Dear Robert: Fr. Roy Axel Coats on St. Thomas Aquinas, transubstantiation, and the modus essendi of the Body of Christ in the Eucharist

Rev. Fr. Roy Axel Coats, pastor of Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Baltimore, MD

The Rev. Fr. Roy Axel Coats, pastor of Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Baltimore, MD.

(…in medias res)

Dear Robert, et al.

Greetings everyone! I must admit that I am a bit confused by the conversation up to this point, and I will focus on the portion for which my name was invoked. I claim no expertise regarding St. Thomas Aquinas or his theology of the Sacrament of the Altar. These thoughts and conclusions are my own and are very easily wrong.

I must agree that the doctrine of transubstantiation does, or did, allow for divergent interpretations, and it has quite a long history. It is not the brainchild of St. Thomas, but Aquinas was receiving and defending a long tradition. St. Thomas does not even give transubstantiation its philosophical explanation. That also came before.

St. Ambrose used the term transfigurantur in his de Fide to describe what happens during the consecration. It is interesting that St. Thomas Aquinas uses St. Ambrose as the sed contra in III, q. 75, a. 2, on whether the substance of bread and wine remain after the consecration. The early form of the doctrine was simply that the bread turns into the Body while maintaining the appearance of bread. This we work on the basic distinction between the substance, what a thing is, and its appearance. This doctrine can be seen in de Corpore et Sanguine Domini of St. Paschasius Radbertus. He writes in chapter one of that work that the Body and Blood of our Lord remains in the figure of the bread and wine.

This doctrine became a norm for the Church during the controversy concerning the teaching of Berengarius of Tours. Pope St. Gregory VII (1073-1085) in the Sixth Roman Council, a provincial council, in 1079 makes Berengarius of Tours (999-1088), take this oath:

I, Berengarius, in my heart believe and with my lips confess that through the mystery of the sacred prayer an the words of our Redeemer the bread and wine which are placed on the altar are substantially changed into the true and proper and living flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, our Lord, and that after consecration it is the true body and blood of Christ which was born of the Virgin Mary and which offered for the salvation of the world, was suspended on the Cross, and which sitteth at the right hand of the Father., and the true blood of Christ, which was poured out from His side not only through the sign and power of the sacrament, but in its property of nature and in truth of substance, as here briefly in a few words is contained and I have read and you understand. Thus I believe, nor will I teach contrary to this belief. So help me God and these holy Gospels of God.

There is indeed a substantial change to the Body of the crucified and glorified Christ. This much can be affirmed. The terminology of substantial change is confusing, though, as we shall see.

Lafranc of Canterbury in his De corpore et sanguine Domini adversus Berengarium (1062) defending this position and the earlier one of the Council of 1059 teaches the view that the bread turns into the Body of Christ:

We believe, therefore, that the earthly substances, which on the table of the Lord are divinely sanctified by the priestly ministry, are ineffably, incomprehensibly, miraculously converted by the working of the heavenly power into the essence of the Lord’s body.

Here we see the use of the language of conversion to describe the change of the bread into the Body of Christ. It must be noted though that he uses many different terms throughout his work.

The teaching of transubstantiation is juxtaposed to that of a union between the bread and the Body. Hugh of St. Victor (1096-1141) in his de Sacramentis Christianae Fidei (c. 1134), II.viii.9 writes,

Through the words of sanctification the true substance of bread and the true substance of wine are changed into the true body and blood of Christ, the appearance [specie] of bread and wine alone remaining, substance passing over into substance. But the change itself is not to be believed to be according to union but according to transition [non secundum unionem, sed secundum transitionem credenda est], since by no means does essence add unto increase of essence, so that through what is added that to which it is added becomes greater, but it happens by transition that what is added becomes one with that to which it is added. Nor do we say that in the bread the body of Christ is so consecrated that the body of Christ receives being from bread, nor, so to speak, that a new body has suddenly been made from a change of essence; rather we say that essence has been changed into the true body itself and that the substance of bread and wine has not been reduced to nothing because it ceased to be what it was, but, rather that it has been changed because it began to be something else which it was not, and the thing itself which began to be did not receive being from it because it was bread, but it itself received its being when it ceased to be what it was.

Hugh clearly holds that the bread turns into the Body of Christ. In the latter portion Hugh is arguing that this is not a substantial change in the physical sense but a different kind of change, where the material of the change does not come from that which was, the bread, but is wholly new, the Body. Hugh seems to try to avoid the language of substantial change by speaking of transition.

A drawing of the Fourth Lateran Council from the Chronicle of Matthew Paris, Chronica Maiora.

