George HunsingerGeorge Hunsinger, professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, received his PhD in 1988 from Yale University.

Dr. George Hunsinger talks about his work examining the theology of the Eucharist across different Christian heritages.

Edited transcript

JMF: I’d like to talk about a couple of terms that our viewers might be familiar with, but maybe you could define them and then move on to a third term that you put forward in your book, The Eucharist and Ecumenism. Many of our viewers are familiar with “transubstantiation” and “consub­stan­tiation” and that there has been controversy, but they may not remember what the controversy was, and what the definitions are. You introduced the concept of “transelementation,” so could you describe those and move on to transelementation and the potential you see for that term?

GH: Thank you. There are three main issues that need to be addressed if we are to get beyond the impasse in ecumenical discussion about the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. One has to do with the real presence of Christ. That’s where your question about those terms comes in. Then there’s the question of the Eucharistic sacrifice, and finally there’s the ques­tion of the ordained ministry. I address all three of those areas in my book.

The churches have divided historically over the question about how are we to understand the idea of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper. It has to be given a special formulation. It can’t just be that Christ is somehow really present with the Lord’s Supper. It has to do with the bread and the wine as consecrated elements, and in what sense are the body and blood of Christ present in and through and with the elements of bread and wine.

The historic Roman Catholic answer to that is transubstantiation. This term has been defined by a church council for them. The Council of Trent gave a technical definition to transubstantiation, so that’s the one we have to look at. The word was around much longer than that, but it didn’t have a technical definition prior to the 16th century. The Reformation forced the Catholic Church to come up with a more careful definition of what they meant. That then divided the Protestant churches from the Roman Catholic Church. The Council of Trent drew largely upon the definition that Thomas Aquinas had developed in the 13th century.

Transubstantiation involves conversion and containment. The bread and the wine are somehow converted so that they become the body and blood of Christ in a particular form, and the body and blood are then contained in the bread and the wine, respectively. So transubstantiation is, in a sense, a theory of descent and containment. The grace of God descends from heaven, and when the priest or the bishop presiding at the Eucharist says the words of consecration, the words that Jesus is recorded as having said at the last supper, “This is my body, given for you, this cup (in the New Testament) is my blood, shed for you.”

When the priest says that in the Catholic liturgy, a bell is rung, because that’s where you’re supposed to pay attention — that’s where the miracle and the wonder takes place that the bread is no longer merely bread, the wine is no longer merely wine, but is the body and blood of Christ. But the outward form, called the accidents, remains. This distinction about substance and accidents comes from Aristotle, was used by Aquinas, and the Council of Trent changed it just slightly and instead of talking about accidents, they used the word species, but it was the same thing. It’s form and content.

The outward form remains the form of bread, and the outward form remains the form of wine. But the inner content, the inner substance, has been converted and transformed into the body and blood of Christ, which are then contained by the elements. The Reformation felt that this was a terrible idea, and it made no sense, so they didn’t want to have anything to do with it. Whether they had a suitable alternative or not is another matter. The Lutherans and the Reformed within the Reformation split apart over this question. In the first generation of Reformers, the Reformed were from Switzerland and southern Germany, but especially Switzerland, led by the Zürich Reformer Ulrich Zwingli. The Lutherans were led by Martin Luther from Wittenberg.

Zwingli had what is thought of as a very low understanding of how the bread and the wine function in the Lord’s Supper. They are merely symbols of something that is not necessarily present. There’s more than one way to work this out. What happened in the past, in Christ’s once-for-all saving work, that is symbolized and remembered in the Lord’s Supper — that was Zwingli’s basic view. What the Reformed tradition was especially concerned to protect was the integrity of Christ’s human body after his resurrection and ascension. They thought if Christ was somehow substantially present in the Lord’s Supper, it was impossible to maintain the full integrity of his human body in heaven.

Calvin, who modified Zwingli’s views considerably, still had that as a primary concern. One reason they had that conviction was that they believed salvation was at stake. If Jesus’ humanity ceased to be real humanity in its full integrity as a human body, as a part of his humanity, then the ideal of our salvation was destroyed. He had to remain a real human being, even after the ascension.

