Eucharistic Presence: A Proposal

Continuing my look at Hunsinger’s volume The Eucharist and Ecumenism, I turn now to consider his proposal for an ecumenical understanding of the real presence in the consecrated elements. Doing so will entail several concessions:

  • First, there is not a real presence of Christ in the elements at the expense of the local presence of Christ bodily in heaven;
  • Second, there is not a localized presence of Christ’s body in heaven which could prohibit its real presence in the eucharist (sorry to all of the baptists out there, not to mention the Pentecostals!).

Building on this, Hunsinger suggests, “The idea of transelementation, as represented by Vermigli, Bucer, and Cranmer (and based on patristic sources), would today allow the Reformed churches to maintain their historic concern for Christ’s bodily integrity while moving closer to the high sacramental traditions on real presence” (51-52), which would allow for greater flexibility to move towards Hunsinger’s proposal of an ecumenical theology of eucharist.

The “literal” question is once again raised, used so powerfully by Luther, and now taken up by Hunsinger under the banner of “rhetoric.” Hunsinger explains, “Regardless of whether that presence is called ‘real’ or ‘true,’ rhetorical judgments need to be kept distinct from ‘factual’ judgments. Confusing the rhetorical and the factual levels has historically been a bane of the discussion” (53). Because Catholics will deny the belief in the crudely ‘corporeal’ understanding of bodily presence, invoking instead a ‘spiritual’ or ‘mystical’ presence, there is much more room for discussion than many might assume.

The problem with the conversation about the “literal” sense of “This is my body” is that there is no view which poses a “literal” interpretation – it just isn’t that easy. A possible solution, for Hunsinger, is the transelementation language:

On the basis of ‘translementation,’ the historic conflict between ‘symbolic’ and ‘realistic’ readings of ‘This is my body’ can be transcended and overcome” (63-64).

The literal sense, therefore, according to all of the major traditions, is that Christ’s “flesh would be received by faith as the bread is received; but without faith neither Christ himself nor his life-giving flesh would be obtained” (65). Therefore, while both believer and unbeliever would receive the consecrated bread, only the believer would receive Christ (because doing so necessarily entails faith). By invoking this usage of “transelementation,” Hunsinger believers he can span the gap between the symbolic and the real, thereby navigating one of the more difficult hurdles in sacramental dialogue (to use a variety of metaphors!).

Importantly, Hunsinger provides a a list of distinctions between transubstantiation and transelementation (with some paraphrase (see p. 74-75)

  • The focus of transubstantiation is on descent, while translementation is on elevation.
  • In transubstantiation one substance is transmuted into another; in transelementation one object is suffused with another’s reality and power.
  • The priest’s agency is the concern in transubstantiation through the words of institution; while with transelementation the agency of the Spirit is invoked by the prayer of epiclesis.
  • Transubstantiation has a fixed relation, transelementation a more dynamic one, between the living Christ and the consecrated element.
  • In transubstantiation the relation is one-sided containment, in transelementation  a mutual indwelling.
  • For transubstantiation the process of conversion is conceived along causal lines (with Aristotelian metaphysics in the background); while with transelementation, it is conceived on mystical lines with no particular metaphysical commitment.
  • Transubstantiation focuses its ontological account on essences and accidents, while in transelementation of two unabridged objects.
  • In short, transubstantiation is a theory of descent and replacement; transelementation, a theory of ascent and enhancement.

What do we think about this? Broadly speaking, I think that the points mentioned here concerning transelementation are definitely better than transubstantiation. This certainly does not answer the question though. Any thoughts?

25 thoughts on “Eucharistic Presence: A Proposal

  1. Pingback: Things to read while eating your Saturday toast … « P e r ∙ C r u c e m ∙ a d ∙ L u c e m

  2. Proposals to move the Reformed understanding of the eucharistic presence in a more catholic direction come and go, of course, but mainly, they simply go. Why are they rarely (never?) internalized by the Reformed Church? Why does a practical Zwinglianism reign, despite the attempts of theologians and pastors (Max Thurian immediately comes to mind), in the life of the typical Reformed congregation?

