Transmutation or Transubstantiation: Sergius Bulgakov and Herbert McCabe on the Holy Eucharist


That the Holy Orthodox Church confesses the Holy Gifts to be the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ no one can doubt. But satisfactory interpretations of the eucharistic mystery are difficult to find. Somewhat surprisingly, Eastern theologians have tended to avoid the topic. In his monograph “The Eucharistic Dogma,” Sergius Bulgakov briefly reviews the history of Western reflection on the sacramental presence of Christ in the Eucharist and then com­ments: “Orthodoxy has not yet said its word here” (The Holy Grail and the Eucharist, p. 82). I think it is fair to say that in this monograph Eastern Orthodoxy has spoken a powerful, compelling, and creative word.1 Even though Bulgakov appears to misunderstand both the Roman Catholic and Lutheran positions, “The Eucharistic Dogma” remains one of the most stimulating discussions of the eucharistic transmutation I have come across.

The central problem of Western reflection, asserts Bulgakov, is a materialistic understand­ing of Christ’s risen body. Since the Middle Ages Western theologians have understood Jesus in his glori­fied corporeality as occupying space somewhere in heaven. As a result, Western reflection has been trapped in a cosmic immanentism. The ascended body of the Christ, Bulgakov believes, is properly understood as supraspatial, supraphysical, supra­mundane, supracosmic. The employment of the categories of substance and accident to elucidate this spiritual body can only distort our understanding of that which has been so radically transformed through resurrection. The ascension is an elevation to a new quality of existence. In his deified body the Lord enjoys “total mastery over corporeality” (p. 98). The incarnate Son is not locatable in any place, for he in fact transcends all places, is above all places; but in his resurrected state he has the supernatural capacity to make himself present at any time and place of his choosing. He has departed from the material world, but his departure is not an abandon­ment of the world but rather the means by which he can now enter into new forms of relationship with the world.

Bulgakov creatively speculates on the nature of Christ’s ascended body (some might say too speculatively). For our purposes it is sufficient to concentrate on his assertion that the glorified Christ is not an object within the universe. Christ no longer exists on the same ontological plane as the objects of bread and wine that are offered in the Holy Eucharist. Here is the Bulgakovian solution to the Western problematic: because the Son in his sacred humanity now transcends the world, he can identify himself with an object in the world, without compromising the constitution of either. The replacement of creaturely substance, as posited in the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, is unnecessary. In his transcendent existence Christ Jesus can now objectify himself in creaturely reality and at the very same time maintain both the integrity of his supramundane body and the integ­rity of the finite objects he has appropriated for his self-communication.

In the eucharistic transmutation the bread and wine truly become the body and blood of Christ. This is not, of course, a physical or chemical transformation; for there in fact is no thing or matter in this world for them to become. The transfigured humanity of Christ abides outside of this world. The transmutation does not resolve, abolish, or contradict this differ­ence. If any such physical change were to happen, the transmutation would be annulled and the power of the sacrament undone. But the entire being of the bread and wine, substance and accidents together, is nonetheless converted into Body and Blood. The transmuted elements stop being themselves, Bulgakov says. They now belong to another world, for they have been assimilated to the body of Jesus—yet they do not lose their “thingness” in the world. All of their physical properties remain unchanged:

The whole problem of the theory of transsubstantiatio, which is wholly for­eign to the undivided Church, flows not from the difficulty of accepting the transmutation of matter of the world into supratemporal being but from the difficulty of explaining the transformation of one material into another mate­rial within the limits of cosmic being. But no transformation at all occurs, and there is no place for a transformation, for only different things of one and the same natural world, not things that belong to different realms of being, can be transformed. Things that belong to different realms of being can only be transmuted the one into the other, while preserving their own mode of being in their own realm. The body of Christ, being manifested in the bread and wine, does not cease being a spiri­tual body, abi­ding above this world. And in becoming Christ’s body and blood, which now belong to His supramundane, glorified corpore­ality, the bread and wine do not lose their being in this world. (pp. 109-110; emphasis mine)

Note the distinction Bulgakov here makes between “transformation” and “transmutation”: transformation speaks of natural change that occurs within the created realm; transmu­tation speaks of metaphysical change that occurs when the divine Son in his glorified body identifies himself with objects of the world.

