Friday, July 10, 2015

The true body and blood of Christ

1. Historically, various denominations espouse some version of the real presence. Some denominations (Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy) are committed to it while others (Anglicanism) allow for it.  

Some theological traditions attempt to be more specific about how and what is. In Catholicism, Aquinas gave the classic formulation, which was codified at Trent. However, some 20C Catholic theologians (e.g. Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx) proposed alternatives. 

Although traditional Catholics regard them as heretical, their alternative views on the eucharist were never officially censured (to my knowledge).  

In Lutheranism, Martin Chemnitz provided the classic formulation in his monograph on The Lord's Supper. For a more up-to-date summary, see  David P. Scaer's contribution to Understanding Four Views on the Lord's Supper (Counterpoints: Church Life).

You also have theologians who take a more eclectic, mediating position, viz. Myk Habets, Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance.

Conversely, there are Christians who affirm the real presence, but resist detailing the mechanics. They relegate that to mystery and miracle. 

Whether that's successful I'll address momentarily. 

In this post I'm not going to evaluate historical positions. I just mention them for background. 

2. Just as a matter of logical options, it seems to me that the real presence reduces to one of two different claims: 

i) The (consecrated0 communion elements are the body of Jesus

ii) The (consecrated) communion elements contain the body of Jesus

Put another way:

i) The (consecrated) communion elements are other than bread and wine

ii) The (consecrated) communion elements are more than bread and wine

According to (i), the communion elements cease to be bread and wine. According to (ii), the communion elements remain intact, but there is now something over and above the communion elements.

I think models of the real presence come down to variations on either of these two claims.

3. There are roughly two components to the real presence:

i) A dichotomy between appearance and reality

ii) The underlying reality

According to the real presence, the appearance of the bread and wine is illusory, in part or in whole. By "appearance," I don't merely mean visually, or what we can see with the naked eye. 

I mean in reference to the primary and secondary properties generally. The true body is empirically indetectable, whether by sight, taste, chemical analysis, &c. 

As such, the theory of the real presence requires God to create an illusion. In principle, there are different ways this could be produced. Take science fiction scenarios about telepathic aliens who make people imagine things that aren't there, or fail to perceive things that are there.

BTW, I'm not being facetious. I'm taking the implications of the real presence seriously. This is what an adherent is committed to. It has an illusory dimension. 

I think this component of the real presence is coherent. It's possible for God to do that. That's because this aspect of the real presence concerns perception rather than reality. The more challenging aspect of the real presence concerns the stipulated reality. Which brings me to:

4. In reference to the real presence, what is the "true body" of Jesus? What do the communion elements either become or contain? 

Since the real presence stands in contrast to symbolic interpretations, since proponents accentuate literality, I think this must have reference to the physical body of Jesus. A complete human body. 

This means that when a communicant consumes the wafer or sips the wine, he's ingesting the brain, teeth, eyes, ribs, liver, bladder, intestines, penis, hair, toenails, &c., of Jesus.

I'm not being sarcastic when I say that. That's what their theory requires of them. There's not much wiggle room. It boils down to two alternatives: either a "true body" or symbolism. Since proponents deny that Jesus is "spiritually" present, since they reject the symbolic interpretation, the "true body" must be the physical body of Jesus. A complete human body. What else could it be–given the demands of the theory?

I think some proponents make the real presence more palatable (pardon the pun) by studied vagueness. 

5. This, in turn, determines what must happen at communion. What the theory amounts to. There are at least two metaphysical components:

i) Miniaturization

How can a wafer be the body of Jesus, or contain the body of Jesus? If we take the claim seriously (it's a true body), then that suggests a process of miniaturization. After all, the dimensions of a wafer are far smaller than a human body. And the shape is completely different. A wafer is a small, flat, round object. 

How can the wafer be the body of Jesus, or contain his body, unless his body is miniaturized?

In a way, it's even more daunting to ask how a liquid (communion wine in the chalice) can be, or contain, the body of Jesus. Are bodies of Jesus, in miniature, in the wine–like complex molecules? 

I'm not making fun of the claim. I'm unpacking the claim. If it doesn't mean that, then in what respect is it the true body of Jesus?

