Does the Orthodox Church believe in “transubstantiation” (μετουσίωσις in Greek) with regards to the Eucharist? Or is that only used in the Latin (Roman Catholic) church?
There’s certainly a lot of confusion and conflicting information out there, so let’s take a closer look.
As a blogger, I can vouch for the necessity of extending grace towards a writer when they are attempting to both honestly and carefully represent their beliefs. I intentionally place a disclaimer on my blog, making it plain that any mistakes or errors contained on the site are my own, and in no way discredit the Church. If one really wants to dive into the depths of our faith, the only place to do so is in the liturgical and confessional life of their local parish. Nevertheless, people keep telling me that my blog helps them, and so I keep on blogging. Lord, have mercy.
All that being said, I wanted to provide some brief comments on a new blog post by Dr. David J. Dunn titled “Top Ten Things Every Protestant Should Know About Eastern Orthodoxy.”
In point no. 4, Dunn writes:
4. The Eucharist? We call that Jesus. We believe it is actually the body and blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine, but we do not believe in transubstantiation. That is a Catholic thing. We believe it is a mystery. In other words, “It’s the body of Christ. Now stop asking so many stupid questions, and open your mouth!”
It is clear from these points that Dunn is attempting to be brief and even catchy with his wording of each point, and so I won’t be overly critical of his short and to-the-point summary.
However, since it seems to make a dubious claim on the point of transubstantiation, I thought I’d try and bring some more detailed clarity to the issue, in a way that was not intended by Dunn’s intentionally-short piece (which is fine, really).
The Latin belief on this point is as follows:
1376 The Council of Trent summarizes the Catholic faith by declaring: “Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, 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.”
1413 By the consecration the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is brought about. Under the consecrated species of bread and wine Christ himself, living and glorious, is present in a true, real, and substantial manner: his Body and his Blood, with his soul and his divinity (cf. Council of Trent: DS 1640; 1651).
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: USCC, 2000), pp. 347,356
In other words, Roman Catholics believe that transubstantiation is the “change” that occurs in the “whole substance” of the bread and wine set apart for the Eucharistic mystery. This is a change that takes place at the words of institution or consecration (i.e. “This is My Body,” etc.). There’s some Scholastic language here, of course, but that’s the basic gist.
In the Orthodox tradition, you will find it taught variously that this change takes place anywhere between the Proskomedia (the Liturgy of Preparation)—which is now a separate service prior to both Orthros and the Divine Liturgy on a typical Sunday, though traditionally it is done during Orthros—and the Epiklesis (“calling down”), or invocation of the Holy Spirit “upon us and upon these gifts here set forth” (as in Chrysostom’s liturgy). As such, the gifts should be treated with reverence throughout the entirety of the service. We don’t know the exact time in which the change takes place, and this is left to mystery. This view is common among those such as the reposed Fr. Alexander Schmemann and others, although many in the Orthodox tradition will also insist the change does actually take place at the words of institution.
The key point of emphasis in the Eastern tradition, then, is not whether or not a change takes place (even if we can’t understand or describe it precisely), but that it does emphatically take place.
During the iconoclasm controversy (eighth–ninth centuries), the change in the Eucharist was used to refute the arguments of iconoclasts who claimed the Eucharist was the only true icon of Christ. In these debates, the iconodule St. Theodore the Studite wrote, “We confess that the faithful receive the very body and blood of Christ, according to the voice of God himself.” The reality of transubstantiation was a refutation of iconoclasm. The Eucharist was not an icon of Christ, but was the real and true presence of the person Jesus Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist; or rather, a true symbol.
There have been at least three confessional documents in recent Orthodox memory that refer to the doctrine of transubstantiation by name. Some excerpts:
Fourthly, attention must be paid that the priest have, at the time of consecration, the intention that the real substance of the bread and the substance of wine be transubstantiated into the real body and blood of Christ through the operation of the Holy Spirit.
He makes this invocation when he confects this mystery by praying and saying: “Send your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here offered and make this bread the precious body of your Christ, and that which is in this chalice the precious blood of your Christ, changing them by your Holy Spirit.”
Transubstantiation occurs immediately with these words, and the bread is transubstantiated into the real body of Christ and the wine into the real blood of Christ, with the visible appearances alone remaining.
Orthodox Confession of Faith, Peter Mogila, Metropolitan of Kiev (1633-1647)
In Metropolitan Peter’s confession—which was widely adopted and sanctioned by multiple patriarchates in the seventeenth century—the change is said to occur at the time of the Epiclesis. This is in agreement with Roman Catholics. The use of the word μετουσίωσις here means that the bread, water, and wine are truly become the Body and Blood of Christ at the invocation of the Holy Spirit. They are not merely so in our imagination or as a bare symbol, but in the true, “Greek” sense of συμβολον, which means to bring two things together (in this case, the real presence of the person of Jesus Christ with the elements in the chalice).
