From New World Encyclopedia

Transubstantiation (in Latin, transsubstantiatio) is a Christian doctrine, which claims that during the Eucharistic meal, the sacramental bread and wine actually transform their substance into the body and Blood of Christ. The doctrine of Transubstantiation is embraced by the Roman Catholic Church, which it is about what is changed, not about how the change occurs.

The doctrine of Transubstantiation was criticized or misinterpreted as a form of cannibalism by non-Christians especially during Roman times. In the Middle Ages, it was a serious liturgical error to drop Eucharistic bread or wine on the floor during the sacrament of Communion.

Today, Transubstantiation continues to be a part of Roman Catholic doctrine and practice whereas many Protestants have adopted a more symbolic approach to the Eucharist.

Biblical Foundations

While the word "transubstantiation" is not found in Scripture and the doctrine is not explicitly stated there, those who believe that the reality in the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ and no longer bread and wine hold that this is implicitly taught in the New Testament.

Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Roman Catholics, who together constitute about two thirds of Christians,[1] hold that the consecrated elements in the Eucharist are indeed the body and blood of Christ. Some Anglicans hold the same belief.[2] They see their scriptural support found in the words of Jesus himself at his Last Supper[3] and Saint Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians,[4] where it is said:

"This is my body … this is my blood."

Belief in the change of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ is based on these words at the Last Supper as interpreted by Christians from the earliest times, as for instance by Ignatius of Antioch.

Many Protestants do not accept this literal interpretation of these words of Jesus. They argue that Jesus repeatedly spoke in non-literal terms e.g. "I am the bread of life," "I am the door," "I am the vine," etc. They believe that because what Jesus was holding when he said "this is my body" appeared to be bread, it was very obvious to the apostles that he was not speaking in a literal sense. They quote David's words in 2 Samuel 23:17, where, speaking figuratively, he said of water that had been obtained at the risk of men's lives: "Is not this the blood of the men who went in jeopardy of their lives?" They point to Matthew 16:6-12, where Jesus spoke of "the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees": the disciples thought he said it because they had brought no bread, but Jesus made them understand that he was referring to the teaching of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. However, such Christians do not view the bread and wine of the Lord's supper as common bread and wine but respect them as symbols of the body of Jesus Christ.

Believers in the literal sense of Christ's words, "This is my body," "This is my blood" claim that there is a marked contrast between metaphorical figurative expressions that of their nature have a symbolic meaning and what Jesus said about concrete things that he held in his hands and presented to the apostles.[5]

The Gospel of John presents Jesus as saying: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you … he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him" (6:53-56), and as then not toning down these sayings, even when many of his disciples thereupon abandoned him (6:66), shocked at the idea, which appeared to be in conflict not only with ordinary human sentiment but also with the Noahide Law's prohibition against consuming the blood even of animals (see Genesis 9:4, Lev 17:10-14, cf. Acts 15:19-21 and Council of Jerusalem).

In response to a report that, when Corinthian Christians came together to celebrate the Lord's Supper, there were divisions among them, with some eating and drinking to excess, while others were hungry (1 Corinthians 11:17-22), Paul the Apostle reminded them of Jesus' words at the Last Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-25) and concluded: "Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 11:27).

In general, Orthodox Christians and Catholics consider it unnecessary to "prove" from texts of Scripture a belief that they see as held by Christians from earliest times, since the Church and its teaching existed before any part of the New Testament was written, and the teaching of the apostles was thus transmitted not only in writing but also orally. They see nothing in Scripture that contradicts the traditional teaching that the reality beneath the visible signs in the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ. Instead, they see this teaching as definitely implied in the Bible.