I'm the moment I'm not discussing how that's possible. Rather, I'm discussing what is said to happen.

ii) Replication

If a priest distributes communion to 200 worshipers, doesn't that entail 200 bodies of Jesus? Each wafer is (or contains) the body of Jesus. 

Likewise, if one communicant after another sips the wine, is a body Jesus replicated anew each time the next communicant sips the wine? Are there an infinite number of true bodies swimming around inside the chalice? Might you inadvertently imbibe more than one? 

Or is the true body duplicated one at a time for each communicant? 

Once again, I'm not being flippant. The theory of the real presence simultaneously affirms something and denies something. What is the claim?

It seems as though the real presence entails the reincarnation of Christ. The repeated reincarnation of Christ. His body is multiplied every time the Eucharist is celebrated. If two communicants receive his body, then it can't be the numerically same body in each case, can it? Rather, it has to be copies. 

6. From what I've read, adherents of the real presence ground it in one of two events:

i) Made possible by virtue of the Incarnation

ii) Made possible by virtue of the Resurrection

According to (i), the human nature acquires the divine attribute of ubiquity via the hypostatic union.

That's subject to two objections:

a) Divine omniscience doesn't mean God has literal spatial extension. It doesn't mean he's diffused through space. That he exists in every part of space. Rather, it's a picturesque metaphor for divine omniscience and omnipotence. 

b) To say divine attributes are transferrable to the human nature is pantheistic. It erases the categorical distinction between the creature and the Creator. 

According to (ii), the glorified body of Christ is hyperdimensional. 

That's subject to three objections:

i) It rests on exegetically dubious inferences

ii) Adding spacial dimensions fails to solve the problem it posed for itself. The problem is not that his body has too few dimensions, but too many. It's a problem of scale. A 3D human body is too big for another human to swallow whole. To say the glorified body has even more dimensions aggravates rather than alleviates the problem.

iii) A hyperdimensional body isn't recognizably human. That's not what Scripture means by a human body. 

7. At this point, adherents retreat into pious appeals to mystery and miracle. And that appeal has a legitimate place in Christian theology. But it's not unqualified.

i) On a classic definition of miracle, God can produce naturally impossible results by circumventing nature. If, however, God is working through a natural medium, then that limits the divine field of action. If God uses a natural medium, then he can only do what's naturally possible. He can do what's naturally impossible by simply bypassing the natural medium. But so long as the natural medium is instrumental to the result, that imposes a restriction on what he can do with it. Nature is finite. It has in-built constraints. 

ii) According to the real presence, the communicant is receiving something essentially natural. The body of Jesus is a natural object. A physical organism. If it were supernatural, it wouldn't be a true body. 

So you can't invoke a miracle to make the real presence go through.

iii) In theory, you could invoke a miracle of replication (see above). But that wouldn't solve the problem of scale.

In theory, you could invoke a miracle of miniaturization. But that's problematic on several grounds:

a) Consuming tiny bodies of Jesus is cannibalistic. Adherents of the real presence deny that communion is cannibalism.

b) To miniaturize a human body, you must shrink everything down. Everything must be scaled up or down to match everything else, viz. the heart in relation to cells, &c. You'd have to miniaturize cells.  

But body systems designed to function at one scale can't naturally function at a very different scale. Consider the difference between insects and humans. Because insects are so much smaller, they have systems which work at their scale that couldn't work for a much larger organism, or vice versa. Take the circulatory system or oxygenation. The scale of an organism affects what is feasible, from an engineering standpoint. 

You end up with a makeshift explanation that isn't consistently natural or supernatural. 


  1. The question I have in terms of RC Transubstantiation is; if the substance of the host has been Transubstantiated into the Body of Jesus leaving only the appearance of bread, where are the "accidents" of Jesus' body? If the physical properties of Jesus; His height, weight, etc...are not separable from His body, then how can the physical properties of the host "mask" the physical properties of Jesus?

    1. Well, as I understand it, the substance/accident distinction would be like a rose/red distinction. The accidental redness of the rose inheres in the substantial rose. Accidents are incidental properties of a substantial thing which it can lose without loss of identity.

