The God Fearin' Fiddler has a post up on the historical significance of transubstantiation which has led to some interesting discussions. The principle problem with this post and the discussion that follows it, however, is that no one seems to understand the difference between transubstantiation and the Real Presence. Unfortunately, I'm not an expert on this either, but I do think I know enough to clear up some historical and metaphysical confusion. I am going to use two principal sources - session 13 of the Council of Trent, and the relevant article from the Catholic Encyclopedia - to explain the historical development and specific content of the doctrine of transubstantiation, and then attempt to show two things: (1) no such doctrine is affirmed by Ambrose in the passage the Fiddler likes to quote in this connection, and (2) it would be very difficult for Christians with strong Platonist leanings, such as Clement of Alexandria, Augustine, and most early Christian theologians, to even make sense of this doctrine, which renders it highly unlikely that they implicitly accepted it, or that they would have accepted it had it been explained to them.
Let us begin with an outline of the history. From the beginning, Christians used the words Christ himself used in describing the Eucharist. Christ himself said "this is my body" and "this is my blood." This is in essentially all of the records of the words of institution, including 1 Corinthians 11:23-29, the passage most churches read before serving the Eucharist. Christ also speaks this way in John 6, which is one of the most important texts on the theology of the Eucharist.
Now, all Christians, including even Zwingli, have used and still use this language in describing the Eucharist, so it is important to note that if Zwinglian or similar interpretations will work for the text of the New Testament, they will also work for most writers who merely adopt the New Testament's language and don't attempt to describe it in any more detail. Zwingli specifically argued for a symbolic interpretation by pointing out all the places in Scripture where "is" is used to mean "signifies." There appears to be a more or less uncontestable example of this even in the words of institution themselves, as they are recorded in Luke. Jesus says "this cup is the new covenant" (Luke 22:20, emphasis added), but the cup clearly isn't actually the new covenant (how could it be?). Rather, it is the sign and seal of the new covenant. I don't think that either Catholic and Orthodox believers, who like to interpret the words of institution literally, or fundamentalists, who like to interpret everything but the words of institution literally, would want to say that the cup literally is the new covenant.
I am not an expert on patristics (though I am working on it), but I suspect that most of the fathers, especially the earlier ones, simply used the same language as Christ and didn't provide or attempt to provide much further analysis. The question at issue here doesn't hinge on whether we affirm these words to be true. All Christians agree on that. We all agree that these words express some important truth; we don't agree about what truth they express. (Actually, there is some agreement, but there is a lot of disagreement about the details.)
That said, a case can probably be made that many of the fathers explicitly affirmed the doctrine of the Real Presence (certainly at least a few of them did), and that no writings survive from an otherwise orthodox writer in the early period of Christianity who denies this doctrine. The doctrine of the Real Presence is simply the claim that these words are to be interpreted literally: the bread is the body of Christ and the wine is the blood of Christ. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, any attempt at further analysis meets with suspicion. However, as we shall see, the Roman Catholic Church has not only given a metaphysical theory of this doctrine, but has elevated that theory to the status of dogma (that is, all members of the Church are in principle required to assent to it).
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia article, transubstantiation properly so-called (at least the details of the theory) is a uniquely Western doctrine. The word was first used by Hildebert of Tours around 1079. Note that this is contemporary with Anselm, the first of the Scholastics, but before the wide availability of the words of the Arab Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd (aka Averroes) and through him the works of Aristotle in the West. This will become significant later.
Of course, the history of the word is not a history of the doctrine. I have already outlined the doctrine of the Real Presence (it really is that simple). The Catholic Encyclopedia states that "the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation sets up a mighty bulwark around the dogma of the Real Presence and constitutes in itself a distinct doctrinal article, which is not involved in that of the Real Presence, though the doctrine of the Real Presence is necessarily contained in that of Transubstantiation." So when did this distinct doctrine develop? Before or after the use of the word? Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find an answer to that question, and I don't know enough about Anselm and friends to know whether the philosophical commitments of the 11th and 12th century Western Christian philosophers and theologians left room for full transubstantiation. However, the Catholic Encyclopedia informs us that the word first entered Catholic dogmatic definitions at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, but the text of that council says only "[Christ's] body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine; the bread being changed [Lat. transsubstantiatio] by divine power into the body, and the wine into the blood, so that to realize the mystery of unity we may receive of Him what He has received of us." Here we do have the word "form" (presumably Latin "forma") which is often a synonym of "species", a Scholastic/Aritotelian technical term used in later discussions of the doctrine. Nevertheless, since outside the technical jargon of scholasticism, "forma" just means "shape" and "species" just means "appearance," in order to show that the Fourth Lateran Council actually affirms transubstantiation as we know it today, rather than just using the word, it would have to be shown that the word already had the present day meaning. On the other hand, the word itself would seem to have some Aristotelian baggage (I promise I'm about to explain all of this - I apologize if anyone has to read this long post twice due to my poor organization): the bread and wine are not trans-formed - they retain their original form. Rather they are trans-substanced. The form remains the same, but the substance changes. This is the essence (that's another loaded term in Aristotle/Aquinas talk) of the doctrine. So it is probably affirmed by the Fourth Lateran Council.
