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The Lord’s Supper 4: new philosophical objections to transubstantiation.

last supper painting - modern version

The Lord’s Supper 4: new philosophical reasons why I do not believe in transubstantiation.

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the Lord’s Supper. This post considers various reasons to question the validity of the doctrine of Transubstantiation and any other ‘real presence’ understanding of communion. In this post I interact primarily with what Steven Nemes has to say in the interview he did recently with Dr RT Mullins.

In the previous post, the third in the series, I gave a brief overview of the four main positions taken on the meaning and action of the Lord’s Supper. Transubstantiation is the official Roman Catholic view of what is happening at the Lord’s Table.

Whatever I think about Transubstantiation, I love Roman Catholics.

Two people played a key role over the months before I came to faith in Christ. Francesca and Clare were in the same English class as me when I was aged 17-18 and studying for my A levels at Godalming College. I was into Nietzsche and also a smorgasbord of Eastern religious ideas shaped both by popular forms of Zen Buddhism and the sort of Eastern mystical religion popularised by The Beatles.

I believed in a spiritual reality — but I considered this ‘deity’ to be impersonal. Francesca and Clare were both Roman Catholics and were totally convinced about the truth of their Christian faith. Clare and Francesca were not capable at apologetics and did not marshal effective arguments to persuade me out of my pick and mix spirituality. However, their optimistic faith worked deeply on me opening me up to the good news about Jesus.

Why do I share this here?

Clare is a friend to this day who I deeply respect. And, over the many years I have been following Jesus she’s not the only Roman Catholic with whom I have enjoyed friendship and fellowship, or with whom I have shared in ministry.

Indeed, I have lost friends because I am willing happily to associate with Roman Catholics. In one church I served as pastor, a group of people came to me and asked that I publicly declare that ‘you cannot be a Catholic and a Christian.’ Further, they said that if I did not make such a public declaration they would leave the church. I refused to make such a declaration because I believe it to be untrue. They left the church en masse. What prejudice!

I can work with those with whom I disagree.

In my fellowship with Roman Catholics, we have not focussed on our disagreements — but neither have we hidden from our differences. We have recognised that the differences are real and profound.

One of those differences over which I most lament is the Lord’s Supper.

My Roman Catholic friends also lament this fracture. I lament this difference because there is not mutual recognition of our acts of communion. As a Protestant I am excluded from participation in the Roman Catholic mass — and Roman Catholics (at least officially) do not recognise any Protestant communion service as a valid celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

That judgment that Protestant celebrations of the Supper are not valid is, at least in part, an outcome of the RC commitment to the doctrine of Transubstantiation which necessitates the presence of a Roman Catholic priest to effect the necessary consecration that brings about transubstantiation.

For myself, I recognise the validity of Roman Catholic celebrations of communion performed in the vernacular language of each nation, and created since the Second Vatican Council. However, I do not agree with the theological understanding of what is happening in the Mass, as espoused to this day by the Roman Catholic Church — the view known as Transubstantiation.

I also recognise that many confessing Catholics do not believe in Transubstantiation as traditionally formulated — as Pew Research discovered in 2019.

Transubstantiation
Transubstantiation

A theology of the Lord’s Supper will hinge on several things.

Primarily it will hinge on how we take Jesus’ words, ‘This is my body,’ alongside how we understand Jesus’ words in John 6.

I described the development of the doctrine of Transubstantiation in the previous post in this series but let’s reprise what I believe the doctrine teaches Catholics to believe.

Let’s start with describing Aristotle’s distinction between substance and accidents.

Set aside the standard meaning of these words because Aristotle had a technical meaning for them.

Substance is the essence of a thing. Accidents are the appearance of a thing.

For example, I am a human being. When I attend Coachella I am a human being. When I leave I am tanned and dirty — my appearance has changed, but my essence or substance has not. When I fly home to the UK I am still a human being, but the ‘accidents’ of my location have changed.

Or again, when I had acute appendicitis in the Italian Alps on 25 June 2016, and then had my appendix removed by surgery, that did not alter my substance — I was still a human being — but it did change my accidents. It’s not that people with appendices are human and those without are not human!

Transubstantiation: a definition.

During the Middle Ages the Catholic church developed several theories about how the bread and the wine become the body of Christ in a real way. Among these options was what Thomas Aquinas taught. Aquinas was (and is) hugely influential (those espousing his method or conclusions are typically styled as Thomists). Aquinas was influenced in his philosophy by Aristotle. The Thomist view of Transubstantiation depends upon Aristotle’s philosophical notions of the difference between substance (the essence of a thing) and accidents (the appearance of a thing).

Thus it is believed that when the elements are consecrated by a priest the substance is transformed to be Christ’s flesh and blood, although the accidents (appearance) remains unchanged.

As mentioned at the top, I listened recently to the Reluctant Theologian podcast in which the host, Dr RT Mullins, interviewed Steven Nemes about the Supper. I highly recommend this resource that can be found here.

