Sunday, May 29, 2011

Substances: Comparing the Catholic and Lutheran Eucharist

On the Eucharist, the Council of Trent reads:
[B]y the consecration of the bread and of the wine, a conversion is made 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; which conversion is, by the holy Catholic Church, suitably and properly called Transubstantiation.
This tidy statement is the basic Catholic understanding that after consecration, the bread and wine during the Liturgy become Christ's body and blood in essence.

Lutherans are often described as believing in "consubstantiation" for their belief that Christ's body and blood are present "in, with, and under" common bread in a "sacramental union." Following are a variety of older and more modern quotes by Lutherans pertinent to this essay:
As regards transubstantiation, we care nothing about the sophistical subtlety by which they teach that bread and wine leave or lose their own natural substance, and that there remain only the appearance and color of bread, and not true bread. For it is in perfect agreement with Holy Scriptures that there is, and remains, bread, as Paul himself calls it, 1 Cor. 10, 16: The bread which we break. And 1 Cor. 11, 28: Let him so eat of that bread. (Luther's Smalcald Articles, 1537, 6.5)

[An uncircumscribed presence] was the mode in which the body of Christ was present when he came out of the closed grave, and came to the disciples through a closed door, as the gospels show. There was no measuring or defining of the space his head or foot occupied when he passed through the stone, yet he certainly had to pass through it. He took up no space, and the stone yielded him no space, but the stone remained stone, as entire and firm as before, and his body remained as large and thick as it was before. But he also was able, when he wished, to let himself be seen circumscribed in given places where he occupied space and his size could be measured. Just so, Christ can be and is in the bread, even though he can also show himself in circumscribed and visible form wherever he wills. For as the sealed stone and the closed door remain unaltered and unchanged, though his body at the same time was in the space entirely occupied by stone and wood, so he is also at the same time in the sacrament and where the bread and wine are, though the bread and wine in themselves remain unaltered and unchanged. (Martin Luther, Confession Concerning Christ's Supper, 1528)

And why could not Christ include his body in the substance of the bread just as well as in the accidents? In red-hot iron, for instance, the two substances, fire and iron, are so mingled that every part is both iron and fire. Why is it not even more possible that the body of Christ be contained in every part of the substance of the bread. What will they [Catholics] reply? Christ is believed to have been born from the inviolate womb of his mother. Let them say here too that the flesh of the Virgin was meanwhile annihilated, or as they would more aptly say, transubstantiated, so that Christ, after being enfolded in its accidents, finally came forth through the accidents! The same thing will have to be said of the shut door [John 20:19, 26] and of the closed mouth of the sepulcher, through which he went in and out without disturbing them. (Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, 2.29-30)

It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, in and under the bread and wine which we Christians are commanded by the Word of Christ to eat and to drink. (Luther's Large Catechism: The Sacrament of the Altar, 8)

Why then should we not much more say in the Supper, "This is my body," even though bread and body are two distinct substances, and the word "this" indicates the bread? Here, too, out of two kinds of objects a union has taken place, which I shall call a "sacramental union," because Christ’s body and the bread are given to us as a sacrament. This is not a natural or personal union, as is the case with God and Christ. It is also perhaps a different union from that which the dove has with the Holy Spirit, and the flame with the angel, but it is also assuredly a sacramental union. (Martin Luther, Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, Luther’s Works 37 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1961], p. 300)

[W]e defend the doctrine received in the entire Church, that in the Lord's Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and substantially [substantialiter] present, and are truly tendered with those things which are seen, bread and wine. (Phillip Melanchthon, friend and contemporary of Martin Luther quoted in his Defense of the Augusburg Confession, Article X)

For the reason why, in addition to the expressions of Christ and St. Paul (the bread in the Supper is the body of Christ or the communion of the body of Christ), also the forms: under the bread, with the bread, in the bread [the body of Christ is present and offered], are employed, is that by means of them the papistical transubstantiation may be rejected and the sacramental union of the unchanged essence of the bread and of the body of Christ indicated. (Formula of Concord Solid Declaration, VII.35, written by Luther's successors in 1580)

