In Which We Wonder: Why the Real Presence?

Trans-substantiation seems to be one of those Roman oddities (well, odd now, anyway) that is perfectly calculated to get the panties of literal-minded Protestants all twisty-like. So naturally, as such, I like it (though it doesn’t make a lick of sense to me, no pun intended). I’ve never liked the “mere memorial” approach to the Supper either, and always accepted the “mystery” of the “real presence” of Christ in the bread and wine without His being there in substance as a given.

But, reading through the Gospels, I don’t see any reason for anything other than a metaphorical understanding of Christ’s words: “This is my body, broken for you…This is my blood of the new covenant, shed for many for the remission of sins”. In this instance, the statement is clearly metaphorical: Why should it be anything else? The significance of the bread and wine (which is enormous, certainly) is fulfillment of the Passover meal and an establishment of this new covenant; it is metaphoric and symbolic. Is there any Scriptural necessity for this being non-metaphorical, as against the obvious and normal use of language? Why the necessity for some sort of real presence at all? Am I missing something obvious?

Are not metaphors, signs, and memorials powerful and efficacious in themselves? Does claiming that Joshua’s stone did or didn’t have ears in any way weaken or strengthen the power of that symbol to convict and condemn a backsliding Israel? Is it even a relevant point of discussion?


13 comments on “In Which We Wonder: Why the Real Presence?

  1. Nathan says:

    “Nothing in the mind can ever have the solidity and mystery of what is seen and touched…Here was a truth so tangible, so enduring, so compelling that it trumped every religious idea. Understanding was achieved not by stepping back and viewing things from a distance but by entering into the revealed object itself.”

    Such is the claim of Robert Wilkens concerning how the early Church understood knowledge and the present grace of being immersed in the liturgy of the Church. Would one be correct to say you are in agreement?

  2. As far as it goes, sure. But does that necessitate that a metaphor is impotent? If so, then I guess not so much. What has been the traditional argument for real presence in the supper? Is it just that Jesus says “this is…” rather than “this is like…”? ‘Cause if so, that’s weak, if not down-right silly. Gotta be more to it than that, but I can’t think of any reason if one doesn’t buy the concept of the re-sacrificing of Christ in the Mass.

  3. Guido says:


    First of all, don’t libel the Church’s doctrine. We don’t believe in a ‘re-sacrifice’. Christ’s sacrifice was once for all. We believe in a re-presentation of the one sacrifice. Christ stands forever in Heaven ‘as a lamb slain’ to use the words of St. John. He is forever presenting His one Sacrifice to the Father. In the Liturgy, that continual presentation touches down to Earth.

    That aside, the thesis of the post seems a bit silly. Why the real presence? Why the crucifixion? Seems a bit over the top, n’est pas? A bit gauche if you ask me. But it’s not about what we think makes sense to us, it’s about what is. The gospel is foolishness to the wise of the world.

    To deal a bit more directly with the question, it is a recreation of the incarnation. In the Eucharist, we become like our Blessed Mother. We are overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and we receive Christ into our being, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. If Our Lady had received only the Spirit of Christ, there would be no incarnation, no resurrection, and no salvation for the world.

    Thus, if we do not receive Totus Christus the same is true. We will have no incarnation, no resurrection, and no salvation.

    Besides which, to say we can ‘feed on Christ’ in a spiritual way without receiving Him physically is to say that the Spirit and Body of Christ are somehow separable, which is the basis for pretty much every heresy the Martyrs of the Early Church died to fight against. All of those heresies in some way cut against the notion that Christ was inseparably and entirely God and Man.

    Finally, the witness of the Early Church from as far back as the late first century is perfectly clear in teaching that the Eucharist is the corporeal Body and Blood of our Lord, so fiercely that one Early Father, who’s name escapes me at present, said that anyone who does not believe this doctrine is not worthy of the name Christian. There is absolutely unanimous consent amongst the Fathers on this topic.

    I guess it seems like a sort of myopic view to ask why something that was believed by all Christians everywhere for 1500 years and is still believed by the vast majority of Christians worldwide needs to be true. Why’s the sky blue for crying out loud?



  4. I typed up a long comment, and it was eaten. I’ll try to get something tomorrow or so.


  5. Also, if you want, I could explain Transsubstantiation (in a way that I believe would make sense), but the more basic doctrine, held by Lutherans and Orthodox (as well as Catholics) is that the Bread and Wine are the Body and Blood of Christ.

  6. Petersen,

    I look forward as always to your enlightening response.


    I’m running out of town for the weekend, and I just read your comment last night. I’ll give you something substantial to kick around when I return. For now, two things:

    1. The idea of “re-sacrificing” is a standard critique of the Roman understanding of the Eucharist. It may be inaccurate, but a criticism is not “libel”.