Steven Nemes, who rejects Transubstantiation, describes the crucial beliefs of Transubstantiation in this way:

“The Eucharistic change takes place at the level of substance. So what happens is that the substance of the bread and wine is converted or transubstantiated into the substance of the body and blood of Christ. While the accidents remain, so the accidents are all those perceptible qualities that show up in experience, so the taste of bread and wine; the look of bread and wine; the various discernible physical chemical properties, and so on — all those properties that become manifest in experience, and that you can encounter in some concrete way — those properties remain. But the substance, which is some deeper component of the bread and wine, which is strictly speaking not manifest — that you do not experience — that part changes or is converted into the substance of the body and blood of Christ. And so this is Thomas Aquinas’s doctrine of transubstantiation.” (Transcribed from The Reluctant Theologian podcast).

Transubstantiation is, therefore, a particular version of what is commonly styled a ‘Real Presence’ view of the communion.

Mass
Mass

Is Transubstantiation, when explicated this way, an accurate and truthful way to understand what is happening in the Lord’s Supper?

I write this as a Christian inculcated with a memorialist view of the Lord’s Table. This may be why I find Steven Nemes’ critique of Transubstantiation so compelling. Let me repeat: you can hear his argument in full by listening to Nemes being interviewed by Dr RT Mullins on Mullins’ podcast, The Reluctant Theologian, here.

Nemes makes three arguments.

He makes an argument from the proper use of metaphor, exegesis and philosophy. His arguments bring into question not just Transubstantiation, but any ‘real presence’ view of the Lord’s Supper. As I have already said I find Nemes’ arguments compelling so what follows is a favourable summary… but ultimately I am not sure I am convinced… but that will be developed in a later post.

In today’s post I will explore only:

The argument Nemes makes against Transubstantiation from philosophy.

Nemes uses phenomenology as an argument against Transubstantiation because of the way he proposes that phenomenology should affect our epistemology.

As mentioned already, Aquinas acquired his philosophy of Transubstantiation from Aristotle who distinguished between the ‘substance’ of a thing and its ‘accidents.’

In Part III of Summa Theologica, Aquinas wrote:

“I answer that, The presence of Christ’s true body and blood in this sacrament cannot be detected by sense, nor understanding, but by faith alone, which rests upon Divine authority. Hence, on Luke 22:19: “This is My body which shall be delivered up for you,” Cyril says: “Doubt not whether this be true; but take rather the Saviour’s words with faith; for since He is the Truth, He lieth not.”” (Summa Theologica FIRST ARTICLE [III, Q. 75, Art. 1]) (extract from Summa Theologica (Complete & Unabridged) (p. 6313-4). Coyote Canyon Press. Kindle Edition.)

Participants are, therefore, invited to believe, contrary to our senses, and contrary to our experience, that although this bread looks like bread, tastes like bread, feels like bread, and can be tested in a laboratory to show that it has the chemical composition common to other bread, nevertheless, it is no longer bread. In its essence it is now the body of Christ.

Nemes says: “All the perceptible qualities, everything that shows up in the world of experience, that remains exactly the same. But this deeper thing is what changes and that’s how to understand the Eucharistic change by appealing to this deeper level of reality that doesn’t show up in in experience.”

Nemes, commenting on Aquinas’ statement given above, says that there is, therefore, nothing about what we sense when we share in the elements that could point to or reveal the real presence that is claimed. He concludes that Aquinas requires faith to carry the whole weight of this doctrine:

“It’s only faith in this divine promise — ‘this is my body; this is my blood’ — that is what provides a basis for believing that the body and blood of Christ are really there.”

For Nemes this view of Transubstantiation is problematical.

Nemes points out that not only Aquinas, but another giant in the Western philosophical tradition, Descartes, also founded his whole philosophy on the distinction Aristotle gave us between substance and accidents.

Contra Aristotle and Descartes, Nemes argues that:

“Phenomenology says that if you distinguish in this way between consciousness and reality, between appearance and being, you’re going to get scepticism and you are going to fall into what is called an egocentric predicament, where you cannot prove that you are in touch anything real beyond your own consciousness, beyond your own subjectivity.”

Phenomenology, Nemes argues, posits that knowledge is a matter of seeing the truth of your opinion or becoming aware of the truth of your opinion about something. Nemes uses the following example to illustrate this:

Your partner tells you there are no Oreos. You disagree and state that in your opinion there are Oreos in the biscuit tin. You open the biscuit tin and see the Oreos in the tin. At that point Nemes says, “you achieve knowledge according to phenomenology… you’ve achieved an awareness of the truth of your opinion.”

Furthermore, phenomenology asserts that truth is a relational property. Nemes argues that “Truth is a relation between the proposition or a sentence, and the things to which it refers.”

