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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Transubstantiation

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The Lord's Supper being observed in commemoration of the death of Christ, which was the sacrifice offered for the sins of men, the idea of a sacrifice was early conjoined with it; and finally, it came to be regarded not merely as the symbol of a sacrifice, but in some sense a sacrifice itself. There was also another cause which contributed to this belief. It was the anxious wish of some of the fathers to give to their religion, a degree of splendour, which might make a powerful impression upon the senses. Under the Jewish economy, the numerous sacrifices that were offered, in a remarkable degree riveted the attention; and, with reference to this, it became customary to hold forth the Lord's Supper as the great sacrifice in the Christian church. This mode of speaking quickly gained ground; it is often used by Cyprian, although he plainly understood it in a mystical sense; and the ordinance of the supper was not unfrequently styled the eucharistical sacrifice. It was very early the practice to hold up the elements, previous to their beings distributed, to the view of the people, probably to excite in them more effectually devout and reverential feelings; and this laid the foundation for that adoration of them which was, at a subsequent period, as we shall soon find, extensively introduced.

For several ages, says Dr. Cook, the state of opinion respecting the sacramental elements was, that they were memorials of Christ's death, but that, agreeably to his own declaration, his body and blood were, in some sense, present with them. The questions, however, what was the nature of that presence? and what were the physical consequences as to the bread and the wine? however much we may conceive these points to have been involved in the opinion actually held, or the language actually used, seem not to have been for a long period much agitated, or, at all events, not authoritatively decided, although the Roman Catholic writers gladly and triumphantly bring forward the expressions that were so often used from the earliest age, in support of the tenet which their church at length espoused. But it was not to be supposed that the curiosity of man would be permanently arrested at the threshold of this most mysterious inquiry; and accordingly a definite theory, with respect to it, was, in the ninth century, avowed, and zealously defended. Pascasius Radbert, a monk, and afterward abbot of Corbey in Picardy, published a treatise concerning the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, in which he did not hesitate to maintain the following most extraordinary positions: "That after the consecration of the bread and wine in the Lord's Supper, nothing remained of these symbols but the outward form or figure, under which the body and blood of Christ were really and locally present; and that this body so present was the identical body that had been born of the Virgin Mary, had suffered on the cross, and had been raised from the dead." The publication of notions so decidedly at war with all which human beings must credit, excited, as might have been expected, astonishment and indignation; and, accordingly, many writers exerted their talents against it. Among these was the celebrated Johannes Scotus, who laid the axe to the root of the tree, and, shaking off all that figurative language which had been so sadly abused, distinctly and powerfully stated, that the bread and wine used in the eucharist were the signs or symbols of the absent body and blood of Christ. The light of reason and truth was, however, too feeble to penetrate through the darkness which during this age was spread over the minds and understandings of men. No public declaration, indeed, as to the nature of the sacramental elements was made; and even the popes did not interpose their high and revered authority with regard to it; but there seems little doubt that the opinion of Pascasius was adopted by the greater part of the western church, although it is not likely that much deference was paid to his explanations of it. The question was again agitated, and attracted more notice than it had ever before done, in the course of the eleventh century. Several theologians, distinguished for the period at which they lived, shocked with the grossness and absurdity of the conversion which had been defended, strenuously opposed it. Among these Berenger holds the most conspicuous place, both on account of the zeal and ability which he displayed, and the cruel and unchristian manner in which he was resisted. About the commencement of the century, he began to inculcate that the bread and wine of the eucharist were not truly and actually, but only figuratively, and by similitude, the body and blood of Christ; and a doctrine so rational obtained many adherents in France, Italy, and England. He was, however, encountered by a host of opponents, numbers of whom possessed the highest situations in the church: and the church itself, either from having perceived that the doctrine which he laboured to confute was grateful to the people, or, what is more likely, tended to exalt the powers and to increase the influence and wealth of the priesthood, declared against him, various councils having been assembled, and having pronounced their solemn decrees in condemnation of what he taught. The councils did not rest their hope of overcoming Berenger upon the strength of the reasoning which they could urge against him: they took a much more summary method, and threatened to put him to death if he did not recant. At one synod held at Rome, under the immediate eye of the pope, the fathers of whom it consisted so successfully alarmed Berenger, that, not having sufficient vigour of mind to stand firm against their cruelty, he confessed that he had been in error, and subscribed the following declaration composed by one of the cardinals: "The bread and wine which are placed on the altar are, after consecration, not merely a sacrament, symbol, or figure, but even the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is handled by the hands of the priests, and broken and chewed by the teeth of the faithful." He had no sooner escaped from the violence which he had dreaded, than he shrunk from the tenet to which he had been forced to give his assent, and he again avowed his original sentiments; but he was afterward turned aside from his integrity by the arts and the infamous persecution of new councils, although he died adhering to the spirituality of Christ's presence in the eucharist. From this time the strange opinion of Pascasius rapidly gained ground, being supported by all the influence of popes and councils; but there had not yet been devised a term which clearly expressed what was really implied in that opinion. In the next century, the ingenuity of some theologian invented what was wanting; the change that takes place on the elements after consecration having been denominated by him transubstantiation. Still, however, some latitude was afforded to those who interpreted the epithet; but this in the thirteenth century was taken away, a celebrated council of the Lateran, attended by no fewer than four hundred and twelve bishops, and eight hundred abbots and priors, having, at the instigation of Innocent the Third, one of the most arrogant and presumptuous of the pontiffs, explicitly adopted transubstantiation as an article of faith, in the monstrous form in which it is now held in the popish church, and denounced anathemas against all who hesitated to give their assent. The opposition which after this was made to a doctrine so revolting to the senses and the reason, was very feeble, insomuch that it may, in consequence of the decree of the Lateran council, be considered as having become the established faith of the western church. In the Greek church it was long resisted, and, indeed, was not embraced till the seventeenth century, a time at which it might have been thought that it could not have extended the range of its influence.

