Monday, February 26, 2007

Agreements and Disagreements With Reformed Protestant Alastair Roberts' Series: "Some Thoughts on Transubstantiation"

Alastair is an ecumenical Reformed Christian, who hosts a very informative blog called alastair.adversaria. He himself asked me if I would like to give my thoughts about this series. It's my pleasure. I look forward to the discussion. Here are the URL's for his papers:

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

I won't respond to absolutely everything (per my usual "custom"), as the series is very long. Rather, I'll respond to portions where we disagree, and also note some areas of heartening and/or notable or surprising agreement. His words will be in blue.

* * * * *

The following are some (very) unpolished thoughts on some general issues that are raised by the doctrine.

I always feel most inadequate as well, when dealing with this topic, so we are very much alike in that regard. I'll try to do my best in the time that I have to respond to your paper.

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.

I can only speak for my position, which is the orthodox Catholic one. There is more than one way to defend the orthodox doctrine, without implying that there are variants of it. I don't know if by "moderate" you mean what I would classify as "liberal" or "heterodox", or what you understand to be "the beliefs of average Roman Catholics." Surveys show that 70-80% of Catholics deny the Real Presence, let alone transubstantiation.

I, of course, disagree with them because they don't accept Church teaching on the matter. In any event, one must critique doctrines held by Christian communions. Scholars' opinions can either coincide or differ from those. I really don't care all that much what "Catholic scholars" who are that in name only, but not in substance, teach, anymore than I would care about the opinions of some process theologian falsely purporting to represent Reformed Protestant theology. Both theologies are what they are, and must be approached as such.

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 . . . 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.

All very true. This goes right back (unfortunately for almost all subsequent Reformed-Catholic discussion) to John Calvin himself. I commend you for your willingness to advance beyond the traditional polemics.

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 don't see how that is relevant to a fruitful inter-communion dialogue myself, but, different strokes . . . I'm only interested (as a Catholic apologist) in responding to your comments on what I understand to be orthodox Catholic eucharistic theology.

. . . 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; . . . 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.

I'll have to see what you believe as we proceed.

. . . I would be interested to hear other people’s opinions.

Glad to oblige. Thanks for writing a very serious paper which can provide food for thought and discussion.

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 and really the body and blood of Jesus Christ; the other party says, no, they are just symbols of the body and blood of Jesus.

. . . Roman Catholics . . . 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.

Catholics don't have to make this dichotomous choice. We must believe that the Eucharist is real, but we also regard it as a sign or symbol as well, just as St. Augustine did. I've written about exactly this false dichotomy in my paper, St. Augustine's Belief in the Real Presence.

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.

I agree. In my paper just-mentioned, I wrote:

I claimed [as a Protestant] that St. Augustine . . . adopted a symbolic view of the Eucharist. I based this on his oft-stated notion of the sacrament as symbol or sign. I failed to realize, however, that I was arbitrarily creating a false, logically unnecessary dichotomy between the sign and the reality of the Eucharist, for St. Augustine -- when all his remarks on the subject are taken into account -- clearly accepted the Real Presence. The Eucharist -- for Augustine, and objectively speaking -- is both sign and reality. There simply is no contradiction.

A cursory glance at Scripture confirms this general principle. For instance, Jesus refers to the sign of Jonah, comparing the prophet Jonah's three days and nights in the belly of the fish to His own burial in the earth (Mt 12:38-40). In this case, both events, although described as signs, were quite real indeed. Jesus also uses the terminology of sign in connection with His Second Coming (Mt 24:30-31), which is believed by all Christians to be a literal event, and not symbolic only.

. . . St. Augustine's symbolic language can be synthesized with his "realistic" language, because realism can co-exist with symbol while retaining its realism . . . symbolic language can also (and indeed often does in Augustine) refer to other, more communal aspects of the Eucharist which complement (but are not contrary to) the "Real Presence" aspect of it.

. . . The simple fact of the matter is that Augustine speaks in both ways. But we can harmonize them as complementary, not contradictory, because Catholics, like Augustine himself, tend to think in terms of "both/and" rather than the dichotomous "either/or" prevalent in Protestantism. Thus, when some Augustinian symbolic Eucharistic utterance is found, it is seized upon as "proof" that he thereby denied the Real Presence.

