Heidelberg 78: Against Transubstantiation

Open Quote 4 lines78. Do then the bread and the wine become the real body and blood of Christ?

No, but as the water in Baptism is not changed into the blood of Christ, nor becomes the washing away of sins itself, being only the divine token and assurance thereof; so also in the Lord’s Supper the sacred bread does not become the body of Christ itself, though agreeably to the nature and usage of sacraments it is called the body of Christ.

The Roman communion teaches that, “by consecration,” the elements of the supper, the bread and the wine are transformed from bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ. The Catechism of the [Roman] Catholic Church (1984) says:

1376 The Council of Trent summarizes the Catholic faith by declaring: “Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.”

The first and most fundamental source cited for this doctrine is the Council of Trent (1551). That council was convened and met intermittently for two decades in order to respond to the Protestant Reformation. It defined the Roman communion. Until that council concluded, there was still some hope that Rome might repent, that she might embrace the gospel, that the Roman bishop might recognize that he was but one presbyter among many but at Trent Rome not only embraced the errors of the high and late medieval theologians and councils but she codified them and placed the Protestants under an anathema at every key point of disagreement. Despite the fervent wishes of the ecumenical movement Vatican II (1962–65) did not revoke those anathemas and it reaffirmed the Tridentine teaching in Mysterium Fidei (The Mystery of the Faith; 1965).  The 1984 Catechism reaffirmed Tridentine teaching on justification, scripture, and the sacraments. The Roman communion is a Tridentine communion and not the ancient Christian church.

The key term here is substance. In the older Christian appropriation (and modification) of Aristotle the term substance refers to that which makes a thing what it is, that without with it is not (sine qua non). It’s easier to understand substance if we contrast it with accidents. You are probably reading this post on a computer or a mobile device. Your device may be silver, black, or white or some other color. Its color is accidental to its essence. Accident here does not refer to an unintentional collision but to a feature of something that is not essential to it. So, in an electronic device, the color does not make it what it is. Its circuits, chips, and screens make it what it is. They are essential to it. They are of the substance of the device. According to the Romanist doctrine of the supper, the substance of the bread is transformed into the substance of the body of Christ, even though the accidents remain unchanged.

Radbertus, a 9th century monk, was the first to postulate this idea and one of his contemporaries, Ratramnus, criticized it immediately by noting, as the Protestants did in the 16th century that his view (later adopted by the Roman communion) that conflated the sacrament with the thing signified (res significata). In so doing, Radbertus had unintentionally destroyed the sacrament. Further. Ratramnus objected, Radbertus’ view demanded that we accept a relation between substance and accidents that is untenable. Implicitly and ironically Rome’s is a gnostic view. According to Scripture, our senses are generally reliable. When Scripture says “taste and see” (Ps 34:8) or “look at the birds” (Matt 6:26) it assumes that there is there is the closest relationship between the  accident (e.g., wings and feathers) and the substance of a bird. To use “taste” metaphorically assumes that we know what it is to taste. Rome, however, asks us to believe that by the power of consecration that relationship is broken and that though the elements appear to be bread and wine they are not. That is precisely the same error the Gnostics and other dualists (e.g., Docetists) asked us to accept. They said that Jesus appeared to be a man but they knew a priori that he could not be true man and true God. His humanity, they argued, was only apparent, hence the label docetic (from the Greek verb δοκέω, to appear or seem).

To say that Jesus only appeared to be a true man is heresy against the holy catholic faith. Scripture does not testify that Jesus only appeared to be true man but that he was true man, the Son of Man (e.g., Matt 8:20) who came to seek and save the lost. He is also true God, one person with two natures. So too, in the Holy Supper, we must reject the gross error of transubstantiation. The Supper is not Christ. It is the gospel made visible. It is a sure, reliable, true sign and seal of the promise of the gospel. Our Lord Jesus did not say, in the institution of the Supper, “This becomes my body.” Rather, he said, “This is my body.” That is was a sacramental is. There is a sacramental union between the sign and the thing signified.

The catechism appeals to another of Ratramnus’ criticisms of Radbertus’ novel view. Why does Rome claim that the substance of the bread has been transformed but it does not say the same for baptism? We know that the water of baptism is and remains water. Nevertheless, it is a sacrament. If it is not necessary for baptismal water to be transformed, why is it necessary for the bread and wine to be transformed? Of course, it is not necessary and it does not happen.

Our Lord testified to this sacramental reality when he said, “I will not drink from this fruit of the vine until that day….” (Matt 26:29). He spoke these words after he had given thanks, after he had instituted the Supper. If our Lord Jesus could call the sacrament of his body and blood “the fruit of the vine” why should we think that he had transubstantiated it? Of course, no one would naturally, reasonably infer from his institution that he intended for us to think that the substance of the elements had been transformed. In 1 Corinthians 11:26–28 the Apostle Paul refers to the sacramental elements as “this bread” and “the cup” repeatedly. He identified them sacramentally with “the body and blood of the Lord.” Nowhere did the he say explicitly or even imply that, by consecration, the elements become other than they were before consecration.  In 1 Corinthians 10:1–4 the Apostle teaches that the Israelites ate “the same spiritual food” and drank the same “spiritual drink” as we do. They ate and drank Christ by faith, by the operation of the mysterious Holy Spirit. God’s Old Covenant people ate manna and water from the rock. Neither the manna nor the rock was not transubstantiated. In short, the entire Roman case is nothing but special pleading.

If you have emerged from the Roman communion I understand that you may be used to thinking of the Supper in a certain way, i.e., in light of the ostensible transubstantiation of the elements. You may have found comfort in this doctrine but, in that case, your comfort was misplaced. Your confidence, your hope is not in the alleged miracle of transubstantiation. Your hope is in Christ, who by a greater mystery, really feeds us on his true body and blood by the power of the Holy Spirit. The debate with Rome (or with confessional Lutherans for that matter) was never whether we are fed by Christ’s true body and blood in the Supper but how. To say that, in order for there to be a true communion, the elements must become the body and blood is nothing but rationalism. It is to say more than Scripture says and it is to claim more than can be inferred from Scripture. Christ is our hope and communion in his body and blood is promised to us and promises to us that the gospel is true and true for us. Let us put our trust in him, in his promises, and receive him as he has offered and promised.

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  1. Amen.

    Growing up confessional Lutheran and finally getting serious about God’s word in my late 20’s, I had no problem or hesitance leaving Consubstantiation behind for the Reformed side.

    Although Rome has a point; wasn’t Christ a literal door, made of wood?

  2. Hi Scott

    Thank you for this article against transubstantiation. I did a Masters Degree (over here in South Africa) on question 80 of the Heidelberg Catechism a couple of years ago. I wonder sometimes whether we forget that both we and Lutherans reject transubstantiation. Off course, we do not agree with Luther’s understanding of what he called “sacramental union”, but concerning the Lord’s Supper we agree that the entire Aristotelian undergirding of it as still proposed in Papism today, is to be rejected. If allowed on your site, may I refer your readers to an article on John Calvin and the “accursed idolatry” of the papal mass, I submitted last year to an open online journal? Here’s the link:


    Greetings in Christ

    Rev. JFK Mulder

    Reformed Church Durban, South Africa.

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