A drawing of the Fourth Lateran Council from the Chronicle of Matthew Paris, Chronica Maiora.

The doctrine of transubstantiation was declared a dogma of the church in the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, ten years before the birth of St. Thomas. The definition was given:

One indeed is the universal Church of the faithful, outside of which no one at all is saved, in which the priest himself is the sacrifice, Jesus Christ, whose body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the species of bread and wine; the bread changed into His body by the divine power of transubstantiation, and the wine into the blood, so that to accomplish the mystery of unity we ourselves receive from HIms nature what He Himself received from ours.

Thus St. Thomas in his writings is defending a set dogma of the church. As far as I know there are only a few places where St. Thomas discusses the Sacrament of the Altar. I will focus on his writings in the Summa Contra Gentiles, vi.63-65, and the Summa Theologiae iiia, qq. 75-76.

No material substance for St. Thomas is invisible and without extension. They all have it. Substance cannot be removed from material or its extension, or its accidents. In all cases except for the Sacrament of the Altar the substance has its own extension, material, and accidents. In the Sacrament of the Altar the substance has its own material, the Body, but it has the accidents and extension of another, the bread.


This unique mode of being is the result of a unique mode of change. Change is understood by St. Thomas, drawing from Aristotle’s Physics, to contain three principles, that that which subsists in the change, the matter; that which it is changed into, the form; and that which it changed from, the privation. The form can either be a substantial form or an accidental form. The change that occurs in regards to the Sacrament of the Altar is not of this kind at all. This is not the change of accidents, where a substance subsists through the change, as when I trim my beard. Nor is this a change of substance where the matter subsists through the change as when I digest a sandwich or when oxygen and hydrogen become water through hydrolysis. (NB: I know the latter example is anachronistic. All other examples of substantial change have something dying, which is confusing because that consists of a substance changing into a collection of many substances, as a human becomes turns into a corpse. We must also not use examples from art without qualification since that leads only to confusion. Aristotle speaks of wood and beds in the Physics only as an example and clearly states that it is such.) These kinds of change St. Thomas calls formal changes, they are the change of either the accidental form or the substantial form of a thing. In the Sacrament there is not just a formal change, but a change of the substance or being itself, including form and matter. Nothing subsists in this change. From the Summa Contra Gentiles:

Nonetheless, it must be recognized that the aforesaid conversion of the bread into the body of Christ is of another mode than any natural conversion whatever. For in any natural conversion a subject persists in which different forms succeed themselves: these are accidental – white, for example, is converted into black; or they are substantial — air, for example, is converted into fire; wherefore these are named formal conversions. But in the conversion under discussion a subject passes over into a subject, and the accidents persists; hence this conversion is named substantial.

In this mode of change alone there is nothing persisting or subsisting through the change: according to it, the very matter of the bread changes into the specific matter of the Body of Christ. This is important for the doctrine of transubstantiation, because if this did not happen, then one would only have the substance of human flesh under the species of bread, not the substance of the Body of Christ.

St. Thomas holds that the principle of individuation of anything is matter. Thus what makes a man this man is his matter. Thus if we are to have the body of this man, Jesus who was born of a Virgin and crucified, we would need to have the very matter of this man’s, i.e., Jesus’s, body. This teaching is echoed in the Summa Theologiae, IIIa, q. 75, a. 4, c., where he writes,

The determination of a certain thing into actual being is through its form. Whence no natural or created agent is able to move something unless by a change of form. On account of this, every conversion which is according to the laws of nature, is formal. But God is infinite act, as is supported in the Prima Pars. Whence his own putting in motion extends to the being of the whole nature. Therefore, not only is He able to accomplish formal conversions, so that diverse forms certainly succeed themselves in the same subject, but a conversion of the whole being, as namely the whole substance of this thing is converted into the whole substance of that thing. [ut scilicet tota substantia huius convertatur totius entis, ut scilicet tota substantia huius convertatur in totam substantiam illius.] And this is accomplished by the divine power in the sacrament. For the whole substance of bread is converted into the whole substance of the body of Christ, and the whole substance of wine is converted into the whole substance of the blood of Christ. Whence this conversion is not formal, but substantial. Neither is it contained among the kinds of natural motion, but the proper name is able to be called transubstantiation.

This conversion is a change of one substance into another substance. Thus there is not the removing of one substance to be replaced by another, see Summa Theologiae, IIIa, q. 75, a. 3, c. St. Thomas specifically argues against such a view of annihilation.

Yet I would like to point out that even in this mode of being and this mode of change the substance of the Body of Christ is always visible, it has visible species in accidents of bread. There is no taking out of one invisible substance and replacing it with another. The substances are always visible in some way: a visible substance is converted into another visible substance. One substance becomes another substance, even down to the individual, or signate, matter.


