“With all power and signs and lying wonders.” 2 Thessalonians 2:9

Among the more grotesque lying wonders of Roman Catholicism is the doctrine of transubstantiation. For eight hundred years the Church has taught that by some miraculous force a priest celebrating Mass is able to change ordinary bread and wine into the actual flesh and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. The word itself as a formal statement of Catholic doctrine dates from 1215, the year of Magna Carta; rather than being a step towards freedom as was Magna Carta, this invention was another means of enslaving the gullible and ignorant followers of the Pope.

The Fourth Lateran Council was convened in 1215. During one of its sessions it adopted the word  transubstantiation to describe a belief  in the metaphysical transformation of the emblems of bread and wine into Jesus’ actual body and blood. More than 300 years later, the Council of Trent in 1551 (held  at the height of the Protestant reformation to help the Church to resist the inroads of Biblically informed thinking) defined the concept of transubstantiation in these extraordinary terms:

“…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” (Session XIII, chapter IV; cf. canon  II).

Some Orthodox Churches also use the term  “transubstantiation” (in Greek, metousiosis), but most  of the Orthodox Christian traditions do not place  the same emphasis on the doctrine that is evident in the Roman Catholic system. They likewise claim  that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, but terms such as “trans-elementation”  (in Greek, metastoicheiosis) and “re-ordination” (in  Greek, metarhythmisis) are more common among  the Orthodox.

During the Reformation, the doctrine of  transubstantiation was criticised as an import into  Christian teaching from Greek philosophy. Martin  Luther in his On the Babylonian Captivity of the  Church (published on 6 October  1520) wrote:

“Therefore it is an absurd and  unheard-of juggling with words,to understand ‘bread’ to mean ‘the form, or accidents of bread,’ and ‘wine’ to  mean ‘the form, or accidents of wine.’  Why do they not also understand all  other things to mean their forms, or  accidents? Even if this might be done  with all other things, it would yet not  be right thus to emasculate the words  of God and arbitrarily to empty them  of their meaning.

Moreover, the Church had the  true faith for more than twelve  hundred years, during which time the  holy Fathers never once mentioned  this transubstantiation — certainly,  a monstrous word for a monstrous  idea — until the pseudo-philosophy  of Aristotle became rampant in the  Church these last three hundred years.”

As Luther says, it seems incredible that given  the clear teaching of the Bible in relation to the  emblems which represent the sacrifice of Christ that  the Church should have felt compelled to import a  weird teaching from pagan philosophy to cloud the  very beautiful teaching of the Gospels. (It should  be noted, however, that Luther’s own teaching of  “consubstantiation” in relation to this subject also  is erroneous.)

“This is my body”

Why did the Roman Catholic apostasy (and Luther  and others) have such difficulty with this concept? When our Lord met with his disciples in the Upper  Room on the night before he was crucified he used  straight forward language to institute the ritual we  memorialize each week at the Memorial Meeting.  Matthew records the words our Lord used at that  time: “And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and  blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples,  and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the  cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying,  Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new  testament [ie covenant], which is shed for many for  the remission of sins” (Matt 26:26–28).

From their frequent use at the Memorial  Meeting these words are well known to us, as they  are to most church goers because they are frequently  quoted at Holy Communion or Mass services also.  The Roman Catholic Church claims that when the  priest quotes the words “this is my body” the wafer  of bread he is holding miraculously becomes the  flesh of Jesus, and that when he quotes the words  “this is my blood” the wine becomes the blood of  Jesus. A few moments thought should be sufficient  to realize that this is not what our Lord intended  when he used the words himself – after all, he was  actually present bodily with the disciples as he  spoke the words!

