Eschatological Transubstantiation: When Bread is not Bread

The oblations of bread and wine are placed on the altar. The celebrant offers the prayer of thanksgiving. The narrative of institution is recited. The Holy Spirit is invoked. The Holy Gifts are distributed, and to each communicant is spoken the remarkable words of the gospel: “the Body of Christ,” “the Blood of Christ.”

But what do these words mean? What has happened to the bread and wine? What is the relationship between the consecrated elements and the Body and Blood of Christ? In response to these questions the theologians of the medieval Latin Church proposed the doctrine of transubstantiation. The most influential formulation of this doctrine has been that of St Thomas Aquinas. Yet as influential as Thomas’s formulation has been, many modern Catholic theologians have not been content to recite by rote the views of the Angelic Doctor. Fr Herbert McCabe, O.P., is one such theologian.

All Catholic presentations of the doctrine of transubstantiation must navigate, says McCabe, between two errors—between memorialism and chemical transformation. The memorialist view asserts that the bread and wine become signs or tokens that remind us of Christ and thus function as a focus for faith. The oblations are not ontologically changed. They are not different from the ordinary food and drink of which we partake every day; but they have now assumed a specific role and meaning within the ritual of the Supper. The chemical-transformationist view, on the other hand, asserts that the bread and wine have quite literally ceased to be bread and wine. They have become the physical Body and Blood of Christ, now disguised as food and drink, perhaps to make their consumption more palatable. A chemical analysis might reveal the material change, but if not, this is only because God is supernaturally preventing us from seeing what in fact now exists, appearances to the contrary.

Against these two errors Roman Catholic doctrine asserts the radical transformation of the bread and wine at the deepest level of existence. The bread and wine have indeed become the Body and Blood of Christ. The consecrated elements are thus no longer literally described as bread and wine, not because they have ceased to be food and drink, but because they are now food and drink in the most profound sense possible. They are now the food of the kingdom. We must distinguish, suggests McCabe, two questions: If we ask, “How is Christ present in the Eucharist?” then we must answer, he is present because the bread and wine have become his body. If we ask, “How is Christ’s body present?” then we must answer, his body is present to us sacramentally. Thus McCabe: “‘This is the body of Christ’ says how Christ is present to us. ‘This is the sacrament of Christ’s body’ says how his body is present to us” (God Matters, p. 117). The risen Christ becomes truly present to us in our present reality; but he does so not by changing the bread and wine into a different kind of stuff but by changing them into the effective symbols of his eschatological reality. The eucharistic bread and wine have become the language of God.

Aquinas is often accused of Aristotelianizing the eucharistic transformation. On the contrary, responds McCabe. Aristotle could not have made any more sense of the doctrine of transubstantiation than he could have made sense of the doctrine of the creatio ex nihilo—and for the same reason. In the thought of Aristotle, to make is to actualize the potentialities of something. It always makes sense to ask what something is made of or what something is made out of. A person might make something by changing its accidental properties (I can paint my car a different color but it still remains a car), or he might make something by effecting an alteration of substance (I can chop down a tree, cut up the wood and fashion it into a cabinet)—the absurdity of speaking of the divine Creator as making the universe from out of nothing, for there ain’t nothing from which or out of which the universe may be made. “If God created the world he operated at a different level, or in a different dimension, from making as we understand it,” McCabe explains. “To bring it about, in this sense, that something should exist is not to make any difference to it or to anything else, it is not to change it in any way. It is just for this reason that Aquinas denies that creation is a change (Ia, 45, 2, ad 2). But what sense can we make of a making that does not change anything” (p. 147). The creation of the universe does not make a difference to anything. At this point the philosophy of Aristotle explodes:

So Aristotle gives us an interesting analysis of coming into existence by substantial change, but had no notion of creation. St Thomas, however, believing in creation, believed in a new and different kind of bringing into existence. He thought there was a kind of cause which did not merely give a new form to the matter of already existing perishable things, but simply brought things into being when there was nothing there before. The creative act of God does not just deal in the forms of things—making one kind of thing into an individual of another kind with a different form. It gives sheer existence to the whole thing. Causes within nature give things the form by which they have existence; God gives things existence itself. God is the reason why there is a world of natural causality; and every natural cause can only give existence because it is an instrument of the Creator, the source of all existence. (God Still Matters, p. 119)

