Transubstantiation: Was Thomas Aquinas a Semi-Calvinist?

“The colour and shape of the host is not the colour and shape of Christ’s body,” declares Herbert McCabe; “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” (“Eucharistic Change“).

If one did not know the author, one might well be excused for thinking that the above statement was written by a Protestant theologian, perhaps of Reformed or Anglican persuasion. Clearly this is not the horrid doctrine of transubstantiation condemned by the 39 Articles:

Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.

The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith.

The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped. (XXVIII)

Yet McCabe is no Anglican. He is a notable Roman Catholic theologian. He is convinced that his construal of transubstantiation would receive the approbation of 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 unique presence 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 [Blackfriars ed.])

The general thrust of the passage seems clear: the eucharistic Body and Blood of Christ are present in such a manner that excludes the attribution of the dimensive, spatial, and visible qualities of the bread and wine. 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 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 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? The question is apt, given that 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 passage beautifully expresses something deep and true in both the Catholic and Orthodox 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 (but not Eastern) theologians have, that the glorified flesh 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 somewhat cheeky Lutheran remark: “Yes, Thomas Aquinas was a Semi-Calvinist. He anticipated the ideas of the Swiss reformers which in time totally destroyed the Sacrament” (quoted in Tom Hardt, “The Sacrament of the Altar,” p. 11).

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 ed.], 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?

McCabe’s construal of body as a mode of presence certainly helps. It 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. Such self-communication necessarily involves a physical dimension. I find myself assenting to McCabe’s presentation, 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. McCabe’s (and Thomas’s?) qualifications seem to open up a cleavage between Christ’s ascended body and sacramental sign that draws uncomfortably close to the views of Cranmer and Calvin. 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?

Fourteen 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. Yes, the eating is in a sacramental mode, for the body of Christ is presented to us in a sacramental mode, yet it is the body of Christ that we chew and ingest. McCabe states that when we eat the host we fulfill the significance of the sign. And this is right—the bread is to be eaten and the wine 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 (re)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 argues that objectification is  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; cf. Paul J. Griffiths, Christian Flesh, pp. 49-56. Griffiths distinguishes between two modes of presence for the ascended flesh of Christ—eschatological and eucharistic.)

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

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

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

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.


  2. Steven says:

    The most obvious weakness of language is that it’s unable to adequately explain such mysteries without opening up further questions and leading down paths which easily entrap us in self-made conceptual prisons. Yet these mysteries have to be explained at some level, and the more inquisitive among us will always seek a deeper understanding which once again faces us with the aforementioned pitfalls of language.


  3. Iain Lovejoy says:

    I’m an Anglican, and we generally run the range of concepts of the Eucharist from “mere sign” to the “almost transubstantiation-but-not-quite” of consubstantiation, where the Eucharist remains bread and wine but is also truly and in fact the body of Christ.
    There is a way in which the Eucharist literally, physically and straightforwardly becomes the body of Christ, in that we, the Church, who consume it are the body of Christ on earth and it becomes part of us. Since Christ himself is God taking on bodily form, and wholly God whilst still being wholly human, I have no difficulty with the idea of bread and wine also being truly God incarnate in the flesh. What I struggle to understand is the substance / accident distinction that the Catholic / Orthodox concept of transubstantiation relies on: I am not at all sure what the “substance” of a thing means if it is not its physical matter, or how the Eucharist can have ceased to be bread and wine when it plainly does remain physicaly, chemically, solidly etc the same thing as it is ever was? (I say this not to be argumentative but because I genuinely don’t understand what is meant.)


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      You’re absolutely right about the range of beliefs within Anglicanism regarding the Eucharist, Iain. It runs the gamut, from soup to nuts.

      Regarding transubstantiation: I am convinced that the substance/accident distinction should not be pressed too hard and too far when thinking upon the eucharistic presence–though hard-core Catholic scholastics will disagree. The Eucharist does not fit and cannot into our philosophical categories.

      So what does a change of substance mean in this context? It’s been many years since I thought about all this, but here’s my stab. “Substance” answers the question “what is it?” Substance does not refer to something hiding underneath an entity; it refers first off to the concrete entity itself (primary substance). Hence: before the consecration, the substance bread is simply bread, with all of its essential and accidental properties. After the consecration, that which we have before us is the substance Body of Christ. The substance/accident distinction only comes into play when one attempts to explain how it is that the loaf/host can be the Body of Christ when what we sensibly apprehend is just bread. Does that help at all?