This is neither logically compelling, nor scholarly, since there are many of his statements which clearly indicate that he held to the literal, Real physical Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the Sacrifice of the Mass, and the priesthood, which makes no sense

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.

Excellent . . . well-stated!

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.

Since that is the Catholic position, rightly-understood, we are in agreement so far (before we get to details where we will disagree).

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.

I wholeheartedly agree again. The whole idea of sacramentology can be summed up as: "matter can convey grace." That can in turn be paraphrased as "nature (including sensory data) can and does convey grace." Put that way, obviously a nature vs. grace dichotomy is precluded. It would seem that the Incarnation would have put that false dichotomy to rest in the first place (which is why we see the Eucharist as an "extension" of the Incarnation).

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.

In practice, no, they're not. But both dogmatic and mystical Catholic eucharistic theology understand this perfectly well.

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.

I don't follow your reasoning here. If matter can convey grace, then it (in the sacrament) is being used as a channel or medium for that purpose, precisely as you disagree with above. Scripture indicates that grace (in one definition of it, anyway) is a thing which can be "distributed," if you will, by God. Thus, linguist W.E. Vine wrote:

. . . in another objective sense, the effect of grace, the spiritual state of those who have experienced its exercise, whether (1) a state of grace, e.g., Rom. 5:2; 1 Pet. 5:12; 2 Pet. 3:18, or (2) a proof thereof in practical effects, deeds of grace, e.g., 1 Cor. 16:3 . . .; 2 Cor. 8:6,19 . . . the power and equipment for ministry, e.g., Rom. 1:5; 12:6; 15:15; 1 Cor. 3:10; Gal. 2:9; Eph. 3:2,7 . . .

(An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1940, vol. 2, 170, "Grace" / "Charis")

Many biblical instances of sacramental occurrences had nothing to do with the divinely-instituted symbology of the Last Supper / Eucharist, but illustrate and confirm this understanding of matter conveying grace: Elisha's bones causing a man to be raised from the dead (2 Ki 13:20-21), Paul's handkerchief (Acts 19:11-12) and Peter's shadow (Acts 5:15-16) healing people, and Elijah's mantle causing the Jordan River to part (2 Ki 2:11-14). These also constitute excellent, explicit biblical evidence for relics. Very un-Protestant, yet very biblical . . .

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.

It is reasonable to believe that the miracle occurs at some point in the liturgy performed by an ordained priest (ordination itself being a sacrament). Catholics place this at the words of consecration.

For evangelicals the liturgical form illustrates or represents the reality.

Unless Jesus' Body, Soul, Blood, and Divinity is present in the eucharistic miracle, then we Catholics say it is not a "real" presence. We regard that as a watered-down usage of the term.

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).

Jesus can "invade" my worship anytime He likes. This is the sort of "invasion" I will surrender to every time. Since the Incarnation was a similar miracle (God "invading" the human race by becoming a man), and this brought matter and grace together, I see nothing objectionable in this at all.

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.

This boils down basically to the old objection that the Mass is a form of magic, with the priest uttering mysteriously powerful words to make happen what Catholics believe happens. In fact, the term hocus pocus came from the Latin words of consecration: hoc est enim corpus ("this is My Body"). But the Mass is not "magic" at all. Magic (in the occultic, not entertainment, sleight-of-hand sense) means that the person performing the magic has an intrinsic power to perform something in and of himself.

But in the Mass, the priest is merely an alter Christus. He is representing the person of Jesus at the Last Supper, following the words that He taught us to say (encapsulated in a worship and liturgical ritual known as the Mass). It is Jesus Who is performing the eucharistic miracle. The priest is merely a channel. God causes the miracle to occur, not mere words (just as God's grace causes a conversion; not the words of the repentant sinner; citing John 3:16 or some kind of "sinner's prayer").

The words of consecration (repeating our Lord's words at the Last Supper) merely give a particular time when the faithful know that the miracle has occurred. After all, if one believes in a substantial presence of Jesus at some point during the liturgy, then it is altogether reasonable to posit at which point the miracle occurs (so the worshipers can worship Jesus as substantially present; hence we bow our heads at the consecration because Jesus is truly, substantially there).

