Transubstantiation: From Stumbling Block to Cornerstone

The Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist is a real stumbling block to some Protestants who are seriously considering Catholicism. It was for me too, until I explored the subject, historically and scripturally. What follows is a summary of my deliberations.

Catholicism holds that bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ when they are consecrated by the priest celebrating the Mass. Oftentimes non-Catholics get hung up on the term transubstantiation, the name for the philosophical theory that the Church maintains best accounts for the change at consecration. The Church’s explanation of transubstantiation was influenced by Aristotle’s distinction between substance and accident.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), like most philosophers of his time, wanted to account for how things change and yet remain the same. So, for example, a “substance” like an oak tree remains the same while undergoing “accidental” changes. It begins as an acorn and eventually develops roots, a trunk, branches, and leaves. During all these changes, the oak tree remains identical to itself. Its leaves change from green to red and brown, and eventually fall off. But these accidental changes occur while the substance of the tree remains.

On the other hand, if we chopped down the tree and turned into a desk, that would be a substantial change, since the tree would literally cease to be and its parts would be turned into something else, a desk. According to the Church, when the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, the accidents of the bread and wine do not change, but the substance of each changes. So, it looks, tastes, feels, and smells like bread and wine, but it literally has been changed into the body and blood of Christ. That’s transubstantiation.

The Communion of the Apostles by Luca Signorelli (c. 1500)

There are several reasons why it would be a mistake to dismiss transubstantiation simply because of the influence of Aristotle on its formulation. First, Eastern Churches in communion with the Catholic Church rarely employ this Aristotelian language, and yet the Church considers their celebration of the Eucharist perfectly valid. Second, the Catholic Church maintains that the divine liturgies celebrated in the Eastern Churches not in communion with Rome (commonly called “Eastern Orthodoxy”) are perfectly valid as well, even though the Eastern Orthodox rarely employ the term transubstantiation.  Third, the belief that the bread and wine are literally transformed into Christ’s body and blood predates Aristotle’s influence on the Church’s theology by over 1000 years. For it was not until the thirteenth century, and the ascendancy of St. Thomas Aquinas’ thought, that Aristotle’s categories were employed by the Church in its account of the Eucharist. In fact, when the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) employed the language of substantial change, St. Thomas had not even been born!

It was that third point that I found so compelling and convinced me that the Catholic view of the Eucharist was correct. It did not take long for me to see that Eucharistic realism (as I like to call it) had been uncontroversially embraced deep in Christian history. This is why Protestant historian, J. N. D. Kelly, writes: “Eucharistic teaching, it should be understood at the outset, was in general unquestioningly realist, i.e., the consecrated bread and wine were taken to be, and were treated and designated as, the Savior’s body and blood.” I found it in many of the works of the Early Church Fathers, including St. Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 110), St. Justin Martyr (A.D. 151), St. Cyprian of Carthage, (A. D. 251), First Council of Nicaea (A. D. 325), St. Cyril of Jerusalem (A. D. 350), and St. Augustine of Hippo (A. D. 411) . These are, of course, not the only Early Church writings that address the nature of the Eucharist. But they are representative.

This should, however, not surprise us, given what the Bible says about the Lord’s Supper. When Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples (Mt. 26:17-30; Mk. 14:12-25; Lk. 22:7-23), which we commemorate at Holy Communion, he referred to it as a Passover meal. He called the bread and wine his body and blood. In several places, Jesus is called the Lamb of God (John 1: 29, 36; I Peter 1:19; Rev. 5:12). Remember, when the lamb is killed for Passover, the meal participants ingest the lamb. Consequently, St. Paul’s severe warnings about partaking in Holy Communion unworthily only make sense in light of Eucharistic realism (I Cor. 10:14-22; I Cor. 11:17-34). He writes: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? . . . Whoever, therefore eats and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” (I Cor. 10:16; 11:27)

In light of all these passages and the fact that Jesus called himself the bread of life (John 6:41-51) and that he said that his followers must “eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood” (John 6:53), the Eucharistic realism of the Early Church, the Eastern Churches (both in and out of communion with Rome), and the pre-Reformation medieval Church (fifth to sixteenth centuries) seems almost unremarkable. So, what first appeared to be a stumbling block was transformed into a cornerstone.

Francis J. Beckwith

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).