The comments on “Liturgical translation backflip unlikely to hold” took an interesting turn – into eucharistic theology and Real Presence. One commenter stated that “transubstantiation” – which I take to be a philosophical explanation of the doctrine of the Real Presence – is not intrinsically tied to Aristotle’s philosophy. It would be most helpful if that were true – for surely our Christian faith cannot require us to accept a specific philosophical school of thought, Aristotelian or other. But I was curious whether the separation of transubstantiation and Aristotle held, so I asked confrere Br. Dennis Beach from our philosophy department what he thought. He wrote the following. awr
I think it is technically right but quite misleading to say that transubstantiation is independent of Aristotelian Metaphysics. Yes, the use of the term “transubstantiation” antedates Aquinas by a good century or more. Aquinas is mid-13th century, and the 4th Lateran Council in 1215 already used the verb “transubstantiated” in a way that shows it was generally accepted well before William of Moerbeke began making literal translations of Aristotle available to Aquinas. However, I would argue that the Neoplatonic embrace of substance metaphysics means that Aristotle is tacitly present in any account of “substance” after the 4th century BCE. And Neoplatonic thought or at least conceptual terms are clearly interwoven with Christian theology long before the 13th century. One cannot disentangle Aristotle from Christian theological categories simply by identifying Aristotle with Aquinas.
It also seems disingenuous to claim that “All that is required, philosophically, to affirm transubstantiation is to accept that there is a distinction to be made between the identity of something and its appearance.” The doctrine of transubstantiation completely reverses the usual distinction between being and appearance, where being is held to be unchanging and appearance is constantly changing. Transubstantiation maintains instead that being or substance changes while appearance remains unchanged. Such reversals in the order of things are affronts to reason and require much, not little, to affirm philosophically. Moreover, transubstantiation seem to go far beyond the simple distinction between appearance and reality. It would be one thing if the body and blood of Christ simply appeared to be bread and wine. But I don’t think that is what is claimed with “transubstantiation.”
The claim that “substance” in the doctrine of transubstantiation is a common-sense concept, somehow independent of Aristotle’s purportedly esoteric and arcane philosophizing, is also a red herring. Aristotle picked up just such common-sense concepts as “what-it-is-to-be-X” and tried to explain rather complex philosophical problems with them. Thus, to take a “common-sense” concept like substance–even if one could maintain that it were somehow purified of Aristotelian provenance—and have it do paradoxical conceptual gymnastics in order to explain transubstantiation seems not to be not so anti-Aristotelian in spirit after all.
But really, what’s at stake in having arguments about transubstantiation be either Aristotelian or independent of Aristotle? Are people really worried only about Aristotle? My guess is that “Aristotle” here stands for “Greek philosophy.” So while one can make a limited argument about Aristotle per se, this not only ignores Aristotle’s hidden presence in much Neoplatonic thought, it also denies that substance itself is a human concept with a Greek philosophical heritage. That the bread and wine are somehow really the body and blood of Christ is an ancient Christian belief—but using the concept of “substance” to talk about this necessarily involves Greek philosophy. (Even really is a problematic term here, stemming as it does from the philosophical term res.)
The Christian belief that the Eucharist is not simply bread and wine but the actual and effective presence of Jesus is, I believe, something that can be affirmed independently of Greek philosophy. But to claim that transubstantiation itself is conceptually independent of Greek philosophy seems both false and misguided, as if somehow the term transubstantiation were what is sacred and not Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.
Br. Dennis Beach, OSB, is a monk of St. John’s Abbey since 1981. His doctorate in philosophy is from Penn State. His research and teaching interests are Continental Philosophy & Phenomenology, especially Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger & Levinas; Ancient Greek philosophy; and Liberation Theology. He is currently studying for the priesthood.