nothing_in_my_hand_2Have you read this book? It’s by Anglican pastor Ray Galea and the go-to anti-Catholic book, at least here in Sydney. (By “anti”, I don’t mean it’s hateful or anything, just that it argues against Catholicism.)

Speaking to a friend, I recently re-read the section on Transubstantiation… and then I had to blog about it because oh my, it was awful. I may well do more on this book but let’s start with this, shall we?

Is the Eucharist Idolatry?

Galea begins by describing transubstantiation and he does a fair enough job. Transubstantiation is the change in the substance, the real “what-it-is-ness”, of the bread and wine, into the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ – the whole Jesus, without any change in the accidents, the “what-it-seems-to-be-ness”, of the bread and wine. Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is a sacramental one so it’s not like you’re going to be chewing off bits of Jesus, but it is still a real, true and substantial presence.

He says that “it’s a little difficult to explain how something can change into something else (bread into Christ) without it’s physical properties changing in any way.” I agree, it is hard to explain. (For the record, this is what I sound like when I try to explain it…)In fact, transubstantiation “is a hard teaching” as John 6 says. However, Galea treats this as an actual argument against Transubstantiation, which is absurd because it’s no more difficult to understand than the Incarnation or the Trinity. (I know that’s not saying much but we wouldn’t abandon them, would we?)

What most disturbs him, however, is not that transubstantiation was “illogical” or even “fanciful”, but that the mass was idolatry. “The mass turns the eternal Son of God into an object to be worshipped and in so doing violates the second commandment.” (p. 39) He goes on, “To claim that a piece of unleavened bread is the second person of the Trinity is profoundly disrespectful.” God rebuked the Israelites for making idols which “have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see… hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk.” (Ps 115) And these same rules apply to the “deaf and dumb host [or consecrated bread] that needs to be carried, elevated and worshipped.” (p. 41)

To begin with, Galea is just begging the question here. If the host was actually the Real Presence of Jesus Christ, then by definition it couldn’t be idolatry because one would be worshipping Jesus. (And inversely, if it isn’t, then Catholics are crazy idolaters who put the Babylonians to shame.) So it establishes absolutely nothing. What Galea actually means, I think, is that it can look and feel like idolatry. I get that. I used to feel like that too. But you know what else would have looked and felt like idolatry? Worshipping a human being.

I mean, the idea that because something doesn’t speak or move, it cannot be God flies in the face of the Incarnation. If you believe that the Immortal, Incorporeal, Uncreated God was born as a human being, lived as a human being, and died on a Roman cross, then you already believe something a hundred times more “illogical” and “fanciful” than transubstantiation.

More than that, I think it’s only fitting that the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the memorial which re-presents His Sacrifice for us sinners, is so humble. Yes, we lift the host up, but Christ was “lifted up” on the Cross to draw all men to Himself. (Jn 12:31) And yes, the host is dumb, but Christ was silent before His accusers. (Mt 27:50) And yes, Christ comes to us under the forms of bread and wine, but isn’t that only fitting since He gave Himself for the life of the world?

Peter Paul Rubens, The Last Supper, 1632 (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan)

Peter Paul Rubens, The Last Supper, 1632 (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan)

Is Transubstantiation Biblical and Orthodox?

Next, Galea asks, “Transubstantiation seems illogical, but is it biblical?” It’s interesting to note that he hasn’t actually established that it is illogical, he’s only assumed that we must think it is. Nonetheless, it’s an important question. Galea admits that “There are some parts of the Bible which, at least on face value, appear to take us in the direction of some sort of real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.” (Do you think there are enough qualifiers in that sentence? I’m not sure myself.)

What Galea is avoiding saying is that, if you read the Bible, you will think that the bread and wine are Christ’s Body and Blood. Why? Because that’s exactly what Jesus says.

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Mt 26:26-28)

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.” (Jn 6:53 – 58)

Galea explains this by saying that Jesus often uses symbolic or figurative language. But is that all that’s going on here? Jesus is very emphatic about this. He repeats himself again and again. He even loses “many” followers (Jn 6:66) over this very issue.

Maybe it’s worth asking, what would Jesus need to say to make you believe He was saying this really is His Body and Blood? Is there any phrase He could have said that you couldn’t argue was symbolic?

The early Christians certainly believed that Christ meant what He said. In fact, the entire Christian Church believed in the Real Presence for the first 1,500 years. Two very early examples are St Ignatius and St Justin Martyr. St Ignatius of Antioch in c. 110 AD wrote that,

“They [gnostic heretics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again.” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2).

And St Justin Martyr wrote in c. 150 AD that,

For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these, but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus (First Apology 66).

To believe that the bread and wine are just symbols is to believe so in defiance of the plain meaning of Scripture and of unanimous testimony of the Church. 

Did People Really Believe in Transubstantiation?

