Aquinas on Transubstantiation: If It Walks Like a Duck… (pt. IV)


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 fourth instalment. The last post can be read here.

Article 2.
Whether in this sacrament the substance of the bread and wine remains after the consecration?

Finishing article 1, we now transition to Aquinas’ 2nd article. This is primarily focused on addressing the Lutheran view of the Eucharist. Lutherans maintain a sort of middle ground between the Reformed (only bread) and the Papist view (only body). They maintain that the elements remain what they are, but that the body of Christ is contained “with” them (hence why some outside of the Lutheran tradition call it “consubstantiation”).

Aquinas argues that the Lutheran position is not tenable, that the bread has to transform into Christ’s body, that the wine must transform into Christ’s blood (which is itself not true, since Rome teaches all of Christ is contained in both elements). Much of Aquinas’ arguments here are more appropriately left to Lutheran theologians to interact with, but there are some statements he makes that will be edifying for my purposes in article 2.

Aquinas’ Answer

1) By such an opinion the truth of this sacrament is destroyed, to which it belongs that Christ’s true body exists in this sacrament; which indeed was not there before the consecration. Now a thing cannot be in any place, where it was not previously, except by change of place, or by the conversion of another thing into itself; just as fire begins anew to be in some house, either because it is carried thither, or because it is generated there. Now it is evident that Christ’s body does not begin to be present in this sacrament by local motion. First of all, because it would follow that it would cease to be in heaven: for what is moved locally does not come anew to some place unless it quit the former one. Secondly, because every body moved locally passes through all intermediary spaces, which cannot be said here. Thirdly, because it is not possible for one movement of the same body moved locally to be terminated in different places at the one time, whereas the body of Christ under this sacrament begins at the one time to be in several places. And consequently it remains that Christ’s body cannot begin to be anew in this sacrament except by change of the substance of bread into itself. But what is changed into another thing, no longer remains after such change. Hence the conclusion is that, saving the truth of this sacrament, the substance of the bread cannot remain after the consecration.

Aquinas’ first argument focuses on the motion (or lack thereof) of Christ’s body in heaven to the Eucharist. All that will be mentioned here is my continued bewilderment that the temporal, human body of Christ can be described as being in multiple places at one time without cognitive dissonance. All of the logic Aquinas applies to the motion of the body is abandoned when he addresses the substance of the body. As we have seen in previous posts, Aquinas believes the sacramental nature of the real presence is his out for disregarding what we know about human nature when it comes to Christ’s body in the Eucharist. Why then cannot Lutherans cite the sacramental nature of movement to refute Aquinas’ arguments for why the bread must become the body?

2) Because this position is contrary to the form of this sacrament, in which it is said: “This is My body,” which would not be true if the substance of the bread were to remain there; for the substance of bread never is the body of Christ. Rather should one say in that case: “Here is My body.”

This is actually a grammatical argument Reformed polemics embrace. The Lutheran position boasts of being a literal reading of the text, but it is not actually literal. Theodore Beza, in his apologetic against Lutheran theologian Joachim Westphal, says:

[T]he term ‘this’ in these words of Christ cannot be forced to mean “This bread is My body” without establishing Papist transubstantiation. Because if the word ‘is’ is always taken exclusively and in a single way, that is, substantively, then necessarily these two similarly expressed statements are also true: ‘Christ is the Son of God,’ and ‘the bread is the body of Christ.’ But it would be excessively ridiculous to say that visible bread is the invisible body of Christ… Westphal will never convince us that these two statements are made similarly, if indeed one pays attention to the expression used, namely, ‘This bread is My body,’ and ‘With, or in, or under this bread is my body.'”

A Clear and Simple Treatise on the Lord’s Supper, 19, 21

Either what Christ is holding is itself His body, or that phrase is a metonymy, but the Lutheran view is excluded. The literal interpretation supports Rome, the symbolic supports Geneva.

We now turn our attention only to only relevant objection to the Reformed position.

Objection 3

Further, bread and wine are made use of in this sacrament, inasmuch as they denote ecclesiastical unity, as “one bread is made from many grains and wine from many grapes,” as Augustine says in his book on the Creed (Tract. xxvi in Joan.). But this belongs to the substance of bread and wine. Therefore, the substance of the bread and wine remains in this sacrament.

