Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Transubstantiation and Its Historical Significance

This is a response to Dave, continuing our discussion from this post.

On prayers for the dead - it's in our Scriptures, not yours but it is a Jewish tradition.

I think the doctrine of Transubstantiation is absolutely critical. It affects how we treat the species (come to a mass you'll see what I mean). The Eucharist is the center of our liturgy.

In the PCA where I grew up, after communion the leftover grape juice and crackers would just be chucked in the trash or consumed by kids. This isn't uncommon. But if we were to believe that by taking it unworthily we were profaning the body of Christ as Paul said, what does throwing it in the trash do? How can we profane the body of Christ by unworthily eating a cracker? I do that all the time!

As for the Aristotle argument, I'm pretty ignorant on Greek philosophy but I have heard that sort of a charge too. First, just because a pagan says something doesn't make it false. Pagan philosophers can easily be right about things. (Aristotle was just talking about the nature of the universe or existence - not of the body of Christ obviously). In fact, part of the apologetic task of some of the early Church fathers (Origen comes to mind) was to explain to their accusers how the Greek philosophers had gotten so much right without Christ - if Christ was indeed the Truth incarnate.

So if our explanation of the Eucharistic species sounds similar to his or is even wholly reliant upon it, I dont see how that would discredit it one bit. We call it a mystery - not an easily fathomable event. We may use whatever human-level conventions we have to attempt and comprehend it or to explain it in a way that is accessible to us ignorant men on earth - but it doesn't detract (or add to) the truthfulness of the doctrine). The doctrine gets its truth from Christ Himself.

In the John 6 discourse we see that a literal interpretation versus symbolic does make quite a
difference. You say that a 'non-literal' reading is the obvious. I have to take issue here. I think the only objective measure one could possibly use to decide what is an "obvious" interpretation of a passage and what is not "obvious" would be this - if the majority of readers understand it in way X then we could objectively say (at some level) that way X is the obvious reading (right or wrong).

Immediately from the first teaching (presumably John chapter 6) we see that historically, it was taken very literally. Jesus lost many disciples that day. It is appropriate here to remind ourselves that Jesus did not correct those who left Him because of a literal interpretation. How could they accept this hard teaching? How could it literally be true "this is My Body" and not be a violation against the Law of God? - cannibalism - eating blood etc... The Eucharist is precisely the way in which it can satisfy both conditions. This is the great mystery we celebrate.

Furthermore, as I have mentioned, outside the NT we see that the early Christians unanimously read this literally. St. Ignatius does mention some who did not - and criticizes them sharply for it. St. Ambrose, the mentor of St. Augustine, gives a discourse on Transubstantiation that would be exactly as a 21st century Catholic would speak of it - in case there were any charge of Transubstantiation being different than merely "Real Presence".

This was the issue for me that ultimately led me to accept the Catholic Church. I am thoroughly convinced of the centrality of this doctrine to Christianity. St. Ignatius called the Eucharist 'the medicine of immortality'. The early Christian Church was a sacramental one - centered around the Lord's table. Thats why Church history matters and thats why I stand behind my original criticism of the aforementioned Protestant church history lecture because it glossed over the doctrines of the early Church.

19 comments:

Thos said...

I think it worthwhile to add to your comment, "Furthermore, as I have mentioned, outside the NT we see that the early Christians unanimously read this literally."

I just read St. Vincent of Lerins' Commonitorium (c. 434) which adds great weight to the view of the early Fathers re: transubstantiation. He gives the rule of Scriptural interpretation, that while there are many reasonable interpretations, even those used by heretics, the proper interpretation is what has always been held by the great doctors (teachers) of the church.

Peace in Christ,
Thos.

Big Guy said...

About prayers to the dead, don't forget you can post a link to one of your earlier posts (a couple of months ago) that discusses a news story of modern-day orthodox Jews praying for the dead at a funeral. It seems that the Protestant faith is the only religion that claims Judeo-Christian roots that is incongruent on this doctrine, Scripture or no Scripture. The Orthodox Christians pray for the dead, the Catholics pray for the dead, and the Jews pray for the dead.

