Why do Catholics believe that Christ is really present in the bread and wine of communion?

Q. I want to know the reasons why Catholics believe in the true presence in regards to communion, and why Protestants believe that communion is symbolic. I’m thinking it might be because Catholics take statements like “I am the bread” more literally, but I’m wondering what the theological reasons are as well.

The meaning of communion (or the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist) is so important for groups of believers to discuss and understand that several of the study guides in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series provide opportunities for groups to engage this issue together.  In the John guide, for example, at the place where Jesus feeds five thousand people by the Sea of Galilee and then talks about “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood,” group members are invited to share how their community of Jesus’ followers (if they belong to one) observes the Lord’s Supper: What is believed about the elements? How are they served? Who may participate? And so forth. People are also invited to talk about the most meaningful experiences they’ve had sharing in the Lord’s Supper.  (The question comes at this point in the study guide because John doesn’t actually depict Jesus instituting communion at the Last Supper.) A similar opportunity is given in the guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, in the session that discusses Paul’s teaching about the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians.  In the Psalms guide, to give another example, communion is discussed in the context of psalms of thanksgiving, which were sung at community meals celebrating God’s deliverance.  These meals were the historical forerunners of the Lord’s Supper in the life of the covenant people.

But to answer your question specifically, the theological term for the Catholic belief about communion is transubstantiation.  This refers to the classical belief that objects have an inward part, an “essence” or “substance” (meaning that which “stands under”: sub-stantia), in which their deepest being consists.  They also have surface characteristics, or “accidents.”  Thus, in this frame of reference, a person’s “substance” or “essence” would be their humanity, while things like blue eyes, blond hair, height, etc. would be incidental or “accidental” characteristics.

The Catholic belief is that the communion elements (the bread and the wine) “become” the body and blood of Christ as their substance is transformed into those things (thus trans-substan-tiation).  The bread and wine retain their accidental characteristics, however, and thus still look and taste like bread and wine.  This belief is based not only a a literal interpretation of statements such as “this is my body, this is my blood” but on this whole philosophical framework that makes it possible to believe that the bread and wine really are the body and the blood, even if they don’t look like it.  Christ is understood to be really present in his body and blood, which now constitute the essence of the elements, thus the reference to the “Real Presence” of Christ at the communion table.

During and after the Reformation, some Protestants continued to believe in transubstantiation, or something similar to it.  Anglicans (Episcopalians) believe in transubstantiation and Lutherans believe in consubstantiation, in which the body and blood become mingled with the essence of the bread and wine.  But other Protestants, particularly those coming in the historic stream leading from the Geneva reformers (such as Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists), moved to a symbolic view, in which the bread and wine represent the body and blood.

In a famous debate with Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli championed the “memorial” or symbolic view by appealing to the Scripture that says, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”  Zwingli was especially concerned with combating what had become a superstition in which the “body and blood of Christ” were some kind of super food that protected people from spiritual harm.  From this point of view, even though Christ is not “really present” in the elements, they point to him, and sharing at the table is still obedience to his command to “remember me.”  The believers who gathered to share the supper together are understood to be the “body of Christ” themselves.

The disagreement between Luther and Zwingli presaged the later move within modernity and the Enlightenment to the “phenomenal” (seen) and away from the “noumenal” (unseen).  If all you could see and taste were bread and wine, then maybe that’s all there was on the table.  In other words, the modern reliance on the senses alone might have been starting to come through in Zwingli’s position.  This modern world view makes it more difficult for many people to appreciate and understand the Catholic understanding, which is based on a more classic view of matter and being.  But ultimately what we believe about the bread and wine of communion is a matter of faith, and followers of Jesus should respect and honor one another’s beliefs.