The Lutheran view is sometimes called the consubstantiation, the term you mentioned, and some Lutherans are okay with that term, but some aren’t. Some Lutheran documents from the 16th and 17th century deny that this describes the Lutheran position. Some still use the term. Partly it’s a matter of definitions. Consubstantiation can mean more than one thing. If it means that you just have two substances together — the substance of the bread and the substance of the body of Christ (whatever “substance” means… even for Catholics this substance/ accidents scheme is perplexing today; nobody quite knows what to make of these Aristotelian terms).

A dictionary definition view of consubstantiation has the two substances coexisting together. The bread remains bread, but the body of Christ is joined to it mysteriously. Maybe it’s not taken any further, but you get the impression sometimes that they’re externally related — they’re coexisting side by side. I don’t think that was Luther’s view, but it is a view that is ascribed to Luther and accepted by some Lutherans.

Luther said different things in different writings. He’s not an easy theologian to pin down, because he’s so situational and he’ll say one thing here and another thing there – it’s like a bell-shaped curve, one or two standard deviations… In his treatise of 1520 called The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, one of his most widely read treatises, he takes a position that was somewhat neglected, or put to one side, in the heat of Reformational controversies between Luther and Zwingli and their colleagues. In Babylonian Captivity, Luther focuses on the verse 1 Corinthians 10:16. That verse says “the bread that we break, is it not a (blank) in the body of Christ.” In English the word that I left blank is often translated as “participation.” Luther knew it in the Greek – koinonia. One way of inter­preting the verse (there’s more than one way) is to say that the relationship between the bread that we break and the body of Christ is a koinonia relation. It’s some kind of participation of the one in the other. The idea of participation is not always kept in mind when the term consubstantiation is used. But consubstantiation can be used to cover this other case where there’s a more intimate kind of indwelling, at least of the body in the bread.

The Eastern Orthodox view that I have found to be helpful as a way of moving beyond the impasse ecumenically…it’s not called consubstantiation by them, but Luther’s view in the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, based on 1 Corinthians 10:16 and other verses, is not far from that ancient Orthodox view. The Orthodox have several terms that they will use, and it makes it hard to find out what they actually think, but if you read long enough, you can see that there’s one term that stands out among the rest. That is what I put forth in my book as transelementation, metastoicheisis. It’s a deep interpret­ation of 1 Corinthians 10:16.

What is a koinonia relation? There’s more than one way to work that out, but it can be a relationship of mutual indwelling. If you take that view, then the bread can remain bread (without any loss of its definition as bread — it’s not substance and accidents), and it somehow participates in the body of Christ. It’s not just that the body of Christ participates in the bread, but there’s a relationship of each being in the other.

For the Catholics and for the Orthodox, and for this view that Luther espoused, it’s not just the body and blood of Christ that are thought of in detachment from the rest of his person, this is the form in which he’s present to us — this sacrificial form…in and with the sacramental form of his body and blood, the whole person of Christ is present. He offers himself to us under the sacramental form of his body and blood. He gives himself to the church in that form, and in the same way he unites the church to himself.

As in the incarnation, he assumed human flesh, he made himself one with us…even though he was God, he emptied himself and took the form of a servant even to death on a cross, as we read in Philippians 2. He took that flesh, he made himself one with us in order to bear our sins and bear them away — the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He makes us one with himself through that same body and blood, that same sacrificial death. There’s only one body of Christ, it is definitively present in Christ’s life and death there and then, but then it becomes sacramentally present. It’s here and now under the forms of bread and wine.

The image that was used in the ancient church to bring out this idea of transelementation was the image of the iron in the fire. They used that image both for the incarnation and for the relationship between the bread and the wine and Christ’s life-giving flesh. There’s an important incarnational analogy here. In the council decision at Chalcedon in 451, the fifth-century decision defining the person of Christ (this is a decision that’s definitive for Catholics, for Orthodox, and for Reformation Protestants), they had to give some account of how Christ’s deity and humanity were related. They said that they were related “without separation or division.”

