How accurate are your myths? –The Curious Case of Transubstantiation

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?


50 thoughts on “How accurate are your myths? –The Curious Case of Transubstantiation

  1. This matter is cleared up by Jesus, in his own words:

    Luke 22:19 – “Then he took bread, and blessed and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, This is my body, given for you; do this for a commemoration of me. 20 And so with the cup, when supper was ended, This cup, he said, is the new testament, in my blood which is to be shed for you.”

    In the Catholic Mass the priest stands in for Jesus.

    The priest is not Jesus, thus the doctrine of transubstantiation.

  2. Sorry, not gonna eat my words yet 🙂

    I am not asking for a reasoned argument involving Joseph Smith.

    I still am not sure that you completely understand much of what I say. I still have not seen a response to the point that what matters is the identity of Christ, not what happens at Communion.

    Even in this, you seem to attempt to address it by suggesting that we (Protestants) focus on which myth is most accurate. That still does not get at my point.

    I could care less what folks believe happens at Communion/Eucharist/whatever-you-want-to-call-it. Its not something that is important to me. I get the argument for transubstantiation, and I get the argument against it.

    You’ll notice a theme in my positions on almost all aspects of Christianity: the identity of Christ matters. Others are important, but not vital. Get Christ wrong, and everything is wrong. However, you get Christ correct, and there is room for disagreement.

    This is not a complicated idea unless you are looking for something to set aside. I know you have a hard time with the dual nature of Christ, with Christ as God incarnate. Is this why you don’t seem to understand my point that Christ’s identity is key? Help me understand where you are coming from.

  3. I don’t expect you to eat crow (not raw at least). . . and actually I didn’t prove that people have been excommunicated because of not believing in transubstantiation. The point I am making is about the regulation of how we talk about the unseen reality of God and Christ. I can agree with you that it is a different thing to wrongfully disbelieve in transubstantiation (like the Gnostic Docetists) rather than to correctly reject it like the Protestants. 😉

    Even in this, you seem to attempt to address it by suggesting that we (Protestants) focus on which myth is most accurate. That still does not get at my point.

    I think this is precisely your point. In my understanding of mythology, myth is whatever symbol that is part of this world used to signify or represent Christ.

    You are saying that we need to agree on the way we talk about Christ, i.e. his identity. From my perspective identity is a tricky relationship and it is easy to mix up because of deep logic of the structure of our language.

    Christians say that Jesus is Christ in the most literal sense. This is such a cliche that people realize that it is saying a lot more than most people think.

  4. The doctrine of transubstantiation does not teach a literal change, only the substance of the host changes not the accidents.

  5. Jared,

    The substance of a thing determines its nature.

    So transubstantiation changes the nature of the bread and wine to the substance of God.

    And though the bread and wine still appear as bread and wine (the accidentals), they possess the nature of God (the substance).

  6. It simply cannot be a literal change, the substance determines the accidents.

    I also don’t think Rome teaches that the host takes on the nature of God.

  7. Thanks silenceofmind, I think you and Gundek are making a great point. To make sense, transubstantiation depends on a particular way of understanding the world and what is outside the world.

    Mormons have a hard time understanding the doctrine because they, are monist and materialist. They believe in a sort of monism where God only interacts with humanity only through agents that are in the world. The Father himself is one of these agents.

    In Mormonism each human personality is part of the eternal substance, i.e. in traditional terms, each human being is a literal part of the Infinite.

    I think for many Mormons to get what is being represented in the Eucharist, they might need to introduce more dualism into their metaphysics.

  8. Gun,

    In the case of God, since he is omnipotent, he can choose any accidentals he wishes without changing his own nature.

    Jesus, for example, had the accidentals of a human being and the substance of both God and man.

    So if one can accept Jesus as Lord, than accepting transubstantiation shouldn’t be that great a leap.