If we are to assume that Christianity is the perfection of Judaism, we would assume some continuity with traditions that are not opposed to God's will. Where there is no continuity there is a clear breach of resemblance between the two. Hence, it can be argued logically that Protestantism is a "new" religion and not a continuous one, which would negate the meaning of the New Covenant and the gathering together of the people of Israel and the Gentiles into those people.

What do you think?

big guy said...

Prayers "for" the dead.

TheGodFearinFiddler said...

Good points.

Catholics still hold to the doctrine that the unanimous interpretation by Church Fathers on a particular passage is to be considered authoritative. (They werent always unanimous but where they were, we are not free to arbitrarily disagree).

And here is the post on praying for the dead.

Mike Ogden said...

"The early Christian Church was a sacramental one - centered around the Lord's table." Agreed, but how is the removal of the "table" from the context of an actual meal to be justified? Is it possible the historical significance of the sacrament has been altered through its ritualization?

Peace,
Mike

TheGodFearinFiddler said...

Mike - We justify it on the sacred tradition handed to us from the apostles. The Catholic Church does not have the authority to alter the essentials of the ritual.

Weekend Fisher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Weekend Fisher said...

I am a firm believer in the Real Presence. Still, there is a difference between Real Presence and the particular philosophical theory of Transubstantiation. Lutherans also would have no objection to the quote you linked, and would give it a hearty Amen. Or as one RC friend of mine asked, "How come certain evangelicals say 'what it says is what it means and that is the end of the discussion' when it comes to Genesis, but suddenly become sophisticated critics when the phrase is 'This is my body'?"

Take care & God bless
WF

Kenny said...

As I've commented before, I also take the Real Presence seriously (I don't assent to it at present, primarily because I'm a metaphysician and I haven't figured out what it even MEANS according to my metaphysics; I'm working on that), but I don't take transubstantiation seriously. Ambrose doesn't discuss transubstantiation, but only (at most) the Real Presence. I don't know about Ambrose, but Augustine was a Platonist, so transubstantiation probably doesn't work for him, but I'm not familiar with Augustine's particular brand of Platonism.

Luther's "consubstantiation" has almost as much metaphysical baggage as transubstantiation; it's only better in that it allows you to require that substances have at least some perceptible essential properties. Neither of them make any sense if your metaphysics gets too far from Aristotle's (as mine is). As you point out, just because a Pagan philosopher thought of it doesn't mean it's false, but I would argue instead that having that kind of pedigree disqualifies it, or at least casts serious doubt upon it, as a dogma of the Church. To put that in good Catholic terms, I think that matters of the metaphysics of substances and properties are outside the Church's magisterium. That's not to say that certain metaphysical theories might be incompatible with Christian doctrine. That certainly happens (physicalism is such a theory, as is any theory of the identity of bodies over time that makes the bodily resurrection of the dead an impossibility). But Rome would have done better to proclaim the Real Presence and not add a bunch of additional metaphysical baggage.

On transubstantiation specifically (as opposed to the Real Presence), see the Council of Trent, Session 13, chapters 1 and especially 4. I seem to remember that there was a more detailed discussion in, I think, the Fourth Lateran Council, but I don't have that text handy (it might have been one of the other Lateran Councils). Note that in chapter 4, "species" and "substance" are technical terms of Aristotelian metaphysics.

TheGodFearinFiddler said...

Transubstantiation is a dogma of the Catholic Church. She has staked her reputation on it and is willing to 'die on that hill' so to speak. So if you could disprove it, you would disprove the Catholic Church.

Like I said I'm not well studied in Greek philosophy (nor do I care to be). Ambrose didn't call it Transubstantiation but he is talking about the same thing we're talking about. We mean the same thing - no need for word games.

"Let us prove that this is not what nature made, but what the blessing consecrated," it is no longer natural substance - but supernatural. No amount of name dropping is going to change the simple reality of what the early Fathers believed on it. It's not a complicated issue - the bread becomes the body of Christ. Period. Thats all we need to know - thats all we can know and thats the greatest level at which anyone can understand it. It's a mystery.

I'd recommend you read Chesterton's Orthodoxy if you haven't already. You remind me of the scientist who tries to build a bridge over an endless sea and goes mad instead. Rather - you ought to be like the artist who builds a boat and sails freely in the endless sea.

