Bach’s Ricercare à 6

October 27, 2013

I am blessed to attend an evangelical church which still has an organ and professional organist — an increasing rarity in these barbaric days. For those who are not so fortunate, you should at least compensate by joyfully attuning your ears to this wonderful piece by Bach:

This is from Bach’s Musikalisches Opfer (BWV 1079), which together with his Die Kunst der Fuge (BWV 1080) is among his most celebrated and complex works. You can acquire both in this two-disc set.

Lindi Ortega

October 16, 2013

Lindi Ortega

I was fortunate to see Lindi Ortega last night here in Charlotte. Her voice is mesmerizing. Her songs are lovely, whether sad or joyful. Here is a sampling of her material, recorded at the Dakota Tavern in Toronto:


You can increase the video to 720p.

Benozzo Gozzoli, The Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas, with Aristotle and Plato, Musee du Louvre 1471

Image: “The Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas” (AD 1471) by Benozzo Gozzoli, with Aristotle on the left and Plato on the right. Musée du Louvre.


This is the third and final installment in a three-part series on the doctrine of Transubstantiation in the sacramental theology of Thomas Aquinas.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three


The question remains whether these particular categories, substance and accidents, are aiding or hindering our understanding of the doctrine of the Eucharist. But first, let us review some praiseworthy features of the Thomist account.

We can commend the extent to which these distinctions remove any crude understanding of the Real Presence. As we have seen, it is precisely because Thomas makes a clear distinction between substance and accident that he is able to guard against any vulgar understanding of an actual eating of blood and flesh, which appears to be, given the polemics of the time period, what many Protestants supposed that Rome taught (and perhaps not a few Catholics themselves). The numerous miracles of the host turning into actual flesh and the wine turning into actual blood, which are often then venerated in shrines, have only reinforced this crude understanding of Transubstantiation.[1] Yet for Thomas at least, the compositional make-up of the bread, at the level of physical properties (species), remains as before. Thus, even though its ontological status has changed, what is being consumed is still, at the chemical level, bread. (By the way, the most significant criticism of the Mass by Protestants was, and remains, the Catholic belief in the Mass as a recurring sacrifice.)

Moreover, we can commend the extent to which Thomas repeatedly affirms the bodily presence of Christ in heaven, as distinct from his sacramental presence on earth. The corporal integrity of Christ’s ascended and glorified existence is important for a Reformed understanding of Christ’s high priesthood. If the body of the ascended Christ is given the divine properties of omnipresence, which may be the Lutheran position, then we would no longer have a glorified human body but something altogether different – a tertium quid that is a commingling of human and divine properties. Thomas rejects any such implications in his rejection of local and movable presence. For Thomas, the body of Christ in heaven remains and is at rest, not extended or moved into our space and time.

Yet, even with these commendations in mind, the Protestant is still faced with whether “substance” is a proper category for understanding the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. In regards to the bodily presence, the existence of a “substance” that is distinct from its physical “accidents” is necessary for underwriting Thomas’ whole conception of a real presence that is in “very truth” real (not merely a symbol) and yet not local. However, it is highly debatable whether any particular thing has a substance that, in some way, transcends the physical properties we perceive by our senses. Without the accidents, at least some of them, what can be predicated of substance?

Also, what gain is achieved by positing such a substance? In particular, is it even possible to conceive of a substance without conceiving of at least some of its accidents? Indeed, such accidents are necessary for the “what-ness” (substance) of a thing to be articulated with any comprehension. Therefore, can there be a clear separation of substance and accident?

