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Lutheranism and Transubstantiation

by Peter J. Riga

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  • Description:
    This article provides a summary of Martin Luther's thought on the "how" of the real presence, an outline of the teaching of the sixteenth century Lutheran Symbols on the matter, a brief criticism of Lutheran reasons for denying the dogma of transubstantiation and some basic difficulties involved in this teaching from the Lutheran standpoint.
  • Larger Work:
    The American Ecclesiastical Review
  • Pages: 100-122
  • Publisher & Date:
    The Catholic University of America Press, December 1961

Ever since the sixteenth century Reformation, the doctrine of transubstantiation has remained a controversial issue between Roman Catholics and Lutherans. Although both acknowledge the dogma of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Lutherans reject the doctrine concerning the conversion of the earthly gifts (bread and wine) as a philosophical explanation, which has nothing to do with revelation. At the risk of walking a well-trodden path which has so often led to a dead end, the following pages will be devoted to a summary of the gradual development of Luther's thought on the "how" of the real presence, an outline of the teaching of the sixteenth century Lutheran Symbols on the matter, a brief criticism of Lutheran reasons for denying the dogma of transubstantiation and some basic difficulties involved in this teaching from the Lutheran standpoint. Our purpose is not to give a comprehensive summary of the problem but to point out certain features of it, which might be helpful for future conversations between Lutherans and Catholics.

Luther On The Subject Of Transubstantiation

At the end of the year 1519, Luther still maintained the doctrine of transubstantiation intact. In his Ein Sermon von dem hocwurdigen Sakrament des heiligen wahren Leichnams Christi und von den Bruderschaften, he teaches that there is a change of the substance of the bread and wine but emphasizes that it is symbolical of our union with the spiritual body of Christ. This change must be interpreted not only sacramentally but spiritually and is aimed at the change of the natural man by a common life with Christ.1 The sacramental change finds its fulfillment in the incorporation into Christ and fellowship with all Christians.2 However all further considerations of just how the presence of Christ comes about are purposely omitted by Luther.3 This indicates a certain uneasiness in the use of the doctrine of transubstantiation which, as a matter of fact, formally deals with the problem of how Christ becomes really present under the Eucharistic species.

It was not long before Luther would lose all patience with the dogma. Just a few months later he attacked it in De Captivitate Babylonica ecclesiae praeludium, the third of the so-called "Three Great Reformation Treatises." The "second captivity" is the doctrine of transubstantiation, which the Roman Church imposes as a matter of faith. Luther rejects it because it lacks the support of Scripture, of an approved revelation and of reason.4 Nevertheless he allows others to hold this teaching if they wish as long as they realize that it is not imposed by revelation.5 For himself, the literal sense of Scripture imposes the belief that the species do not change. This was the teaching of the Church until Aristotelian philosophy imposed itself on the Christian faith.6 Furthermore, he argues, there is no peril of idolatry in the fact that the substance of bread remains because it is Christ that is adored and not the bread.7

To show the reasonableness of his stand against transubstantiation, Luther appeals to an example: "Fire and iron, two different substances, are so mingled in red-hot iron that every part of it is both fire and iron. Why may not the glorious body of Christ much more be in every part of the substance of the bread?"8 He sees a further analogy in the Hypostatic Union.9 The Divinity is not present under the accidents of the human nature in Christ. One can actually say "Hic homo est deus, hic deus est homo."10 So also in the case of the sacrament, it is not necessary that transubstantiation take place in order that Christ become present. Hence after the consecration, although bread and wine continue to exist, one can say "hic panis est corpus meum, hoc vinum est sanguis meus et econtra."11 Thus the solution to the problem is sought in Christology: "Sicut ergo in Christo res se habet, ita et in sacramento."12 Nevertheless, Luther sees in these parallels only an analogy. The "how" of the presence remains an open question and he will not condemn those who wish to hold transubstantiation as long as they do not claim that it is an article of faith. His whole preoccupation is with the fact of the real presence which comes about "virtute verborum," since the divine work cannot be completely understood.13

In the continuing evolution of his thought, Luther always seems regretful of the introduction of speculation regarding the way in which the real presence comes about. Nevertheless he was finally forced to reflect on it at length because of the controversy which arose in his own camp and his dealings with the Swiss Reformers.14 Carlstadt's denial of the possibility of Christ's descent from heaven and consequent denial of the real presence in the true and proper sense of the term occasioned Luther's Wider die himmlischen Propheten von Bildern und Sakrament (1525). In this work, Luther observes that Carlstadt does not understand "the Kingdom of God, which is everywhere, and, as Paul says, fills all things."15 This is the beginning of the concept of the omnipresence of Christ, even according to his humanity, which Luther will develop to its full extent against the "Enthusiasts."

