Steven Wedgeworth has posted a rebuttal to Leithart’s thesis. As y’all know, I posted a defense earlier this week. Wedgeworth’s piece is a long rebuttal, including complaints about “churchly nostalgia” and a defense of Calvinist hip-hop! It is worth reading. We come at all of this from very different places, to put it mildly.

I will not address all of Wedgeworth’s criticisms, but I must address his account of the sacraments. And then I will briefly address his take on Newman’s high-church aesthetics, which is very off the mark.

This will allow me to discuss a topic that I have wanted to discuss again for quite some time: Thomas Aquinas’ view of the sacraments, namely the Eucharist.

Blame it on Trent?

Wedgeworth argues that Leithart has the doctrine of the sacraments all wrong, at least the Roman Catholic view. Here is Wedgeworth, worth quoting in full:

In Leithart’s words, a proper use of symbolism allows objects to “be both themselves and also—simultaneously, without ceasing to be what they are, for the very reason they are what they are—something else.” This is all actually very interesting, and at the heart of Dr. Leithart’s larger career project, but it is not the way in which “sacraments” were debated at the time of the Reformation.

Assuming for a moment that Zwingli himself could not allow symbols to “to be both themselves and also… without ceasing to be what they are… something else,” it is abundantly clear that another religious party also had this very problem. The doctrine of transubstantiation asserts that the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine cease being bread and wine when they become the body and blood of Christ. Thus Zwinglian poetics ought to be in close company with Roman Catholic poetics. Blame it on Marburg if you like, but don’t forget Trent.

This is far more than a cute tu quoque. When it comes to the Eucharist, the Tridentine position, which is still the definitive one for Rome, is that “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.” Indeed, the Council of Trent had a strong revulsion towards any assertion that both bread and body or wine and blood existed together at the same time:

“If any one saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth 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 species Only of the bread and wine remaining-which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation; let him be anathema.”

This is a major problem for the sacramental poetics of Miss Flannery as Dr. Leithart has represented them. If the Eucharist really was the center of her existence, and if she really was a good Roman Catholic, then she ought not to have been able to write as she did. Perhaps she was a subconscious Lutheran. …

Is this true? Leithart argues that the sacraments operate simultaneously as themselves and as “something else.” For the Eucharist, this would mean that the signs used in the sacrament (bread and wine) are also Jesus himself in the Eucharist while remaining bread and wine. According to Wedgworth, this is not the Roman Catholic position. His argument is that the Council of Trent definitely stated that the elements of the bread and wine are no longer present but instead, at the time of the consecration, changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. As such, the sign is no longer the sign (in reality) but entirely substituted by the reality to which it ostensibly signifies.

That is a common enough account, but it is not correct, as I understand Trent and the official Roman position. As is well-known, the Tridentine position on the sacraments is heavily influenced by Thomas Aquinas. Even though Trent avoids canonizing the substance/accident categories of Aquinas, it is impossible to understand Trent without understanding Aquinas. It is wholly permissible for a later generation to substitute these categories with other, perhaps better and more serviceable, categories, so long as Trent is properly understood and affirmed in the distinctions that it intends. That, at least, is the duty of the Catholic theologian.


So, what is Trent actually saying? It all depends upon what Trent means by “substance.” It does not mean what we would mean. According to the standard Oxford Latin Dictionary of Lewis & Short, substantia means “that of which a thing consists, the being, essence, contents, material, substance.” For accidens, it is defined as “non-essential quality of any thing,” with a parenthetical note opposing the Latin substantia and the Greek οὐσία. According to Souter’s A Glossary of Later Latin (Oxford, 1949), substantia means “a real existence; the thing itself,” referring to Tertullian, and substantialis means “substantial, real, essential,” also citing Tertullian. These definitions are, admittedly, not entirely helpful for clarifying matters. The reason is because they are abstract categories with, as you would expect, a broad and shifting referential range.

