexity" here as well? Why not?)

Yet Paul's discussion of the Eucharist doesn't strike me as symbolic at all. You are welcome to counter-exegete it. I would be highly interested in that.

Symbol is not "more spiritual" than literalism, but neither is it "less spiritual". Some spiritual things are literal, some are symbolic, and the latter may nonetheless possess spiritual efficacy. (Even sacramental efficacy. Baptism is "symbolically", as opposed to literally, connected with the death of Christ, yet that dimension is still of vital theological import.) The tendency to involuntarily conjoin the adjective "mere" onto every appearance of the word "symbol" is a most unbecoming characteristic of post-Enlightenment thought, and it really ought to be turned out to pasture.

The whole point of sacramentalism and incarnational theology is that the symbol or sign is also a reality. The separation whereby all symbols are opposed to realism, is what I oppose. Jesus compared His Resurrection to the "sign of Jonah." But it was literal. Augustine could speak of the Eucharist as both a sign and a physical reality. The two are not mutually exclusive. It's the typical Protestant tendency of dichotomizing things: "either/or."

Even within the modern American Zeitgeist, where "symbolism" connotes the hollow orchestration of political campaigns, there are enough pockets of resistance to remind of how symbol can have force. If I see a military veteran speaking about the flag, I expect to see him employ certain adulatory poetic constructs in the course of his oration. "This flag is dyed with the sweat of the courageous and the blood of the valiant. If you disrespect this flag, you betray the noble sacrifices of millions of patriots upon the field of battle..." We all recognize that there is a deep sincerity in these words - even those of us who don't agree with them, which is why flag-burning is popular as a protest - and yet we instantly recognize that this does not entail any invitation to metaphysical speculation about how, "substantively", the real physical blood lost in battlefield casualties can be connected with the dyes and fabrics used to create the physical object being ostensibly praised. You can go on demanding all you want, as an ad hoc principle, that they only way the Corinthians would have been subjected to divine punishment was if Paul's words were literally true. All I know is, if I saw three southern rednecks sitting out on the porch cradling shotguns, I'd have to have a death wish before I was willing to go spit on their Confederate flag!

Clever. Now go to the passages themselves and exegete them. I'd be happy - delighted - to cut-and-paste my eucharistic exegesis if you want to compare the two possibilities.

In fact, I'd say that (appealing to the rather Newman-esque concept of preservation of type) the general emphasis on "sacraments" in patristic thought is oriented less toward using them as abstracted objects of metaphysical speculation, and more as loci for a unified ecclesial praxis. The focus is not on "how it works", but on "what it means". This is the horrific tragedy of historical Christendom, that what was intended as the foundational epiphenomenon of Christian unity has become a weapon for endlessly refighting bitter wars. If you think that the Fathers, to say nothing of Paul, would have endorsed the anathematization of hundreds of millions of Christians on the basis of a formula for "how things work", I think you're missing the typological forest for the philosophical trees.

Paul gets quite philosophical and detailed, and issues his own anathemas freely and vehemently. I don't think that avenue would be a fruitful one for you.

God did not allow his only Son to descend from the heavens so that we could batter against one another endlessly over questions about whether any residual natural substance of the Eucharistic hosts coheres with the substance of the divine Logos! Whatever else this thing called Eucharist may be, it ought first to be the fondation on which we build our unity, a common table and a common cup, rather than the forever-delayed capstone of ecumenism, or the stumbling-block to unity itself.

Eloquent, noble sentiments, but the fact remains that there is a truth here to be ascertained. I will not yield up such a fundamental doctrine and rite of Christianity to relativism and "diversity." It's clear enough what the Church believed through the centuries on this, without a necessity for Aristotelianism to be brought into the discussion. If you think otherwise, then by all means, show me some Fathers who took a symbolic or dynamic (Calvinist-like) view. How hard is that? Give me something I can attempt to falsify: some factual data, for heaven's sake.