      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        It is helpful. I still don’t really get it, but at least I now think I understand why I don’t get it. What I don’t grasp, which is what I think this is about, is how the concept works that a thing can have a sort of essential essence of what it is aside from its actual incidental properties – that bread and wine are (or are not) bread and wine because they share in (or do not share in) some essential “bread / wine nature”, rather than “bread” or “wine” being simply labels to be applied to something to categorise it or distinguish it from other things, and not actually inherent to the thing itself (basically I’m a nominalist).
        I can make sense (sort of) of the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine in a similar way to which I can (sort of) make sense of the incarnation, because I can understand that the existence ordinary, substantial material things on one hand and the presence and action of God within the world on the other are two wholly different ways of being (in so far as the word “being” can be used of God) so that a thing can be both wholly an ordinary, material thing and also the real true presence and action of God, but that’s not the same thing (at least as I understand it) transubstantiation in the orthodox sense.


  4. John H says:

    I see a relationship between the analogy of being and the doctrine of transubstantiation in that, just as we have no idea what the term ipsum esse subsistens means, so too, we cannot understand how the substance of the sanctified/consecrated gifts is transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ while maintaining the accidental properties of appearing and certainly tasting like bread and wine.

    What does it mean for God’s essence to be the pure unlimited act of existence ? What does it mean for Christ to be really present in the Eucharist under the appearances of bread and wine? In each case, we can say the words but at the end of the day we don’t really understand such profound mysteries.


  5. Pingback: Transubstantiation: Was Thomas Aquinas a Semi-Calvinist? — Eclectic Orthodoxy | Meeting the Living God

  6. Alexander says:

    This is really great, and gets to the heart of a dissatisfaction I felt myself at McCabe’s presentation of transubstantiation – it always felt very “thin” to me.


  7. John Church says:

    Fr. Kimel — have you ever read Abbot Vonier’s “A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist?” It is one of the most illuminating books I have ever read.

    According to Vonier, Aquinas and Trent understand Christ’s sacramental presence just as real and dynamic as his “physical” presence. Christ is “not present in the sacrament as an object is in a place” simply means the dimensions are not the same. It’s just as real of a presence (the person of Christ in his divine and human natures) as a physical presence, the “mode of being” of Christ is all that’s different.

    It is not “physical” insofar as a 2 inch Host does not give me only 2 inches of Christt’s Body — rather, His whole body, His whole person, is communicated to me. Further, mwhen I am eating His body in the Eucharist, though the host should suffer being torn by my teeth, His body suffers no such infliction. It seems to me this is all the Thomistic doctrine is attempting to shed light on. It is not the presence itself or the literalness of the presence which is being argued, but, as vonier puts it, its “mode of being.”

    Aquinas doctrine seems to harken back to Clement of Alexandria’s and Tertullian’s usage of the word “symbol” or “figure” — which don’t imply a mere moral equivalence but a true presence communicated and made present through sign.

    The Logos didn’t have leave heaven to be joined to a human nature, and I don’t think his human nature has to leave heaven in order to be present upon our altars.


    • John Church says:

      Sorry — just read your first article and you quote the man. I feel quite silly. Merry Christmas, Fr!


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        No problem, John. I agree with you about Vonier’s book. I wrote a short article on it about ten years ago, comparing Vonier and Schmemann. Upon re-reading it I suspect I would want to return to both authors and then substantially rewrite the piece.

        And Merry Christmas to you, too!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hey Father, this is John again but on an alternative account.

          Happy feast to you! Thanks for the read on Vonier/Schmemann. Very interesting. I suppose I have a soft spot for Vonier because it was his work that laid to rest my Proestant induced scruples about the Mass “re-crucifying” Christ (which I felt strongest when I was a Catholic seminarian, of all things!) I was grateful to have it explained to me in a way which calmed my conscience.

          The contrast between Schmemann and Vonier is pretty interesting. From my own lazy reading of the passage and employ some creative thinking, I don’t see why the sacraments can’t both be realities which don’t formally belong to THIS creation, and ones that express the beauty and potentiality of the new creation in the promised kingdom. They’re two different creations.

          Also, does Vonier’s approach sort of remind you also of the biblical/patristic use of the Greek word “anamnesis” (memorial, as in “do this in memory of me” and “a memorial of sin” for the OT sacrifices), which JND Kelly says indicates as something much stronger than “mere spiritual recollection” but conveys a true participation in a historic event?


          • It seems as though the two theologians differences probably stem back to the Western/Eastern trends of the former making a strict distinction between nature and grace and the latter not-as-strict one, which I learned from DB Hart.


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