[This post is an edited transcript of a brainstorm that overtook me a few weeks ago, while I was reading Stratford Caldecott’s pellucid and penetrating recent book, The Radiance of Being: Dimensions of Cosmic Christianity, and madly scribbled as a marginal note therein. The quotations below are cited to page numbers in that volume.]

In the Lord’s Prayer, God calls the Bread of the Presence that we Anointed Priests of his House consume in the Divine Liturgy of the Temple our “supersubstantial bread.” The doctrine implicit in this term subsumes, reconciles, and integrates all the various doctrines of the Real Presence in the Eucharist – memorial, pneumatic, sacramental, consubstantial, transubstantial, and so forth.

Of these doctrines, transubstantiation is the most inclusive – if it’s true, so are all the others – but also the most difficult to take on board:

What makes us uneasy [about transubstantiation] is that the substances of the bread and the wine seem to have been destroyed [by Grace, rather than perfected thereby]. And yet Aquinas is very concerned to show that this is not the case; the substances are not destroyed but converted.

–          page 231

They are turned from their own lives, toward and into the life of God. The elements are no longer occasions of their own careers, but of God. So likewise with the communicant: “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Galatians 2:20).

The Host has all the properties of bread, and all the causal effects of bread. These do not disappear at the Consecration. As Caldecott says, we don’t expect the consecrated bread to look any different under an electron microscope (nor do communicants look any different after they have partaken thereof). After the Consecration, the bread still behaves like bread, whatever else it may be doing. In so far forth, then, it is indeed – literally – bread. But it is not, ultimately, merely bread. Which is to say that it *just isn’t* bread anymore. It is God. It is supersubstantial bread.

How does supersubstantiation work?

The substance of a whole is prior to the substance of any of its parts. Those parts can be understood as parts only in relation to a whole, and even then only via an act of intellectual abstraction, by which they are mentally teased out of a concrete integrity. In actuality, parts are not entities concretely disparate from the whole of which they are parts. Separate them concretely from that whole, and they will no longer be parts of it, at all.

So, when I digest molecules of bread, those molecules are no longer molecules, simpliciter. Rather, they parts of me. And entities are indisintegrable wholes: wherever I am even a little bit, there I wholly am. When I eat them, the molecules of the bread become molecules of me, and the atoms of those molecules become atoms of me. Their substances are no longer those of free-floating atoms or molecules (there are really no such things as free-floating particles, thanks to Mach’s Principle), but of me. Their individual substances are subsumed in mine.

The whole is logically prior to the part. But this means that the whole is prior to the part, period full stop.

When a thing participates in a larger whole, it does not cease altogether to be the thing that it is, or to have the character that makes it definitely the individual, specific, generic thing that it is. If that were to happen, it could not function in and for the whole, in just the way that was needful thereto, in order for the whole to cohere and coordinate properly as just itself.

But qua part, a thing is no island. As a part, it is no longer at all in order for itself; rather, it is in order for the whole of which it is a part. The participant atom does indeed exist, but – until it is concretely separated from its whole – only as an aspect of that whole. The atom has a life of its own, but so long as it is part of a molecule, the life that is its own is its perspective on the life of the molecule. It is, i.e., an aspect on, and of, the molecular life. The life of the molecular atom is provided to it as and by the life of the molecule; for the atom, that molecular life is its own atomic life. The life of such an atom is different from those of other participant atoms. But nonetheless that atomic life is an aspect of the life of the molecule.

The properties, character, operation, and form of the part contribute to those of the whole, which could not have the properties, character, operation or form that it has without them. The parts contribute to the whole: they give their being to that of the whole. Thus if you derange the nervous system, you injure its contribution to the operation of the person. But the parts receive their being qua parts from the whole. As parts, their lives are the life of the whole, given them thereby, and by them received, taken, grasped, positively prehended – and then, given back in offering and sacrifice. But this exchange and coinherence is mediated by the currency of the life of the whole.

Such is Communion: a common unity. The motions of the parts are coordinated, not as by an engineer pulling levers, but as the electromagnetic fields of the iron filings are coordinated by that of the magnet, and contribute thereto.

… since what is received in Communion is the whole Christ – the “I” of the second divine Person, in other words the actual “substance” that is Christ – what takes place in Communion is a welcoming, a reception into myself, of that entire Person.”