      Aquinas has a very complicated position. Cf. John F. Wippel, The Metaphysical Thought of Thomas Aquinas: From Finite Being to Uncreated Being.

      Problem is, this distinction seems to be a matter of degree rather than kind. It ranges along a spectrum of continuity and discontinuity, so it's hard to see where to draw the line in principle.

      If I have an appendectomy, do I still have a body? Presumably. If my leg is amputated, do I will have a body? Presumably. But at what point does that cease to be a body? If you can keep my severed head alive, is that still a body?

      To shift to different categories, in transubstantiation the primary qualities of bread and wine are sheared off while the secondary qualities of a human body are sheared off, then the primary qualities of a body are reattached to the secondary qualities of bread and wine, so that you have the primary qualities of a body on the bottom and the secondary qualities of bread and wine on the top (as it were). A classic makeshift model.

  2. Alternative title suggestions:

    "Sea-Monkey Jesus"
    "A Snack of the Clones"

    Also one must wonder if the miniaturized communion "jesi" feel excruciating pain as they're being masticated by the faithful. Or if they're subject to accidental drowning in the wine. Or if the residual real presence of Christ the Son of God in the communicants' subsequent feces sanctifies it. Is this the true origin of the exclamation "holy ****"?

    So many questions.

  3. Another great post.

    For myself, I don't see any reason why God couldn't (ontologically) perform some form of the miracle of the real presence on account of His omnipotence (whether the Eastern Orthodox view, the Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation, the Lutheran view of consubstantiation etc.).

    Though, there might be some theological reasons why God wouldn't do so. For example, it would violate the Chalcedonian definition of the two natures of Christ as not entailing mixture or confusion. It would involve cannibalism which the Old Testament views as loathsome and evil. It would render the New Testament teaching of Christ's present bodily absence and our hopeful waiting for His return incoherent. Et cetera. But those objections aren't insurmountable.

    So, the important question is whether there are reasons for believing it based on divine Revelation. It's theoretically possible that (some form of) real presence was a divine revelation given by an Apostle but not recorded in Scripture. But if (what I call) Summa Scriptura was true and in operation during times of inscripturation (i.e. when OT prophets and NT Apostles could give written Or UNwritten revelation), and if Sola Scriptura is true since the passing of the Apostolic era, then we should go by what Scripture teaches. As a continuationist Protestant convinced of (Soft) Sola Scriptura I think there's no Scriptural reason to believe (some form of) real presence is true or to be believed.

    Besides, an examination of Church tradition reveals that the doctrine evolved and was initially a simple offering of thanks to God by the Church that commemorated Christ's sacrifice to the extreme dogmas of Catholicism where it's an actual sacrifice of Christ being re-presented to God and which is actually propitiatory. Sunday worship is a better candidate for a genuine apostolic tradition that's not recorded in Scripture as being an explicit command or practice (though, there are hints of it in Scripture).

    The doctrine(s) of real presence has no such basis in Scripture or church tradition. It seems to me that it developed due to hyper-piety and the existential experience of Christians through the centuries during and on account of Communion (e.g. the felt nearness of Christ, the subjective feeling of sins forgiven and guilt removed, physical healings etc.). The doctrine(s) of the real presence is the result of false inferences from Scripture and the experience of the church. Just because the Lord feels nearer to you or you're healed of cancer during Communion doesn't necessary mean Christ is physically present. Does oil transubstantiate into an incarnation of the Holy Spirit when people are anointed for prayer and are healed according to James 5:14-16? Of course not.

  4. Great post. I'd like to add:

    If the bread and wine is or includes Jesus' real body and blood, and if it's a divine illusion, then even if it's true one can't detect the divine illusion, wouldn't the communicant nevertheless experience the pathological after effects of consuming Jesus' real body and blood?

    For example, if a hematologist examined the wine, then they wouldn't find red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, blood plasma, etc. However, since human blood is rich in iron, if the communicant is a regular communicant, then presumably the communicant would eventually come down with iron overdose (hemochromatosis), which in turn would cause all sorts of problems in their bodies. Iron overload would cause significant damage to tissues and organs, there'd be scarring and organ dysfunction manifested as liver cirrhosis and pancreatic fibrosis which would lead to diabetes mellitus, and there'd be increased melanin pigmentation in the skin. In short, there's the medically well-known classic triad of liver cirrhosis, "bronze" diabetes, and skin hyperpigmentation in most cases of hemochromatosis. Sometimes death.