    That having been said, I actually agree with you on this point. In using that phrase as short hand, I went straight to the black-family-yelling-in-the-movie-theater-cliche like a bear to honey, and for that laziness and the unnecessary offense it caused, I apologize.

    2. Related, the tone of responses is starting to concern me a little bit. I am as Roman friendly as a Protestant can be without actually being named Matt Petersen, and I’m as Yonke-friendly as a guy can get without actually getting to physically fellowship with you. Lets keep the hyperbolic rhetoric reigned in (save it for Remy: he likes it rough). I want to legitimately discuss these issues and come to as much of a consensus as can be managed.

    Mostly, I want to ensure that we can, after any given exchange, belt out a lusty chorus of “Guy Love”; to the glory of God, of course.



  7. Ben,

    I think the fundamental issue Christ the Mediator. No man has seen God, no one knows the Father save the Son. But for Christ the Mediator, the sacrifice to the Father part of the Cross is unemphasized (though still important) and the Incarnation itself, and Christ pouring Himself out to us is emphasized. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.” It is of vital importance that that Light which was the Life of men has been manifested, and we sense Him. And it is important that He is a man because our fellowship with God is a fellowship with the Man Jesus Christ.

    But if the Sacrament is not Christ, first, we are not rightly Christians but Spiritians, or Yahvists. Christ was present for them, but He is not a mediator here and now for you and I. We have access to God through another, the Spirit, and not Christ. We may be, by the Spirit, lifted up to communion with the Father and Christ, but Christ is not Himself a mediator. But the Scriptural doctrine is we need contact with Christ Himself to approach God. It is through the veil of His Flesh that we enter into the Holy of Holies.

    Similarly, Christ for us, Christ the Mediator, not only brings us into the Presence of the Father, but cleanses us from our sins. Not from the consequences of our sins–God’s wrath–but from our sins themselves. It is by being in the Light, as the Father is in the Light, that we are saved. It is when we are in the Light–that is in the Presence of Jesus–that the Blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from sin. Our sin is removed (not the consequences of sin, but the sin itself) when we are in the presence of Jesus. And again, if it is not when we are in the presence of Jesus, but merely of the Spirit that sin is removed (not that the presence of the Spirit does not remove sin), we are not rightly Christians, but Spiritians. We are physical and Jesus is physical. His blood is physical and His flesh is physical. We are in the presence of Him, of His flesh and His blood, when He is physically present. To have our sins removed (and not merely their consequence) we must be physically sprinkled with the physical blood of Jesus. We must be sanctified by eating the Flesh of the True Pascal Lamb. As the Levites were made holy by eating the Old Covenant sacrifices, so we are made Holy by eating Christ.

    Again, our unity with the Father and the Spirit is not only by through and in Christ, but our unity with one another is through Christ alone. But the Apostle Paul tells us that our unity is through the Bread alone. “For we being many are one body and one bread because we partake of that one bread.” Pastor Wilson rightly pointed out Sunday that there are only two tables in I Corinthians, the table of demons, and the table of Christ. So we eat of the same table wherever we receive the Sacrament. But he failed to note that the Apostle does not merely link the tables by the host, but also by the Food. “For we being many are one body and one bread because we partake of the one bread.” It is the unity of the bread that unites all Christians. It is because you and I partake of the same one bread that we are both united.

    And if we look at the gospel narative there is a bit more than we typically suppose. In instituting the Lord’s Supper, Christ is instituting the new Passover. Christ seated at the table is the new lamb, the bread and the wine the new Matza and cup of blessing. But all the old types find their realization in Christ. The new Adam is Christ. The new Abel is Christ. The new Seth is Christ. etc. But the new Matza and cup are similarly Christ. But they are the Bread and Wine of the Sacrament. Therefore the Bread and Wine are Christ.

    Likewise the Manna is a symbol of the Sacrament. But the Old Testemant signs are not signs of signs, but of Christ, our king and our God. Therefore the Sacrament is Christ.

    I could say more that is more philosophical or psychological, but I think this is probably enough (or more than enough) for now.

    In Christ,


  8. Or to make my last point clearer:

    “The significance of the bread and wine (which is enormous, certainly) is fulfillment of the Passover meal and an establishment of this new covenant”

    But the Old Covenant signs are not signs of signs, signs of emptiness, of signs of the True Form, of Christ. The Passover meal is fulfilled in the Lord’s Supper, but that means all parts of the Supper are Christ–everything in the Old Covenant finds it’s fullfilment in Christ–and so the Bread and the Wine, the fulfillment of the Passover, are Christ.