There's no point to simply sitting here and saying, "naw, you're wrong about that." "Nope, you are in error." That's boring and doesn't accomplish anything. You need historical data; facts, citations, or summaries by scholars who themselves are familiar with the Fathers from their own fields of study. Until that is shown, I say that all your clever analyses of words and so forth are only so many exercises in obfuscation to the exclusion of demonstration. The proof's in the pudding.

Of course, you can't resist trotting out the Docetist trope for another tired run. "Protestants hate the Eucharist because they hate physical matter, and are all closet Gnostics who hate their own embodied existence, etc, etc..."

Nice caricature of my argument . . . but I suppose I am given to exaggeration to make a point, too.

Personally, even if this is ever true, I don't see how it ought to affect our reasoning.

One has to account somehow where the pure symbolism of Zwingli and the way he thinks, comes from. I don't believe in historical vacuums. Ideas come from somewhere. This is one theory to account for that. As C.S. Lewis would say, if it isn't helpful to you at all, discard it and move on to the next thing. For those interested in history of ideas, Church history, and development of doctrine, as I am, it is relevant to discuss, whatever one thinks of the proposition itself.

I don't think it's true in my case, and that's all that concerns me.

Great, then you won't have a preconditioned bias that those who think matter is somehow less "good" than spirit have. Excellent.

Find me some throrough-going Gnostics, and I'll be happy to bash them for their thorough-going Gnosticism, without feeling any concommitant duty to alter my own theology in order to piecewise-negate each of their particular views. And incidentally, if I were choosing my doctrines on the basis of wanting to emphasize anti-Docetic polemics, I'd probably rank the Catholic view of transubstantiation second-worst at accomplishing that goal after Zwingli. Every other sacramental doctrine allows for some affirmation of the elements as good for their own nature, as natural bread and and natural wine, and unifies them without eradication or displacement by the Logos. Only Catholicism is unwilling to allow the Eucharist to be "contaminated" by any matter beyond the glorified flesh of the Lord. Catholicism makes the Eucharist into a facade, a mask, Christ crouching covertly under the stolen aspects of baser matter. The harvest of the earth is not lifted up to heaven to be glorified, but pushed aside as an expended placeholder, providing nothing but a slot into which Jesus of Nazareth can neatly drop. Nothing is elevated in this view, and thus Irenaeus' casting of the Eucharist as an antitype of the general resurrection (against the Gnostics) is stripped of meaning. We do not lose our natural substance to Christ's when we rise again. Surely the type cannot be greater than its fulfillment.

Interesting, but too incomprehensible to me in its larger implications to be able to comment. So I will pass. Is this your own original observation or did you read this somewhere?

If the Eucharist functions as Catholics claim it does, then we have a bizarre exception to the pattern by which God has worked everywhere throughout redemptive history. It is a miracle that evades detection by any means. It is beyond the realm of falsibility, and thus it can bear witness of nothing.

This is untrue, and I have written about this aspect in the past. Zwingli made the same argument. If you were to look at a cell of Jesus in a microscope, or examine Him physically, could you determine that He was both God and Man? If you were to observe Jesus as a fetus, would you be able to ascertain that He had come about in a way other than the usual natural meeting of sperm and egg? Could you prove that the burning bush was somehow to be equated with YHWH, the Creator of the Universe? How would you falsify the multiplication of the loaves and fishes? How could you prove that the atonement and redemption of all mankind is occurring by observing an itinerant preacher being put to death in a cross: just one of many thousands who endured the same horrible end at the hands of the Romans? How is that falsifiable? None of the disciples even understood what was happening at the time (with the possible exception of John).

For Christians who believe in baptismal regeneration (including Luther), there are few if any, outward signs of the grace imparted in an infant (or even an adult, at least usually not immediately). You can't prove that the water has this power by grabbing it immediately off the head of a baby and analyzing it chemically. Thus, your contention collapses utterly, It proves too much. If true, all the doctrines I mentioned would also have to be classified as "bizarre exceptions," proving "nothing."