Hugh of St. Victor

In regards to the question of locality, it is a little more difficult. St. Thomas argues that the whole Christ is in the Sacrament. He does so by distinguishing two powers by which the Sacrament is constituted. By the power of the Sacrament itself the Body of Christ is present in the Sacrament. Yet by the nature of concomitance, everything that is united to the Body of Christ are present in the Sacrament. Thus the whole Christ is present in the Sacrament. Thus the whole Christ is substantially present. Again by the power of the Sacrament the bread is substantially converted to the Body of Christ, thus the Body of Christ is not quantitatively there, the dimensions of Sacrament are those of bread not the whole Christ. Yet, on account of the power of concomitance, the dimensions of the Body and the whole Christ, and all other accidents are in this Sacrament. The question remains whether the Body of Christ and the whole Christ is present locally in the Sacrament. Aquinas answers no, yet not because of transubstantiation, but rather because of His understanding of the nature and person of Christ. A thing has place if the substance is contained by it own dimensions. This is from Aristotle’s Physics which defines place, if I remember correctly, as the first outside of which. This is not a crazy idea — your place is the part of the universe you take up. Yet the Body of Christ is not contained by its own dimensions, but by the dimensions of bread. Thus it does not have place as such, but it does have a place according to the dimensions of the bread. St. Thomas says in ST iiia, q. 76, a. 5:

[A]nd therefore the substance of the bread was there locally by reason of its dimensions (before the consecration) because it was compared with the place through the medium of its own dimensions; but the substance of Christ’s body is compared through the medium of foreign dimensions, so that, on the contrary, the proper dimensions of Christ’s body are compared with that place through the medium of substance; which is contrary to the notion of a located body.

Yet he explains that (a. 5, ad. 2)

[T]he place in which Christ’s body is, is not empty; nor yet is it properly filled with the substance of Christ’s body, which is not there locally, as stated above; but it is filled with the sacramental species, which have to fill the place because of the nature of dimensions, or at least miraculously, as they also subsist miraculously after the fashion of substance.

Thus the Body of Christ is present on the altar, not because of being located, but because of a miracle. Note well, though, that the reason that the Body is not located in the Sacrament as in a place properly is because St. Thomas does not know of a different mode in which the Body of Christ can be in the Sacrament in a way different from being there according to its natural dimensions.

This limited view of the modes by which the Body of Christ can be present also keeps St. Thomas from teaching that the Body of Christ, and the whole Christ, is definitively present in Sacrament. St. Thomas says that this cannot be so because the Body of Christ cannot be on the altar under the species of bread, also in heaven under its proper species, and also on many other altars as well.

Likewise it is not there circumscriptively, because it is not there according to the commensuration of its own dimensions. Yet St. Thomas is not causing any doubt as to where the Body is, and he writes, “But that it is not outside the superficies of the sacrament, nor on any other part of the altar, is due not to its being there definitively or circumscriptively, but to its being there by consecration and conversion of the bread and wine, as stated above.” Thus it is because of the conversion that the Body is present, not according to its own definitive place or circumscription. Again, one could only say that the Body is in the Sacrament definitively and circumscriptively if there was a different mode by which the Body could be definitively and circumscriptively present other than according its own dimensions.

This confession of illocality is not caused by the doctrine of transubstantiation, but a result of an understanding of the communication of attributes as described by the genus maiestaticum. I guess one could say St. Thomas is a proto-Calvinist because he does not teach the genus maiestaticum, yet that is not really a helpful conclusion. This is especially so because Calvin rejected any indefinite, illocal, and uncircumscript presence of Christ in the Sacrament. For Calvin our Lord is present in the Sacrament only according to the definitive, circumscribed, local presence of the natural dimensions of His Body. Namely our Lord is present in the Sacrament because we spiritually and in faith ascend through the Sacrament and commune with Him there. For Calvin, in the Sacrament Christ does not come down to us illocally and indefinitively, rather we go to where the Body of Christ has place and definition. Calvin writes in Institutes IV.xvii.31,

But greatly mistaken are those who conceive no presence of flesh in the Supper unless it lies in the bread. For thus they leave nothing to the secret working of the Spirit, which unites Christ himself to us. To them Christ does not seem present unless he comes down to us. As though, if he should bring us to himself, we should not just as much enjoy his presence! The question is therefore only of the manner, for they place Christ in the bread, while we do not think it is lawful for us to drag him from heaven. Let our readers decide which one is more correct. Only away with that calumny that Christ is removed from his Supper unless he lies hidden under the covering of bread! For since this mystery is heavenly, there is no need to draw Christ to earth that he may be joined to us.