The bread and wine in the Sacrament are Christ’s body and blood by sacramental union. By the power of His word, Christ gives His body and blood in, with, and under the consecrated (blessed) bread and wine. (Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation, #291, 1998)

Q. What does the LCMS [Lutheran Church Missouri Synod] mean by "in, with and under the forms" of bread and wine? A. Perhaps the most succinct formulation of the Lutheran position on the Real Presence is that found in Article VII of the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration: "In addition to the words of Christ and of St. Paul (the bread in the Lord's Supper 'is true body of Christ' or 'a participation in the body of Christ'), we at times also use the formulas 'under the bread, with the bread, in the bread.' We do this to reject papistic transubstantiation and to indicate the sacramental union...between the untransformed substance of the bread and the body of in the Holy Supper the two essences, the natural bread and the true, natural body of Christ, are present together here on earth in the ordered action of the sacrament... (The Immanuel Record, a Lutheran newsletter, Oct/Nov 2008, issue 143)

By the way, in this ecumenical forum, let it be known that Lutherans, according to their official statements of faith, reject “consubstantiation.” We do not believe that the body and the bread, the blood and the wine, constitute a new and unique substance. We reject all such philosophical attempts to parse this miracle, insisting that we must simply accept the biblical language without interpretation, that the bread and wine are still bread and wine and also the body and blood of Jesus. (Dr. Gene Edward Veith, Lutheran Provost at Patrick Henry College and the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, quoted in Tabletalk Magazine, Nov. 1, 2006)

The Church of the Reformation laid great emphasis on learning and skillful reasoning in service of the service of Word and Sacrament. And it also had a proper sensitivity to the burdens placed on consciences in unwittingly requiring people to hold as binding doctrine what is only a matter of theological opinion. It regarded the latter as spiritual tyranny. A famous example of the latter is 'transubstantiation' as an explanation of the mystery of the Lord's bodily presence in the Sacrament of the Altar. Our reformers too affirmed this mystery as integral to the gospel, so that reception would gift, not reward, but regarded transubstantiation as a particular theological theory explaining the Presence-- and not without its difficulties (i.e. the supposed annihilation of the substance of bread). (Dr. Paul Hinlicky, Tise Professor in Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Salem, VA. Quote from April 1, 2009 comment posted at
From quotations like these, I'd like to address several things:
  1. Does "consubstantiation" describe the Lutheran position?
  2. The assertion that transubstantiation is an "explanation" of what is really a "mystery" of Christ's bodily presence in the Eucharist, yet the Lutheran position is not.
  3. The use of the term "bread" in Scripture.
Defining the term
Luther and other Lutherans often provide definitions of the Eucharist by including a rejection of transubstantiation. So it is fitting to clarify what the Catholic Church means by the term transubstantiation. In philosophy, the term "substance" (which constitutes the root of the latter half of transubstantiation), basically refers to what a thing is.

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the term substance is expounded thusly with regard to the Trinity: "The Church uses the term 'substance' (rendered also at times by 'essence' or 'nature') to designate the divine being in its unity..." (CCC#252)

In the article Thomas Aquinas on Transubstantiation, Dr. Byard Bennett describes substance as "which is what the thing really, truly, fundamentally, actually is." The ancient philosopher Aristotle wrote in his work Metaphysics: "[T]hat which 'is' primarily is the 'what', which indicates the substance of the thing." (7.1a); and "that which underlies a thing primarily is thought to be in the truest sense its substance." (7.3b)

The first half of the term transubstantiation, trans, etymologically signifies a crossing, or to go beyond. When we say we are in "transit," we mean we are crossing from point A to point B. Or if we say we "transplant" a flower, we are moving it from position A to position B. At the heart of this Latin prefix, is a condition A giving way to a condition B.