He is not present typically, nor figuratively, nor by superabundant grace, as in the other Mysteries, nor by a bare presence, as some of the Fathers have said concerning Baptism, or by impanation, so that the Divinity of the Word is united to the set forth bread of the Eucharist hypostatically, as the followers of Luther most ignorantly and wretchedly suppose.
But truly and really, so that after the consecration of the bread and of the wine, the bread is transmuted, transubstantiated, converted and transformed into the true Body itself of the Lord, Which was born in Bethlehem of the ever-Virgin, was baptized in the Jordan, suffered, was buried, rose again, was received up, sits at the right hand of the God and Father, and is to come again in the clouds of Heaven; and the wine is converted and transubstantiated into the true Blood itself of the Lord, Which as He hung upon the Cross, was poured out for the life of the world.
Orthodox Confession of Dositheus, Patriarch of Jerusalem (1672)
In this confession of faith enjoying wide acceptance throughout the seventeenth century Orthodox Church, Patriarch Dositheus teaches that Christ is “truly and really” present in the Eucharistic elements. He does not mention here the timing of the change, but simply that the bread and wine are “transubstantiated” (again, μετουσίωσις) into the “true Body” and “true Blood” of the Lord.
340. How are we to understand the word transubstantiation?
In the exposition of the faith by the Eastern Patriarchs, it is said that the word transubstantiation is not to be taken to define the manner in which the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of the Lord; for this none can understand but God; but only thus much is signified, that the bread truly, really, and substantially becomes the very true Body of the Lord, and the wine the very Blood of the Lord. In like manner John Damascene, treating of the Holy and Immaculate Mysteries of the Lord, writes thus: “It is truly that Body, united with Godhead, which had its origin from the Holy Virgin; not as though that Body which ascended came down from heaven, but because the bread and wine themselves are changed into the Body and Blood of God. But if thou seekest after the manner how this is, let it suffice thee to be told that it is by the Holy Ghost; in like manner as, by the same Holy Ghost, the Lord formed flesh to himself, and in himself, from the Mother of God; nor know I aught more than this, that the Word of God is true, powerful, and almighty, but its manner of operation unsearchable.” (J. Damasc. Theol. lib. iv. cap. 13, § 7.)
Longer Catechism of the Orthodox, Catholic, Eastern Church, St. Philaret (Drozdov) of Moscow (1830)
In St. Philaret’s catechism, we are given the first distinction between the Eastern and Western description of transubstantiation of which I’m aware.
Writing in the nineteenth century, Philaret says that transubstantiation is not a reference to the change itself—since none can possibly understand exactly how/when this takes place—but that it is merely a reference to our Lord being “truly, really, and substantially” present in the Eucharist. In other words, it is not a reference to metaphysical or nominalist philosophy (as with Aristotle, for example), but is speaking to the reality of the change, albeit as beyond our comprehension.
In a sense, it is impossible to draw a true comparison between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox viewpoints on this issue, since only one communion has dogmatically ruled on the question.
In their dialogues and disputes with the Protestant reformers, the Latin Christians dogmatically ruled a number of issues that had previously been left to relative mystery—or were not as “officially” defined as at the Council of Trent and following.
In the rare cases where the Orthodox Church has responded to the arguments of the Reformers, the word transubstantiate is used to clarify the Orthodox position, in contradistinction from the positions of both Luther and Calvin (among others). However, this has never risen to the level of dogma, nor has it been ecumenically mandated. In other words, the Orthodox clergy were (wisely) using the words of their own day to differentiate themselves from the Protestants, while not necessarily painting themselves into a dogmatic corner. And it should be noted too that Scholasticism itself is not wholly foreign to Orthodoxy, nor is it exclusive of the West.
In the end, while I appreciate the aim of Dr. Dunn’s post, I think on this particular point he has overstated his case.
As Orthodox Christians, we must be careful to balance and nuance our claims, especially with regards to the Latins or “the West.” The last thing we want to do is oversimplify matters to the extent of seeming deceptive or—perhaps worse—misinformed. After all, this is typically what gets thrown our way from those unfamiliar with Orthodoxy (beyond literature), often justly putting us on the “defensive” (an important distinction from “triumphalism”) in response to such misrepresentations. That being said, I’m open to feedback if anyone (Roman or Orthodox) thinks I’ve misrepresented one side or the other in this article.