Aquinas on Transubstantiation: On Augustine (pt. II)


I have always considered the doctrine of “the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist” to be riddled with problems both logical and biblical in all of its expressions. This series is dedicated to exploring those concerns by interacting with one of the most brilliant minds to defend the doctrine, Thomas Aquinas (although he is only representing the Roman Catholic view of Transubstantiation).

All of the following quotations are from his Suma Theologica. This is the second instalment, still interacting with Article 1. This post examines his first two objections. (The previous post can be found here.)

Both of the objections Aquinas deals with end up being more about Augustine than the the substance of the objections. They both offer quotations from Augustine wherein he seems to interpret the Eucharist as being Christ’s body in a spiritual, not literal or physical sense. Aquinas then answers both objections the same way, claiming Augustine is being read out of context, and that Augustine’s words are not inconsistent with Transubstantiation.

Understanding Augustine

I am not an Augustinian scholar, so I won’t speak dogmatically on Augustine’s views. Nonetheless, Augustine does not appear to have held a view of the Eucharist that resembles the Roman view, and does appear to have held one that would today be much closer to the Reformed view. (Click here for a good debate on Augustine’s views of the Eucharist.) The attempts to understand Augustine’s viewpoint today among the Romanist apologists displays a gross anachronism. It seems that such anachronism is required in order to make Augustine fit an a Tridentine box. Some definitions are in order to make this point as clearly as I can.

And this faith has ever been in the Church of God, that, immediately after the consecration, the veritable Body of our Lord, and His veritable Blood, together with His soul and divinity, are under the species of bread and wine; but the Body indeed under the species of bread, and the Blood under the species of wine, by the force of the words; but the body itself under the species of wine, and the blood under the species of bread, and the soul under both, by the force of that natural connexion and concomitancy whereby the parts of Christ our Lord, who hath now risen from the dead, to die no more, are united together; and the divinity, furthermore, on account of the admirable hypostatical union thereof with His body and soul. Wherefore it is most true, that as much is contained under either species as under both; for Christ whole and entire is under the species of bread, and under any part whatsoever of that species; likewise the whole (Christ) is under the species of wine, and under the parts thereof [Emphasis mine].

Trent, III

The key term in this definition from the Council of Trent is “under the species of bread and wine.” Understanding the difference between substance and species is important here.

The Romanist position is that the Eucharist literally transforms entirely into the whole Christ, and that this is not metaphorical, but literal. The problem is the bread still looks like the bread and the wine still looks like the wine. And this is no mere hologram or allusion. The bread and wine will taste and smell like bread and wine. They will even act as bread and wine (the bread will mold, grow stale, etc). Under any empirical, scientific study, you will only ever find, bread and wine. Thus, the “accidents” vs “substance” distinction is born, or “substance” vs “species.” When the council says that Christ’s body is present under the species of bread and wine, they mean to say that it is Christ in substance, but its outward form (species) remains bread and wine. In other words, Christ’s body is literally present, but not detectable empirically.

So here is how this all relates to Augustine: Rome has made it impossible to prove Augustine taught anything unlike their position. Now that Rome has created these fine distinctions hundreds of years later, she anachronistically imposes these distinctions into Augustine’s words.

One can find many quotations of Augustine saying the Eucharist is not to be eaten carnally. Here is one example from his Tractate 27,

The Lord gives us His flesh to eat, and yet to understand it according to the flesh is death; while yet He says of His flesh, that therein is eternal life. Therefore we ought not to understand the flesh carnally.

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Or this from the same Tractate

All this that the Lord spoke concerning His flesh and blood;— and in the grace of that distribution He promised us eternal life, and that He meant those that eat His flesh and drink His blood to be understood, from the fact of their abiding in Him and He in them; and that they understood not who believed not; and that they were offended through their understanding spiritual things in a carnal sense;

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The Papists now reply that Augustine simply means that we do not eat the body of Christ in its species. This is why Papists are so careful not to use words like “carnal” or “physical,” but to instead use words like “substantial” and “corporeal,” because men like Augustine have so clearly taught that the Eucharist is not Christ’s physical, carnal body. So they change the words, and then read into Augustine’s their new fine distinctions. One has to wonder how Augustine could have expressed a view consistent with the Reformers apart from foreseeing the future development of words like “species” and “accidents” and “substance.” What could Augustine have said?

As a side note, this is also how Romanist apologists avoid charges of cannibalism. Read Tim Staples’ response to that charge,

Cannibalism implies here the actual chewing, swallowing, and metabolizing of flesh and blood either after or during the killing of a human being… Catholics do not do any of this in the Eucharist. Though Christ is substantially present—body, blood, soul and divinity—in the Eucharist, the accidents of bread and wine remain…. In the Eucharist, after the priest consecrates the bread and wine and they are, in fact, transubstantiated into the body, blood, soul and divinity of our Lord, our Lord is then entirely present. Neither bread nor wine remains. However, the accidents of bread and wine (size, weight, taste, texture) do remain. Hence, the essential reason why Catholics are not guilty of cannibalism is the fact that we do not receive our Lord in a cannibalistic form. We receive him in the form of bread and wine. The two are qualitatively different.

