Calvin and Luther: Is Jesus REALLY Present in the Supper?

by Phillip Cary, Ph.D.

Is Christ’s body objectively present in the sacrament, according to John Calvin? Unfortunately, that depends on what you mean by “objective,” which is a slippery and ambiguous word with no exact equivalent in the 16th-century discussion. (The word did not begin to acquire its current range of meanings until the writings of Immanuel Kant in the late 18th century.) Still, we can always try defining our terms explicitly. And if we do that, we can identify one important sense of the phrase “objectively present,” in which Christ’s body is objectively present in the sacrament in the Lutheran and Roman Catholic views but not in Calvin’s.

For suppose we define “objectively present” as meaning “present independent of anyone’s state of mind,” where “state of mind” includes things like belief. Then Christ’s body is not objectively present in the sacrament in Calvin’s view but is objectively present in the Lutheran and Roman Catholic views. Let me illustrate.

I may believe there is no bread present in the house, but be mistaken: my wife has bought bread and put it in the breadbox where it is objectively present despite my belief to the contrary. Likewise, I can even have bread objectively present in my mouth without believing it: suppose for instance I inattentively pop a piece of bread in my mouth thinking it’s a bit of rice cake. The bread is present in my mouth even though I don’t believe it. In precisely this sense, according to both Lutheran and Roman Catholic views, Christ’s body is objectively present in the mouth of all who partake in the sacrament, whether they believe it or not.

This is a form of Eucharistic presence that Calvin explicitly and repeatedly denies, and he quite astutely identifies it as the key point on which he differs from the Lutherans. The point even has a technical name: manducatio indignorum, or the eating of the unworthy. In the Lutheran view, even unbelievers and anyone else who unworthily partake of the supper have not only bread but Christ’s body in their mouths, whether they believe it or not. Calvin insists, on the contrary, that we do not partake of Christ’s body without faith.

In what sense, then, can a Calvinist say that Christ’s body is objectively present in the sacrament? I would suggest that according to Calvin’s view Christ’s body can rightly be said to be “objectively presented” to us. This seems to me a good description of the intention of Calvin’s characteristic language of Christ’s body being truly offered, exhibited, presented and even given to us.

Since that last verb can be misleading, let me clarify: when Calvin says the body of Christ is given to unbelievers in the supper, he means it is offered but not received, like a gift given but refused. People who partake of the sacrament without faith of course do not refuse the bread—they take it right into their mouths—but they do refuse Christ and his body. And their refusal is effective. Again, the Lutherans affirm the contrary: precisely in putting the bread in their mouths, all who partake of the sacrament put Christ’s body in their mouths, whether they believe it or not. Roman Catholics agree, except that they teach that the Eucharistic host is wholly Christ’s body under the appearance of bread. Those who partake of the sacrament, worthily or not, have no bread in their mouths at all, but only Christ’s body.

Calvin’s view that Christ’s body is objectively presented rather than objectively present–—as he would say, “truly presented to us” but not “enclosed in the bread” or “chewed with the teeth”—gives his teaching a distinctive place on the spectrum of Eucharistic doctrine. This is distinct not only from the Lutheran and Calvinist views but also from the low Protestant view usually attributed (I do not know how fairly) to Zwingli. In this low Protestant view the supper is merely a memorial, which means that the only link to Christ’s body is our state of mind, our faith. On the contrary, when Calvin insists that Christ’s body is truly presented, offered, and given to us, he is talking not about our state of mind but about the action of God, and perhaps the most important thing to pay attention to is the adverb truly, for what is at stake here is the truth of God’s word. Does God do as he says when he offers us Christ’s body? Calvin’s answer is an emphatic yes.

With this in view, we can see why Calvinist theologians insist on the objectivity of the sacrament. And we could explain the fact that the unworthy do not partake of Christ’s body using this terminology: the offer is objectively made—quite independent of whether we believe it—but subjectively refused. As Calvin puts it, in one of his most helpful discussions of the manducatio indignorum, “it is one thing to be offered, another to be received” (Institutes 4:17.33). What is not objective is whether we actually partake of Christ’s body, for that requires precisely our subjective appropriation of the truth of God’s word, which is to say, our faith.

All this can be explained without using the technical terminology of signum and res (sign and thing signified) which goes back to Augustine. But if we turn to that terminology, I think we will see the fundamental conceptual difference at stake here. There are a number of key conceptual points, going back to Augustine, on which all parties to this dispute agree. Reformed, Lutheran and Roman Catholic all think of the sacrament as a sign that signifies spiritual gifts. What is more—and this is not often noticed—all agree that certain kinds of unworthiness, especially unbelief, separate the sign from the thing it signifies, so that the unworthy receive the signum or sacramentum but not the res. So for instance all agree that those who receive the sacrament in unbelief receive an outward sign but not the inner grace it signifies.

Given these agreements, the crucial question is whether Christ’s body is signum or res, the sacramental sign or thing it signifies. Calvin’s answer is clearly the latter. To see this, those of us who read Calvin in English need to be reminded that when he says Christ’s body is the “substance” or “matter” of the sacrament, which he does quite often, the Latin term he uses is res. Thus, in the shared Augustinian vocabulary of 16th-century theology, he identifies Christ’s body as belonging to the res sacramenti, the thing signified by the sacrament. That means it is precisely the sort of thing that is not received by unbelievers.

It can be properly be said of unbelievers that they receive a mere empty sign—which for Calvin means, the bread of the supper without the body of Christ that it signifies. Or to put it in medieval terms, those who partake of the sacrament without faith receive “the sacrament alone” (sacramentum tantum, which means sacramentum without res). This is just another way of saying “the sign alone,” since by medieval definition the sacrament is always a sign, so that sacramentum and res are related precisely as signum and res. And the key point is that those who partake of the sacrament unworthily do partake of the sign, quite independently of what they believe, because to partake of this sacrament is to precisely to take the sacramental sign into your mouth.

The difference between Martin Luther and Calvin on this point is that Luther thinks of the body of Christ as the sacramental sign, not just the thing signified (see for instance his Babylonian Captivity, in Luther’s Works 36:44). Thus in Luther’s reckoning when unbelievers receive the sacrament but not the thing it signifies, this means that they receive no grace or spiritual benefit in the sacrament, but they do receive Christ’s body. For unbelief separates signum from res, but it cannot prevent the sacrament from being the sign that it is. So long as the sacrament is present, the sign is present, which includes Christ’s body. Thus even in receiving a “mere sign” the unworthy eat Christ’s body, whether they believe it or not. They are partaking of the body to their own harm. (There is no paradox in this, for Christ’s bodily presence has always been an occasion not just of blessing and grace but of scandal and unbelief. It was, after all, quite possible to receive Christ’s body and nail it to a tree.)

When Luther thinks of the body of Christ as both sign and thing signified, he is following a standard medieval view. Peter Lombard, followed by many other medieval theologians, not only distinguished sacramentum and res, but added a third, hybrid category, sacramentum et res (“sacrament and thing”), to which Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist belonged. Calvin rejects this threefold classification in Institutes 4:17.33 (the same passage cited above rejecting the manducatio indignorum) and specifically denies that Christ’s body can be classified as sacramentum. He clearly recognizes the implication: if Christ’s body is sacramentum as well as res, sign as well as thing signified, then every valid sacrament will contain not only bread but Christ’s body, present in the outward sign whether you believe it or not. And that is precisely what he means to deny.