That meant there was, to put it more positively, an inseparable unity between them… “without confusion or change.” The deity of Christ in the union remains deity, the humanity of Christ in the union remains humanity. How can they be together in one person? That’s the mystery of the incarna­tion. If God by nature is immortal, how can the immortal God assume mortal flesh? Questions like that. That’s the mystery of the incarnation.

There’s a third element here that’s implied, a kind of a symmetry… Deity and humanity are not on a par with one another. They wouldn’t balance the scales if you could put them on some kind of scales. None of these images would be perfect then. Let me use another one that has real limitations: Gregory of Nyssa, the great Cappadocian theologian from the fourth century, said that deity and humanity in Christ were something like a drop of water in the ocean. The deity of Christ has this immensity to it and the humanity has a kind of smallness, and, relative to his deity, a kind of insignificance. The problem with that image is that it loses the idea of “without confusion or change.” If you put a drop of blood into the ocean, it disappears. But in the scale that we’re talking, or the incommensurability, the absolute difference between deity and humanity — it helps us imagine that.

We need three things to think about the person of Christ, and this carries over by analogy to thinking about the bread and the wine. You need asymmetry. You need the priority of one over the other. You need unity, you need an inseparable unity of these two that would not otherwise come together except for the miracle of grace, and in that unity, you need an abiding distinction. This is the model that the Orthodox have used for thinking not only about the incarnation, which is true of all Nicene Christians and Chalcedonian Christians, but they use this incarnational analogy to think about how Christ’s life-giving flesh is related to the Eucharistic gift of bread and wine without separation or division, without confusion or change.

This is what’s missing from transubstantiation, this element of asym­metry which gives the precedence to Christ and his body. It’s not just that the body is contained in the bread, it’s that Christ in the power of the Spirit takes these Eucharistic gifts and joins himself to them in a certain respect so that he, not the priest, is the acting subject in the working of this sacramental miracle in order to offer himself through the priest to the people in these sacramental forms.

Transelementation involves an explicit place also for the work of the Holy Spirit. The Orthodox have this wonderful idea, in the Greek it’s called epiklesis, invocation, the Spirit is invoked while celebrating the Eucharistic liturgy. But the Orthodox don’t pin it down to a particular moment in the liturgy. There’s no bell that is rung when the transformation takes place. In a sense, the whole liturgy is one long epiklesis, one long invocation of the Spirit. The Spirit is thought to take the bread and the wine into the presence of Christ, who then joins himself to the elements and offers himself in a sacramental form through the bread and the wine to the faithful.

So the bread remains bread, and the body of Christ remains the body of Christ, but that iron in the fire image is something like that Chalcedonian pattern that I was laying out. It’s an impersonal image, it has its limits, but the iron remains iron. It doesn’t cease to be iron. It doesn’t lose anything of what defines it as iron. It doesn’t lose its substance. The fire remains fire, and yet the two become one. As long as the iron is in the fire, there’s this inseparable unity, so there’s an abiding distinction and an inseparable unity.

If you push the analogy a little bit, there’s also that asymmetry. There’s a way in which the iron is in the fire in a different sense than the fire is in the iron, because there’s more to the fire (if you think of a campfire situation) than the iron itself. So you get that sense of something larger entering into the iron, the fire being like the deity or being like the glorified body of Christ joining itself to this more ordinary element, as it were, of Christ’s flesh in the incarnation or the bread and the wine in the Eucharist.

The image that illustrates this mutual indwelling in the idea of trans­elemen­tation is the iron in the fire. But it turns out that not only did Luther essentially have this idea (without making it as explicit as I make it), but he actually had the image of the iron in the fire. I don’t know where he got it, but maybe he got it from reading ancient theology.

The Orthodox are out of the picture. The church split apart in the 11th century and the East and West had gone their separate ways. One of the reasons things polarized so badly in the West is because the Orthodox were absent. They didn’t have a voice at the table. They managed to hold some things together that entered into one of those either-ors, one of those false decisions that have characterized Eucharistic controversy in the West.