Herein lies one of the great contradictions of the Roman position. The objector quotes from Augustine, and Augustine is making the argument that the Eucharist must remain a single loaf of bread in order to fulfill the symbolism of unity. There is only one loaf of bread which is made from many parts (wheat), likewise, the church is many members which is unified in one church, one body. This is Pauline,

Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

1 Corinthians 10:17

The primary thrust of the argument is not so much in the idea of unity, but that Augustine recognizes that what we are eating in the Lord’s Supper is still properaly called “bread,” and Augustine is merely referencing Paul.

When a church eats the Eucharist, what are they eating according to this verse? They are eating bread. And since the consecration comes prior to the eating, Paul recognizes that consecrating the bread does not take away or destroy the bread. But the Papist church does not contend that we eat bread, since the bread no longer remains.

Scripture refers to the “consecrated host” as bread and wine in other places.

Other examples are as follows:

26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.

1 Corinthians 11:26-28

According to Paul, what is the Lord’s supper? Bread! He mentions this three separate times.

“For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”

Luke 22:18

Jesus tells His disciples after the first Lord’s Supper that He would not participate in the Supper again until His kingdom is fully consummate. But what is it that Jesus will drink when He does that? The fruit of the vine! Jesus’ real blood came from Mary, not a vineyard. Jesus clearly believes the disciples drank literal wine.

This all makes sense given either of the Protestant views (Lutheran, Reformed), but it does not make sense of the Papist view. Aquinas’ entire argument, and that of the Romanist church, is that after the act of consecration by the priest, the bread and wine transforms into the body and blood of Christ. After the consecration, there is no bread leftover; it is only Christ’s body and blood. So, why do the Scriptures consistently refer to the elements as bread and wine if they are transformed into something else? For all of the Roman Catholic claims that the Protestant view of Justification is guilty of “legal fiction,” they seem to be very comfortable with legal fictions! Paul and Jesus continually refer to something which is not bread or wine, as being bread and wine.

So how did Aquinas get out of this? Aquinas says it’s appropriate to call what is not bread bread since it looks like bread.

Aquinas’ Reply to Objection 3

The species which remain in this sacrament, as shall be said later (Article 5), suffice for its signification; because the nature of the substance is known by its accidents.

In laymen’s terms, because the elements still look like bread and wine, they can be called as such, even though it is not a true statement. But this simply is not true, and has yet to be proved. Though, this is a bizarre argument considering that the substance is not properly known by the accidents in the case of the Eucharist, but I digress.

What Aquinas tasks us to affirm is that the bread and wine become only the body and blood of Christ, while simultaneously admitting that it still looks like bread, smells like bread, tastes like bread, tests as bread, and is regularly in Scripture called bread. Clearly, Aquinas is operating not on Scripture, but on the authority of his church. One has to wonder what could possibly change his mind. What would Aquinas consider evidence against his position? If we can show both empirically and biblically that the bread is bread and the wine is wine, yet he continues to deny this, I am not sure it is possible to convince him otherwise. He is presuppositionally committed to this outcome.

Insult to injury is added to Aquinas’ position here. For the only text that can ever be mustered to get around the regular drum beat of calling the bread, bread, is that Moses’ snake was called a staff.

For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.

Exodus 7:12

However, Aquinas argues against this position since he has committed himself to referring to the substance by its accidents. In this verse, the accidents are ignored, and only the substance occupies the identification.

Docetic Bedfellows

The last criticism of the entire Papist position is the ironic docetic-level error they make when claiming that Christ’s body is truly in the priests hands, even though nothing empirically has changed, and the Bible continues to call it bread. This thinking is more akin to docetic logic than apostolic logic.

I say this because the Docetics argued for an equally extreme position to Rome, just in the opposite direction. The Docetics said that Jesus had no real body. Even though the Scriptures call it a body, and even though it looked and felt like a body, it wasn’t actually there. The Papists argue similarly. Even though the Scriptures call the Lord’s Supper bread, and even though all empirical sense data perceives it as bread, it’s not actually bread.

Instead, Jesus gives us a hermeneutic for how to identify the substance of things.

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”

John 20:27

Thomas knew it was Jesus’ real substantial body because it could be examined and it showed the necessary qualities of Jesus’ substantial body.

Jesus has a human body like we do; He is truly human. Our bodies cannot be invisibly present. Our bodies cannot be everywhere at once, invisibly, substantially, yet not corporeal.

So, if you want to know whether the bread is bread or body, like Thomas, feel it. If you want to know if the cup is wine or blood, taste it. Jesus approves of that standard. Perhaps the simplest way to refute Aquinas in this article is with the old adage: If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck… well, you know how it ends.

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