Thus, the transmutation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ signifies not the tabernacling of the heavenly Christ substantialiter into these accidents, which are then viewed as a kind of unchanging shell, but their direct conversion without any limitation and remainder into the body and blood of Christ—a true transmutation. The fact that the body and blood in their earthly nature remain what they were has no significance here. As such, they have become other than themselves; they no longer have indepen­dent existence as things of this world but belong to the body of Jesus, in the same way that the bread and fish that He ate in the presence of his disciples belonged to his body. The Lord, who in His spiritual and glorified body abides at the right hand of God the Father, creates, in the transmutation, a body for Himself from the bread, matter of this world, and animates it with His blood. (p. 115)

The bread and wine become other than what they are without ceasing to be what they are. Readers of the Fathers will immediately detect the influence of St Gregory Nyssen’s teaching of eucharistic transelementation (see chap. 37 of The Great Catechism).

When the risen and glorified Son unites himself to the eucharistic oblations, a mysterious change occurs. The bread and wine continue to be bread and wine (no chemical or material change is involved); yet in their true reality they are Body and Blood, no longer belonging to this world:

As a result of this trans­mutation, the bread and wine with all their proper­ties stop being matter of this world, stop belonging to the world, but become the true body and blood of Christ. This transmutation is accom­plished through their unification with the Lord’s spiritual and glorified body that ascended from the world but now appears in them on earth. In the capacity of earthly matter, the eucharistic elements remain bread and wine for the world, whereas, in being transmuted, they already belong to the body of Christ, which is found outside and above the world. And the elements are thereby raised to the metacosmic being of this body and manifest in themselves the corporeality of Christ on earth. (p. 124; emphasis mine)

The transmutation, therefore, can only be understood as a radical metaphysical change, a true transcensus. In the transmutation the glorified Christ identifies himself with the material objects of bread and wine. Two separate worlds, two separate domains of being are united. Bulgakov describes it as an antinomic miracle—“an identity of things that are different and a differentiation of things that are identical.” Thus we must say both that the consecrated bread and wine truly are the Body and Blood of Christ and that the Body and Blood of Christ are the eucharistized bread and wine.

Bulgakov turns to St Gregory of Nyssa and St John of Damascus for help in understanding the eucharistic transmutation. Both Fathers note that throughout his earthly life the God-man was nourished by eating various kinds of food and drink, which were then assimilated into his body and became his body. Bulgakov describes this as a “natural transubstantia­tion.” Through the process of eating and physical assimilation, Jesus enters into commu­nion with the world and the world with Jesus. Food and drink become the Lord’s body and blood. Here we see revealed the profound depth of the Incarnation: the eternal Son incor­porates himself into the organic universe and becomes part of its cyclical metabolism.

At the Last Supper Jesus short-circuits this process in a miraculous instant. The bread and wine that would have become his body and blood through eating and digestion become his Body and Blood outside of his body, independently of the act of consumption. The conclu­sion of the natural process of assimilation is, as it were, supernaturally projected back to the moment when Jesus speaks the consecrating words. Bread that was destined to become his body becomes his body; wine that was destined to become his blood becomes his blood. The miracle occurs not by a physical change of the elements, not by their phys­ical absorption into Jesus’ body through natural processes, but through the miracle of transmutation. It’s as if Jesus extended his corporeality beyond the determinate body that sat before the disciples. Thus Christ was able to give himself to them as food and drink, thereby uniting them to himself in intimate communion and completing the process of corporal assimilation. And so the disciples ate the Lord’s body and drank his blood and were united to him in his deified body.

Through the descent of the Holy Spirit, this transmutation occurs at every Holy Eucharist, but with one difference: Christ Jesus has been crucified, buried, and raised by God into a new mode of physical existence. His body has been transfigured and eternalized in the triune life of the Godhead. In his glorified body Christ now exists outside of the world, yet he has abandoned neither the world nor his body. He demonstrates his commitment and connec­tion to the world by breaking bread and eating fish with his disciples after his resurrection (Luke 24:30; 24:41-43). He eats the bread and fish not to nourish himself but to demon­strate his corporeal identity with the Crucified. Through the Eucharist the transcendent Lord establishes a new union with the things of this world. Just as he desired at the Last Supper to give himself as food and drink to his disciples, so he accomplishes this same purpose in the Eucharist of the Church, until the recreation of the cosmos and his return in glory.


