What’s Wrong with Transubstantiation? An Evaluation of Theological Models -- By: Peter J. Leithart

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 53:2 (Fall 1991)
Article: What’s Wrong with Transubstantiation? An Evaluation of Theological Models
Author: Peter J. Leithart


What’s Wrong with Transubstantiation?
An Evaluation of Theological Models

Peter J. Leithart

The doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the celebration of the Eucharist is a classic case of theological deadlock. Accusations of rationalism, speculation, and outright heresy are tossed back and forth by all sides. Both Lutherans and Reformed theologians accuse Roman Catholics of teaching a physical and local presence of Christ. Roman Catholics and Lutherans accuse the Reformed of rationalizing (away) the mystery of the real presence, while the Reformed charge that both the Lutheran doctrine and the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation are founded on and entail extrabiblical speculation. Reformed theologians charge Lutherans with teaching a localized presence, while the Lutherans deny that they teach that Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is local. The Reformed counter that the Lutherans have equivocated on the meaning of “local.”1 ) Similar examples of deadlock could be multiplied, many of them centering on apparently minute issues.2 )In many cases, the debates have been framed in such a way that it seems impossible to get around the obstacles, and one is tempted to search for a safe place among the Eastern Orthodox, far above the fray.3

In this article, I focus on a small part of this debate, namely, the Reformation challenge to the Thomistic doctrine of transubstantiation.4 Even this fragment of the total picture is enormously complicated, so this article has been restricted to an examination of the positions of three representative theologians. I first describe the doctrine of transubstantiation as it was given

classic formulation by Thomas Aquinas,5 seeking particularly to determine underlying theological and philosophical motivations and models. Then, I sketch the response of Martin Luther and John Calvin to the Roman doctrine. My purpose is to show how Calvin’s handling of transubstantiation (and of the Lutheran doctrine) shifted the entire context of the debate, providing for a more biblical doctrine of the Eucharistic presence that at the same time does justice to the legitimate concerns of other theological traditions.

I. Thomas Aquinas6

Thomas’s doctrine itself is well-known. According to his formulation, by the priest’s consecration, the entire substance of the bread and the wine is converted into the entire substance of the body and bl...

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