An A-Z of Unanswered Objections to Christianity: W. The Sacraments

The vast majority of Christians agree that Baptism and the Eucharist are sacraments instituted by Jesus Christ, in which God’s grace is bestowed on those who receive them with the right disposition. In this essay I shall argue that notwithstanding believers’ protestations to the contrary, the standard Christian understanding of these sacraments is a magical one. In addition, Christian accounts of how the sacraments impart grace are, as far as I can tell, nonsensical: they explain nothing. Finally, the metaphysical schemes used by various Christian denominations to explain the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist all turn out to be philosophically incoherent.

In this no-holds-barred post, I will be arguing on behalf of the skeptic, whose intellectual position I strongly sympathize with, even when it is at variance with my own beliefs as a Christian. My own personal reflections may be found in the Postscript at the end of this essay.

It may seem odd to some readers for me to describe the Christian sacraments as magical, so I had better clarify what I mean by that term. By “magical,” I mean that the effect produced (in this case, the bestowal of God’s grace) is rigidly dependent on the materials used, the actions performed, the words used and the intentions of the celebrant, such that:

(i) if any of the requisite materials, actions, words and intentions are absent, notwithstanding the best efforts of the person seeking the sacrament (or in the case of infants, the person’s parents) to satisfy all of these requisite conditions, then the desired effect (i.e. God’s supernatural grace) will not be bestowed (or at least, we have no assurance that it will be), so the ceremony needs to be performed all over again;

(ii) if the requisite materials, actions, words and intentions are all present, the desired effect (God’s grace) will infallibly be bestowed, and there is nothing God can do to prevent this, even in cases where the recipient is a child and the celebrant acts contrary to the wishes of the child’s parents: in other words, the ceremony binds God Himself, provided that it is done the right way, even if it is performed by a celebrant acting unlawfully.

1. Baptism

Russian Orthodox baptism, St. Petersburg. Public domain. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

(a) Is baptism a magical rite?

In the sacrament of baptism, only water may be used (not wine, fruit juice, milk or human saliva), and the person being baptized must be either totally immersed in the water [submersion] or have their head immersed [immersion], or have water poured on their heads [affusion], or have water sprinkled on their skin in such a way that it actually flows [aspersion]. The right words must also be used: either “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” or “The Servant/(Handmaiden) of God is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (a passive voice formula used by the Eastern Orthodox and some Eastern Catholics). The conditions listed above are necessary but not sufficient for a valid baptism: the person who is baptizing (known as the celebrant) must also intend to do what the Church does, and the recipient must also have faith (if they are of sound mind and old enough to possess the use of reason).

Many of my Christian readers will bristle at my suggestion that their beliefs regarding baptism are magical. To illustrate why I think they are mistaken, I would invite them to consider the following hypothetical scenarios, and ask themselves how they would respond in each case.

Case 1.
You recently attended the baptism of your godchild. Later, you found out that the “water” used in the baptismal ceremony was not water, but a colorless, odorless liquid that had been surreptitiously substituted in its place by a mischievous prankster in the congregation. Would you want the ceremony for your godchild’s baptism to be held again, on the grounds that the baptism you attended was an invalid one?

Case 2.
You recently attended the baptism of a friend of yours, a convert to Christianity who was close to death at the time and could not be safely removed from her hospital bed. Baptism by immersion was out of the question, and the hospital staff discouraged the idea of pouring water on her head. The baptismal celebrant therefore decided to administer baptism by sprinkling water on her skin [aspersion]. However, during the ceremony, you noticed that none of the water sprinkled actually landed on your friend’s skin. Later, you found out why: the celebrant’s eyesight was very poor, as he was partially blind. Would you inform the celebrant of what happened and politely ask him to redo the baptism? (In connection with Case 2, I should point out that the Catholic Encyclopedia, in its article on baptism, emphasizes that in baptism by aspersion, the water must not only touch the skin of the recipient but also flow, and that if it does not, “such a baptism would be considered doubtful.” It adds: “If the water touches only the hair, the sacrament has probably been validly conferred, though in practice the safer course must be followed,” which means that such a person should be conditionally rebaptized by a Catholic priest. Furthermore, the article notes that “the Methodists and Presbyterians baptize by aspersion or sprinkling, and it may be reasonably doubted whether the water has touched the body and flowed upon it,” rendering their baptism also a doubtful one.)

