I call this the “Eucharist Challenge” because, as a Protestant raised Baptist, eventually turning Presbyterian, I never did get to hear of the meaning of the Eucharist from other perspectives.
But as I’ve been improving my knowledge of philosophy, especially Greek philosophy, Aristotle eventually comes into view. And there is no denying that Aristotle is an important figure in the development of Christian theology. It is often stated how Aquinas attempted to combine Aristotle and Christ into a single theology, a combination that results in failure.
But, the Roman Catholic Church continues to rely on Aristotle’s metaphysics and ontology as the basis for its view of the Eucharist. In this view, the bread and the wine ‘become’ the blood and body of Jesus Christ.
For many Protestants such as myself, this view is illogical, to say the least. Attend a Mass and you do not see any visible change in the elements of the Eucharist. And the reason we do not ‘see’ the change is because we do not understand Aristotle.
In the discussion concerning ‘reality’ there was debate about universals and particulars that tested the best of minds in the ancient Greek world. For Plato, the things we observe through sense perception are only ‘representations’ of reality. You see an animal called a dog, and you now it is a dog because there is a ‘spiritual’ dog which embraces all physical dogs. A physical dog is merely one manifestation of this ‘spiritual reality’ which we might call ‘dogness’. It embraces all the kinds of animals referred to as dogs.
Aristotle, however, argued in favor of the idea that each individual dog had within it its spiritual counterpart. This, he said, was the substance of the dog. You cannot see the substance, just as you could not see Plato’s spiritual version of dogness. The substance, however, as represented to the senses of man were the accidens of the substance. If you saw a dog you would see hair, its color, legs, skin, eyes, ears, etc. These were not the ‘reality’, the substance. These things are merely the accidens of the substance itself.
Wind your time clock forward to the time when the Eucharist was being formulated and understood, and you begin to see the influence Aristotle would have on the development of theology at this point. Transubstantiation is the point in the Mass when the bread and the wine have their substance changed into the substance of the body of Christ. Now remember that the substance of something cannot be seen or discovered by the senses. Only the accidens are visible.
The miracle of the Eucharist, then, is the change of substance of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This you cannot see.
But something else also has to go on at the same time, a second miracle. If the substance of the bread and wine are changed, what about its accidens? Why are they not also changed to match the new substance? The answer to this must be that a double miracle has actually taken place. Not only has the substance been changed to the body of Christ, but now the accidens of this body of Christ have been changed to appear as bread and wine and not literal flesh and blood.
Such philosophical intricacies can escape those of us who were raised as nominal Protestants. The bread and wine don’t undergo any change; they are merely symbols. Or, in the area of baptism, the baptism is merely a symbol of regeneration, and not regeneration itself. (You can discover more on nominalism versus realism in these video messages by the late David Chilton, Chilton on Baptism.)
And yet, the Real Presence of Christ was a widespread belief of Christians in the early Church and in the current church. It’s just that people could not agree on what the Real Presence means. But even among the often nominalist Presbyterians, at the communion table it can be heard, “this is the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
So next time you hear a Roman Catholic speak on the ‘miracle’ of the Mass, you might like to ask him to explain whether he is speaking of just one miracle or two. And then you might like to ask if this person is aware of where the idea of substance and accidens came into existence.
But, if you do ask questions such as this, don’t be surprised to be asked how you take the words of Christ: ‘this is my body … this is my blood.” And don’t be surprised at the strange look you may get if you reply these are merely ‘symbols’.
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