Staples’ answer proves the distinction between substance and accident, or substance and species, can be read in, not just to Augustine, but to anything, even into the very definition of cannibalism!

Think about it this way: we are being asked by Rome to believe without evidence that the apostolic Jerusalem council, who asked Gentile Christians “to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals, and from blood” (Acts 15:20), actually meant “abstain from (the species) of blood.” We are supposed to assume the Gentile believers received the news and said, “Abstain from blood… only in accident and species, not in substance, of course. Otherwise, how could we drink the communion cup?”

There simply is no proof that the categories Aquinas and Trent use to make the Eucharist both literal but not physical were present in the mind of Augustine or the early church who were not supposed to consume blood or eat human flesh. That is the kind of anachronism with which I charge Aquinas, and all modern apologists of Transubstantiation. I believe you will see it in the answers below, and it is the reason I maintain that Augustine did not believe Christ body was present in the Eucharist literally.

Objection 1 & Its Reply

It seems that the body of Christ is not in this sacrament in very truth, but only as in a figure, or sign. For it is written (John 6:54) that when our Lord had uttered these words: “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood,” etc., “Many of His disciples on hearing it said: ‘this is a hard saying'”: to whom He rejoined: “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing”: as if He were to say, according to Augustine’s exposition on Ps. 4 [On Psalm 98:9]: “Give a spiritual meaning to what I have said. You are not to eat this body which you see, nor to drink the blood which they who crucify Me are to spill. It is a mystery that I put before you: in its spiritual sense it will quicken you; but the flesh profiteth nothing.”
From this authority the aforesaid heretics have taken occasion to err from evilly understanding Augustine’s words. For when Augustine says: “You are not to eat this body which you see,” he means not to exclude the truth of Christ’s body, but that it was not to be eaten in this species in which it was seen by them. And by the words: “It is a mystery that I put before you; in its spiritual sense it will quicken you,” he intends not that the body of Christ is in this sacrament merely according to mystical signification, but “spiritually,” that is, invisibly, and by the power of the spirit. Hence (Tract. xxvii), expounding John 6:64: “the flesh profiteth nothing,” he says: “Yea, but as they understood it, for they understood that the flesh was to be eaten as it is divided piecemeal in a dead body, or as sold in the shambles, not as it is quickened by the spirit . . . Let the spirit draw nigh to the flesh . . . then the flesh profiteth very much: for if the flesh profiteth nothing, the Word had not been made flesh, that It might dwell among us.”

The first portion of this response has been dealt with by imputing to Augustine the species, substance distinction.

Aquinas additionally reads into all of Augustine’s language his definitions of terms which I do not believe to be born out of a plain reading of Tractate 27. For example, when Aquinas quotes Augustine on the Jewish listeners’ misunderstanding of how Christ was going to give them His flesh to eat, Augustine continues that quotation by saying this,

“Certainly then, at least, you will see that not in the manner you suppose does He dispense His body; certainly then, at least, you will understand that His grace is not consumed by tooth-biting.”

Tractate 27.3

Indeed, the grace of the Eucharist does not come through tooth-biting. It is to be found spiritually by faith, not in your mouth.

Objection 2 & Its Reply

Further, our Lord said (Matthew 28:20): “Behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world.” Now in explaining this, Augustine makes this observation (Tract. xxx in Joan.): “The Lord is on high until the world be ended; nevertheless the truth of the Lord is here with us; for the body, in which He rose again, must be in one place; but His truth is spread abroad everywhere.” Therefore, the body of Christ is not in this sacrament in very truth, but only as in a sign.
That saying of Augustine and all others like it are to be understood of Christ’s body as it is beheld in its proper species; according as our Lord Himself says (Matthew 26:11): “But Me you have not always.” Nevertheless He is invisibly under the species of this sacrament, wherever this sacrament is performed.

Once again, we cannot impute Tridentine definitions into Augustine. However, let us conclude by affirming the strength of this argument on its own.

Christ’s body is truly human. The body itself does not take on divine attributes. How can the body, for example, be omnipresent? Since Christ’s body is human, it can only be in one place. And we know where it is: at the right hand of God. To assume it can be in thousands of churches across the world at once, and that even then there is only one body of Christ, is logically absurd and Christologically heretical.

Christ’s body is not on our altars in church. It is at the right hand of God, from where He intercedes for us as our High Priest and rules over us as our King. He is ever present with us, but it is through His Spirit. His body is seated at the right hand of God.

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