The Doctrine of the Church (part 7)

September 13, 2009     Time: 00:21:02

We want to now begin to look at different theological interpretations of the Lord’s Supper. This is an area on which Christians have radically differing positions.

Let’s first talk about the Catholic position on the Lord’s Supper – or the Eucharist – which is transubstantiation. It is difficult to exaggerate how different the Catholic view of the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper, is from the typical Baptist view. The more you reflect on it the more you begin to realize that these are just worlds apart. They are just completely different conceptions of what goes on at the Lord’s Supper.

According to the Second Vatican Council in their statement on the church, the Eucharistic sacrifice is “the fount and apex” of the whole Christian life. The word Eucharist comes from the Greek word eucharisteo which means “to give thanks.” Very often the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is called the Eucharist, a thanksgiving – an offering of thanks to God. According to Vatican II the Eucharistic sacrifice is the “fount and the apex” of the whole Christian life. Think of what that means. To be the fount of the Christian life means to be the source of the Christian life. That reflects the sacramentalism of the Lord’s Supper. This is the means by which grace is infused into you. This is a means of grace by which you draw your strength and power to live the Christian life. It is the apex as well of the whole Christian life. This is the culmination of Christian worship. So the Mass is absolutely central in Roman Catholic liturgy and worship. This is the fount and the apex of the whole Christian life.

In the Eucharist, the bread and the wine are actually conceived to be changed into the body and blood of Christ. It looks like bread. It looks like wine (even after it has been consecrated). But it is really not. It is actually blood. It is Jesus’ blood. And it is his body – this is his flesh that people are eating. So this is actually a feast on the blood and the body of Christ.

The Church has not always been unified in this point of view. In the early church you can find examples of church fathers who take the Eucharist to be realistic, an actual eating of the body and drinking of the blood of Christ; others take it to be a sign, symbol, figure, or a type of the body and blood of Christ but not actually the real substance. But eventually, especially in the eastern part of the empire – remember the early Roman Empire in the Christian period was broken into the Latin-speaking West and the Greek-speaking East – this view of the elements as being figures or types or symbols gave way to thinking of them as literal body and blood of Christ. In the Church there was a good deal of discussion about this among various theologians. For example, John of Damascus was one of the key figures here. John rejected any notion of parallelism in the Lord’s Supper – that there is actually bread and wine but sort of parallel with it is the flesh and the blood of Christ.[1] No, for John there is an actual substantial change that goes on. The bread and the wine are changed into the body of Christ so that the bread and the wine are no longer really there. There is a change of substance into flesh and blood.

During the 9th century and the 11th century this came to be a rather hotly debated topic. There were people on both sides of the argument. In the 9th century Radbertus and Ratramnus were two of the major figures – not exactly household names. Radbertus was a theologian who believed that the real flesh and blood of Christ are actually present in the Eucharist. His dates are around 860 or so. He believed in the real presence of the blood and body of Christ. Ratramnus was the opponent of Radbertus. Radbertus was the realist; Ratramnus was the symbolist, if you will. This was repeated in around 1089 with two more theologians, Lanfranc and Berengar. Again you had the similar opposition. Lanfranc, like Radbertus, was a realist – he believed the flesh and the blood were actually there in the Eucharist. Berengar said, no, these are mere symbols and not an actual transformation of the elements.

In the year 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council voted in favor of the realist view. It declared that in the Eucharist the bread and the wine are actually changed into the body and blood of Christ.

How is this to be understood? In order to understand this, you have to know a little bit about Aristotelian metaphysics. Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, distinguished between a thing’s substance (or the essence of a thing) and its merely accidental properties. So the substance of something is its essence. For example, take a human being. The essence of man is that he is a rational animal. If any animal lacked rationality that wouldn’t be a human being because that is part of the essence of what it is to be human. So I, as a human being, my substance includes rationality and a physical body – animality. But in addition to the substance there are also what Aristotle called accidents. Accidents are properties that a thing has that don’t belong to its essence. For example, it doesn’t belong to my essence to weigh about 165 pounds, to be Caucasian, to have brown hair, to have a certain height. Those are all accidental properties that I have. So my substance is to be a rational animal as a human being, and then I have all these accidental properties as well.

In the Eucharist, what goes on is that the substance of the bread and wine changes into the body and blood of Christ – it turns into flesh and blood. But the accidents of the bread remain. So that is why even though it is flesh and blood it looks and tastes and feels like bread and like wine. The substance is gone of the bread and the wine. The substance has been changed. But the outside accidents, so to speak, the appearance of bread and wine is still there. So in transubstantiation you have the change of the substance into the flesh and blood of Christ, but the accidents of the bread and the wine remain.

According to the Council of Trent following the Reformation the blood and the bread are both present in each of the elements. That is to say, it is not that the wine becomes the blood of Christ and the bread becomes the flesh of Christ. But rather both elements involve the flesh and blood of Christ.[2] That is why the laity doesn’t have to take both the bread and the wine in order to receive Christ. You can take either one. If you take the wine, you receive the flesh and blood of Christ. If you take the bread, you receive the flesh and blood of Christ. That is because both are received under both element and under each element.

I once asked a Catholic philosopher friend of mine who teaches at Fordham University with respect to this doctrine, Why is it that if we are actually eating the substance of Christ's body and drinking his blood, why isn't it all gone? It is finite after all. So why isn't the flesh and the blood of Christ all consumed? He said, We don't consume the flesh and the blood. I said, You don't? I thought that is what the doctrine was. He said, No, you consume the accidents. That is why the blood and the body of Christ are not exhausted in the Eucharist – you don't actually digest the substance, you digest the accidents. So the flesh and blood of Christ remain inexhaustible and available at all times for everybody. So you have a very realistic conception of the Eucharist in Roman Catholic theology.