Case 3.
Recently, your baby godchild was baptized. You were unable to attend the baptism in person, so you arranged for a proxy to stand in your place (a custom allowed by many Christian churches). Later, the proxy who attended in your place sent you a video of the baptismal ceremony. You were shocked to discover that the celebrant had not baptized your godchild in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, but in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sanctifier – a formula regarded as invalid by many Christian churches. Later, you spoke to the celebrant, and learned that despite the fact that a non-traditional formula had been used in the ceremony, the celebrant had in fact acted in good faith and intended to do what the Church normally does, in performing the baptism. As a godparent, would you then feel bound to alert the child’s parents to the fact that the traditional formula (“in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”) had not been used, and urge them to find another celebrant who would be prepared to perform the baptism properly, this time?

Case 4.
A zealously practicing Jewish couple, who are friends of yours, have a Catholic housemaid. Recently, she confessed to having secretly baptized the couple’s baby son when he was mortally ill (fortunately, he recovered). The couple were highly indignant when they found out what had happened, and sacked the housemaid on the spot – quite rightly, in your opinion, as she had contravened the couple’s stated wishes that their child be raised as a Jew. Would you nevertheless regard the baptism the housemaid performed as a valid one, even though it was unlawful, provided that she carried it out in the correct manner and with the intention of doing what the Church does? (Some readers may be aware that there was a case very like this one, in the nineteenth century: the infamous Mortara case. The Catholic Encyclopedia, in its article on baptism, summarizes what happened afterwards: “In the celebrated case of the Jewish child, Edgar Mortara, Pius IX indeed ordered that he should be brought up as a Catholic, even against the will of his parents, but baptism had already been administered to him some years before when in danger of death.” For a brief history of the case, see here. Incredibly, there are still a few Catholics who defend the actions of Pius IX. Sadly, though, while the majority of Catholics today would regard Pius’s behavior as shameful, I’ve yet to read of even one who regards the illicit baptism performed by the maidservant as invalid.)

If you answered “yes” in cases 1 to 3, then your understanding of the sacrament of baptism is clearly a magical one. You believe that the spiritual grace God bestows at baptism is conditional on the right material being used (water), the right action being performed (water flowing on the person’s skin), and the right words being uttered by the celebrant (invocation of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) with the right intention (namely, to “do what the Church does”), so that if any of these conditions are not met, no grace is bestowed by God – or even if it is (by some special favor on God’s part), you have no assurance that it is. It is that lack of assurance that places many Christians in a state of crippling anxiety, causing them to worry obsessively about whether the rules were followed and say things like, “We’d better do it again, just to make sure.” At the root of of this anxiety is the belief in a God Who not only makes rules for us to follow when performing the sacraments, but Who applies them in an utterly inflexible fashion, so that even if every reasonable effort was made by those who were supposed to receive the sacrament (or in the case of infants, their parents) to follow the rules, any unforeseen event that causes their efforts to fail, thereby invalidates the sacrament. Therefore, if you want to be sure of receiving supernatural grace (in this case, the gift of sanctifying grace at baptism), it is not enough for you to make every reasonable effort to follow these rules (i.e. search for a celebrant who will use the right materials, perform the right actions, say the right words, and act with the right intentions); the rules must, in fact, have been followed. And it is this belief – that the supernatural is governed by ironclad rules – that characterizes magic.

If you answered “yes” in case 4, then you believe that if all the rules are followed and the right intention (in this case, the intention to do what the Church does) is present, then God’s grace is automatically bestowed – in other words, that God cannot withhold it, even if the celebrant is acting unlawfully. If the housemaid followed the rules to the letter and performed baptism in the right way, and with the requisite intention, then God has no choice but to bestow the gift of supernatural, sanctifying grace on the baby, irrespective of the parents’ declared wish to raise their child as a Jew, and irrespective of the fact that the housemaid acted unlawfully, in baptizing the child. The idea that God can be bound by human beings in this fashion is another defining characteristic of magic: once again, it reflects the underlying belief that the supernatural is governed by ironclad rules.


