The doctrine of Transubstantiation is the belief that the elements of the Lord’s table (bread and wine) supernaturally transform into the body and blood of Christ during the Mass. This is uniquely held by Roman Catholics but some form of a “Real Presence” view is held by Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, and some Anglicans. The Calvinist/Reformed tradition believes in a real spiritual presence but not one of substance. Most of the remaining Protestant traditions (myself included) don’t believe in any real presence, either spiritual or physical, but believe that the Eucharist is a memorial and a proclamation of Christ’s work on the cross (this is often called Zwinglianism). The Roman Catholic Council of Trent (1545-1563) defined Transubstantiation this way:
By the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation” (Session XIII, chapter IV)
As well, there is an abiding curse (anathema) placed on all Christians who deny this doctrine:
If anyone denies that in the sacrament of the most Holy Eucharist are contained truly, really and substantially the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ, but says that He is in it only as in a sign, or figure or force, let him be anathema. (Session XII, Canon I)
It is very important to note that Roman Catholics not only believe that taking the Eucharist in the right manner is essential for salvation, but that belief in the doctrine is just as essential.
Here are the five primary reasons why I reject the doctrine of Transubstantiation:
1. It takes Christ too literally
There does not seem to be any reason to take Christ literally when he institutes the Eucharist with the words, “This is my body” and “This is my blood” (Matt. 26:26-28, et al). Christ often used metaphor in order to communicate a point. For example, he says “I am the door,” “I am the vine,” “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14) but people know that we don’t take such statement literally. After all, who believes that Christ is literally a door swinging on a hinge?
2. It does not take Christ literally enough
Let’s say for the sake of the argument that in this instance Christ did mean to be taken literally. What would this mean? Well, it seems hard to escape the conclusion that the night before Christ died on the cross, when he said, “This is my body” and “This is my blood,” that it actually was his body and blood that night before he died. If this were the case, and Christ really meant to be taken literally, we have Christ, before the atonement was actually made, offering the atonement to his disciples. I think this alone gives strong support to a denial of any substantial real presence.
3. It does not take Christ literally enough (2)
In each of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) we have the institution of the Eucharist. When the wine is presented, Christ’s wording is a bit different. Here is how it goes in Luke’s Gospel: “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood” (Luk 22:20). Here, if we were really to take Christ literally, the “cup” is the new covenant. It is not the wine, it is the cup that is holy. However, of course, even Roman Catholics would agree that the cup is symbolic of the wine. But why one and not the other? Why can’t the wine be symbolic of his death if the cup can be symbolic of the wine? As well, is the cup actually the “new covenant”? That is what he says. “This cup . . . is the new covenant.” Is the cup the actual new covenant, or only symbolic of it? See the issues?
4. The Gospel of John fails to mention the Eucharist
Another significant problem I have with the Roman Catholic interpretation of the Eucharist and its abiding anathemas is that the one Gospel which claims to be written so that people may have eternal life, John (John 20:31), does not even include the institution of the Eucharist. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell the story of Christ giving the first Lord’s table, but John decides to leave it out. Why? This issue is made more significant in that John includes more of the “Upper Room” narrative than any of the other Gospels. Nearly one-third of the entire book of John walks us through what Christ did and said that night with his disciples. Yet no breaking of the bread or giving of the wine is included. This is a pretty significant oversight if John meant to give people the message that would lead to eternal life (John 20:31). From the Roman Catholic perspective, his message must be seen as insufficient to lead to eternal life since practice and belief in the Mass are essential for eternal life and he leaves these completely out of the Upper Room narrative.
(Some believe that John does mention the importance of belief in Transubstantiation in John 6. The whole, “Why did he let them walk away?” argument. But I think this argument is weak. I talk about that here. Nevertheless, it still does not answer why John left out the institution of the Lord’s Supper. It could be that by A.D. 90, John saw an abuse of the Lord’s table already rising. He may have sought to curb this abuse by leaving the Eucharist completely out of his Gospel. But this, I readily admit, is speculative.)
5. Problems with the Hypostatic Union and the Council of Chalcedon
This one is going to be a bit difficult to explain, but let me give it a shot. Orthodox Christianity (not Eastern Orthodox) holds to the “Hypostatic Union” of Christ. This means that we believe that Christ is fully God and fully man. This was most acutely defined at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Important for our conversation is that Christ had to be fully man to fully redeem us. Christ could not be a mixture of God and man, or he could only represent other mixtures of God and man. He is/was one person with two complete natures. These nature do not intermingle (they are “without confusion”). In other words, his human nature does not infect or corrupt his divine nature. And his divine nature does not infect or corrupt his human nature. This is called the communicatio idiomatum (communication of properties or attributes). The attributes of one nature cannot communicate (transfer/share) with another nature. Christ’s humanity did not become divinitized. It remained complete and perfect humanity (with all its limitations). The natures can communicate with the Person, but not with each other. Therefore, the attribute of omnipresence (present everywhere) cannot communicate to his humanity to make his humanity omnipresent. If it did, we lose our representative High Priest, since we don’t have this attribute communicated to our nature. Christ must always remain as we are in order to be the Priest and Pioneer of our faith. What does all of this mean? Christ’s body cannot be at more than one place at a time, much less at millions of places across the world every Sunday during Mass. In this sense, I believe that any real physical presence view denies the definition of Chalcedon and the principles therein.
There are many more objections that I could bring including Paul’s lack of mentioning it to the Romans (the most comprehensive presentation of the Gospel in the Bible), some issues of anatomy, issues of idolatry, and just some very practical things concerning Holy Orders, church history, and . . . ahem . . . excrement. But I think these five are significant enough to justify a denial of Transubstantiation. While I respect Roman Catholicism a great deal, I must admit how hard it is for me to believe that a doctrine that is so difficult to defend biblically is held to such a degree that abiding anathemas are pronounced on those who disagree.