The Eucharistic Dogma as Sacramental Identification

It is remarkable that for hundreds of years the Church did not find it necessary to formally dogmatize a particular definition of the Holy Eucharist. Despite real differences of expres­sion, significant conflict between theologians and churches did not arise. The one Church was able to comprehend Ambrose, John Chrysostom, and Gregory Nyssen, as well as Ter­tullian, Origen, and Augustine. At the deep level of liturgy and prayer, the Church was united in a common confession and enactment of the sacramental promises of Christ: “This is my body. This is my blood.” That is to say, the Church was united in the real identification of the consecrated bread and wine with the body and blood of the Savior. It is this sacramental identification that serves as the eucharistic dogma of the Church catholic. Through the super­natural power of consecration, the eucharistic bread and wine not only represent and symbolize, convey and communicate the body and blood; they are the body and blood. The mystery of eucharistic identity is, as Francis J. Hall writes, “the ultimate affirmation of catholic doctrine in every age” (Dogmatic Theology, IX:119).

The dogma of real identification must be distinguished from the doctrine of the real pres­ence. The latter is often expounded as if it were the revealed premise of the Holy Eucha­rist; but as Hall explains, “Our Lord did not say, ‘My body is present in, with and under this,’ but ‘This is My body’” (IX:138). The real presence is an inference from the eucharistic dogma. The risen Christ is present in the Eucharist because his body and blood are pre­sent, and his body and blood are present because the consecrated bread and wine are his body and blood. “Christ is in that Sacrament,” affirms St Ambrose, “because it is the Body of Christ” (De mysteriis 9.5).

In the Eastern Church the mystery of real identification came to dogmatic expression at the Second Council of Nicaea (A.D. 787). The council was convened to address the heresy of icono­clasm—the denial that images of Jesus and the saints may be properly venerated and reverenced. The iconoclasts maintained that a true icon is identical (homo­ousios) with its prototype. In Scripture and the theological tradition, Jesus Christ is named the Image of the Father. He serves as this perfect image because he is eternally begotten by and consub­stan­tial with the Father. Only thus does he reveal who God is; only thus may he be given the worship, adoration, and devotion properly offered to the Almighty Creator. A material painting of Jesus, as with all icons, does not enjoy a oneness of being with the object it depicts. The image may point us to its prototype, but it cannot make him truly present; hence the opposition of the iconoclasts to the veneration of icons. They did, however, recognize one divinely-instituted image of the incarnate Son—his eucharistic body and blood. The Eucharist perfectly images Christ because it is identical in essence with Christ, who in turn is identical in essence with his Father and is therefore worthy of divine worship and reverence.1

The iconodules did not take issue with the iconoclastic claim that the Holy Gifts are homo­ousios with the body and blood of the risen Christ. The iconodules and iconoclasts shared a common liturgy and a common understanding of the eucharistic identification and presence. But clearly the iconodules could not allow the iconoclasts to appropriate the Eucharist as an icon of Christ. At Nicaea II the deacon Epiphanius read a document that was gladly received by the orthodox bishops:

Thus, it has been clearly demonstrated that nowhere did either the Lord, or the Apostles, or the Fathers call the bloodless sacrifice, offered through the priest, “an icon,” but rather “this very body” and “this very blood.” … These noble ones, however, in their desire to abolish the sight of the venerable icons, have introduced indirectly another icon—which is not an icon but body and blood…. Afterwards, leaving aside falsehood, they touch for a moment upon the truth, saying that the bread does become the divine body. But, if the bread is an icon of the body, it is impossible for it to be the divine body itself. (Quoted in Daniel J. Sahas, Icons and Logos, pp. 95-96)

To speak of the Eucharist as icon implies a distinction between the sacramental forms and Christ’s glorified body, between image and prototype. But the distinction does not obtain. The Eucharist just is the flesh of Christ. “These we do not understand [as being] two,” St Nicephorus states, “but we believe that they become one and the same [body of Christ]” (quoted in John Travis, In Defense of the Faith, p. 117). With the conciliar assertion that the consecrated elements simply are the body and blood, the use of “symbol,” “figure,” and “image” to characterize the Holy Gifts largely disappears in Byzantine Christianity.