The other element that emerges from the third century on in the West is that the Eucharist begins to be thought of not simply as a commemorative event or as a thanksgiving offering to God but it becomes a propitiatory sacrificial offering. This is really huge, I think. Propitiation, as you may remember from our discussion of justification, is the satisfaction of God's justice. Christ propitiates God's justice and wrath through his death on the cross. What happens in the West is this: the Eucharist had been thought of as a kind of sacrifice of thanksgiving to God (like a thank offering) but it comes to be a propitiatory offering where Christ's flesh and blood are offered on the altar as a propitiation to God for our sins. This is what Trent has to say on this score in Canon 3 of Session 22.[3] The sacrifice of the Mass is not only of “praise and thanksgiving” nor is it “a bare commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the cross,” it is a “propitiatory sacrifice.” So the Lord's Supper in a Roman Catholic church is not just communion of you with the Lord or receiving the body and blood of Christ. You are offering a sacrifice to God of the body and blood of Christ. In Chapter 2 of the 22nd Session this is what Trent says: “the same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross. The sacrifice of the Mass is propitiatory, only the manner of offering is different. He then offered himself, now he offers himself via priests. So the Mass is offered for sins, punishments of both the living and the dead who are not yet fully purified.” If you think of the Eucharist as a propitiatory sacrifice to God for sins and punishments, you don't really have to have anybody be there to participate in it because it is not just communion. You can offer this sacrifice on behalf of sinners and others who aren't even present. That is why a priest can, in the chapel, celebrate the Eucharist all by himself with nobody there to actually take the elements, because he is offering this sacrifice to God for sins. The people don't need to be alive. They can be dead people who are presumably in purgatory and who haven't yet been fully cleansed. This sacrificial offering can be beneficial to them.

As a Protestant hearing about this, this is horrific, I think, to most of us. We think this is a violation of the uniqueness of Christ's sacrificial death on the cross because this is the re-offering of that sacrifice over and over again which of course the book of Hebrews says no longer needs to be done.[4] In fact, this looks more like what the priests in the Old Testament did in the temple offerings than what we would expect in the New Testament. But Vatican II qualifies this teaching. It affirms again that in the Eucharistic sacrifice “people offer the Divine Victim and themselves to God.” But it says “in the Eucharist the priest re-presents and applies in the Mass the one sacrifice of the New Testament and joins to it the offering of the faithful.” So in contemporary Roman Catholic theology, this isn't thought to be a second or repeated sacrifices. This is just a re-presentation to God of the unique and one time and perfectly valid sacrificial offering of Christ on the cross. It is not a new sacrifice. It is a re-presentation of the single sacrifice that Christ made to God.

Nevertheless, I think you can see how different this is than what most of us would think of with respect to what goes on in the Eucharist. It is not simply a communion of you with God, receiving the body and blood of Christ, but it also has this sacrificial element to it. It is a re-presentation to God of the sacrificial death of Christ on our behalf, and then a presentation of ourselves to God as sacrificial offerings.

I hope I fairly represented the view that Roman Catholic theology has of the Eucharist.


Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: That is an interesting question. There doesn't seem to be Jewish philosophy prior to the Greek period. You have Jewish religious writings like the Old Testament, and then we have these intertestamental writings and so-called pseudepigrapha (which are writings under false names). You've got Dead Sea Scrolls. But you don't have Jewish metaphysics, I don't think, or Jewish philosophy. That is not to say what Aristotle said isn't right, but it is just to say in Jewish culture philosophizing wasn't really a part of that culture. But medieval Jews, I think, certainly did buy into Aristotle and found it congenial to Jewish theism.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I can't respond to everything, but I did anticipate you would ask me about which church fathers I was referring to. Let me give them to you right now.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: There wasn't any church teaching on this prior to . . . there were no councils.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Yeah, you are permitting your church fathers to be quoted but not the ones that I would appeal to. I don't think Ignatius said that. I would like to see a reference on that because I don't believe that is correct myself. Let me give you the list – we are out of time. Here is what I came up with. People like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian affirmed a real presence in the Eucharist. Cyprian, by contrast, did not. He held to a symbolic presence. Eusebius and Cappadocian fathers speak of a transformation of the elements. Similarly, Cyril of Alexandria says they are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. By contrast, Augustine and in general the West were not realists. Augustine thinks of it as symbolic and even thinks what the bread represents is not the flesh of Christ but the people of God – they are like the grains of the wheat that are being offered to God. You are right – they did think of it in sacrificial terms, but remember what I said earlier. It was a thank offering. It was a sacrifice of thanksgiving. It was later that it began to evolve into this idea of a propitiatory sacrifice. At least this is what my reading has indicated.

I won't respond to the other things that you said, but just leave it at that.


We will continue our discussion next time. We are going to look at Lutheran views and different Reformed views of this as well.[5]

[1] 5:02

[2] 10:06

[3] An English translation of the Council of Trent’s canons and decrees [ed. and trans. J. Waterworth (London: Dolman, 1848)] can be found at (accessed June 1, 2017).

[4] 15:00

[5] Total Running Time: 21:02 (Copyright © 2009 William Lane Craig)