In a friendly effort to get my friend SlowCowboy to eat his words regarding the importance of the doctrine of transubstantiation, I also want to present my case for a “Great Apostasy” during the very earliest history of the church.
There was quite a bit of discussion about transubstantiation because Gnostic Docetists were being theologically cast out for taking the doctrine of transubstantiation too seriously. They didn’t take the bread and the water because they did not believe that Christ could be present in the bread and water because Christ was completely separate from the world. The doctrine that the bread and the water were also the Christ makes a very deep philosophical (not spiritual) point that the Gnostics Docetists were not getting. i.e. that the substance of Christ was before us and actually present, even inside of us. This is perhaps a stronger point than “the Kingdom of God is in our midst” but it is really quite breathtaking as far as theology goes. The doctrine of transubstantiation allowed people to explain their faith accurately to pagan peoples.
Pagans believe that through some strange process of faith a physical thing can – in some real sense – directly become a reality outside the physical presence. Idolatry is replete with this sort of thinking. When a sacrifice is made to an idol, a pagan is actually sacrificing to the powerful force of the universe that is actually physically present in that idol. The precise form of the physical presence is not critical, it just needs to draw the mind to the god in question. All of those who worship Mammon understand the world this way.
How do you explain Christ to this sort of person. Well, one way is to simply say that the bread and the water are the body not of their pagan gods, but the actual presence of the fact of Christ. This is, frankly, correct, because as literally as they ingest the bread into their bodies, this is how literally Christians believe in the fact of Christ is. It is not a spiritual change, but an actual change.
This is very similar to the LDS doctrine taught by Joseph Smith that, upon being confirmed a member of the church, the blood of the person receiving confirmation would be actually transformed into that of one of the house of Isreal. The person would become a literal descendent of the people of God.
I think Christians underestimate the spiritual/psychological power of such “magical” rituals. They are powerful because, according to an orthodox understanding of Christ, they are mythically accurate. They teach the person receiving the benefit of the particular sacrament something that is absolutely true that they simply wouldn’t believe or understand in any other way.
Americans and Protestants often forget that the level of religious consciousness was always highest among the most fervent heretics at the high points of their heresy. I think we all-too-easily dismiss how difficult it is for a pagan to not see things in terms of the authorities, rituals, and sacraments, probably because we are too busy attending to the authorities, rituals, and sacraments necessary to obtain wealth and prosperity.
The Gnostic Docetists and the host of pagans that wanted to join in the benefits of Christianity without giving up their dearest philosophical beliefs needed to accept transubstantiation more than anybody else. I think it is completely orthodox for Evangelicals to accept transubstantiation of the Eucharist, because the myth actually points to something that is absolutely true and (to some) spiritually felt in the Eucharist.
Could the same be said of those who accept Joseph Smith’s teaching regarding the transubstantiation of blood at the time of confirmation? Perhaps, because to a pagan who understood his reality in terms of his tribe, he might not actually make any actual distinction between who he was and what his tribe/race/family/nation was. The fact that the belief points to, according to traditional Christians, is the absolute true, i.e. no matter what tribe you belong to, if you have confessed your sins and have been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit you are literally one of the people of God.
If you believe in the New Testament as the Mormons believe in the Book of Mormon, John 6 is a puzzle. Because it is in scripture, it cannot be discarded, it has to be rationalized away. However, many theologically-trained Protestants don’t see the New Testament this way. They seem them as the literal Word of God, in much the same way as the the Catholics see the Eucharist as the literal body of Christ.
The New Testament is, quite undeniably, the most well-preserved, well-defended and mythically-accurate statement of Christian reality. Because it’s description of Christ is accurate, it is just as literally the Word of God, just as literally as the Eucharist is the body of Christ.
Protestants could most reasonably object to the insinuation by the Mormons and Catholics that it requires some sort of special priesthood to make Christ present and literally in our midst. A Protestant would emphatically contend that the precise wording of the message is dramatically less important than the message itself and the methods of conveying the message should not get in the way of the message. To a Protestant, there was not a Great Apostasy, only a “Great Confusion” when the church mixed up the medium with the message. Protestants carry the prejudice that you should only accept the most accurate of myths. This is why Protestant orthodoxy is far more elusive and spare than Catholic orthodoxy.
Mormons are closer to Catholics in their allowance for non-rational license in formulation of myth. Mormons are closer to Protestants in their insistence that there is no special priesthood required to see myth and apply it to one’s own life. Mormons allow for all kinds of myths, both accurate and inaccurate, because Joseph Smith did not believe a man was damned for believing too much. Perhaps Joseph was right on this, but the Protestants still raise an important question to all Christians: how accurate are your myths?