Transubstantiation involves something analogous to the creatio ex nihilo, argues McCabe. It is a changing that occurs at a radically deeper level than that of accident or substance; it is a re-creation that occurs at the level of existence itself:

The bread does not turn into the body by acquiring a new form in its matter; the whole existence of the bread becomes the existence of the living body of Christ. The body is not made out of the bread, as ashes are made out of paper by burning it (a chemical change). Something has happened as profoundly different from chemical change as creation is. It is not that the bread has become a new kind of thing in this world; it now belongs to a new world. As far as this world is concerned, nothing seems to have happened, but in fact what we have is not part of this world. It is the kingdom impinging on our history and showing itself not by appearing in the world but by signs speaking to it. … The change is so tremendous that it is quite imperceptible. In fact, St Thomas says it is not a change (mutatio) at all, for such a change means a re-adjustment of our world—as when one thing is altered or changes into something else. This clearly makes a perceptible difference. But transubstantiation is not a change, just as creation is not a change. What the bread has become is the body of Christ, which is to say the kingdom itself—for Christ does not inhabit the kingdom, he, his body, his human way of communicating with other humans, is the kingdom of God. Now the kingdom, the glorified body of Christ, is not something that could be seen within our world as part of our world; if it is to be manifest among us it can only be by signs, by sacramental signs. And this is just what the Eucharist is. (pp. 119-120)

A change that is no change. A change that makes no difference. Aquinas employs the language of Aristotle to speak of divine creation and transubstantiation, but in both cases he breaks the language to speak of things of which our language cannot speak. We are confronted with mystery that transcends human comprehension. Hence McCabe acknowledges that traditional formulations of the eucharistic conversion as “substantial change” can be misleading. The change that occurs is not, according to Aristotelian categories, a substantial change at all. It is a change that occurs at a deeper metaphysical level:

The Eucharist is not a question of the substance of bread becoming the substance of a human body (this kind of substantial change is familiar enough and takes place whenever we eat a slice of bread); it is a miraculous transformation at a deeper level, which Aquinas compares to creation, in which the esse (the existence) of this piece of bread and this cup of wine becomes the esse of Christ. This transformation of a substance into another particular existent, as distinct from a different kind of thing (as in ordinary substantial change) would have been completely unintelligible to Aristotle as, of course, was the notion of creation and, indeed, the whole notion of esse in Aquinas’s sense. (pp. 125-126)

Aquinas famously analyzed the eucharistic conversion in terms of substance and accidents, and the Council of Trent appropriated his analysis in its Decree on the Holy Eucharist. The Council declared that under the appearances (species) of bread and wine Christ truly offers his Body and Blood. To make sense of this teaching it is helpful to understand the difference between appearances and signs. The appearances of something are the accidental properties and characteristics by which we recognize things as what they are—size, color, taste, shape, and so on. Appearances show us things; signs tell us things. Appearances, in themselves, never deceive. We may exploit appearances to deceive, or we may deceive ourselves by drawing false inferences; but the way an object appears to us never deceives. It simply is. Signs, on the other hand, are part of language. They speak to us; they communicate to us; they tell us things about things. Signs can also be employed to deceive—we call it lying.

When St Thomas declares that by consecration the accidents of the bread and wine have ceased to be the appearances of bread and wine, this does not mean that they have become the appearances of something else. They have ceased, rather, to function as appearances at all. Here, McCabe believes, is where many people misunderstand the doctrine of transubstantiation. When folks hear the Church declaring that the substance of the bread and wine has been converted into the substance of Christ’s Body and Blood, while leaving the accidents intact, they draw the conclusion that the accidents have now become the deceptive appearances of the Body and Blood. But the critical point is that the accidents no longer operate and exist in the way they used to:

There is, then, a lot of difference between the appearance which simply shows you a thing and signs which are part of telling you something about it. I labour this point because it is an important part of St Thomas’s teaching on the Eucharist that the accidents of bread and wine cease to be the appearances of bread and wine, but this is not because they become the misleading appearances of something else. They cease to function as appearances at all, they have become signs, sacramental signs through which what is signified is made real.