    Does God somehow miraculously protect or heal every communicant from iron overdose? Does God somehow miraculously cause the iron to be processed or excreted from their bodies?

    If so, then how is it possible to have faithful Catholic communicants who suffer from hemochromatosis? Indeed, hemochromatosis is one of the most common genetic disorders in nations like the US and Europe. In fact, it's quite prevalent among the Irish and others with Celtic ancestry (e.g. here). Surely some if not many of these people are faithful Catholics. Does God therefore protect or heal these communicants suffering from hemochromatosis from iron overload when they partake of the body and blood of Christ in mass, but not in their day to day lives?

  5. A Lutheran here.

    I do not fit neatly into your categories, i) or ii). i) is the closest, but...

    i) The (consecrated) communion elements are the body of Jesus
    Put another way:
    i) The (consecrated) communion elements are other than bread and wine

    I do not "put it another way." I accept the first i) but stop there. You can point to the consecrated bread and say "this bread is Jesus' body." You can point to the consecrated wine and say, "this fruit of the vine is Jesus' blood."

    Roman Catholics understand my position, I think. I have heard Jimmy Akin snidely summarize our position as saying that Jesus is God/man/loaf. That is fair enough, if irreverent. It is what Jesus said. He said the wine was his blood, yet afterward continued to call it the fruit of the vine.

    1. Sure, you can "stop there" without bothering to specify what that amounts to, but if you refuse to spell it out, then what are you really affirming? It's just an empty verbal placeholder. If you refuse to say what the "true body" is, in contrast to a symbolic interpretation or "spiritual" presence, then your position is pretty vacuous.

      In addition, you're just assuming that Jn 6 refers to the Eucharist.

    2. I have not refused to say what the "true body" is. The bread is the true body. If A=B, then B=A. The true body is the bread.

    3. Since you don't think the body of Jesus turns into bread, you have failed to explicate what comprises the "true body" of Jesus. What's the composition of the body in question? Is that a complete human body? A physical body, all with the body parts and organs, &c.?

      What makes it a *true* body, in contrast to a metaphorical body?

    4. Circular definitions are conceptually vacuous. If someone asks you what a word means, and you define it by reference to synonyms, unless the questioner knows what at least one of the synonyms means, that exercise is uninformative. Unless you can state the *content* of a "true body," that's an empty category.

    5. It is not possible to put it more plainly or unambiguously. When I say "bread" I mean just what "bread" means, a wheat flour-based baked food. The composition of Jesus' body eaten in the Lord's Supper is the composition of bread. There are no arms or legs or lungs. It is bread.

    6. Which is not remotely what is meant by the real presence or the true body and blood of Christ. Rather, your position means the communion elements are merely bread and wine which symbolize the body and blood of Christ.

    7. Based on the earlier syllogism I take it that the bread is the true body, hence the G"od / man / loaf" remark.

      Jesus takes the form of the loaf, sort of like the Wonder Twins from the old Justice League of America cartoons.

      Is this basically correct?

    8. Jeff,

      As I said, there are basically two logical models of the real presence: the containment model and the replacement model.

      But on your version, the communion elements don't undergo any change whatsoever. That's contrary to Confessional Lutheran theology, as I understand it. I suggest to read Scaer's exposition, which I referenced in my original post.

      Again, the purpose of my post was not to evaluate specific historical theological positions like Lutheranism.

    9. According to David Scaer, "One dictionary definition of consubstantiation fits the Lutheran view: 'the substantial union of the body and blood of Christ with the eucharistic elements after consecration,'" Understanding Four Views on the Lord's Supper, 87.

      Although "union" is a metaphysically distinct alternative model to the containment and replacement models, the net result is the same: If the physical body of Jesus is in union with the communion elements, and you consume the elements, you thereby consume his body in the process. So these are functionally equivalent at the receiving end.