(Originally published on my old Pontifications blog on 31 October 2006)

Dr Phillip Cary is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University. He is the author of several books on St Augustine, including Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self, Inner Grace, and Outward Signs, as well as Good News for Anxious Christians.

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The Woman, the Hour, and the Garden

by Fr Addison Hodges Hart


Shamelessly using a term that was already overused a decade ago, I will note here at the very outset that the Gospel of John employs “coded” language and images in its recounting of the mission of Jesus. The Fathers and medieval Doctors, Eastern and Western, always read John as a “spiritual gospel”, meaning that its deepest and most important message was something carefully veiled, requiring proper unveiling and interpretation within the assembly of believers. To that end, there are words that John repeats throughout his writings, and an earnest study of these words provides keys to unlocking his half-hidden themes again and again. I would like, then, in this short analysis to look at how John uses the word and image of “the Woman” in his Gospel. It is, I believe, a more central feature of his message than one might at first suppose. As I will suggest, it points us towards the Christian community itself and how, in particular, John’s church understood its (indeed, her) own identity.

I begin near the end of the Gospel, at the foot of Christ’s cross. Looking at select verses from John 19:25-42 below (as rendered in the RSV translation), the reader will see that I have put three words in bold type. These are “Woman”, “hour”, and “garden”.

[19:25] … But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. [26] When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” [27] Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. [28] After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the scripture), “I thirst.” … [40] They took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. [41] Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid. [42] So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.

An astute reader of John will already know that the words “woman” (gyne) and “hour” (hora) show up in the Gospel at significant places in the text, sometimes in proximity to one another. Let us look at the passages in which one or the other appears, or both appear together. Bear in mind that the word “woman” in John obviously doesn’t always have special significance; but whenever Jesus addresses someone as “Woman” in John, which he does three times (his mother, the woman of Samaria, and Mary Magdalene), it apparently does. (The single exception to this usual usage is John 8:10. Jesus addresses the woman taken in adultery in that verse as “Woman”. However, the entire passage in which it appears, 7:53-8:11, is a later addition to the Gospel. So, it falls outside our consideration here.) The word “hour” likewise does not always convey a special meaning, but whenever John, for instance, refers to “the hour” which is “coming”, or Jesus refers to “my hour”, it most certainly does.

Here, then, are the three instances when Jesus addresses specific women as “woman”.

(1) Jesus addresses his mother:

[2:2] Jesus also was invited to the marriage, with his disciples. [3] When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” [4] And Jesus said to her, “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”

(2) Jesus addresses the Samaritan woman:

[4:21] Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. [22] You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. [23] But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.

(3) Two angels and Jesus address Mary Magdalene outside the garden tomb, following Jesus’ resurrection:

[20:11] But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; [12] and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. [13] They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” [14] Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. [15] Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?”

The first two instances above refer to Jesus’ “hour”. Other texts in John also refer to it: 5:25-30; 7:30; 8:20; 12:23-28; 13:1; 16:32; and 17:1. Jesus also uses the word “time” (kairos) in a way that seems synonymous with “hour” in 7:6-8.

But, most crucially, we have Jesus’ enigmatic words to his disciples in 16:21, which tie together the various references above, as we shall see. Here I will give my literal rendering of this text as it appears in the Greek:

When the woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a man [anthropos] is born into the world.

Two things should immediately strike us: First, the word “woman” has a definite article – literally it is “the woman”. And, second, the “hour” mentioned is “her hour” – that is to say, the hour referred to in this verse is the hour when the woman gives birth.

Keep those two points in mind, because we will come back to them.

The hour of Jesus’ glorification in John is the time of his crucifixion, when his mission in the world is “accomplished” (19:30). It includes also the time when he departs from the world and his followers are scattered. The “hour” of the crucifixion-resurrection-ascension is the source and spring of new life for humankind. It is the hour of our resurrection spiritually (cf. 5:25-26). The paradox is that the hour of the cross is also the hope of our own resurrection and new birth (cf. 3:3-8).

But the enigmatic saying of Jesus in 16:21, I believe, presents us with this curious question: Is the woman’s “hour” the same as Jesus’ “hour”? The answer, I suggest, is yes. “The woman” and Jesus share “the hour” of the cross, and in that hour “the woman” gives birth to a new “man” (anthropos = “human being”; not, as some translations render it, a “child”). Going a step further, does the word “woman”, when addressed to those three women above (Jesus’ mother, the Samaritan woman, and Mary Magdalene), refer, in a spiritual sense, to a single image or archetype? Is there an archetypal “Woman” in relation to whom these three specific women stand as types? Are these three women also “the Woman” of 16:21, and, if so, what significance does that have for John, his community, and for us?

Undoubtedly the three women are to be understood as unique persons. John is not prone to flat allegorizing. He is far more subtle and poetic. All three women are individuals, delicately described with psychological insight. But I would also suggest that John has, with implicit intent, put the word “woman” on Jesus’ lips in his retelling of events, precisely in order to signify a specific something else we are meant to understand, something else which can be glimpsed shining through each of these distinct persons like refracted light. So, what might the importance of “woman” be as an address?

It has bothered any number of pious exegetes, for example, that Jesus addresses his mother in John 2 in this seemingly discourteous way. After all, this is his mother. Surely, we say to ourselves, we wouldn’t address our own mothers in this fashion; and if we are Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, or Christians of any other tradition in which Mary holds an exalted place, we cannot imagine Jesus speaking to the Blessed Virgin so disrespectfully. But all those considerations are to miss John’s likely intent. This Gospel, we must recall, never even divulges the name of Jesus’ mother. Something else is going on here, although it clearly has an embryonic relationship to later piety surrounding Christ’s mother.

There are, then, just three possible ways to understand Jesus’ designation of his mother as “Woman”: Either (1) it was indeed a distancing or even rude address, or (2) it was some sort of endearment or respectful term for her, or (3) the term has a symbolic purpose.

We can dismiss the first two possibilities. First, although the statement does indeed distance Jesus from his mother (literally, he says, “Woman, what is there between me and you?”), there is no justification for thinking the address was meant to be rude. That he addresses her again in exactly the same fashion, while he is on the cross, seeing to her comfort and care after his departure (19:26), should make it sufficiently evident that his use of “Woman” for her in Chapter Two isn’t meant as a belittlement of her either. If its use isn’t disrespectful in 19:26, then it’s extremely unlikely that its use should be disrespectful back in 2:4.

But, on the other hand, could he possibly mean the address to be understood as the exact opposite of belittlement, as rather a sort of endearment? One plainly silly translation has in fact rendered it “dear lady”; and the Revised Standard Version, which I have used above, renders it politely as “O woman”. But there is no “O” in the original Greek verse, nor “dear”, nor even the word “lady”; just “Woman”. Quite simply, he is not using the term as an endearment.

So, we are left with just the third possible purpose for using this odd address: the Gospel means to infer something symbolic. And, if this is so for Jesus’ mother, it seems probable that the same is true for both the Samaritan woman and Mary Magdalene as well.

So, then, how might these three women, when addressed as “Woman”, be related in John’s thinking to “the Woman” of 16:21? And what is it that she represents?

If we look at the immediate context of John 16:21, at verses 20 and 22 which precede and follow it, we note that Jesus is directly speaking to the disciples about the “sorrow” that they will undergo at his departure, and of the later joy they will feel when they see him again: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy … So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” To speak to the feelings of sorrow the disciples will experience, Jesus offers this image: “When the woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come.” The first thing to note, then, is that “the sorrow” and “joy” of “the woman” are symbolic of the sorrow and joy that the disciples will experience. The second thing to note is that the woman’s travail is that of childbirth. She is bringing a new life into the world. It is the birth of “a man” (anthropos). To put it succinctly, “her hour” is the hour when she gives birth to a new man.

