When was “Transubstantiation” invented?

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Eucharist - consecration - transubstantiation

When was “Transubstantiation” invented?  And who invented it?

First of all, what is “Transubstantiation”?

[It is] the complete change of the substance of bread and wine into the substance of Christ’s body and blood by a validly ordained priest during the consecration at Mass, so that only the accidents of bread and wine remain.

We’re talking here, of course, about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (i.e. that the bread and wine truly change into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ during the Mass).  Transubstantiation is how it occurs.

So when was it invented?  This is actually a bit of a strange question.  It is usually accompanied by a charge that the idea of Christ being truly present in the Eucharist is a concoction of the Catholic Church…only formulated after the “reformation.”  This is a misunderstanding at best.

It is true that the actual term, “Transubstantiation,” came into use centuries after the life of Jesus Christ.  It was officially coined in the Church at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, but was already in use much before that.  The Council of Trent affirmed this definition even more strongly.  But that was just the defining language.  This belief in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and the “change of substance” from the bread and wine goes all the way back to Jesus and His Apostles themselves.  The point here being that just because the technical language for something was not derived until a later date, does not mean the belief or thing itself was “invented” at that time.

Such a charge is akin to claiming that Sir Isaac Newton “invented” gravity after watching apples fall from trees and writing his Laws of Gravity.  Of course, gravity had always been in existence, Newton simply defined it more specifically when the need and ability arose.

It is the same with the Catholic Church and Transubstantiation (as well as many of its other theological definitions).  At times in history when Apostolically Traditional beliefs were being challenged (like during the “reformation”) the Church answered the need to help clarify what had always been the belief.  Even more telling is the fact that the Church had not had a need to more authoritatively define the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist for such a long span in history.  That is largely because there was hardly any disagreement among Christians on the matter.  They had all agreed (aside from a few heretical groups) in the Real Presence of Christ from the very beginning.

So it is extremely disingenuous to pretend, claim, or infer that the Catholic Church “invented” such beliefs at some point later in history.  And of course, any honest study of history reveals that the belief in the Real Presence goes all the way back to Jesus Himself.

So who “invented” Transubstantiation?  It was the same guy who invented Gravity.  And when was it invented (if we can even call it an invention)?  Well we know for sure it was at least in time for Jesus’ Last Supper.

Here is the longer definition from the Modern Catholic Dictionary:

Transubstantiation:  The complete change of the substance of bread and wine into the substance of Christ’s body and blood by a validly ordained priest during the consecration at Mass, so that only the accidents of bread and wine remain. While the faith behind the term itself was already believed in apostolic times, the term itself was a later development. With the Eastern Fathers before the sixth century, the favored expression was meta-ousiosis, “change of being”; the Latin tradition coined the word transubstantiatio, “change of substance,” which was incorporated into the creed of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. The Council of Trent, in defining the “wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the wine into the blood” of Christ, added “which conversion the Catholic Church calls transubstantiation” (Denzinger 1652). after transubstantiation, the accidents of bread and wine do not inhere in any subject or substance whatever. Yet they are not make-believe they are sustained in existence by divine power. (Etym. Latin trans-, so as to change + substantia, substance: transubstantio, change of substance.)

And you can read more on the whole issue here if interested.

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Fabius September 21, 2009 at 10:52 am

Just saw your tweet on this story, and stopped by. Liked the post a lot. I had a Presbyterian friend in high school who tried to write a paper on the Catholic understanding of Transubstantiation. I’m not sure how hard he was trying to truly understand it, because he somehow wound up arguing that Catholics believe that Christ had an AB Negative blood type.

Carlos September 21, 2009 at 11:29 am

Great post…clearly written, I want to see the nay sayers counter act this one in a cogent manner.

Andreas September 23, 2009 at 10:06 am

Ahem…

“Such a charge is akin to claiming that Sir Isaac Newton “invented” gravity after watching apples fall from trees and writing his Laws of Gravity. Of course, gravity had always been in existence, Newton simply defined it more specifically when the need and ability arose.”

Yes, but you can do all kinds of tests to show that Newton’s laws are true. You can run experiments that will again and again show the same results. It can be verified by anyone who questions Newton’s findings. Theories and scientific “laws” try to explain what we find in nature, after all.

How would you do that in the case of Transubstantiation? Is there any way (except just believing it) to prove this finding correct?

The fallacy in the argument in my opinion is the assumption that there actually ever was a Transubstantiation. I would question that.

You can prove the existence of gravity, can you do the same for your claim? Just because somebody claims that something is true doesn’t make it so. If Newton had claimed that all things fly up instead of falling to the ground he would have been called on it. So how can we make sure the “law” of Transubstantiation is really true? Someone claiming it can’t be enough – people claim all kinds of unlikely things that you (I assume) would dismiss as lies or made up stories (“I met Big Foot, no really”, “Aliens told me to do it”, “I saw Elvis this morning – in my kitchen!”).

So my argument would be that Transubstantiation was made up from the beginning.