Most importantly, the “that of which a things consists” in terms of its “contents” or “material” or “substance” is different today from what it was in Aquinas’ day. We are far more likely to refer to the physical properties, chemical composition, and graphical terrain of any object as “essential” and therefore the “substance” of the object. That is not what Aquinas means, and it is not what Trent means. I first grappled with this topic by taking a very close, hard look at what Aquinas says, how he uses these categories, and the limits he places upon them. Luckily for myself, I have already dealt with this on the blog:

Transubstantiation in Thomas Aquinas: part one

Transubstantiation in Thomas Aquinas: part two

Transubstantiation in Thomas Aquinas: part three

The moral of the story is that we must attend to the particular context in which these categories are used in order to understand what they mean. Yes, the substance is replaced by the substance of another (hence, “transubstantiation”), but what does Aquinas mean by “substance”? For Aquinas, substance is a non-local property, and this is a non-negotiable for dealing with this Thomist view of “the real presence” of Christ. As a local property, substance would acquire the properties of a local presence, which is spatially circumscribed. If that were the case, these properties would be essential to the “appearance,” which is (in Thomist language) the “accidents” and therefore not essential to the “substance.” I know that this is complicated for most people, but I try to explain it in the three-part series above on Thomas’ doctrine of Transubstantiation.

The point is rather simple, all things considered. The properties of bread and wine remain after consecration, insofar as they are physically and chemically and spatially defined — which is entirely how they are defined today as their “essential” properties. This is the orthodox position of the Roman Catholic Church. I am not aware of anyone, knowledgeable on the subject, who would disagree with me on that. I am, of course, very open to any challenges. Richard Muller’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Baker, 1985) defines transubstantiation as “only a transformation of substance, not of the incidental properties or accidents of the bread and wine. The appearance of bread and wine, therefore, remains” (p. 306). That is true, but we are prone to mistake “incidental” and “appearance” in ways that Aquinas and Trent never intended. The accidental properties that remain (the bread and wine) are not incidental in the sense of being capable of substitution by other properties! But that is exactly how we think of “incidental.” Likewise, the accidental properties are not mere “appearances” in the sense of a magical hallucination but are, in fact, the concrete properties that a scientist can verify and the Catholic can affirm as “really” present.

All of this is to say, the Roman Catholic position allows for the sort of “real” presence of the sign while allowing for the “real” presence of the signified, precisely in the way that Leithart argues.

John Henry Newman’s Aesthetic Motivations?

As a part of Wedgeworth’s criticism of “nostalgia,” he brings Newman and the 19th century into his discussion:

The move towards a “High Church” aesthetic began in the 19th century, with figures like Orestes Brownson and John Henry Newman, and it has continued throughout the 20th century with many celebrated examples. In nearly every case, these figures did not produce their literary or artistic works because of their newfound religious tradition, but instead found the new religious traditions because of the literary or artistic quests.

This is so incredibly wrong, if the second sentence is meant to apply to Newman. I don’t blame Wedgeworth, honestly, because he is simply placing Newman into a common narrative of 19th century theology and philosophy. As many of y’all know, I have spent a considerable amount of time with John Henry Newman. I have read most of his published works, and I wrote a master’s dissertation at Aberdeen on his most difficult work: the culminating masterpiece of his career, A Grammar of Assent, which has been unduly neglected in comparison to his more famous Essay on Development and the celebrated Apologia.

The best place to begin with Newman is actually his Oxford University sermons, while an Anglican, now published by the University of Notre Dame, which currently publishes most of his works. These are not typical sermons but more like lectures, and yet Newman was beloved by the students who flocked to see this quiet, shy, humble man in the pulpit. He had none of the charisma that we associate with a celebrated figure. There is a strong continuity from his Oxford sermons to the essay on development to the apologia and finally A Grammar of Assent, and you can clearly see it in his early work on the doctrine of justification.

The continuity is the priority that Newman places on the moral conscience. If we consider the Platonist transcendentals of truth/reason, goodness, and beauty, then we must say that Newman puts goodness and the conscience in the driver’s seat, with reason and beauty in a definitely subordinate position.

This is not altogether uncharacteristic of the 19th century, given the priority of moral or practical reasoning (usually associated with Kant) in matters theological, especially by the time of Ritschl. But aesthetics is also a defining feature of the 19th century (usually associated with Herder and others who reacted against 18th century rationalism and strict empiricism). Where does Newman stand? It is quite clear. Newman is deeply suspicious of the “aesthetes” who place beauty in the driver’s seat, including the more sophisticated and impressive accounts of a Coleridge or Blake. This is why it is wrong to characterize Newman as finding Rome because of an aesthetic quest. Far from it, even though that may have been the case with many of his peers. If aesthetics were in control, then Newman would have happily stayed in his beloved Oxford Anglicanism, instead of moving to the industrial Birmingham and founding an Oratory and inspiring others to do the same among the working class.

