What even Protestants can learn from transubstantiation and medieval atonement theory – you may be surprised!


In my previous post, I showed how the essence of heresy is to resolve a biblical paradox in one direction or the other in order to satisfy the human need for a consistent rational explanation of things; and how the early church, on the contrary, used reason not to resolve or dismiss paradox and mystery, but rather to protect it. Examples included the writings of Irenaeus, Gregory Nazianzen, and Gregory of Nyssa against heresy (protecting the essentially paradoxical nature of the whole Gospel message), and the “four fences” of the Chalcedonian Definition (protecting the paradox that Jesus was both fully God and fully human).

Now we move to the medieval period for two more examples of this use of reason to protect, rather than resolve or dismiss, the paradox and mystery at the heart of Christian theology – that is, the Incarnation.

The first example is the doctrine of transubstantiation, promulgated at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. This explanation of how the Eucharist “works” extends the Chalcedonian explanation that one person (Christ) can indeed be both 100% God and 100% human, to a nuanced piece of (Aristotelian) scientific reasoning on how the same sort of “this and also that” reality can be true of the Eucharistic elements. In other words, transubstantiation tried to explain, in terms accessible to scientific reason, how Jesus’ words “This is my body, this is my blood” can possibly be true.

The second example comes from the teachings of Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Abelard, both of whom we’ve already met, and looks at their reasoned explanations of the bloody scandal that was the Crucifixion. Why on earth would God have to redeem his human creatures in such a bizarre and painful way? If you’re a thoughtful Christian or a thoughtful non-Christian considering the claims of the Christian faith, then you’ve likely wondered this yourself. Again, Anselm and Abelard used forms of reasoned explanation that made good sense in their cultural contexts to explain this paradox: God died.

In other words, the divine Being who “has His own being in Himself” ceased, as all creatures do, to be! Anselm and Abelard, both brilliant dialecticians, both refused to use reason (in the mode of the early heretics) to flatten this paradox in one direction (Jesus was not really human and thus God did not really die–the docetist heresy) or the other (Jesus was not really God, and thus God did not really die–the Arian heresy). Instead, each used cultural materials to protect that central mystery while offering reasonable explanations for why the God the Second Person of the Trinity found it necessary to die on the cross–the ultimate Being submitting, however temporarily, to death, just like a sinful human.

Here’s how I work all of this out in the “theology chapter” of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis:

To bring us into the scholastic period, I will offer two examples of this careful balancing of reason and faith: scholastic theories related to the Eucharist and to the atonement.

The bishops at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215, already well within the peak period of scholasticism) made another attempt to explain how something can be 100% one thing and 100% another thing at the same time. This was the doctrine of transubstantiation, ratified at this council. At issue here was not Christ and his two natures, but the food elements of the Eucharist and their two natures. Essentially, the church had believed since its earliest centuries that the bread and wine are at the same time 100% bread and wine and 100% body and blood of Christ. This ancient doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ was based on the assumption that, at the Last Supper, Christ really meant it when he said “this is my body; this is my blood.” One might guess that if you’ve believed one miracle (the perfect co-existence of the divine and human natures within Christ), it sets you up to believe another (the perfect co-existence of both of those natures within the bread and wine).

Transubstantiation is an attempt to explain this in more rational, scientific terms, without destroying the paradox. It says that the “accidents” of color, taste, feel, smell of the bread and wine are preserved while the “essence” of the elements become the real body and blood of Christ. Now many disagree with this formulation. This technical explanation of transubstantiation seems to them an unwarranted application of Aristotelian science to the mystery of the doctrine of the Real Presence. But we need to understand what’s going on.

Notice that when this piece of Aristotelian explanation about accidents and essence is applied to the Eucharist, it is applied not to erase the mystery that the bread and wine is also the body and blood of Christ (a statement that, again, came from the lips of Christ), but to protect it, while also trying to give some satisfaction to our God-given reason. And that indicates the role that reason plays in theology in the medieval period – it does not seek to explain away the paradoxes of the faith, but rather indeed to protect those paradoxes and mysteries as much as possible.

One more comment, because I know I have rattled some cages in using this example. As in so many other areas of medieval faith, this reason/paradox/mystery blend is not just a “Catholic” thing. This is our Protestant legacy too! In particular, on this matter of the Eucharist: the desire both to preserve the mystery of the Real Presence of Christ in the elements and to have some sort of reasonable explanation for how that can happen is also preserved in the doctrines of the three main Magisterial Protestant traditions:

The Anglican Church, in true Elizabethan political fashion, left Real Presence on the table (pun intended) side-by-side with a more Zwinglian memorial view. The mainline Reformed churches followed Calvin (rather than Zwingli) in affirming a real, though spiritual, presence in the elements. And the Lutheran churches affirmed a real, physical, though still mysterious, presence in the elements. It was only the unsophisticated populist Anabaptists – a small fringe group without technically trained theologians – who (following the radical Zwingli who entirely dismissed the value of “physical stuff” in Christian devotion) insisted on explaining away the 1500-year-old understanding of the Real Presence. The Anabaptists removed altogether any mysterious affirmations about the nature of the bread and wine, instead speaking of the sacrament in more logically comfortable terms as a meeting with Christ in community, leaving aside all that hocus-pocus about bread becoming a body and wine becoming blood.