(b) Does the concept of grace make any sense?

As if that were not bad enough, it can be shown that the concept of baptism as a sacrament is tied to a physicalistic concept of grace. The evidence is not hard to find: the Catholic Encyclopedia, in its article on baptism, describes baptism as a sacrament that permeates (or infuses) the soul with various graces:

Another effect of baptism is the infusion of sanctifying grace and supernatural gifts and virtues. It is this sanctifying grace which renders men the adopted sons of God and confers the right to heavenly glory. The doctrine on this subject is found in the seventh chapter on justification in the sixth session of the Council of Trent. Many of the Fathers of the Church also enlarge upon this subject (as St. Cyprian, St. Jerome, Clement of Alexandria, and others), though not in the technical language of later ecclesiastical decrees.

The same article declares that baptism “washes away sin,” quoting from a sermon delivered by St. Paul, in which he urges his listeners to “Be baptized, and wash away thy sins” (Acts 22:16).

Finally, baptism is said to impress a permanent seal on the soul:

Finally, baptism, once validly conferred, can never be repeated. The Fathers (St. Ambrose, Chrysostom, and others) so understand the words of St. Paul (Hebrews 6:4), and this has been the constant teaching of the Church both Eastern and Western from the earliest times. On this account, baptism is said to impress an ineffaceable character on the soul, which the Tridentine Fathers call a spiritual and indelible mark. That baptism (as well as Confirmation and Holy orders) really does imprint such a character, is defined explicitly by the Council of Trent (Sess. VII, can. ix).

I expect to be told by Christian readers that the above language is purely metaphorical, and should not be interpreted literally. But at the very least, the Catholic teaching on baptism incorporates the following assertions:

(i) that the soul of an unbaptized person languishing in a state of Original Sin has a certain property (call it X);

(ii) that baptism causes an unbaptized person’s soul to lose this property;

(iii) that baptism causes the soul to acquire another property, known as sanctifying grace (call it Y), as well as a further property, the seal of baptism (call it Z) which (unlike sanctifying grace) can never be lost, even through mortal sin. Since Z is a permanent property, baptism can never be repeated.

These assertions might be described as the bare bones of the Catholic Church’s teaching on baptism. And although the theological terminology used by other Christian churches may vary somewhat, the overall idea is pretty much the same: new properties are acquired through baptism as a result of God’s bestowal of grace and the indelible change in the soul wrought by baptism, which is why it can be given only once: in the Christian tradition, no-one is ever rebaptized. It should be obvious that the new properties acquired at baptism are spiritual properties, and supernatural ones at that: nobody can acquire them through their own efforts, so they have to be bestowed by God. And since they are bestowed not only on adults but also on babies who receive the sacrament of baptism, it should also be clear that these properties relate to dispositions rather than actions – i.e. dispositions to perform acts of supernatural faith, hope and charity, over the course of one’s life. Hence the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of sanctifying grace as “enabling” the newly baptized “to believe in God, to hope in him, and to love him through the theological virtues” of faith, hope and charity, as well as “giving them the power to live and act under the prompting of the Holy Spirit through the gifts of the Holy Spirit.”

What I am suggesting here is that the notion that the soul of a baby, for instance, acquires new intrinsic dispositions or spiritual powers, simply as a result of a certain ceremony being performed (whose significance the baby is blissfully unaware of) is a quasi-physical notion that, in the final analysis, makes no sense. Here’s why.

The unintelligibility of “bare dispositions”

A super ball has both the passive power to be melted and the active power to knock over some of the objects it collides with, because it is actually made of solid rubber – thereby illustrating the Scholastic adage that powers do not exist on their own but are always grounded in actualities. Image courtesy of Lenore Edman and Wikipedia.