Cultural practices and Christian identity—some further thoughts

In the study guide on Galatians, you ask whether our personal experiences of the Holy Spirit have been “sufficient to convince [us] that no particular cultural practices have to be added to what [we’ve] believed about Jesus” (Paul’s Journey Letters, p. 93). Are you using the term “cultural” in a particular, narrow sense? It seems as if everything that we do as humans is in some sense “cultural”—even if it’s simply avoiding “acts of the flesh” such as selfish ambition and drunkenness, or practicing “fruit of the Spirit” such as forbearance and self-control, which Paul mentions at the end of his letter.

I answered this question in my last post, but it has suggested some further questions to me that I think would make for interesting reflection and conversation:

– If we’re members of a community of Jesus’ followers in a particular place and time, chances are it has some “insignia” of its own.  But we often take these for granted and don’t recognize them for what they are. Can you identify the insignia of your own community?  Is it legitimate for a community to expect its members to follow some specific cultural practices (in the narrower sense of the word culture), not to be accepted by God, but to further the community’s mission in its place and time?  What happens to someone in your community who doesn’t adopt these practices?

– Can a person who’s coming from the background of another religion continue to maintain some of their previous insignia as cultural practices (in the broader sense), without this constituting any disloyalty to Jesus or the community of his followers?  For example, if Jewish followers of Jesus can legitimately continue to practice circumcision, observe the sabbath, and keep kosher (as the New Testament says they can), can a person from a Muslim background who becomes a follower of Jesus continue to fast during the day in the month of Ramadan and eat only halal food?

–  Are some insignia, such as baptism and communion, expected of all followers of Jesus, based on Jesus’ own commands?  (“Do this in remembrance of me” and “Go and make disciples, baptizing them”)

Corrado Giaquinto, The Holy Spirit, 1750

–  Will followers of Jesus in different cultures live out in different practical ways the mandate to forsake the acts of the flesh and cultivate the fruit of the Spirit, even if their internal values and attitudes are basically the same?

– The study guide question is originally about the Holy Spirit:  Has our experience of the Spirit been such that we recognize that insignia are not needed to make us more acceptable to God?  What kind of experience have you had of the Holy Spirit’s presence and transforming power?

As a rule this blog presents my answers to questions I’ve been asked, but in this case I wanted to ask a few questions of my own!

If followers of Jesus don’t need to add any “cultural practices” to faith, doesn’t this mean they don’t have to add anything at all?

In the study guide on Galatians, you ask whether our personal experiences of the Holy Spirit have been “sufficient to convince [us] that no particular cultural practices have to be added to what [we’ve] believed about Jesus” (Paul’s Journey Letters, p. 93). Are you using the term “cultural” in a particular, narrow sense? It seems as if everything that we do as humans is in some sense “cultural”—even if it’s simply avoiding “acts of the flesh” such as selfish ambition and drunkenness, or practicing “fruit of the Spirit” such as forbearance and self-control, which Paul mentions at the end of his letter.

You make an excellent point—everything we do is, in some sense, cultural, so if no cultural practices needed to be added to trust in Jesus, then nothing practical at all is expected from those who trust in him, only believing.  But as you point out, Paul does expect believers to exhibit a dramatic change in life (not to be accepted by God, but because they have been accepted).

So yes, I am the term “cultural” in a narrower sense.  Your question has helped me clarify what this is.  What I actually mean by “particular cultural practices” is practices that have been given a religious significance within a particular cultural setting, which people are expected to adopt in order to be recognized and accepted as members in good standing of a religious community.  (These are sometimes called “insignia.”)

The main issue in Galatians is whether Gentiles should be required to adopt the practice of circumcision in order to be recognized and accepted as members of the community of Jesus’ followers.  As I note in the guide (p. 30), circumcision “has been practiced in a variety of cultures for different ceremonial and medical reasons.”  For the Jews it was the necessary sign of community membership.  But Paul’s argument in Galatians is that God’s people are now a multinational, multiethnic community whose members are not required to adopt the insignia of any its constituent ethnic or national groups, not even those of the foundational Jewish community (also including sabbath observance, annual festivals, and kosher diet, which he mentions in other letters such as Romans and Colossians).

