A friendly discussion on the Real Presence and the Eucharist: Andrew Harland-Smith’s first response

Christ is for everyone! is hosting a friendly discussion between myself and Andrew Harland-Smith on the topic of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Here is Andrew’s response to my initial response to him.

The Real Presence in Redux: Answering Steven’s Concerns


I am grateful for the opportunity to speak with Steven about this subject. I am pleased moreover, for the fact that mine is a common argument for the Real Presence. I must confess, having never received any formal theological instruction (my background is in analytic philosophy and law), it is some comfort to know that my ruminations have traction with others more qualified than myself.

In any event, it will be recalled that in my opening statement, I sought to argue from the centrality of Union with Christ, to Christ’s corporeal presence in the Eucharist.

Since I wrote that essay, Steven has contributed two essays to our dialogue. In the first, he advances an assortment of positive arguments for the proposition that Christ is not really present in the eucharistic elements. In the second however, he expresses a variety of worries as regards my argument for the Real Presence. It’s solely with a view to responding to these worries that I write the present essay; I will leave it to the next to offer my critical thoughts as regards Steven’s positive case.

Were this a longer essay, I would like to have said a little more. In particular, I would have liked to relate my discussion on the possibility of physical union with Christ, to Gregory the Theologian’s Christological framework. And, I might also have said a little more about the essence-accidents distinction in relation to the Eucharist. As it is however, space is limited, so I have not been able to say all that I would wish to.

Explanatory Concerns

Steven suggests that my metaphysics of union makes the Real Presence redundant for the purposes that I assign it. Specifically, he notes my claim that at the incarnation, Christ united Himself to us. He wonders then, what more is achieved by supposing that Christ is really present in the Eucharist.

With respect, Steven’s mistake here, is to confuse the fact of union with Christ, with the means by which it is effected. Specifically, Steven appears to think that, in my view, Christ effects one union at the incarnation, and another when we eat of his body and drink of his blood. On the contrary, my position from the outset is that the very same union which Christ effects at the Incarnation is effected as regards each of us, by means of His Real Presence in the Eucharist.

Put another way, it is true, as I have said, that at the incarnation, Christ unites Himself to us and so us to God. Even so, there is still a question as to the means by which that very same union is effected. How is it in other words, that Christ effects physical union with us who live at great physical and temporal distance from First Century Palestine?

The Nature and Possibility of Corporeal Union with Christ

1. Ontological Union, not Substantial Absorption

Steven writes that each person remains ‘irreducibly himself or herself’. He concludes that the union that obtains between free persons is a harmony of spirits, not a metaphysical ‘blending’.

With respect, Steven’s mistake is to confuse ontological union with substantial absorption. By ‘substantial absorption’, I understand a process by which two substances are intermingled such that the original substances are, in one manner of speaking, “lost into one-another”. It’s not obvious to me however, that ontological union must be understood only in terms of substantial absorption. In any event it seems to me reasonably intuitive to suppose that ontological union might as well involve the participation of distinct essences in a larger corporate entity. 

Nothing about this suggestion should seem particularly esoteric. We know as a matter of common sense, that there are compound objects: singular entities constituted as such by a mixture of logically discrete parts. As I write for instance, there’s a bookshelf behind me that my grandfather built some years ago. At one level of analysis, it’s a singular entity; it is a bookshelf. But at another level, it’s a collection of distinct parts: glue, wood, nails, varnish, etc.

Insofar as this bookshelf is a singular entity, these parts are ontologically united. And yet, nothing about this union entails “substantial absorption”; the parts that together constitute this bookshelf are not “lost into one-another”. In fact, their capacity to serve as parts of a bookshelf depend precisely upon their continued existence.

Likewise, union with Christ need not entail that we are absorbed into Christ[1], rather, it need only entail the participation of individual human essences in a grander corporate personality.

2. On the Possibility of Corporeal Union

Steven worries that Corporeal union with Christ is impossible. Specifically, he writes that one cannot be united with another except at the level of spirit. He goes on to suggest that coition in itself, achieves no greater degree of union than hitherto existed.

Steven appears to imagine that so far as achieving union is concerned, physical intimacy[2] is incapable in itself, of realising union. Alternatively put, he imagines that physical intimacy matters, if at all, only insofar as it serves to realise a more perfect emotional or intellectual union.

With respect, Steven’s thinking in this respect, seems to me importantly mistaken. Specifically, it seems to me that in 1 Corinthians 6:15 and following, St Paul presupposes that coition is effective in itself, to unite man and woman. Thus, in verse 16, St Paul writes that those who ‘join’ (κολλάω) (clearly a euphemism for coition) to a prostitute, become ‘one body’ (σῶμα) with her.