Besides, Jesus called us to a more sublime faith. He said that "a wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign" (Mt 12:38-39). What does He say to Doubting Thomas?: "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe" (Jn 20:24-29). He taught that signs or miracles would not suffice for hard-hearted people (Lk 16:31), and contradistinguished between signs and the "stumbling-block" of "Christ crucified . . . God's foolishness . . . God's weakness" (1 Cor 1:22-25).

When Christ walks upon the water, he does not exhibit the "accidents" of swimming. Moses creates true frogs, and gnats, and hail, and blood, and does not attempt to convince Pharaoh and the Israelites that these portents have already occurred, but in ways that render them inaccessible to the senses. You say that when sacrifices where laid on the altar, or the Sacrifice was nailed to the cross, they had the "substance of flesh and blood. I say, "indeed, but also the accidents thereof". Christ performed signs to bear witness to himself. What are we to make of a sign cloaked behind a veil that bears witness to nothing?

The same thing we would say about those miracles above which are equally unfalsifiable, including several of the most fundamental Christian beliefs which unite all Christians.

When Christ allowed the apostles to touch his hands and feet, they bore scars. If they bore no scars, Thomas would have gone on doubting, and no amount of protestation about the "substance" of wounds lurking beneath the "accidents" of smooth skin would have disabused him of that skepticism. If even the elements of the Last Supper themselves had transformed visibly, followed by an assurance by Jesus that future repetitions would leave the tranmutation concealed, at least that would be a datum to hang a doctrine upon. But Catholics offer nothing except dogmatization.

Keep hanging yourself, now that (I believe) your view has been decisively refuted from Scripture.

It is as if Christ had wandered Palestine pantomiming miracles, and then threatened all those who refused to believe that the miracles were mysteriously occuring indetectably with unconditional exclusion from the kingdom. The God with which I am familiar wishes His mighty works to be manifest to the ends of both the consolation of the faithful, and the confounding of the wicked. I recognize the modus operandi of the Creator played out a hundred times in history, and it does not match the Catholic picture of transubstantiation.

Then show me how my analogical examples are any different. Good luck. This is a classic study of philosophy and preconceived notions triumphing over Scripture and faith, and the blindnesses or blind spots created by same. I wholeheartedly agree that Christianity is an empirical, concrete, practical religion. But it is not always. And you have forgotten once again that most of the foundational doctrines of Christianity cannot be proven empirically. How do you prove, for heaven's sake, empirically, that Christ redeemed the world? By studying the Shroud of Turin? Sorry; maybe that offers some proof of the Resurrection (as even some evangelical apologists like Gary Habermas believe). How can the Holy Trinity itself be either proven or falsified, apart from revelation and faith?

Does that exclude the very notion of mystery, and force me to take on all manner of heretics as my bunkmates?

It excludes the Atonement, the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, etc. (by placing them in the same "absurd" category - qua miracles - as Transubstantiation). That is quite a sufficient reductio ad absurdum for me and for most Christians reading this, I highly suspect, to cause the utter collapse of this point.

I don't see the basis for demanding that Protestants be pushed onto the horns of a false dilemma, and this, as with so many other beasts in the Catholic apologetic menagerie, is another mythological dichotomization. Where is the basis for demanding that the only valid options are either to reject all mysteries wholesale and plunge into this slough of rationalism, or else purchase our mysteries exclusively in the form and allotment that Rome has decided to package them?

More hyperbole and rhetoric. I appeal to Scripture and plain reason, as Luther would (and the history of doctrine).

