Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Is Transubstantiation Idolatry?

On Friday 22 November 1996 an anti-Catholic evangelical stated in a list I was on:

Transubstantiation is a form of idolatry. The Catholic belief in transubstantiation is why when the host is elevated, Catholics bow and pay homage.

I replied:

As did Protestant Founder and originator of sola fide and sola Scriptura Martin Luther. As late as 1543 (3 years before his death), Luther didn't forbid anyone who believed in transubstantiation from joining his movement {Letter to the Evangelicals at Venice, June 13, 1543}. Whereas, he regarded Zwingli, who adopted a symbolic view, as "damned" and "out of the Church" on those grounds, as is well-known. So Luther's view are far closer to Catholicism, than to the average evangelical today, whom he would regard as "damned!" Church history has many such ironies......When asked whether Lutherans should do away with the Elevation of the Host in the liturgy, Luther consistently replied in 1544:

    By no means, for such abrogation would tend to diminish respect for the Sacrament and cause it to be undervalued . . . If Christ is truly present in the Bread, why should He not be treated with the utmost respect and even be adored?

Joachim, one of Luther's friends, added:

    We saw how Luther bowed low at the Elevation with great devotion and reverently worshiped Christ.

    {Table Talk, ed. Mathesius (Leipzig ed., 1903), p.341. From Hartmann Grisar, Luther, 6 vols., London: 1917, vol. 4, pp. 239-240}

For these beliefs, Luther was accused by fellow Reformer John Calvin of being "half-papist" and of committing idolatry:

    He has sinned . . . from ignorance and the grossest extravagance. For what absurdities he pawned upon us . . . when he said the bread is the very body! . . . a very foul error!

    {Letter to Martin Bucer, Jan. 12, 1538. From John Dillenberger, John Calvin: Selections From His Writings, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1971, p.47}

Now, I wish for once that people who claim ad nauseum that Catholics are idolaters would spread their selective "righteous indignation" around to people like Martin Luther, who is guilty of the exact same "sin," even according to John Calvin. Beyond that, I think the charge of idolatry is absolutely wrongheaded to begin with. To be an idolater is fundamentally to put something in place of God. An animist who is truly worshiping a statue of wood or stone or amulet as God in and of itself (i.e., over against the true, one Creator God) is a true idolater. The Catholic (or Lutheran, or Anglican, or Orthodox, broadly speaking) is doing no such thing, for they believe that the one true Creator God is really, truly, substantially present under the appearances of bread and wine.

Thus, they are consciously worshiping the eternal God, as far as they are concerned, not a piece of bread (this is especially true for Catholics, who maintain that the bread and wine are no longer even there, but only the appearance or "accidents"). Nor is the Lutheran worshiping the bread and wine which he still believes is present after consecration, but God, who is now present "in, with, and under" the elements of bread and wine (consubstantiation). Now, one may wish to quibble with the belief in the Real Presence and/or transubstantiation (a development of same), but it is a very incoherent argument to claim that one is committing idolatry when in fact they are consciously worshiping God Himself in the consecrated Host (as we believe, and as the Lutheran Joachim above acknowledges). That is the very opposite of idolatry.

I maintain that one of the impulses which mitigates against the Real Presence in Protestant theology and presuppositions, is a Docetic and/or Nestorian (even sometimes quasi-Gnostic) tendency, which frowns upon matter as a conveyor of grace, and denigrates the consequent sacramentalism, which flows from that notion. Trouble is, this (logically speaking) affects one's views of the Incarnation (and by extension, Christ's Atonement) as well. How is it that God could take on flesh and become a Man, but couldn't possibly become truly present in a miracle which transforms the essence of bread and wine? The Jews and Unitarians regard the Incarnation as every bit as unthinkable as many evangelicals regard the Real Presence. But neither scenario is any more philosophically implausible or impossible than the other.

So - in my opinion - there is no a priori objection to such a possibility which holds any water, nor is it idolatry, as so many Protestants cavalierly assume, and once all the relevant scriptural data and extremely strong patristic evidence is also brought into consideration, it is not only not impossible, but prima facie plausible and likely. I would be more than happy to send my paper which summarizes these evidences to anyone who doubts their strength (or very existence!). But belief in the Real Presence will still assuredly require much faith, as it did for the hearers of our Lord's discourse in John 6, the only instance we have in the Bible (I'm pretty sure) of believers forsaking Jesus for doctrinal reasons.

Written in 1996 by Dave Armstrong.

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