Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Lutherans have been told that transubstantiation is bad bad bad. That's what the Catholics believe, right? On occasion, when I have mentioned bread and wine "changing into" the body and blood of Christ when joined with the Words of our Lord, I have been scolded by Lutherans. "We don't believe it changes into Jesus' body and blood," they say. "That's what Catholics believe."

I don't understand. It wasn't Jesus' body and blood. Now it is. Something changed. What's so wretched about saying "changes into"?

I have been told by some folks that Lutherans believe in consubstantiation. Other folks have said that Lutherans do not believe in consubstantiation. That one puzzled me too. We often use the prepositions "in, with, and under." "Con" means "with." So what's so wretched about that term?

Well, there's been a lot of talk about these matters during Bible classes the last couple of months. And here's what I've learned:

"Consubstantiation" has too much of a location sense to it. It's almost like saying Jesus' body is with the bread, like Bob and Joe go to the hardware store with each other. But Bob isn't Joe, and Joe isn't Bob. So "consubstantiation" isn't a good term, because the bread is Jesus' body.

So what's the deal with transubstantiation? We Lutherans do not argue with the Roman Catholics about the bread really being Jesus' body; we agree. The disagreement we have with Rome is that they don't really quite think the bread is still there; they think it just appears to be bread but is really Jesus' body. Not a huge error -- certainly not like the error which sets aside Jesus' word "This is My body" and considers the bread to be mere bread which symbolizes Jesus' body. But why do they think the bread is no longer there?

It sounds like it's just too much closeness. Too much of God condescending to us. Too much dirtying Himself with mere atoms and molecules. How could God be bread? How humiliating that would be for Him!

But if we believe that He made matter and called it good, ...

if we believe that He took on human flesh and joined Himself to our race, incarnated in the womb of the virgin so that He might be our brother and save us, ...

if we believe that He doesn't want to maintain distance between Himself and His creatures, ...

then we believe that our God's joy and delight is to be joined to us! He does not want to keep His distance! He doesn't have to change the bread so that it is no longer bread but is only His body. He chooses to come in this very concrete [even fleshy] way.

The problem with Rome's transubstantiation is NOT that they think too highly of what that bread is, or what is in that chalice. The problem, rather, is the subtle little separation: Christ's body and Christ's blood couldn't possibly be so intimately joined with the bread and wine.

But He is! And He is joined to my flesh. And your flesh. Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I will say 'rejoice'!

Oh, Christian heart,
whoe'er thou art,
be of good cheer and let no sorrow move thee.
For God's own Child in mercy mild
joins thee to Him --
how greatly God must love thee!! (TLH 81:4)


  1. Did you just listen to the tape of the last Bible Study by any chance?

  2. Actually, most of that stuff has been rattling around in my brain, needing to be jotted down, for a couple of months. But the fifth paragraph --the part about consubstantiation-- was from listening to the recording of last Thursday. :-)

  3. This brings to my mind the 5th taste: umami. We know what sweet, salty, bitter and sour are. We have words to define them and experience with foods we can identify as each. The 5th taste is umami. It has been identified by the Japanese. In our culture, we do not have our own word for it and we do not have foods we can identify as having that taste, therefore it is very difficult for us to get our head around what it is.

    Transubstantiation, consubstantiation - we have those words and understand the meaning, but they are not quite what we are looking for when describing that 'in and with and under' and all that we know about the Lord's Supper. Kind of elusive - like umami is to us.

  4. My problems with the two terms were always a lot more simple. I'm just generally opposed to anything that tries to pin down and explanation to a mystery. It's the same problem that I have with the phrase "in, with, and under" - not that it's technically wrong, but more that there's a danger in the fact that our human reasoning is tempted to say, "Ah ha! I understand that better than the word 'is' so I'll just think about it that way from now on." Which is what happens far too often to myself and to Christians in the Church throughout history. I figure it's better to accept the plain words of Jesus, and while I know we can expound infinitely upon them, always coming to a deeper understanding, neither will reason ever fully grasp what are matters of faith. Not in this life, at least, and I still suspect not even in the life to come.