Transubstantiation in Thomas Aquinas: part one

October 8, 2013

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

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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: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/lateran4.asp.

[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.

5 Responses to “Transubstantiation in Thomas Aquinas: part one”

  1. […] a very interesting article titled ‘Transubstantiation in Thomas Aquinas: part one’ (link). Worth a read if you have ever wondered about the Thomistic approach to […]

  2. Already I’m seeing that I’ve read and am guilty of far too many oversimplifications that pit Aquinas and the Thomists against the nouvelle théologie particularly with respect to the Eucharist. Looking forward to working through the rest of these.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Glad to hear. The leading nouvelle figures were appreciative of Thomas, aiming their criticisms more at the “manual” tradition of Baroque/Counter-Reformation Catholicism than Thomas proper. This is not to say that there are no differences (e.g., Balthasar’s appropriation of Barth’s christocentrism), but it could probably be argued that the nouvelle school was Thomist, just as Thomas was an Augustinian. In other words, a strict Augustinian / Thomist divide is too neat and has more to do with style and emphases than substantial content (though content is effected). Etienne Gilson, in particular, has demonstrated the Augustinian and patristic foundation of Thomas.

      Having said that, the tools that Thomas uses — Aristotelian categories — do pose a problem for me, as the rest of this blog series demonstrates. So I do think the differences between a Platonic orientation and an Aristotelian orientation are important, just as the differences between a Kantian versus a Hegelian orientation are important, or analytic versus dialectic, and so on. These are not hard-and-fast categories, but they are helpful.

  3. […] The Dominicans are Thomists. All of them. If they discover a non-Thomist in their midst, he is unceremoniously booted out of the order. I don’t have proof of that, but it is surely common knowledge. As Thomists, they are theological. Real theology. Doctrine of God. Christology. Sacraments. The whole shebang. They treat systematic theology like it’s a religious duty, because it is. While the Franciscans cuddle bunny rabbits (see below), the Dominicans are fine-tuning the difference between substantia and accidentia, as I once blogged. […]

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