Thursday, March 07, 2019

Apophatic sacramentalism

One reason I don't believe in the real presence is because I couldn't believe it even if I wanted to. And that's because I don't know what it means. And I'm not alone in that. No one knows what it means. 

I know what a human body is. I know what a male human body is. What does it mean to say a wafer or liquid (communion wine) is a human body? 

I know what it would mean to consume human flesh. I know what cannibalism means. But proponents assure us that consuming the communion elements isn't cannibalism. 

Okay, that tells me what it's not. But that doesn't tell me what it is?

Is the body of Jesus miniaturized, so that you eat duplicate microscopic bodies of Jesus when you take communion? I have some idea of what that means. But proponents assure me that that's not what the real presence means. 

So the dogma of the real presence is a piece of apophatic theology. We're supposed to believe it, but there's no intelligible idea corresponding to the words. It's just a conceptual blank. It isn't possible to believe something if you can't form an idea of what that something is. 

Christian theology allows for mystery, but it can't be mystery through-and-through. To believe what the real presence is not doesn't tell you what it is. When you peel back the label, there's nothing underneath. At best, it's labels all the way down. Proponents use word like true body and true blood, but to avert the specter of cannibalism, they strip away what makes blood bloody or bodies bodily. You chase an ever-receding will-o'-wisp.

This has nothing to do with skepticism or lack of faith. Rather, there's nothing to believe. The claim has no positive content, once we start asking what the words stand for. To avert the specter of cannibalism, proponents must abstract away anything recognizably physical.  

That's different from, say, the Incarnation or Trinity, where we can specify the elements of the composite concept, even if the nature of the relation is mysterious. The dogma of the real presence isn't even a paradox. 


  1. Well put. The rituals of the mass cloak this lie with mystery. It's one of the greatest lie ever promoted by men and believed by many intelligent people

  2. I usually ask how a body with no physical characteristics is any different than being spiritually present.

    At the end of the day, Real Presence folks are really into word choices.

  3. Ignatius of Antioch says you're a gnostic. It doesn't matter if you understand it or not. Its Christian theology all the way from the beginning on.

    1. David, you've side-stepped the challenge, pretty much in the way that Steve said purported adherents of this alleged idea must. What exactly is the "it" that you say is Christian theology? What is being affirmed, and what is being denied, when you affirm the "Real Presence"? What is the meaning of "physical and literal" such that you can both say "the bread becomes the physical and literal flesh of Christ" and "it is not cannibalism, because you are not eating the physical and literal flesh of Christ" ?

      Ignatius of Antioch can say anything he likes, but if it has no actual meaning, then we're not bound to pay any attention to it. If he'd said that you're a Gnostic unless you affirm that the desk in front of me literally and physically is Genghis Khan, whilst retaining all the outward and physical properties of a desk, then, would that bother you?

    2. Augustine of Hippo says that you are not a gnostic, you're just a fool :)

    3. I guess I don't understand why Ignatius is our standard here.

    4. David wrote:

      "Ignatius of Antioch says you're a gnostic. It doesn't matter if you understand it or not. Its Christian theology all the way from the beginning on."

      We've addressed Ignatius' view of the eucharist many times before. See here, for example, and the comments section of the thread here. There's no reason to think Ignatius believed in a physical presence of Christ in the eucharist, much less transubstantiation in particular. His comments cited in support of a physical presence can easily be interpreted otherwise, and he makes comments of the same nature about other subjects, which nobody interprets the way proponents of a physical presence interpret his eucharistic comments. The difference between those of us who don't think Ignatius advocated a physical presence in the eucharist and those of you who do is that we're consistent in how we interpret Ignatius, whereas you aren't.

    5. The first thread I've linked above documents that the Christians of the patristic era held a variety of views of the eucharist. Belief in a physical presence isn't the earliest view, much less is it the only view that existed in antiquity. And if you want to know what existed "from the beginning", you have to go earlier than Ignatius. Church history started almost a century before he wrote. As Craig Keener notes, the Jewish origin of the Last Supper supports a metaphorical understanding of the eucharist:

      "That the bread 'is' his body means that it 'represents' it; we should interpret his words here no more literally than the disciples would have taken the normal words of the Passover liturgy, related to Deuteronomy 16:3 (cf. Stauffer 1960:117): 'This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate when they came from the land of Egypt.' (By no stretch of the imagination did anyone suppose that they were re-eating the very bread the Israelites had eaten in the wilderness.) Those who ate of this bread participated by commemoration in Jesus' affliction in the same manner that those who ate the Passover commemorated in the deliverance of their ancestors....M. Pesah. 10:6 uses the Passover wine as a metaphor for the blood of the covenant in Ex. 24:8" (A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999], 631, n. 27 on 631)