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.

The Person of Jesus Christ! I would say that He is not only an "extra element" of worship, but the very reason why worship is taking place at all.

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.

Of course. But how that has any bearing on the present subject, I know not.

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.

And they are wrong because Scripture explicitly ties both to salvation.

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.

That's why the Mass consists of the liturgy of the Word in its first part. We also sometimes begin the Mass by having water sprinkled on us; reminding us of our baptism and its saving power as well).

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.

I agree. That's one reason why I am a Catholic. Worship services that include the Holy Eucharist only once a month or even less than that, have separated a crucial part of Christian worship from the liturgy, and placed the Word above the sacramental meaning of worship.

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 being what transubstantiation means: literally, "change of substance" . . .

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.

Then why are you writing this paper at all, if words cannot explain what you believe, and reason is insufficient?

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.

On what biblical basis (not to mention historical)?

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 not, 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.

This is simply not the Real Presence as historically understood. Jesus Christ is truly, substantially, actually present: Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. That's why we believe that the Mass is a Sacrifice, and re-presents the one sacrifice at Calvary on the Cross (transcending time and space, which is part of the miracle). That's why we bow our heads and worship the consecrated host, because we believe it is Jesus Himself under the outward forms of bread and wine.

This "realism" is how St. Paul and the Fathers understood the Eucharist. If one wishes to adopt Calvin's understanding, then I want to know the reason for such a massive change in understanding. Why should I accept Calvin's belief on this if it clashes with unbroken Christian Tradition?

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.

Then you believe something akin to consubstantiation. It certainly cannot be classified as transubstantiation at all, because it violates the literal meaning of that term.

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.

If you really do that, then do you also worship Him on the altar (as you say that you believe He really is there in some way beyond how He is present everywhere at all times)?

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.

So what? The Incarnation was another great "change" -- so much so that it scandalized the Jews, most of whom rejected Jesus as the Messiah. The Holy Trinity was perceived as a massive "change" and indeed, as gross idolatry and blasphemy by the Jews. Since the Incarnation was so "radical," one would fully expect Christian rituals to be correpondingly different and new, compared to what came before; yet not without aspects of continuity.

Thus, the Mass is based on the Last Supper, which was itself a Passover dinner. The Mass re-presents the Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, which itself was the fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrificial system. The Catholic priest fulfills and completes the "type" of the Hebrew priest, offering the Lamb of God, Who is God, to God the Father, rather than mere lambs and other animals.

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.

I don't see how. What more is required? We believe the consecrated bread and wine are truly, substantially Jesus: Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. It's not just a word game. It's not just a more "pungent" presence. God is omnipresent, so He is always "here" in that sense; transubstantiation is obviously a different sense of "presence" than that; lest it be entirely superfluous and unnecessary. It reproduces the Incarnation: God became man. God can become equally present in a physical sense in what was once bread and wine. If He can do one thing, the second is no less plausible.

Faith is required, of course, because the appearance will not suggest this. But then, neither did the appearance of Jesus the Man, for many who beheld Him. You couldn't prove that Jesus was God by taking a blood test, or analyzing DNA from a skin sample. Likewise, you can't prove that a consecrated wafer is God.

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.

The biblical language and the doctrine of the Fathers see no such contradiction. It is an insufficiently-established philosophical innovation of Calvin. In my opinion, he dismisses biblical and patristic realism with mere (flawed, fallacious) philosophy and speculation. The burden of proof is on him and his followers to explain to us why we should believe something differently than what the Church always held previously. I dealt with this particular objection at great length, in dialogue with Reformed Christians. Rather than reiterate here, I'll simply refer readers to that discussion: Dialogue on John Calvin's Mystical Eucharist (+ Part II) (vs. "Josh" and Michael S. Horton and John Calvin).

. . . the time between the Ascension and the Second Coming is a time of genuine absence.

According to whom, and what Scripture? How does this preclude transubstantiation? God is omnipotent. It seems to me that you are denying His omnipotence, in saying that there is something He cannot do, which is entirely logically possible for Him to do; namely, become truly, substantially present in the Eucharist. Since it isn't possible to do that without sacrificing the doctrine of omnipotence, I don't see how it is possible for a Christian who accepts that attribute of God to argue in this way.