After transubstantiation was thus sanctioned, a change necessarily took place with respect to various parts of the service used in administering the eucharist. That solemn service was now viewed as an actual sacrifice or offering of the body of Christ for the sins of men, and the elevation of the host was held forth as calling for the adoration and worship of believers; so that an ordinance mercifully designed to preserve the pure influence of the most spiritual and elevated religion, became the instrument, in the hands of ignorant or corrupt men, of introducing the most senseless and degrading idolatry. When the Reformation shook the influence of the church, and brought into exercise the intellectual faculties of man, the subject of the eucharist demanded and received the closest and most anxious attention. It might have been naturally supposed, that when Luther directed his vigorous mind to point out and to condemn the abuses which had been sanctioned in the popish church, he would not have spared a doctrine the most irrational and objectionable which that church avows, and that he would have vindicated the holy ordinance of the Lord's Supper from the abomination with which it had been associated. He did, indeed, object to transubstantiation, but he did so with a degree of hesitation truly astonishing, although that hesitation was displayed by many of the first reformers. He declared that he saw no warrant for believing that the bread and wine were actually changed into the body and blood of Christ; but he adhered to the literal import of our Saviour's words, teaching that his body and blood were received, and that they were in some incomprehensible manner conjoined or united with the bread and wine. It is quite evident, that although this system got rid of one difficulty by leaving the testimony of the senses as to the bread and wine unchallenged, yet it is just as incomprehensible as the other, assumes as a fact what the senses cannot discern, and involves in it difficulties equally repugnant to the plainest dictates of reason. Powerful accordingly as most deservedly was his ascendency, and great as was the veneration with which he was contemplated, he was upon this point happily opposed; his colleague, the celebrated Carlostadt, openly avowing, that when our Lord said of the bread, "This is my body," he pointed to his own person, and thus taught that the bread was merely the sign or emblem of it. Luther warmly resisted this opinion; Carlostadt was obliged, surely in little consistency with the fundamental principle of Protestantism, in consequence of having professed it, to leave Wirtemberg; and although it procured some adherents, yet as it rested upon an assertion of which there could be no proof, it was never extensively disseminated, and was ultimately abandoned by Carlostadt himself. The discussion, however, which he had commenced, stimulated others to the consideration of the subject, and led Zuinglius, who had previously often meditated upon it, and OEcolampadius, two of the most distinguished reformers, to submit to the public the doctrine, that the bread and wine are only symbols of Christ's body and blood, but that the body of our Lord was in heaven, to which after his resurrection he had ascended. Luther composed several works to confute the opinions of Zuinglius. At the commencement of the controversy respecting the eucharist among the defenders of the Protestant faith, there seem to have been only two opinions, that of Luther, asserting that the body and blood of Christ were actually with the bread and wine, and that of Zuinglius, OEcolampadius, and Bucer, that the bread and wine were the emblems or signs of Christ's body and blood, no other advantage being derived from partaking of them than the moral effect naturally resulting from the commemoration of an event so awful and so deeply interesting as the crucifixion of our Redeemer. Calvin soon published what may be regarded as a new view of the subject. Admitting the justness of the interpretation of our Lord's words given by Zuinglius, he maintained that spiritual influence was conveyed to worthy partakers of the Lord's Supper, insomuch that Christ may be said to be spiritually present with the outward elements. The sentiments of this most eminent theologian made a deep impression upon the public mind; and although the churches of Zurich and Berne long adhered to the creed of Zuinglius, yet, through the perseverance and dexterity of Calvin, the Swiss Protestant churches at length united with that of Geneva in assenting to the spiritual presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. In other countries, too, he saw many adhering to what he had taught, and carrying to as great length as it could be carried what, under his system, must be termed the allegorical language which he recommended. The French Protestants in their confession thus express themselves: "We affirm that the holy supper of our Lord is a witness to us of our union with the Lord Jesus Christ, because that he is not only once dead and raised up again from the dead for us, lint also he doth indeed feed and nourish us with his flesh and blood. And although he be now in heaven, and shall remain there till he come to judge the world, yet we believe that, by the secret and incomprehensible virtue of his Spirit, he doth nourish and quicken us with the substance of his body