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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8 Responses to Transubstantiation: Was St Thomas Aquinas a Semi-Calvinist?

  1. John M says:

    Father+, would it be wrong to say that thr Eucharestic feast is Christs ultimate parable for all time. Thank you again, John M


  2. Eric Jobe says:

    I have found it helpful to think of the Eucharist at a quantum level, something akin to quantum entanglement, which Einstein referred to as “spooky action at a distance.” It is as if the very particles of bread and wine are quantumly entangled with the particles of the body and blood of Christ, such that, while retaining the properties of bread and wine, they also gain the properties of the body and blood. So, to consume the species is to consume Christ via a quantum connection. It is apparent that wherever Christ *is*, i.e. in “heaven,” is not the same spacio-temporal dimensionality as our perceived existence. If we think of “heaven” as being another dimensional plane, where Christ is located in a spacio-temporal reality, then it is not terribly difficult to conceive of a way in which our respective spacio-temporal realities converge at a quantum level. Even string theorists hypothesize of these extra dimensions in which the energy that makes up all particles vibrates. In other words, as the particles of the Eucharist exist in our spacio-temporal reality, they “vibrate” as do particles of bread and wine, but as they simultaneously exist in the heavenly reality, they “vibrate” in such a way as does the body and blood of Christ. They are the same particles, though they exist simultaneously in different spacio-temporal dimensions each having its own properties. If we think of the Eucharist as straining logic or being unnecessarily strange, quantum mechanics is just as strange or even more so.


  3. Shane says:

    Perhaps Eucharistic adoration can help nuance Thomas and some other Catholics when considering their thoughts on Eucharistic presence. It seems to me that Thomas would not encourage adoration if he believed that Christ’s only presence in the Eucharist was as a purified spiritual substance, an idea that seems designed specifically to counter the suggestion that we eat Christ’s body. I don’t know Calvin well enough, so correct me if I’m wrong, but he would not have encouraged adoration of the Eucharist, right?


  4. dmw says:

    I had an interesting thought on transubstantiation/transmutation/whatever in the Eucharistic “change.” We tend to think of bread and wine as individual substances, namely, wheaten bread and grape wine. Period. However, has there been any reflection on the fact that these substances are (better, were) alive? The wine was “made alive” by the presence of billions of yeast cells fermenting the grapes into alcohol, though they die in the bottle. The bread dough which has risen (at least among the Churches that use leavened bread) was also vivified by billions of yeast cells, though they are subsequently killed by the oven’s heat. It’s not only wheat and grapes that become the Body and Blood of Christ, but also the remains of those living organisms that brought life to and subsequently died for the production of those elements.

    Interestingly, the novus ordo missae of the Roman Church speaks of the bread and wine as the “fruit of the earth and work of human hands” and the “fruit of the vine and work of human hands,” respectively. Perhaps it can be better said that the true laborers, those who lived and died to make these products, were the tiniest of God’s creatures. (Yes, this sounds strange writing this!) I can’t help but think of our Lord’s words: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24).

    The fermented bread and the fermented wine become for us a kind of parable, that unless we die to ourselves we cannot become what the Eucharist is meant to be for us, namely, the means of theosis in, with, and through Jesus Christ.


  5. Grant says:

    I would offer that presence, symbol and act go naturally together, John’s Gospel for example presents the acts of Christ as signs but also actual acts of the new creation and life (people were actually healed and so on), the Lord referred John the Baptist’s disciples carrying his question if He was the Messiah or if there was another to look at what was happening as it was the answer (so His ministry is both real and full of symbolism), the same could certainty be said for the Baptism in the Jordan, the Transfiguration, the clearing of the Temple, the crucifixion and Resurrection themselves, and Pentecost. Symbol is tied in Christianity and 2nd Temple Judaisms before it to action and real presence, they are not separated I believe and cannot be. Jesus washed His disciples feet when first giving communion, it was symbolic buy also full real, real interaction, meeting and communication is always filled with symbol and symbolic meaning, and only with tea meeting, presence and interaction do they really have any meaning.

    And I don’t believe you can ever stress the bodily, physical aspects of both Christ Jesus, His Resurrection body and His Presence in the Eucharist enough, the drift towards over spiritualisation in how Christians so often fall prey to is far and all the knock on effects that has in terms of world-views, life and practice to the world and people around you is a threat than ever the opposite, at least in my experience.


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