    I do not know the answer, though I have a few ideas, but one thing is very clear to me: the practical Zwinglianism that characterizes Reformed life will not be overcome by a new and better “theory” of the eucharistic presence; it can only be overcome by a change of eucharistic practice and devotion.

    The celebrant offers the eucharistic prayer and presents to the congregation the consecrated bread and wine. What does he do next? Does he, in some way, point to the consecrated elements and directly and clearly, without qualification, identify them as the Body and Blood of Christ. But even more importantly, does he embody his “catholic” theology of the Eucharist in bodily gesture? Does his, and hopefully the congregation’s, understanding of the eucharistic change permit him to kneel before the consecrated elements and adore and worship the God who is now bodily present? If not, then it’s all just words, just words. It doesn’t matter whether you call it trans-elementation, trans-substantiation, or trans-anything.

    If we do not respond to the consecrated bread and wine as if Jesus had now entered the room, then we remain practical Zwinglians. Or as Flannery O’Connor replied to Mary McCarthy who stated that she now thought of the Eucharist as a symbol: “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” Indeed!

  3. Perhaps you could clarify for me, what position do you feel Pentecostals hold that would lead them to conclude there is not room for real presence in the eucharist? For the sake of full disclosure, I am a Pentecostal Theologian who does not see any problem with the belief and practice of real presence “in a spiritual mode without dimensions”. Thanks for your consideration.

    • Jason, now that I look back at this post I don’t know why I put the comment in about baptists and Pentecostals here. Hunsinger does not seem to know what to do with their position(s) (any comments he made here about this would be appreciated by the way!), and I recall wanting to note that. Calvin himself argues against any real presence of Christ’s body because of Christ’s localized body in heaven, but Hunsinger does a good job of navigating. In other words, no one is totally closed off to Christ’s presence in the bread and wine in a spiritual/mystical fashion that maintains his localized presence in heaven. For baptists and Pentecostals, contrary to my odd comment, this is mostly a non-issue.

  4. Hello! I follow this discussion with great interest. Let me first thank Kyle for his careful and full presentation of the views set forth in my book. (Though perhaps I should add that I do find elements of the incarnational analogy in Calvin.)

    One point that I hope will not be missed is that the arguments in my book aim at convergence not consensus among the currently divided churches. I hope to expand the range of acceptable diversity to the point where there are no longer any doctrinal barriers to eucharistic sharing.

    It is in this context that I would respond to my old friend Fr. Alvin Kimmel, whom I am glad to encounter in this discussion, and whose views I always find to be welcome and worthwhile.

    Doctrinal matters seem less important to him, however, in his comment above, than they are for actually existing churches. Doctrines are not just words, and there will be no ecumenical convergence unless the doctrinal issues are addressed. Doctrinal matters, of course, are not everything, and eucharistic practices matter very much as well. But to drive a wedge between doctrines and practices would be to establish a false contrast.

    With that in mind I can go on to say that I find nothing intolerable, and much to commend, in what Fr. Kimmel says about eucharistic practices. I do not necessarily agree with all that he says, but I find nothing in them that would fall outside the bounds of acceptable diversity. I have a sense, however, that his idea of acceptable diversity might be narrower than my own. If so, then while I might admire his orthodoxy, I would want to encourage him to adopt a greater measure of generosity toward traditions and communions other than his own.

    By the way, I am not proposing that Roman Catholics adopt the idea of “transelementation.” I am only insisting that after Vatican II it must be seen, even for them, as falling within the bounds of acceptable diversity. For it expresses the standard Eastern Orthodox view, and the Vatican sees no obstacles from the Catholic side to eucharistic sharing with the Orthodox. (The Orthodox, of course, as I discuss at some length, take a different view.)

    At any rate, I believe that any Reformed Protestant who accepted my arguments would be able to overcome any residual enclave tendencies they might have so as to applaud the wonderful remark by Flannery O’Connor.

    • George,

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting. I hope to pick up the remainder of the volume soon (or at least sooner rather than later). My dissertation has been calling me other directions as of late! I was surprised to see my supervisor (Phil Ziegler) named in the acknowledgments, I didn’t know that you started your research on this project for your talks out here in Aberdeen. Always good to see!