Consider how many of the greatest minds in the world (not the least of which St. Thomas Aquinas) have explicitly believed whole heartedly without reservation in Transubstantiation. And don't you find it a bit odd that you have discovered a bit of metaphysical truth by studying the Greek philosophers that they completely missed? This isn't a fringe belief but a widely held dogma which has and continues to attract the greatest minds of the human race.

Kenny said...

I've just finished a lengthy post explaining how transubstantiation differs from the Real Presence, and arguing that it is highly unlikely that any of the Fathers affirmed this doctrine, and in particular that (1) Ambrose doesn't affirm it in the passage you cite, and (2) the Alexandrians and Augustine would have had great difficulty even making sense of it because of their metaphysical commitments. (The Catholic Encyclopediia explicitly agrees with me on the latter point.)

Contrary to your assertion, transubstantiation is not a simple matter. You say "the bread becomes the body of Christ. Period. Thats all we need to know - thats all we can know and thats the greatest level at which anyone can understand it. It's a mystery." This is the position of the Eastern Orthodox Church; it is not the position adopted by the Roman Catholic Church in the Council of Trent. The Council of Trent provides a detailed metaphysical explanation of this "mystery" which is anything but simple (see my blog post).

I don't claim to have discovered something that no one else has. Transubstantiation has always been controversial, and the Eastern Orthodox Church has never accepted it in the form in which it appears in the Council of Trent. Furthermore, its Aristotelian roots are well known. St. Thomas, as you are no doubt aware, references Aristotle about as often as he references Scripture. (You may not know that he also references the Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd, aka Averroes, with great frequency.)

Dave Gudeman said...

When I said that the figurative interpretation is the obvious one, I wasn't talking about John 6, I was talking about "This is my body which is broken for you" and then he breaks the bread. I'm sorry, but anyone who doesn't think that the obvious interpretation for this is figurative has been too long in his books and needs to take a breather in the real world.

Or course, just because the figurative interpretation is the most obvious, that does not mean that it is the correct interpretation. Similarly, just because the literal interpretation of the John 6 quote is the most obvious one, that does not mean that it is correct.

And you still haven't explained what difference it makes whether the bread is figuratively the body of Christ or whether it is literally the body of Christ in some peculiar sense of "literal" that no one understands or can rationally distinguish from "figurative".

Dave Gudeman said...

"How come certain evangelicals say 'what it says is what it means and that is the end of the discussion' when it comes to Genesis, but suddenly become sophisticated critics when the phrase is 'This is my body'?"

Well, I don't think they say "end of discussion". If you would ask them about the difference, then they would probably say that some of the Bible is literal and some is not, and that it is a function of hermeneutics to determine what is to be taken literally and what is not. In the case of Genesis 1, it reads like history and begins a book of history and it doesn't seem to mean anything when taken figuratively but does mean something when taken literally, so it should be taken literally. By contrast, "this is my body" was spoken in a context where figurative speech would have been appropriate by a man given to figurative speech, and when taken figuratively it has a meaning that is appropriate to the context but when taken it literally it makes no sense. Therefore it should be taken figuratively.

TheGodFearinFiddler said...

Would you treat the Eucharist any differently if you believed it was literally the body of Christ than you do now? IE would you throw away the excess?

Dave Gudeman said...

It's hard to answer that question because I have no idea what it means for it to be literally the body of Christ but actually just bread. I have no mental categories for reasoning about such a situation.

TheGodFearinFiddler said...

Then how can you say it doesn't matter whether A or B is true if you don't understand what B is/could be like. Because the truth is it really does make a difference (right or wrong).

bill said...

"By contrast, "this is my body" was spoken in a context where figurative speech would have been appropriate by a man given to figurative speech, and when taken figuratively it has a meaning that is appropriate to the context but when taken it literally it makes no sense."

And there it is. Arianism in all of it's glory.

Dave Gudeman said...

"And there it is. Arianism in all of it's glory."

Arianism is characterized by common-sense hermeneutics? I thought it had something to do with the Trinity...

bill said...

It actually has something to do with the divinity of Christ. Read and compare.