Christ makes himself present in the Eucharist for communion. He desires to unite the baptized to his spiritual, glorified body, and he effects this end by making “material His body and blood for us in the sacrament.” It is thus necessary for the consecrated elements to retain their natural properties as food and drink because Christ desires to give himself to his people as food and drink:

In this world and for the life of this world, the bread and wine remain bread and wine. Their transmutation is not a physical but a metaphysical transmu­tation; it transcends this world. This transmutation does not exist for this world, which is why the eucharistic elements retain all the proper­ties of natural matter even after the transmu­tation. But these elements become Christ’s body and blood immediately, as such, without any transfor­mation. The transmutation here is not a physical transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood through a physico-chemical process. The Catholic transubstantatio wishes to explain why this does not take place, excusing the absence of a miracle of natural transformation. But such an understanding of the transmutation diminishes the sacrament and distorts its meaning. The meaning of the sacrament consists not in the fact that believers eat a particle of the body and blood in its natural form, but in the fact that they take communion of the one, indivisible body and blood of the Lord, being united with Him bodily and therefore spiritually. We could not take commu­nion of the spiritual, glorified body and blood of the Lord if He did not make material His body and blood for us in the sacrament. By eating food in the presence of His disciples, the Lord manifested matter of this world as united with His glori­fied body, whereas, in the sacrament, He offers Himself to be eaten, uniting Himself with matter of this world. (pp. 110-111; emphasis mine)

Is there a genuine conflict between Bulgakov’s presentation of the eucharistic presence and the Roman Catholic dogma of transubstantiation? No doubt it depends on which theologian is exegeting the dogma. A definite conflict appears to exist, for example, if Regis Scanlon’s interpretation represents the dominant Catholic position. In his 1995 article “Is Christ ‘Really’ Among Us Today?” Scanlon, referencing St Thomas Aquinas and Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Mysterium Fidei, posits a distinction between what exists in the physical order and what exists in the mind:

So, Paul VI says that, after the consecration, “nothing remains of the bread and wine except for the species.” Now, “species” is not an essence, a sub­stance, or a thing which exists outside the mind of the person. Rather, it is an impression upon our senses caused by the thing, which the intellect uses to judge (categorize) what kind of thing exists outside the mind. Species exists in the mind as a definition of the thing. “Species,” therefore, has “being” in the mind, but it does not have being “outside the soul.” Thus, St. Thomas says: “species is one of the accidents that follow upon the nature because of the being it has in the intellect.” So, when Paul VI says that “nothing remains of the bread and wine except the species,” he is saying that bread and wine exist only in the mind (intellect and senses) of the communicant, and, therefore, the reality outside his mind, which he handles and eats, is not physical bread and wine!

But, obviously, there is something physical outside the mind of the commu­nicant after the consecration, or he could not handle and eat the Eucharist. What is this something which is physical? Paul VI gives us the answer when he states: “Christ is present whole and entire in His physical ‘reality’ corpo­really present, although not in the manner in which bodies are present in place (totus et integer Christus adest in sua physica ‘realitate’ etiam corpora­liter praesens, licet non eo modo quo corpora adsunt in loco).” Therefore, when the Church teaches that the “whole substance of bread” and the “entire substance of wine” is changed into the whole substance of Jesus Christ, she is saying that transubstantiation involves a change in “matter” and “body,” which is a change in the “physical” order of reality. The “physical reality” which exists outside the mind and after the consecration is Jesus Christ and not bread and wine. (Emphasis mine; also see Scanlon’s article “This Is My Body … My Blood” [New Oxford Review, Feb. 2002])

If this was the kind of transubstantation with which Bulgakov was acquainted, then we can understand why he so emphatically rejected it. It sure sounds like the doctrine is saying that God effects a molecular or material change of the bread and wine but tricks our senses and minds so we can’t see and feel what’s really there—in other words, a natural change rather than eschatological transmutation.