  5. A further reflection. Fr. Kimmel might be interested in this passage from my book:

    There is arguably an irreducible minimum that must be met with respect to the question of “real presence.” … It pertains to the liturgical use of the statement This is my body. Ecumenically, it is not enough to interpret it either as This signifies my body or as This contains my body, even if, at some level, the ideas of signification and containment need not be entirely ruled out.

    It must be possible for all traditions to assert — without equivocation — at the level of first-order discourse as found in the liturgy, that the relation of “This bread” to “my body” is actually one of real predication. (pp. 59-60)

  6. Dear George, thank you for your kind words. I find your insistence that is must an ecumenical understanding must insist that at the level of first-order discourse in the liturgy, the relation of “this bread” to Christ’s body must be one of real predication, whatever that might mean.

    I increasingly find the role of eucharistic practice, ritual, gesture, and devotion to be crucial in unpacking what our statements about the eucharistic presence might mean; they helpfully reveal where the real differences lie.

    Catholic and Orthodox may disagree on various points of eucharistic theology, BUT both have no problem worshipping and adoring Christ sacramentally and mysteriously present in the Holy Gifts. This becomes most clear, for example, in the Orthodox Liturgy of the Presanctified.

    I would suggest, therefore, that any “ecumenical” proposal that does not expressly permit, and indeed authorize, this kind of devotion has not yet become truly ecumenical. Like you, I have read various proposals that have all sounded very good; but in the end they have accomplished so very little. The practical Zwinglianism that dominates most Protestant community life continues. How is that practical Zwinglianism to be conquered?

    The key, I think, is to move beyond the words and to live them out in specific “catholic” ways. As an Anglican, and now as a Catholic, I will always genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament. If a person finds such genuflection uncomfortable, or indeed verboten, then something is wrong with his ecumenical theology.

    Please note, therefore, that I am not suggesting that Protestant must embrace one particular Catholic theory of transubstantiation. As you know, there are many such theories in the Catholic Church. But I am suggesting that one of the tests of an authentic theory is how it is lived out in liturgical and ascetical life. Sometimes we must act ourselves into new ways of thinking. George, start praying to the consecrated elements. I guarantee you that your theological reflection upon the Eucharist will change.


    Fr K

    • Dear Alvin,

      Thank you for your kind reply, which I value very much.

      Although the first sentence in your remarks didn’t quite come out right, I think I can state this much by way of clarification. In my book I explain why the term “literal” is problematic and non-informative in describing “real presence.” My remark about “real predication” is an attempt to capture more precisely what the term “literal” properly intends to say. The bread really is, in an unequivocal sense, the body of Christ.

      I agree that doctrine must be tested against practice, but would only add that the reverse is true as well.

      I also agree that adoration in the course of the liturgy is commendable and should not be regarded as church-dividing. As you know, however, there is a diversity of views within Catholicism and Orthodoxy about the form it should take. Your particular views are not the only ones, and, I’m afraid, would actually be church-dividing if advanced as the only option.

      Many Catholics and Orthodox who might otherwise agree with you, along with ecumenical Protestants like myself, would tolerate but not share your expressed views on this point. They would hope for a similar measure of acceptance in return.

      Blessings to you and all your good work,

  7. Kyle,

    Thank you for your prompt and gracious response. Veli-Matti was one of my favorite professors while I was at Fuller. His vantage point is generally comprehensive and he proves to be a great pentecostal representative to the ecumenical community.

    One of the issues we face in trying to define our positions on things, like real presence in the Eucharist, is the enormity of the scope of our movment. We went from being an ethnically diverse group of a half dozen believers at a prayer meeting in 1906, to numbering over a half billion a century later.

    I would like to contend that my wife and I have a much more inclusive view on many doctrinal issues than some of our cohorts with ties to the origins of the movment some 90 years ago when denominations started to spring up, but with so much happening in Africa, Latin America & Asia the most honest evaluation is something VMK mentioned in the blog you posted; a lot of what we believe and practice still needs critical review and there is must left to be defined.