Talk of a thing’s dispositions, tendencies or powers can only be understood in relation to its underlying actual properties. There can be no “bare dispositions”: every potentiality is rooted in an underlying actuality. This is widely accepted, even among traditional Christian philosophers:

Potency, all Scholastics agree, cannot exist on its own but is grounded in a thing’s actualities. A rubber ball has the passive potency to be melted at a certain temperature because it is actually made of rubber; a hammer has the active potency or power to shatter glass because it is actually made of steel.
(Feser, E. Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction. Editiones scholasticae. 2014. p. 77.)

The claim that potencies are grounded in underlying actualities seems to hold true throughout the organic as well as the inorganic world – a fact which can be readily seen, if we look at living (and potentially living) things. Thus the COVID-19 virus is able to attack cells in the human body because it actually has a certain protein (called spike) with a particular 3D-shape. A tree is able to grow because it actually has leaves and roots that can take in nutrients, which it can use to generate its own food. A bird is able to fly because it actually has wings (and chest muscles) of the right shape and size, as well as hollow bones and feathers. A human being is able to remember because he or she actually has a brain that can form synaptical connections. And if a human being’s soul suddenly receives the newfound ability to perform acts of supernatural faith, hope and charity at baptism, then there must be something within the soul that actually changes, since the acquisition of a new ability presupposes the acquisition of a new actuality.

And yet, if we consider infant baptism, it should be clear that no such actuality is acquired. Indeed, babies have been known to sleep through the entire ceremony, oblivious to what is going on. Any changes that occur during infant baptism appear to be purely potential. But as we have seen, the notion that a baby’s soul acquires new tendencies (or powers) tout simple at baptism, without having to undergo any other changes, is simply unintelligible.

It is at this point that Christians are apt to invoke the concept of grace, which they typically explain by resorting to crude picture-thinking, employing physical imagery. For instance, they may speak of it being “poured into” the soul (as if it were an invisible fluid), or liken it to an “indelible mark” on the soul. But pictures are no substitute for thought, and if we take the images away, we are left with no explanation at all as to how the soul can acquire new powers at baptism without undergoing any actual change. In the end, the Christian notion of grace explains precisely nothing.

What if we tried to envisage baptism instead as an act whereby God welcomes a new child into His family? One can certainly imagine God deeming a baby to be a new member of His family, as a result of some ceremony being performed at His request. And one can also imagine God issuing such a decree, because He created human beings as social animals with a deep psychic need for physical rituals, such as baptism. However, the key point to grasp here is that such an act of deeming involves no intrinsic changes on the baby’s part: it depends entirely on God’s wishes. That’s very different from the traditional Christian teaching that baptism bestows grace that cleanses the soul of the recipient, marking it with a permanent seal – a teaching which, I have argued, is philosophically indefensible. Once we strip the physical imagery away, all that remains is the nonsensical notion of “bare dispositions.”


(c) Can baptismal water be a vehicle of grace?

A line of people awaiting submersion baptism in the Jordan river at Kinneret, Israel. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

If any further proof were needed of the claim that the sacrament of baptism is tied to a physicalistic concept of grace, it may be found in the belief, widespread (though by no means universal) among Catholics and certain Protestants, that the baptismal water is itself a vehicle of grace, in such a way that the person being baptized receives grace through the water. Here, for example, is what the United Methodist Church believes about baptism:

Q: What does United Methodism fundamentally believe about baptism?

A: Baptism is a sacrament. In a sacrament, God uses common elements – in this case, water – as means or vehicles of divine grace. Baptism is administered by the church as the Body of Christ. It is the act of God through the grace of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.

To be fair, I should point out that by far the more common view among Protestants (and one which was upheld by Luther and Calvin) is that God conveys grace through our act of obedience, not through the object. Others, like Zwingli, are memorialists who hold that the sacraments are merely a reminder of the grace that has already been given. Those who hold these views would obviously reject the physicalistic view of baptismal water being a vehicle of grace, which I referred to above.

