Aquinas on Transubstantiation (pt. I)

I have always considered what is referred to as “the real presence of Christ” in the elements of the Lord’s Supper to be riddled with problems both logical and biblical in all of its expressions (Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Lutheranism). This series is dedicated to exploring those concerns by interacting with one of the most brilliant minds to defend the doctrine, Thomas Aquinas.

All of the following quotations are from his Suma Theologica. This is the first instalment, beginning with “Article 1. Whether the Body of Christ be in this Sacrament in Very Truth, or Merely as in a Figure or Sign?”

Aquinas’ Position on the Real Presence

I answer that, the presence of Christ’s true body and blood in this sacrament cannot be detected by sense, nor understanding, but by faith alone, which rests upon Divine authority. Hence, on Luke 22:19: “This is My body which shall be delivered up for you,” Cyril says: “Doubt not whether this be true; but take rather the Saviour’s words with faith; for since He is the Truth, He lieth not.”

Aquinas’ position begins with the admission that Christ’s real, substantial, literal presence can only be identified by faith (which is why Lutheran’s refer to it as a “mystery.”) Here begins the difficulty of the position which will be explored throughout this series. The Protestant position rightfully sees a contradiction in calling the Eucharist Christ’s literal, real, physical human body, while also calling it invisible and undetectable. It cannot be literal and physical if it is not visible or detectable. Christ’s real body was literal and real, testable and detectable. If the Eucharist is not that, it is not Christ’s real body.

Aquinas’ Three Arguments

From here Aquinas transitions into three reasons why Transubstantiation is “suitable.”

1. For the Perfection of the New Law

For, the sacrifices of the Old Law contained only in figure that true sacrifice of Christ’s Passion, according to Hebrews 10:1: “For the law having a shadow of the good things to come, not the very image of the things.” And therefore it was necessary that the sacrifice of the New Law instituted by Christ should have something more, namely, that it should contain Christ Himself crucified, not merely in signification or figure, but also in very truth. And therefore this sacrament which contains Christ Himself, as Dionysius says (Eccl. Hier. iii), is perfective of all the other sacraments, in which Christ’s virtue is participated.

This is, in my estimation, the weakest of all Aquinas’ thoughts, and it presupposes a sacramentalism which I reject, but is beyond the scope of this series. It is true that Christ’s sacrifice had to be the substance of the O.T. shadows and types. No one denies that, but it’s entirely irrelevant. The fact is that Christ’s actual sacrifice, the once for all sacrifice of Christ on the cross was real and literal. It was not shadow. Why the sacrament of the cross must then be continually real and literal (yet for some reason now invisible and undiscoverable) is arbitrary, and is contradictory to logic and Scripture.

2. The Love of Christ

This belongs to Christ’s love, out of which for our salvation He assumed a true body of our nature. And because it is the special feature of friendship to live together with friends, as the Philosopher says (Ethic. ix), He promises us His bodily presence as a reward, saying (Matthew 24:28): “Where the body is, there shall the eagles be gathered together.” Yet meanwhile in our pilgrimage He does not deprive us of His bodily presence; but unites us with Himself in this sacrament through the truth of His body and blood. Hence (John 6:57) he says: “He that eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, abideth in Me, and I in him.” Hence this sacrament is the sign of supreme charity, and the uplifter of our hope, from such familiar union of Christ with us.

First, one has to wonder how appropriate it is to take truths which apply to Christ’s physical presence during His ministry, and then apply them to a new kind of physical presence altogether unlike the original. That is what Aquinas does, and the logic of this is suspect.

It is true that there is a blessing to being in one’s physical presence. Perhaps we in the 21st century know this better than any as our incredible technological advancements accentuate this. We have the ability to text, call, and even video chat. Nonetheless, we all know none of these options can truly replace or replicate being in proximity. So yes, Jesus’ physical presence is a blessing, and is something for which all of God’s people are longing (Titus 2:13). But I reject that this newfound definition of “physical” carries such a blessing. Certainly I desire to be in Christ’s physical presence. That is because I long to see Him, touch Him, worship Him, and hear Him speak, all things which the consecrated host does not afford. So while I do agree with Plato and Aquinas that “it is the special feature of friendship to live together with friends,” I do not think it applies if the friend is invisible and altogether unknowable from sense perception.

There is no recognizable difference between Christ being physically absent, and Him being physically present as the doctrine of Transubstantiation asserts.

Secondly, while we are deprived of the body of Christ on this pilgrimage, the balm for this wound found not in Christ’s weekly, invisible condescension in the mass, but by the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit. Christ Himself even says that for this stage in our pilgrimage, the Spirit’s presence is actually preferable:

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.

John 16:7

The global church enjoys the presence of the Spirit in this dispensation, and it is in this way that Christ’s promise is fulfilled: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Thirdly, Aquinas’ use of Scripture is perplexing. He first cites Matthew 24:28 in an odd fashion. While the verse’s meaning is admittedly disputed, that it is some kind of proof-text for the church gathering around the Eucharist is unwarranted by the context to say the least. It’s also striking that in Calvin’s day the most popular application of the text among the Roman Catholics was seemingly not eucharistic:

“When the Papists interpret the word carcass to denote the company of those who profess the same faith, and allegorically explain the eagles to represent acute and sagacious men, it is excessively absurd, for Christ had manifestly no other design than to call to himself, and to retain in union to him, the children of God, wherever they were scattered. Nor does Christ simply employ the word body, but (ptoma) carcass; and he ascribes nothing to eagles but what we might apply to crows or vultures, according to the nature of the country which we inhabit [emphasis mine].

Calvin’s commentary on Mathew 24:28

I also take issue with how Aquinas interprets John 6:57. It is true that we are united to Christ by eating Him, but the context of the passage makes clear that eating Christ is metaphoric of believing in Him (John 6:28-47). Thus, we eat Him through faith.

3. The Perfection of Faith

It belongs to the perfection of faith, which concerns His humanity just as it does His Godhead, according to John 14:1: “You believe in God, believe also in Me.” And since faith is of things unseen, as Christ shows us His Godhead invisibly, so also in this sacrament He shows us His flesh in an invisible manner.

Aquinas’ final reason for the appropriateness of Transubstantiation is that faith is made perfect by believing in what we do not see. Yet again this is perfectly fulfilled in the life of the church without the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Jesus makes clear to Thomas that all believers after His ascension are among those who “believe yet do not see” (John 20:29).

Christ is risen. He is seated at the Father’s right hand. These are things no one observes empirically. Thus, faith is perfected in believing what is not seen, this can be fulfilled by us in believing in the Christ we do not see. It need not be fulfilled by inventing a sacrament wherein Christ is in contradictory manner both physical and simultaneously invisible.

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