Who, then, is “the Woman”? If we take into account the context of the saying, we see that the woman (with her child) is directly identified with Christ’s disciples. There is, in fact, every good reason to believe that “the Woman” and her child together comprise a single image of Jesus’ (and John’s) community of followers, what would come to be called the “assembly” or “church”.

Do we have anything else in the writings of John to suggest that the whole community of Jesus’ followers was conceived of as “feminine” and symbolized as a “woman” with offspring (i.e., individual baptized members)? Well, in point of fact, we do. In the Second Letter of John we read the following:

The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth, and not only I but also all who know the truth, because of the truth which abides in us and will be with us for ever: Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love. I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children following the truth, just as we have been commanded by the Father. And now I beg you, lady, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning, that we love one another. (2 John 1-5)

And the same Letter concludes with these words: “The children of your elect sister greet you” (2 Jn. 13; emphasis mine).

The word translated “lady” in these verses is an honorific term, kyria. It is the feminine equivalent of “Lord” – kyrios. There seems little doubt that the “elect lady” and her “children” represent the community to whom “the elder” is writing in 2 John, and “the children of your elect sister” is a reference to the individual members of the local community from which he writes: two ladies who are, in essence, really one lady sharing a single archetype, surrounded by the children to whom they have given birth. The “icon” or image of the community, it seems, was that of a woman, a “lady” with her children gathered about her. In addition, it appears that each community was seen as a “sister” among “sisters”, each with her own children gathered about her. Each community was dignified as a “lady” and regarded as a “sister” of equal dignity with all the rest. It’s conceivable that the reason for the high title, kyria, was due to the spiritual union each community shared with its Kyrios. The “children” of the “elect lady” and her “elect sister”, one can safely assume, were those who were baptized and reborn disciples.

That the Christian community was often symbolized as a virgin bride and mother, and continued to be through the millennia, is well known. One is reminded of Paul’s words to the Christian community in Corinth, in 2 Corinthians 11:2, in which the word “you” is plural: “I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you as a pure bride [literally, ‘virgin’] to her one husband.” We find it, for instance, in other very early Christian writings. For example, The Shepherd of Hermas, which was written in Rome in the second century, depicts the church as an ancient lady who grows ever younger throughout a series of visions. Nor can one truly appreciate Patristic and Medieval devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary without understanding that she – the Virgin and Mother who gave birth to the historical “body of Christ” – was viewed from the earliest centuries as the foremost icon of the church. The church was viewed as both “virginal” (that is, holy in essence) and as the “mother” of the baptized – the so-called “mystical body of Christ” (just as Mary had been the mother of the physical body of her Son). Numerous texts of the Fathers and later writers, East and West, amply illustrate this. It should not be difficult for us to recognize that “the Woman” in travail is an image of Jesus’ first community of followers.


I want to press still further in my conjectures. When Jesus uses the word “Woman” (gyne) as an address in John, it is not too much of a leap to assume that it alludes to the first and archetypal Woman of Genesis: “And Adam said, ‘this now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman [gyne], because she was taken out of her husband.” (Gen. 2:23; LXX) Following the fall account in Genesis 3, God speaks first to the serpent, then to the woman, and finally to Adam in response to what has occurred earlier in the same chapter.

It is God’s words to the woman that are most relevant to us here: “I will greatly multiply your pains and your groaning; in pain you shall bring forth children.” (Gen. 3:17) John 16:21 appears to echo the words of Genesis: “When the woman is in travail she has sorrow.” A few verses later in Genesis 3, we read in the Greek version (which we can, with some confidence, guess to have been the version that John and his community would have likely known): “And Adam called the name of his wife ‘Life’ [Zoe], because she was the mother of all the living [zonton, meaning those possessing zoe].” (Gen. 3:21) Take special notice here of the Greek name given to the woman we know as “Eve” – “Zoe” (“Life”) – and of the designation of her children – “zonton” (“living”).

With that Greek name, “Zoe”, we in fact have the very word that John uses to indicate eternal life. John uses the other two Greek words in his writings that mean “life” (psyche and bios), but, whenever he (and other New Testament writers) writes specifically of “eternal life”, the word is zoe. It is possible we are coming closer here to a deeper understanding of the significance of “Woman” in John as an address and also of “the Woman” referred to in 16:21. Might we suppose, then, that any time the word zoe – “eternal life” – was read in the context of John’s communities, the hearers would also have heard and recalled the name given to the first woman by Adam? It seems unlikely that they wouldn’t have done so. The name of the first woman and birth-giver would almost certainly have come to mind each time the word zoe came up in the text, as it does over and over.

Here I need to be clear once again. I am not saying that the women in John (Christ’s mother, the Samaritan Woman, and Mary Magdalene) are mere symbols for an abstraction, in this case “eternal life”. That would mean foisting a sort of ersatz, “systematic” logic onto an idea that is multivalent, subtle, and poetic in nature. Whatever else the Gospel of John is, it is not a systematic treatise, and its logic is the “logic” of metaphor, suggestion, and poetry. What I am saying is that “Woman” in these specific texts is meant to conjure up a multivalent image, one which is, all at once and intertwined, the archetypal first woman as “mother” and giver of “life” (zoe-life, that is), the community of Christ’s followers, and the restoration of God’s life to human beings which comes through Christ and through the baptismal community that is “wed” to him. John is not a systematic theologian, but he is poetically consistent and mystically coherent.

So, in one place the mother of Jesus can be “the Woman”, in another it is the Samaritan woman who reflects this image, and in another Mary Magdalene. There is, however, only one archetypal “Woman” towards whom this form of address always points, who stands above and behind them all, but there are three individual flesh-and-blood women who are thus addressed. In each instance, what Jesus says to these women determines the significance of the allusion, and the context of each statement is also relevant.

Let me illustrate what I mean.

The first, and arguably the most important, person Jesus calls “Woman” is his mother in John 2:1-12. We know the story. Jesus and his disciples attend a wedding at Cana. The wine runs out, and his mother draws his attention to the fact: “They have no wine.” His response, literally rendered, is this: “What is between me and you, woman? My hour has not yet come”(2:4). Apparently she is not put off by Jesus’ words to her, and this is best explained by the logic of poetic reasoning and metaphor. Undeterred, then, she responds by addressing the servants: “Whatever he tells you, do” (2:5). If she represents here, as I have indicated above, the Christian community, this would be an apt response – it is the sort of thing the church would say to her “children”. We know what comes next. Jesus changes a superabundance of water into a superabundance of wine, which is his first “sign”, “and his disciples believed in him” (2:11). We wish only to note here the enigmatic statement of Jesus to his mother: “What is there between me and you, woman?” and his designation of the hour that hasn’t yet arrived as “my hour”.

Bearing this in mind, we recall next that in 16:21 “the Woman” in travail rejoices when she brings an anthropos into the world. In that verse, we are told that the time of giving birth is “her hour”.

So, in 2:4 we have two notable emphases: “my hour”, and the question, “What is between me and you?” – in other words, “What do we share in common?” In 16:21, we hear of “the Woman” who gives birth at “her hour”.

