Catholic Teachings on the Meaning of the Supper (Transubstantiation)
Here in Rome, Italy, near the center of Roman Catholicism, it is not uncommon to go past one of the city’s countless Catholic churches and observe people kneeling or genuflecting as the priest passes out Eucharistic bread.
For Catholics, this represents the zenith of their faith.
They say the ingredients of the bread have become Christ’s genuine body and blood, which they then worship.
The Catholic Church’s official catechism states,
By genuflecting, or kneeling deeply as a show of adoration to the Lord, during the Mass, we proclaim our belief in Christ’s true presence under the species of bread and wine.
The Eucharist has always been a focus of the Catholic Church’s adoration cult.
They believe that the sacrifice Christ made on the cross is reenacted, made present, and perpetuated every time they partake of the Eucharist.
The doctrine of transubstantiation, taught by the Catholic Church, is foundational to the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist.
Transubstantiation: What Is It?
To a Catholic, receiving the Eucharist is like eating and drinking the very flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.
Both the bread and the wine are transformed into his genuine body and blood, respectively.
This transformation, known as transubstantiation, occurs when:
In the act of consecration, the bread and wine are transformed into the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The holy Roman Catholic Church has aptly named this metamorphosis transubstantiation.
Catholic theology forces Aristotelian philosophy to serve its purposes in explaining this phenomena.
There is a difference between substance and occurrences.
Substance refers to the core characteristics that make something what it is, while accidents are the superficial qualities that give an object its look but may be removed without changing the substance.
The substance of the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ, but the accidents stay the same, during the Eucharist.
The bread and wine are said to transform into Christ’s body and blood, but they still smell, taste, and look like ordinary bread and wine.
The Catholic Church denies that this is a miraculous change and instead describes it as a sacramental mystery performed by ordained clergy.
Where does the Concept of Transubstantiation come from?
The introduction of transubstantiation into the Catholic Church, like the introduction of many other parts of Roman Catholic doctrine and practice, cannot be attributed to a single person or event.
It was a slow process that culminated with the official affirmation of the teaching and belief at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.
It wasn’t until the second century, though, that the idea that the bread and wine are, in some mysterious way, Christ’s genuine body and blood began to gain traction.
It can be seen, for instance, in the works of Ignatius of Antioch (died around AD 108) and Justin Martyr (died AD 165), notwithstanding the fuzziness of their references to the Eucharist.
However, it is also true that the early church fathers were responding to gnostic doctrines that suggested Jesus was purely divine and never possessed a human body.
His adversaries insisted that his physical presence during the Eucharist was impossible.
In response, several of the early church fathers argued that the sacrament truly represented Christ’s body and blood.
It is unfortunate that sacrificial terminology was introduced into the Lord’s Supper by Origen (185-254) and Cyprian (200-258), who described the sacrament as a eucharistic sacrifice.
The Eucharist was conceived of as a sacrifice by both Ambrose of Milan (who passed away in 397) and John Chrysostom (died 407).
John 6:53-56, where Jesus says “Truly, truly, I say to you, except you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” seemed to provide the biblical framework they needed to prove their claim (John 6:53).
This idea grew in popularity throughout the ages, and by the end of the Christian era it had become a dogma of the Christian church.
But it would not be without rivals.
Some prominent early Christians, such as Ratramnus (ninth century) and Berengarius (eleventh century), rejected the idea that the bread and wine somehow changed substance during the Supper.
Neither an exaggeration nor a deception, “to argue that transubstantiation teaches that God is eaten.”
At the hands of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, transubstantiation would face its biggest test.
The Roman Catholic Church reaffirmed her dedication to the concept and, by extension, its conviction that during the Eucharist, God incarnate is really eaten, with great zeal during the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation.
In his new book, Eating God: A History of the Eucharist, Matteo Al-Kalak, a professor of modern history at the University of Modena-Reggio in Italy, claims that this idea is still widely held.
Therefore, it is not an exaggeration nor a deception to state that transubstantiation teaches that God is consumed.
The Likes of His Selfless Act Will Never Be Repeated
The Roman Catholic theology of transubstantiation was rightfully rejected by the Protestant Reformation.
The priests of the Old Testament often went into the tabernacle to make sacrifices for the sins of God’s people.
Nevertheless, Christ has entered heaven by his death and resurrection and mediates on our behalf permanently (Hebrews 7:27).
His sacrifice is one that can never be replicated (Hebrews 9:11–28).
The amount is adequate.
A conclusion has been reached (John 19:30).
However, if the Eucharistic bread and wine truly undergo a change of substance and become the true body and blood of Christ, then Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is neither sufficient nor final; rather, it is perpetually re-presented and made present.
Since this is the case, transubstantiation contradicts the unmistakable teachings of the Bible.
Jesus’ sacrifice is not something that can or should be duplicated.
The amount is adequate.
This is the last word.
In response, Martin Luther (1483-1546) established the theology of consubstantiation, which was later criticized for being unclear.
Among the elements of the Eucharist, he emphasized the real presence of Christ’s body and blood.
While similarities existed with transubstantiation, there was no actual transformation of the bread and wine.
However, like transubstantiation, Luther’s idea was open to criticism.
Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531), another Reformer and contemporary of Luther, advanced the view that the Lord’s Supper is symbolic and is only a reminder of Christ’s work on the cross.
Many modern evangelicals agree with Zwingli’s assessment.
However, the classic Reformed perspective of the Lord’s Supper, originating with John Calvin, provides the most useful solution and alternative to the doctrine of transubstantiation (1509–1564).
Even if there is no physical transformation of the elements in the sacrament, the Reformed position emphasizes the conviction that Jesus Christ is spiritually present in the sacrament.
In attending the Lord’s Supper, Christ does not come down to the faithful in his body and blood; instead, the faithful are lifted up to him in spirit by the Holy Spirit.
Those who partake in the sacrament in faith are nourished by Christ in the same way that they are physically nourished by the bread and wine.
Neither are the material and the spiritual totally fused, as in transubstantiation.
They are, rather, separate but, through the work of the Spirit and the application of true faith, interdependent.