* In at least two senses of the word.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Transubstantiation: Theology, History, and Christian Unity, Brett Salkeld
What [Luther and Calvin], and all the Reformers with them, rejected was not what Thomas had affirmed.
Salkelds’s book is divided into four chapters: An Introduction, where he offers an overview of the dispute; a chapter on the Catholic tradition; a look at Martin Luther; finally, John Calvin. Through this, he will examine agreements, disagreements, and the reasons for each. In the opening chapter he offers the line immediately above.
On the one hand, this is astonishing considering the significance of this disagreement at the time and over the centuries. On the other, Luther and Calvin came along three centuries after Thomas; we all know the difficulty of communicating in writing in real time – just look at the comments section on any website. Add to this the complication over centuries – definitions and meanings evolve and change.
Salkeld opens with a Preface. He notes the significance of the disagreement even today, as Catholics and Protestants “have been so assured that they must disagree, but about which the vast majority of the ostensible disputants know so little.”
What else is new. In the words of Neil Peart of Rush:
Quick to judge
Quick to anger
Slow to understand
Ignorance and prejudice
And fear walk hand in hand...
Transubstantiation was universally rejected by Protestants at the time of the Reformation. Not surprisingly, shortly thereafter, the Protestants all began rejecting each other on the meaning of the Eucharist. This drove Luther to the point of exclaiming, in exasperation:
Sooner than have mere wine with the fanatics, I would agree with the pope that there is only blood.
In 1520, in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther wrote his first meaningful criticism of the Eucharist, including Transubstantiation. By this point, several theologians were questioning Transubstantiation in favor of the idea of consubstantiation, influenced by the nominalist thinking of William of Ockham.
Luther was willing to accept Transubstantiation as a theological opinion, but argued that the Church had no authority to impose this human opinion as an article of faith. This human opinion, Luther would offer, was based on Thomas’s faulty understanding of Aristotle – inserting accidents where the Bible makes no such claim about the bread – and for failing to respect the logic of the incarnation.
Calvin, a second-generation Reformer, would try to bridge the growing divide between the Lutherans and the Swiss as an attempt to keep the Reformers together. On this, he failed. One could consider his efforts an early work of ecumenism. Like most ecumenists, he ended up rejected by all sides.
He described Transubstantiation as “this ingenious subtlety” through which “bread came to be taken for God.” For Calvin, it can only be true bread representing the body of Christ. He found the Catholic view a product of “crude imagination” and “virtually equivalent to magic incantation.”
The Council of Trent would respond to all of this with a staunch defense. The thirteenth session would produce the Decree on the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist. Deny that “there are contained truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood” of the Lord Jesus; “let him be anathema.” Say that the substance of the bread and wine remain with the body and blood; “let him be anathema.” Say that Christ is only consumed spiritually and not also sacramentally and really? You get the idea.
It is clear enough then, that, in the sixteenth century, both the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church made statements categorically rejecting what they took to be the position of their opponents.
The parties were talking past each other, each taking comfort in a self-assurance of certainty – certainty not only of their own position, but of understanding the other’s position. This division would last four centuries.
One result of Vatican II was the Church’s entering into ecumenical dialogue. Within three years – in 1967, the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue in the United States produced an agreed statement: The Eucharist as Sacrifice. A few years later, a similar outcome was realized between the Catholic and Anglican Church. Thereafter followed others such efforts – with the World Council of Churches (WCC), and also with Reformed Protestants.
…by 1982…Roman Catholic theologians had joined signatories from Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Old Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, Methodist, United, Disciples, Baptist, Adventist, and Pentecostal communities in recommending the publication of the WCC agreed statement Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (BEM) for the consideration of Christians throughout the world.
The key point in this document: the universal affirmation of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. This shouldn’t be surprising: neither Luther or Calvin rejected this idea. When Jesus said “this is my body…this is my blood…”, well, it is difficult to disagree.
Salkeld identifies as more surprising is the agreement on sacrifice – as this was rejected by every Protestant community on the basis that Christ’s sacrifice was once and for all. Why repeat this sacrifice week after week?
…Christ who becomes present in the Lord’s Supper is none other than the crucified and risen – that is, sacrificed – Lord, who had instituted the Eucharist precisely as a memorial of his sacrifice.
Christ’s death and resurrection happened once and for all, yet the notion of memorial – just as for the Passover – would make effective in the present the memory of this past event. On this, the Catholics and Protestants could agree.
Thus, two false dichotomies were overcome. First, it was now affirmed that Christ is really present. Second...
…that such an objectively given presence was not at all natural, material, physical, or magical. It was precisely sacramental, and thus operated at a different, deeper level of reality than the one presupposed by such terms.
Jesus intended the Last Supper as a memorial, in the same way that the Passover was understood: God’s mighty acts would be made present to the community, without threatening the idea that these acts are unrepeatable.
It was a change of attitude, not of doctrine, that made such statements and agreements possible. Unfortunately, in the almost forty years since this work was done, little further ecumenical progress on the Eucharist has been made. It is also unfortunate how little understood by the wider Christian community has been the progress thus far.
The word “transubstantiation” appears to be the stumbling block, as virtually every Christian community affirms Christ’s presence. Salkeld will dive into the reasons that consensus on the term has proved difficult.