But there are some Protestant Reformers, not just Luther, who knew about this idea, and for my purposes the important thing in my book is not that they took this idea of the iron in the fire or the idea of transelemen­tation and made it central to what they wanted to teach about the Lord’s Supper. The important thing is that they knew about it and didn’t reject it. They didn’t see anything problematic with it. That’s all I need in order to make my argument that we need to take every step we can toward achieving unity in the church around these divisive issues as long as it doesn’t involve us in theological compromise.

So here’s a view that’s different from the Roman Catholic view but that the Roman Catholics don’t reject. The Roman Catholics, at Vatican II, the official church council in the 1960s called by Pope John the 23rd, decided that from the Catholic side there’s no reason not to enter into Eucharistic fellowship with the Orthodox. The Orthodox don’t, as a rule, subscribe to the technical definition of transubstantiation that is official Roman Catholic teaching. They have the iron in the fire idea, transelementation, and there were Reformed theologians, not just Lutherans, who knew of this image and this idea and talked about it, sometimes used it in argument, and they didn’t reject it. They didn’t see anything problematic with it.

The important figure here is not very well known; his name is Peter Martyr Vermigli. He was an associate of John Calvin. He is one of the few Reformers with whom, as far as I know, Calvin never entered into any serious disagreement. They were not in the same place at the same time; they just had a correspondence. Calvin said once, “Nobody has a better understanding of the Lord’s Supper than Peter Vermigli.” Vermigli dis­covered this idea of transelementation, which is how I learned about it. But I didn’t know what it was until I was able to connect it with the image of iron in the fire. Vermigli found it in an Eastern Orthodox theologian from the 11th century (because in those days the Reformers wanted to show that their ideas were not coming out of nowhere, that they had backing in the tradition. The patristic theologians often said things…or theologians in the church wanted to say that the Catholics were the ones that had gone off the rails and the Reformers were recovering the authentic traditions).

Vermigli, more than any of them, because he wasn’t a Reformer who had a city and church to superintend, was a scholar (this is my supposition) …he had time to dig around in the library, and we now have a fair number of his writings in English in the last decade or so because there’s a Vermigli industry that has sprung up centered in Orlando, Florida, and all these people are busily translating Vermigli and putting his works out there. One of them is called the Oxford Disputation on the Eucharist. Vermigli is debating a high-powered Roman Catholic theologian, and he needs all the ammunition he can find. So I imagine him having the time that Calvin didn’t have, or that Martin Bucer didn’t have, or that even Thomas Cranmer in England didn’t have, to find out about these precedents. He’s the one who gave this term “transelementation” prominence.

Then it shows up in the most important, the most lengthy and important writing on the Lord’s Supper by Thomas Cranmer. People have had trouble figuring out where Cranmer finally comes down. Some think he’s close to Zwingli, which would give him a low view — others try to see him in a different light. In Canmer’s treatise, there’s not a page where he’s discussing the same figure… I think it was Vermigli who must have discovered… it’s an enigma wrapped in a mystery again and again.

This guy I had never heard of named Theophylact from the 11th century was a distinguished theologian, kind of on a par with Anselm in the West. He became the Archbishop of Bulgaria and was in exile there. He was constantly longing for the society and the theological conversations and the libraries of Constantinople, but his bishop made him go to Bulgaria, so he lived out his days in Bulgaria. He wrote commentaries on Scripture. Vermigli found in Theophylact the term transelementation, so he used it. He didn’t know that it went all the way back to Gregory of Nazianzus, Cyril of Alexandria and the most seminal and important patristic theologians on the Greek-speaking side of things. It has a heritage, a lineage that even the Reformers didn’t appreciate when they embraced this idea.

Here’s Cranmer, writing this treatise, which some people think is basically Zwingli, but he’d come to Theophylact. He has Theophylact by name, he has the image of the iron in the fire, he says the bread and the wine become infused with the body and blood of Christ so that they are the presence of the body and blood of Christ in sacramental form. This might look like transubstantiation, says Cranmer, but it isn’t. It might look like a problem, but it isn’t, he says.