Bullinger makes this pithy statement about the  phrase “this is my body”:

“Few passages have been more perverted than  these simple words. Rome has insisted on the literal  or the figurative sense of words just as it suits her  own purposes, and not at all according to the laws of  philology and the true science of language.” (Figures of  Speech Used in the Bible, page 738)

The language used by the Lord is not unusual  nor is it overly cryptic. These phrases are simple  cases of metaphor. Exactly the same construction  is used in many places in the New Testament in  phrases which present no difficulty to understand.  For example:

  • I am the door of the sheep (John 10:7)
  • I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman (John 15:1)
  • That Rock was Christ (1 Cor 10:4)
  • The seven heads are seven mountains (Rev 17:9).

In each case no reader would assume that the words  are meant to be read as literally true – our Lord is not  a literal door, vine or rock, but he is all of these things  in a symbolic or figurative sense. The same linguistic  logic should be applied to the Lord’s statements in  Matthew 26 about the bread and the wine.

Eating his flesh

Another passage used by Romanists to support the  doctrine of transubstantiation is John 6:53: “Then  Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you,  Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink  his blood, ye have no life in you.” This is admittedly  a profound verse and was intended by our Lord  to be provocative. Sadly, not all of his hearers that  day could cope with the profundity of his words.  The record goes on to tell us: “Many therefore of  his disciples, when they had heard this, said, This  is an hard saying; who can hear it? … From that  time many of his disciples went back, and walked  no more with him” (v60, 66). There is a certain irony  in the fact that the Roman Catholic Church has  likewise found this a hard saying and also walks  with Jesus no more!

What did our Lord intend his disciples to  understand by these words? Whatever he meant, it  cannot have any direct or specialized relevance to  the emblems of his sacrifice because that ritual had  not at this time been established. The context helps  us to make sense of the imagery.

Earlier in the chapter the Lord had referred his  hearers to the case of the manna that was provided  in the wilderness – bread which came down from  heaven to maintain the mortal existence of the  Israelites as they journeyed to the Promised Land.  He pointed out that the true bread of God could  do more than sustain mere mortal existence: “For  the bread of God is he which cometh down from  heaven, and giveth life unto the world” (v33). When  they asked for that bread “Jesus said unto them, I  am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall  never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall  never thirst” (v35). In verse 48 he again stated  emphatically, “I am that bread of life”.

It is in this context that in verse 53 he refers  to that which offers his disciples life, and in verse  63 he comes back to that idea: “It is the spirit that  quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words  that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are  life.” Peter, as spokesman for those disciples who  did not stumble at this discourse, showed that he  had appreciated the message: “Then Simon Peter  answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast  the words of eternal life” (v68). The words of our  Lord are a bread of far greater and more permanent  value than even the manna in the wilderness.

“Once for all”

Transubstantiation is not just an arcane and weird  perversion of Bible teaching. It is a fundamental  denial of a basic Bible teaching about the sacrifice  of Christ. For the Roman Catholic, the ritual  of the Mass involves the offering of Christ as a  propitiatory sacrifice. Every time the priest enacts  the Mass he sacrifices the Lord again. Yet the writer  to the Hebrews is emphatic about the efficacy of the  Lord’s sacrifice “once for all”. He says that our Lord  “needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer  up sacrifice, first for his own sins, and then for the  people’s: for this he did once, when he offered up  himself ” (Heb 7:27), and later says: “It is through  that divine will that we have been set free from sin,  through the offering of Jesus Christ as our sacrifice  once for all” (Heb 10:10 Wey).

The emblems of bread and wine were provided  and the ritual of the Memorial Meeting was  instituted not so that we could sacrifice our Lord  over and over again, but rather that we might  memorialize his great sacrifice; that we might  remember what has been done on our behalf and  express thanks for the wonder of the grace extended  to us “while we were yet sinners”. As the record in  Luke says: “And he took bread, and gave thanks, and  brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body  which is given for you: this do in remembrance of  me”(Luke 22:19). There is no need to repeat the  sacrifice of Christ, as the perverted teaching of  transubstantiation might imply, but there is a need  to remember it often, “and so much the more, as ye  see the day approaching” (Heb 10:25).