Some time ago, one of the guests on a friend’s podcast was asked for his thoughts on the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation (that the bread and wine used in Mass communion actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ). The guest’s reply was brief (86:30 – 90:00), but in that time he managed to make several claims that should raise red flags for all Christians regardless of their position (and indeed regardless of whether the doctrine is even true).
What is Transubstantiation?
In order to understand what the doctrine of transubstantiation teaches, and why the guest’s comments are so problematic, we first need to understand the philosophy of change that the doctrine employs.
In Aristotelian philosophy, there are two types of change (substantial and accidental) that correspond to two components of a thing (its substance and accidents). Substance refers to what a thing is at its core, while accidents are modifications of that substance. So what something is at its deepest level is its substance, while how that thing can change while remaining the same substance are its accidents. So a cow in a field does not become a non-cow simply by changing its size or location.
This distinction gives rise to a distinction in the ways things can change: substantially or accidentally. If a person’s skin turns red from being in the sun too long, that is accidental change. Skin color is not determined by the substance of humanity, because it is a difference among humans. Thus, to change skin color is not to go from being human to being non-human.
Now, to go from being human to being non-human would be a substantial change, because the “what” would have changed. Substantial change is not often recognized as such outside of philosophical circles, but it happens every day and is often reflected in how we name things. When a cow (which is a living substance) dies, it turns into meat (non-living material), and then – if eaten – turns into another living being. When a tree is cut down it goes from being a tree to being wood, and if the wood is burnt, it changes from wood to smoke. Those are examples of substantial change.
This distinction explains why a thing may undergo accidental change without going through substantial change (a skinny dog can grow into a fat dog), and a thing might also undergo substantial change without immediately going through much accidental change (as when a sleeping cow dies). This is not entirely accurate in Aristotelian terms, but it will suffice for now:
Truck: Accidental Change without Substantial Change
Tree: Substantial Change without Accidental Change
Now, transubstantiation is the Latin word for “substance” with the prefix “trans” which indicates change (e.g., transportation). So transubstantiation means the changing of a substance. In Catholic theology, it is the expression of the substantial change the elements of communion undergo when they change from being bread and wine to being the body and blood of Jesus Christ – the substantial change of bread and wine into flesh and blood without the accidental change of these elements’ physical properties. This is a unique, miraculous kind of change that Aristotle did not consider – but it is close enough to what we experience (e.g., when a thing dies), that it should not seem too far a reach with God involved.
The result of transubstantiation, then, is that the communion elements are perceived in the same way both before and after the process. Because of this, transubstantiation does not result in a change that is empirically detectable (or scientifically provable). The doctrine is thus not believed because of any perceived accidental change in the elements (for, according to the doctrine, there is none). Rather, it is believed to be the best explanation for biblical statements that identify the communion meal with Jesus’ body and blood (John 6:53-58; Luke 22:19-20; 1 Corinthians 11:26-27), as well as the testimony of the historic church.
Theological and Philosophical Problems with Rejecting Transubstantiation
The guest on the show did not believe that transubstantiation takes place, or even could take place. He begins with the assertion that, “Obviously it’s contrary to the word of God, there’s just no doubt about that. If you just read the Bible, you know it’s just contrary to it.” Instead of providing biblical support for such an accusation, he simply goes on to ridicule the very idea of transubstantiation, saying things like,
“I don’t know how anybody makes sense out of that. I know that I could never believe in the viewpoint that something looks identical to bread and wine, but it’s actually the blood and body of a human being [is] just outrageous.”
The guest’s inability to make sense of transubstantiation is hardly an argument, of course – and it will not be treated as such here. But notice that it is the fact that bread and wine do not change in appearance that makes him think the idea of transubstantiation is “outrageous.” Ironically, that is exactly what the doctrine teaches should happen. He goes on:
“I mean just from a philosophical standpoint that is just . . . I don’t understand how someone could hold to that. It’s very counter-intuitive In fact I would say that it’s more obvious that things can’t be that way. It’s impossible.”
The guest’s incredulity and intuitions may be interesting features of his psychology but, again, these provide no argument that transubstantiation is actually impossible. This connection, though, between his incredulous intuition and the doctrine are important, for as will be shown below, they threaten Christianity itself. He continues:
“It’s almost as if – I’ve heard it explained this way, I don’t even know if a Roman Catholic would agree with this – but God hides Christ, and he kind of deludes our senses and . . . God deceives us almost, and we are in fact seeing Christ’s body and blood right there. . . . You have God deceiving us in worship which I’m sure does not seem like something the most perfect being would do. . . . It’s God messing with our cognitive faculties.”
Fortunately the guest admits that this is just how he has “heard” transubstantiation described – for this is certainly not what the doctrine actually teaches. But since he apparently thinks it is relevant, some things should be said.