He also writes in IV.xvii.12,

For as we do not doubt that Christ’s body is limited by the general characteristics common to all human bodies, and is contained in heaven (where it was once for all received) until Christ return in judgement, so we deem it utterly unlawful to draw it back under these corruptible elements or to imagine it to be present everywhere.

The Body of Christ with which we commune is local and definitive. In fact of all the possible views, Calvin’s Body in the Sacrament is the most local and definitive.

luther redIt is the Blessed Martin Luther who defined the different modes by which the Body of Our Lord can be present. The first mode is the circumscribed corporeal mode of presence, by which He is in His Body as He walked on earth. This is the only mode understood by St. Thomas and Calvin. Second is the uncircumscribed, spiritual mode of presence, “by which He neither occupies nor yields space.” This is the mode by which His Body is in the bread of the Sacrament and His Blood is in the wine of the Sacrament. It explains how the Body of Our Lord is locally present in the Sacrament. There is a third mode, the divine, heavenly mode of presence, by which the Body of Our Lord is present wherever God is present. Thus there is the ubiquity of the Body of Christ. This mode can explain how the Body of Our Lord is definitively present in the Sacrament. These three modes are from Luther’s 1528 Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, and this passage is quoted at length in Article VII of the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord. Thus according to the second mode, the spiritual mode, which is able to be in many places on account of the third mode, the Body of Our Lord can be said to be definitively in the Sacrament. This is using the definition of “definitive” that St. Thomas himself gives for spiritual things in ST, ia, q. 52, a. 2, c. He writes, “For a body is in a place circumscriptive, because it is commensurate to that place; however angels are not circumscriptive, as they are not commensurate to a place, but definitive; because such are in one place and not in another. God however is neither circumscriptive, nor definitive, because He is ubiquitous.” The three modes of presence described by St. Thomas are the three modes of presence that Luther uses. Yet Luther alone states that all three modes are true of the Body of Christ, and that the Body of Christ is present in the Sacrament according to the definitive mode.

As I was thinking about these things I was shocked at how Luther from very early on was willing to reject the view that there is a conversion of the bread into the Body of Christ in favor of there being a union between the bread and the Body. This union is defined as the Sacramental Union in the Formula of Concord. Yet is clear the that the teaching of the union is against the teaching of Paschasius, Lafranc, Guitmund, Lateran IV, Hugh, St. Thomas, and many others. It is explicitly condemned by Hugh and St. Thomas, who gives I believe five arguments against it. (All these arguments seem to be refutable, and sometime I should take the time to respond to them.) It is interesting that the Franciscans were not as harsh. St. Bonaventure, before Lateran IV, might actually have held to the union view. That view was considered by the Blessed John Duns Scotus to be rationally and Scripturally possible. He rejects it at the end because of Lateran IV. Ockham also argued that it was possible, rationally and Scripturally. He writes in the Fourth Quodlibet, Question 30,

The third opinion (that of a union) would be quite reasonable if the determination of the Church were not opposed to it. For this opinion avoids, and saves one from, all the difficulties that follow upon the separation of the accidents from their subject; nor is the contrary of this opinion found in the canon of the Bible. And it is no more of a contradiction for Christ’s body to exist together with the substance of the bread than it is for it to exist together with the accidents of the bread. Nor is this repugnant to reason. For a quantity is repugnant to another quantity in the same place to the same extent that a substance is repugnant to another quantity in the same place; but two quantities can exist simultaneously in the same place, as is evident in a case where two bodies exist in the same place. Furthermore, the substance of the body of Christ is able to exist in the same place as the quantity of the host; therefore, it is able fore the same reason to exist in the same place as the substance of the host.

In the Babylonian Captivity, Luther claims to have been influenced to accept the teaching of the union over conversion, by the writings of Peter d’Ailley. Thus there was a tradition that Luther was building on, yet his divergence is still shocking. The views of Luther regarding a union are dogmatized in the Formula of Concord. As a result, we cannot use all of the same language as those who hold to a conversion of the bread into the Body. For example, it seems unhelpful if we say that the bread changes into the Body of Christ. Likewise, it seems doctrinally weak to even say that the bread becomes the Body of Christ. I must think more on this, and read more Luther and Chemnitz.

Forgive me for my circuitous ramblings. I hope some of it is helpful to the question at hand. I wish I had more time to change some of the order of the argument. I also wish I had time to proofread it more thoroughly. I beg your pardon for any mistakes.