Herbert McCabe, on the other hand, rejects interpretations similar to those of Scanlon. He deems them caricatures of the profound change intended by the doctrine of transubstan­tia­­tion, at least as understood by Aquinas. The conversion is not a substantial change, a change of one thing into another thing, as an alchemist might change lead into gold. It occurs at the level of esse (i.e., existence) and is therefore akin to God’s creation of the universe from out of nothing:

For Aristotle when bread becomes human flesh (as when you eat it) it is because a ‘substantial change’ (cf. ‘chemical change’) has taken place. This means that matter which at one time had the substantial form of bread now has the form of flesh. It is by such changes that old things perish and new things come into existence—by being made out of some predecessor…. 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….

Now it is this depth of divine causality that (without using any natural causes) is going on, says St Thomas, in the eucharistic consecration. 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 this world. (“Eucharistic Change“; emphasis mine)

According to McCabe, therefore, transubstantiation is not literally a change (mutatio). The bread and wine have not transformed into some other stuff. If a scientist were to examine the consecrated elements (and of course no Catholic or Orthodox priest would ever permit such an examination), he or she would discover that nothing’s been altered at the chemical or molecular level—not because God interferes with our perceptual powers but because the eucharistic change is not a changing. The transubstantio occurs at a level of which neither the natural sciences nor metaphysics can offer an account.2 And yet so profound is the change that to speak literally of the consecrated elements as bread and wine would misdescribe them. Why then do we still see and touch bread and wine? Because the glorified body of Christ, McCabe explains, is not something that can “be seen within our world as part of our world; if it is to be manifest amongst us it can only be by signs, by sacramental signs: and this is just what the Eucharist is.”

How far apart are Bulgakov and McCabe? That’s an interesting question.



[1] Also see Andrew Louth, “The Eucharist in the Theology of Fr Sergii Bulgakov.”

[2] Also see my article “Eschatological Transubstantiation.”

(A large portion of this article originally appeared on my old Pontifications blog on 28 February 2008, now revised and expanded.)

This entry was posted in Herbert McCabe & Friends, Sacraments, Sergius Bulgakov and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Transmutation or Transubstantiation: Sergius Bulgakov and Herbert McCabe on the Holy Eucharist

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    It has been many years since I originally wrote my article on Bulgakov and transmutation. If anyone detects any misunderstandings or confusions on my part, please let me know so I can correct my presentation. Thanks.


  2. Iain Lovejoy says:

    Is there any analogy between the incarnate Christ being both entirely physically a man and also entirely God and the bread and wine being both still physically bread and wine and metaphysical / spiritually (I confess to some difficulty following the arguments) the body and blood of Christ? I can get my head round something being the physical incarnation of a non-physical thing, because these are two different modes or senses of being (“being” is the wrong word, but you get the drift). If that’s not approximately what is meant, I am somewhat at sea.


  3. Pingback: The Eucharist is not magic – The Humble Word

  4. Garreth ashe says:

    A very good read with regards to understanding the Eucharist as Transubstantiation is Theology, Psychoanalysis and Trauma by the Catholic theologian Marcus Pound, worth checking out.


  5. mercifullayman says:

    An interesting commentary here may be that we as Christians have missed the whole idea from the start, and Bulgakov tends closer to the truth. Someone like Jacob Milgrom would say that most of judaism, even as a conservative rabbi, missed the mark on the levitical system. To him, it was more about the holy being able to come on in contact with the common, and no potential existential issues arising. Blood, was seen as a semi-divine/semi-human thing. Jesus, as God-Man, then proves that to be true by redeeming us literally and metaphysically. As well as proving the Christological debates correct in that both natures would have to subside in man for it to be able to approach God, so that the holy wouldn’t annihilate that which was different in kind. I also think about the Nyssen in his “life of Moses” where he talks about the brazen serpent being an antidote to sin, just like Christ. The Eucharist is both a literal good we need (ie food and beverage) as well as a metaphysical answer (the antidote to our sin.) We are no different than a sick patient needing the remedy of the Great Physician. Bulgakov hints at this and I think He’s right. I haven’t read the complete work, but I’d find it probably akin to explaining even the nuts and bolts of how Jesus had a body, but also one that could move through material objects, even when solid.