Lori September 29, 2009 at 6:10 pm

Andreas,
I think you are forgetting that this article is about Catholic Christian beliefs. “At times in history when Apostolically Traditional BELIEFS(caps mine) were being challenged (like during the “reformation”) the Church answered the need to help clarify what had always been the BELIEF. Even more telling is the fact that the Church had not had a need to more authoritatively define the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist for such a long span in history.” If one is not a Christian, one obviously would not believe anything about the Eucharist. It is a completely CHRISTIAN belief, that all Christians everywhere agreed on for most of history. The point of the comparison to Newton and the law of gravity is simply that he clarified and explained a concept when he needed to, just as the Church defined and clarified one of it’s concepts when she needed to do so. Scientifically proving something was not and will never be the point in this discussion. It is an item of FAITH.

Alison October 5, 2009 at 5:03 pm

GREAT article – loved it!

Warren May 10, 2010 at 11:10 am

It is arguable what the early church believed, but it is clear that what they did was a lot more like eating a meal together then what is now done at mass. It is clearly document that the Eucharist was challenged as early as 800 AD by Wycliffe. I suppose you would right that off as heretical, but the point is that Luther wasn’t the first to see some issues with it. I’m still undecided on this issue, so if anyone can give me a valid source on Church history that will show when transubstantiation was first talked about, I would appreciate it. And please don’t tell me it was Jesus. He might have meant that, or he might not. For one thing, he actually said: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” It’s not clear that he is saying that they will drink his blood. And he had no wounds yet!

Matthew Warner May 10, 2010 at 8:38 pm

Warren, thanks for your thoughts and openness. Actually, if you read very early Church documents (like the Didache) you see almost exactly the mass we celebrate today.

And the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood was actually challenged in the New Testament in John 6. Jesus teaches that “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you.” He says this repeatedly. And when people don’t understand it, he repeats is again even more strongly. And then you have many of his disciples “walk with him no more” based on this teaching. If it were a simple misunderstanding of it not REALLY being his body and blood, he could have easily clarified and not lost so many disciples….but he didn’t. He said it more strongly and then turned to his Apostles and asked “Are you going to leave also?” And Peter replies, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

But I think what you are asking is not when “transubstantiation is first talked about specifically” as this was just a technical term to be more precise when describing what was happening. But the belief in the “Real Presence” (that is, the bread and wine actually turn into Christ’s body and blood) goes back to the earliest Christians including numerous points in scripture itself.

Check out this link here for just a few references from the early Church. And for what it’s worth, I don’t think I’ve ever found even one quote from an early Church leader explaining that the bread and wine are NOT Christ’s actual body and blood.

Matthew Warner May 11, 2010 at 6:43 pm

Warren – Here’s another good link as well you might find useful: http://www.catholic.com/library/Real_Presence.asp

God bless!

Brett Salkeld February 23, 2013 at 10:37 pm

Hi Matt,
You might want to change the bit about calling the presence “physical.” That is misleading at best. In point of fact, transubstantiation emerges as a way to articulate how Christ’s presence can be real in a way that is not physical. Here’s a source that may be of help, but I highly recommend Ratzinger’s little book God is Near Us on this question.

http://www.ncregister.com/site/article/christ_is_really_present_but_how

Matthew Warner March 1, 2013 at 5:12 pm

Good catch, Brett. thanks!

Brett Salkeld March 1, 2013 at 11:09 pm

You’re very welcome!

Brett Salkeld February 23, 2013 at 10:46 pm

Also, it can be misleading to say that transubstantiation is “how” Real Presence happens. That is true in as much as it indicates that Real Presence occurs by means of a (real, but not physical) change in the elements, but it can give the impression that transubstantiation describes some kind of arcane process. In fact, Thomas Aquinas’s answer to the question “how” is simply “by the power of God.” Sometimes this is expressed with reference to God’s Word, sometimes with reference to the Holy Spirit. In any case, it is more accurate to say that transubstantiation is an affirmation that Christ is really present by trying to render that claim more intelligible in the face of claims that it was merely nonsense (by a fellow named Berengarius of Tours) than it is to say transubstantiation is the “how” of real presence.

It was thought to render the claim more intelligible by highlighting that there is a part of reality – the most real part actually – which is beyond the physical: namely, the core of something wherein its identity is determined by its creator. That something is called substance and we all recognize it when we say things like the Mississippi river is the same river it was 2000 years ago even if it’s physical make-up has been drastically altered, or I am the same person as the single cell that first appeared in my mother’s womb 34 years ago. That part of reality is what is said to change in transubstantiation.

Brett Salkeld February 23, 2013 at 10:54 pm

Finally, transubstantiation wasn’t actually in use much before Lateran IV. 100 years at the very most. But it did gain in popularity quite rapidly after its coinage because it did its job very well. Of course the change in the elements that the term transubstantiation was coined to articulate first happened at the Last Supper and is witnessed to from the very earliest apostolic witness. But it is perfectly legitimate to distinguish human attempts at understanding and articulation from divine acts. Theology is not the same thing as the faith it tries to understand, though the two are obviously intricately related.

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