Club soda

This would apply equally to the insignia of any modern-day Christian community, such as (for example) not dancing or abstaining from alcoholic beverages.  But members of the community of Jesus’ followers everywhere are expected to forsake the “acts of the flesh” and live out the “fruit of the Spirit” as their lives are transformed by the influence of the Holy Spirit and of the community of believers to which they now belong.

See some follow-up thoughts on this topic here.

Does God punish the same sins twice? (Part 2)

If Jesus took the punishment for all the sins of the world on the cross, why does God also punish people in hell?  Isn’t God punishing the same sins twice?  It reminds me of the master in Jesus’ parable who forgave his servant a large debt, but then made him pay it anyway.

Detail from The Unforgiving Servant, stained glass, Scots’ Church, Melbourne

I discussed the parable in my last post. To address the other part of your question, I wouldn’t say that people in hell are being punished a second time for sins that Jesus already took the punishment for on the cross. Jesus’ work on the cross is sufficient to atone for all of the sins of the world.  But in order to receive the benefits of that atonement, people need to respond in faith and trust to what Jesus did.

It’s as if someone announced a huge relief fund for the victims of a natural disaster, a fund that would be sufficient to cover all of their losses.  People would still need to apply to the fund to get benefits.  If they didn’t apply, perhaps because they didn’t want to be beholding to anyone, or because they wrongly suspected the motives of the benefactors, they shouldn’t think that they were still suffering their losses because the fund wasn’t sufficient to cover them, or because the losses had to be paid for twice–once by the fund and then again by themselves.  The explanation is that they didn’t apply.

In the same way, if people experience separation from God in hell, this is not because Jesus’ death wasn’t sufficient to pay for their sins, and not because God is making them pay for these sins a second time, but rather because they haven’t chosen to trust in Jesus’ work for their salvation.

I would add that the essential character of hell is separation from God.  In effect, those who choose not to enter into relationship with God through Jesus’ work on the cross are choosing to live out of relationship with God.  A holy God cannot have sin in His presence, and that’s why there’s a place where people who do not embrace God’s provision for the forgiveness of their sins live apart from God.  Hell is also described as a place of suffering, but I don’t think its essential purpose is punishment.  Rather, it’s separation.  People who choose not to be restored to relationship with God are given what they have chosen–an existence apart from God.

I hope these thoughts are helpful in addressing your excellent and thoughtful question.

Does God punish the same sins twice? (Part 1)

If Jesus took the punishment for all the sins of the world on the cross, why does God also punish people in hell?  Isn’t God punishing the same sins twice?  It reminds me of the master in Jesus’ parable who forgave his servant a large debt, but then made him pay it anyway.

These are excellent questions.  Let me start with the parable, which is found in the gospel of Matthew.  We need to understand it in light of its original context.

The ancient servant-master relationship was one in which servants would be entrusted with resources to accomplish the master’s work.  The king or master in this parable is said to be “settling accounts” with his servants, that is, having them account for what they’ve done with the resources he’s entrusted to them.  The first servant can’t account for a huge amount of money and the master is ready to sell him and his family into slavery to collect what he can.  But when the servant begs for mercy, the master says he doesn’t have to repay the money.

However, when this servant refuses to show the same kind of mercy to one of his fellow servants who owes him only a small amount, the master realizes that he wasn’t worthy of this generosity.  And so, still within the ongoing master-servant relationship, the master says that the servant will have to pay the debt, and sends him to debtors’ prison, exactly where the servant sent the one who owed him a small amount.

In other words, this was not a commercial loan that was cancelled through a legal transaction, which the master then tried to renege on.  Rather, these were the arrangements that the master was prepared to make within his ongoing relationship with this servant.  When the servant insisted that he was operating in good faith and would repay everything, the master was willing to make a fresh start in their relationship.  But when the master discovered that the servant really wasn’t operating in good faith, as evidenced by his ingratitude (if he’d really been grateful, he would have shown the same mercy to his fellow servant), the master realized that he would have to conduct the relationship along different lines, and insist on repayment of the misappropriated resources.

