Transubstantiation II

In my previous post on transubstantiation, I proposed that the consecrated elements in the Eucharist been seen as “one substance” with the risen Christ in a way analogous to how “the divine and human natures of the Incarnate Word, interrelated as Chalcedon taught, form that one substance or hypostasis which is God the Son himself.” That is an argument from the analogia fidei. On such a proposal, the nature of bread and wine remain in the consecrated elements, just as the human nature of Christ remains undiluted and unmixed by union with his divine nature. But in the long, ensuing discussion, from which I greatly benefited, there emerged two main lines of objection to such a proposal. In this, the second installment of a series I plan for developing my proposal, I shall endeavor to answer those objections.

The first line of objection was that my use of the term ‘substance’ is ambiguous, so that the analogy I wish to draw is unclear. There is, e.g., a difference between my use of ‘substance’ and Nicaea I’s use of the term in its normative confession that the Son is “consubstantial with the Father” (ὁμοούσιον τῷ πατρί). But this, I believe, is merely a verbal problem arising from different contexts of usage.

In the controversy with the Arians that occasioned the Council, it was clear that the term ousia, from whence homoousios derives, was being used as a synonym for ‘nature’ or ‘essence’. The Council emphatically did not mean that the Son is the same hypostasis as the Father, even though the term hypostasis can be and later was used as a synonym for one sort of substance in an Aristotelian sense of ‘substance’: namely, a person. The Council rather affirmed, and it remains a bedrock tenet of Christian orthodoxy, that the Son is of the same nature as the Father even though he is a different person. That, after all, is what the Arians were subtly denying by allowing only that the Son is “of like substance” with the Father. According to the Arians, the Son is similar to the Father in being the best and primordial expression of the Father’s divinity; but the Son himself is not God but a creature, and thus not of the same substance as the Father, who alone is God strictly speaking. That is what the Council denied: with the above-cited formula it affirmed that the Son is of the same divine nature as the Father. But the Council did not deny that the Son can be called a substance in a sense of the term other than that of ‘nature’.

Part of the problem, and solution, is the Aristotelian background of the concept of transubstantiation. According to Aristotle’s Categories, “substance” is the primary and controlling category of being. All the other “categories” of being are ways in which substances can be. Thus for any x, x is a substance just in case it causes or undergoes activity but is neither “in a subject” nor is “predicable of a subject.” E.g., when we say that John is black, John is a substance but his blackness is not. John’s color inheres in him and is predicable of him, but the converse does not hold (for either conjunct of that predicate). For Aristotle, though, there isn’t just one kind of substance. The different kinds of substances vary with the natures of those substances, and there is at most a “family resemblance” (to borrow a phrase from Wittgenstein) among the kinds. It is very important to keep that in mind as we proceed.

In the sixth century AD the Catholic philosopher Boethius, who had a fair acquaintance with Aristotle’s thought and was an indispensable precursor of medieval scholasticism, defined ‘person’ as ‘an individual substance of a rational nature’. Subsequent Western theology was to apply that definition of ‘person’ to the Persons of the Trinity. But that use of the term could only be analogous; for in general, all positive talk about God, when true, is true not literally but only by analogy; and more specifically, the Persons of the Trinity cannot be considered numerically distinct from each other, as if they were individuals in the same way you and I are individuals distinct from each other. For each divine person is the same God as the others; to deny that is to fall into tritheism; whereas you and I are not each the same man as the other. So, while each divine person is a hypostasis distinct from the others, and thus in that sense may be called ‘individual’, that is not a numerical distinction and thus does not mean they are different gods. Just how all that is so is of course obscure. But the fact remains that each divine hypostasis can be called a substance in a sense that is an analogue of the Boethian sense of the term ‘person’.