But Galea perseveres, asking the reader which is the most likely option: the symbolic or realist one? (That’s exactly the same question Bishop Spong et al and all those who deny the bodily resurrection like to ask. To which I can only answer, it’s a miracle! Of course it’s not bloody likely!)

Extraordinarily, he then pulls out St Augustine to support the symbolic position. He quotes St Augustine as saying that “it is a figure, therefore, teaching us that we partake of the benefits of the Lord’s passion and that we must sweetly and profitably treasure up in our memories that his flesh was crucified and wounded for us.” [No citation given.]

Pietro Perugino, St Augustine and four states of a fraternity, 1498

Pietro Perugino, St Augustine and four states of a fraternity, 1498

This would be hilarious if it wasn’t so awfully misleading. Firstly, it demonstrates absolutely nothing. All Catholics believe the Eucharist is a figure or a symbol that reminds us of Christ’s passion, we just believe it’s more than that. If those same words were in a papal encyclical, I wouldn’t bat an eye.

But more importantly, St Augustine didn’t believe the Eucharist was just a figure or symbol. In fact, he had an embarassing tendency to go around saying things like this…

That Bread which you see on the altar, consecrated by the word of God, is the Body of Christ. That chalice, or rather, what the chalice holds, consecrated by the word of God, is the Blood of Christ. Through those accidents the Lord wished to entrust to us His Body and the Blood which He poured out for the remission of sins. – St. Augustine Sermons 227

Christ was carried in his own hands when, referring to his own body, he said, ‘This is my body.’ For he carried that body in his hands. – St. Augustine Explanations of the Psalms 33:1:10

What you see is the bread and the chalice; that is what your own eyes report to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the body of Christ and the chalice is the blood of Christ. – St. Augustine Sermons 272

Yeah, so unlike Galea, St Augustine didn’t think it was “fairly obvious” that the bread and wine were just symbols. (p. 42)

As an aside, earlier Galea claimed that “Transubstantiation is not even an argument that the Catholic Church has always accepted.” (p. 41) I’m going to be charitable and say that that’s badly worded, rather than downright wrong. Transubstantiation has always been accepted by the Church, it just hasn’t always been defined as a dogma to be held by all the faithful. Most Christian dogmas don’t get defined until heresies arise to challenge them.

All the Church Fathers accepted the fact of the Real Presence, they just didn’t spend much time speculating on how it could happen. Frankly, they were a bit preoccupied with the whole Trinity and Hypostatic Union thing. And so it wasn’t until the Council of Trent, in the face of the first widespread rejection of the Real Presence, that the Church defined transubstantiation as dogma. Galea seems to think this is a strike against Transubstantiation, but actually it is proof how well accepted the doctrine was.


Galea writes that, “there are other objections I could raise to the doctrine of transubstantiation – such as how it ignores Jesus’ bodily ascension into heaven – but space here is limited.” (p. 43) That’s quite ironic because I am also running out of space but you know where space isn’t a problem? Heaven. The bodily Ascension  of Christ isn’t an argument against transubstantiation. How could it be? We’re talking about the risen Christ, in heaven, with a glorified body, doing what God does best: being miraculous.

Galea concludes (and so must I) with the story of Andrew Hewet, who died for denying the Real Presence under the reign of “Bloody” Mary. It is from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, a fantastically biased polemic against Catholics. Which just about sums up my thoughts on Galea’s section on Transubstantiation: a whole lot of rhetoric and very little actual argument.

His main thrust is, “well, who could believe that!? It feels like idolatry, Jesus couldn’t really have meant what He said, and plenty of early Christians didn’t believe it anyway.”

Except it isn’t idolatry if it is Jesus, Jesus did mean what He said, and all orthodox Christians for the first 1,500 years of the Church believed it too. 


22 responses to “Transubstantiation?

    • Thank you! It was written in 2007, but I’d definitely say most High Anglicans would not agree with Ray Galea. The Sydney Anglican diocese, in which he is a minister and I was a part of, is very low church, evangelical. But I think Jess has answered that question more fully below. 🙂

  1. As a very High Anglican I can say that I do not agree with the Rev Galea. The Greek words on John’s Gospel makes it clear Jesus is not talking figuratively, and as you say, Laura, many turned from Him. All He had to say was: ‘Hey guys, I mean it figuratively, as many Protestants will later tell you” and we’d none of us believe, as the Orthodox do, in the Real Presence.

    I don’t know about the details of Transubstantiation, but I know who it is I encounter at the Eucharistic Feast – and it is far more than a symbol.

    Great post Laura – one of your very best 🙂 x

    • Haha, thanks Lyn! 🙂 I’ll have to speak to WordPress about getting us a love it button. I know I want to use that one all the time!