The view that baptismal water is a vehicle of grace is a predominant one within the Catholic Church, as the Catholic Encyclopedia confirms in its article on the sacraments:

Since the time of the Council of Trent theologians almost unanimously have taught that the sacraments are the efficient instrumental cause of grace itself… Yet the end of the controversy had not come. What was the nature of that causality? Did it belong to the physical or to the moral order? A physical cause really and immediately produces its effects, either as the principal agent or as the instrument used, as when a sculptor uses a chisel to carve a statue. A moral cause is one which moves or entreats a physical cause to act… The expressions used by St. Thomas seem clearly to indicate that the sacraments act after the manner of physical causes. He says that there is in the sacraments a virtue productive of grace (III:62:4) and he answers objections against attributing such power to a corporeal instrument by simply stating that such power is not inherent in them and does not reside in them permanently, but is in them only so far and so long as they are instruments in the hands of Almighty God (loc. cit., ad um and 3 um). Cajetan, Francisco Suárez, and a host of other great theologians defend this system, which is usually termed Thomistic… The body of man acts on his spiritual soul; fire acts, in some way, on souls and on angels. The strings of a harp, remarks Cajetan (In III, Q. lxii) touched by an unskilled hand, produce nothing but sounds: touched by the hands of a skilful musician they give forth beautiful melodies. Why cannot the sacraments, as instruments in the hands of God, produce grace?

The short answer to the rhetorical question posed at the end of the passage quoted above is that an instrumental cause can only produce what it has the power to produce. The powers of baptismal water are entirely natural and physical; hence, it cannot serve as an instrumental cause of supernatural and spiritual effects.

To be sure, the Thomistic view is by no means universal among Catholics, and the article goes on to say that Scotists hold a different view of how the sacraments can be said to cause grace, in which the sacraments are “instruments which move or entreat God effectively and infallibly to give his grace to those who receive them with proper dispositions” – which would actually imply that the sacraments themselves do not operate to produce grace, but are “only signs or occasions of conferring it,” as Thomist critics have pointed out. Nevertheless, the Thomistic view is a very widespread one among Catholics. On this view, in the sacrament of baptism, God’s grace is somehow contained in the baptismal water itself: in other words, water, when used as an instrument by God, has the power to produce a supernatural effect. But what the Thomists fail to explain is how producing a spiritual disposition towards supernatural faith, hope and love can be described as a power of a natural, material substance like water. Taken to its logical extreme, the Thomistic view would also imply that literally anything (when used as an instrument by God) could be used to produce any effect – a conclusion that ultimately leads to radical skepticism about causes.

I have said enough about the sacrament of baptism. I’d now like to move on to the other sacrament recognized by virtually all Christian churches: the sacrament of the Eucharist.


2. The Eucharist

Christians hold a dazzling variety of views as to what happens in the sacrament of the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper, as some prefer to call it. My aim in this section is to criticize the views of those Christians who hold that Jesus Christ is really present in the Eucharist, and that those who receive it worthily receive his body and blood, in some manner.

A. Critique of the Catholic position on the Eucharist

I’d like to begin by critiquing the teachings of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, as more than 60% of the world’s Christians belong to these churches. Additionally, the Catholic explanation of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is by far the most carefully elaborated of the various accounts put forward by Christian churches. (The Orthodox teaching on the Eucharist, while less philosophical, is virtually identical, except for a minor divergence of views regarding the exact moment in the Mass when Christ becomes present.) In its doctrinal definition at the fourth Lateran Council (1215 A.D.), the Catholic Church proclaimed its faith in “Jesus Christ, whose body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine; the bread being changed (transsubstantiatio) by divine power into the body, and the wine into the blood, so that to realize the mystery of unity we may receive of Him what He has received of us.” The sixteenth-century Council of Trent (1545-1563), in its thirteenth session, spelled out the Catholic Church’s teachings in more detail, but for our purposes, what matters most is its affirmation that in the sacrament of the 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.” The Council also defined that in the Eucharist, there is a “conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood – the species [i.e. visible form – VJT] only of the bread and wine remaining” – a conversion which the Council labeled transubstantiation. It is important to understand that the term “substance,” used here, simply denotes “inner reality,” and in no way implies an endorsement of Aristotle’s philosophy – a point which was emphasized by the English Roman Catholic priest Father Robert Manning (1655-1731) in his bestselling work of Catholic apologetics, in which he pointed out that attempts to explain the mystery of transubstantiation by appealing to the Aristotelian distinction between “substance” and “accidents” are only meant to show that the Church’s teaching “is not repugnant to the current principles of philosophy.” In Fr. Manning’s book, the Catholic protagonist goes so far as to declare, “I do not know that I hazard the value of a farthing upon the logical question of substance and accidents.”