The same also applies, mutatis mutandis, to Jesus Christ. He is one person or hypostasis, namely God the Son; but he is of two natures, divine and human, which remain in him intimately united yet wholly undiminished by each other or anything else. Hence, by becoming a man, God the Son became “an individual substance of a rational nature,” and thus numerically distinct from each of us humans, but without ceasing to be a divine person whose distinction from the other divine persons is not numerical. Again, how that can be so is obscure. But the fact of the Incarnation allows us to say that that Jesus Christ is a person in a sense more closely analogous with the sense in which we are persons. For he had and has a human nature; thus he is a man, even though he is not as such a human person. He is thus an individual substance of a rational nature; but the nature in virtue of which he is the substance or hypostasis he is is the divine nature not the human.

Now the Catholic Church teaches that, in the Eucharist, consecrated bread and wine become the whole person, “the body, blood, soul, and divinity,” of the risen Jesus Christ. But the risen Christ is the same man, as well as the same divine person, as the Jesus who walked the earth before his death. Hence the consecrated elements become that individual “substance” which is Jesus Christ. Yet this has been said to pose another difficulty for my proposal.

As Catholic philosopher Brandon Watson put it to me:

…possibly one difference between your view and the scholastic views is that the scholastic views had two terms and yours has three. That is, scholastic views understand transubstantiation in terms of the risen body of Christ and the Body of Christ that is the Church; Christ incorporates the faithful (second term) by the sacramental presence of His risen body (first term) under the appearances of bread and wine. But you seem to want to make room for an intermediate term here: Christ incorporates the faithful (third term) by incorporating the bread and wine (second term) into His risen body (first term). And if this is true, I think a lot of the difficulty people might have with it has to do with the question of whether there really is room for an intermediate term, a kind of body of Christ intermediate, so to speak, between His risen natural body and His mystical body.

I believe such an objection can be answered by considering more closely the bivalence of the phrase ‘body of Christ’ in Tradition.

The phrase is used both for that collectivity which we call “the Church” and for the consecrated elements of the Eucharist. Now clearly, the way in which a collectivity of human persons counts as the body of Christ is both different from and related to how pieces of physical stuff, namely bread and wine, count as the body of Christ. It is different inasmuch as the Church is the Body of Christ not literally, like the consecrated elements, but mystically; hence the phrase ‘Mystical Body of Christ’ as used for the Church. That must be so since we do not worship the Church but do worship the consecrated elements. Of course it remains true that the risen body of Christ is ordinarily present and manifest on earth in two sacramental ways: in the Church as a whole, which Vatican II called “the sacrament of unity and salvation” for the world, and within the Church as the Eucharistic elements. There clearly is a relation between the two. I believe it can best be understood as involving a kind of causal circle.

Thus, the former is constituted partly by the participation of the faithful in the latter; but the latter can take place only because the former already exists. The medium of such mutual causation is, precisely, the celebration of the Eucharist. But the transubstantiation of bread and wine entailed by the celebration of the Eucharist is not directly into ourselves as, collectively, members of that Body, but indirectly through conversion into the individual substance that is the person of the risen Christ. By consuming what has thus become the risen body of Christ, we the members of the Church collectively become ever more what we eat; but it is only because we are already, by baptism and to a certain degree, what we eat, that we can become more thoroughly what we eat by sharing the Eucharist. Such a causal circle of the “already and not yet,” I believe, is perfectly patristic and orthodox theology, even if the scholastics did not stress it.

Yet a problem remains: just how are bread and wine “substances”? That question needs to be answered if we are to say just what ceases to be when bread and wine become the risen Christ.

On my proposal, one cannot say that bread and wine are substances in the sense of ousia or ‘nature’. For bread and wine are artifacts: they come from plants as fruits thereof, as grain and grape, to which we have done things in order to make them into food for us. In general, artifacts as such have natures only in a derivative sense, as more-or-less good realizations of our ideas; and the same goes in this particular case. Thus bread and wine are, in a sense, themselves accidental: they are fruits as bearing certain accidents, and do not yet exist when instances of the fruits we plan to make into bread and wine have not yet been so made. Yet it cannot be said that the grains and grapes to which we do things to make bread and wine are substances in the strict, Aristotelian sense. Grain and grape are, rather, organic parts of living things that do count as substances, namely wheat-stalks and grapevines. When we make bread and wine, we have detached those parts from the living wholes that are the substances in the standard sense of ‘substance’.