So, lastly, we look at 19:26-27. Jesus hangs on the cross (near a garden – verse 41), and the following transpires: “When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.” Again, we have the address “Woman”, and again mention of an hour, but this time it is “that hour”.

So: in 2:4, it is “my hour”; in 16:21, the hour of birth is “her hour”; and now, in 19:27, the hour in which “the disciple whom [Jesus] loved” took Jesus’ mother – now the disciple’s mother too – into his home is “that hour”. It is, as I have already proposed, the same hour which is referred to in all three instances; and what is “between” Jesus and his mother – “the woman” – is precisely the “hour” which is both Jesus’ “hour” and “her hour”. That is to say, it is the hour when the mother gives birth to the new anthropos, who in turn is represented by the beloved disciple (the “founder” of the Johannine community, and the exemplary disciple in the Gospel); and this beloved disciple is the first of many “children” who will be gathered about “the lady”. And this shared hour is indeed, as 16:21 said, an hour of sorrow and travail. The “mother of Jesus” is both the community and the “mother of all the [eternally] living”, the true Zoe.

And that brings us back to the garden. That all this happens at the cross, where a garden is located, is significant. As Christians from the earliest centuries recognized in this scene, the crucified Christ is there revealed as the true Tree of Life, and the two standing by that Tree replicate the first human beings in the Garden of Eden. Genesis 3 is thus recapitulated, but this time the pair is given access to the Tree of Life.

Perhaps we may find the idea that the mother of Jesus is also the mother of Jesus’ disciples difficult to grasp. If she represents, in the spiritual reading of the text, the community of Jesus’ disciples (the church, the bride of the bridegroom as indicated in Jn. 3:29), how can she also be his “mother”? Wouldn’t it be more likely that she represent Israel, the Old Testament church, and not the New Testament church? But that is not only to miss the fluidity of metaphor, but also to draw too sharp a distinction between the Old Testament church and the New Testament church – something first century Christians did not do. For them, the “church” had its origin in the very beginning, with the first pair in Eden. It was reconstituted, after failure upon failure, with the calling of Abraham (Gen. 12). From the perspective of the New Testament – and of John – a disjuncture between the Old Testament community and the community of Christ is not clear or obvious. The book of Revelation, for example, describes the vision of “a woman clothed with the sun” who is “with child” and “cried out in pangs of birth” (Gen. 3:17 and Jn. 16:21!). Her child is Christ, who will rule all nations and who is “caught up to God and to his throne”. The woman then flees into the wilderness to escape the dragon (who is Satan, the “ancient serpent” of Eden; 12:9). Lastly, we are told, “the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus” (Rev. 12:1-2, 5-6, 9, 13, 17; emphasis mine). Here, in a single symbolic woman, we have both the “mother” of Jesus and the “mother” of other offspring – those who are, in fact, Jesus’ disciples. In the mind of the writer of the book of Revelation, no clear distinction exists between Israel (the mother of Jesus) and the church (the mother of Jesus’ disciples). They are, spiritually, one and the same “Woman”.

Turning briefly, then, to the other two women whom Jesus addresses as “Woman” in John’s Gospel, we note first his words to the Woman of Samaria: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.” He goes on to say that the hour is coming “when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (cf. Jn. 4:21-24). That is to say, “true worshipers” will gather from all places, Jews and Gentiles both, and share in “spirit and truth” together as one community. There will be no division between Jews, Samaritans, Greeks (12:20-22), and those of other nations. To this seemingly lowly Samaritan woman, with whom he has discussed such high matters, Jesus reveals himself to be the Messiah (4:25-26). She promptly goes and proclaims to her countrymen, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (4:29) The Samaritans then come and listen to Jesus’ word. “They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world’” (4:42). The Samaritan woman, then, resembles “the lady” of 2 John, with her “children following the truth” (2 Jn. 4). Although she is a Samaritan and outside the people of the Jews, she is nevertheless an apt type of that “church” which transcends “in spirit and truth” all such racial and national distinctions, and has its origins in Zoe, “the mother of all the living”, the first mother of all human beings and peoples.

Turning finally to the scene in John 20 with Mary Magdalene, we have an even more striking reminder of Eden. Jesus’ crucifixion and tomb are situated in a garden: “Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid” (19:41). The cross is the true Tree of Life. From it comes zoe-life, symbolized by Jesus’ spirit (breath), blood and water (19:30, 34). When Jesus rises from the dead, he does so in the garden – and it is there that Mary encounters him and mistakes him for the gardener. “Woman,” says Jesus to her, “why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” (20:15) With these words we have a reversal of Genesis 3:9: “And [Adam and his wife] heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the afternoon; and both Adam and his wife hid themselves from the face of the Lord God in the midst of the trees of the garden” (LXX). Instead of the Lord God seeking for Adam and his wife, we have Mary Magdalene seeking for the supposedly mislaid or stolen body of Jesus. When she tries to hold him, Jesus says to her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (20:17). Up until this point in John’s Gospel, Jesus had referred to the Father as his Father, not “our Father”. With this statement to Mary, he opens wide the door to fully restored union with God – his disciples can now share in his relationship with his God and Father. He is “my Father and your Father too, my God and your God too”.

The expulsion from the Garden in Genesis 3 is undone in this garden, and the message is conveyed through “the woman” to his community of disciples. We are then told that Mary, just as the Samaritan woman had gone to her countrymen, “went and said to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’” (20:18). Once again, we have “the lady” who gathers together the “children”, this time emerging from the garden in which she was first seeking and then walking with the Lord.

* * *

Let me sum up all that we have seen above as simply as I can:

(1) “The Woman” in travail in John 16:21 is intended to remind us of: (a) the first woman, called Zoe in the Greek version of the Old Testament, who is the “mother of all the living”, and thus the mother of all peoples and the church; and (b) an “icon” of the community of Jesus (the church), and the same as “the lady” with her “children” in 2 John.

(2) When Jesus calls his mother, the Samaritan Woman, and Mary Magdalene “Woman”, he is associating them with “the Woman” of 16:21 and all that she symbolizes.

John’s “code” is about the identity of Jesus, but also about the identity of the Christian community. His vision of that identity is that the disciples of Jesus constitute a true and awakened humanity. They are “the living”, rescued from the threat of “perishing” (3:16-17). In his Gospel he symbolically takes his readers back to the Garden and – there – directly to the cross and empty tomb of Christ. He wants them to see themselves as partakers of the fruit of the Tree of Life (Christ) and enjoying the union with God that was once forfeited.

Dividing his community from the fallen aspects of the world – from darkness and death – he intends that they should be joined to Jesus and the life he gives. It means knowing him, knowing the Father, seeing God’s glory paradoxically on the cross, and new life emerging from an empty tomb. It means knowing oneself to be among those “children” of God, like the beloved disciple himself; gathered into an everlasting community, which existed from the beginning, which is also their spiritual “mother”, wed to the Lord and therefore a “lady”, and a “sister” among many “sisters”.

John’s Gospel, unlike the other three, has little to offer in the way of moral instruction. Unlike Matthew, it has nothing to say about communal organization. Unlike Luke in the book of Acts, it has no tale to tell of the practical history and growth of the church. It does, however, give a deep and poetic interpretation of the mystical dimensions of Jesus’ identity and ours in relation to him. John’s “code” is for our contemplation and edification.

Fr Addison Hart is a retired Roman Catholic priest and university chaplain. He is the author of five books, including Strangers and Pilgrims Once More and The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd.