And what is it based on, anyway? We can come up with all sorts of "logical conundrums" as objections to traditional Christianity. The Jews argue against the Trinity because it is too difficult to understand and accept. So do Jehovah's Witnesses and Unitarians, and The Way International, and Christadelphians and a host of other non-trinitarian heretical sects. With one voice they all denounce the Holy Trinity as unreasonable, nonsensical, and unable to be comprehended or believed.

Now, because transubstantiation is difficult to believe, Calvin and his Reformed followers have also sought to set forth merely philosophical objections, so that they can reject the doctrine. I say that this is (though not intended to do this at all) putting philosophy above faith. Faith requires belief in many things that are difficult to understand. many things in Christian doctrine (things we all agree on) can never be totally proven or demonstrated.

So it comes down to deciding which doctrines are "unreasonable," upon which we concentrate our powers of reason and attitude of skepticism. How does one decide when to do this? It's much more reasonable to accept the traditional faith whole and entire, as received -- passed-down -- from our brothers and sisters in the faith. We don't pick and choose what of that we can accept and which, reject, because that is arbitrary. I would strongly contend that this was how St. Paul viewed the matter.

But Protestants pick and choose and become skeptical of certain things precisely because they have changed the traditional rule of faith and have adopted private judgment and sola Scriptura. They had to do so, otherwise, they would have no good reason to justify their separation from the traditional Church. They had to adopt a different principle of determining which doctrines are true and which are not.

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.

That's precisely why the medieval theologians largely (but not exclusively) analyzed the Eucharist in terms of the Aristotelian / Scholastic (Thomistic) philosophy then prevalent. We believe it is a miracle, but one which we can grasp to a great extent by applying human rational thinking to it.

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.

Quite the contrary; this betrays a fundamental understanding of what is believed to occur in the Mass. It's not that Jesus is "brought down" to earth, as if He is subject to human whims and magical formulas or incantations. In the Mass, the Cross is made a present reality. We are "brought up" to God's sublime, timeless level. It is a miracle. It's not "every time such-and-such happens"; rather, it is a transcendence of time; Jesus on the Cross as sacrifice becomes present outside of time, just as God the Father is outside of time. This is part of the great miracle. The Incarnation becomes present as well, just as the Sacrifice on the Cross. Jesus can be present to every worshiper at Mass, just as He was in those 33-or-so years that He lived among us as an historical Person in the land of Israel.

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.

We agree. That's why we believe what we do about the Mass, in relation to space and time. It completely transcends those categories, so great is the miraculous nature of it. Jesus could walk through walls even before He ascended. Now He can become substantially present in what was once bread and wine. If you can believe one thing, it is no difficulty to believe (a priori) the other. Karl Adam, author of the marvelous book The Spirit of Catholicism (translated by Dom Justin McCann, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1954 [originally 1924 in German], p. 197), remarks upon the transcendent nature of the Mass:

The Sacrifice of Calvary, as a great supra-temporal reality, enters into the immediate present. Space and time are abolished. The same Jesus is here present who died on the Cross. The whole congregation unites itself with His holy sacrificial will, and through Jesus present before it consecrates itself to the heavenly Father as a living oblation. So Holy Mass is a tremendously real experience, the experience of the reality of Golgotha.
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.

This is somewhat close to our view (as far as it goes). We believe all that, but we also believe that Jesus is present in an incarnational fashion as well, not just "spiritually", as Calvin uses that term in the context of his discussions on the Eucharist. It is the "heavenlies" that Catholics are referring to when they believe that the Cross is made present to us. It is the sort of "heavenly now" that St. John wrote about. In my book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism (p. 99 in Sophia edition), I wrote:

Some verses in Revelation state that the "prayers of the saints" are being offered at the altar in the form of incense (8:3-4; cf. 5:8-9). But the climactic scene of this entire glorious portrayal of heaven occurs in Rev 5:1-7. Verse 6 describes "a Lamb standing as though it had been slain." Since the Lamb (Jesus, of course) is revealed as sitting in the midst of God's throne (5:6, 7:17, 22:1,3; cf. Matthew 19:28, 25:31, Hebrews 1:8), which is in front of the golden altar (8:3), then it appears that the presentation of Christ to the Father as a Sacrifice is an ongoing (from God's perspective, timeless) occurrence, precisely as in Catholic teaching. Thus the Mass is no more than what occurs in heaven, according to the clear revealed word of Scripture.
I wrote on pages 97-98 of the same book:
In light of the repeated references in Hebrews to Melchizedek as the prototype of Christ's priesthood (5:6,10, 6:20, 7:1-3,17,20), it follows that this priesthood is perpetual (for ever), not one time only. For no one would say, for example, that Christ is King (present tense) if in fact He were only King for a short while in the past. This (Catholic) interpretation is borne out by explicit evidence in Hebrews 7:24-25:
He holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues for ever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.
If Jesus perpetually intercedes for us, why should He not also permanently present Himself as Sacrifice to His Father? The connecting word, consequently, appears to affirm this scenario. The very notion, fundamental to all strains of Christian theology, that the Cross and the Blood are efficacious here and now for the redemption of sinners, presupposes a dimension of "presentness" to the Atonement.
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.

Again, we agree. Our complaint would be that Calvin's approach is arbitrarily selective. He doesn't take the principles you elucidate far enough, and denies essential aspects of the historic teaching and the relevant biblical data.

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.

As the Second Coming is physical (unless one adopts the "invisible coming in 1914" of Jehovah's Witnesses), so should be the Eucharist, if you wish to make this analogy. You're only helping to prove my point. The Incarnation was physical; so is the Eucharist. The Cross was a physical event in time; so the Mass re-presents that one-time event and make it miraculously present; transporting the worships to the heavenlies.

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?

The Beatific Vision.

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.

That is visible and not under the signs and symbols of something else. The two things are sufficiently different for any danger of "obscuring" to be present. Hence, as you admit, Catholics "seldom deny the doctrine of the Second Coming."

. . . 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.

Not at all, as explained above. We're merely repeating the words of consecration from the Last Supper, as our Lord commanded us, and echoing the explicitly "eucharistic" and "sacrificial / priestly" language and described heavenly rituals in the books of Hebrews and Revelation.

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.

Who was it who said "this is My [depersonalized?] Body"? And who is it who merely repeats the words as they see the one at the left saying them?

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.

I can't tell what "form" you are talking about when, so I am simply answering to the best of my ability. I see no reason to go back and revise what I wrote.

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.

He is already present there, as He is always with us (also in our hearts in the indwelling). The Eucharist takes the "presence" beyond that, to another level.

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,

Why not? As I've written before: He is either truly there or He is not. If so, then He should be -- nay, must be -- worshiped as He was when He walked the earth. If not, then it is foolish to speak of "real presence" and suchlike; it becomes simply wordplay. But the Reformed view illogically wants it both ways: to speak of being "really present," yet refusing the next logical step of rendering worship and adoration. This makes no sense to me. If there is no worship of Jesus in the miracle of the Eucharist, then there is no Eucharist, by definition. It's a hollow ritual smacking of pure Zwinglian symbolism. That brings us back to a presence no different from a spiritual (but not physical) presence that occurs at all times, everywhere.

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.

We do both, just as Jesus was mostly "gazed at" (and listened to) when He walked the earth. In due course, He gave His Flesh and Blood under the forms of bread and wine at the Last (Passover) Supper. So, following the biblical model, the "gazing" was far more prominent than the "partaking." Consequently, we Catholics do both. We partake at every Mass, and we adore the consecrated host also. One is no less important or valid than the other (though partaking of communion gives us more grace and brings us closer to Christ).

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.

I don't see how. The eyes of faith have no problem with any of this. We are worshiping Jesus. Period. It is only those who no longer believe in transubstantiation who fall into these other errors of category or misplaced emphasis.

The Eucharistic elements are primarily there to be looked at and meditated upon; the elements begin to eclipse the event that they should be part of. This tendency is a big one in evangelical circles and is not absent in Roman Catholic circles.

Again, I don't know why you would say this, since we partake at every Mass.

Many forms of the practices of Eucharistic adoration, some practices associated with the reservation of the host and the use of the bread in Corpus Christi festivals and the like strike me as quite decadent, unbiblical and sub-Christian.

