Aquinas on Transubstantiation: Christology (pt. III)


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 third instalment, still interacting with Article 1. This post examines the third and fourth objections. (The previous post can be found here.)

Objection 3 

Further, no body can be in several places at the one time. For this does not even belong to an angel; since for the same reason it could be everywhere. But Christ’s is a true body, and it is in heaven. Consequently, it seems that it is not in very truth in the sacrament of the altar, but only as in a sign.

This is one of my favorite objections to any understanding of Christ’s body being literally present in the Eucharist. To put the argument in my own words, I want to remind you what Transubstantiation requires:

All around the world thousands of parishes allegedly have Christ’s physical body in their church; specifically, in the Eucharist. Thus, Christ’s physical body is temporally located in thousands of churches at one time. This means Christ’s physical body can be in multiple places at one time. Remember, these are not copies, clones, or replicas. These are all supposed to be the one body of Christ, and that one body is fully present in multiple places at one time. This means to believe in any literal presence of Christ is to believe his physical body can be omnipresent. And since human bodies cannot be omnipresent, then His body cannot be human. Low and behold, the literal presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a Christological heresy. Christ took on a real human body, and this body is not omnipresent. Therefore, His body cannot be in multiple places at one time.

An additional, related argument I would to this is the absurdity of claiming that in all of these consecrated hosts we have only one Christ. In thousands of Masses all over the world there are thousands of hosts which are all the full body, blood, and divinity of Christ, temporally separated, and yet, by some stretch of logic, Christ is not divided or multiplied. We could hold up two consecrated hosts in the same building, look at both, and call both of those, simultaneously, the whole Christ, and then we are told that there are not two Christ’s present in that room. This is absurd.

Reply to Objection 3

Christ’s body is not in this sacrament in the same way as a body is in a place, which by its dimensions is commensurate with the place; but in a special manner which is proper to this sacrament. Hence we say that Christ’s body is upon many altars, not as in different places, but “sacramentally”: and thereby we do not understand that Christ is there only as in a sign, although a sacrament is a kind of sign; but that Christ’s body is here after a fashion proper to this sacrament, as stated above.

Aquinas’ Response

In my assessment, Aquinas’ response here is guilty of special pleading and circular reasoning. Aquinas is under the impression that because Christ’s body is present in a unique way, the charge of the objection doesn’t apply, but that is what needs to be proved, not merely stated. Aquinas believes that because Christ’s body is not present in its species, the question is already answered, but it is not. In other words, when asked how Christ’s body can be in multiple places at one time, Aquinas says it’s in a special, sacramental manner. He agrees Christ’s body cannot be in multiple places at once… except in the sacrament. This is special pleading. That sacramental exception is what needs to be defended. Just because Christ is not present in species is actually irrelevant. If one is to maintain His entire literal body is literally present, the objection applies.

Not only is there special pleading, but the entire response is also circular. When asked how Christ’s body can be present in the sacrament in many places at one time, Aquinas essentially responds by saying “sacramentally.” That’s circular.

In my final analysis, the third objection stands. Aquinas has not provided an adequate response. Christ has a human body. Human bodies are not omnipresent, so Christ’s body cannot be present in thousands of churches around the world at one time. Additionally, we know where His literal body is: at the right hand of God. He is not corporeally present in any church.

Objection 4

Further, the Church’s sacraments are ordained for the profit of the faithful. But according to Gregory in a certain Homily, the ruler is rebuked “for demanding Christ’s bodily presence.” Moreover the apostles were prevented from receiving the Holy Ghost because they were attached to His bodily presence, as Augustine says on John 16:7: “Except I go, the Paraclete will not come to you.” Therefore Christ is not in the sacrament of the altar according to His bodily presence.

This is another good objection. Christ was very clear that the benefit of His physical presence leaving the earth would be the coming of the Spirit.

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

So in a subtle manner, the exaltation of the the doctrine of Transubstantiation is an attack upon the Spirit. He is present with us always, and it is through Him that we can say Christ will be with us to the end of the ages.

Reply to Objection 4

This argument holds good of Christ’s bodily presence, as He is present after the manner of a body, that is, as it is in its visible appearance, but not as it is spiritually, that is, invisibly, after the manner and by the virtue of the spirit. Hence Augustine says: “If thou hast understood” Christ’s words spiritually concerning His flesh, “they are spirit and life to thee; if thou hast understood them carnally, they are also spirit and life, but not to thee.”

Aquinas’ Response

Yet again, Augustine responds with the same kind of special pleading. Augustine continually appeals to the unique manner in which Christ is literally present as being some answer to the objections. This is an irrelevant thesis, and to leverage it as some kind of exception without demonstration leaves the objections insufficiently answered.

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