Cases of supposed "Protestant eupocrisy", to borrow Shea's neologism for any case in which Protestants refuse to embrace the artificial bifurcations of choice that Rome longs to thrust upon them, are common enough that at some point, Catholics will have to start seriously considering that the evidence for the Trinity really is as strong as Athanasius insists, rather than a hopelessly tangled muddle that we can only safely believe because a luminary like Athanasius was the one insisting it. Mysteries are an option of last resort, a transtaxonomic category that we invoke when the evidence on both sides of a thesis/antithesis pair is so overpowering that the very notion of logic must crumble before it. We should not call in for a mysteriological escape every time we are faced with the prospect of having to take a few words a little less literally than some folks would prefer. I believe in exactly as many mysteries as I need to, and anything further is an inadvisable foray into fideism.

Oh, I see. So you are denying that the Eucharist is a mystery at all. Why, then, did not Jesus disabuse the hearers of His discourse recorded at John 6 and inform them that they were making something a mystery which was really quite simple and unmysterious? He let them go. This was not a case of them misunderstanding. They knew full well that He was being literalistic. No doubt their natural minds could not fully comprehend what He was teaching. But they did not merely commit the mistake of wooden literalism, whereas Jesus was being "clearly" (so we are told) symbolic. Why would He let them leave over such a simple and easily-corrected misunderstanding?

Read the passage. "Many of his disciples . . . said, 'This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?' But Jesus . . . said to them, 'Do you take offense at this?' " (John 6:60-61). Jesus didn't say, "look, guys, you overlook the obvious. Can't you tell I am only speaking symbolically? Did you forget that I have called Myself a Door too? I'm simply speaking in the long tradition of Hebraic agricultural metaphor. That's all I meant. Now come back and join us." This was no lack of comprehension or proper interpretation of words, but one of will, spiritual discernment, and God's grace, as our Lord says in 6:64-65: "But there are some of you that do not believe . . . no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father."

So "many" disciples left "and no longer went about with him" (6:66). Since Jesus knew men's thoughts, He would have known they were leaving for good. But He makes no attempt to stop them, even though (according to your reasoning), theirs was a simple misunderstanding; falsely equating symbolic words with literal ones. Jesus then asks the twelve disciples, "Do you also wish to go away?" (6:67). Very odd; exceedingly weird, if we are to adopt a non-literal exegesis of His discourse. This is the only record in Scripture of Jesus' disciples deserting Him (apart from Judas). And it didn't have to happen at all if the reason was one of simple stupefied non-comprehension. Jesus explained all His parables, after all.

Where do these peculiar ideas about literalizing one specific bit of poignant imagery (but not so many others) originate?

In John 6 and the other eucharistic passages.

I'm sure they were all well-intentioned enough, or else they never would have found root with so many pious Christians.

Including virtually all the Church Fathers . . .

I suspect that when you accuse non-sacramentalists of "Docetism", you've put your finger on the proper nerve. Catholics are too fond of demanding that Protestants present the One Grand Moment of Universal Apostasy at which the Church careened from the heights of apostolic purity to thedepths of Roman disfigurement. It's an unfair question, another of those false dilemmas set loose from the bestiary. History never plays out that way. The demand for a more robust identification of the elements with the physical Body crucified on the cross must trace to an early point, because it responds to an early heresy.

Yes: Jesus and Paul. :-) If they be heretics, then most assuredly I will be one too!

If the first heretics had been wooden-headed literalists instead of fanciful philosophers, maybe orthodoxy would have slid off the path in the opposite direction. What did you say, "The Golden Mean"? Nice concept on paper, hard to triangulate. Either you believe, a priori, in indefectibility,

Jesus taught it; I accept it. This isn't some rationalistic ungrounded axiom, but a non-optional tenet of faith.

or else you admit that the rebuff of every error opens a vulnerable chink in the armor of orthodoxy where the reversal of that error can take hold. Is that really so far-fetched a possibility?

Yes, because Paul doesn't present the apostolic Tradition "handed down" in a fashion whereby it could be reversible at all. Apostolic Tradition, as encapsulated in the Vincentian Canon, does not allow that possibility or interpretation.

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