Christians of Protestant tradition postulate that the only doctrines that need to be held are those expressed or implied in the Bible, and deny that the Bible implies that the bread and wine are in reality changed into the body and blood of Christ. They claim that this belief contradicts what they see as the central message of the gospel of Christ and that it is therefore heretical. They say that inspired Scripture documents strange doctrines infiltrating the Church even while the apostles were still living, doctrines that had to be defended against by the "elders of the church".[6]

Historical development

During the Last Supper, Jesus allegedly said: "This is my body"[7] but what he held in his hands still had all the appearances of bread. However, the Roman Catholic Church believes that, when Jesus made that declaration,[8] the underlying reality (the "substance") of the bread was converted to that of his body. In other words, it actually was his body, while all the appearances open to the senses or to empirical investigation were still those of bread, exactly as before. The Church holds that the same change of the substance of the bread and of the wine occurs at the consecration of the Eucharist.[9]

Patristic period

The short document known as the Didache, which may be the earliest Church document outside of the New Testament to speak of the Eucharist, makes no statement affirming or denying that it is the body and blood of Christ, but speaks of it as a "sacrifice":

"On the Lord's Day come together, break bread and hold Eucharist, after confessing your transgressions that your offering may be pure; but let none who has a quarrel with his fellow join in your meeting until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice be not defiled."[10]

A letter by Saint Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 35-107 C.E.) of about the same date as the Didache is an example of a Church authority (a bishop) defending[11] belief in the Eucharist as the same body and blood in which Christ died and was raised again. Ignatius' teaching was directed against the Gnostics, who denied the reality of Christ's body and blood and of his death, since they considered he was an immaterial spiritual being. Writing to the Christians of Smyrna, in about 106, he warned them to "stand aloof from such heretics," because, among other reasons, "they abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again."[12]

In about 150 C.E., Justin Martyr wrote of the Eucharist: "Not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh." [13]

The Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. 380) says: "Let the bishop give the oblation, saying, The body of Christ; and let him that receiveth say, Amen. And let the deacon take the cup; and when he gives it, say, The blood of Christ, the cup of life; and let him that drinketh say, Amen."[14]

Ambrose of Milan (d. 397) wrote:

Perhaps you will say, "I see something else, how is it that you assert that I receive the Body of Christ?" … Let us prove that this is not what nature made, but what the blessing consecrated, and the power of blessing is greater than that of nature, because by blessing nature itself is changed. … We observe, then, that grace has more power than nature, and yet so far we have only spoken of the grace of a prophet's blessing. But if the blessing of man had such power as to change nature, what are we to say of that divine consecration where the very words of the Lord and Saviour operate? For that sacrament which you receive is made what it is by the word of Christ. But if the word of Elijah had such power as to bring down fire from heaven, shall not the word of Christ have power to change the nature of the elements? You read concerning the making of the whole world: "He spoke and they were made, He commanded and they were created." Shall not the word of Christ, which was able to make out of nothing that which was not, be able to change things which already are into what they were not? For it is not less to give a new nature to things than to change them. But why make use of arguments? Let us use the examples He gives, and by the example of the Incarnation prove the truth of the mystery. Did the course of nature proceed as usual when the Lord Jesus was born of Mary? If we look to the usual course, a woman ordinarily conceives after connection with a man. And this body which we make is that which was born of the Virgin. Why do you seek the order of nature in the Body of Christ, seeing that the Lord Jesus Himself was born of a Virgin, not according to nature? It is the true Flesh of Christ which crucified and buried, this is then truly the Sacrament of His Body. The Lord Jesus Himself proclaims: "This is My Body." Before the blessing of the heavenly words another nature is spoken of, after the consecration the Body is signified. He Himself speaks of His Blood. Before the consecration it has another name, after it is called Blood. And you say, Amen, that is, It is true. Let the heart within confess what the mouth utters, let the soul feel what the voice speaks."[15]

Other fourth-century Christian writers say that in the Eucharist there occurs a "change",[16] "transelementation",[17] "transformation",[18] "transposing",[19] "alteration"[20] of the bread into the body of Christ.

Middle Ages

In the eleventh century, Berengar of Tours denied that any material change in the elements was needed to explain the Eucharistic Presence, thereby provoking a considerable stir.[21] Berengar's position was never diametrically opposed to that of his critics, and he was probably never excommunicated. However, the controversy that he aroused forced people to clarify the doctrine of the Eucharist.[22]

The earliest known use of the term "transubstantiation" to describe the change from bread and wine to body and blood of Christ was by Hildebert de Lavardin, Archbishop of Tours (died 1133) in about 1079,[23] long before the Latin West, under the influence especially of Saint Thomas Aquinas (c. 1227-1274), accepted Aristotelianism.