In other words, in any meaningful description of substance (of body, blood, etc.), it seems to be necessary to include certain accidents; otherwise, we have a concept without content. While some accidents can be described as “non-essential,” such as the color of one’s skin, the skin itself surely requires some accidents to make it skin and not, say, a plastic bottle. Skin is a composite of accidents (all that is observable by the senses), some of which are required to make it skin. Without these “essential” accidents, we do not have skin. Likewise with body or blood, all that is available to our sense perception will include certain essential attributes that make the body a body and the blood to be blood. In the Thomist formulation of the Eucharistic elements, we have the substance of Christ’s body in the accidents of bread; yet, what is the content of this substance of Christ’s body? There is no content. It is completely void, once all “accidental” predicates are removed. This may be a limitation of our modern understanding, given that a substance (that which makes a thing what it is) is invariably understood according to its physical composition, at least in part. Terence Nichols, professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, explains the problem:

But it would seem that what makes bread bread and wine wine are the chemical and molecular structures of their elements (flour, water, alcohol, etc.). But these are not changed in transubstantiation. “Substance” therefore must mean something else, some ghostly reality behind the chemical structures of bread and wine. But it is very hard for modern hearers to grasp what this occult “substance” might be, or how it makes the bread what it is and the wine what it is.[2]

Given that a Thomist-Aristotelian understanding of substance is especially difficult to comprehend today (if ever!), the problem is now whether the formulation of Trent is irrevocably bound to these philosophical categories. The Tridentine decrees follow Thomas in its formulation of Transubstantiation.[3] Edward Schillebeeckx affirms that, indeed, the bishops at Trent were authorizing Aristotelian categories of substance and accident. According to Schillebeeckx, even though they preferred to use “species” instead of “accidents,” the conciliar records indicate that they understood the two terms to mean the same thing. Trent is thereby not philosophy-neutral in its formulation of the Real Presence. As Schillebeeckx writes, “The fathers of the Council of Trent were not trying to dissociate themselves from the word ‘accidents’ for the very good reason that, whether they were strict Thomists or Scotists or whatever they were, they were all in their own way Aristotelian scholastics in their manner of thinking….”[4]

Thus, a significant question today is how the Roman Catholic understanding of Real Presence can be formulated in different categories that may complement, not replace, the substance ontology that has received conciliar sanction. And perhaps such an alternate formulation may approach nearer to the Reformed understanding. After all, both Thomas and the Reformed tradition affirm a “sacramental presence” without analogy in nature and without local presence, for Christ remains in his glorified body at the right hand of the Father.

[1] See the Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association:

[2] Terence Nichols, “Transubstantiation and Eucharistic Presence,” Pro Ecclesia 11: 1 (2002): 59.

[3] The canons and decrees of the sacred and oecumenical Council of Trent, ed. and trans. J. Waterworth (London: Dolman, 1848), 78.

[4] Edward Schillebeeckx, The Eucharist (London: Burns & Oats, 2005 [1968]), 55. Terence Nichols disagrees with Schillebeeckx on this point. See “Transubstantiation and Eucharistic Presence,” 62.

Our Lady and Saint Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle

Image: St Thomas Aquinas presenting his work to Our Lady. Aristotle is in the foreground. The Latin text reads, “You have written well of me, Thomas.” Photograph is mine, taken in the Vatican Palaces.


This is the second installment in a three-part series on the doctrine of Transubstantiation in the sacramental theology of Thomas Aquinas.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three


In the following articles, Thomas deals with the change in the substance of the bread and wine into the substance of Christ’s body and blood. In answer to the question of whether the substance of bread and wine remain in the sacrament, Thomas appeals once again to the fact that no local presence is involved, and he further details what this means in three points:

Now it is evident that Christ’s body does not begin to be present in this sacrament by local motion. First of all, because it would follow that it would cease to be in heaven: for what is moved locally does not come anew to some place unless it quit the former one. Secondly, because every body moved locally passes through all intermediary spaces, which cannot be said here. Thirdly, because it is not possible for one movement of the same body moved locally to be terminated in different places at the one time, whereas the body of Christ under this sacrament begins at the one time to be in several places.[1]