      Furthermore, Jesus' language in Luke 22:20 makes it evident that he was speaking metaphorically. He obviously doesn't mean that the cup is transubstantiated into the new covenant. A covenant isn't something physical, and surely all of us understand how Jesus could use "is" in some sense other than transubstantiation or any other sort of physical transformation. In Matthew 26:29, Jesus refers to drinking the cup again in the coming kingdom, even though the eucharist apparently is only to be practiced until Jesus' second coming (1 Corinthians 11:26). The implication is that the contents of the cup in the future non-eucharistic context of Matthew 26:29 will be the same as the contents in the eucharist. It will be wine then, and it's wine now. It could be argued that something like consubstantiation is taking place, which would allow wine with Jesus' body, but that's a more complicated, and therefore less likely, reading of the Matthew 26 passage. The most sensible way to take Matthew 26 is that only wine is involved in both the eucharistic and the eschatological contexts.

      Then there are the problems Steve mentioned earlier. What about the problem of cannibalism? Why is there no physical evidence of the alleged physical change in the elements? Why does no other Biblical miracle occur in such a manner? There's no changing water into wine under the appearance of remaining water, raising the dead under the appearance of their remaining dead, etc. Over and over, we're given reason to expect physical evidence for physical miracles. That includes contexts that had a lot of potential to have been handled the way proponents of a physical presence in the eucharist want us to think of the alleged eucharistic miracle (e.g., turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana).

    6. "The first thread I've linked above documents that the Christians of the patristic era held a variety of views of the eucharist."

      What? But the EO a RC apologists tell me that the faith is that which was believed always, everywhere and by all. You mean they're playing fast and loose and dealing from the bottom of the deck?

    7. 'You mean they're playing fast and loose and dealing from the bottom of the deck?'

      1. Don't be so cynical!

      2. Yes


  4. Full disclosure: I'm a believer in a spiritual Real Presence, not in transubstantiation.

    Apparently we have to be able to believe in some sort of special divine presence in particular physical locations in Old Testament passages. For example, the Holy of Holies.There was "something about it" so that only the High Priest could enter. The Ark of the Covenant. If the wrong person handled it, he would die. The Shekinah. So such statements as, "God is especially present in this box [the ark]" cannot literally be meaningless, or these OT passages wouldn't make any sense.

    In those passages it may be that we can't go any farther in defining it than something like this: God had so ordained that he would specially interact with human beings in various ways (good and bad) in relation to that physical object or location.

    That's not really apophatic, but it is something of a surd. That's just how it is. You do this, you die. You do this, the walls fall down. You do this, you've offered a sacrifice of atonement for the people for another year. Why? Because God has set it up that there's something special--some special manifestation of his power or grace--in relation to this physical thing. And that can be referred to as "presence" despite the fact that God is omnipresent.

    I think that that could be applied to the spiritual Real Presence in the Sacrament as well. In any event, the OT examples are a "proof of concept" that we can't rule it as per se meaningless to say that some object or location on earth "has" the "presence" of God in a way that other places or objects don't.

    1. That's interesting.

      1. As you say, your position isn't transubstantiation. Catholics arguing for transubstantiation have a higher burden of proof, I would think.

      2. As for your position, if so, then, by the same token, the same objects or places in the OT have had God's presence taken away. "Ichabod", after all.

      3. There are questions as to how the OT and the NT fit together. How the OT foreshadows the NT. How the NT fulfills the OT. And so on. For example, surely Jesus (Jesus' incarnation, death, and resurrection) himself is a game-changer? Surely the Holy Spirit has an affect on what it means for God's presence to dwell with his people, with the church? Is God still present in objects like the ark of the covenant or the holy of holies now that the Holy Spirit dwells within us, as the NT puts it? Aren't God's people his "temple"? I guess these are the sorts of questions I have as we try to understand the whole of God's word.

    2. "burden of proof"

      Maybe I shouldn't frame in terms of burden of proof, but rather just that Catholics are arguing for something different than what you're arguing for, I think. Of course, you've already noted that yourself, no need for me to say so, which may make what I've just said completely useless! :)

    3. " Is God still present in objects like the ark of the covenant or the holy of holies now that the Holy Spirit dwells within us, as the NT puts it? Aren't God's people his "temple"?"

      Those questions move into the realm of the argument for any sort of Real Presence. I admit that that's a different question. (I tried to answer it in a blog post some years back.)

      My only point was to show that, as far as a spiritual special Presence of God is concerned, it cannot be literally *meaningless* for it to reside in some sense in physical objects, or we'd have to say that certain teachings to that effect in the OT were meaningless. Like I said, a proof of concept of the possibility of stating meaningfully that God is especially present in some physical object or location.

    4. Thanks, Lydia. I think I can see points of agreement as well as disagreement or at least points where I'd like to ask more questions, but since, as you say, it's a proof of concept at this point, I guess I'll leave it be. Thanks for the reply. :)