Doctrine Of Ubiquity

When Luther saw in Zwingli a further threat to the true doctrine of the real presence, he replied in a number of sermons issued under the title Sermon von dem Sakrament des Leibes und Blutes Christi, wider die Schwarmgeister (1526). Here he stresses the doctrine of Ubiquity which, as Brilioth says, "was to become the cornerstone of Luther's Eucharistic teaching,"16 and which appears fully developed in Dass diese Worte Christi "Das ist mem Leib" noch fest stehen, wider die Schwarmgeister (1527). In these works Luther rejects the idea of God dwelling in a place. God the Creator is everywhere. But Christ is God, so He is everywhere. Moreover, wherever Christ is as God, He is there also as man. Hence his body must be present everywhere and so in the Eucharist. The uniqueness of Christ's bodily presence in the Eucharist stems from the purpose for which he is present there. So the communicatio idiomatum applies to the unity of the two natures in such a way that what is said of one nature applies to the other.17 The omnipresence of Christ becomes the basic argument against the "Enthusiasts," and likewise the crowning argument against transubstantiation.18 Christ is in the elements long before they were put on the altar, for the Son has imparted the attribute of omnipresence to his human nature.

In reply to the arguments of Oecolampadius and Zwingli, Luther wrote Von Abendmahl Christi, Bekenntnis in 1528. Again the Ubiquity theory is stressed as well as the parallel between the Hypostatic Union and the Eucharistic presence. He develops especially the analogy between the Trinitarian unity, the Hypostatic Union and the "unio sacramentalis."19 The Three Persons form a unity in the Godhead: This is a unity of nature or a "natural unanimity."20 In Christ there is unity of one Person and two natures; a "personal unanimity."21 In the Lord's Supper, bread and wine form a union with Christ, a "sacramental unanimity."22 To express this new concept of spiritual corporeity, this dynamic penetration of Christ and the Eucharistic species, Luther uses the terms "flesh bread" and "blood wine."23 The concept of sacramental unity, therefore, expresses the unity of bread and the body of Christ. In the Eucharist, the faithful receive with the bread the body. There is a twofold food: spiritual and corporeal.

It is not necessary to go into Luther's later writings. The main lines of his thought on the doctrine of transubstantiation and his own explanation of the way in which the real presence comes about will not change. We are brought, then, to the second phase of our study: the Lutheran Symbols of the sixteenth century.

The Lutheran Symbols And Transubstantiation

Turning to the earliest of the Lutheran Symbols, we find that the Augsburg Confession (art. X), written in 1530, plainly asserts the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, its distribution to all communicants and condemns those who teach otherwise. But it avoids the question of transubstantiation.24 The Confutatio of the Catholic group, drawn up by John Maier von Eck and other theologians, notes that "the tenth article is not verbally hurtful, because they acknowledge that in the Eucharist after consecration lawfully made the body and blood of Christ are substantially and really present. . ." But regarding transubstantiation it is stated: "One very necessary addition to the article of the Confession is that they should believe the Church rather than any who wrongly teach differently, so as to acknowledge that by the almighty word of God in the consecration of the Eucharist the substance of bread is changed into the body of Christ."25

In the wake of the Confutatio came the Apology of the Confession (1530). In dealing with art. X, Melanchthon substitutes the stronger terms "vere et substantialiter adsint" in place of "vere adsint" to express the real presence of the body and blood of Christ; nevertheless he does not bring up the question of transubstantiation.26

The Articles of Schmalkalden (1537) does reject transubstantiation as a "subtilitatem sophisticam" and says that the presence of real bread and wine is consonant with Scripture.27 Likewise the Epitome of the Formula of Concord (1577) rejects transubstantiation as "Papisticam" but no elaboration of the statement is made.28 However the doctrine of Ubiquity, the basis of the Lutheran explanation of Christ's presence, is finally asserted. In the Epitome of the Formula, Absolute Ubiquitarianism is maintained 29 and in the Solida Declaratio of the Formula, Hypothetical Ubiquitarianism is taught.30 Regarding transubstantiation, the Solida Declaratio rejects it only in passing and emphasizes as a reason the analogy between the Hypostatic Union and the sacramental union.31 In the last mention of transubstantiation found in the Solida Declaratio no further reason is given for its rejection.32

The foregoing summary of the teaching of Luther and the Lutheran Symbols regarding transubstantiation reveals certain basic reasons for the denial of this dogma of the Roman Catholic Church. We may summarize them as follows:

1. Transubstantiation is not in accord with the Scriptures.

2. This dogma is a philosophical explanation based on Aristotelian metaphysics.

3. It is unnecessary in view of the analogy with the Hypostatic Union and the omnipresence of the humanity of Christ.

None of these reasons presents a really serious objection to the dogma of transubstantiation. It seems clear, for example, that Lutherans should be able to accept the fact that the dogma, at least, does not contradict the Scriptures. The appeal of the Articles of Schmalkalden to I Cor 10,16; 11,28 proves nothing against transubstantiation,33 and should have been omitted. Moreover, far from being a philosophical explanation based on the Aristotelian couple: substance--accident, the dogma is concerned with the antithetical couple: the true being or reality as opposed to figure, sign or pure dynamism. To deny this latter distinction and validity reflects a mentality too much preoccupied with modern positivistic concepts of reality. Finally, to say that transubstantiation is unnecessary in view of the analogy with the Hypostatic Union and the omnipresence of the humanity of Christ hardly deserves comment. The union of the two natures in Christ proves nothing regarding the sacramental union and the doctrine of Ubiquity only confuses the problem.34

Basic Difficulties From The Lutheran Standpoint

There seems to be no good reason for the Lutheran denial of transubstantiation, which can be drawn from the objections just mentioned. The real source of opposition to this dogma may possibly be found, as Karl Rahner points out, in the refusal to accept the possibility of a "miracle of change."35 In our day we recognize a tendency altogether foreign to the patristic and primitive Christian mentality which seeks to relegate God's activity to the divine sphere, to divorce his action from the things of this world. God is in heaven and we are on earth. In consequence of this concept, it is inconceivable that God should act upon creation in a way out of step with His ordinary Providence. The bread and wine remain bread and wine.

To the Catholic, however, this so-called "miracle of change" is a part of the total mystery of Divine Condescension, which reaches fulfillment in the Incarnation. For him the Eucharistic presence does no injury to the mystery of the Ascension of Christ. Rather, by the dogma of transubstantiation the truth of the Ascension of Christ's humanity is brought home to him more forcefully. Although Christ is at the right hand of the Father, and although his humanity enjoys no omnipresence, nevertheless the Catholic accepts in faith the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This presence, his faith tells him, can only be brought about by a change in the ontological order. A change must take place in the profound reality of the bread and wine; a change brought about by the omnipotent hand of God in the service of spiritual fellowship between the Bride and the Bridegroom, between Christ and the Church. It is not the purpose of the dogma of transubstantiation to explain the mystery of the presence of Christ, but to give a logical explanation of the words of institution which safeguard the dogmas of the Resurrection of Christ's humanity, His Ascension and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. What appears to be bread is truly Christ by reason of a profound change which touches the very being of the earthly reality and which is unobservable to the senses. This doctrine will influence no one who does not believe in the dogmas of the Resurrection, Ascension and real presence. But if considered not only in the light of the Semitic way of thinking: the bread is what Christ makes of it, but also in the light of the entire patristic tradition, the dogma of transubstantiation should afford another point of contact between Lutherans and Roman Catholics.

One great barrier, however, stands between Lutherans and Roman Catholics in connection with this dogma and merits a few remarks. Rahner, in the article already mentioned, points out that the Council of Trent bases its teaching about transubstantiation on the words of institution.36 Taken in their proper and literal sense, these words of Christ indicate that what Christ gives is not bread but His body, though bread remains as far as the senses can observe. To reconcile the two facts: (1) Christ gives Himself; (2) what we see is bread; the Council, following the ancient tradition, teaches that Christ gives Himself under the appearances of bread in virtue of a profound change in the true being of the bread.37 The objection is brought up that Christ gives Himself and bread. What we see is bread. Therefore bread is given. To this objection, Rahner answers that if by bread is meant the reality, which comes under sense experience, then the dogma of transubstantiation has not been contradicted. However if by bread is meant the true reality of the bread, then the dogma, which teaches that an ontological change takes place in the bread has been denied. Moreover the person who upholds that interpretation has said more than the data of the senses reveals to him, and which is in conflict with the words of institution. If the object offered were truly bread, it would not be the body of Christ. Only by way of metonymy could the bread be called the body of Christ, that is, in so far as the receptacle is called by the name of its contents. But tradition knows nothing of this manner of speaking. Furthermore, as Rahner points out, there is a grave danger in this concept. If one accepts tine belief that bread remains bread, then a merely symbolical understanding of the words of institution is the next logical step. If it is affirmed that bread remains bread after the words of consecration, then one should say that bread really has nothing to do with the presence of Christ. Consequently it cannot be called the body of Christ.38

The explanation of the Council of Trent remains the only possible one. It is a logical explanation of the words of institution, which does not go beyond the given data. It is read out of the proposition whose meaning and extent parallel the logical explanation exactly. Thus the dogma of transubstantiation is distinguished from ontic explanations proposed by the various schools of theology to give further understanding to the dogma.39 It is a well known fact that the Council avoided implicating itself in any philosophical system and professed to have received the dogma from the words of institution. Thus the meaning of the words "conversion," "substance," and "species" is to be derived from the words of institution and not from a particular philosophical system. Since this is so, there remains the possibility that adversaries of the Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophical system may nevertheless come to accept the logical interpretation of the words of institution proposed by Trent.