  9. Or to make my last point clearer:

    “The significance of the bread and wine (which is enormous, certainly) is fulfillment of the Passover meal and an establishment of this new covenant”

    But the Old Covenant signs are not signs of signs, signs of emptiness, of signs of the True Form, of Christ. The Passover meal is fulfilled in the Lord’s Supper, but that means all parts of the Supper are Christ–everything in the Old Covenant finds it’s fullfilment in Christ–and so the Bread and the Wine, the fulfillment of the Passover, are Christ.


  10. Sorry about that, it didn’t look like it was posting.

  11. Petersen,

    Thanks. Give me a bit to digest that, and I’ll get back to you.


  12. Guido says:


    Sorry about that. I can take people disagreeing with me all day long. There are legitimate reasons why Catholics and protestants are divided right now, but it’s those misunderstandings between Catholics and protestants that have caused so much unncesssary division for so long that really get under my skin.

    So I guess I might have pounced a little hard on the re-sacrifice thing. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.


    Excellent comment. We agree 100% on that analysis. Now if we could only come to agreement on who has authority to confect the Sacrament! That’s proven to be a mite tougher.

    But perhaps this might help. We have a physical Sacrament that physically contains Our Blessed Lord, we are made holy by physically taking Him in and re-enacting the Incarnation. So why the ethereal priesthood? Why is it that, despite the clear testimony of the early Church and Sacred Scripture that authority in the Church comes from the physical laying on of hands of the Apostles and their physical successors, the protestant communities feel that anyone with a perceived ‘spiritual’ authority that comes from right doctrine or some equally un-embodied source gets to have authority?

    I know we’ve discussed this before, but I hope we can some day agree!



  13. Matt,

    A Lutheran pastor I asked recently said that the LCMS has irregular Apostolic succession through Presbyters (priests) not Bishops. Since the distinction between Presbyter and Bishop was one that developed (though quite quickly, and rightly) it is not necessary but good. This is a little different from a developed doctrine like the Trinity (most of the early Fathers were subordinationists, and I believe Tertullian did not believe that God is three persons, but that God becomes three persons in creation) because an Apostolic practice cannot be objected to, and the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity was always the practice of the Church, as seen in her prayers, and liturgy of Scripture.

    You and Dave have argued that Protestants rejected laying on of hands. I would be very surprised if the early Lutherans rejected it, though not so much so if the early Presbyterians did (though perhaps still somewhat). I don’t have any historic knowledge to dispute though. We all agree that many Anabaptists rejected it entirely. And Pastor Wilson (for instance) was ordained without any laying on of hands.

    I think my position toward such rather irregular ordinations is that God treats them in a similar way he treats a civil marriage between non-Christians. When a couple that was married outside the Church comes into the Church, you do not require that they be remarried. (You haven’t been married twice, and you wouldn’t say Ambrose was conceived through fornication.) You would rightly say that this is because marriage is a human thing, that is transformed and transfigured by Christ; but I would say that in a similar way, Christ sees our weakness and gives those who seek Him the office they desire and seek, though it would be far better with a normal ordination. Anyway, I don’t believe in ethereal doctrinal priesthood. I really do believe in a physical priesthood. But I believe that 1) though it is preferable that Apostolic Succession be through bishops, it is not strictly necessary. And 2) when the priesthood is sought, in humility to the Christian community, though it is not perfect (just as a civil marriage between non-Catholics is not perfect), Christ still accepts it and blesses it. I think the Protestant churches are in roughly the same position to Catholicism as the Orthodox and Old Catholics, and to Orthodoxy as the Catholics, andROCOR was a few months ago.

    Well, there’s my position. I suppose it is too Catholic to be believed by any Protestant, and to Protestant to be believed by any Catholic. And only this silly person believes it. But it really is developed trying to assert 1) what the Church has taught and teaches is right and proper and 2) what my pastor says is right and proper.

    But it is still frustrating. On several issues, I am for conscious reasons in agreement with the Catholic and Orthodox (namely, the Real Presence, and prayers to the saints) and though it isn’t officially a Protestant position, my position on Penal Substitution would exclude me from any Protestant organization. (For those who hold this as a good and necessary doctrine, see my post Penal Substitution, My Take; in short, I really believe sin is bad, and the Cross all, but I refuse to believe in any new relations between Divine Persons, and wrath over sin is, by definition, a relation between Divine Persons which is subsequent to creation.) But I would have serious trouble accepting the Catholic claims that there aren’t real Sacraments (the Eucharist) outside the Catholic Church. And I would have trouble accepting Papal Infallibility and the Immaculate Conception based on the authority of a council when nearly half the Christians in the world reject them. And I would likewise have difficulty with the Orthodox position that the Protestant Sacraments are of questionable authenticity. And I would have serious trouble believing the majority of people saved are outside the Arc.

    And I would also have trouble becoming Catholic or Orthodox if my pastor tells me not to.

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