The most surprising thing of all, for anyone who has studied Newman, is how little aesthetics is part of his quest for religious truth. I believe that aesthetics is very much a part of his moral epistemology, but the law of God is the fundamental determination in his thought. This is even more clear in his collection of sermons after his conversion: Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations

Newman is such an anomaly for his time and far more so today.


Image: source

Light of Faith - Aquinas

I came across a fascinating passage in Thomas Aquinas’ Compendium Theologiae wherein he discusses the “defects” in the humanity of Christ’s flesh, prior to his resurrection and glorification. Yes, defects. De defectibus assumptis a Christo. Immediately this had me thinking about T. F. Torrance’s emphasis on the “fallen” humanity assumed by the Son in becoming flesh. Is there common ground here between Thomas and Thomas?

Let us look at the Scotsman first and then the Italian.


Torrance on the Fallen Human Nature of Christ

Thomas F. Torrance is well-known for advocating that the Son assumed the flesh of fallen humanity, that is, a “fallen flesh.” For example, he writes in his Edinburgh lectures:

But are we to think of this flesh which he became as our flesh? Are we to think of it as describing some neutral human nature and existence, or as describing our actual human nature and existence in the bondage and estrangement of humanity fallen from God and under the divine judgment? [Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, p. 61]

For Torrance, if the humanity assumed by the Son is not our fallen humanity, then our fallen humanity is “untouched” by the work of Christ (ibid., 62). He then quotes Gregory Nazianzen’s formula, “the unassumed is the unredeemed.” The flesh which Christ healed was a corrupted flesh, and this is the wondrous “great exchange” where he took our infirmities and we take his regal health. This is a basic pattern in the theology of the early fathers, according to Torrance:

Patristic theology, especially as we see it expounded in the great Athanasius, makes a great deal of the fact that he who knew no sin became sin for us, exchanging his riches for our poverty, his eternal life for our mortality. Thus Christ took from Mary a corruptible and mortal body in order that he might take our sin, judge and condemn it in the flesh, and so assume our human nature as we have it in the fallen world that he might heal, sanctify and redeem it. [Ibid.]

In a powerful way, Torrance connects this with the obedience of the Son in his earthly devotion to the Father. This obedience in the flesh “was not light or sham obedience.” He continues, “It was agonisingly real in our flesh of sin: ‘he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross,’ [Phil 2.8] and ‘he learned obedience through what he suffered’ [Heb 5.8]. …His obedience was a battle. The temptations make that abundantly clear” (Ibid., 64).

I do not see a problem with any of this, though I am aware of others who have criticized Torrance (and Barth) on this matter. Torrance is, of course, firm in his belief that Christ’s humanity is not sinful, albeit fallen. Christ’s humanity is necessarily not sinful or else the condemnation of sin in his flesh could not have been achieved. Torrance writes, “His taking of our flesh of sin was a sinless action, which means that Jesus does not do in the flesh of sin what we do, namely, sin, but it also means that by remaining holy and sinless in our flesh, he condemned sin in the flesh he assumed and judged it by his very sinlessness” (Ibid., 63). His holiness triumphs over the falleness from within — by condemning sin in the flesh.

Does it make sense to say “fallen but not sinful”? That is an obvious objection to Torrance’s usage of the term,”fallen,” for Christ’s human nature. But Torrance is making distinctions in the type of defects in Christ’s fallen humanity versus our fallen humanity.

The defects which the Son assumed in our humanity needs to be parsed carefully. Precisely what defects did the Son assume in his becoming flesh? The Son did not assume the defects of a sinful will, but he did assume the defects of a cursed, suffering, and dying flesh, which invariably presses upon a fully human will (e.g., temptations of Christ). It is this latter sense in which Christ bore a “fallen” human nature. And this is what I see Thomas Aquinas saying in his Compendium Theologiae.


Saint Thomas Aquinas on the Caro of the Incarnatio

I am perhaps venturing too far here, without adequate gear. I have not compared this section in the Compendium to any corresponding material in his two Summas, nor have I consulted any secondary sources on the issue. But let’s go ahead anyway.

In chapter 226, Thomas is discussing the satisfaction necessarily rendered by humanity in order to be redeemed. “No punishment undergone by any man could suffice to liberate the whole human race. …God alone is of infinite dignity and so He alone, in the flesh assumed by Him could adequately satisfy for man, as has already been noted [Cf. chap. 200]” (Light of Faith: The Compendium of Theology, trans. Cyril Vollert, S.J., 284). This is all very Anselmic, and we need not detain ourselves with a comparison of the different set-up here to that of Torrance.