In fact, right down to today, all the major explanations for the Eucharist created by theologians trained in Scripture and tradition—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—have retained the essentially inexplicable fact of the Real Presence, in which, once again, something is both one thing (foodstuffs) and another (Christ), just as Chalcedon had retained the paradox of Christ being both human and divine. We should not therefore blame but applaud the medieval “schoolmen” who followed early precedent (e.g. Chalcedon’s “four fences”) in talking about the Eucharist as in so many other areas—insisting that reason can serve mystery, but it cannot resolve it away.

My second scholastic example of this delicate use of reason vis-à-vis faith is the attempts of two scholastic contemporaries to explain Christ’s work on the cross. Anselm of Canterbury created his elegant argument in Cur Deus Homo. In the mode of reverent “faith seeking understanding,” he asks a question that a lot of bright people, Christian and non-Christian alike, continue to ask today: “Why did God have to go through all this rigmarole– the Incarnation, the crucifixion and the resurrection—to accomplish humanity’s salvation? Couldn’t God have achieved our redemption in a less messy, bloody, and downright implausible way?” On the face of things, it seems more than a bit bizarre that God himself, after what we assume was a typically bloody, painful birth, in a dirty, cold stable; then a difficult, sporadically persecuted life; should finally be tried as a criminal and nailed to a cross to die, doesn’t it?

Certainly many non-Christians throughout history have laughed at this claim. It is the scandal, the skandalon – it is as Paul said, “foolishness to the Greeks.” So how does this medieval scholastic take the tools of Greek rationality, Greek dialectic, and apply them to this “foolishness”? Well, what Anselm does is not to make the story rationally consistent by cutting off some part of the revelation . . . by doing what the early heretics did in getting rid of the tension between God’s perfect divinity and his abject death. He doesn’t solve the conundrum by saying, “Well, God doesn’t really die – he never even had a really human body, just the play-acting appearance of one,” which is an explanation that some had tried to give early on (the Docetist heresy). Nor does Anselm veer to the other possible explanation, “Well, somebody did die, but it was someone who was less than God: the very special human, Jesus” (the Arian heresy).

Instead, he reasons from the structures of social understanding around him – he seeks in those cultural materials for an explanation that would satisfy his hearers without destroying the mystery. The explanation he hit upon is that God’s honor, like that of a feudal king, has been besmirched by the (original) sin of his human subjects, and that this terrible transgression must be addressed through some act of “satisfaction” that restores the honor of the king. Anselm’s carefully worked-out formulation did not resolve the mystery in one direction (Docetism) or another (Arianism), but rather, retained it and explained it through this reasonable cultural metaphor of “satisfaction,” working out the mystery in elegantly logical language so that people of his age could understand it.

Now in that very same time (the dawning of the 12th century), you have Peter Abelard, who also values reason very highly and also desires to protect the mystery, who also looks at the scriptural accounts and looks at the cultural (God-world) material around him – and provides another explanation for the mystery of the atonement. Abelard’s era was witnessing the rise of individualism and a new focus on the subjective. The brilliant theologian was interested in people’s “inner terrain”: he was the first thinker since Augustine (way back in the 5th century) to recover and exploit the genre of internal spiritual biography that the great North African had pioneered centuries before (although because of Abelard’s abrasive personality and difficult life experiences, he does it in quite a whiny key).[1]

And so when he comes to explain the Atonement, Abelard says, well, it’s not a feudal social model that’s helpful to me here to retain the mystery—rather it’s a personal, relational model. Again, as with Anselm’s “Satisfaction model,” God did die (the mystery is preserved). But Abelard thinks he did so not to gain redress for his wounded honor, but rather to demonstrate his great love—and to create in us an answering love so that we would rush to him as the prodigal son rushed to his father, receiving his redemptive embrace.

Neither of these men’s explanations of the atonement does violence to the central mystery, which is that the undying, fully divine God died. The biblical paradox is not disposed of. Just as the Chalcedonian Definition used reason to retain the paradox of the two natures of Christ, and the doctrine of transubstantiation used reason to retain the paradox of bread and wine that is also Christ, Anselm and Abelard used reason to retain the paradox of the God-human who dies.[2]


[1] The title of Abelard’s Confessions-esque autobiography gives you a sense of the flavor: Historia Calamitatum – that is, “Story of His Misfortunes” or “A History of my Calamities.”

[2] And by the way, Pelikan says that in the medieval period, it is the work of Christ, and the reenactment and commemoration of that work in the sacraments, that becomes the focus of theologians’ greatest labors. So these two examples of atonement theory and sacramental theology hit the medieval bulls-eye theologically.

One response to “What even Protestants can learn from transubstantiation and medieval atonement theory – you may be surprised!

  1. Relative to Transubstantiation, here is the crucial crucial question,” Do you worship the consecrated host as Roman Catholics do?” If you answer is no, then you do not mean what Roman Catholics do when they talk about transubstantiation.

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