Thus, as we saw before with his use of Augustine, he affirms that the ascended body of Christ remains in heaven and does not move through space and time to be present on the altars across the world. Yet, if there is no change of place by which the substance of the bread and wine are removed and replaced by the body-blood of Christ, then the only other alternative is that there is a change of substance which does not require such displacement of location. This change of substance is the doctrine of Transubstantiation. In the fifth article, Thomas gives one of his clearest expositions of what it means to have the substance of a thing changed, while the accidents remain. The substance is that which makes bread to be bread; that which makes wine to be wine. The accidents (or species) are that by which the sense perception determines a thing to be bread or a human body, et cetera. Any given thing reveals itself to our understanding through its physical properties which we engage through sense experience. The “what-ness” (substance) of a thing is not reducible to its accidents, yet the union of substance and accidents is inviolable in the Greek understanding. Aristotle never supposed that there are instances of a substance utilizing the accidents of a different substance. Yet, this is precisely what the doctrine of Transubstantiation claims. Hence, Thomas emphasizes, in the fourth article, that this is an act of divine power, not the coercion of immanent natural properties.

Thus, in the fifth article, in answer to the question of whether the accidents of the bread and wine remain after the consecration, Thomas affirms that all of the accidents remain. This means that at every point in the human perception of the bread’s material existence, it is bread. In a chemistry lab today, it would mean that the chemical composition of the bread under the microscope would be exactly the same prior to the consecration as afterwards. If the accidents were to change along with the substance according to the species proper to the substance, then the body and blood of Christ would appear as it did to his disciples and as it exists now in heaven. Yet, in so many words, Thomas rebukes this as cannibalism. He remarks:

It is evident to sense that all the accidents of the bread and wine remain after the consecration. And this is reasonably done by Divine providence. First of all, because it is not customary, but horrible, for men to eat human flesh and to drink blood. And therefore Christ’s flesh and blood are set before us to be partaken of under the species of those things which are the more commonly used by men, namely, bread and wine. Secondly, lest this sacrament might be derided by unbelievers, if we were to eat our Lord under His own species. Thirdly, that while we receive our Lord’s body and blood invisibly, this may redound to the merit of faith.[2]

Thus, Thomas quite clearly rejects any claim that the Eucharist involves the eating of human flesh and the drinking of human blood, as would be required by the normal union of accidents that are proper to a substance – which would be “horrible” and cause “derision.” Yet, there is still truly a reception of Christ’s body and blood, but it is “invisible.” This invisibility is not a trick of our perception; rather, it is the consequence of the fact that substance itself is not visible. The accidents are what are visible. The material existence of the post-consecrated “bread” is not merely a matter of perception, as this would have more in common with modern Idealist philosophy than with Thomas’ realism. Ontology, both physical and metaphysical, precedes epistemology in Thomas’ realist mindset. Thus, the accidents of the bread and wine are really there; that is, the material and local presence of the bread and wine are truly there, just as before. Yet, bread and wine can no longer be predicated of these elements, since what they “are” is the body and blood of Christ. Once again, the substance of a thing is what it truly is. Under normal circumstances, this substance requires physical extension that is proper to it, but in the Eucharist the substance of Christ’s body and blood utilizes the extended (material) properties that are normally proper to bread and wine.

In the subsequent section (question 76), Thomas once again objects to the idea that Christ’s body is in this sacrament as in a place (article five). He uses the distinctions already discussed to argue that Christ’s body “is in heaven under its own species, and on many altars under sacramental species…not in this sacrament circumscriptively, because it is not there according to the commensuration of its own quantity, as stated above.”[3] Moreover, in the following article, Thomas rejects the idea that Christ’s body is in this sacrament movably: “But Christ’s body is at rest in heaven. Therefore it is not movably in this sacrament.”[4] He then appeals to the previous article, noting that such mobility requires local presence. Repeatedly Thomas has affirmed that Christ’s body is in heaven, and the bodily presence in heaven is “under its own species,” which is to say that it retains the accidental properties that are proper to it: those of the resurrected and glorified body of Christ. This bodily presence in heaven is distinct from the bodily presence on the altars. In the former, the accidents are those proper to the substance; in the latter, the accidents are those of bread and wine, the substances of which no longer exist. As noted above, there is no analogy to this in the natural sphere. Thus, transubstantiation – an instance where the substance changes while the accidents remain – is an entirely new phenomenon. While the categories of substance and accidents may be dependent on Greek philosophy, their usage is in service to a work of God without parallel in the rest of creation. In this way, Thomas is utilizing concepts which, in their original setting, would deny the possibility of what he is describing.