The objective reality of the Eucharistic change is also believed in by the Eastern Orthodox Church and the other ancient Churches of the east, where Aristotelian philosophy never prevailed.

In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council used the word transubstantiated in its profession of faith, when speaking of the change that takes place in the Eucharist. It was only later in the thirteenth century that Aristotelian metaphysics was accepted and a philosophical elaboration in line with that metaphysics was developed, which found classic formulation in the teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas."[21]

Protestant Reformation

In the Protestant Reformation, the doctrine of transubstantiation became a matter of controversy. While Martin Luther believed that the body and blood of Christ are really present in the bread and wine of the sacrament (a view often called consubstantiation by non-Lutherans), Huldrych Zwingli taught that the sacrament is purely symbolic and memorial in character, arguing that this was the meaning of Jesus' instruction: "Do this in remembrance of me."

In 1551, the Council of Trent officially defined[21] that "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."[24]

In line with this definition, rejection of the doctrine of transubstantiation was considered heresy during the five-year reign (1553-1558) of Mary I of England. John Frith, John Rogers, and Rowland Taylor were executed for refusing to accept it, as recounted in Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Mary's successor Elizabeth declared that: "Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions";[25] and made assistance at Mass illegal.[26]

In the acrimonious arguments which characterized the relationship between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism in the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent declared subject to the ecclesiastical penalty of anathema anyone who:

"…denieth, that, in the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, are contained truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ; but saith that He is only therein as in a sign, or in figure, or virtue" and anyone who "saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood - the species only of the bread and wine remaining - which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation."[27]

Many Protestant groups now celebrate Holy Communion more frequently than in years past, and no longer see such a practice as 'Roman'. There is also the tendency in some Protestant denominations to consider Christ to be present in the Eucharistic elements, though none would subscribe to belief in transubstantiation.

Views of other Churches on transubstantiation

Eastern Christianity

The Eastern Catholic, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox Churches, along with the Assyrian Church of the East, accept the doctrine of Transubstantiation. They usually rely on the status of the doctrine as a "Mystery," something known by divine revelation that could not have been arrived at by reason without revelation. Accordingly, they prefer not to elaborate upon the details. However, they do speak clearly of a "change" (in Greek μεταβολή) or "metousiosis" (μετουσίωσις) of the bread and wine. Met-ousi-osis is the Greek form of the word Tran-substantia-tion.


During the reign of Henry VIII, the official teaching of the Anglican Church was identical with the Roman Catholic Church's doctrine, in defense of which the king wrote a book Assertio Septem Sacramentorum, for which Pope Leo X rewarded him in 1521 with the title of Fidei defensor ("Defender of the Faith.") Under his son, Edward VI, the Anglican Church accepted a more Protestant theology, and directly opposed transubstantiation. Elizabeth I, as part of the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, gave royal assent to the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, which sought to distinguish Anglican from Roman Church doctrine. The Articles, declared:

"Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions."[28]

Anglicans generally consider no teaching binding that, according to the Articles, "cannot be found in Holy Scripture or proved thereby." Consequently, some Anglicans (especially Anglo-Catholics and High Church Anglicans) accept Transubstantiation, while others do not. In any case, the Articles are not considered binding on any but Church of England clergy, especially for Anglican Churches other than the Church of England. While Archbishop John Tillotson decried the "real barbarousness of this Sacrament and Rite of our Religion," considering it a great impiety to believe that people who attend Holy Communion "verily eat and drink the natural flesh and blood of Christ. And what can any man do more unworthily towards a Friend? How can he possibly use him more barbarously, than to feast upon his living flesh and blood?" (Discourse against Transubstantiation. (London 1684), 35), official writings of the Churches of the Anglican Communion have consistently upheld belief in the Real Presence. Some recent Anglican writers explicitly accept the doctrine of transubstantiation, or, while avoiding the term "transubstantiation," speak of an "objective presence" of Christ in the Eucharist. On the other hand, others hold views, such as consubstantiation or "pneumatic presence," close to those of Reformed Protestant Churches.