What must be said, I believe, is this: the discrete quantities of bread and wine used at Mass are substances only in an analogous sense of ‘substance’. They are substances only insofar as they are discrete material objects of an artifactual nature. Thus accidents inhere in them, in such wise that some of the accidents themselves specify what it is for those discrete material objects to be objects of a certain nature. So given the sense in which I have said that ordinary bread and wine are substances, the bread and wine cease to be that in the Eucharist, and instead become identical with that individual substance which is now Jesus Christ.. This means that consecrated bread and wine are no longer artifactual substances by which we feed ourselves; rather, by becoming the risen Christ present sacramentally as distinct from immediately, they become the means by which he feeds us for the purpose of incorporating us into him. Thus, as the risen Christ himself present in a certain mode for a certain purpose, they become divine artifacts. That is the sense in which they become a substance of a different kind from the substances they were, without the nature of bread and wine ceasing to be.

But this brings us to the second serious line of objection to my proposal, which concerned how I handled the question what happens with the accidents of bread and wine after transubstantiation of the bread and wine. Rather than cite and answer each objection individually, I shall adumbrate further my conception of how and where the accidents of bread and wine inhere.

The first thing to note here is that the Council of Trent, in defining the Real Presence as a doctrine, did not speak in general terms of the “accidents,” but more specifically, of the species of bread and wine as persisting in the consecrated elements. Now the term ‘species’ here can be interpreted in a weak sense to mean just “appearances.” When I first learned about Trent’s terminology, I thought it meant only that God allowed the elements to go on seeming like bread and wine in order to test our faith, when he might have made the sacrament less deceptive to the senses. I never found that idea credible: to my young mind, it made God seem like a trickster. But there is a stronger sense of the term ‘species’, namely ‘kinds’, as in, e.g,, natural kinds. And that forms the basis of an interpretation I do find credible: the nature of bread and wine remain as they were, which is why not only their “appearances” remain but their chemical composition and artifactual structure as well (for fairly obvious reasons, Trent could not speak of chemical composition). That is not a trick but a sacrament. Given my account so far, this entails that certain of the accidents of bread and wine inhere in the risen Christ. But do they all? And do they in the same way as each other?

Clearly not. For instance, such sensible accidents as taste, smell, visual appearance, etc. do not inhere directly in either ordinary bread and wine or the risen Christ with which they become identical at the Eucharist. They are rather the effects of bread and wine, whether ordinary or consecrated, on us; thus they inhere directly in us, and only in the bread and wine by causal attribution. What causes those effects on us is the combination of the directly inhering properties of discrete instances of bread and wine and our physical relations to those instances. But what are those directly inhering properties?

Well, since this post is already long enough, I shall leave those questions open. I close with two points.

First, my proposal differs from Aquinas’ account in that I have all the accidents of bread and wine inhering directly in some-or-other substance: us, or Christ. Aquinas believed that, in order to avoid the heresy of “impanation,” he had redefine ‘accident’ to mean ‘that which is apt to inhere’ in something but need not necessarily do so, and then deploy that redefined concept to argue that the accidents of bread and wine do not inhere in any substance, but only in some “dimensive quantity.” I believe that to be unnecessary and at least as mysterious as what I’m proposing. Second, differing theories about whether the accidents of bread and wine inhere in some substance, and if so how, form no part of Catholic dogma. They are, rather, different ways of explicating corollaries of the truly dogmatic claim that the whole substance of bread and wine is converted into the whole substance that  is the risen Christ. Such theories cannot be expected to resolve the mystery of the Real Presence. They should be comparatively assessed only in terms of how residually mysterious they leave that presentation of the great mystery which Trent adopted as a “most fitting expression” thereof.