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The God of Regret versus the God of the Bible

A quick note. I just read Greg Boyd’s blog piece “God’s Regrets and Divine Foreknowledge.” Does God ever regret his decisions? Of course he does, Boyd avers. The Bible tells us so. The most famous story of divine regret is found in the sixth chapter of Genesis: “And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.'” Thanks to the recent movie, we all know what happens next.

In response to the objection that the attribution of genuine regret to God compromises the perfection of divine wisdom, Boyd replies:

If God says he regretted a decision, and if Scripture elsewhere tells us that God is perfectly wise, then we should simply conclude that one can be perfectly wise and still regret a decision. Even if this is a mystery to us, it is better to allow the mystery to stand than to assume that we know what God’s wisdom is like and conclude on this basis that God can’t mean what he clearly says.

In other words, if the Bible says that God regrets some of his decisions and actions, then he does. But the sentence I just wrote doesn’t quite say what Boyd says, does it? What Boyd says is “If God says he regretted a decision …” I’m not sure if there’s a difference here, but I just want to acknowledge the possible difference, just in case.

My question is this: Does the God of the Bible in fact regret decisions he has made? I immediately concede that in some of the biblical stories, the story of Noah being the most notable, the narrated God most certainly does second-guess himself. “I sure blundered making man. Time to reboot.” But do these stories authorize us to infer that the God of the Bible actually regrets decisions he has made? If we interpret these stories along such literalistic lines, how are we any different from the ancient pagans who told their stories of Zeus, Athena, and Ares? Are we not reducing God to a god?

Those of us who cut our theological eye-teeth on narrative theology (think Robert Jenson, Jürgen Moltmann, George Lindbeck, Hans Frei, Ronald Thiemann—just to name those who influenced the younger me) will immediately insist that the narrated God is the God of the Christian gospel. How could he not be? Don’t the stories about God precede all subsequent philosophical reflection? Isn’t the economic Trinity identical to the immanent Trinity? Let’s not confuse the Scriptural rendering of the living God with the static deity of Greek philosophy! Underlying all of this is the grand modern narrative that the Church Fathers corrupted the biblical understanding of divinity. Instead of the God of Greek philosophy getting Christianized, the God of the Bible got Hellenized.

But what if this grand narrative is wrong or at least in need of drastic qualification? The great Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan certainly thought it was. And what if the Church Fathers in fact Christianized not only Hellenistic divinity but also the naïve anthropomorphic understanding of the narrated God? Have we completely forgotten the anthropomorphite controversy of the late fourth century? Take a look at St John Cassian’s discussion of this controversy in his Conferences (also see Mark DelCogliano’s fascinating discussion in his essay “Situating Sarapion’s Sorrow“).

What is so often forgotten in all of this is that the same Church Fathers who are popularly accused of Hellenizing the gospel are also the same Church Fathers who taught us how to read the Bible as Scripture and not just as ancient text. And these Church Fathers certainly did not think that the Bible taught a God who blunders and then regrets his decisions. They would have deemed it anthropomorphic foolishness. As St Ephrem the Syrian declares, “Although in His true Being there is no wrath or regret, yet He put on these names because of our weakness” (On Faith 31.1).

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Christian Marriage in Byzantium

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Synod of the Family and Debating Difficult Questions

Social media exploded upon the release of the interim relatio of the Synod of the Family. Progressives are exulting in the return of the spirit of Vatican II; traditionalists are upset and demanding an immediate halt to debate and unambiguous reaffirmation of the irreformable moral teaching of the Church. Looking at the matter from the outside, however, it seems to me that the exultation and hand-wringing are way premature. It’s just an interim report. It’s not formal, authoritative teaching. The one man who seems to be keeping his head about all of this is Fr Robert Barron.

I wish to compliment the RC bishops for honestly addressing these difficult and complex moral and pastoral questions. They deserve study, reflection, and vigorous debate. Even though parts of the report worry me–it sometimes sounds too much like the inclusive ideology that destroyed the Episcopal Church–the simple fact remains that the pastoral issues will simply not go away.

Of particular interest to me is the how the bishops will deal with the proposal to readmit divorced and remarried Catholics to the Eucharist, after an appropriate period of penance. From my perspective as an Orthodox Christian, this is a no-brainer. Divorce and remarriage is not the unforgivable sin; but that is exactly what permanent exclusion from the Body and Blood of the Lord implies. Nor is a legalistic annulment process the appropriate way to deal with the problem. Not only does it give the appearance that one can buy eucharistic admission, but it is too mired in subjectivity. The RC Church has locked itself into a legalistic understanding of the matrimonial bond, from which it is now struggling to escape without the appearance of a substantive change of doctrine. On this matter, the Latin Church really needs to look to the Eastern Church for guidance.

My prayers are with the Synod bishops. The decisions they make affect all of us.

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Will the “Real” St Isaac of Nineveh Please Stand Up

by Eric Jobe

In a series of seven posts on his blog Mystagogy, John Sanidopoulos has published an essay by the Protopresbyter John Photopoulos regarding some of the more controversial theology found in the so-called Second Part of the corpus of writings attributed to St. Isaac of Nineveh. What follows in this post is not a defense of those theological positions, which I urge the reader to study carefully from both sides of the issues in order to make an informed decision. Rather, I offer a critique of the essay itself, its critical methodology, and most importantly its rhetorical tone.

In the modern world, along with the many advances in art, science, and technology, there has developed a refined mode of discourse in the public sphere for all matters dealing with academic subjects such as history, theology, philology, and literary criticism. This mode of discourse includes the following protocols:

• Absence of rhetorical figuration
• Avoidance of logical fallacies
• General respect for opposing views and interlocutors
• Neutral tone that avoids characterization, ad-hominem attacks, and polemical
• Delineation of presuppositions with evidence why such presuppositions are warranted
• Thorough presentation of evidence with citation from multiple sources covering all

It is unfortunate that, in many circles of Eastern Orthodoxy, this modern form of discourse has yet to be adopted, and in its place is an older mode of discourse found among ancient and medieval authors, which features a highly polemical tone, the use of rhetorical figuration, and selective presentation of evidence often without citation. This form of discourse is no longer a respectable form of argumentation in our contemporary age, even though we afford the proper respect for the authors of ancient times and their respective views.

The essay authored by Protopresbyter John Photopoulos unfortunately does not engage in the properly respectable form of modern discourse, rather it makes frequent use of rhetorical name-calling and mischaracterization, the selective presentation of evidence, and many unexplained presuppositions.

At first glance, the biting rhetoric of this essay is immediately apparent. It shocks the senses and obscures any attempt to follow a coherent argument. The force of the article comes from rhetorical bullying rather than dispassionate presentation of a thesis and evidence. The author begins his essay with a shockingly generalized statement: “The complete and utter lack of uncreated Grace in the West and the consequent rationalization of theologians has created for it a mess, a confusion for all ‘Christians’ in the West.” From the outset, the author has presumed that God has utterly abandoned the West (which he does not define) to gracelessness and utter confusion due to “rationalization” (again, which he does not define). This statement alone should inform the reader that what follows should be taken as polemic rather than reasoned argumentation. The author, though denying grace to Western Christianity, has strangely enough affirmed the presence of grace within St. Isaac himself, a bishop of the Church of the East. One wonders, then, if grace is to be entirely denied to the Chalcedonian West, how is it that grace can be found among the Church of the East, which was torn from the Orthodox-Catholic Church after the Third Ecumenical Council?