[1] ST IIIa, Q75, A2.

[2] ST IIIa, Q75, A5.

[3] ST IIIa, Q76, A5, ad. 1.

[4] ST IIIa, Q76, A6.

St Dominic and St Thomas Aquinas - by Fra Angelico

This is the first installment in a three-part series on the doctrine of Transubstantiation in the sacramental theology of Thomas Aquinas.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three


The doctrine of Transubstantiation is a matter of confusion for most Protestants, who are likely to see in this doctrine an example of the ways in which the Roman Catholic tradition has departed from biblical terrain, seduced by the sublimity of sophisticated philosophical distinctions. The term, “transubstantiation,” first became a matter of intense controversy in the eleventh century involving, among others, Berengar of Tours against the term and Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, in favor.[1] Berengar’s side lost the controversy, and the term is given its first conciliar formulation in 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council.[2] Later in the same century, this term would receive its most significant defense and exposition by Saint Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. It is Thomas’ treatment of Transubstantiation that we will explore in this short blog series, with the goal of better comprehending the categories at the center of the controversy: substance and accidents. Thus, we will answer the question of how Christ is bodily present by way of the substance of his body and blood, not the accidents of his body and blood.

It will be argued that, given Thomas’ distinction between substance and accident, the bodily presence of Christ should not be understood or characterized in a crude or vulgar manner. Rather, the continuing accidents of bread and wine, together with the numinous nature of “substance” as a category, adequately prevent any such vulgarization. Yet, the comprehensibility of substance as a category will be challenged, appearing to be a category without content. Moreover, the Protestant will want to query whether these Greek philosophical categories have been irrevocably bound to the Catholic understanding of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. (This is not to question, by the way, the utility or necessity of terms borrowed from philosophy; rather, it is to question this particular usage and necessity.) [UPDATE 2/4/2016: I am not confident with my criticisms on this point. The real point of controversy is whether “substance” is available for empirical verification, which it is not. However, it is still an open question what “substance” actually means, as I will argue later in this series. It is much easier to say what it is not, which does help remove some confusion for Protestants.]

The presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is engaged by Thomas in questions 75-77 of the third part of the Summa Theologica. Thomas begins his exposition by asking whether the body of Christ is present in “very truth” or only as a sign.[3] Among the objections given, we are immediately confronted with the question of whether Christ’s words in the sixth chapter of John are meant to indicate a real eating of his flesh. It appears that the disciples are disturbed by Jesus’ insistence that his body and blood are true food and true drink. Thus, in the first objection, John 6.63 is quoted where Christ responds to the crude understanding of his disciples: “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” Thomas’ response is interesting in that he agrees that the disciples held to a crude understanding of Christ’s words. He quotes Augustine’s comments that the disciples erred because they “understood that the flesh was to be eaten as it is divided piecemeal in a dead body, or as sold in the shambles, not as it is quickened by the spirit…Let the spirit draw nigh to the flesh…then the flesh profiteth very much.”[4] Herein Thomas agrees with the objection insofar as it rightly protests against a false understanding of Christ’s real bodily presence, yet Thomas rejects the inference that the presence is thereby not corporal. Rather, the question is what sort of corporal presence is being indicated by Christ in the Eucharist and how is this presence distinct from his corporal presence to his disciples on earth.

We have a greater clue to this distinction in the following adversus. In response to a quote by Augustine in the second objection, where Augustine locates the body of Christ in heaven and in this place only, Thomas replies that these “are to be understood of Christ’s body as it is beheld in its proper species.”[5] The bodily presence of Christ “in its proper species” is the presence accorded to his incarnate and glorified bodily form, which is spatially circumscribed and available to the senses as such. Therefore, as Thomas understands John 6.63, the mumbling and consternation of the disciples is due in large respect to their misunderstanding on this point. They wrongly supposed that Christ intended them to eat his body according to its proper species, i.e., according to its physical properties as presented to their sense perception. Thomas understands Augustine to correctly deny any real presence of Christ that is a material presence in the same way that Christ was materially present to his disciples during his earthly sojourn. Thus, Thomas can agree with Augustine that Christ’s ascended body is locally present in heaven and in heaven alone, yet there is a non-local presence of this same body which can be replicated across the numerous altars of the world.

