A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Lord's Supper-- Real Presence Or Symbolic? Or...?

In a recent essay in The Catholic Thing, Francis Beckwith argues that there is a logic to the doctrine of transubstantiation. For Catholics transubstantiation means "that bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ when they are consecrated by the priest celebrating the Mass."

In summation, he makes several major points:

First, Beckwith employs Aristotle's distinction between substance and accident. Beckwith states,
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), like most philosophers of his time, wanted to account for how things change and yet remain the same. So, for example, a “substance” like an oak tree remains the same while undergoing “accidental” changes. It begins as an acorn and eventually develops roots, a trunk, branches, and leaves. During all these changes, the oak tree remains identical to itself. Its leaves change from green to red and brown, and eventually fall off. But these accidental changes occur while the substance of the tree remains.

On the other hand, if we chopped down the tree and turned into a desk, that would be a substantial change, since the tree would literally cease to be and its parts would be turned into something else, a desk. According to the Church, when the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, the accidents of the bread and wine do not change, but the substance of each changes. So, it looks, tastes, feels, and smells like bread and wine, but it literally has been changed into the body and blood of Christ. That’s transubstantiation.
Second, the Eastern Orthodox Church does not use the terminology of transubstantiation nor does it use Aristotle's distinction between substance and accident. Nevertheless, like the Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy affirms in the real presence of Christ in the elements of the Eucharist.

Third, the real presence was affirmed by the Catholic Church one thousand years before Aristotelian philosophy was employed. Thomas Aquinas was the first to employ Aristotle in the thirteenth century.

Fourth, the doctrine of the real presence appears to be the common view among the early fathers of the church (e.g. Ignatius of Antioch, Cyprian of Carthage, Cyril of Jerusalem)

Fifth, the New Testament itself indicates the real presence of Christ in Holy Communion.

As a high church liturgically oriented yet lover of contemporary Christian music Wesleyan Methodist with strong Anabaptist convictions in reference to politics, I need to say that I do not in general accept Beckwith's arguments (although I appreciate Beckwith's rigorous treatment). At the same time, I do not believe that the Lord's Supper is only to be understood symbolically (for an alternative view to Beckwith, see Ben Witherington, Making a Meal of It).

The Eucharist is a means of grace. I find myself in fundamental agreement with C.S. Lewis that the sacraments are "the avenue to the real." The sacraments affirm that the division between heaven and earth "is neither wholesome nor final." The sacraments join real physical actions with spiritual ones. For Lewis, Holy Communion is one of those acts where the boundary between heaven and earth becomes quite thin, where it seems possible for a few moments to touch eternity in a way that we cannot normally do so. I affirm the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but I do not find it helpful to spend too much time attempting to define exactly what that means; and I do not believe the evidence is as clear for transubstantiation as Beckwith and my Catholic and Orthodox sisters and brothers claim.

At the same time, neither can I accept the Zwinglian view that the Lord's Supper is merely symbolic. If Catholics and Orthodox put the physical and the spiritual too close together, Zwinglians build too thick of a wall between them. The former fail to emphasize the more of the spiritual; the latter fail to emphasize the spiritual significance of the physical. One of the dilemmas that my evangelical Zwinglian Protestant sisters and brothers must address is how their merely symbolic view of the sacraments seems to employ some of the same presumptions that feed the later liberal Protestant arguments that Jesus' miracles and his resurrection are to be understood only as metaphorical-- as the Gospel writers' way of saying something significant about Jesus without having to have the actual miraculous event-- a hard demarcation between the physical and the spiritual. I do not believe that the evidence is as clear for the symbolic view of the Lord's Supper as my Zwinglian Protestant sisters and brothers claim.

Perhaps Ben Witherington, a United Methodist biblical scholar, who does not embrace transubstantiation nor the Zwinglian metaphorical view, makes the point quite well:
If the Lord's Supper was not and is not merely symbolic in character, what is the spiritual transaction that happens at this meal? This of course is the age-old question we are still debating. On the one hand, Paul's solemn reminder in 1 Corinthians 11 that some have become sick and even died because of failure to "discern the body" makes clear this is a serious spiritual matter not to be taken lightly or blown off as a mere ritual or bunch of meaningless symbols. It is an occasion when one not only remembers that Jesus shared a meal with his disciples, but approaches this meal in a worthy manner, which I take to mean realizing that this is our occasion to share a meal with Jesus. He is the unseen host of this meal (and the elements should not be called the host!) [Making a Meal of It, p. 133].
Ben's words no doubt go too far for some Protestants and not far enough for Orthodox and Catholic Christians, but I think he has struck the right cord based on the biblical and historical evidence, and also on sound theological reflection.

How much I enjoy the celebration of the Lord's Supper, when that thin boundary between heaven and earth makes it possible for me to touch the presence of God in a way I cannot do in the routine of the every day.


PamBG said...

Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendor,
first begotten from the dead.
Thou alone, our strong defender,
liftest up thy people’s head.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Jesus, true and living bread!
Jesus, true and living bread!

Here our humblest homage pay we,
here in loving reverence bow;
here for faith’s discernment pray we
lest we fail to know thee now.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia
Thou are here, we ask not how.
Thou are here, we ask not how.

Though the lowliest form doth veil thee
as of old in Bethlehem,
here as there thine angels hail thee,
branch and flower of Jesse’s stem.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
We in worship join with them.
We in worship join with them.

Paschal Lamb, thine offering,
finished once for all when thou was slain,
in its fullness undiminished
shall for ever more remain.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Cleansing us from every stain.
Cleansing us from every stain.

Life imparting heavenly Manna,
smitten Rock with streaming side,
heaven and earth with loud hosanna
worship thee, the Lamb who died.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Risen, ascended, glorified!
Risen, ascended, glorified!

Words:George Hugh Bourne (1840-1925),


Hugh Bourne was one of the founders of Primitive Methodism in the UK.

I go with the theology: "Thou art here, we ask not how."

Anonymous said...

I stumbled across your blog this AM, while researching the topic for a paper...you make very cogent points for both ends of the spectrum...It fascinates me that some non-Catholic fundamentalist Christians can take very literally some of Christ's words (i.e. Mk.16:18...They will pick up serpents...) but cannot accept "This is my body..." If Jesus transferred the power and authority to the Apostles (our first Bishops, per say) to baptize, heal, pick up serpents, etc. why would he not give them the power to bring forth His body through transubstantiation? In the same way, a baptized person looks the same, but is changed or transubstantiated...

Food for thought? No pun intended...

Dim Lamp said...

You need to read Luther!

Anonymous said...

Allan: What you argue here sounds to me very much like the Reformed view, going back to Calvin: a denial of transubstantiation or consubstantiation, but also denial of a Zwinglian view that understands the sacrament as only a memorial or symbol.

Presbyterians understand Christ's "real, spiritual" presence to be in the sacrament. The emphasis is that Christ is encountered in a unique way, grace is experienced individually and communally in a unique way.

The point Reformed theology (at its best) wants to address is not so much "how is Christ present" in the meal, but more "how does a sinner like me get welcomed to a meal with Christ?"... and the answer is "by God's Grace alone."

Allan R. Bevere said...


I've read Luther.

Dim Lamp said...

Yet, you don't even mention him and his insights concerning the sacrament in your post.

Allan R. Bevere said...

I didn't mention Wesley either.

I think I made my point sufficiently.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Historically, Calvinists and Wesleyans have held similar views on the Lord's Supper.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Let me rephrase my previous comment: Calvin and Wesley held similar views on the Lord's Supper. Their followers have not always followed them on this.