So in transubstantiation, we see the Catholic understanding that "what the thing is," bread, crosses over to a new condition, Christ's body. What the thing is is now Christ's body. The term does not define how this occurs. It simply means that the bread changes into Christ's body when it is consecrated, even if the outward appearances still look like bread. Hence, the change takes place at the substantial level described above.

Should Lutherans be opposed to the term consubstantiation?
So why are Lutherans often averse to the term consubstantiation to describe what they believe about the Eucharist. Due to the frequent comparison to transubstantiation in Lutheran definitions of the Eucharist, it is possible that the term consubstantiation is too close a resemblance to transubstantiation which they oppose.

Etymologically, the Latin prefix con refers to being "with" or "together." Lewis and Short's Latin dictionary says the term con, when used as a prefix denotes "A being or bringing together of several objects..." And, since substance simply refers to "what a thing is," the term consubstantiation can refer to the occurrence of things brought together.

Consider again how the Lutheran descriptions quoted above consistently describe the Eucharist as a presence where Christ is "in, with, and under"2 the unchanged bread and wine. All of the above, Luther, Melanchthon, and even modern Lutherans willingly use the term "substance" to refer to Christ and/or the bread and wine.

So should modern Lutherans, such as Dr. Veith, reject the term consubstantiation?

Here is where it might get a little tricky. At the first council of Nicea in 325 A.D., the Church faced the Arian heresy, which taught that Christ the Son was not of the same substance as the Father. Arian argued that Christ was of a "similar" substance or essence (homoiousion in Greek) as God. The Church proclaimed that Christ was of the "same" substance or essence (homoousion) as God. The etymology of the Greek words there has "ousion" as substance, and the prefixes meaning similar or same, respectively.

The difficulty comes in translating the term homoousion to Latin. Traditionally, the word the Church has used to describe the "same substance" of the Trinity in Latin is consubstantialem. In that instance, the prefix "con" means "with" in the sense of "same." Christ is with God in that they are of the same essence.

However, if one reads consubstantiation to describe the Lutheran position, one should not understand them to believe the substances of Christ and the bread are the "same." The Lutheran notion regards "with" not as "same" but as a union of two different substances. You can see this in Luther's teaching (quoted at beginning of article) where he insists each substance, Christ and bread, remains its own essence. They are comingled like "fire and iron" or as he said of Christ passing through the "shut door." (cf. John 20:19)

I surveyed some of my colleagues over at the Catholic Forums on the etymology of the term, and it seems that consubstantialem originated as the translation of homoousios (same substance).

Now, Dr. Veith rejects the term consubstantiation on the grounds that it suggests a new substance is created. If one were to read the term as it is used to describe the Trinity, then his objection has some merit. However, if one renders the prefix of the term as "with but not same," then I think the term may be as good as any to summate the Lutheran understanding. The weakness of the term consubstantiation is that it can have a different connotation depending on context. As well, the historical Lutheran description of "in, with, and under" obviously includes more prepositions than just "with" (con). However, using Lewis and Short's definition of the prefix con as "things brought together," then the term consubstantiation seems to fit the Lutheran understanding.

The conclusion of Protestant historian Philip Schaff is similar. The term is accurate insofar as the context of what is meant is made clear:
The Lutheran Church ... teaches consubstantiation in the sense of a sacramental conjunction of the two substances effected by the consecration, or a real presence of Christ's very body and blood in, with, and under (in, cum, et sub) bread and wine. The word consubstantiation, however, is not found in the Lutheran symbols, and is rejected by Lutheran theologians if used in the sense of impanation. (Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 6.2 The Augsburg Confession)
What takes away the "mystery" of the sacrament?
As I said earlier, the term transubstantiation does not signify how Christ's body becomes bread and wine. The term merely asserts that what were once common bread and wine are now truly Christ's body and blood, substantially, in essence.

