Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What's up with that: Transubstantiation

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An informal series addressing questions Protestants and Catholics have about each other

Welcome to the fifth post in this new series.  If you're new, check out at least the first post to catch up.

This week I want to go ahead and talk about transubstantiation.  (I think that's kind of brave of me!)  However, as I've pointed out, I'm not here to be an authority on Catholic theology, but rather to share personally what my beliefs mean to me.  (Transubstantiation: Christian doctrine: the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox doctrine that the bread and wine of Communion become, in substance, but not appearance, the body and blood of Jesus Christ at consecration.)
Catholics have no idea what a foreign concept transubstantiation can be to some Protestants.  I cannot stress that enough.  I think we all forget or never actually realize the profound significance of the culture and traditions in which we are formed.  If certain ideas are never introduced to you as a child or you are even taught that certain ideas are wrong, it can be very, very hard to wrap your mind around a new concept.  If you have never really been immersed in another culture or religion, you have likely never had a good opportunity to realize that there are perfectly normal people out there who believe something you absolutely cannot understand and do not know how a sane person could believe--or vice versa.  (This is very important to remember for when we talk about Mary later on.)

Some Protestant traditions do have an easier time with the concept than other traditions.  For instance, some more liturgical denominations believe that while the elements of communion do not become the actual body and blood of Christ, they do believe that Christ is present "in, with and under" the elements.  Some common names for these different doctrines are Real Presence, Consubstantiation, and Sacramental Union.  Most liturgical traditions do hold that something mysterious happens in the celebration of Holy Communion.  Denominations who identify as "evangelical" will likely be of the mind that Holy Communion is symbolic.  So you can see where bigger leaps need to be made in understanding.

I'm not sure what your faith is as you are reading today, but whatever it is, it's likely that you are Christian because that's the demographic I write for and it's likely that you have a strong familiarity with the Bible.  There's a lot of really crazy stuff that happens in there.  Walls falling because people are blasting trumpets.  Really old women having babies.  Guys being swallowed by fish and spit out again.  And God's son being born of a Virgin?  And then dying and coming back to life??  That's wild!

So here's what I have to say about Holy Communion: if we can base our entire religion on the belief that our God was incarnate and made man, born of a virgin, and then died and was resurrected, why would we question His ability to be present to us in Communion?  If our God is as awesome and amazing as we proclaim and point to in our Bibles, why would this idea of Communion being more than symbol be anything all that surprising?

Many Protestants do not feel there is biblical evidence or support for this.  Their interpretation of scripture just does not lead them to this conclusion, even if they can read the above paragraph and say, Sure, I can admit that God is certainly capable of that.  The Catholic response is that Jesus said, "This IS my body" and "This IS my blood".  (No one needs a definition of "is" right?)  Which I thought was a good argument for Christians who insist in baptism by immersion and as adults--we are to be baptized like Christ and Christ was immersed as an adult, right?

But the "is" argument usually isn't enough (it's not really for me) which is where John 6 comes in.

53 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

Many Disciples Desert Jesus

60 On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
61 Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! 63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. 64 Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. 65 He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”
66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

The thought is that Jesus would not have let the disciples leave if they had simply misunderstood because in John 3 Nicodemus questions Jesus saying that he must be born again:

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” 

Jesus clarifies for him--he doesn't let him walk away confused.  Our priest has said that Jesus knew this would be a difficult teaching to accept and that not everyone would.  And that's fine.

My point today for this post is not to make everyone believe in transubstantiation, but rather to have you think for just a few moments about the wonder and mystery that could possibly still be happening today in our modern times.  Many times we wonder where are all of God's messengers today?  Why doesn't God speak to us today the way he once did?  Why are there all these amazing stories in the Bible but things like that don't happen now?  Miracles happened all the time during Jesus' ministry--could the Sacraments be modern miralces?

It makes me wonder what exactly it is that makes us think this is the case.  It seems unnatural that God would just stop with the wonder and mystery after Jesus.  God knows us--He knows that we need guidance and contact with Him.  In what ways might God be making miracles happen in your life today?

For more on John 6, check out this article from Catholic Answers.


  1. One of the things that convinced me most that I wanted to leave the Presbyterian church I was raised in was the issue of communion. While Lutherans do not believe in transubstantiation, we do of course (as you know, I think you said you were Lutheran for a short time), believe that the very body and very blood of our Lord and Savior are physically present in communion. My question for you (I hope this isn't too much of a question for a blog comment!) is why exactly Catholics hold it so important for the very elements to be transformed into the body and the blood? So in other words, Lutherans believe that the body and blood (in their true, physical nature), are present in, with & under the elements, but if I understand it correctly, Catholics believe that the very elements themselves are transformed?

    1. Hi Sarah--good to hear from you again. You're right, I was Lutheran for a time and no, your comment isn't necessarily too much for a blog post, but it might be too much for someone with my limited theological training :-) My instinct is to turn your question around in order to answer it. Basically, the question shouldn't be why is transubstantiation so important to Catholics, but why did Luther reject it? My point being that the belief in transubstantiation came first so the answer would be that Catholics find it so important because they believe it to be the original theological position on communion. There is no consideration of another nature of the elements because the very nature of Catholicism is to follow the teachings and traditions passed down as close to the original beliefs of Christ and the apostles as possible. As you are still Protestant, you still have that Protestant reflex to question the how and why of everything (which I obviously understand very well and will likely always have).

      It occurs to me that the reason you may be asking is because you want to know why if Lutherans could have such a similar belief in communion, why is Lutheran communion not "good enough" for Catholics? The reason there would be that Catholics would not believe that the consecration is able to take place because a Lutheran pastor is not a direct descendant in apostolic succession, as a Catholic priest would be.

      Does that all make sense? If I didn't answer well enough I can try again! Or e-mail me, any time. I love that you're so interested in hashing things out with me and I do hope nothing I ever say comes across as offensive--I feel like I don't have to be as careful because I have the former Protestant background and all, but just in case, call me out if you feel the need!

  2. That makes perfect sense! ) The apostolic succession argument is one that seems to be central to Catholicism, so it makes sense that it would also be central to one of the foremost elements of the Christian faith. Thanks so much for getting back with me so quickly--I'm excited to learn more from series. :


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