  9. That substance and accidents stuff is from Medieval Scholasticism, circa the Thomas Aquinas era, from which we get the Five Ways, which, like transubstantiation, can’t bear up under the light of quantum electrodynamics and quantum chromodynamics, both of which are far more accurate myths.

  10. I agree with Linuxgal on the accuracy of scientific myths.

    The question is, does the myth have to be accurate in those areas? I.e. it seems absurd that God would make some massive exception to the laws of the universe simply because we bless bread and water in His name. But maybe this absurdity is also part of the myth of transubstantiation.

  11. The substance/nature stuff goes back to early Greek philosophy but was used by the scholastics to bridge a gap concerning Christian doctrine. It allowed a literal interpretation without the literal consumption of Jesus.

  12. Jared, no, thats not the point. A true understanding of Christ unleashes so great an appreciation of what you keep calling myth. It unleashes your inner most being in ways you dont know.

    Jesus is that great. But there was only one Jesus and we are not free to interpret him as we wish.

  13. Cowboy,

    The Catholics have always taken what Jesus said at the Last Supper to mean exactly what it says, “this (the bread) is my body…this (the wine) is my blood.”

    Saints Augustine was a Platonist and Saint Thomas Aquinas favored Aristotle. Their philosophical explanations of Christian doctrine put the basic articles of Christian faith into intellectually consistent and comprehensible language.

  14. A true understanding of Christ unleashes so great an appreciation of what you keep calling myth. It unleashes your inner most being in ways you dont know.

    I believe you absolutely. My position is simply that we only have myth to convey that understanding.

  15. Jared,

    The literature created by the Church Fathers, intellectuals like Saints Augustine and Aquinas, plus all the literature written by a great many popes, especially during the 20th century, make it impossible to understand Christian doctrine as rooted in myth.

    The Catholic Catechism, commissioned by Saint John Paul II, Pope and written by Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) is extremely well constructed and goes down like honey.

    Upon reading these works, myth simply can’t be a consideration.

  16. I don’t think the Gospel is rooted in myth, I just think all of our explanations are in “mythical” in an existential sense. I.e. these explanations are part of the world. You can explain Christian doctrine with transubstantiation, even though this could reasonably be seen as a myth, even if it is also the truth.

  17. @slowcowboy

    The dual nature of Christ is difficult for me to make sense of, these posts are part of my coming to terms with what that dual nature means. Remember, Mormons are monists, believing all things are material and part of the world. It is a bit hard for me to think in a dualistic way.

  18. silenceofmind,

    I am not trying to get into a debate about Aristotle’s Metaphysics, but he taught there are 9 categories of accidents Quantity, Quality, Place, Time, Position, State, Action, Affection, and Relation.

    The idea that when Christ says, “this is my body…” His literal intent is to take away these “accidentals” and replace it with bread beggars the imagination.

  19. I am also reading Thomas Merton’s The Inner Experience. Its all very interesting. I think you would enjoy it jared, from what i can gether.

  20. Just saw your last post, jared. I know. I am being straightforward withmy arguments because i know you are coming from Mormonism, which has a very different view of Gods nature. Hopefully you are beginning to see the depths ov the differences. They are not mere semantics or different ways of skinning the same cat, so to speak.

  21. Slowcowboy,

    I am very much with you that Mormons need to hear the Gospel explained in a different way. My investigation is into what is a more effective way. I had heard the basics of Protestantism all my life, and I had spent quite a few years studying them and thinking about things before I “saw the light”.

  22. The doctrine is not necessary and mitigates ‘faith’ (trust) that it is the true body and blood …by insisting that an ontological change occurs.

    The Lutheran view bolsters faith at the expense of ‘sight’ (the biblical way to go about it).

    He is truly there…in it…how…we cannot say.

    I like this view so much better.

  23. slow cowboy said, “The substance/nature stuff. . . . allowed a literal interpretation without the literal consumption of Jesus.”

