Transubstantiation is the doctrine or belief in which the elements of communion or the Lord’s Supper or the Lord’s table supernaturally transform into the real physical body and blood of Jesus Christ during Mass. This view is uniquely held by the Roman Catholic Church but some form of “real presence” – as it’s called – is held by Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans and some Anglican churches. The Calvinist reformed tradition believes in a real spiritual presence but not one of substance so most of the remaining Protestant traditions don’t believe in any real presence at all, either spiritual or physical, but they believe that the Eucharist is a memorial and a proclamation of Christ’s work on the cross.
In 1545 AD, the Roman Catholic Council of Trent at Session 8 Chapter 4 defined transubstantiation in 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. The change the Holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called ‘transubstantiation’”. In Session 7 Canon 1, there is an abiding curse or anathema placed on all Christians who deny this doctrine. “If anyone denies that in the sacrament of the most Holy Eucharist are contained truly, ,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.” If you’re not familiar with this term “anathema”, it means “separated from Christ”, “excommunicated from the church” and in the day and age when this was decreed, people believed that if you were told that you were “anathema” from the church and “anathema” from Christ, you were going to hell. This was an eternal death sentence for you, a very strong language from the Catholic Church. In this day, 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. What I want to do is give you five immediately noticeable problems with the doctrine of transubstantiation.
- It takes Christ too literally. There does not seem to be any reason to take Christ literally when he instituted the Eucharist with the words “this is my body and this is my blood.” Christ often used metaphors 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” but people know that we don’t take such statements literally. We’re not actually salt, we’re not actually physical light. Spiritually we are these things and they’re metaphors in order to illustrate a greater point, a more substantial point.
- It places Christ’s sacrifice of atonement before His actual death. Let’s say for the sake of argument that in this instance Christ did mean to be taken literally. What would this mean? 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 the night before he died. If this were the case, and Christ really meant to be taken literally, then what we have is Christ before the atonement was actually made the offering, the atonement to his disciples. This alone gives strong support for the denial of any substantial or real presence in the doctrine of transubstantiation.
- What about the other “non-representative” elements in each of the synoptic Gospels meaning Matthew, Mark and Luke, not John, we have the institution of the Eucharist. When the wine is presented. Christ’s wording is a bit different. In Luke’s Gospel, “this cup which is poured out for you is the New Covenant in my blood”. Here if we’re going to take Christ literally, the cup is the New Covenant, not the wine. The cup is the thing that is holy. However, 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 is symbolic of the New Covenant? I mean that’s what he says “this cup is the New Covenant.” Is the cup the actual New Covenant or is it symbolic of the New Covenant?
- The Gospel of John fails to mention the Eucharist. This is a significant problem with the Roman Catholic interpretation of the Eucharist and its anathema. The book of John, the one gospel which claims to be written so that people may have eternal life (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. 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.
- There are problems with a Hypostatic Union and the Council of Chalcedon. Orthodox Christianity (not Eastern Orthodox) holds to the hypostatic union of Christ. This means we believe that Christ is fully God and fully men. This was most clearly defined at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. It’s important to remember that Christ had to be fully man to redeem us. Christ could not be a mixture of God and man or he could only represent beings who were also mixtures of God and men. Christ is and was one person with two complete natures. These natures 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 “communication of attributes.” Christ’s humanity did not become divinitized; it remained complete and perfect humanity with all its limitations. The attribute of omnipresence, for example, being everywhere at once, cannot communicate to his humanity to make his humanity omnipresent. If it did, we’d lose our representative high priest since we don’t have this attribute communicated to our nature, we are not omnipresent. Christ had to exist as we do in order to be the priest and pioneer of our faith. Christ’s body cannot be in more than one place at one time, much less in millions of places across the world every weekend during mass. Therefore, any real physical presence view denies the definition of Caledon in the nature of Christ’s humanity, rendering him an illegitimate sacrifice for humanity.
There are many more issues with transubstantiation, including Paul’s lack of mentioning it to the Romans, some issues of anatomy, idolatry and other simply practical things concerning Holy Orders, church history and excrement. But I think these five are significant enough to justify a denial of the false doctrine of transubstantiation.