Before the consecration the appearances were there because the bread was there; they were just the appearances of the bread. After the consecration it is the other way around; the body of Christ is sacramentally there because what were the appearances of bread (and are now sacramental signs), are there. So with unconsecrated bread the accidents can remain (and vary) so long as the bread still exists: how very bizarre if they were to stay on (like the Cheshire cat’s grin) when what they are accidents of isn’t there. But after the consecration the Body of Christ is sacramentally present just as long as the signs are there. The important consequence of this is that these signs are not the appearances of Christ’s body: they are no longer the appearances of anything. 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. For bread and wine are meant to be eaten and drunk, to be our food; and food, eating, and drinking together is, even in our secular lives, a sign expressing friendship and unity. This is why Jesus chose it to be the sign which would tell us of the real sacramental presence of his body given for us and his blood poured out for us—the body of Christ which is more deeply our food, our “bread and wine,” than is the ordinary bread and wine with which we began. (p. 118)

This change from appearance to sacramental sign must not be considered as merely conventional, as if we, the Church, have assigned a different role and meaning to the bread and wine. As we observed above, the eucharistic change occurs at the deepest level of existence. When God deems the eucharistic objects as his Body and Blood, then they indeed become and are his Body and Blood. “The notion of transubstantiation,” McCabe writes, “depends on the idea that there can be a kind of transformation in what it means to exist which is not simply a change in what it is that exists” (God Matters, p. 150).

And this brings us to the most controversial assertion of the doctrine of transubstantiation, namely, the assertion that the bread and wine no longer exist as bread and wine. What can this mean? After all, the objects have not experienced any physical, chemical, or material changes. When the Church declares, “this is not bread,” she is not saying that it is now zinc or disguised human flesh. By all normal criteria, the consecrated bread is no different than unconsecrated bread. But the critical point is that the normal criteria are no longer relevant to the proper determination of the identity of the Holy Gifts. Something has happened which can be neither humanly understood nor adequately expressed in human language:

It is not that God tricks us—so that while all our criteria for decision make us think that it is bread, he has secretly switched the ‘inner reality’ to make it zinc or flesh. On the contrary the consecration is God’s quite public announcement that there these criteria no longer apply. It makes no more sense to ask whether this is bread than to ask whether God is bread—of course both these questions could be asked within the realm of metaphor. It appears that we have here a fit subject for our ordinary criteria. It is only because we have faith in the consecrating word of God that we know the criteria cannot sensibly be applied. If we did not know this we would make the mistake of applying them (as the unbeliever does) and then naturally we would say that this is bread and not anything else.

I am suggesting that the consecrated host exists at a level of reality at which the questions of whether it is bread cannot relevantly be asked; our language breaks down when we try to speak of it, just as it does in the case of God. What happens at the consecration is not that the proper description of the host shifts within our language (from “bread” to “Body of Christ”) but that it no longer becomes possible to give an account of it within our language at all. (p. 152)

To continue to describe the eucharistic elements as literally bread and wine is to fail to recognize the radical change that has occurred. It is to misdescribe them. It is to treat “the appearances as accidents of bread when really they are the divine sacramental signs of Christ’s body” (God Still Matters, p. 121). We may and will, of course, continue to speak metaphorically of the Holy Gifts as “bread” and “wine,” just as Scripture and liturgy do; but the doctrine of transubstantiation reminds us of the peculiar use of our language at this point.

Is this the best way to speak of the eucharistic mystery? Fr McCabe readily acknowledges that future theologians may well offer superior analyses and presentations. But he avers that all such analyses must respect the following rule: “Anything which seems to take the scandal or mystery out of the Eucharist must be wrong, whether it be couched in terms of substance or meaning” (p. 117).

(This is an edited version of an article that was originally published on my old blog Pontifications on 28 February 2008)

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10 Responses to Eschatological Transubstantiation: When Bread is not Bread

  1. Jonathan says:

    I very much like the emphasis on language here, but I disagree with the resistance to language’s descriptive power when confronted with the mystery of the Eucharist. Theologians may not wish to assert the power of language to describe sacrament, but poets and writers do. I submit by way of example two Catholics (both by way of conversion, as it happens): Walker Percy and David Jones.