Catholic apologist Chris Stefanick has put together a very well-argued, persuasively packaged three-minute video summarizing Catholic teaching on the Eucharist, titled, “Are Catholics Cannibals?” I would strongly urge viewers to take a look at it. The Web page is here.

Stefanick’s key points may be summarized as follows:

(a) Jesus made some strong claims about his followers needing to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to possess eternal life in John 6, and when people started walking away and leaving him because they had trouble swallowing his shocking teachings, he didn’t try to call them back by telling them that he’d merely been speaking metaphorically. He meant what he said. Also, at the Last Supper, Jesus said to his disciples, “This is my body” – not “This is like my body” or “This is a metaphor for my body.”

(b) Jesus rose from the dead. That proves his claims are true. As Stefanick puts it: “If you rise from the dead, I’ll believe anything you have to say.”

(c) If Jesus is God, then he created all things out of nothing. Which is easier to do: making all things out of nothing, or changing the “whatness” (or substance) of bread and wine into himself, while leaving the appearance as bread and wine?

(d) Jesus’ giving us his body and blood to eat may sound a little crazy, but so was dying a gruesome death on a cross for us. He didn’t have to do that, but he did it because he loved us. The Eucharist is a gift of love.

(e) The Eucharist isn’t cannibalizing, because we’re not eating a dead body; we’re being united to the living body of Christ.

Stefanick’s video calls for a point-by-point response:

(a) Did Jesus institute the Eucharist as a meal in which his flesh and blood were to be consumed?

The Last Supper, c. 1520, Andrea Solari, oil on canvas, in the Leonardo da Vinci Museum, Tongerlo Abbey. (An artist’s copy of da Vinci’s The Last Supper.) Public domain. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Stefanick’s entire case rests on the premise that the Eucharist was actually instituted by Jesus Christ, and that he actually commanded his followers to eat his body and drink his blood. There are strong reasons for doubting this claim. It is reasonably certain that Jesus celebrated a Last Supper with his disciples, but it is highly doubtful that he ever said the words, “This is my body … This is my blood” as reported in Mark’s Gospel (c. 70 A.D.), for reasons which I shall now explain.

I’d like to begin with the following quote from Encyclopedia Judaica (2008, The Gale Group):

In the Bible there is an absolute prohibition on the consumption of blood. The blood of an animal must be drained before the flesh may be eaten (Lev. 3:17; 7:26; 17:10–14; Deut. 12:15–16, 20–24). This prohibition is not found anywhere else in the ancient Near East. Moreover, within Israelite legislation it is the only prohibition (coupled with murder) enjoined not on Israel alone but on all men (Gen. 9:4). It is thus a more universal law than the Decalogue. (article: Blood, Encyclopedia Judaica CD, version 1, Judaica Multimedia (Israel) Ltd.)

Which prompts me to ask: given the absolute Biblical prohibition on blood, which was viewed as binding on all human beings, how likely is it that a first-century Jewish teacher would order his followers to drink his own blood? And how likely is it that twelve Jewish men would actually agree to do so? Daniel Bramer’s 2010 PhD dissertation, Divine Contradiction: The logic of Blood in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures highlights the horror with which the act of consuming blood was viewed within Judaism: “The gravity of blood eating is so extreme, in fact, that it trumps even the uttermost instinct for survival” (2010, p. 157). Nor can Jesus’ language about eating flesh and drinking his blood be better understood by interpreting it symbolically. To quote Bramer again: “It cannot be underscored enough that the eating of blood amounted to one of the most potent taboos in the Hebrew cult, to the extent that the very thought or suggestion of consuming blood, even in a figurative sense, would have been met with absolute horror and revulsion by any Jew” (2010, p. 17).