  6. Caleb De Jong says:

    Maybe Blake is helpful here. His insistence on the primacy of spiritual perception over mundane perception (without discounting the latter) could equally apply to the Eucharist viz. the physical/metaphysical (or accidental/essential) divide that Bulgakov and McCabe suggest: “I assert for myself that I do not behold the outward creation, and that to me it is hindrance and not action. ‘What!’ it will be questioned, ‘when the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire, somewhat like a guinea?’ Oh! no! no! I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host, crying, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!’ I question not my corporeal eye, any more than I would question a window concerning a sight. I look through it, and not with it.” Of course, Blake sees the whole world as one giant sacrament awaiting worthy beholders. But, in that respect, he is not so far from Bulgakov in the Holy Grail….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      That reminds me of a story told to me by Leanne Payne almost 40 years ago. She and Agnes Sanford had just arrived at an Anglo-Catholic Episcopal Church to conduct a healing mission. They walked into the Church and saw the Tabernacle and lighted sanctuary lamp. Leanne immediately genuflected but Agnes did not. Leanne was puzzled and asked her why she had not genuflected. “Because Jesus is not there,” she replied, and then knelt down and started to pray, as did Leanne. A few minutes later the priest walked out of the sacristy, bringing with him the ciborium containing the Blessed Sacrament and returned it the Tabernacle. Agnes Sanford had “seen” the sacramental absence of the light of the risen Christ.


      • danaames says:

        The writings of Leanne Payne and J&P Sandford, who earlier ministered with Agnes, were of help to me in my mid- to-later Protestant years – a different view of things than the typical “Bible-only” non-sacramental Evangelicalism with which I was most familiar. Interesting connection and story.


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  7. Fr. Patrick Fodor says:

    Merely as a major clarification of something which is a virtually ubiquitous error on Luther and Lutheran teaching, at least in any historical sense, consubstantiation is certainly not what the Book of Concord teaches or what Luther said. Luther actually taught “identical predication.” What he said, effectively, was that real bread IS the real Body of Christ, and real wine IS the real blood of Christ after the consecration. Luther’s own perspective is demonstrated by many actual events, including his last mass ,where, because of his shaking hands, he spilled some of the contents of the chalice, then placed the chalice on the altar, and got down on his hand and knees to lick up the Blood of Christ off the floor while the congregation wept. Major documentation of many details, as well as technical understandings are located in the 601 page ThD dissertation from Concordia Seminary- St. Louis, by Edward Peters, back in 1968, “The Origin and Meaning of the Axiom: ‘Nothing has the Character of a Sacrament Outside of the Use,’ in Sixteenth and Seventeenth -Century Lutheran Theology.” (The long and short of the axiom, as a side note, is that the “use” is the consumption. This is not Receptionism, which is rejected as heresy, but the insistence that after – and because of- the consecration, until the elements are themselves destroyed, they remain the Body and Blood of Christ), and in the PhD dissertation by Albert Colver III, “‘Real Presence’ A Confession of the Lord’s Super- The Origin and Development of the Term in the 16th Century.” This was also done at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, in 2001. As a clarification, I was an LCMS pastor for 11 1/2 years, but now serve as an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in America (a Missal-using “Continuing Anglican” Church, not to be confused the ACNA, etc.) .


  8. Ed says:

    A question Father. According to Bulgakov,

    “But no transformation at all occurs, and there is no place for a transformation, for only different things of one and the same natural world, not things that belong to different realms of being, can be transformed. Things that belong to different realms of being can only be transmuted the one into the other, while preserving their own mode of being in their own realm. ”

    So, what occurred at the last supper when our Lord instituted the Eucharist? His body at that time was in this realm, not in the other realm.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Good question, Ed. I’ll have to take a look at Bulgakov’s essay to see if he addresses the Last Supper. Perhaps we need to see it as a proleptic conversion, given as you point out that it occurs before both Pascha and Pentecost.

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