Signs, Symbols, History, Science

“Is the body of Christ really and truly in this sacrament or only in a figurative way or as in a sign?”

Thomas Aquinas, first article, question 75, Summa Theologica

Transubstantiation: Theology, History, and Christian Unity, Brett Salkeld

Salkeld will rephrase Thomas’s statement, in order to clarify: “Is the Eucharist only a sign, or is it also something more?”

If it isn’t clear by that open, this post will focus on a very “inside Christian baseball” topic.  My intent is not to draw us into a theological debate, but to understand something of one of the key theological divides between Protestants, represented by Luther and Calvin, and Catholic thought, represented by Thomas, on the question of the Eucharist.  Within the context of this blog, it matters theologically only because it matters historically.

Thomas, of course, will deny that Christ is present only symbolically; he also denies that Christ is present physically – meaning not in the same way that Christ was present physically in Mary’s womb, etc.  There is no chemical change in the bread, nothing like this.

Of course, Salkeld develops the Thomistic / Catholic case much further, but I will next move on to Luther and then Calvin.  Again, not in tremendous detail – as so much of this language and theology is beyond my grasp – but offering instead some conclusions from Salkeld and others.

Luther is not dogmatic on the point, writing in The Babylonian Captivity, regarding the issue: is Christ’s real flesh and blood present in no other way, or only as accidents:

“I permit every man to hold either of these opinions as he chooses. …so that no one may fear being called a heretic if he believes that real bread and real wine are present on the alter, and that every one may feel at liberty to ponder, hold and believe either one view or the other without endangering his salvation.”

I have thought about this often, on many topics of controversy among and between Christians: does the disagreement rise to one that risks the question of salvation?  Often, I think not.

Eight years later, Luther would write:

“I have taught in the past and still teach that this controversy is unnecessary and that it is of no consequence whether the bread remains or not… It is enough for me that Christ’s blood is present; let it be with the wine as God wills.”

And I often think about this: is it so important to divide on things not clearly described, one way or the other, in Scripture?

Luther continues with even stronger words, and keeping in mind that here he is writing against those who say it is only bread and only wine (the “fanatics,” as he puts it):

“Sooner than have wine with the fanatics, I would agree with the pope that there is only blood.”

So, while the pope (or at least Thomas) didn’t say that there was only blood (in the sense of that which courses through our veins), Luther found this position more agreeable than the one claiming that it was only wine.

Salkeld concludes, based on forty-five pages of heavily footnoted examination on Luther’s views, as follows:

…Luther’s denial of transubstantiation was not a denial of what Thomas had argued.

As I recall, Salkeld earlier demonstrated that Luther was arguing against what later Catholics would present, which was different than what Thomas presented.

Furthermore, his affirmation of the persistence of the substances of bread and wine was using the term “substance” in a different way than it had been used by Thomas.

Thomas was using Aristotelian language and structure.  Luther was not.  Keep in mind that Aristotle was rejected in many ways (or every way) by Luther (coming back to my ongoing examination of the issues that many Protestants apparently have with teleologically-based natural law).

Finally, Luther’s concerns that transubstantiation led to unnecessary philosophical problems were predicated on this, nominalist, view of transubstantiation.

In other words, Luther’s affirmation of the persistence of the bread and wine should not be read as a rejection of Thomas.  Suggesting, perhaps, that had Luther been more familiar with and accepting of Aristotle’s metaphysics, much of this controversy might not have come.

Which now brings us to John Calvin, who attempts to affirm both sign and reality when different parties in the Reformation were emphasizing one to the neglect of the other.  Salkeld suggests that those who have been led to believe that Thomas and Calvin represent opposite poles on this topic might think again; they are remarkably close on many central features of their Eucharistic theology.

…more and more scholars note significant agreement between Calvin and Aquinas on real presence.

Salkeld notes several: British Baptist theologian John Colwell, who writes that he is “increasingly more impressed by the similarities than by the dissimilarities of their thought.”  The Lutheran Robert Jenson would write, “it is more remarkable that Calvinist Reformed sacramentology, seemingly so removed from Catholicism, is structurally very close to it.”

The Dominican Christopher Kiesling, a capable proponent of transubstantiation, writes in a response to Reformed theologian Ross MacKenzie:

“A growing conviction of mine has been that, if Roman Catholics did not have their particular conceptual tools for expounding the Christian faith, they would speak very much like John Calvin when they attempt to convey to others their belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.”

Unfortunately, we don’t have Calvin’s view directly.  He was writing to try to pull together the various factions that grew out of the Reformation; he does not appear to have ever addressed the Thomistic views directly.

Here again comes the issue – why divide over issues that are not clearly presented in Scripture?  Salkeld would summarize Calvin’s initial attempts at addressing this controversy within the Protestant factions:

Scripture did not engage in questions about the nature of Christ’s eucharistic presence, but merely assured us of it, and, importantly, its benefits to us.

I would like to think it is enough.  Are we capable of understanding God’s mind?


None from me.  I just thought it worthwhile to bring Salkeld’s book to some kind of conclusion.


But, coincidentally, I have been thinking about something that comes into play on this topic….

There are many Christians who read the opening chapters of Genesis as both history and science (as we use this term today).  God spoke those words, so it had to happen exactly that way.  Fair enough; for me it isn’t a question on which my faith hinges.

But, many of the same Christians will read the words of Jesus, “this is my body, this is my blood,” and not read it as science (as we use this term today) – and for sure, not history (like He actually cut out a pound of flesh to pass around).

It is not acceptable to read the opening of Genesis and God’s words in any manner other than a historical and scientific description; it is acceptable to read Jesus’s words at the Last Supper as anything but a historical and scientific description.

I am sure one of you will have a quick answer as to why this makes sense, and maybe it does.  But, maybe it doesn’t.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.

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