    Thanks for your insight and gracious consideration!
    -Jason Bryant

  8. Goodness, I cannot make heads or tails out of the first sentence of my above comment. Clearly I need a proof-reader. :)

    I hope one day, George, I will be able to read your referenced book. It sounds most stimulating.

    I am curious about this comment:

    “I also agree that adoration in the course of the liturgy is commendable and should not be regarded as church-dividing. As you know, however, there is a diversity of views within Catholicism and Orthodoxy about the form it should take. Your particular views are not the only ones, and, I’m afraid, would actually be church-dividing if advanced as the only option.”

    I do not believe that I have prescribed any specific ritual form of adoration; but I do believe that some form of adoration and reverence, directed to the Holy Gifts, is implicit in a catholic understanding of the eucharistic presence. If a congregation were to profess the identification of the bread with the Body of Christ and yet were to refrain from all and every form of adoration and reverence, then I would have to wonder whether that congregation in fact is professing the same faith that I as a Catholic profess. It would be like telling my wife that I love her, yet refusing to ever kiss her. What do my words mean when they are not attended by the appropriate bodily expression?

    I push this point because I believe that it in fact clarifies commonalities and differences in eucharistic theology.

    I wish to applaud your comment that eucharistic adoration within the liturgy is commendable. That such approval should be expressed by a theologian within the Reformed tradition is no small matter. But does it not remain the case that most Reformed Christians would view eucharistic adoration, however expressed, as … well … perhaps this story (a true story!) might illumine.

    The Episcopal Bishop of South Carolina visited the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in Charleston. Holy Communion, for a number of years, has reserved the Blessed Sacrament in a side chapel. The rector, Fr Fleming, led the bishop through the side chapel on the way to the sacristy. Fr Fleming noted that the bishop, who was well known for his Cranmerian eucharistic views, genuflected before the Blessed Sacrament. Fr Fleming immediately asked him why he genuflected. “Out of respect for your convictions,” the bishop replied. “For God’s sake, bishop” Fr Fleming exclaimed, “do not commit idolatry on my account!”

  9. Thank you for this helpful comment. On the appropriateness and necessity of adoration and reverence directed toward the Holy Gifts, we are in agreement. In my book I try to give theological reasons for this practice that could and should be accepted by the Reformed churches. (As you know, the Orthodox ways of expressing such adoration and reverence are different from those in the Latin West.)

    I also try to break through the ecumenical impasse by offering new reasons for why the reserved sacrament is not illegitimate. By the way, not all Orthodox Churches adopt this practice. Therefore I don’t think it should necessarily be mandatory in any future united church. But the practice is not church dividing. And those who do not adopt it have an obligation to consume the gifts with reverence. The only true ecumenical options are either reservation or else immediate and reverent consumption.

    Many non-Catholics, however, would question whether adoration (as opposed to simple reverence) of the host is appropriate outside the course of the liturgy. Here it is Roman Catholic practices that would appear to be church-dividing.

    Andrew Louth expresses the standard Orthodox worry, and one that would be shared by all Reformational Protestants, namely, that adoration outside the course of the eucharist is misguided.

    “Instead of the consecrated elements, through communion, being a sign that effects and deepens the incorporation of the baptized Christian in the body of Christ, so that the mystical/sacramental body points to the true body to which all Christians belong, the consecrated host becomes an end in itself, an object of adoration.”

    Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford, 2007), p. 209.

  10. Thanks for the quotation from Fr Andrew. It’s difficult to know how seriously to take this objection. As far as I can determine (and I welcome correction here), Orthodox objection to Catholic extra-liturgical devotion appears to be fairly recent. I recall reading a few years ago an essay by Metropolitan Kallistos in which he noted that even up to the 17th century, in places where Catholics and Orthodox lived in close proximity, e.g., Cyprus, Orthodox priests would sometimes take part in the Corpus Christi procession.

    Perhaps eight years ago or so I called a Catholic priest who was very involved in national and international Catholic/Orthodox dialogue and asked him if the Orthodox participants had ever raised serious objection to the practice of Benediction and other extra-liturgical devotions. He said they had not, that it had never come up in his extensive conversations with Orthodox theologians.