Given the immediate context, it is unlikely that St Paul intends the word “κολλάω (kollaō)[3] merely as a euphemism for coition. Rather, he appears to use it to suggest that actual union obtains between a ‘John’ and a prostitute.Thus the reason that, in the same verse, St Paul cites Genesis 2:24 to the effect that “the two shall become one flesh”.

Which makes one wonder. What kind of union might obtain between a ‘John’ and a prostitute? Ex hypothesi, any such union cannot be emotional or intellectual in nature. Not least because, given its transactional nature, emotional or intellectual union is wholly incidental to prostitution; it is after all the prostitute’s body with which the John is interested. If then there is union between a ‘John’ and a prostitute, such union must be primarily physical in nature.

Sundry Philosophical Concerns

a. Accidents and Essences

Steven asks if Christ loses mass as more and more people eat of his flesh and drink of his blood. The short answer here, is that the accidents of the bread and the wine do not inhere in Christ.

b. The (im)perceptibility of the Body and Blood

Steven asks why it is that the body and the blood are not perceptible as such. He asks for example why it is that the bread does not taste like flesh or the wine like blood.

I acknowledge that of course the body and the blood are not perceptible as such. But it seems to me that it would take some doing to turn that fact into a problem for those who affirm the real corporeal presence. In any event, reasoning directly from imperceptibility to real absence, would require a general principle the effect of which would be to require scepticism as regards theoretical entities.

Until recently for instance, electrons were imperceptible. Even today, quarks remain imperceptible. Will Steven tell us, for that reason alone, that it is unreasonable to postulate the existence of electrons or other sub-atomic particles? Or rather, will he tell us that we have reason to accept their existence in virtue of the fact that they are predicted by an independently well attested theory?

If so, then by the same measure, we have reason to believe that Christ is corporeally present in the Eucharist; the imperceptibility of his body and blood notwithstanding. Specifically, if the argument I presented in my last essay is any good, then there is an independently well attested theory that predicts the corporeal presence of Christ.

On the Efficient Cause of the Body and Blood

Steven asks how it is that Christ’s body and blood can be made present at once in New Zealand (where I live), and at the same time in Arizona (where he lives). At the highest level of generality, Steven asks after the efficient cause of the body and blood of Christ. Specifically, he asks: by virtue of what power is it, that Christ’s body and blood is made present at different times and in different locations?

The standard Augustinian account insists that Christ himself, not the Priest, confects the Eucharist. Alternatively put, it is strictly speaking false to say that the Priest confects the eucharist. Rather what we mean to say, is that in the Eucharist, Christ acting by means of the Priest, shares Himself with us. Hence the efficient cause of the Eucharist is no mere created being, but is rather the Incarnate God Himself.

More formally speaking, in confecting the Eucharist, the priest does not exercise a power proper to his person. Rather, acting in the Person of Christ, he exercises a power proper to the Incarnate God. Put quite bluntly, it is by the omnipotence of God Himself, acting by means of the Priest, that we account for the presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist.

But perhaps you think I have explained nothing. Perhaps you think I have simply compounded mystery with yet further mystery. Nothing I have said however, should be particularly mysterious. In fact, all that I have said can be explained in terms of perfectly prosaic principles of commerce and contract law doctrine.  

Where a principal nominates an agent to act on his behalf, the agent is said to re-present (literally “make present”) his principal. The effect being, that in contract negotiations, the principal is heard to speak through the agent’s voice. And it is for precisely this reason, that the principal is contractually bound to his agent’s representations.

The formal explanation of these principles is no different in kind to that which St Augustine offered in respect of the Eucharist’s efficient cause. In appearing to bind his principal to a contract, an agent does not exercise a power proper to his person; he has no such power. Rather, insofar as he re-presents his principal, he exercises a power proper only to the person of his principal. In other words, it is by the power of the principal himself, acting through his agent, that we account for the principal’s duty to observe the contractual obligations that have been entered into on his behalf. If you find no sense of mystery in these perfectly ordinary principles of commerce and contract, neither should you find any mystery in my claim that, in confecting the eucharist, the priest acts in Persona Christi. Neither for that matter, should you find anything particularly mysterious in the suggestion that Christ’s body and blood can be made present in different times and at different places. A principal after all, can nominate as many or as few agents as he pleases[4].

[1] For a fuller treatment of Theosis as distinct from Henosis (absorption into the Divine Essence) see Lossky’s “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church”.

[2] For present purposes, coition is one kind of physical intimacy.

[3] Whose cognate uses include such notions as ‘clinging to’ e.g. in Luke 10:11 “Even the dust of your town that clings (κολλάω) to our feet..”

[4] In complex commercial transactions, principals routinely nominate a multitude of agents.