Theological dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church has produced common documents that speak of "substantial agreement" about the doctrine of the Eucharist: the ARCIC Windsor Statement of 1971,[29] and its 1979 Elucidation.][30] Remaining arguments can be found in the Church of England's pastoral letter: The Eucharist: Sacrament of Unity.[31]


Lutherans believe that within the Eucharistic celebration the body and blood of Jesus Christ are objectively present "in, with, and under the forms" of bread and wine (cf. Book of Concord). They place great stress on Jesus' instructions to "take and eat," and "take and drink," holding that this is the proper, divinely ordained use of the sacrament, and, while giving it due reverence, scrupulously avoid any actions that might indicate or lead to superstition or unworthy fear of the sacrament. However, Luther explicitly rejected transubstantiation, believing that the bread and wine remained fully bread and fully wine while also being fully the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Luther instead emphasized the sacramental union (not exactly the consubstantiation, as it is often claimed).

Other Protestant denominations believe that the Lord's Supper is a symbolic act done in remembrance of what Christ has done for us on the cross. He commanded the apostles: "This do in remembrance of me," after "he took bread, and gave thanks, and broke it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you" (Luke 22:19, 1 Corinthians 11:24). Therefore they see it as a symbolic act done in remembrance and as a declaration (1 Corinthians 11:26) of faith in what they consider Christ's finished (John 19:30) work on the cross. They reject the idea that a priest, acting, he believes, in the name of Christ, not in his own name, can transform bread and wine into the actual body and blood of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, and many of them see the doctrine as a problem because of its connection with practices such as Eucharistic adoration, which they believe may be idolatry, worshipping, praying to, and kneeling before mere bread and wine, as if it were God.[32] They base their criticism of the doctrine of transubstantiation (and also of the Real Presence) on a number of verses of the Bible, including Exodus 20:4-5, and on their interpretation of the central message of the Gospel. Scripture does not explicitly say "the bread was transformed" or "changed" in any way, and therefore they consider the doctrine of transubstantiation to be unbiblical from more than one approach. As already stated above, they also object to using early Christian writings such as those of Ignatius, Justin and Ambrose as support for belief in the real change of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, because such writings are not Scripture nor "writings that were able to be verified by any prophet or apostle," especially when they believe such doctrines contradict inspired Scripture, even if these writings seem to show that they were upheld by the early Church.

A few Protestants apply to the doctrine of the Real Presence the warning that Jesus gave to His disciples in Matthew 24:26: "Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not," believing that "secret chambers" (also translated as "inner rooms," "a secret place," "indoors in the room") may refer to the church buildings or church tabernacles in which consecrated hosts are stored. They thus do not believe the words of those who say that Jesus Christ (in host form) resides inside churches or in church tabernacles. They believe that Christ's words at the Last Supper were meant to be taken metaphorically and believe that support for a metaphorical interpretation comes from Christ's other teachings that utilized food in general (John 4:32-34), bread (John 6:35), and leaven (Matthew 16:6-12), as metaphors. They believe that when Christ returns in any substance with any physical[33] form (accidental or actual), it will be apparent to all and that no man will have to point and say "there He is."

Protestant Churches that hold strong beliefs against the consumption of alcohol replace wine with grape juice during the Lord's supper. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also referred to as Mormons), a Restorationist sect, uses bread and water to commemoratively symbolize Christ's body and blood.

Others, such as some Presbyterian denominations, profess belief in the Real Presence, but offer explanations other than transubstantiation. Classical Presbyterianism held the Calvinist view of "pneumatic" presence or "spiritual feeding." However, when the Presbyterian Church (USA) signed "A Formula for Agreement" with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, both affirmed belief in the Real Presence.