At any rate, it is quite clear in the Council of Trent in 1563. Here are some excerpts from the thirteenth session (translated by Philip Schaff):
Chapter I ... after the consecration of the bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ ... is truly, really, and substantially contained under the species of those sensible things ...
Chapter IV On Transubstantiation. And because that Christ, our Redeemer, declared that which he offered under the species of bread to be truly his own body, therefore has it ever been a firm belief in the Church of God, and this holy Synod doth now declare it anew, that by the consecration of the bread and of the 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; which conversion is, by the holy Catholic Church, suitably and properly called transubstantiation.
The Canons anathematize anyone who disagrees with this (Canon II even anathematizes anyone who doesn't want to call it transubstantiation!), but don't really add anything.
Here is the metaphysical background: Aristotle was a proponent of what is called a "hylomorphic" metaphysics. That is, he affirmed that material objects were made up of "matter" (Gr. hylas) and "form" (Gr. morphos). There is a lot more complexity than this, but this is the basic idea. This is related to his distinction between "substance" or "essence" (Gr. ousia) and "accident" (I don't know the Greek word for this). The matter of an object is the stuff it's made out of, and it's form is its shape or organization. For the Scholastics, the Latin "species" seems to have been related to Aristotle's "form" but been more closely related to our cognition (the Catholic Encyclopedia article on this didn't make that much sense to me). Objects also have an essence, which is that in virtue of which it is the thing it is, and various accidents, or properties that could change without the object being destroyed. Often, the essence of an object is thought to be a collection of essential properties; thus I might be essentially human.
For the Scholastic/Aristotelian, the doctrine of transubstantiation is kind of weird, but no weirder than the Incarnation of the Trinity, and, more importantly, it is coherent. It is to be explained as follows: the substances or essences of the bread and wine are fully replaced by the substances or essences of the body and blood of Christ (I'm not sure if the matter is also replaced), but there is no change to the accidents, or to the form/species. Thus it still appears to be bread and wine, but it actually is the body and blood of Christ, since essence is what determines identity. Technically, the bread and wine are not changed into the body and blood, but replaced with the body and blood, since you can't change the essence of a thing and still have that same thing. Let me note that, while I'm not an expert on Aristotle, I suspect he would find it preposterous to claim that the essence of a material object could be replaced with another essence (and thus the material object be replaced with a different object) before our eyes without any perceptible difference in the matter before us.
Now we are going to examine Ambrose, and then the philosophical commitments of Augustine and his fellow Christian Platonists.
The Fiddler quotes Ambrose as saying:
Perhaps you will say, "I see something else, how is it that you assert that I receive the Body of Christ?" And this is the point which remains for us to prove. And what evidence shall we make use of? Let us prove that this is not what nature made, but what the blessing consecrated, and the power of blessing is greater than that of nature, because by blessing nature itself is changed.
... [Ambrose discusses miracles performed by the prophets] ...
We observe, then, that grace has more power than nature, and yet so far we have only spoken of the grace of a prophet's blessing. But if the blessing of man had such power as to change nature, what are we to say of that divine consecration where the very words of the Lord and Saviour operate? For that sacrament which you receive is made what it is by the word of Christ. But if the word of Elijah had such power as to bring down fire from heaven, shall not the word of Christ have power to change the nature of the elements? You read concerning the making of the whole world: "He spoke and they were made, He commanded and they were created." Shall not the word of Christ, which was able to make out of nothing that which was not, be able to change things which already are into what they were not? For it is not less to give a new nature to things than to change them.