and blood. But we say that this is done in a spiritual manner; nor do we hereby substitute in place of the effect and truth an idle fancy and conceit of our own; but rather, because this mystery of our union with Christ is so high a thing that it surmounteth all our senses, yea and the whole order of nature, and in short, because it is celestial, it cannot be comprehended but by faith." Knox, who revered Calvin, carried into Scotland the opinions of that reformer; and in the original Scottish confessions, similar language, though somewhat more guarded than that which has been just quoted, is used: "We assuredly believe that in the supper rightly used, Christ Jesus is so joined with us, that he becometh the very nourishment and food of our souls. Not that we imagine any transubstantiation,—but this union and communion which we have with the body and blood of Christ Jesus in the right use of the sacrament, is wrought by the operation of the Holy Ghost, who by true faith carrieth us above all things that are visible, carnal, and earthly, and maketh us to feed upon the body and blood of Christ Jesus. We most assuredly believe that the bread which we break is the communion of Christ's body, and the cup which we bless is the communion of his blood; so that we confess and undoubtedly believe, that the faithful in the right use of the Lord's table so do eat the body and drink the blood of the Lord Jesus, that he remaineth in them and they in him; yea, that they are so made flesh of his flesh, and bones of his bones, that as the eternal Godhead hath given to the flesh of Christ Jesus life and immortality, so doth Christ Jesus's flesh and blood, eaten and drunken by us, give to us the same prerogatives." The church of Scotland, which did not long use this first confession, seems to have seen, in the course of the following century, the propriety, if not of relinquishing, yet of more cautiously employing the phraseology now brought into view; for in the Westminster confession, which is still the standard of faith in that church, there is unquestionably a great improvement in the style which has been adopted in treating of this subject. In it the compilers declare, that "the outward elements in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper duly set apart to the uses ordained by Christ, have such relation to him crucified, as that truly, yet sacramentally only, they are sometimes called by the name of the things they represent; namely the body and blood of Christ, albeit in substance and nature they still remain truly and only bread and wine, as they were before." Then after most powerfully exposing the absurdity of transubstantiation, representing it as repugnant not to Scripture alone, but to reason and common sense, they proceed: "Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this sacrament, do then also inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually, receive and feed upon Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death: the body and blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally in, with, or under the bread and wine, yet as really but spiritually present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses." The church of England was in its first reformation from popery inclined to adhere to the Lutherans; but in the time of Edward the Sixth, a more correct and Scriptural view seems to have been taken. In the thirty-nine articles, the present creed of the English church, it is said of this ordinance: "The supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another, but rather it is a sacrament of our redemption by Christ's death; insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith receive the same, the bread which we break is a partaking of the body of Christ, and likewise the cup is a partaking of the blood of Christ." This strong language is, however, in the same article, so modified, as to show that all which was intended by it was to represent the spiritual influence conveyed through the Lord's Supper; for it is taught, "that the body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten in the supper, only after a heavenly and spiritual manner." The idea of Zuinglius, that the Lord's Supper is merely a commemoration of Christ's death, naturally producing a moral effect upon the serious and considerate mind, has been held by members of both the established churches in Great Britain. It was vigorously defended, about the beginning of last century, by Bishop Hoadly, in a work which he entitled, "A plain Account of the Nature and Ends of the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper;" and it has more recently been supported by Dr. Bell, in a treatise denominated "An Attempt to ascertain the Authority, Nature, and Design of the Lord's Supper." The ingenuity of particular individuals has been exerted in giving other peculiar illustrations of the subject. Cudworth and Bishop Warburton, for example, represented the sacrament of the supper under the view of a feast upon a sacrifice; but such speculations have not influenced the faith of any large denomination of Christians.


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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Transubstantiation'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/wtd/t/transubstantiation.html. 1831-2.

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