Why? If He is really there, He should be worshiped. What in the world is wrong with that? But this takes us off into territory of the charge of idolatry, which I have dealt with elsewhere.

They involve a serious distortion of the biblical rite and seem quite alien to the sacrament that was instituted by our Lord.

He was worshiped and adored when He walked the earth. He is now (except in Protestantism, short of a very few places).

Adoring Christ in the Eucharist is a perfectly biblical thing to do. As we celebrate the Supper we worship Christ as the One who gives us food and fellowships with us. We also receive Him as food in the elements. Adoring Christ in the Eucharist need not involve adoring the consecrated host. I sincerely believe that, however well-intentioned it might be, the manner in which the elements are treated in some traditions is technically idolatrous.

Why? I've never had anyone explain this to me in any way that makes any sense to me. We believe Jesus is really there, and then we worship Him because He is there. Yet that somehow becomes idolatry? Help me out with this, please. Just as I start to believe that you and I are close in spirit on this matter, despite the real differences, all of a sudden now I am an idolater, and it is back to Calvin's same old nonsense and bogus charges.

We certainly feed on Christ’s body and drink of His blood, but in a very important sense what we eat is bread and what we drink is wine (1 Corinthians 11:26).

St. Paul is simply using phenomenological language, just as we do when we say "the sun comes up." It is describing something by the appearance without denying the underlying reality (see also 1 Corinthians 10:16). Paul shows his eucharistic realism in verse 27 when he refers to those partaking "in an unworthy manner" as being "guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord." Furthermore, he speaks the language of sacrifice and altar in 1 Corinthians 10:14-21. This makes no sense in the context of a non-realist interpretation of the Eucharist. He refers to pagans offering sacrifice in 10:20 (see v. 14).This is contrasted to "the table of the Lord" in v. 21.

The analogy seems quite clear: the pagans offer to idol-demons at their table; Christian priests offer Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God at their "table" (i.e., altar). As the demons are falsely, idolatrously worshiped, so Jesus in the Eucharist is truly, properly worshiped and a priestly sacrifice occurs. But you want to take away this worship, or define it away as idolatry. You claim that the Mass is idolatrous? I could just as easily say (only rhetorically, not actually) that your denial of worship of Jesus in the consecrated host is blasphemy, since you are going against the very essence of the ritual and miracle by denying that He is really there (therefore you refuse worship and maintain that the bread and wine are never transformed).

Although Christ is truly present in the elements, the elements themselves never lose their integrity as creations of God.

This denies the reality of the change again. It is an untenable and incoherent philosophy. The Incarnation transformed the relationship of God to His creation. Matter was raised to untold heights when God took on matter and became a Man.

The mere fact that the bread in the Eucharist truly is the body of Christ does not make it a worthy object of worship.

This is clearly not Real Presence at all, then. This is where the confusion and distinct danger of idolatry occurs, not in Catholic transubstantiation. You never know when Jesus becomes present (since you object to our words of consecration as a clear demarcation point), and bread and wine are always present through the whole thing (so you stated above). Therefore, the danger of idolatry is arguably far higher than what you think it is in the Mass. How do you know you are not worshiping mere bread or wine?

But when you believe as we do, that what appears to be bread and wine, no longer is, in fact, then no idolatry occurs, because to make something an idol, you have to believe that it is something other than the true God, and worship it in place of God. We don't believe it is anything else but God, because we hold that it has become the Body and Blood of Christ. It has changed its substance (trans [change] [of] / substantiation) Therefore, idolatry is impossible by definition and simple category distinctions.

The Church is also truly the body of Christ without being a proper object of our worship. The claim that belief in Christ’s real presence in the elements necessarily entails the adoration of the consecrated host is one that leaves me unpersuaded.

This only proves my point. The Church is the Body of Christ insofar as Christ is in us. Yet no one says that the Church (made up of flesh and blood persons) is to be worshiped. Jesus Christ is to be worshiped. But Jesus is not us. He is in us, and we are distinct from Him. We're created human beings making up a Church, and He is God. This is where your argument against adoration and Catholic doctrine supposedly establishing idolatry collapses, because you want to freely move between the categories of Real Presence and Body-of-Christ [Church] as Christ.