    I want to point out that there is a prior way in which language is involved in the Eucharist, and that is the words needed for the sacrament to exist at all. The Eucharist was instituted verbally by Christ and it must be so instituted in every subsequent “memorial.” No one can consecrate the bread and wine just by thinking about it. There is a sense in which the sacrament is “God’s language,” but very human language is necessary to introduce that language into our order of existence. Yes, it is about eating and drinking, but it is also essentially about speaking. Animals eat and drink, but only humans speak. (And speech is not merely communication.) It would be strange indeed if human language were absolutely necessary in order to allow for the Eucharist to happen, but then be required to step aside abashedly in trying to explain what it allows. We don’t let a judge — who, like a priest, uses performative speech — do this, so why should we let theologians? “Mystery” does not mean “ineffable.”

    If we are made in God’s image, it is not unreasonable to suppose that our language works analogously to God’s, or that it is even in some way divine: Some would go so far as to say it is precisely language, the word — logos — that is God’s image in us. In the 20th century a huge variety of thinkers did tremendous work in uncovering the nature and power of language. I’m no expert here, but it’s my impression that theologians have been slow to take advantage of these advances, and so we’re all too often told that the revolution in thinking about language to which I’m referring is restricted to “postmodern” atheist or nihilist thinkers. There are a few contemporary exceptions I can think of, like Catherine Pickstock and David B Hart — and, apparently, Fr. McCabe. But in my not at all humble opinion, it takes an artist, in this case one whose medium is language, to get at the heart of sacrament and sign.

    Jones and Percy were both artists before they were Catholics, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. People whose vocation it is to make efficacious signs — that is their argument, their interpretation of what it means to be a word-artist — are going to be attracted to the form of Christianity (in the west) that most obviously centers itself around an act of sacramental signification. But, being artists, Jones and Percy talk about making art. They talk about it with explicit reference to the Eucharist (Jones — the volume to read is Epoch and Artist) or with an intuitive understanding of sacramental signification in the back of their minds (Percy — The Message in the Bottle). Another great artist to look carefully at here is the poet Wallace Stevens, who on his death bed (no one tells you this in school) became a Catholic. Stevens’ whole career was guided by an inkling he had of what language really is and can do.

    Once you start thinking about the Eucharist and art, you may come up with some new ways to describe what is going on when the faithful “remember” Christ by consecrating and consuming the Sacred Species; but you are bound to come up with some awesome new ways of describing what happens when a person encounters a work of art. Despite the advances in thinking about language, we’re all still in the habit of referring to the variety of works of literature by their generic categories — poetry, novels, memoirs, etc — as if these were adequate descriptions. . . in the way that it’s too easy to think “bread” and “wine” or “accident” and “substance” are adequate descriptions of the Eucharist. We’re still thinking of art and of the Eucharist as things. They are rather a certain kind of action. I don’t mean Aristotelian actualization, the turning of potentia into actus or whatever (not my realm of expertise), but intrusions into our world from another. We are more surrounded by sacrament than we realize, because we all use language, signs, not always verbal. A great many people, especially young people, intuitively grasp this, and I suspect this is why art has replaced the explicitly religious element in so many lives. More people crave what happens on the altar of a Christian church than can bring themselves to go to that altar. Some of those people find at least a shadow of what they’re looking for (whether they know it or not) in their engagement with art.

    Sorry this has been so long. Last thing: the Orthodox, I believe, have at their disposal an understanding of holy icons that could be put in conversation with what I’m suggesting here. In the west religious art has often been valued for its didactic quality. But art is not a teaching, it is a doing.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Jonathan, I think that McCabe would agree with most of what you have written here. Precisely because of its eschatological reality, eucharistic faith is best expressed in the doxological language of hymnody rather than the scientific language of the systematic theologian. If we truly wish to understand the eucharistic faith of St Thomas Aquinas, for example, we must attend to his eucharistic hymns:


  2. Mina says:

    I wonder if Fr. Herbert McCabe puts it that way, what he thinks about the consubstantiation idea of Luther. Some people think it is not a problem within Orthodoxy, just a theologomenoun of the understanding of the real presence of Christ’s body and blood, just like transubstantiation. But the way Fr. Herbert McCabe puts it is as if the differences between transubstantiation and consubstantiation is semantical.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Interesting question, Mina. I think it depends on how one understands consubstantiation. Even more interesting is whether Martin Luther would have found McCabe’s interpretation sufficiently corporeal.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mina, I do not remember if McCabe addresses consubstantiation in his essays on the Eucharist (it’s been several years since I last read them). I imagine that he might say that the formulation fails to express the eschatological radicality of the eucharistic transformation. Given his understanding, to say that both Body and ordinary bread are present after the consecration is to misdescribe reality. The consecrated elements no longer possess the ontological independence of substance, for they have been appropriated by the Spirit to be the embodied language of the Son.

      Following St Thomas, McCabe might also suggest that if the theory of consubstantiation is true, then the Church’s practice of eucharistic adoration is an act of idolatry.


  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    One of McCabe’s essays on transubstantiation, included in God Still Matters, may be found on the net: “Eucharistic Change.”


  4. Grant says:

    Something that always stuck with me was NT Wright’s discussion of the perception in 2nd Temple Judaism that the Holy of Holies was a place where the sphere of or dimension of heaven and that of earth intersected, united and became open to each other. That God was understood to be fully present there, and that the practices, sacrifices were truly real interactions with this aspect of reality and the one we normally perceive, of relating to and with God directly in their full selves (ie embodied full humanity and creation brought and interacting with God) and at least for Pharisee leaning groups and others a place of eschatological engagement with the hoped for Kingdom of God, end of exile and forgiveness of sins to come (in however that was invisioned, and to what extent it involved the resurrection from the dead, renewal of creation and so on).

    This was similar to Celtic concepts of ‘thin spaces’ where heaven and earth (or the mortal world and the Otherworld for pre-Christian beliefs) which exist besides and within each other became porous and open to the other. And that this uniting of the realities and dimensions of heaven and earth, and even more so the Life and full reality of God is united fully with humanity already in Christ in His resurrection, and through humanity the whole of creation, beginning what will be fulfilled in the end vision of Revelation in which heavenly Jersusalem comes down to be united to earth, heaven and earth united and open to each other completely and complimentary, filled with the life and glory of God, decay, futility and death passed. And at the ‘right Hand of the Father’, in a body just as comfortable in the dimension of heaven as earth, is at once there and through that reality directly present in all places, and people are drawn into union with Him, so we really are united to Him, members of His Body. So when we are told that helping (or rejecting) those in need we really are interacting with Christ and participating (or turning away from) the life of Christ, that this is a place heaven and earth intersect and become open to each other. And the Eucharist a similar mystery happens, it is a place heaven and earth overlap and intersect, and is a direct interaction with the Life and resurrection body of Christ, joining in the last supper and interacting and living the age to come, already here in Him (just as helping those in need to an extent is also this, and are connected, remember Jesus washing the disciples feet and giving the new commandment to love one another as He loved us, because it is the Life of God and the age to come, so we are ministered to bring this life and reality to everyone else).

    I’m not sure if I’ve truly represented his thought on it, but the concept of a intersecting and opening of heaven and earth, and meeting, engaging and participating in our full selves our life in union with Christ, united to Him as truly members and part of His Body, engaging and beginning to life the life to come, to come to life as it were.

    Not to different from above, but the approach helps me.


    • Dante Aligheri says:

      Yes. And there’s even more in the Jewish background. The Temple is the place of intersection, heaven on earth, as you said. Christ then is the new Temple in His own Body to which we are joined through the covenant. Thus we are both Temple and Body. So, in worship we join through the covenantal community with the Temple of Christ’s Body, that eschatological reality and heavenly worship. The idea of joining in heavenly worship through a community and acquiring an angelic existence (what we would call theosis today) and partaking in the eschatological meal is huge in 2nd Temple Judaism and stands behind the Essenes, the Theraputae, Hekhalot/Merkabah mysticism, etc.