  2. Thank you for holding the middle ground between “merely a symbol” and “not a symbol”, which is what the doctrine of transubstantiation is intended to be. And by middle ground I do not mean a wishy-washy middle-of-the-road position, but something that turns out to be far more radical than either a crudely physicalist or dismissively spiritualized explanation: a full and substantial transformation from within.

    In terms of Church teaching throughout history, Galea is correct to the extent that the Church has not always used the *language* of transubstantiation to describe the real presence (which, as you rightly point out, is not at all the same as denying what that language attempts to convey). The term was essentially coined by Thomas Aquinas, adapting the Aristotelian terminology of substance and accidents. Since then, the magisterium has tended to say that this is the best way of understanding the Eucharist, though not the only way one can talk about it. A modern explanation that builds further on this is Karl Rahner’s essay on the theology of symbol; his explanation of a “real symbol” as that which makes actually present what it represents blew my mind, and I’ve never been able to look at the word “symbol” the same way since.

    • Exactly, the “middle ground” is actually what St Thomas, Trent, and the Catechism all teach so I don’t know why anyone imagines that Catholics have a “crudely physicalist” explanation – as you beautiful put it!

      The language of transubstantiation does predate Thomas though, the 4th Lateran Council uses it in 1215, a good 50 years before he gets around to writing the Summa. It is a particularly clear way of taking about the miracle of the Real Presence but Rahner’s theology of symbol is, I think, a helpful clarification. Otherwise it can seem like God is deceiving us and trying to trick us with transubstantiation, rather than that there is an intimate connection between the sign and the signified – as they is in all sacraments. 🙂

  3. That was my first thought as well, How did an Anglican get there? We Lutherans changed it slightly but not anywhere close to being even just a remembrance. In truth that’s is part of why I’m Lutheran, the Reformed part of my church didn’t see it that way.

    As always, a very good article.

    • Galea’s theology is pretty standard for Sydney Anglicans, who definitely fall on the low church/evangelical/reformed/puritan end of the Anglican spectrum. It was the Sydney Anglican diocese that petitioned Lambeth for permission for laypeople to preside over Holy Communion on the basis that it is just a symbol.

      To be fair though, in its Eucharistic theology, my understanding is the Anglican Church followed Calvin’s theology of “Spiritual Presence” (define that however you want because it’s not clear what he actually meant), rather than Luther’s of “Sacramental Union.” (Later dubbed Consubstantiation of course.) Only with the Tractarians in the early to mid 19th Century, did some High Church Anglicans head more towards a understanding of the Real Presence.

      (For what it’s worth, I have a lot of sympathy for Luther’s objections to transubstantiation! Just don’t let anyone! 😉 )

      • Yep, that’s pretty low Anglican all right, I don’t think even our Episcopalians have tried that.

        I never figured out what Calvin had in mind either. I grew up in the E & R which was the old Prussian state church that brigaded Lutheran and Reformed/Calvinist together to no one’s advantage (except maybe the Kaiser’s).

        Yes that doesn’t surprise me much, and the other thing is the differences between transubstantiation and consubstantiation are minor enough that I doubt nine out of ten clergy in either church could tell the difference without a cheat sheet, they are there and mean something it’s just not earth shaking in my opinion 😉 Or at least I hope not!

        • That’s very interesting! I didn’t know about the E&R, we don’t have much fewer Lutherans and Calvinists here in Australia, perhaps because there wasn’t much German or Scandinavian immigration. But hey, as long as the Kaiser’s happy, whose complaining right? 😉

          Consubstantiation and Transubstantiation are very close. That said, I’ve been thinking about it more today and I think there might actually be some fairly important implications. But I’ll need to do some more research on consubstantiation/sacramental union before I go around crying heresy! You might see a post on it in the next couple of days! 🙂

          • Haha, I was joking of course. 🙂 Tho I may do a “this is why I think the Catholic Church is right.” But then, you wouldn’t expect anything else would you? I’m dreadfully predictable like that! 😉

          • No, I wouldn’t, and if I don’t have too much on the table you might get back, “Why the Catholic Church is wrong!” 🙂

            Still it is interesting to compare and contrast our various doctrines, and the more we do, the more we seem to have in common.

            I’m pretty predictable too. 😉

  4. “I will be with you, even to end of the age. Except… yeah… I’m going away now. And I won’t be here.”

    An excellent post, my friend. It admire you for tackling it.

    • Haha! Of course Jesus had to leave, all us nasty Catholics were starting to make pictures and then that dreadful emperor converted. How was Christ supposed to deal with that?? 😉

  5. I have a daily calendar at home with quotes from various saints for each day. A few days ago the quote went *something* like this: “Jesus said ‘This is my body.’ You say it is not. WHo should I believe? I choose to believe Jesus.” I probably got the wording wrong and I cannot for the life of me remember whose quote it was but I still wanted to share 🙂

  6. Pingback: Sacrifice of the Mass? (Answering ‘Nothing in my Hand I Bring’) | Catholic Cravings·

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