Whatever the specific arrangements (and it might not be possible to reconstruct them exactly from our historical and cultural distance), they must have been understandable to the original hearers, and I don’t think the master’s change of attitude towards his servant is meant to be the shocking or puzzling aspect of the parable.  (Most of Jesus’ parables, by design, have some such aspect.)  Rather, I think it’s the servant’s hypocritical and ungrateful response, even after being shown such mercy, that’s meant to shock us.  That’s what Jesus specifically calls attention to at the end of the parable:  Each person who has been forgiven by God needs to forgive their brother or sister from their heart.

I’ll address your question about hell in my next post.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, stained glass, Scots’ Church, Melbourne

Should Christians read books and watch movies that have magic in them?

Q. Is it all right for Christians to read books and watch movies that have magic in them?

There are certainly many warnings against magical practices in the Bible.  One of the strongest is in Deuteronomy, which forbids any use of divination, sorcery, spells, etc. (This is discussed in Session 8 of the Deuteronomy-Hebrews study guide.)

But I’d say the answer to your question actually depends on how the concept of magic is being used in a book or film.  If it’s essentially a literary device, as in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and readers aren’t encouraged to think that they should practice magic for their own personal power and wealth, then it can be understood as a legitimate element of literature or film or drama.

Even if magic is presented as something real, but its connection with the devil and the occult is explained, and people are warned away from it, then that’s a good and helpful message for people to get.  It would be like in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, when Banquo warns Macbeth, “The instruments of darkness tell us truths to win us to our harm.”

But if a book or film or play suggests that there’s a difference between “black magic” (bad) and “white magic” (good), even though both rely on spells and charms but not God, then that’s very dangerous.  This encourages people to get into magic and the occult and not look to God for protection and provision.  And if a book or film or play encourages people to use magic for their own power and wealth, to take revenge against people they’re holding a grudge against, etc., then that’s even more dangerous.

So in your own reading and viewing, if you know that a book or a film is going to send a dangerous message like this, you should probably stay away from it.  But if you don’t know, and you watch it or read it innocently, then you need to be discerning about the message.  Talk to yourself and with others about it.  Recognize how it differs from biblical teaching.  Talk back to it.  Actively engage your culture, but from an informed biblical perspective.

Did ancient cultures worship the true God under a different name?

Q. I’m homeschooling my daughters and we’ve been learning about ancient Greek civilization.  When they heard about its highly developed religion, my daughters asked me whether the Greeks were worshipping the true God under a different name.  What do you think I should tell them?

The Bible says that something about the true God can be known through creation and conscience.  Paul wrote to the Romans, for example, that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” (See the Paul’s Journey Letters study guide, Session 24.)  And Luke records in Acts that Paul explained to the people of Lystra, “God has not left himself without testimony:  he has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons.”  Paul also told the Athenians that God created the nations and made them finite in duration and territory so that “they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him.”  (Luke-Acts study guide, Sessions 21 and 22.)  So there is a natural seeking after God, and people are able to find out some things about Him that way.

I would not conclude from this, however, that ancient cultures were actually worshiping the true God under a different name.  In addition to the testimony to God in creation, there is the witness of the covenant community through time about its encounter with the God who has entered human history to redeem people and restore them to relationship with himself.  I believe that people need to connect with that work by hearing and believing this witness.  Thus the witness needs to be offered all over the world.

So I would encourage your daughters to understand that these ancient cultures were in a position to learn something about God, and that some of what they believed about God was therefore true and correct, but that we need God’s self-revelation in order to know Him in the way that we should.  In other words, I don’t believe that the Greeks who worshiped Zeus were actually worshiping the covenant God of redemptive history without knowing it.  But they may have taken some steps toward this that enabled many of them to understand and believe the good news about Jesus when they heard it.