14.03.01, Adams, Some Later Medieval Theories of the Eucharist

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Thomas M. Izbicki

The Medieval Review 14.03.01

Adams, Marilyn McCord. Some Later Medieval Theories of the Eucharist: Thomas Aquinas, Giles of Rome, Duns Scotus, and William Ockham. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. 318. ISBN: 9780199658169.

Reviewed by:
Thomas M. Izbicki
Rutgers University

Beginning with the attack on the theology of Berengar of Tours in the eleventh century, medieval theologians inclined toward the view that Christ's presence in the Eucharist was not just figural but substantial. By the end of the twelfth century, the term "transubstantiation" had become common, and Pope Innocent III used the term in the canon Firmiter credimus of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). By that date the writings of Aristotle had become important in explanations of the created universe. Theologians had to deal not just with Church doctrine on the Eucharist but explanations of how the Real Presence could be effected in an Aristotelian universe. In this book, Marilyn McCord Adams offers an examination of the responses of theologians of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries to this challenge of reconciling doctrines. Her choice of theologians might be grouped in two pairs. Thomas Aquinas offered an opinion that was modified by Giles of Rome, emphasizing the transformation of the Eucharistic elements into the body and blood of Christ. Duns Scotus and William of Ockham critiqued these theologies, offering alternative explanations of the means of effecting transubstantiation.

The author is a philosopher, and her approach to the subject is rigorous. The prose often is challenging for the reader, including specified topics within a chapter, logical arguments and numerous numbered propositions. These latter are listed separately in a separate list following the text of the last chapter. The interested scholar might want to bookmark this list for ready reference while reading Adams' text. The author also offers a discussion of Aristotle's ideas on the cosmos and causation as a preliminary to her exposition of Eucharistic theologies. The reader is well advised to spend time becoming acquainted or reacquainted with the Philosopher's ideas and vocabulary.

Adams addresses a series of larger problems in each chapter. Most focus on the ways in which the four theologians, and to a lesser extent Hugh of St. Victor, Peter Lombard and Bonaventure, dealt with an issue, balancing dogma against philosophical precision. Among the problems addressed, the most general concern the sacraments as effective signs, how they could cause what they signified. There were sacraments under natural law, Mosaic Law (especially circumcision) and the New Law. These last were the most perfect, bringing the older rites to an end. The effectiveness of the sacraments required addressing how material stuff could be a means or even an efficient cause of grace. To simplify Adams' detailed exposition drastically: Thomas Aquinas resolved the problem by making material things instrumental causes, disposing human beings to receive the actions of God, the principal cause of the sacraments. Despite objections to his theory, Aquinas maintained that God appropriated material things as means of grace. Duns Scotus, the most creative critic of Aquinas' thought on the sacraments, said material things had no causal relationship to grace. Scotus--and Ockham after him--thought the fundamental relationship was between divine intentionality and sacramental effectiveness, human participation and spiritual effect ex opere operato.

Focusing on the Eucharist, Adams devotes four chapters to the "Physics of the Real Presence" of Christ in the sacrament and two more to the possibility of "Independent Accidents" after the substance has been changed. Any theology of the Real Presence in the Eucharist presented many problems to be solved. Theologians and canonists in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries rejected two extreme positions. The spiritual interpretation ascribed to Berengar of Tours was one, since it left little room for the very body of Christ on the altar. Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida imposed on Berengar an oath which was literal-minded. The body of Christ could be broken and chewed at mass. This left little room for an impassible glorified body. Three middle-ground opinions were advanced. One, usually called "consubstantiation," allowed for the elements and the body of Christ to be present simultaneously. Another presumed the elements were annihilated, being replaced by the body and blood. The third, transubstantiation proper, said the elements were transformed, leaving only the body and blood. The canonists leaned to "annihilation," but a theological consensus eventually emerged favoring transformation.

Thomas Aquinas rejected consubstantiation and annihilation, and he played a leading role in the development of the theological consensus that some form of transformation occurred. However, his explanations of the means were not universally accepted. Giles of Rome had to modify the teachings of the Angelic Doctor. Scotus came up with alternative explanations of how transubstantiation could occur. Ockham modified Scotus's ideas, but they shared much common ground. Adams addresses many obstacles the theologians had to overcome, especially operating within an Aristotelian framework. Most crucial in this context were ideas of causation, location and hylomorphism, the union of matter and form in the created universe. These authors had to deal with the problem of how change of the elements was effected. Equally important, the continued presence of the accidents of bread and wine had to be explained, how they continued after the substances of the elements had been transformed into body and blood.

The specific principles and problems are too numerous to detail in a review. The interested scholar is advised to read the entire book carefully. How Christ's glorified body could be in heaven and yet come to the altar was one. Moreover, it was incapable of suffering, even if the consecrated bread was broken. Two bodies could not be "extended" in the same place in Aristotelian physics, yet Christ's body was to become present, changing the bread. Moreover, there was no proportion between Christ's body and a consecrated host. He had to be present without his body being shrunken to that size or reduced to disorder. Even more complicating, Christ had to be able to become fully present on many altars simultaneously, another violation of the Philosopher's principles. Aquinas thought a new thing existed on the altar, but Scotus thought an existing entity was translated to a new location. The solutions to these and other problems were clever but not agreed upon in detail. One notes particularly Aquinas' idea that Christ's body could be present in a place but not be extended in it. In this as in other matters, theology challenged philosophy, requiring adjustments to a "rational" system to accommodate dogma.

The question of continuation of accidents led Aquinas to posit the presence of quantity to which those accidents adhered. Scotus and Ockham rejected this argument, granting greater independence to the accidents. Both theologies required the exercise of divine power. Either argument was complicated by the need to explain how the presence could go away, not just with communion being consumed but with consecrated bread being turned to ashes or found to be wormy. The Scholastics had to deal with the possibility that the original material was returned or that new matter was created to replace the body and blood. Either way, only divine power could explain change and substitutions occurring in the Eucharist. Especially for Scotus and Ockham, natural causes did not suffice. These theologians did, however, offer the intriguing idea that the soul, if it were not embedded in flesh, might be able to perceive God in the sacrament.

The final chapters of Adams' book deal with communion as a change agent, the end of the sacraments after the second coming and the nature of the afterlife. In that context, the author reflects on the seeming lack of community in the hereafter. The damned, reunited to their bodies, suffer individually. The saved too seem to lack community and fellowship even within the mystical body of Christ. Adams does not hesitate to advocate for new thinking about this and other problems. The Real Presence could be rethought outside an Aristotelian context, theology challenging philosophy to find new ways of expressing belief by using reason.

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Thomas M. Izbicki

Rutgers University