5 Responses

  1. An erudite post, no doubt. But its length and complexity only serve to drive ME back to Hooker, who simply emphasized that the Sacrament of Holy Communion cannot be divorced from partaking in Christ. [

    This view entirely in accord with Eastern Orthodox liturgics — e.g., (1) “receive me today as partaker;” and (2) the reserved sacrament is never venerated unless and until some one communes. It also is reflected in the Anglican Prayer of Humble Access: “Grant us today therefore gracious Lord so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood in these holy mysteries, that we may continually dwell in him and he in us . . . .” Moreover, I think I agree more and more with Hooker that any further thought and speculation on the Mystery of Holy Communion — the sacrament of partaking of Christ — is probably not a good thing.

  2. I didn’t think the post was too long, and as for complexity, it’s certainly no more complex than any explication of our Christological dogma. Otherwise, I can’t how this post would be of anything more than academic interest to an Anglican who isn’t AC. But Catholics do tend to take this sort of thing quite seriously. As for Hooker, I don’t think that further speculation would have been good for him. What could he possibly have had to gain from it? As an Anglican he would have been practically bound to reject the Roman understanding anyway, and there is always the possibility, as Mike has noted in both of his posts on the subject, that consideration of the mystery might actually defeat one’s faith in it, it being a very strange thing indeed. So Hooker was prevented from ever agreeing with Rome on the one hand, and prevented from rejecting the mystery altogether by virtue of his Anglican faith on the other. So yes, no good, for Hooker, could have come from further speculation.

  3. Dr. Liccione,

    This was excellent! I hope all your subsequent articles are as clear and ‘meaty’ as this one here!

    In spite of the complexity of the subject matter and the various intimate details it necessarily addressed, it had more clarity in its explication as compared to other ones dealing with the same topic from other sources.

    While there may be good reason to respect the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist and not delve too intimately into the details, there is however a necessity, especially in our times, to bring to light these various topics that attempt to relate it, if anything, in order to demonstrate (ironically enough) the immense profundity of that very Mystery and not take it for granted.

    For example, the vital elements concerning Christology which Dr. Liccione has alluded to here has too often these days gone neglected by the average believer and dismissed altogether as simply “Mystery” and, as a consequence, the average Christian believer (and, in some cases, even the learned believer lettered in the Divinities) end up believing in heretical ideas (although most are not even cognoscent of this) such as, for instance, the monophysitism (and its subsequent forms) that can be found in many bible-only-believing factions.

  4. MDN,

    As Simply Philos points out, if there are dangers in “delving too deeply the mysteries,” there must be equal dangers in refusing to delve. I think the Catholic dogmas protect the middle course wherein lies the truth of things. Catholics dogmas have always had a way of doing that.

  5. Dr. Liccione,
    I’m still having some trouble understanding what it is you’re doing here. On your account, what is transubstantiation? Traditionally, it has been seen as the conversion of one term (matter and form of the bread and wine) into another term (matter and form of the body of Christ). I don’t see how the mystical body of Christ can comprise a third “term” here. And your claim that the natures continue unchanged makes it sound as if transubstantiation is more a situation in which one term (two natures in Christ) and another term (bread and wine) come together to form a third being that is composed of both of them (or else why introduce chalcedon at all).

    Ultimately, I don’t understand how you are distinguishing nature and substance, which are taken to be the same in Aristotelian-inspired metaphysics. Having recourse to artifacts is no help because even if wine is an accidental form, the substance of the grapes is not.

    Also, what about place? Does that inhere in us or in Christ? If the latter, then Christ’s physical body is present in multiple locations at once, which is impossible (the reason I think that the scholastics denied that the accidents inhere in Christ after transubstantiation). IF the former, then you are ultimately endorsing a version of Thomas’ view in which accidents don’t inhere in Christ; what it means to say that they inhere in us and not in Christ or the continuing nature of the species I don’t know; it seems unintelligible to me.

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