    Good point. That’s why I think it’s so dangerous, even demonic. I’m not saying the Catholic Church isn’t Christian. I believe it is. But I have a Catholic son-in-law who shows little if any evidence of having a relationship with Christ but if you challenge his view of substantiation, he starts to get angry, though he is normally a calm-mannered person.

  24. Steve Martin said, “The doctrine is not necessary and mitigates ‘faith’ (trust) that it is the true body and blood …by insisting that an ontological change occurs.”


  25. slowcowboy,

    I think you’re doing well to zero in on the identity of Christ. Here’s my question for you: What’s the minimum someone needs to accept about the identity of Christ in order to become a Christian? What verses back up your answer? We all know that no one knows Jesus’ character to the greatest extent possible. I’m thinking of Romans 11:33-35.
    (I may not have time to respond but I’ll definitely read your answer. Thanks.)

  26. Those verses in Romans are powerful ones. I lean on them heavily as I go through life as a believer. They do seem to convey that in despite of all God has revealed about Himself that humans are capable to get their minds around on, we still only grasp at the wonderfulness of His nature and are not even close to comprehend it all. If we ever get to that place, my strong belief is that it won’t be in this mortal state we find ourselves in.

    Verse 34 and specially 35, should give pause to a person who believes God was a created being. And finite, in that sense. Verse 35 denies God was ever given anything, whether life, exaltation, etc. by any other god who presumably, was His creator and to whom He owns worship and adoration or any debt to.
    That is one vital piece of truth about God that a person needs to know ignored to understand who/what they are accepting.
    I think they go hand in hand with Isaiah 43:10.

  27. That is one vital piece of truth about God that a person needs to know ignored to understand who/what they are accepting.
    It should read, “in order to” instead of “ignored’. Unhelpful help from computer automatic correction..

  28. Cal, certainly. I have time to give a brief answer, with some scripture. Books can be written on the subject, though, I and I hope you don’t take my list as complete.
    First, you asked what the limits of identifying Jesus are. In short, Jesus is the second part of the Trinity, as defined by orthodoxy, and that Jesus is the single God Incarnate. A third is that Jesus died on the Cross and rose to give final victory over sin. Deviation from either of the first two beliefs is enough to put a person outside of Christianity. The third also, but I realize Mormons generally agree with the death and resurrection but even there they don’t emphasize the death. The work of atonement was done in Gethsaname, not on the Cross. Mormons definitely fail the first two, though, as they fail to understand the Trinity, and they do not believe Jesus is the single God incarnate (they believe in more than one god).

    Biblically, then, starting with the idea that there is only one God:

    I think the Bible clearly states that there is but one God. I don’t see that as in dispute, and has never really been in dispute.
    Deut 4:35 and 39
    Deut 6:4
    2 Sam 7:22
    1 Chron. 17:20
    Neh. 9:6
    Psalm 18:31
    Psalm 86:10
    Isa. 43:10
    Isa. 44:6-8
    Joel 2:27
    And one for good measure, one in the NT: 1 Cor 8:4-6.

    What about the Trinity? In addition to some of the above:
    John 1:1
    1 Cor 8:6
    Gen 1:1
    Gen 1:26
    Is. 48:16
    Is. 61:1
    Luke 4:14-19
    Ps. 2:7
    Heb 1:8-9
    John 6:27

    God Incarnate in Jesus?
    Many of the above, in addition to:
    Col 1:16-17
    John 1:3
    Col 2:9
    Heb 1:8
    1 John 5:20.

    As I mentioned, there are far, far more. I don’t see much room to say that this interpretation is incorrect, the interpretation that Jesus is God, as much God as the Father and the Spirit, and that there is only one God out there. That poses a problem that only the Trinity allows for. Of course, we can always claim that the Bible is not true, or at least parts are not true, but then we run into trouble believing anything in the Bible. If we are to assume the Bible is correct, then the only way to reconcile One God is through the Trinity.

  29. “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….”