To illustrate, if you believe there are Oreos in the biscuit tin (a proposition) and then prove your opinion to be correct by opening the tin to find said Oreos (the reality referred to by the proposition), the truth of the proposition is a matter of its relation to what is actually in the biscuit tin. Nemes summarises this by saying: “And when you achieve knowledge, you come to see the awareness of this relation.”

What has this to do with the truth or otherwise of Transubstantiation?

Phenomenology posits that we cannot perceive a relation in the absence of one or more of the relata. If I visit my cousin in York and I am licked by her dog and she tells me her dog is larger than the dog owned by my other cousin in Bath whom I have never visited, I am not able to verify my cousin’s truth claim since I only have access to one of the relata. That’s because perceiving a relation requires that all the relata be presented to me.

Earlier today my wife left our home for an appointment. It was my opinion she was out but when I walked into the lounge I found she was home. I became aware of the untruth of my opinion.

With the Oreos, however, I became aware of the truth of my opinion.

Nemes argues that if knowledge is becoming aware of the truth of my opinion, for example about Oreos, the only way you can come to a knowledge of the truth is when the things to which your opinion refers are presented to you.

If, however, what you experience can be false — which is what the claims of Aristotle, Descartes and Transubstantiation assert — then we will soon lose all confidence in what we perceive.

Nemes summarises thus:

“So phenomenology says this distinction between appearance and being, between what is and what appears, between what’s manifest what’s real — this distinction has to go.”

That assertion clearly undermines the central claim inherent in Transubstantiation — that the appearance and the reality are at odds — that what appears to be bread is not bread in reality but is the body of Christ; and that what appears to be wine is not wine in reality but the blood of Christ. Nemes argues that all ‘real presence’ theological views of the Supper fail the epistemological test of Phenomenology. In other words…

“If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is a duck.”

Be careful what tools you use… there may be unintended consequences.

If we rely on Nemes’ argument to invalidate the traditional theology of Transubstantiation, is there not a danger that we have undermined philosophical arguments for the existence of God and the truth of the hyperstatic union of Christ’s divine and human natures that we describe in the incarnation and celebrate each Christmas?

God is an immaterial, spirit-being that we cannot know with our perceiving senses. Christ’s deity could not be perceived directly during his earthly life.

I am not the first to wonder this.

Douglas Beaumont defends Transubstantiation exactly on these grounds in his blog post entitled, “Ditch Transubstantiation, and You Ditch God: Arguments against transubstantiation based on appearance seem to work equally well against the incarnation of the Son of God.”

Beaumont concludes his post with this paragraph:

“What is perhaps an even larger problem, though, is that arguments against transubstantiation based on appearance seem to work equally well against the incarnation of the Son of God. Being made in the form of a man (Phil. 2:5-8), Jesus’ divinity could not be detected by any empirical means, and one could say his dual nature is even harder to believe than a transubstantiated Communion meal! Jesus was clearly a human being with all the limitations of humanity, yet Christianity teaches that he was also God, the second person of the Holy Trinity. These are not just big differences—without the faith as authoritatively taught by the Church since its origin, they can appear to be logically contradictory.

“Which is more difficult to believe: that one finite, material thing can be changed into another thing spiritually while retaining its physical properties, or that apparently contradictory properties can coexist in one person? If one cannot accept transubstantiation simply because it seems counterintuitive or implausible, it is difficult to see how one could remain a Christian at all.”

I would love to hear how Nemes would respond to this challenge!

For myself, I think Beaumont is comparing apples with oranges.

But the query has prompted me to buy Nemes’ book, “Theology of the Manifest: Christianity without Metaphysics,” so that I can grapple with his argument at greater depth. Watch out for a follow-on post.

This is the fourth post in a series about the Lord’s Supper.

The first post, ‘The Lord’s Supper 1: the day I dropped the bread’ is here.

The second post, ‘The Lord’s Supper 2: it’s the Lord’s Table,’ can be found here.

The third post, ‘The Lord’s Supper 3: how communion brings life,’ is here.

There was also a related post on ‘2 reasons why what you love matters.’

Watch out for further posts.

Bibliography

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.

Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Gregg R ALLISON, Historical Theology, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2011

Frederick Dale BRUNER, Matthew, A Commentary: The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2004

John CALVIN, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (based on the 1559 Latin edition), translated and abridged by Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1986

John CALVIN, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (The First English Version of the 1541 French Edition), translated by ELSIE ANNE MCKEE, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2009

Millard J. ERICKSON, Christian Theology: 2nd Edition, Baker Book House Co, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1998

Gordon D FEE, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1987

Steven NEMES, Theology of the Manifest: Christianity without Metaphysics, Fortress Academic, 2023

James K A SMITH, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2009

James K A SMITH, You are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2016

Leonard J VANDER ZEE, Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2004

Robert E WEBBER, Blended Worship: Achieving Substance and Relevance in Worship, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, 1994

Andrew WILSON, Spirit and Sacrament: an invitation to eucharismatic worship, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2018

 

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