–          page 233

NB that the second Person is consubstantial with the first and third Persons. When we partake of Jesus, then, we partake ipso facto also of his Father and of the Holy Ghost.

And when we eat God, he becomes consubstantial with us, and we therefore likewise with him. As the bread is supersubstantiated, so are we when we eat it. That is how we become parts of his Body: even after we eat the bread, it continues supersubstantiated in and as Jesus. The molecules of God become molecules of us, but do not stop being molecules of God. When we integrate them into our substance, they integrate us into his.

It might seem odd that when we eat a bit of a thing, the whole of it should supersede our own, so that our wholeness is a participant therein, rather than a thing only unto itself (“a thing only unto itself” being, again, something we never encounter in reality). But it’s no more mysterious than the covalent interaction of a hydrogen atom with a carbon atom that is part of a protein molecule. Seeking to complete the fulfillment of its electronic shell and attain rest, the hydrogen atom “devours” an electron from the outer shell of the carbon atom, and the two atoms then share the electron. But the effect is that the hydrogen atom is thereby integrated into the molecule.

But this integration operates in both directions: it is, precisely, covalent. The life of the hydrogen atom is taken into the life of the protein molecule by the covalence, and vice versa. As the Body of Jesus is like ours a procedure of the whole cosmos, and integral thereto, so likewise is the whole cosmos a procedure of the Body of Jesus, and integral thereto.

So, when we eat the Bread of the Presence, we are taken up in its supersubstantiation by its integration with our flesh.

The Holy Spirit binds … spouses together in one flesh, and a new life is created in which both are reflected. If the Eucharist did not contain the whole substance of Christ – that is, his body, soul, and person – there would be no “marriage” between myself and God, between human and divine nature, no Bride of Christ, no Church. It is therefore the very reality of the Church, and of our salvation, that is at stake in the doctrine of transubstantiation.

–          page 233

The Eucharist makes the Church. It is the first stage in the realization of the fulfillment at the eschaton of the perfected Communion of the ecclesia, of the synagogue. For, by it the body of man, which is the cosmos, is joined to the substance of God, & supersubstantiated in a new life, like that of a baby born of the wedlock of male and female. The destiny of the Eucharistic elements is also our destiny. The perfection and consummation by Grace of creaturely nature – of bread, of men, of the Church, of the cosmos – is effected by its supersubstantiation.

The completion of the supersubstantiation of the human person is theosis. Theosis is the perfection of spatiosissimus: of ontological actuality, causal efficacy, phenomenal intensity and sacramental significance. God became man to make men gods; supersubstantiation is how he does it.

9 thoughts on “Supersubstantiation

  1. Way over my head. I had a little teaching on this subject, but very basic. I am a Fundamental Baptist and I think we believe the Lord’s table is symbolic. My Baptist preaches said that Catholics believe that the bread turns to the flesh of Christ. I understand that Martin Luther believed that even though he was some trouble to the church.

    I know form 1 Cor 11 that taking communion is very serious and should not be taken lightly. It sounds to me based on that that members taking the cup in an unworthy manner may end up in heaven sooner than they expected.

    I did not understand lots of this, but it was fun trying to read.

    You are a Brain—compliment.


    • I grew up in a fundamentalist denomination, Seventh Day Adventist, but converted as an adult to Roman Catholic. In my experience and orientation consuming the REAL presence is much more powerful than simply participating in a symbolic act. This one single difference between Orthodox and Protestant is huge, it is everything. I pray that I can help other Protestants understand what they are missing.

  2. You’ve expressed some good thinking here; I’ll need to ponder some of it.

    That said, for right now I have two critiques that concern the whole development of this topic.

    (1) Your whole premise relies upon the Vulgate (and subsequent Duoay-Rheims translation) Every other translation I’ve checked involves today’s or tomorrow’s bread. That seems to be a heavy load for a minority translation to bear.
    (2) The development of your argument that our incorporation of the atomies of Christ consumed in the Eucharist impart God into us and bring us into God seems Universalist. If Christ exhaled 2 liters of water each day, then in the course of His life 24,000 kg of water that were once part of God passed into the hydrological cycle and have been circulating ever since. By your reasoning, would these not have imparted uncreated Divine life throughout the biosphere? For the record, I am not advocating Universalism or a strange pangaeic theism.

