A Satanist, a Roman Catholic, and J. I. Packer on the "Presence" of Christ in the Eucharist1
Headlines were recently made here in Oklahoma City when Archbishop Paul S. Coakley withdrew a lawsuit that had been filed against a group of Satanists who had planned on using a consecrated wafer in their so-called “black mass” at our local Civic Center Music Hall. Continue reading . . .
Headlines were recently made here in Oklahoma City when Archbishop Paul S. Coakley withdrew a lawsuit that had been filed against a group of Satanists who had planned on using a consecrated wafer in their so-called “black mass” at our local Civic Center Music Hall. “I am relieved that we have been able to secure the return of the sacred Host, and that we have prevented its desecration as part of a planned satanic ritual” (The Oklahoman, 8-22-14, 1a).
I certainly join with Coakley and others in utter disdain for the proposed “black mass,” but why all the fuss over a piece of bread? The answer lies in the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation, according to which the bread and wine of communion are literally transformed or converted into the literal/physical body and blood of Christ. Here is how this supposed “miracle” occurs. According to the Catholic Catechism:
“In the epiclesis, the Church asks the Father to send his Holy Spirit (or the power of his blessing) on the bread and wine, so that by his power they may become the body and blood of Jesus Christ and so that those who take part in the Eucharist may be one body and one spirit. . . . In the institution narrative [when the priest speaks the words of blessing or consecration: "Hoc est corpus meum" ("This is my body")], the power of the words and the action of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit, make sacramentally present under the species of bread and wine Christ’s body and blood, his sacrifice offered on the cross once for all” (CC, 1353).
Drawing on Aristotelian philosophy, Rome distinguishes between the “substance” of a thing, i.e., its essence, and the “accidents” or external, physical features and appearance. The latter remains as bread and wine while the former is miraculously transformed into another substance.
The debate on this point erupted in the 9th century with the publication of a treatise by Paschasius Radbertus (De corpore et sanguine domini; “concerning the body and blood of the Lord”), abbot of the monastery at Corbie (842-53), in which he asserted that a miracle of divine omnipotence occurs in the elements, a creative act, as it were. In essence, God effects or creates in the substance of the bread and wine the very flesh and blood of Jesus. Although he did not employ the term Transubstantiation, he defended the idea (the word itself first appeared in 1140 in a work by the man who would become Pope Alexander III).
The flesh and blood present in the elements are allegedly the same in which Christ was born, crucified, buried and raised. The change is an internal mystery, hence the elements retain their natural physical properties such as taste and smell. But why, if the bread and wine are truly the body and blood of Christ, don’t they look and smell and taste like it? Two reasons are typically given:
The first reason, originally articulated by Ambrose in the fifth century, is known as horror cruoris, i.e., “the horror of blood.” Since God knew that humans could not bear the thought, much less the taste, of blood and flesh in their mouths, he miraculously retains the natural properties of the bread and wine.
Second, if the bread and wine actually looked and tasted like flesh and blood, what need would there be for faith on the part of the recipient? They are, in point of fact, flesh and blood, but that is something only faith can perceive. Thus, the miracle of transubstantiation was designed by God as a test and demonstration of faith.
Radbertus also appealed to stories of alleged miraculous phenomena associated with the Eucharist to gain the support of the people. For example, he argued that the bread on the altar was often seen in the shape of a lamb or a little child; when the priest stretched out his hand to break the bread, an angel descended from heaven with a knife, slaughtered the lamb or the child, and let its blood run into a cup!
Objections to the notion of transubstantiation came from Rabanus and Ratramnus of Corbie (d. 868), both of whom insisted that the elements were symbolic of the body and blood of Christ and that partaking of the Lord's Supper involved no more than an experience of spiritual union of the believer with the mystical body of Christ. The dispute persisted into the Scholastic period where the doctrine of Radbertus eventually won the day.
The Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation was officially made a dogma of the church by Pope Innocent III at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. There it was declared:
"The body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine, the bread transubstantiated into the body and the wine into the blood by divine power. . . . And this sacrament no one can in any case administer except a priest who has been properly ordained."
The Council of Trent (16th century) issued the following declarations concerning the sacrament of the Eucharist:
"If any one shall deny that the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and, therefore, entire Christ, are truly, really, and substantially contained in the Sacrament of the most holy Eucharist; and shall say that He is only in it as in a sign or in a figure, or virtually, let him be accursed. . . . If any one shall say that the substance of the bread and wine remains in the Sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, together with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ; and shall deny that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the blood, the outward forms of the bread and wine still remaining, which conversion the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation, let him be accursed" (Session 13, Canons 1-2).
Again, the Catholic Catechism says this of transubstantiation:
“It is by the conversion of the bread and wine in Christ’s body and blood that Christ becomes present in this sacrament” (CC, 1375).
“The Eucharistic presence of Christ begins at the moment of the consecration and endures as long as the Eucharistic species subsist. Christ is present whole and entire in each of the species and whole and entire in each of their parts, in such a way that the breaking of the bread does not divide Christ” (1377).
What should we say to this? I’ve recently completed a book on J. I. Packer’s theology of the Christian life and found his perspective profoundly insightful (the book is due out from Crossway in June, 2015).
Packer is no fan of transubstantiation of the elements or even any notion of a special, somehow localized attachment of Christ’s glorified body to the bread and wine. There simply is no physical presence of Christ’s body as, in, with, or through the bread and wine. When Jesus spoke the words of institution (“this is my body . . . this cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood”), the verb “is” clearly means represents or symbolizes. “The idea that Jesus’s words worked like a wizard’s spell,” notes Packer, “changing bread, and perhaps wine too, whether through addition or transmutation, into something other than what they were, has had a good run for its money, but seems impossible, if only because Jesus himself as he spoke was still with them, personally unchanged” (Taking God Seriously, 152).
Is there any sense, then, in which Christ may be said to be “present” in communion? Yes, says Packer, in much the same sense in which he promised to be with us in Matthew 18:20 and 28:20 (“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age”). Packer’s own explanation at this point is important to note, so I cite him at length:
“It is the presence of the triumphant, sovereign Savior, who is there in terms of his objective omnipresence and here in terms of being always alongside each believer with a sustaining and nurturing purpose. Clarity requires us to say, then, that Christ is present at, rather than in, the Supper. Though not physical, his presence is personal and real in the sense of being a relational fact. Christ is present, not in the elements in any sense, but with his worshippers; and his presence is effected, not by the quasi-magic of ritual correctly performed by a permitted person, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, who indwells believers’ hearts to mediate Christ’s reality to them. It is not a passive but an active presence, known not by what it feels like (often it is, in any ordinary sense of the word, unfelt), but rather by what it does” (ibid., 162).
Thus when we together, in faith, partake of the bread and wine the latter are understood as a pledge or divine assurance of the reality and provision of the beneficial spiritual effects to which they point. We remember Christ in his atoning death, which is to say we call him to mind in joyful praise, prayer, and gratitude for the gift of forgiveness and eternal life. Packer contends that when we take the elements we should envision them coming from Christ’s hand as his guarantee that in love he will continue to nourish us spiritually forever.
This is no abstract intellectual reflection on past events. Packer directs our attention to 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 where Paul’s use of the word “participation” indicates that “the ritual eating and drinking that Christ prescribed brings spiritual nourishment to us through unitive involvement with him in the shedding of his lifeblood and the giving of his body to be broken” (ibid., 153). In this way Christ draws believers into identification with his own risen life. From this union, through the Holy Spirit, “spiritual vitality flows: health and strength for devotion and service; inner resources of love, ability, and power that we continue to discover within ourselves throughout our lives” (ibid., 153-54).
There is, therefore, something profoundly transformative that occurs in the Christian. The sacrament sanctifies!