You say the bread and wine are present, yet true worship occurs, and no idolatry, in a Protestant understanding of the eucharistic service. But if you can worship Jesus while bread and wine are still present, and not commit idolatry, and worship Jesus somehow in and through the Church (since the latter is also His Body), why is it that one cannot worship Jesus when they believe that no bread and wine are present? Why is it that that is considered idolatry, whereas worship of Jesus "alongside" bread and wine is not? It seems to me that if the charge of idolatry is to be slung around, that it is far more apt to those who worship according to your view, than those who follow the Catholic view.

You made the failure of your argument very clear yourself: "The Church is also truly the body of Christ without being a proper object of our worship." The Church can be the Body of Christ without being worshiped, but (what was once) bread cannot provide a sign or appearance without bread also being worshiped idolatrously? This makes no sense at all. You could, likewise, argue (since you say that you accept the "real presence") that "the bread is also truly the body of Christ without being a proper object of our worship."

Then you would be admitting that it is possible to separate the sign and the created matter from our Lord, Who is being worshiped. By the same token, Catholics can just as easily separate the sign and appearance of bread from the God Whom they are worshiping. But we don't believe that the bread is there any longer. You do. Yet we are supposedly idolaters and you aren't? It's completely incoherent and illogical; nonsensical.

Your confusion is shown in your next sentence: "The claim that belief in Christ’s real presence in the elements necessarily entails the adoration of the consecrated host is one that leaves me unpersuaded." But this involves a simple category mistake as well. The real presence is not "in the elements" (which is Luther's consubstantiation or Calvin's spiritual presence). Rather, the elements have been changed and transformed to Jesus' Body and Blood. If what appears to be bread and wine are now actually His Body and Blood, they can be worshiped. Period. End of sentence.

Why is this so difficult to grasp? You may not believe that. You may think that they are bread and wine. But Catholics believe that bread and wine are no longer present, and Catholics are the ones you are accusing of being idolaters. Idolatry is an internal condition of placing some creation above God, in His place. How can one believe in transubstantiation, and worship the consecrated host, believing that it is no longer bread, but God, and be an idolater? It isn't possible. And it isn't, not only because the categories are confused by the critics, but because it isn't possible to replace God with something else, if one doesn't believe the "something else" is there at all.

The Catholic believes, rather, that God is truly present under the accidents of what looks like bread and wine, just as all Nicene Christians believe that God became a man, taking on outward qualities that look to all appearances to be no different than other men, all of whom are mere creatures; yet this man was God. If God could be 100% God and 100% man at the same time (Nicene and Athanasian Creeds), then why is it so inconceivable that He could be 100% God and only look like bread and wine?

Which is more difficult to accept, according to natural reason? I submit that the Incarnation and Two Natures of Christ are, in many ways, more difficult to believe than transubstantiation (because by raw logic it makes no sense for something to be "100% or "fully" two things at the same time). Yet you have no difficulty accepting that, while the latter is regarded as idolatrous, insofar as adoration of the consecrated host occurs.

The Eucharist makes the Church and the Church makes the Eucharist. The ecclesial body is dependent upon the Eucharist and there would be no Eucharist were it not the particular community of the Church that assembled to celebrate it. The assembly of the Church is a prerequisite for a true celebration of the Eucharist. Private masses are a dangerous departure from the biblical pattern.

No masses at all and denial of the substantial presence of Jesus in the Eucharist are what are the radical departures from the Bible and the early Church. Once there is such a thing as a Mass, it is no more a violation to have a private one than it is to pray or fast in private.

Following de Lubac, a number of authors have drawn attention to the manner in which the relationship between the three aspects of the theological body of Christ began to be reconceived towards the end of the Middle Ages, resulting in a corrupted doctrine of the Eucharist. In particular, de Lubac and others have highlighted the manner in the relationship between the ecclesial and the sacramental body was altered. Whereas the historical body used to be implicitly separated to some degree from the sacramental and ecclesial body, as time went on the sacramental body gradually migrated to the other side of the separation.