Of note on this point is the 1672 Acts and Decrees of the Synod of Jerusalem (aka The Confession of Dositheus), a synod of the Orthodox Church, which defends the term transubstantiation as follows:
So that though there may be many celebrations in the world at one and the same hour, there are not many Christs, or Bodies of Christ, but it is one and the same Christ that is truly and really present ... being changed and transubstantiated, becometh, and is, after consecration, one and the same with That in the Heavens. (6.17e)

Further, we believe that by the word “transubstantiation” the manner is not explained, by which the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of the Lord, — for that is altogether incomprehensible and impossible, except by God Himself, and those who imagine to do so are involved in ignorance and impiety, — but that the bread and the wine are after the consecration, not typically, nor figuratively, nor by superabundant grace, nor by the communication or the presence of the Divinity alone of the Only-begotten, transmuted into the Body and Blood of the Lord. (6.17h)
I would contend that the above text accurately frames and defends the term transubstantiation. The incomprehensibility and the mystery of the sacrament are not lost or threatened by use of the term transubstantiation as Dr. Hinlicky asserts in (quoted at beginning of article).

It is also worth mentioning the following. If it were true that Catholics threatened the mysterious pedigree of the Eucharist if it is described as changing into the body of Christ, then why would not the Lutheran description of "sacramental union" or "in, with, and under" not do the same? After all, Luther wrote, " the bread and wine in themselves remain unaltered and unchanged" and "out of two kinds of objects a union has taken place." I submit that these descriptions are no more or less an "explanation" of the Eucharist or a threat to the mystery of the Eucharist than transubstantiation.

If anything, some of the deduction Luther posed to defend his notion of "sacramental union" included conjecture such as: "[Jesus] took up no space, and the stone yielded him no space, but the stone remained stone, as entire and firm as before, and his body remained as large and thick as it was before." None of the physics of the matter are provided in the Biblical text, yet Luther describes as fact physical characteristics of the scene not specified.

But my point is, if the Lutheran positions of "sacramental union" or "in, with, and under" are not explanations of a mystery, than neither can be transubstantiation.

A final thought on the term "bread" in Scripture
Luther more than once defended the idea that the substance of bread "remains" in the Eucharist by citing 1 Cor. 10:16 and 1 Cor. 11:28. The passages read:
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? (1 Cor. 10:16)

Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. (1 Cor. 11:28)
So the rule Luther posits is this: If after consecration the term bread is used to describe what is in question, then common bread therefore remains present.

First, I think it is worth reading on to the next verse in chapter 11:
For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. (1 Cor. 11:29)
So the distinction is made by Paul. What he is calling bread is to be "discerned" as Christ's "body." I submit that although Luther claimed to take Scripture at face value,3 Paul only tells us to identify what is labeled bread as "his body"--not "his body in and under the bread." In fact, Christ Himself used the term "bread" synonomously with His "flesh":
I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh." (John 6:51)
No one would argue from John 6:51 that because Christ said one had to eat "this bread" which He "shall give" that is "His flesh" that there must have been common bread scourged by Pilate and crucified with Christ.

In the same way, at the Last Supper, Christ held up the bread and said: "This is my body which is given for you." (e.g. Luke 22:19) So what did Christ give on the cross? His body. And likewise, no one argues from the Last Supper account that because the text uses the term "bread" and a moment later stated that it would be "given for you" that common bread was scourged by Pilate and crucified with Christ. Leading up to the 1 Cor. 11:28 verse, Paul references this very incident (v. 24).

In both 1 Cor. 10 and 11, Paul references the consecrated bread, not pre-consecrated common bread. What we can properly say is that the consecrated bread = Christ's body. By using the term bread in the first half of the equation, we are not meaning common bread. This is the context in which Paul uses the term bread. He makes a distinction when he says in 1 Cor. 10:16 of the "bread which we break." He is labeling the item as such, teaching a nuanced doctrine for which some of Jesus' disciples actually departed (John 6:58-66). And Paul said of this consecrated bread that it must be "discerned as His body" as opposed to "discerned as His body with or under common bread."

So I disagree with Luther that Catholics do violence to Scripture and that his interpretation leaves the Scripture inviolate.

Hopefully, I've clarified the use of some of the terms in the discussion and presented some reasons why Lutherans and Catholics espouse what they do regarding the Eucharist.