For our purposes, the following material is relevant to our question of whether — or, in what way — the Son assumed a fallen humanity. This excerpt is kinda lengthy but necessarily so:

…Christ ought not to have assumed those defects which separate man from God, such as privation of grace, ignorance, and the like, although they are punishment for sin. Defects of this kind would but render Him less apt for offering satisfaction. Indeed, to be the author of man’s salvation, He had to possess fullness of grace and wisdom, as we pointed out above [Cf. chap. 213]. Yet, since man by sinning was placed under the necessity of dying and of being subjected to suffering in body and soul, Christ wished to assume the same kind of defects, so that by undergoing death for men He might redeem the human race.

Defects of this kind are common to Christ and to us. Nevertheless they are found in Christ otherwise than in us. For, as we have remarked, such defects are the punishment of the first sin [Cf. chap. 193]. Since we contract Original Sin through our vitiated origin, we are in consequence said to have contracted these defects. But Christ did not contract any stain in virtue of His origin. He accepted the defects in question of His own free will. Hence we should not say that He contracted these defects, but rather that he assumed them for that is contracted (contrahitur) which is necessarily drawn along with (cum trahitur) some other things. …Therefore in Him they were not contracted but were voluntarily assumed.

Yet, since our bodies are subject to the aforesaid defects in punishment for sin — for prior to sin we were immune from them — Christ, so far as He assumed such defects in His flesh is rightly deemed to have borne the likeness of sin, as the Apostle says in Romans 8:3: “God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.” Hence Christ’s very passibility or suffering is called sin by the Apostle, when he adds that God “hath condemned sin in the flesh,” and observes in Romans 6:10: “In that He died to sin, He died once.” For the same reason the Apostle uses an even more astonishing expression in Galatians 3:13, saying that Christ was “made a curse for us.” This is also why Christ is said to have assumed one of our obligations (that of punishment) in order to relieve us of our double burden, namely, sin and punishment.

…Again, since He came chiefly to restore human nature, He fittingly assumed those defects that are found universally in nature.

[Ibid., 285-287. I am using Vollert’s translation. Also see Richard Regan’s translation in Compendium of Theology.]

So, to answer our question in the title of this post: yes, Christ assumed our fallen human nature. Aquinas does not use the term, “fallen,” and he may have objected to doing so. But he does make clear that the Son assumed our “defects,” his preferred term. These defects are common with the defects of general fallen humanity, though Christ does not assume every defect. The Son does not assume those defects that would render his sacrifice unacceptable. He does not sin. He is not separated from God through any privation of grace. He remains holy. Likewise for Torrance, Christ remains holy and pure, thereby overcoming the power of sin.

This is not to say that Torrance and Aquinas are identical in how they are framing this. As I already alluded, Aquinas favors “satisfaction” for how Christ undoes the curse, whereas Torrance favors an ontological undoing of fallen nature in Christ, in which we partake by the Spirit in union with Christ glorified. These are probably not mutually exclusive, however, especially if we take-in the whole scope of these two theologians’ writings.

Differences aside, I think there is some interesting common ground here.

Thomistic Personalism

July 15, 2014

Are Thomism and Personalism compatible?

Peter Kreeft (Boston College) delivers an engaging and winsome affirmative answer in his presentation at the Center for Thomistic Studies, University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas:

At one point in the lecture, Kreeft provides ten objections to the synthesis, among which I want to highlight is his response to the first objection (at the 50′ mark):

Objection 1: There is no need for a further synthesis. Thomism is complete.

The reply is that no philosophical system in this world is complete and that Thomism does not claim to be a complete system. It is a system, but it is an open system — not a closed one, like that of modern rationalists. It is essentially a dialogue with all philosophies. That is manifested in the very form of the summa article, which is a systematized dialog, and in the fact that Aquinas almost always answers objections — not by simple denials but by distinctions and tries to affirm and preserve the true aspect of every objection.

Second, Thomism is not incompatible with further synthesis, because Thomism is itself a synthesis: of Plato and Aristotle, of theology and philosophy. In fact, Thomas is history’s greatest synthesizer — rivaled only by Hegel….

There are many gems in this lecture, and I highly recommend it to one and all. By the way, Professor Kreeft’s annotated edition of Pascal’s Pensées — Christianity for Modern Pagans — was one of the most formative books I read as an undergraduate student.

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.