It is this category of local presence which Thomas invokes in his reply to the third objection that a body cannot be present in several places at once. His response is vitally important for understanding Thomas’ conception of the mode of Christ’s presence: “Christ’s body is not in this sacrament in the same way as a body is in a place, which by its dimensions is commensurate with the place; but in a special manner which is proper to this sacrament.”[6] This passage is further illumined by his response to the fourth objection, where John 16.7 is quoted, “for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you,” thus indicating that the apostles are admonished for their attachment to his bodily presence – a bodily presence which is no longer available to them after his ascension. In these two responses, Thomas is clearly affirming that the mode of Christ’s presence to his disciples, as materially circumscribed, is a mode of presence that is distinct from his sacramental presence in the Eucharist. The former, bodily presence understood as a spatially inhabited mode of being, is not the bodily presence of Christ in the Eurcharist; that is to say, rather, it is a bodily presence proper to a sacrament, not a bodily presence proper to his earthly sojourn. Sacramental presence is non-local, whereas his incarnate presence in Mary’s womb and thereafter is local. In his treatment of Transubstantiation, Abbot Vonier quotes the above third adversus of Thomas, that denies local presence, and comments:

For him it is simply unthinkable – nay, it implies a metaphysical contradiction – that the Body of Christ should ever be considered as moving simultaneously from place to place, or as overcoming, in some miraculous manner, all spatial hindrances. Transubstantiation is infinitely simpler. …The Body of Christ is not taken hold of, hurried through space and put into a definite place on a definite altar, this is not Eucharist at all; but the divine invocation, as the words of consecration are so often called by the Fathers, makes the substance of a definite bread and the substance of a definite cup of wine into something new.[7]

There are no spatial hindrances because, as we quoted Thomas above, the bodily presence of Christ is not in the sacrament as “commensurate with the place” but is, rather, “in a special manner which is proper to this sacrament.” Yet, what sort of bodily presence is proper to this sacrament? Thomas is only able to say that Christ is present “sacramentally.” How is this sacramental presence different from a presence that is commensurate with the place? The answer is simple: it is not commensurate with the place. At this point, Thomas can only negatively define sacramental presence – as not local presence – without the ability to offer a parallel or symmetrical alternative to this local presence. Thus, Thomas must use a certain circularity in his definition of Christ’s bodily presence. How is Christ present in this sacrament? He is sacramentally present! This circularity is, however, required in that there is no analogy in nature to this sort of presence. This will be more clearly understood as we consider the bodily presence of Christ according to the substance of his body.

[1] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (volume 4; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908), 564-570.

[2] The Canons of the Fourth Lateran Council, canon 1, Fordham University Medieval Sourcebook:

[3] ST IIIa, Q75, A1.

[4] ST IIIa, Q75, A1, ad. 1.

[5] ST IIIa, Q75, A1, ad. 2.

[6] ST IIIa, Q75, A1, ad. 3.

[7] Abbot Vonier, A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist (Bethesda, MD: Zaccheus Press, 2004 [1925]), 122.

This is a delightful and wide-ranging discussion with Roger Scruton on the concept of human rights, tolerance, art/aesthetics, gender theory, and more:

Scruton is the foremost public intellectual within the Burkean school of conservatism. I have previously linked his documentary on art for the BBC, as well as Edward Feser’s summary of Scruton’s definition of sentimentality.

Also, you can watch Terry Eagleton in conversation with Roger Scruton. Needless to say, I am a bit incredulous about Eagleton’s rosy picture of leftist cultural values, but he’s an articulate defender of his cause, which has long won.