Just What is Transubstantiation?

Well, I made the mistake of reading Just What is Transubstantiation? over at Perennis which led me to DL this article, Eucharistic Change, which starts off very nicely with the following words. He sums up perfectly the caricature that most people have of Transubstantiation (which to this day I don't understand well enough to evaluate intelligently). He also makes the point that TS is not "the official" doctrine of Rome:

Let us begin with some misconceptions
about what the Catholic tradition says
happens when bread and wine are consecrated.
The Council of Trent did not decree that
Catholics should believe in transubstantiation:
it just calls it a most appropriate (aptissime)
way of talking about the Eucharist,
presumably leaving open whether there might
not be other, perhaps even more appropriate
ways of talking. You could say that the
Council sanctioned and recommended this
theology whereas, for example, the Anglican
Thirty-Nine Articles are rather less liberal:
they forbid it its ‘repugnant to the plain words
of scripture’. It is likely, however, that the
authors of that document did not quite
understand the meaning of that doctrine and
fairly certain that a whole lot of Catholics do
not either.

Perhaps we could start with a caricature of
the doctrine which I think would be taken for
the real thing by a great many Christians,
whether they accept or reject it. The caricature
goes like this: at the consecration, the bread
and wine change into a different kind of
substance, flesh and blood, in fact the flesh and
blood of Christ; but this is disguised from us
by the fact that to all appearances the bread
and wine are unchanged.

--Herbert McCabe, OP


Fred said…
Nobody understands substance today. Ask a physicist what matter and energy really are and he'll shrug his shoulders.

I confess I don't understand transubstantiation either. What I do get is this: the consecrated Host is the Body of Christ — the definitive sign of Jesus's presence on earth, the Resurrection here and now. His incarnation means that God is near, and we can look upon God's body as we might look upon a face.

As strange as it may seem (given history), the Sacrament is God's gesture which frees humanity from the old system of intermediaries, shamans, gurus, priests, etc. No excommunication can void the fact of God made present — The following line from a fictional Don Camillo story make the point well: "Even if you’re excommunicated, God continues to exist and continues to wait for you.").

God invited all the Jewish people up to mountain to direct relationship with them, but they insisted upon Moses an an intermediary. So God sent Moses down with the Ten Commandments as the sign of His covenant with them. The sign of the new covenant is Jesus Himself who remains among us incarnate, even if I and so many others would rather remain blind.
FrGregACCA said…
As I pointed out in my comments, I think Mike has confused some key concepts, such as substance (ousia, essence), nature (physis), and hypostasis. However, I applaud his desire to follow Justin Martyr in grounding the doctrine of the eucharistic presence of Christ in the Incarnation. However, I don't think that the concept of transubstantiation is the best vehicle for doing that coherently, at least if one wants to avoid eutychean monophysitism.

Bottom line for me: are the eucharistic elements, the consecrated bread and wine, to be worshipped or not? The traditional answer is "yes they are". On this, all pre-reformation Christians (and many Anglicans) agree.
Don said…
This topic takes me in several directions.

First: I was surprised that so many of my fellow Pentecostals are prepared to view the Holy Communion as sacramental. Thanks for coming into the discussion; your comments and blog have gotten a good deal of interest. I've asked them when they're planning on having a Eucharistic Congress...

Second, I spent a good deal of time thinking about what the 39 Articles has to say on the subject. The problem with the transubstantiated Eucharist in late medaeval times (and to some extent today) is that people get the idea that a) it is the presence of Christ par excellence and b) as a consequence of that, there is no need for heart and life transformation when it can be partaken or adored. (That doesn't wash for anyone who is really familiar with Catholic doctrine on the subject, but there's been a lot of ignorance going around...)

The 39 Articles solves this problem by denying a transubstantiated Eucharist and its handmaiden, the Reserved Sacrament. It's a pretty brutal (and not always practical) solution in many respects, but its intent is to refocus us on Christ's presence in us, which of course is primary.

Third, transubstantiation is a product of Scholastic philosophy and thought. I've studied a good deal of that but can't say I thoroughly understand it either. I'm surprised that transubstantiation isn't the "offical" doctrine of Rome either. If that isn't, what is?

But perhaps this is a backhanded admission (something Rome is good at) that there may be better ways of explaining this. The Scriptures certainly teach that Jesus Christ is really present in the Eucharist to the extent that they existentially link the two. (There are good theological reasons for doing that, but that's another topic.) The question left is, "how do we understand this?"

As Bill Clinton famously said, it depends upon how you define "is." But perhaps he, rather than prevaricating, was simply enunciating Baptist doctrine on the Lord's Supper. The Scriptures (which they supposedly believe to be literally true) clearly use the word "is" but they still believe that the Lord's Supper is purely symbolic!
Mike L said…
Abu Daoud:

Thanks for the plug! And Fr. Greg, I've already replied over at PP to your criticism.

Like Fr. Kimel, I think McCabe gets the problem right, but not the solution. McCabe isn't "bodily" enough about the Eucharist. I prefer my solution, but it obviously needs some very careful tweaking and background explanation.

Sounds like a perfect project for a long-term academic project that nobody will pay me for!

FrGregACCA said…
Well, Dr. Mike, if my Powerball investment pays off tonight...

I have replied to your reply on that thread and would appreciate your further thoughts.

Don, while I have not been in daily contact with Pentecostals for many years, I am not surprised that some of them are becoming open to sacramentality. Pentecostalism is simply the latest manifestation of a movement in Protestantism that goes back to Wesley and before him, Arminius. As such, it is characterized by a hunger for experiential contact with God and, unlike certain forms of Protestantism, it is largely unfettered by certain confessional presuppositions. It is therefore, in general, more open to taking the Bible, especially the New Testament, on its face, including its sacramental realism. While some Pentecostals have gone down some pretty strange paths, such as neo-modalism and the "prosperity gospel," it is no accident that Pentecostalism, in the form of charismatic renewal, has served as a significant bridge between various types of Western Christians, including Roman Catholics, as well as being a step on the path of many to Eastern Orthodoxy.
Abu Daoud said…
Wow, great comments everyone. Fred, you make a great point from a scientific point of view. In fact my main work in undergrad school was in the area of philosophy of science so I have never been one to put all my eggs in that basket.

RE Don's comment on Pentecostalism: I liek Greg am not surprised by it, it's just that the language of "sacrament" is often not used. I see Pentecostalism as a movement away from a strict division between natural and supernatural, so it makes sense that you could have healings taking place at the communion altar (or table if you like).

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