Calvin’s mentor Martin Bucer also has the term transelementation. So here’s Vermigli, Cranmer and Bucer, each of whom is making use of this idea that has its roots in the Greek Church and in Greek-speaking theologians that go back to very ancient times, and they don’t find anything wrong with it.

There’s even one little passage in Calvin’s Institutes, not very explicit, it doesn’t have the image of the iron in the fire and it’s an overlooked passage, but Calvin says the ancients…(every time I read that, until I started working on this book, I thought he must mean the Latin theologians, but I think he means the Greeks). The ancients had the idea that the bread and the wine are elevated into a different domain. This is (I’m being a little more explicit than Calvin was) so that they don’t cease to become bread and wine, but they’re converted. He has the idea of conversion. They’re converted into the body and blood of Christ. This is not an idea that Calvin does anything with, but he says, explicitly, of this, “to this, we have no objection.”

So insofar as this Eastern Orthodox understanding was known by the Protestant Reformers, it was embraced in various ways and not rejected. I think this is a way that we could reach convergence on this historically divisive issue. I find it to be a very deep and rich idea that Christ’s body and blood, without ceasing to be definitive in their historical enactment in his life and death on earth, can assume a sacramental form. It means that Christ is not separable from his saving significance or from his work and benefits. If he’s present, his work is present, his benefits are present. And in the Lord’s Supper, they’re present in this unique and miraculous way that the bread and the wine, without ceasing to be bread and wine, come to enter into an inseparable unity with his body and blood so that he gives himself to us under the forms of bread and wine.

George Herbert, the 17th-century Anglican minister and poet, has a line that says, “Love is that liquor, sweet and most divine, which my God feels as blood and I as wine.” That’s compatible with transelementation.

So it’s not descent and replacement, which is what you get in transubstantiation – it’s elevation and enhancement, where the bread and the wine are enhanced by being joined into a mystical union with the body and blood of Christ. (It’s odd to do all this focusing on the elements and so on, but it’s necessary, because that’s where the divisions have arisen.) The mystical union with Christ with the bread and the wine becomes the means by which we enter into mystical union with Christ. He gives himself to us and we enter into union with him through his self-offering under the forms of bread and wine, which are the sacramental forms of his body and blood.

That’s roughly the way I try to work things out in that part of my book, and I don’t see any losses here for the Reformation church. This is no compromise. None of the Reformists… I could say in principle there’s no compromise, and make a case, but I don’t even have to do that by myself, I’ve got Vermigli and Cranmer and Bucer doing the same thing, and maybe Calvin…he’s not explicit enough for me to rely too heavily on him, but he has a very promising idea that could help get us beyond this impasse around how to think about the real presence of Christ. There’s a non-church-dividing alternative to the Roman Catholic view, that is, not church dividing from a Catholic standpoint.

This is part of a more general strategy in my book. There are often places that the Orthodox don’t agree with the Catholics that are more congenial to the Reformation. Insofar as we can move closer to the Orthodox and go on their coattails, so to speak…because remember, we Protestants are little slivers in the big pie that comprises world Christianity, and Catholics are 50 percent, and Orthodox are 17 or so percent. That’s a big chunk. There are other questions that I wouldn’t think would need to be considered so intensively if they weren’t important to the Catholics and the Orthodox. But if they think they’re important, and if we’re striving for church unity, then we have to make a good-faith effort to try to find a way that we can approximate what they’re calling for without compromise.

At every point, as far as I can see, this leads to an enrichment for Protestants — and not losses, which is what the Reformers always feared — that if we came too close to the Catholics and we did not know much about the Orthodox, it would just be compromise and loss. Well, there’s another way of trying to work this out that doesn’t lead to losses. We’re recovering elements of the ancient tradition which would only be to our well-being and the well-being of Christianity.

JMF: Do you see progress along these lines being made yet?

GH: Nobody has come to terms with the argument I make in my book, because it’s too new. By and large, Catholic reviewers have been favorable. Orthodox, being Orthodox, they’re not going to embrace it with open arms, but they’re not hostile. It’s a kind of parallel movement that I don’t engage with very much, but that I need to give some more thought to now that I’ve gotten things to this point in my own mind with the book.