In the original relationship, the sacramental body and the ecclesial body were seen as mutually confirming and dependent upon one another. However, the sacramental body was gradually prioritized over the ecclesial body until it ended up being screened off from the ecclesial body. The status of the Church as the body of Christ was downplayed until it assumed little more than the level of a metaphor. Many supporters of transubstantiation would be shocked by the manner in which I have paralleled the presence of Christ in the elements with the presence of Christ in the Church. This is because they think in terms of Christ sustaining a relatively anaemic presence in the Church. In the elevation of the sacrament, the assembly of the Church has been denigrated.

One can emphasize various aspects of the Eucharist, and the larger Body of Christ without denying transubstantiation. The Second Vatican Council did, in fact, do this.

Of course, many Roman Catholics will claim that I am seriously misrepresenting their position at this point. They will claim that it is absurd to accuse the Roman Catholic Church of denigrating Christ’s presence within the Church, as Roman Catholics clearly hold to a higher view of the Church than any Protestant ever could. I beg to differ: Roman Catholics hold to a higher view of the hierarchy of the Church, but not to a higher view of the Church itself. This is itself a result of the separation of the sacramental body from the ecclesial body.

This is an overstatement of the separation of the priesthood, or what some call "sacerdotalism." I don't deny that this has been a problem historically, but then that is what ecumenical councils are for. Vatican II greatly emphasized the laity and the Body of Christ. I think it was a marvelous development and emphasis (I'm a lay apologist myself, who has been enthusiastically supported and encouraged by many priests). So we're working on that. Meanwhile, Protestants no longer even believe in ecumenical councils, let alone participate in them. They continue to deny a host of important (we would say, indispensable) historic Christian doctrines.

As the sacramental body was separated from the ecclesial body, the actions of the priest became all-important. The role of the people in the rite was marginalized, the withdrawal of the cup from the laity merely serving to reinforce the separation. The Church that made the Eucharist was no longer the gathered assembly, but the clergy. Private masses and other corrupt practices seem quite logical when the relationship between the sacramental and ecclesial body is regarded in such a manner. The power of the clergy, who secured the presence of Christ in the sacrament, was thereby enhanced. Within such a setting, transubstantiation became a strange miracle performed by the priest, while the role of the laity was increasingly a passive one.

Transubstantiation goes back to the early centuries in kernel form, because a transformational view of the Eucharist was the leading opinion in the Fathers, so it is foolish to try to trace (the origin of?) this so-called "strange miracle" to later times. I would argue, too, of course, that the transformational view (without technical philosophical terminology) is taught fairly explicitly in Scripture, too.

My differences with certain forms of the doctrine of transubstantiation do not have to do with (a) whether Christ is truly present in the Supper, or (b) whether we genuinely partake of the flesh and blood of Christ in the eating of the bread and drinking of the wine. I wholeheartedly affirm that Christ is truly present in the Supper and that we feed on the substance of Christ as we partake.

How can you believe that, since you have argued that for Jesus to be physically present ("flesh and blood of Christ") would be to deny that He ascended and is in heaven? Either you have contradicted yourself, or you don't really believe in the Real Presence (or have redefined "flesh and blood of Christ" in this context to be non-physical).

Consecrationism often regards the presence of Christ in the bread and wine in a manner that holds true even outside of the context of the Supper, leading to such practices as the laying aside of the bread and parading it in Corpus Christi festivals. In opposition to such practices, I would assert that the presence of Christ in the bread and the wine is the presence of Christ as the gift of food (the firstfruits of the new creation) . . . In a context where the eating and drinking of the Church is not going to take place, there is no presence of Christ in the elements.

And what biblical and patristic evidence do you produce for such a belief?

. . . I am persuaded that most of the forms that the doctrine of transubstantiation has taken should be regarded as serious departures from biblical teaching.

And I am equally persuaded that your departures from the historical doctrine of transubstantiation should be regarded as seriously contrary to biblical and patristic teaching.

Thanks so much for your thoughts, and the opportunity to respond (I greatly appreciate your asking me to do so). I enjoyed the dialogue, and hope that it will continue. So many times when I respond to others like this, I feel that the dialogue is truly only beginning. I think that about our present topic. But my dialogical opponents quite often feel otherwise, and do not respond further. I think that is a shame, and I hope you'll be an exception to that rule.

Uploaded on 31 January 2005 by Dave Armstrong.

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