Fr. Roy Axel Coats

Fr. Coats administering the Sacrament to a parishioner in November of 2010.

Fr. Coats administers the Sacrament to his mother and father at his ordination mass in November 2010.


A brief addendum:

Fr Roy,

Thank you for this very thorough exposition of the history of sacramental doctrine in the Western Church!

I quite agree that, given the history of “transubstantiation,” it may be prudent to avoid the use of the verb “change” with reference to the Sacrament. Yet both Chemnitz and Gerhard were willing to use the term. Chemnitz wrote:

This is certainly a great, miraculous, and truly divine change (magna, miraculosa,et vere divina est mutatio), since before it was simply ordinary bread and ordinary wine. What now, after the blessing, is truly and substantially present, offered, and received is truly and substantially the body and blood of Christ. Therefore we grant that a certain change (mutationem aliquam) takes place, so that it can truly be said of the bread that it is the body of Christ (Examination of the Council of Trent, vol.2, p.258).

In his article, “Christ’s Presence in the Sacraments,” Fr. Piepkorn cites John Gerhard in this footnote:

It may be noted that the Symbols do not criticize the Eastern doctrine of metabole [a reference to Apology X], and that the archtheologian of the Lutheran Church sees a third possibility between the Roman Catholic transubstantiation and the metaphorical view of Calvinism, ‘namely that the bread has been changed sacramentally (quod videlicet panis mutatus fuerit sacramentaliter),’ and that he uses the term ‘sacramental change'(mutatio sacramentalis), as a synonym (although not one to be preferred) for ‘sacramental union,’ the term that Luther had devised to express the biblical view (Gerhard, Loci theologici, Locus XXI, cap.xii, paras.135-136).

I cannot now remember the citation where Piepkorn gives the five (?) Greek verbs used by the Eastern Church to express the mystery of the real presence. I am reliably informed by Orthodox friends that the Orthodox have no desire to dogmatize any of these expressions and that the use of the word “transubstantiation” among them is largely due to Western influence.

I suspect that we Lutherans should avoid the language of “change” lest we be misunderstood as affirming the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation. Fr. Piepkorn often said that, among all the formulations concerning the real presence, he much preferred Luther’s straightforward assertion in the Smalcald Articles, “We hold that the bread and wine in the Supper are the true Body and Blood of Christ” (SA III VI 1) not least because this comes closest to our Lord’s words of institution of the Sacrament.

Rev. Dr. Arthur Carl Piepkorn

Rev. Dr. Arthur Carl Piepkorn

It seems to me that this whole history of sacramental doctrine is at least in part an example of the very human desire somehow to penetrate the mysteries of God (I Cor.4:1). The great difficulty with this enterprise is that we so often wind up saying far more than needs to be said or in reality can with certainty be said. I believe that the Lutheran Symbols are a wonderful example of avoiding this enterprise, this danger. How much we need to remember the teaching concerning the “three lights” to which Luther refers at the end of De Servo Arbitrio — the light of nature, the light of grace, the light of glory! (LW 33, p.292) Luther says that much that is unclear in the light of nature becomes clear in the light of grace and that much that is now unclear in the light of grace will become clear in the light of glory. I may be treading on thin ice here, but it seems to me that late Lutheran Scholasticism often succumbed to precisely this danger and that, insofar as our own Synod’s theology (notably Franz Pieper’s work) has been shaped by late Lutheran Scholasticism, our own Synod has not escaped this danger — notably for example in the Brief Statement which in several respects goes far beyond the teaching of the Lutheran Symbols. One egregious example of that is the Brief Statement’s assertion that Adam had “a truly scientific knowledge of nature.” I don’t even know what that means — not least because the word “scientific” admits of so many different interpretations. And surely sinlessness does not include omniscience! And how on earth can such a (dubious!) claim as this be set forth as part of the Church’s confession of the true faith?! This is just one example of saying far more than can be defended on the basis of God’s Word written. It seems to me that in our theological work a holy reticence is desirable — affirming nothing less than Holy Scripture teaches but also not affirming as certain doctrine more than Holy Scripture teaches.

Fr. Charles McClean









One Comment

  1. Two questions for Pastor Coates:

    1) If the bread starts out just being bread, but after the consecration is the Body of Christ, then a change has occurred. It doesn’t have to mean the Substance of the bread has been converted into the Substance of the Body, but even if we say a new Substance has been added instead, going from “not united with the Body” to “united with the Body” is still a change for the bread. So how is it “unhelpful” or “doctrinally weak” to describe it that way?

    2) If Aquinas taught that the Body and Blood are located via the Accidents of the bread and wine, is it really correct to say that he taught an illocal presence?

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