In the Latin West the dogma of real identification was clarified via a more complicated route. Through the writings of St Augustine it had become firmly established to speak of the conse­crated elements as signs through which we are given access to spiritual realities. What is unclear, however, is whether Augustine’s symbolic approach allows for a direct, realistic affirmation of identity between the sanctified bread and wine and the body and blood of the Lord. The Latin formulation of transubstantiation, culminating in the Council of Trent, might well be understood as the Church liberating itself from the inadequacies of Augus­tine’s eucharistic theology.

The Tridentine eucharistic dogma is summarily expressed in the statement that “through the Consecration of the bread and wine a conversion is made of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the Body of Christ Our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his Blood” (Decree Concerning the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eu­cha­­­rist, Chapter III). Precisely what did Trent define? Contemporary interpreters gen­er­ally agree that Trent did not formally impose Aristotelian philosophy. Colman O’Neill, for exam­ple, asserts that the Tridentine understanding of “substance” should be inter­preted pre-phil­o­sophically. At the level of commonsense, substance answers the question “What is that thing?” Thus: What is the wafer before the consecra­tion? Bread. What is it after the conse­cration? The body of Christ. “By her dogmatic statement,” O’Neill writes, “the Church makes clear the sense in which she reads the scriptural report of Christ’s words at the Last Supper: the word ‘is’ indicates, as a result of Christ’s power, real identity between what lay on the table and his body” (Colman O’Neill, New Approaches to the Eucharist, p. 98). When the Council declares that the whole substance of the bread is converted into the whole substance of the body of Christ, it is simply insisting that the bread has become the body of Christ. It is reiterating, in more sophisticated fashion, the eucharistic dogma as held by the Church since the Apostles, the dogma of real identification.

However, we must also note, as we observed earlier, the frequent use of the preposition “under” in the decrees: The body and blood are contained “under the appearances of bread and wine.” In Chapter III alone this phrase is found ten times. The Western explication of the eucharistic dogma is constructed on an opposition between external appearances and invisible reality, precisely at the point where they can presumably be separated. Christo­pher Conn maintains that Trent does not teach sacramental identification. It is metaphysi­cally impossible for a piece of bread, he states, to become “identical with a distinct, pre-existing substance (the body of Christ)” (“Transubstantiation and the Real Presence,” Philosophy and Theology 15 [2003]). The substance of bread must be replaced by the substance of body. A fundamental dualism is therefore integral to the Tridentine defini­tions. Before the conse­cration, we perceive the substances of bread and wine resting on the altar (appearance and substance in indivisible unity); after the consecration, we still sensibly perceive bread and wine but by faith now apprehend the substances of body and blood (appearance and sub­stance having been sundered). Yet must this dualism be given dogmatic status? Michael Dummett has articulated the misgivings of many regarding the scholastic formulation of transubstantiation:

The consecrated elements are, as it were, merely the discarded husk of the bread and wine earlier present, and have no more intimate connection with the Body and Blood of Christ than that. It is as if the bread and wine have stepped aside to make room for Christ’s Body and Blood, which could not otherwise be present, and, in so stepping aside, have, so to speak, left their mortal remains behind. (“The Intelligibility of Eucharistic Doctrine,” in The Rationality of Religious Belief, p. 236)

Sacramental identification solves the problem of “discarded husks” by refusing philosophical explanation. The true mystery lies in dominical determination, not in metaphysical wizardry.

In the early twentieth century a little known debate on this question occurred among Greek Orthodox theologians. Chrestos Androutsos defined the Eucharist as “that divinely insti­tuted sacrament in which Jesus Christ is present actually and really under the forms of bread and wine” (emphasis mine). Constantine Dyobouniotes attacked this formulation:

This expression [“under the forms”] … is based on the Roman doctrine … of transubstantiation, and cannot be accepted in the Eastern Church, whose Fathers teach that the bread and wine are changed (converted), into the Body and Blood of Christ … (Our Lord) said: “Take eat, this is my body,” not “under this is my body.” … If we repudiate in every way the Protestant attempt to interpret these words to mean this “represents, stands for” … how much less may we dare to substitute under this for His word, “this?” … The Eastern Church does not recognize that the substance of the bread and wine is changed into the Body and Blood of Christ while the accidents remain, under which the Body and Blood of Christ exist, but simply says that the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ by the descent of the Holy Spirit, through whom these things surpassing reason and under­standing are achieved…. All of the bread and wine is changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, and not only a part of them. (Quoted in Frank Gavin, Some Aspects of Contemporary Greek Orthodox Thought, pp. 330-333)2

It is evident that Dyobouniotes is seeking here to expound a nondualistic understanding of the real identity, an understanding that is not dependent on the separation of accident and substance. The body and blood of Christ do not exist “in” or “under” the consecrated ele­ments: “Each particle of bread and wine is Christ” (341-42, n. 7). This affirmation recalls the Greek fathers who envisioned the eucharistic transmutation as a “cultic and sacramen­tal incarnation of Christ” (Edward Schillebeeckx, The Eucharist, p. 68). Bread and wine are appropriated by the Spirit and changed, in their totality, into the body and blood. Dyobou­niotes’ contemporaries, however, sided with Androutsos and reaffirmed the language of transubstantiation to describe the eucharistic presence. I think it would be accurate to say that Orthodox theologians today would be more sympathetic to the con­cerns of Dyobou­nio­­tes, as they seek to restate the doctrine of the Eucharist apart from traditional Western categories.3 But surely both Catholic and Orthodox theologians would agree on the funda­men­tal dogmatic assertion: the eucharistic gifts are, in truth and reality, the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.

(Pontifications, 15 April 2004; rev.)



[1] See Jaroslav Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom, pp. 93-94, 109-110, 113; Jaroslav Pelikan, Imago Dei, pp. 58-59; Darwell Stone, A History of the Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist, I:147-151; Stephen Gero, “The Eucharistic Doctrine of the Byzantine Iconoclasts and its Sources.”

[2] Cf. Christiaan Kappes, “The biblical origin and Late-Antique invention (c. 536) of the Eucharistic term and definition ‘Transubstantiation.'”

[3] See, e.g., “Transmutation or Transubstantiation.”

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6 Responses to The Eucharistic Dogma as Sacramental Identification

  1. Ed says:

    Father Aidan,
    I fail to see the difficulty with the phrase “under the appearances of bread and wine.” Surely this is not a denial that the whole of the bread and the whole of the wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. It is rather an attempt to account for the fact that this mystery of transformation is not subject to any kind of scientific verification. To say that the accidents of bread and wine remain is merely to say that the mystery cannot be perceived by the senses. What we see, touch, smell, etc.. is nothing other than bread and wine. But faith assures us that it is not. It is actually the body and blood of our Lord. This is no different than saying that Christ, when he was on earth, appeared to be simply a man. There were no scientific tests you could make to prove his divinity. Yet faith assures us that he is indeed divine.
    Perhaps the difficulty lies in what we mean by a sacrament. If a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of a deeper reality then, if one were to take Dyobuniotes’s view, what would then be the sign that points to the deeper reality?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. stmichael71 says:

    I concur with Ed’s comment above. It seems to me that the Orthodox commentators were misinterpreting transubstantiation as something like Lutheran consubstantiation – i.e., ‘in, with, and under’ the bread and wine. But, of course, Catholic doctrine does not agree with that view.

    Further, I’m rather confused how ‘sacramental identification’ avoids the need to say expressly the same thing as the Catholic doctrine. I do not, in fact, see much room to say anything *other* than transubstantiation is the right way to read it. If, when you answer “The Body of Christ,” to the question, “What is this now?” you are identifying something as being, substantially, the Body of Christ. But the Orthodox will also need to answer questions like, “Why does it look like bread?”