He continues by stating that “the book by the Russian bishop of Vienna, Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, serves this purpose,” i.e. the rationalization and confusion found in “the West.” He begins by taking issue with Bishop Hilarion’s acceptance of the East Syriac biography of St. Isaac included in the Book of Chastity. Strangely, Fr. Photopoulos prefers the Byzantine tradition over the saint’s own, native Syriac tradition. No scholarship is examined here; rather, the East Syriac source is rejected simply because it is not Orthodox. The underlying assumption here is that no true knowledge can be had anywhere outside of Chalcedonian Orthodoxy, and furthermore, that Orthodox hagiographic sources are incapable of being mistaken about biographical details or otherwise less precise than native sources. This position creates certain epistemological problems that cannot stand up to any rational, philosophical inquiry. One of the hallmarks of pseudo-scholarship and fundamentalist religion is the rejection of knowledge outside of one’s own circle of insiders. In other words, what Fr. Photopoulos has adopted is a dangerous gnosticism that itself is foreign to Orthodox Christianity.

Strangely, Fr. Photopoulos claims that the Isaac of the East Syriac sources is another Isaac than the “Orthodox” Isaac, yet he provides no real evidence for such being the case. The attempt to co-opt St. Isaac as “Orthodox,” i.e., a part of the organizational Chalcedonian Church, is without merit. Analysis of the Syriac text of the Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac by the celebrated Syriac scholar Sebastian Brock reveals an author thoroughly at home within an East Syriac context familiar with Eastern and Western Syriac works and East Syriac phraseology. However, even if we acknowledge, as scholars unanimously do, that St. Isaac was the Eastern bishop of Nineveh, this does not necessitate that he had a thoroughly Nestorian Christology. Some scholars, such as A. Sidorov, have even argued that there was a pro-Chalcedonian movement within the Church of the East, and St. Isaac could very well have been a proponent of a more Chalcedonian Christology than the label “Nestorian” may allow while being a bishop of the Church of the East.

He mentions, as I have just done above, “A certain Dr. Sebastian Brock,” who discovered a Syriac manuscript in 1983 of the so-called Second Part of the corpus of St. Isaac of Syria, which Fr. Photopoulos rejects as not being an authentic work of St. Isaac. Yet, Fr. Photopoulos neglects to mention that Brock is the most celebrated and respected Syriac scholar in the world, a reader (high ranking professor) in Syriac language and literature at Oxford University, and a fellow of the British Academy. Brock has published countless books and articles in Syriac studies and is regarded world-wide as the foremost authority in the discipline. The above-mentioned manuscript discovery was published in two 1995 monographs in the series Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalum, vols. 554 (Syriac edition) and 555 (English translation). In these monographs, particularly in the introduction to the English translation, Brock presents ample evidence to conclude that the content of the Second Part bears “striking correspondences in phraseology between Part I and Part II,” after which follows a long list of Syriac phrases which illustrate his point (Brock XXXVIII).*

Fr. Photopoulos claims that, because the writings of Part II are referenced “nowhere among Orthodox writings,” one cannot regard as certain the evaluation that they are authentic writings of St. Isaac. A few things to note here, firstly, that Part II was not unknown among Chalcedonian Orthodoxy, for it did exist among Arabic and Syriac speaking “Rum” Orthodox Christians as testified by recent manuscript finds. Furthermore, we find again the gnostic assumption that if a text did not enter into the mainstream of Greek speaking Orthodoxy, that it cannot be an authentic text! Such claims strain logic beyond all reasoning. We only have to look to the Didache, an ancient text composed about the same time as St. John’s Revelation, which was subsequently lost sometime after the 3rd century not to be discovered again until 1873. Even though this text was not within the main stream of Orthodox theological literature for the majority of its existence, no one questions its ancient provenance or its Orthodox content.

The writings of St. Isaac are assumed to be “unjustly accused” from the outset, and the bifurcation of the real St. Isaac and the “heterodox, Nestorian” Isaac is made without any attempt to supply a methodology of how such distinction can be made. The only attempt at doing so is to show that the heretical Isaac articulates Nestorian Christology while the “real” St. Isaac is only assumed not to do so. Yet the evidence that he supplied appears to be grasping at straws. In his first example, he quotes St. Isaac as saying, “I give praise to your holy Nature, Lord, for you have made my nature a sanctuary of your hiddenness and a tabernacle for your mysteries, a place where you can dwell, and a holy temple for your Divinity, namely, for him who holds the scepter of your kingdom, who governs all you have brought into being, the glorious Tabernacle of your eternal Being … Jesus Christ.”

To call this “Nestorian” is a stretch, for St. Isaac is using biblical language to describe the being of Christ, of whom St. John the Evangelist states, “And the Logos became flesh and dwelt (eskēnōsen, lit. “tabernacled”) among us” (John 1:14). If this quote here articulates Nestorian Christology, then we ought also lay this charge to St. John. Furthermore since St. Isaac was a bishop of the Church of the East, it is likely, even if his own Christology were Orthodox, that the expression of it might be cast in the phraseology of the Church of the East and in idioms proper to the Syriac language.

Charges of inauthenticity cannot be made on the assumption that a particular writer simply would not articulate this or that idea. Inauthenticity should be demonstrated on grounds of anachronism (e.g. Pseudo-Dionisius) or through a difference in style. For example, I have read several pieces of Syriac poetry attributed to St. Isaac, even though there is no known poetic corpus that belongs to him, and the style of the poetry is more akin to later periods and different locations. In order to prove the inauthenticity of Part II, one would have to demonstrate that its style or language differs remarkably from Part I or one would have to demonstrate anachronistic elements that would place its composition elsewhere. The author of this essay has done neither, and, in fact, the opposite has been demonstrated by numerous scholars who have evaluated its language.

Aside from the insurmountable epistemological issues that this essay presents, it is perhaps the persistent labeling of opponents that is most troubling. Those who accept the authenticity of Part II are labeled “thieves and robbers of our salvation.” Doctrines are labeled “cacodox” or “origenist” before they are even explored or defined. The tone is one of bullying, ad hominem rhetoric, which is disrespectful, slanderous, and contrary to Christian principles. Without the presentation of proper evidence to support his claims, such labeling merely obscures reasoned argumentation.

Perhaps the most egregious error in this essay is the manner in which Fr. Photopoulos uses the word “tradition.” For example, he states in a header, “Because according to Orthodox tradition, these texts do not belong to Saint Isaac.” What exactly is this “tradition?” Which canon, which council, which Father, has declared such a thing, and when was it affirmed by the universal Church? One cannot simply brandish the term “tradition” without providing some evidence that such is indeed a part of the Orthodox Holy Tradition. Such statements of inauthenticity do not exist as a part of any identifiable source of our Tradition. All the while, Fr. Photopoulos ignores the actual documentary evidence that Parts II and III of St. Isaac’s corpus were known among “Rum” Orthodox Christians, therefore making their inclusion within the broader Orthodox intellectual and spiritual heritage a matter of fact.

Finally, it should be noted that such treatments of St. Isaac and the question of the authenticity of works attributed to him ought to be dealt with by people who are competent in the Syriac language and literature. Those who are have universally affirmed the authenticity of Part II and have spoken with the authority of their expertise. It is not proper for someone who is unskilled in these areas to speak as Fr. Photopoulos has without the slightest reference to Syriac experts.