    • Thanks for these two interesting points. They would never have occurred to me!

      As to number 1, St. Jerome’s translation of the Greek “epiousion” as “supersubstantial” is actually far more straightforward than “daily.” And I’m more inclined to trust Jerome on this than any later translator from the Greek, if only because he was himself one of the Fathers. For more discussion, see Give us this Day our Supersubstantial Bread.

      With regard to number 2, Jesus did not institute a sacrament involving his breath. He did institute a sacrament involving his body. And what matters is not so much the particular history of the particular atoms involved, whether or not they once participated in Jesus, but rather the sacrament. It is by virtue of the sacrament that the bread and wine become participant in the Body of Jesus.

      This nevertheless raises the question, what has happened to all the bits of matter that have been integrated into the Body of Jesus by Eucharists throughout the world over centuries? I’m not sure, but I seem to recall that once the host is consecrated it is always consecrated. And, under the hypothesis advanced in the post, the bodies of the faithful who have been integrated into the Body by their participation in the Eucharist are themselves also effectually transformed into Hosts, so that the particles of their bodies, too, are permanently participant in the Body. No? Maybe not; I shall have to think about that.

      So anyway, regardless of the answer to that last question, one way or another it would seem that the Body of Jesus is more and more pervading the biosphere as time goes on. This is not necessarily a problem; in fact, it fits nicely with the notion that at the eschaton, the whole world will be raised.

      All those interesting questions aside, the real heart of your item #2 is whether the ubiquity of the Body in the created order imparts redemption and sanctity to its participants, willy nilly. I would say, no: to harvest the spiritual fruits of the sacrament, we must take them intending to do so.

  3. Pingback: Apokatastasis of the Damned | The Orthosphere

  4. The major problems with transubstantiation are: (1) It has no root in the OT. The doctrine is actually closer to OT idolatry in which gods mysteriously inhabited their idols. In the OT, God never dwelt in inorganic material, in stuff. God doesn’t inhabit or change himself into a tree, grapes, cookies, or bread. His presence was above the Ark of the Covenant. Is 66:1-2, Ac 7:48 confirm this. (2) Transubstantiation is the result of the application of an Aristotelian view of matter, i.e. God’s presence and communion are like the body and soul, invisible reality is given expression in material world. It is a weak argument from analogy. (3) The Incarnate Son by contrast was unique. The meeting of God and Man in Christ had clear implications in the world. His unique nature shown in outward manifestation, i.e. no one ever taught like this; demons spontaneously came out of people screaming “You are the Holy One of Israel;” all the sick were healed, he raised from the dead, etc. (4) If the miracles of the Jesus’ life consisted in him being indistinguishable from everyone else and utterly anonymous, we’d have the equivalent of the doctrine of transubstantiation. I can see the argument now. Jesus must have been the Christ. He was utterly ordinary, completely indistinguishable from his peers, never taught about anything, never worked a miracle, died an unknown death, worked as a carpenter, and was never heard from again. Yes, truly he was the Savior and God’s Son.

    In short, transubstantiation was an institutionalization of dead doctrine in the church, a takeover of the priestly class from a Spirit led nation of prophets and priests. Radical conversion was replaced by eating bread (for centuries Catholics were not considered worthy of taking the cup). The transforming presence of the Spirit that shook rooms, manifested itself in prophecy and spiritual gifts, and convicted hearts was replaced by holy candles, oil, music, art, lavish ceremony, and the rule of priests. The sacraments domesticated Biblical Christianity. One became a Christian like one did a citizen by birth. Thus priesthood and bishopric, over time, attracted more and more adept politicians, interested in running the world, smoozing with royalty, harmonizing the faith with the current philosophical world view, and less and less shepherds worried about caring for souls. Faithful remnants pushed back, but never via a revival of sacraments, but rather through preaching the Bible, conversion (or as Catholics would call it “second conversion”), and radical Spirit-led communities.

    • Even if all that were unqualifiably true (it isn’t), it would not begin to show that transubstantiation – or rather, what is really at issue, the doctrine of the Real Presence – is false. Indeed, none of the arguments you adduce even touch its truth value.


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