    I know that in the past Orthodox polemicists have sometimes accused Catholics of artolatry, because of the practice of genuflecting to the bread and cup before the Epiclesis. An Orthodox monk raised this objection with me in conversation a few years before I became Catholic, but it does not appear to be a serious contemporary Orthodox concern about Catholic liturgical practice.

    And of course, a millennium ago the Orthodox vehemently objected to the Catholic use of unleavened bread for the Eucharist; I have not run across this objection in contemporary Orthodox literature though. I wonder if this concern has been raised in Orthodox/Armenian conversations.

    Legitimate questions can, of course, be raised about certain expressions of extra-liturgical eucharistic devotion. I was too deeply formed in Anglicanism not to find myself still feeling a bit uneasy about public Corpus Christi processions, though I feel no uneasiness about Benediction, which I find profoundly moving.

    The Orthodox reserve the Blessed Sacrament, but they do not direct any prayer or devotion to the reserved elements. I have wondered why and have speculated that Eastern Christians have never felt a personal need for such prayer because the visual aspects of devotion are so powerfully fulfilled by the presence and use of icons. Unfortunately, icon devotion never took root in the West. Just a speculation on my part.

    If an Orthodox believer were to visit a Catholic parish where the Blessed Sacrament is exhibited for adoration, prayer, and intercession, would he/she really find this practice objectionable? Perhaps some would, but most, I think, would not. They might find it alien to their own experience, but I do not think they would raise principled objections to it.

    But whatever objections Orthodox theologians might raise about Catholic extra-liturgical devotional practices, surely Catholics and Orthodox are one in their conviction that *within* the liturgy, the sacramental Christ is properly adored and reverenced. I remember the first time I attended an Orthodox Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified. When the Blessed Sacrament was brought out in procession, members of the congregation prostrated themselves in adoration. I think many contemporary Catholics could learn a great deal from the Orthodox on how to properly adore the sacred Body and precious Blood.

  11. I’m afraid we may be highjacking the thread. We should probably continue the discussion offline or in some other venue.

    Andrew Louth’s concern, which I take to be typical of the Orthodox, is that the consecrated host ought not to be abstracted from the eucharistic celebration, and that it ought not to taken as an end in itself. The host is consecrated not directly for the sake of adoration but for the sake of union and communion with Christ.

    Adoration has its proper place only in the course of the liturgy, but in that setting the Holy Gifts are properly adored and reverenced.

    Curbing the cult of the elements outside the eucharist would be an important step toward visible unity.

    “The Purpose of the Eucharist lies not in the change of the bread and wine, but in the partaking of Christ, who has become our food, our life, the manifestation of the Church as the body of Christ. This is why the gifts themselves never became in the Orthodox East an object of special reverence, contemplation, and adoration, and likewise an object of special theological ‘problematics’: how, when, in what manner their change is accomplished.”

    Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1998), p. 226.

  12. I’ll tell you what, George, if we ever get to the point where Reformed pastors and congregations are prostrating themselves before the sacred Body and precious Blood *within* the eucharistic liturgy, I will write the Pope personally and ask him to consider curbing Corpus Christi processions. Deal? :)

  13. It’s a deal. But I would think a simple bow, such as we can find among the Orthodox, would be more attainable.

    I appreciate this exchange, since it helps me to see that if, God willing, we ever got so far, Protestants might need to adopt a charitable stance in tolerating the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

    By the way, the passage you remembered reading from Ware may be found in The Orthodox Church (2nd. ed.), p. 98.

  14. George, here is the article by Ware to which I was referring:

    “Orthodox and catholics in the seventeenth century: schism or intercommunion,” by K. T. Ware, in *Schism, Heresy and Religious Protest: papers read at the tenth summer meeting and the eleventh winter meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society,* (Studies in Church History, 9) ed. by Derek Baker (Cambridge, 1972: Cambridge University Press; ISBN: 0-521-08486-5), pp. 259-276.