  1. Major Branches of Religions Ranked by Number of Adherents Retrieved June 25, 2008.
  2. Transubstantiation and the Black Retrieved June 25, 2008.
  3. Mark 14:22-24; Matthew 26:26-28; Luke 22:19-20
  4. 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 Retrieved June 25, 2008.
  5. Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism — The Eucharist Retrieved June 25, 2008.
  6. Acts 20:17-32
  7. Matthew 26:26, Mark 14:22, Luke 22:18, 1 Corinthians 11:24
  8. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1376 Retrieved June 25, 2008.
  9. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1377; Christ’s Presence in the Eucharist: True, Real and Substantial.
  10. Chapter 14 of Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily. by Schaff, Philip (1819-1893) Retrieved June 25, 2008.
  11. cf. Acts 20:17-32
  12. Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, 7 Retrieved June 25, 2008.
  13. the first Apologyintratext. Retrieved November 16, 2008.
  14. Book VIII, section II, XIII Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved June 25, 2008.
  15. On the Mysteries, 50-54 Retrieved June 25, 2008.
  16. Cyril of Jerusalem, Cat. Myst., 5, 7 (Patrologia Graeca 33:1113): μεταβολή
  17. Gregory of Nyssa, Oratio catechetica magna, 37 (Patrologia Graeca 45:93): μεταστοιχειώσας
  18. John Chrysostom, "Homily 1 on the betrayal of Judas," 6 (Patrologia Graeca 49:380): μεταρρύθμησις
  19. Cyril of Alexandria, "On Luke," 22, 19 (Patrologia Graeca 72:911): μετίτησις
  20. John Damascene, On the orthodox faith, book 4, chapter 13 (Patrologia Graeca 49:380): μεταποίησις
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. (Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0192802903), article "Transubstantiation."
  22. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. (Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0192802903), article "Berengar of Tours."
  23. "Sermones" xciii; PL CLXXI, 776
  24. Council of Trent, Session XIII, chapter IV; cf. canon IIHanover College. Retrieved June 25, 2008.
  25. Thirty-Nine Articles, (established in 1563), article 28
  26. The Literature of Persecution and Intolerance; James MacCaffrey, vol. ; St. Margaret Clitherow Retrieved June 25, 2008.
  27. Council of Trent, The Thirteenth SessionHanover College. Retrieved June 25, 2008.
  28. Thirty-nine Articles
  29. Agreed Statement on Eucharistic Doctrine, ANGLICAN/ROMAN CATHOLIC JOINT PREPARATORY COMMISSION. Pro Unione Web Site - Full Text ARCIC Eucharist Retrieved June 25, 2008.
  30. Pro Unione Web Site - Full Text ARCIC Elucidation Eucharist Retrieved June 25, 2008.
  31. Eucharist 2 Retrieved June 25, 2008.
  32. Samuel Johnson remarked: "Sir, there is no idolatry in the Mass. They believe GOD to be there, and they adore him" (Boswell's Life of Johnson. Retrieved 11 May 2007.[1] In the Old Testament, many idols were considered gods, and God expressed extreme dissatisfaction with worship of such "strange gods" (cf. Deuteronomy 32:16). Retrieved June 25, 2008.
  33. The Catholic teaching is that the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not physical in the ordinary sense of this word; it can be called "physical" only in the sense of "real," as opposed to "symbolic," "figurative," "subjective," "dynamic." It is thus quite different from Christ's presence in his final coming. See Summa Theologica, III, 76; Christ’s Presence in the Eucharist: True, Real and Substantial; The Reality of the Real Presence. Retrieved June 25, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cosin, John. (1840). The History of the Popish Transubstantiation. reprint ed. Kessinger Publishing, LLC. 2007. ISBN 978-0548606148.
  • Faber, George Stanley. (1840). Christ's Discourse At Capernaum, Fatal to the Doctrine of Transubstantiation. reprint ed. Kessinger Publishing, LLC. 2007. ISBN 978-0548609347
  • Monk, Geraldine. Insubstantial Thoughts on the Transubstantiation of the Text. West House Books, 2002. ISBN 978-1904052050
  • Ryves, Edmund. (1724) Popery Examined in Two of Its Principal Doctrines: That of Merit and That of Transubstantiation; In Two Sermons (1724). reprint ed. Kessinger Publishing, LLC. 2007. ISBN 978-0548578612

External links

All links retrieved May 1, 2023.


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