Let’s say we want to do something with this idea of transelementation. You have to figure out what kind of language you would want to incorporate into your worship. How would you express that? What difference would it make liturgically? This can be incorporated without anything terribly extensive or elaborate. You don’t need the kind of arguments, you don’t need the kind of explanations that I need to give to back it up at a theological level. On this parallel track of thinking about liturgy and the language of worship, yes, progress is being made. Insofar as a theologian can give good reasons for why this liturgical progress should continue, that’s where it finally has its payoff. How does it show up in the language of worship?

JMF: The average Christian who comes to the Lord’s Table and partakes of the Lord’s Supper knows …if anything, very little about all this kind of discussion and meaning. All they know is that this is what Christians do, and so they do it. It’s the hierarchy and the government of a given denomination, church, or whatever who decides they’re not going to have communion with someone else because they don’t understand it the same way. But in the case of the believer, it seems that this idea of the iron in the fire is what’s going on with the believer. They’re participating with Christ and it happens regardless…

GH: Yes, that’s right! That’s another application of the word trans­elementation. It’s used to cover that case, what’s going on with the believer.

JMF: As we talked about, I think in a previous interview, the irony of the fact that your taking of the Lord’s Supper is expressing in that participation in Christ, in his body and blood (regardless of how you interpret or understand it or describe it or how your superiors do in the church), it is pointing to the unity that exists in spite of all of our…

GH: To a large degree. There are people, though, who think…when Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of me,” there’s a Protestant perception that this is a mental event. As you are receiving the blood and wine, you’re supposed to remember something.

JMF: Yes, so you’re thinking about that as a…

GH: A better translation is, “Do this as my memorial.” I don’t have time to work this out, but it’s like Passover. The original Passover becomes present in celebration of the Passover, and the people who are celebrating here and now are in some sense incorporated into the original Passover so the boundaries between past and present are transcended in the celebration.

JMF: They’re taking part in the deliverance that occurred originally.

GH: Yeah. The enactment is the memorial. It’s not a second mental event along with it. Apart from all this theoretical work that I’ve outlined, the ecumenical minimum has to be there to overcome these divisions, because we have to be able to say, regardless of how we get there, without crossing our fingers, that this is the body of Christ, this is the blood of Christ shed for you — that it is the case that this bread and this wine are the body and blood of Christ.

Luther uses the incarnational analogy. He says, just as we can point to this man and say this man is the Lord, and we don’t mean that his humanity is his deity, but by virtue of the union this man is the Lord, or the Lord, the man on the cross, is God. By virtue of the union we say these things that would not otherwise be possible. By virtue of the relation, we can say this bread is the body of Christ because of that koinonia relation, because of that mutual indwelling, because of that mystical union accomplished not by the presiding minister, not by the priest, but by Christ himself in the power of the Spirit through the priest and with the congregation. That’s the breakthrough that the Reformation needs in order to be able to say, without crossing their fingers, this is the body of Christ, at least the Presbyterians.

JMF: It’s a “so what” until someone partakes of it.

GH: Exactly. But the communion in the elements is what brings us into communion with the living Christ, and he’s not absent. I hate this term that is sometimes used, the real absence of Christ — the real presence and real absence. There’s no such thing as a real absence of Christ – I mean, “Behold I am with you always, until the end of the age.” He’s present in some sense where two or three are gathering together, which is probably a Eucharistic passage. “I am in the midst of you.” There’s no such thing as a real absence of Christ.

He’s present in this mode — he’s present under the forms of his body and blood, the sacramental union of the body, the life-giving flesh with the bread and the wine. That’s crucial, that’s ancient, that’s deep, that is not just a “so what” kind of perception — that Christ is with us in this palpable way that brings his sacrificial death to us and him in his sacrificial significance so that we are renewed and nourished by our participation in what he did there and then. It becomes present to us sacramentally here and now so that we are given an active share in it by grace through faith.

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Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2021, 2:26 PM