Readers of Fr. Photopoulos’ essay do well to judge the composition of properly reasoned arguments with the awareness that they must include the presentation of documented evidence and the avoidance of inflamed rhetoric. We must learn to accept information from qualified sources who have been trained in the relevant disciplines in question. Always consult experts and seek information from respected sources that provide actual, documented evidence. Knowledge cannot be had from mere rhetoric alone, but from the careful examination and presentation of evidence. Only then can we begin to examine the theology of St. Isaac from a standpoint of methodological stability and not by opinions alone.

*Sebastian Brock ed., Isaac of Nineveh (Isaac The Syrian) ‘The Second Part’, Chapters IV-XLI, in Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalum, Vols. 554-555, ed. Bernard Coulie (Louvain: Peeters) 1995.

Click Here
for a short essay by Metropolitan Hilarion on the authenticity of these writings.

Eric Jobe is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. He specializes in Hebrew poetry, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Second Temple Judaism. He is an instructor of Bible and biblical languages for the Orthodox Church in America, Diocese of the Midwest, Diaconal Vocations Program. Eric blogs at Departing Horeb.

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Transubstantiation: Was St Thomas Aquinas a Semi-Calvinist?

“The colour and shape of the host is not the colour and shape of Christ’s body; the location of the host, its being on the altar does not mean that Christ’s body is located on the altar; the fact that the host is moved about, say in procession, does not mean that Christ’s body is being moved about. When we do things to the host, such as eating it, we are not doing anything to Christ’s body. What we are doing is completing the significance of the signs” (Herbert McCabe, “Eucharistic Change“).

If one did not know the author, and if one did not know the teachings of St Thomas Aquinas on the Eucharist, one might well be excused for thinking that the above statement was written by a Protestant theologian, perhaps of Reformed or Anglican persuasion. Certainly this is not the horrid doctrine of transubstantiation condemned by the 39 Articles: “Transubstantiation … is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.” But the author in fact is a renowned Roman Catholic theologian, and his statement would receive the approbation of no less than the Angelic Doctor himself.

As classically formulated by St Thomas Aquinas, the doctrine of transubstantiation teaches that the glorified Christ is present under the sacramental species in a non-local, non-spatial, non-circumscribable mode. The bodily presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist is a presence that is proper to the sacrament:

The body of Christ is not in this sacrament in the way a body is in place. The dimensions of a body in place correspond with the dimensions of the place that contains it. Christ’s body is here in a special way that is proper to the sacrament. For this reason we say that the body of Christ is on different altars, not as in different places, but as in the sacrament. In saying this we do not mean that Christ is only symbolically there, although it is true that every sacrament is a sign, but we understand that Christ’s body is there, as we have said, in a way that is proper to the sacrament. (ST 3a.75.2)

Christ’s body is not in this sacrament in the normal way an extended body exists, but rather just as if it were purely and simply substance. Now every body that is in a place is in place precisely as it is an extended body, that is, it corresponds to the place that contains it according to its dimensions. It follows then that Christ’s body is in this sacrament not as in a place, but purely in the way that substance is, in the way that substance is contained by the dimensions. It is to the substance of the bread that the substance of Christ’s body succeeds in this sacrament. Hence, as the substance of the bread was not under its dimensions in the way an extended body is in a place, but in the way which is proper to substance to be under dimensions, so likewise the body of Christ is not under the dimensions of the bread locally.

Note also that the substance of Christ’s body is not the subject of the dimensions of the bread as the substance of the bread was. The bread by reason of the dimensions was localized in a place, because it was related to a place by dimensions that were its own. But the substance of Christ’s body is related to that place by dimensions that are not its own; and contrariwise, the dimensions of Christ’s own body are related to that place only in so far as the substance of his body is. But that is not the way in which a body is localized. Hence, Christ’s body in this sacrament is in no way localized. (ST 3a.76.5)

Now is is not the same thing for Christ to be, simply, and for him to be under the sacrament. Now, according to this mode of his being under the sacrament, Christ is not moved locally in any strict sense, but only after a fashion. Christ is not in this sacrament as if he were in a place, as we have already said; and what is not in a place is not moved locally, but is only said to be moved when that in which it is is moved. … Something after this fashion we say that Christ is moved indirectly, according to the mode of existence which is his in this sacrament, in which he does not exist as in a place. (ST 3a.76.7)

Now it cannot be that it is the actual body of Christ which is broken. First, it is outside all change and we can do nothing to it. Second, it is present in all its completeness under every part of the quantity, as we saw above, and that runs counter to the whole idea of being broken into parts. It remains then that the fraction takes place in the dimensive quantity of the bread, where all the other accidents also find their subject. … Whatever is eaten as under its natural form, is broken and chewed as under its natural form. But the body of Christ is not eaten as under its natural form, but as under the sacramental species. For this reason Augustine, commenting on the text of John, the flesh availeth nothing, says, understand this as spoken of the flesh in the way some people understand Christ carnally. They thought of eating his flesh as if it had been treated like butcher’s meat. The body of Christ in itself is not broken, but only in its sacramental appearance. And this is the sense in which we should understand Berengarius’s profession of faith; the fraction and the chewing with the teeth refer to the sacramental species, underneath which the body of Christ is really present. (ST 3a.77.8)

Exegesis of these passages is beyond my competence, but the general thrust of Aquinas seems clear: the presence of Christ in the sacrament is of such a kind that one may not attribute to the body of Christ the dimensive, spatial, and visible qualities of the bread and wine to it. This is the point of Aquinas’s separation of accidents and substance: the accidents of the bread and wine remain, but their substance is converted into the substance of the Body and Blood; and substance can only be intellectually apprehended. We may locate Christ at the location of the accidents, which now signify his presence—he is contained under them analogous to the way substance is ordinarily united to accidents—yet he is not the subject of the accidents. We may not say that he shares the color, size, or any other property of the elements; nor may we say that he is moved when the elements are moved or that he is broken when the Host is broken or that the communicants literally touch, eat, and drink him when they touch, eat, and drink the elements. His eucharistic presence is sacramental, non-local, intangible, spiritual. As Timothy McDermott writes:

For what Thomas makes clear is that Christ’s substance is not present in the way that bread’s substance was: underlying the dimensions and sensible properties of bread in such a way that those properties become Christ’s physical properties, or that Christ’s body is in physico-chemical and spatial contact with the environment. What he does not perhaps make equally clear is the way in which Christ’s substance is really present: as the new significance (to be grasped by faith) of what previously only signified bread. (Summa Theologiæ: A Concise Translation, p. 546)

My question is this: is the transubstantiated presence of Christ bodily enough? This is not an inappropriate question, since Aquinas contends that Christ intends to commune with us in the Eucharist in a bodily fashion:

It fits in perfectly with that charity of Christ which led him to take a real body having human nature and unite it to himself in order to save us. And because it is the very law of friendship that friends should live together, as Aristotle teaches, he promises us his bodily presence as a reward, in the text of Matthew, wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together. In the meantime, however, he has not left us without his bodily presence in this our pilgrimage, but he joins us to himself in this sacrament in the reality of his body and blood. For this reason he says, he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him. Hence this sacrament, because it joins Christ so closely to us, is the sign of the extreme of his love and lifts our hope on high. (ST 3a.75.1)

This is a wonderful passage. It expresses something deep and true in the Catholic experience of the Eucharist. But the notion of “bodily presence” is a difficult one. How bodily can Christ truly said to be when we immediately qualify his presence by insisting upon its intangibility and illocality? It is made even more difficult if one holds, as most Western theologians have, that the glorified natural body of Christ is circumscriptively located in heaven: to be in one place is not to be in another place. Perhaps there’s a grain or two of truth in Hermann Sasse’s remark: “Yes, Thomas Aquinas was a Semi-Calvinist. He anticipated the ideas of the Swiss reformers which in time totally destroyed the Sacrament.”