    You will need to say it only *appears* to be so. If you don’t, Jesus will now have become white, and about 2.5″ in diameter, and so forth. And it will be impossible to say in what sense He still is seated on the right hand of the Father, etc. [Impanation theory is really problematic, btw, if you say that.] And I imagine an Orthodox theologian also needs to explain in what way drinking too much of the consecrated Eucharistic wine can make you drunk, or the Presanctified Gifts can become moldy. If everything about the Gifts is merely identical with Jesus, then Jesus became moldy – and I doubt we want to say that except in some highly qualified sense (and the million-dollar question is: with what qualification).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Ed and Michael, thank you for your comments. I hope to address some of your questions and objections in future postings. The strength of the Thomist construal of transubstantiation is that it provides an answer to the question “Why does the consecrated bread still look like bread if it has been changed into the Body of the risen Christ?” But it’s by no means clear to me that we need to be worried about that question nor is it clear to me that we need to concoct a metaphysical explanation, as if our concepts of substances and accidents have any traction when talking about the risen Christ (see my recent post on Bulgakov and McCabe). Hence while the Orthodox have been happy to use the language of transubstantiation to speak of the eucharistic change, as Fr Kappes has documented in his recent posting, they’ve also been loath to speculate on the metaphysics of the eucharistic change nor to make scholastic-style deductions based on upon it. I believe that instinct is right.

    Let me put it this way, transubstantiation makes matters too clean and neat and results in the loss of any sense “physicality” of the eucharistic embodiment. In fact, there really is no eucharistic embodiment, is there? What we perceive, what stands over against us, are only the accidents of bread and wine. We do not see Christ, we do not touch Christ, we do not eat Christ. All of that physical stuff is done to the species. This, I think, is the point of Dyobouniotes’ comments, quoted in the article. It’s not realistic enough. On this I point you to my essay “Eating Christ” which I wrote a lifetime ago. Please take a look at it and tell me what you think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I offer these thoughts with trepidation, as someone who knows next to nothing about Eucharistic theology, in either the Catholic or Orthodox traditions. They are partly inspired by a recent theological discussion I followed on Twitter. There, Jordan Daniel Wood responded to the following question: “Would it be a possible inference from your previous tweet, and your dissertation, to say that for you (and for Maximus) the non-human creation (animals, plants, inanimate nature) are, as it were, microcosmically contained within the God-Man as both arche and telos?”. His response went as follows: “Maximus says this very thing (Amb 42.32), and is a direct result, I think, of his conviction that the hypostatic union–that actual event–is the arche and telos of “all the ages and of all beings in those ages” (QThal 60.4).” Now, it seems to me that if this is true (I realise this will be controversial), then one cannot treat the body and blood of Christ as if they were merely physical realities existing side by side with others (e.g. ordinary bread and wine) on the same flat ontological plane.

      Already when we eat and drink ordinary bread and wine they are transformed into human flesh and blood, and in this way they achieve a higher mode of existence than they had as mere food and drink (and even bread and wine are already transformed natural elements: grain and grape). If we grant the ontological priority of the human being, with respect to the rest of non-human nature, then already in ordinary eating and drinking these natural elements find their arche and telos (at the natural level) in human flesh and blood, in a sort of nesting (human artifice raising grain and grape, which are themselves cultivated, to the higher level of bread and wine, which are again raised in being digested and transformed into flesh and blood). Now, if we extend this to Christ, and if we grant the view that Jordan Daniel Wood ascribes to Maximus, it would presumably follow that all natural elements (including bread and wine) are microcosmically contained within the God-Man, as the arche and telos of nature as a whole. If this is the case, it would seem that however one understands the Eucharistic transformation, it could not be a mere change of natural elements that are somehow foreign to Christ’s body and blood, into another merely natural reality, separate from them and existing at the same level. It would rather be a revelation of what they already are, in their deepest ground, which is already eternally present, but will be fully manifest in the eschatological transformation of nature.

      Anyway, this is all very speculative, but I would be interested to know if any theologians have explored ideas even remotely similar to these, with more precision and fullness than I am capable of.


  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    And while we are all ruminating on the intricacies of transubstantiation, do you Anthony Kenny’s thoughts about it:


  5. Fr. Alexis Baldwin says:

    Fr. Aidan,

    Thank you for pointing to the essay you wrote. I was awestruck by this phrase: “The bread and wine now belong to the eschaton.”

    There is a lot there, many thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

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