First, by complaining that the bread and wine do not appear to be flesh and blood, he is actually affirming the conclusion one would reach by believing in the doctrine of transubstantiation. Whether or not the bread and wine had been transubstantiated, the communion elements never appear to have changed (any more than a living tree branch might not appear different when initially cut off of a tree and becomes mere wood). That’s a feature of common substantial changes (to a limited degree) as well, thus, the philosophy behind transubstantiation is not at all threatened by mere empirical observation.
Second, as to being “deluded” or “deceived” by God, as noted above, the guest’s philosophical complaint would not even allow for regular instances of substantial change that do not appear to involve accidental change. Those who believe in transubstantiation are not making a false judgment based on “deluded senses” (whatever that means) any more than someone confusing a dead branch as a tree. Worse, his criticism poses a huge theological problem for a Christian who believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ. Being made “in the form of a man,” Jesus’ divinity could not be detected by any empirical means, and in fact his dual-nature is actually much harder to believe/conceive than a transubstantiated communion meal! This will be discussed more below.
In his closing statements, the guest continues to eschew argumentation and opts for more rhetoric:
“If you allow for such a thing it’s possible that . . . a car could be the entire Soviet Union . . . you can see that this is just so beyond any common sense or any sort of rationality. I don’t know how people affirm this. I think it is extremely counter-intuitive and I find it highly implausible and that’s one of the reasons – apart [from] you know, the Gospel and sola scriptura are just reasons – why I just say on a theological level and on a philosophical level, I just cannot buy this – I don’t know how people do it.”
The fact that the guest cannot imagine how people believe in transubstantiation is, again, simply a report on his own thinking. Analogies are not arguments, and false analogies (e.g., that a car could be the entire Soviet Union) are even more useless. Although the guest knows he is dealing with a philosophical explanation for a theological teaching, nothing is offered in the way of philosophical, theological, or biblical disproof. All he offers is his personal invective against something he cannot see happening – an argument which, if sound, would threaten the conclusions of his own religion and common human experience.
Since the philosophical issue has been detailed above, I will turn to the more pressing theological concern.
Faith and Plausibility
For the guest, the fact that transubstantiation goes “beyond any common sense or any sort of rationality,” and is “extremely counter-intuitive,” and is “highly implausible,” makes the doctrine simply unbelievable for him. Now, all these unsupported assertions would hardly be worth mentioning except that they reveal something of great importance for all Christians. If the thinking behind this dismissal of transubstantiation is legitimate, it may threaten the Christian faith itself – for Christianity stands or falls on many truths that would fall into the above categories if his method is followed.
Consider the doctrine of the Atonement: Christianity teaches that because a man got nailed to a piece of wood and died that somehow humanity can be freed from the power of sin. Well, we don’t see that happening at the crucifixion. Thousands of people were nailed to crosses back then, and nothing came of it. It would certainly seem “highly implausible” that Jesus’ death could have been spiritually significant.
Moreover, consider the doctrine of Jesus’ Incarnation: Jesus was clearly a human being with all the limitations of humanity, yet Christianity teaches that he was also deity. Not only does such a doctrine go “beyond any common sense or any sort of rationality” . . . not only is such an idea “extremely counter-intuitive” . . . it seems completely impossible! How can one thing be both material and immaterial, finite and infinite? These are not just big differences – they appear to be contradictory.
Now the doctrines of the Atonement and the Incarnation are not believed because of anything that can be verified by our senses or by philosophy, of course. They are matters of faith, founded on facts that point to the truth of Christianity and believed by God’s grace. Thus, a skeptic’s incredulity is of no consequence with regard to whether or not these doctrines ought to be believed. Christianity teaches them, and Christians believe them.
Further, these doctrines seem much more difficult to believe than transubstantiation. Which is more difficult to believe: that one finite, material thing can be changed into another finite, material thing via a process similar to that which occurs every day or contradictory properties can coexist in one person? (One could argue that Protestants who pray for God to “bless this food” when they eat at McDonalds already seem to believe in transubstantiation!)
Does any unbeliever profess that the changing of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the Lord is impossible? Then let him consider God’s omnipotence. Admit that nature can transform one thing into another, then with greater reason should you admit that God’s almighty power, which brings into existence the whole substance of things, can work not as nature does, by changing forms in the same matter, but by changing one whole thing into another whole thing.” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Concerning Reasons of Faith, 8)
The fact that the guest not only did not provide good arguments against transubstantiation but also substituted his own intuitions and rationalisms for good arguments is a problem. His unsupported assertions are exactly the kinds of attacks atheists use against Christianity’s other non-empirically-verifiable claims. If one cannot accept transubstantiation simply because it “seems” so “counter-intuitive” or “implausible,” I fail to see why one would remain a Christian at all.