But why make use of arguments? Let us use the examples He gives, and by the example of the Incarnation prove the truth of the mystery. Did the course of nature proceed as usual when the Lord Jesus was born of Mary? If we look to the usual course, a woman ordinarily conceives after connection with a man. And this body which we make is that which was born of the Virgin. Why do you seek the order of nature in the Body of Christ, seeing that the Lord Jesus Himself was born of a Virgin, not according to nature? It is the true Flesh of Christ which crucified and buried, this is then truly the Sacrament of His Body.
The Lord Jesus Himself proclaims: "This is My Body." Before the blessing of the heavenly words another nature is spoken of, after the consecration the Body is signified. He Himself speaks of His Blood. Before the consecration it has another name,after it is called Blood. And you say, Amen, that is, It is true. Let the heart within confess what the mouth utters, let the soul feel what the voice speaks.
In order to show that Amborse accepts transubstantiation, we have to show that he explains the words "this is my body" by the claim that the form and accidents of the bread remain, but its essence has been replaced by the essence of the body of Christ. Do you see that in the above quotation? I don't see any such thing. Ambrose certainly affirms the Real Presence: he says that if God can become human flesh, certainly he can become bread. He says that we shouldn't be surprised if Christ's body doesn't follow the ordinary course of nature, since God often performs miracles in Scripture, and since even Christ's human birth did not follow the ordinary course of nature. But I see nothing here about form and matter, or about substance and accident, or about species. And I'm not just looking for the words, I'm looking for the content. All Ambrose says is "this may look like bread, but it's actually the body of Christ, and God certainly has the power to make what looks, feels, and tastes like bread into the body of Christ." That is the doctrine of the Real Presence.
The last thing I want to cover is the issue of the Platonist leanings of many of the early fathers, notably the Alexandrians and Augustine. I shouldn't have to take pains to show this, because the Catholic Encyclopedia says, "even Augustine was deprived of a clear conception of Transubstantiation, so long as he was held in the bonds of Platonism." Nevertheless, I will at least try to explain it.
Platonism holds that material objects are what they are in virtue of their "participation" (more literally: "having a share") in a transcendant, changeless, immaterial "form" (not morphos, but eidos or idea, which Aristotle also uses, but in a somewhat different meaning than morphos, I think). You and I are both human because we participate in the form of Human, or, as Plato often says Humanity Itself. The bread is bread because of its relationship to Bread Itself. Things are, of course, generally participants in multiple forms, and everything is a participant in Goodness Itself to a greater or lesser degree because Plato holds to a privation theory of evil (which is where Augustine got it), so anything that had no goodness at all would not exist. Christian Platonists generally want to avoid the idea that the forms are co-eternal with and independent of God, so they say that they exist in God's understanding.
A Platonist does not have a concept of an essence as an Aristotelian does. Furthermore, Plato himself, and I believe most Platonists following him, generally cashes out "participation" in terms of "being patterned after." It is very difficult to see how the bread could change from being patterned after bread to being patterned after the body of Christ without any perceptible change. In what would the patterning consist? How does this object resemble a human body, and how Christ's body in particular? Now, there must be some way of getting this to work, because Father Nicolas Malebranche was a very intelligent Platonist Catholic priest in the 17th/18th century, after the Council of Trent, and he must have come up with something, but I don't know what he said.
At any rate, it is highly unlikely that any Christian Platonist held to anything like transubstantiation prior to Malebranche, and a great many of the early fathers, including, as I have said, the Alexandrian school and Augustine, were Platonists.
The situation is even worse for idealists such as myself (or 18th century Anglican Bishop George Berkeley). We don't believe that there is any such thing as the essence or substance or matter of the bread. All that exists, according to idealism, is what the Scholastics would call the "species." Transubstantiation is thus puzzling for the Aristotelian, more puzzling for the Platonist, and completely incoherent for the idealist. I should also note that most contemporary philosophers don't believe in any of these three theories, but transubstantiation is probably also incoherent for them, since material objects don't have undetectible essences (though they may have essential properties).
Now, a Christian idealist does have to come up with some explanation for the bodily resurrection and be able to say that the body that is raised is in some sense the same body although it is radically transformed in terms of its phenomenal properties. Whatever solution one comes up with for this problem could probably also be used to make sense of the doctrine of the Real Presence. However, this view cannot possibly look anything like transubstantiation, for the reasons discussed above.Posted by Kenny at November 2, 2007 6:09 PM
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