    My thanks to Bill Tighe for the information. My copy of the article is in one of many unopened boxes in my basement.

  15. One last point of clarification, if I may. I have received a private communication asking that I explain something more clearly.

    From the standpoint of the Reformed tradition, I think our best hope, if things ever got so far, would be to follow the lead of the Orthodox. If they make curbing extra-liturgical use of the Holy Gifts a condition for eucharistic sharing, them I think we should fall in with them. If they decide, however, as they probably would, that the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and the Corpus Christi celebrations were dubious but not intolerable, then I think we should go with that.

    I don’t think this issue is important enough to let it block eucharistic sharing. I think all traditions will have practices in their history that will need to be tolerated by the others, even if the others do not adopt them. I don’t see how the Reformed (and indeed most Protestants) could see the extra-liturgical use of the Gifts as anything less than unfortunate.

    By the way, I welcome Fr. Kimel’s term “practical Zwinglianism,” which I find to be quite useful. Nevertheless, I find myself thinking that it’s not necessarily all bad. For example, for all its faults practical Zwinglianism would not be as bad, in important respects, as “liturgical Pelagianism,” a term of misgiving that I have encountered in both Catholic and Reformed writers.

    • George said:

      . . . For example, for all its faults practical Zwinglianism would not be as bad, in important respects, as “liturgical Pelagianism,” a term of misgiving that I have encountered in both Catholic and Reformed writers.

      Yes maybe if we all read TF Torrance’s paper: “The Mind of Christ in Worship: The Problem of Apollinarianism in the Liturgy,” we could avoid “liturgical Pelagianism.”

  16. I’m afraid I have never understood what the charge of “liturgical Pelagianism.” I have certainly heard a number of homilies that have verged on Pelagianism; but I have never experienced the liturgy itself, whether in its Anglican or Catholic forms, as Pelagian or even as semi-Pelagian.

  17. Mr Strobel,

    I am a Roman Catholic, and with respect, I think that your contrast of transubstantiation with transelementation does injustice to the former.

    With these words you describe transubstantiation:

    — Descent, replacement, transmuted, fixed, one-sided, containment, Aristotelian metaphysics, essences and accidents.

    Some of these words are accurate in their proper context, but they are all either technical or negative; and you contrast them with words very colorful and positive for transelementation:

    — Ascent, enhancement, reality, power, dynamic, living, indwelling, mystical, unabridged.

    While “substance,” “accident,” etc. are perfectly suitable for theologicial precision, these latter, more colorful words are also fitting for the Catholic doctrine. In fact, I would argue that they are more fitting for transubstantiation than they are for transelementation for the following reason:

    The ascent, power, mystical indwelling, etc. in transelementation, as I understand it, refers to temporary association of the elements with God; whereas in transubstantiation it refers to elements becoming God and remaining God. That is ascent. That is power. That is dynamic, living, and mystical. If there is an abridgment, I suggest to you that it is not in transubstantiation, but in a doctrine that holds anything less.

  18. Pingback: Eucharist and Theology of the Early Fathers of the Church | VatiKos

  19. I am a layman in the Anglican Catholic Church. My understanding of the difference between transubstantiation and transelementation are that the two theories arrive at the same reality; that the bread and wine become a true body and blood. Where the deep discussion ensues is whether there is an actual physical change. Speaking again as a layman, and being respectful of much more learned minds here, I must say that to me personally I am thrilled and honored to know the the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ are within me at the Eucharist. Maybe in my innocence there is the gift. I know Jesus is there, how exactly He came to be there by the hand of His Priest during the liturgical rite ought not be of my greatest concern. I am arriving at the presence of God and the reality and focus of the catholic faith. I feel that is the most important reality that any catholic or orthodox Christian can achieve is the unwavering belief that we are receiving a true and living Jesus Christ at the communion rail. The consecration does not cease to exist in either context after the rite is completed. There is no concept of living sacrifice in consubstantiation, that it ceases to exist when everyone goes home. The reception of the body from the Reserved Sacrament implies that Christ continues to live, and the tabernacle on the altar is his small temple in each church or chapel. Thank you all for your fine work.

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