The logical explanation of Scripture is, indeed, the basis of Biblical theology and not at all foreign to Lutheran theologians. The realization that Trent was only presenting such an explanation of the words of institution and not binding itself to a particular philosophical system might well dispose many Lutherans to accept the dogma of transubstantiation. But even if Lutherans were to accept this dogma as a logical explanation of Christ's words, there yet exists a profound difference between Lutherans and Catholics on the point at issue. As Rahner points out, for the Catholic a logical explanation can become a proposition which binds the faith of the individual by reason of the Church's teaching, while for the Lutheran it remains basically theological and therefore revisable.40

In short, the problem reduces itself to a question of the Church's ability to demand the consent of faith concerning a logical explanation of Scripture. This, of course, remains an abiding barrier between Lutherans and Catholics.

Edward J. Kilmartin, S.J.


1 D. Martin Luthers Werke (Weimar ed.) II, 748-749. (Hereafter referred to as W.) Cf. Y. Brilioth, Eucharistic Faith and Practice Evangelical and Catholic (London, 1930), p. 97; P. Meinhold, "Abendmahl und Opfer nach Luther," Abendmahl und Opfer (Stuttgart, 1960), pp. 41-42.

2 W. II, 748. Cf. ibid., 743.

3 Ibid., 749-750.

4 W. VI, 508. Cf. D. Stone, A History of the Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist (London, 1909) II, 10-13; Brilioth, op. cit., pp. 100-101; Meinhold, op. cit., pp. 42-49; V. Vajta, Luther on Worship (Philadelphia, 1958), pp. 93-98.

5 W. VI, 508, 512. Two years later, in his Contra Henricum Regem Angliae, Luther observes that the concept of created things giving way to the presence of Christ is an insult to the good gifts of God (W. 10, II, 207).

6 W. VI, 509.

7 Ibid., 509-510.

8 Ibid., 510.

9 Ibid., 510-512. Cf. Stone, op. cit., II, 12-13; Brilioth, op. cit., pp. 101: Meinhold, op. cit., pp. 43-44.

10 W. VI, 511.

11 Ibid., 511-512.

12 Ibid., 511. This exposition of the doctrine of the real presence has been called by the name "consubstantiation." This term does not occur in Luther's writings and would probably have been rejected by him on the grounds that it suggests a philosophical approach. It would certainly have been rejected by Luther after he had developed his doctrine of ubiquity if it were interpreted to refer to a temporary union of two substances.

13 Ibid., 510.

14 Brilioth, op. cit., pp. 103-110; Stone, op cit., pp. 21-23; Meinhold, op. cit., pp. 50-63.

15 W. XVIII, 206.

16 Brilioth, op. cit., 104-105. Cf. W. XIX, 491-493.

17 Brilioth, ibid., 105-106.

18 W. XXIII, 145; Vajta, op. cit., 95.

19 Meinhold, op. cit., 56-63.

20 W. XXVI, 441.

21 Ibid., 321.

22 Ibid., 442.

23 Ibid., 445.

24 Die Bekenntnisschriften der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirche (3d ed.; Gottingen, 1956), 64. (Hereafter referred to as Die Bekenntmsschriften.)

25 Quoted from Stone, op. cit., 68-69. Cf. Die Bekenntnisschriften, 247, n.1.

26 Die Bekenntnisschriften, 247-248. Thus he purposely avoids the challenge of the Confutatio.

27 Die Bekenntnisschriften, 452, 5: "De transsubstantiatione subtilitatem sophisticam nihil curamus, qua fingunt panem et vinum relinquere et amittere naturalem suam substantiam et tantum formam et colorem panis et non verum panem remanere. Optime enim cum sacra scriptura congruit, quod panis adsit et maneat, sicut Paulus ipse nominat: 'Panis, quem frangimus.' Et: 'ita edat de pane.' "

28 Ibid., 801, 22.

29 Ibid., 798-799, 12; 807-808, 16-18.

30 Ibid., 1048, 92.

31 Ibid., 977, 14; 983, 35-38.

32 Ibid., 1010,108.

33 Ibid., 452, 5. Cf. above, note 27.

34 Brilioth notes that "The doctrine of Ubiquity has no good name in modern theology" (op. cit., 108).

35 K. Rahner, "Die Gegenwart Christi im Sakrament des Herrenmahles nach dem Katholischen Bekenntnis im Gegenuber zum Evangelisch-Lutherischen Bekenntnis," Catholica 12 (1959), 124.

36 Denz. 877.

37 Rahner, loc. cit., p. 115.

38 Ibid., 117.

39 Ibid., 118-122.

40 Ibid., 119-120.

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