  30. Cal,

    When you got married did you ask your wife what was the minimum needed for a relationship?

  31. Seriously Cal, why do you persists in exploring the shallowest faith possible? There’s so much more for you buddy. I hope you find a way to it.

  32. slowcowboy,

    You’ve provided lots of biblical evidence that there is only one God, that the doctrine of the Trinity is correct, and that God was incarnate in Jesus. You did very well.

    Now I need you to find verses that say you have to believe there is only one God in order to become a Christian.
    Please also find a place in an LDS publication that denies, in effect, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are governing the world together in perfect harmony with each other.
    Please also find a place in an LDS publication that denies, in effect, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all full of the Holy Spirit. (Excuse the awkwardness of that last phrase.)

    Good luck! I look forward to reading your reply 24 hours from now. (You can have more than 24 hours if you like, though.) God’s best to you.

  33. Cal, seriously?

    Talk about missing the point. If there is one God and the Trinity is correct, the conclusion is obvious: any other doctrine is not correct and therefore false. Unless, of course, there can be more than one correct teaching, but if thats the case why believe anything at all.

    Oh, a verse? John 14:6. Bear in mind Jesus is God.

    And you ask me to point out places where LDS deny the working together of the threegods in the god head? Seriously, you need to think your question through some more… the answer to why LDS are not Christian is in your own question.

    As oth e rs have said, there us far more waiting for you. I hope you find it, too.

  34. I haven’t read any responses to me. I’ll do that tonight.


    I happened across a verse this morning that speaks to your false accusation that I’m encouraging back peddling to a less advanced place in the Lord. First Peter 4:9 AMP says, “Practice hospitality to one another—that is, those of the household of faith.” Once someone realizes that the LDS is serving the same Jesus we do, our attitude toward them will change. Instead of attacking them, arguing with them, and being mean, we will be hospitable. This will open new windows of blessing to us from heaven, as well as bless Mormons, encouraging them to grow in the Lord. It will also attract the lost (John 17), and, of course, bless the Father and the Son.

  35. Cal the problem is the same author (and almost all the other NT authors) warn against taking company with false prophets. Specifically at the time was a concern with the gnostics who had a similar level of heresy as Mormons. The Gnostics would qualify as “Christian” under your lowest common denominator definition. So while the apostles would tell you to keep them out of your meetings, you’d be inviting them in.

    I’m sure you’d have some suggestions for how Peter, Paul and Jude could all improve their prayer lives as well (in order to come to your same predetermined conclusions).

  36. Also, it’s quite arrogant and presumptuous to tell anyone here that you expect an answer to your question and then to give them the timeframe for when they have to reply. (It’s not nearly as self-righteous as questioning the quality of their prayer life so at least you’ve got that going for you.)

  37. slowcowboy,

    I don’t see answers to my questions.
    But I won’t badger you about it lest the Holy Spirit reprimand me as he did when I badgered Tim.
    To lighten up the conversation, have you ever tasted real maple syrup? (I’m serious.)

  38. Cal, actually, you have answers to my questions.

    If you want a specific verse about correcting folks, though:

    How about James 5:20. Or…. Titus 2:15. What about… 2: Tim 4: 1-5.

    As usual, there are more.

    And no, never had real maple syrup.

  39. Tim,

    I don’t believe Gnosticism is Christian. According to my NIV Study Bible gnostics did not believe salvation was achieved by faith in Christ but by special knowledge. The Bible is extremely clear that faith in Christ is an essential.
    It also denied Christ’s humanity. First John lists that as an essential.
    Gnosticism also led to licentiousness. Since 1 John 2:6 says, “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did,” we have a third indicator that Gnosticism is unchristian. It produced bad fruit.

    It’s interesting how simple consultation with the Scriptures makes identification of belief systems easy. In his graciousness, God didn’t leave us without clear guidance, did he?

    Thanks for putting in little substance into your comments, giving me something to talk about.

    Have a good evening.

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