But in fairness to Aquinas, I must note that most of his interpreters have understood Aquinas’s formulation of transubstantiation as securing the most intimate bodily presence. Thus William Barden, one of Aquinas’s English translators:

Under the appearances of bread and wine lie the body and the blood, as close to these appearances as was the substance of the bread and wine to the accidents before the change. It would be impossible to conceive a closer form of bodily presence. The accidents of the bread inhere in the bread and contain it. After the change they do not inhere in the body of Christ; but they contain it, just as really, just as closely, as they had contained the substance of the bread. There you have real presence at its fullest. And that is Christ’s gift to us in the Eucharist. All love is communion. Christ’s love must find expression in communion. Only a divine ingenuity could have devised that means of communion which is the real presence of the body and blood and of the whole Christ under the appearances of bread and wine, that we may get close to him in the bread of life and take it into our very hands and eat it. … True, we do not touch the Christ within the host; nor does he touch us, except at the time of sacramental eating. But our very local nearness to the host which is as close to him as accident is close to substance—a nearness which is most intimate at the moment of communion—is the ultimate expression of divine love in our regard. We eat him really, though not naturally—that would be horrible; we eat him really, but sacramentally. There could not be a closer sign of our being made one with him in love. (ST [Blackfriars edition], 58:206, 211)

The accidents/substance distinction thus allows Aquinas to insist upon a spiritual, non-carnal, non-physical presence of Christ but also to assert the real presence of Christ in such a way that we can speak, at least analogously, of his bodily presence, a bodily presence mediated by the species. But what does bodily presence mean here?

Herbert McCabe’s construal of body as a “mode of presence” certainly helps. McCabe avoids the language of substance and instead focuses on sacrament as communication-event, as language. Christ is personally present in his self-communication to us in the gospel and the sacramental life of the Church. I find myself assenting to the entirety of McCabe’s analysis, yet I remain dissatisfied. There is a loss here. It feels less corporeal than Aquinas’s version of transubstantiation, particularly as described by Barden. Perhaps it really isn’t, but it feels that way. I’m sure that McCabe would tell me to stop thinking of body in physical, material terms, and no doubt he would be right. Yet did not Jesus himself tell us that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood, and isn’t that what we we do in the Eucharist? Do we not undercut this evangelical assertion by McCabe’s (and Thomas’s) qualification that we do not actually eat the body of Christ with our teeth but only the sacramental sign? Precisely at this point the sacramental bodiliness of Jesus becomes almost ethereal.

Ten years ago I offered some speculations on this topic in an article published in Pro Ecclesia (Winter 2004): “Eating Christ.” I proposed that the union between the sacramental signs and the Body and Blood must be understood in such a way that it makes sense for us to say that when we crush the bread with our teeth we crush Christ with our teeth. Yes, the eating is in a sacramental mode, for the body of Christ is presented to us in a sacramental mode. McCabe states that when we eat the host we fulfill the significance of the sign. And this is right. Bread is to be eaten and wine is to be drunk. Sacramental believing is not a disembodied event. We believe the eucharistic promises by eating and drinking; but what we eat and drink is Body and Blood, given to us as bread and wine. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:53-56).

My reflection since that article has not taken me much further. But reading Herbert McCabe has directed me back to the writings of the Lutheran theologian, Robert W. Jenson. A conversation between Jenson and McCabe would seem particularly illuminating, for both share a common understanding of sacrament as communication. Jenson’s reflections on embodiment may provide the corporeality that McCabe’s formulation of eucharistic presence seems to lack. In his book Visible Words Jenson specifies several characteristics of body. The first characteristic in his list is particularly pertinent to our discussion: body is the object-presence of a person:

Personal presence occurs always as address, as the word-event by which one person enters the reality of another. This entrance may be destructive: it may initiate a mutual reality of lordship-and-slavery, and of struggle over who will be which. If it does not, it is because the address is such as to enable and solicit reply; i.e., because the one who enters grants himself as object also of the other’s intention. Contrary to much of what has been said on the matter, authentic personal mutuality depends precisely on mutual self- objectification. If I address you, I make you my object. If I do not seek to enslave you, I so address you as also to grant myself as your object. Of course, there is indeed the treating of the other “as a thing” which has been so often decried; but what this consists in, is that I seek so to make you my object as to withhold my own self-objectification.

The total of possibilities, that I grant myself as object for those I address, is “my body.” The body is the self, as the describable and so intendable object of an other self. The body is the available self. (pp. 21-22)

Our bodies, we might say, are our locatibility. Your body allows me to find you and address you. It allows me to direct my words to you quite specifically. By your body I recognize you to be you and can thus intend you in particular, as opposed to intending everyone or no one. And my body, in turn, enables you to locate me and address me in reply. My body is my availability to you, as yours is your availability to me. As Jenson succinctly states: “My body is myself, in my address and presence to you, insofar as I am available to you, locatable by you, there for you, addressable in turn by you. And it is the visibility of my address to you that constitutes such reciprocity” (Christian Dogmatics, II:304). If we do not seek to dominate each other, we will allow ourselves to be objects one to the other. We tend to think of objectification as destructive of personal relations, but Jenson sees it as necessary for personal freedom. Embodiment creates space for conversation, love, and mutual exchange. Only thus is community possible.

To confess the eucharistic real presence is to confess the embodiment of Christ as bread and cup. Here, I suggest, is the weakness of McCabe’s presentation of transubstantiation. It feels too spiritual, precisely because it eschews the language of object-presence. McCabe identifies the consecrated elements as the body of Christ; yet his linguistic-symbolic formulation of transubstantiation, with all of its necessary qualifications to clarify that the eucharistic conversion is not a chemical, material change, loses the density of the older tradition. Whatever else bread and wine are, they are objects, and they do not cease to be objects when they become the language of God. Is this not what the medievals were trying to say when they specified the consecrated bread and wine as both sacramentum and res et sacramentum—signs that contain the grace they signify, the Body and Blood of Christ, which in turn signify the communion of the baptized in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity? If the Body and Blood are to function as signs, then the Body and Blood must be there on the altar, placed in our hands and mouths, to be apprehended by faith. The loaf and cup mean the Body and Blood of Christ and thus are the Body and Blood. We hear the words “This is my body,” “this is my blood,” but we are confronted with what appears to be ordinary bread and wine. Yet in faith we believe that here we encounter the king of the universe, present as sign and body, word and object, Body and Blood, the food and drink of the Messianic Banquet. Jenson again:

To say that Christ’s body is present as the bread and cup is therefore to say that these indisputably available things, the bread and cup, are his availability: that where they are present he not only has us before him but allows us to have him before us, not only touches us but allows us to touch him, not only sees us but allows us to see him. It is to say that as these things he—in the language of the church—gives himself to us as an object of our experience. “Do you seek me?” he says, “Here is the place to look.” (A Large Catechism, p. 59)

We need not be hesitant to use the language of objects to speak of the eucharistic presence, for it is the risen and glorified Christ who objectifies himself as bread and cup. He makes himself locatable, visible, tangible, corporeal, edible. In a word, he makes himself sacramental.

(This is an edited version of an article that was originally published on my old blog Pontifications on 17 March 2008)

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