Thursday, May 2, 2013

Why the Doctrine of Transubstantiation Matters

The Easter Season is typically the time for First Communion celebrations. As friends and family and fellow parishioners welcome new communicants receiving Christ's Body and Blood for the first time, the Eucharist has been on my mind lately, especially the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation - that the bread ceases to be bread and becomes wholly Christ's Body, and likewise the wine becomes His Blood. Or more precisely, the entire substance (the "be-ing" or the actual reality) of the bread/wine passes away and is replaced by the substance of Christ's Body and Blood; only the accidents (the physical properties) of bread and wine remain.

In this post I just wanted to briefly note two things about this doctrine as it relates to our "separated brethren" in Protestant denominations…

1) While all Protestants reject transubstantiation, some do believe in Christ's Real Presence in the Eucharist.

Within Christianity, there are essentially four theological positions regarding the Eucharist:
1) Memorial Meal - the bread and wine are merely symbolic and have no spiritual benefit in and of themselves; by receiving the bread and wine we are reminded of Christ's Passion and Death, but it is simply a memorial feast to commemorate these events;
2) Spiritual Communion - Jesus is present to us when receiving the bread and wine, not fully and physically present, but spiritually present with those who receive; participation in Communion brings spiritual blessings and perhaps even Grace - but the bread remains bread and the wine remains wine and Jesus is not literally there;
3) Consubstantiation or Sacramental Union or simply Real Presence- the bread and wine remain bread and wine, but Jesus Body and Blood are truly present along with the reality of the bread and wine; various denominations use different terminology to describe this and with various nuances; but they all agree that Jesus is truly present offering Grace to those who receive;
4) Transubstantiation - only the Catholic Church uses this terminology, and it is exactly as described above…the bread and wine cease to be, and in their place Jesus' Body and Blood are physically present; this physical presence of the Son of God is worthy of adoration/worship, and receiving His Body and Blood offers Grace.
Obviously, the third concept is the one that most resembles the Catholic doctrine. Among the Christians who  hold some version of this view are Anglicans, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and other high church, especially Mainline Protestant, groups. Whereas Evangelicals and Fundamentalists gravitate to the first two categories. In discussing the Eucharist with Protestant Christians it is important to realize these differences. Christians who hold to the various "Real Presence" views (#3) are indeed much closer to Catholics in their understanding of the Body and Blood offered at Communion. We owe it to them to acknowledge this closeness and not lump together all Protestants into one camp.

2) The difference between transubstantiation and simply the Real Presence (whether it be consubstantiation, sacramental union or some other term) still matters!

It is tempting to conclude that the seemingly minor differences between Catholics and these high church, sacramental Protestants are so insignificant that it doesn't really matter. The important thing is that we all agree that Jesus is truly present. What difference does it make how we describe that Real Presence, or whether the bread and wine remain, or whether they are completely transformed? The important thing is that Jesus is there, right?

But it does matter for at least two important reasons: One reason is that the Protestant view of bread-remaining-bread and wine-remaining-wine presents some very real theological questions. For instance, if Jesus' physical presence is united with bread then we must grapple with the notion of a God-bread union. How does a union between God and bread affect our understanding of the Incarnation? After all, Jesus' Incarnation as a man presented a similar theological problem in the early Church. How could Jesus be both God and man? Does one cancel out the other? What does God's union with man do to human nature? How do we understand this union of two natures in Jesus as it relates to the rest of humanity? The Church embraced the idea of the Incarnation (a God-man) because this pointed to the truth that God elevates human nature to Himself by joining our nature to His. What happens to the nature of bread when it is united to the nature of God? And if the Eucharist is a union of the God-man with the reality of bread...well, that opens a whole new set of questions. If God is truly present in this bread, He is worthy of adoration and worship. So how do we separate our worship of God in the Eucharist from the idolatry of bread-worship? Is this now divine bread? When Catholics kneel before Jesus in the Eucharist we know that the bread is no longer bread. We worship Jesus, God-made-flesh. The bread is no more. If we accept the Protestant notion of Real Presence with bread remaining, we would then be kneeling before a wafer of bread too, since the reality of bread remains.  The Protestant position does not sufficiently address any of these problems.


A second reason that this Protestant-Catholic debate over transubstantiation matters is because of Church Authority! At the Council of Trent the Catholic Church looked back over 1500 years of Christian history and theology concerning the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and said that the term "transubstantiation" correctly identifies what happens at consecration. Meanwhile, the Protestant Reformers  rejected that term and instead each group adopted its own understanding of the Eucharist, and each new group since that time has done likewise. So now we must ask: Who has the authority to make such a statement? Who has the authority to say, "THIS terminology is correct; THAT terminology is false"? Who has the authority to define a doctrine of the faith such that believers are bound by that decree? This hits at the core of the Catholic/Protestant debate. Does the Church have such power?

If the Church does not have such power then what about other doctrines that have been settled in like manner? What about the Trinity? What about Christ's two natures? The virgin birth? What about any of the core doctrines and statements of faith in the Creeds? If the Church does not have the power to speak with authority on these matters, then all of it is up for grabs. All of it can be discarded. And that is what we see in Protestantism - a constant splintering of the Body of Christ, where previously established doctrines can be questioned, altered, modified or dropped altogether.

And this is especially crucial since we are thinking specifically about the Eucharist here. It strikes at the very heart of "Communion" - worshiping as one Body, and in so doing receiving the One Body, which is Jesus Christ. Jesus prayed for Christians to be one as He is One with the Father. And He prayed that we be sanctified in His Truth. If that is our Eucharistic goal - sanctity and oneness in Truth, and unity in Christ - then I would ask, has Protestantism moved us toward that goal? Does Protestantism yield clarity and oneness? The obvious answer is, No. Quite the opposite. It has lead to a constant splintering of the Body of Christ and a plethora of competing doctrines. And the reason for this division is their denial of Church authority to settle doctrinal disputes. Transubstantiation is but one example.

So this debate does matter. There are Protestant churches which come close to Truth, and yet do not embrace the fullness of Truth. We should acknowledge their shared reverence for Christ's Body and Blood, but encourage them to embrace a fuller understanding of that divine Presence.

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