      The other thread is that, elsewhere in the tradition and not originally connected with the motif of “thin space,” is that the Temple is capstone of creation – literally built atop the gates of hell, holding back the forces of Rahab/Leviathan – and, indeed, the paradigm of creation itself. Creation, tabernacle, and temple parallel another. The High Priest represents creation in his robes’ colors but also represents God working, tending the lights like the sun and moon, etc. Similarly, Christ sums up all creation in himself – lifting creation into new one. Primarily, sacrifices are maintenance rituals (rather than being expiatory, although they can be) – that is, they invoke divinity to be present. They function like incense and fire offerings and even prayers in ascending to the heavens and calling gods down. I know at least in ancient Greece some scholars likened them to “smoke signals.” However, in Judaism they also carry the additional connotation of blood relations – that is, covenantal binding. The High Holidays (Yom Kippur through Sukkot) originally represented a continuous cleansing of the Temple followed the re-enthronement of YHWH which keeps the “thin space” active and also stabilizes the covenant which binds creation together. On the High Holy Days, God as the Divine Warrior-King is invoked against the mythological forces of evil, the demons representing the nations and the demons who brought evil into the world by returning evil to them, and the Jews to this day see in Yom Kippur the prefiguration of the Final Judgment. Interestingly enough, Leonard Greenspoon attached the motif of the general resurrection to the revivification of creation, including the righteous dead, following the victory of the Divine Warrior. The Sabbath is the weekly enthronement of God, a reset button for creation – not unlike the ancient Egyptian “opening of the mouth” ceremony, which occurred daily. Similarly, we enthrone Christ on the Sabbath in our hearts, and He is enthroned on the ascension which is the bringing of the creation in Christ to the Father. In fact, the motifs that we associate with the eschaton in the OT have been traced by Temple rituals of invocation, purgation, community-binding meals, and divine victory. In effect, the Prophets eschatologized the immanent, and Christianity has re-immanentized the eschaton.

      The difficulty is that this represents one strand of Jewish theology in the Bible – namely, Zion/Priestly theology. Deuteronomic theology, linked more to the court scribes, also see sacrifices as invocation and covenant binding practices but relativized the importance of the Jewish Temple – probably stemming from memories of the days prior to the temple. Here heaven and earth stand in polarity rather than being joined together, and the figure varyingly called the Word, the Name, the Angel of the Lord, or the Voice comes to accept the sacrifices. This duality designed to preserve YHWH’s transcendence stands behind Enochic intermediary figure and Philo’s Logos. At some point, probably even when the Tanakh was written, Priestly and Deuteronomic thinking merged so we ended up with all of these motifs in our storehouse.

      So, it’s interesting because the Eucharist has all of these tied up within it: an invocation of the Name which brings God down from heaven and enthrones His presence among the community in victory, an offering given to the Angel who takes it up into heaven and manifests God’s presence for us (even today we hear that in the Catholic liturgy – not sure about the Orthodox that “may Your angel take this up to Your altar in heaven”), the sacrificial meal that binds the community and creation into the new Israel, the sacrifice that is the Body of the New Temple which is all of Creation brought up to God in offering (just as the High Priest did – but now our High Priest is at once the sacrifice).

      If I can remember right, here’s the following sources that stand behind this: John Geyer (“Blood and the Nations in Ritual and Myth,” “Desolation and Cosmos,” Mythology and Lament: Studies in the Oracles About the Nations), Leonard Greenspoon (“The Origin of the Idea of the Resurrection” – cf. Klaas Spronk), Jonathan Klawans (Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple), Robert Kawashima (“The Jubilee Year and the Return of Cosmic Purity”), Robert Murray, S.J. (The Cosmic Covenant), Crispin Fletcher-Louis (All the Glory of Adam, “The Cosmology of P and Theological Anthropology,” Luke-Acts: Angels, Christology, and Soteriology), Charles Gieschen (“The Divine Name in Ante-Nicene Christology,” Angelomorphic Christology), Benjamin Sommer (“A Commentary on Psalm 24”), Moshe Weinfeld (“Sabbath, Temple, and the Enthronement of the Lord: The Sitz im Leben of Genesis 1:1-2,3”).


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