On an interesting note, I should point out that for all of Luther's polemics against the Catholic teaching on the Eucharist, he considered Catholics to have an acceptable understanding of the Eucharist. Comparing transubstantiation to his own teaching, Luther wrote:
I therefore permit every man to hold either of these views, as he chooses. My one concern at present is to remove all scruples of conscience, so that no one may fear to become guilty of heresy if he should believe in the presence of real bread and real wine on the altar, and that every one may feel at liberty to ponder, hold and believe either one view or the other, without endangering his salvation. (Babylonian Captivity, 2.24)
He ends the section in the same way:
I permit other men to follow the other opinion [transubstantiation], which is laid down in the decree Firmiter. Only let them not press us to accept their opinions as articles of faith, as I said above. (2.36)
What makes this interesting is, in between, he writes sometimes scathingly of the Catholic notion of transubstantiation, calling it "a monstrous word for a monstrous idea" (2.27).

I do think it is an important issue, however, as Luther implies in his very act of vehement opposition to the Catholic teaching. Part of the importance lies in the notion of the Eucharist as "sacrifice." As I mentioned earlier, what is "given up"? Luther, contrary to Catholic teaching, did not consider the Liturgy to be a sacrifice (cf. Babylonian Captivity, 2.37ff, esp. 2.69-70). The question is, what would God have us understand in His revealing of Himself in the sacrament of the Eucharist? But that may be a discussion for another day.

EDIT 6/11/11: I was since referred to the following quote from Martin Luther in which, if this is an accurate translation, he uses the term "with" to describe Christ and the bread/wine in the Eucharist:
We proved above in our comments on Luke that these words, “This cup is the new testament in my blood,” cannot be a trope, because the expression “in my blood” has the same meaning as “through” or “with” my blood. For Christ’s blood cannot be such an insignificant thing that it yields only a sign of the new testament, as the calves’ blood did in Moses’ time. Neither can “blood” be a trope, for the cup cannot by virtue of a sign of the blood, or ordinary wine, become so important a thing, viz. the new testament.
Luther, Martin: Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan (Hrsg.) ; Oswald, Hilton C. (Hrsg.) ; Lehmann, Helmut T. (Hrsg.): Luther's Works, Vol. 37 : Word and Sacrament III. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1999, c1961 (Luther's Works 37), S. 37:III-336

1Dr. Hinlicky is also in error to describe the Catholic understanding as an "annihilation of the substance of the bread." The defining texts of the Fourth Lateran Council or the Council of Trent do not address the matter. And St. Thomas Aquinas, a key figure in the early Catholic use of the term of transubstantiation, specifically rejected the notion that the bread and wine are annihilated, but rather converted. He writes:
"[I]n this sacrament, the substance of the bread or wine is not annihilated. ... since in this sacrament the whole substance is converted into the whole substance, on that account this conversion is properly termed transubstantiation." (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III.75.3, 8)
2It should be noted that I was unable to find a quotation of Luther's using the phrase "in, with, and under." Though it may have been his understanding (his colleague Melanchthon used the phrase), I only found him using "in and under." The Lutheran tradition has historically used the longer "in, with, and under" verbiage.

3Luther wrote regarding his own interpretation of the Eucharist: "But there are good grounds for my view, and this above all - no violence is done to the word of God, whether by man or angel." (Babylonian Captivity, 2.25)


  1. Excellent article, thanks so much. I was just standing outside an abortion clinic with a very good Lutheran woman (born Catholic but left because of Church scandals) and when I suggested she should return to the Church because we have the treasure of the Eucharist, she said, "Oh we do too. Luther did not throw everything out. " I knew this was not the case but needed to research what Lutherans do believe about communion. This helped. thank you -Mary

  2. Thank you, Mary, and God bless you for praying and representing the faith! :)

  3. Consubstantiation is not Sacramental Union. Sacramental Union is what Lutherans believe. Paul explains it best -27 Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. 28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.