Indeed, Biblical scholars have long been aware of the difficulties involved in reconciling the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist with the longstanding Jewish taboo against consuming blood. In an article titled, Drinking blood at a kosher Eucharist? The sound of scholarly silence (Biblical Theology Bulletin, 32(4), 168-81, 2002), Dr. Michael J. Cahill, a former Professor of Biblical Studies at Duquesne University, comprehensively surveys no less than seventy scholarly sources on the question of the likelihood of the Jewish Jesus proposing the drinking of blood at the Eucharist, and concludes that the origin of the Christian Eucharist remains a profound mystery:

The survey of opinion, old and new, reveals wide disagreement with a fundamental divide between those who can accept that the notion of drinking blood could have a Jewish origin and those who insist that this is a later development to be located in the Hellenistic world. What both sides share is an inability to proffer a rationally convincing argument that can provide a historical explanation for the presence of this particular component of the Eucharistic rite. Those who hold for the literal institution by Jesus have not been able to explain plausibly how the drinking of blood could have arisen in a Jewish setting… On the other hand, I have earlier argued that previous suggestions supporting the non-Jewish source have been vitiated by vague generalities or by association with inappropriate pagan rituals.

The earliest account of the institution of the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:23-26) dates back to approximately 25 years after Jesus’ death. The earliest Gospel account (Mark 14:22-26) dates from around ten years later. On the other hand, the account found in the Didache, an early Christian document dating from around 80 to 100 A.D., is strikingly different, raising the question: what was the original Eucharist like? We cannot say for sure.

Many scholars, including Christians, now believe that the Eucharist evolved gradually over time: New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan traces five stages leading up to the Eucharist described in Mark’s Gospel, while Professor Bruce Chilton (a former Anglican rector) claims to have identified no less than six different Eucharists in the New Testament. The one implemented by Jesus was very modest: in his meals, he started referring to the drinking of wine as the equivalent of the blood of an animal shed in sacrifice. Drawing upon Chilton’s work, Catholic priest Professor Robert J. Daly, S.J., argues that Jesus did indeed institute the Eucharist, but that it was not the Eucharist as we know it, and that it took many generations of guidance from the Holy Spirit for the Eucharist to reach its current form. Fr. Daly expresses himself with striking candor in his article, “Eucharistic Origins: From the New Testament to the Liturgies of the Golden Age” (Theological Studies 66, March, 2005):

We do not know and cannot reconstruct in precise detail what Jesus did at his “Last Supper.” The New Testament itself remembered and interpreted what Jesus did in quite different ways… And indeed, if by Eucharist is meant what is now done in the Church, the farther back one goes, for example, to the “Eucharists” of James, Peter, and Jesus, the farther one gets from the Eucharist of the present. Indeed, if an exact reconstruction of what Jesus did at the Last Supper were possible, it would probably look quite different from what Christians now celebrate. (p. 16)

Whatever its origins, it did not take long for a literalistic and magical understanding of the Eucharist to develop. Robert Conner, in his article, “Miracles of the Christian Magicians,” in John Loftus’ anthology, The Case Against Miracles (Hypatia Press, 2019), shows convincingly that Christian belief in the Eucharist had developed into a thoroughly magical belief by the time of St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 110 A.D.), just 80 years after Jesus’ death:

Perhaps no single text more perfectly captures the fuzzy boundary between early Christian sacrament and magic than Ignatius’ well-known reference to the bread of the Eucharist as “the medicine (pharmakon) of immortality, the antidote that [we] do not die but live forever in Jesus Christ.”[890] The term pharmakon, which could mean either medicine or poison, retained a strong connotation of malevolent sorcery – the related term pharmakeus meant poisoner or sorcerer. Like many early Christians, Ignatius took the words attributed to Jesus – “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in yourselves”[891] – in their most literal sense. Christians are “revitalized by the blood of God”[892] and true Christians confessed “that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.”[893] Ignatius thought of the Eucharist “as charged with a magical quality for keeping both body and soul deathless“.[894]

…In any case, it is clear from Christianity’s beginnings that the hoi polloi (i.e., the common people) considered both the cross and Eucharist magical; the Host was buried with the dead, “taken as a test of innocence or guilt,” and used as an amulet or protective talisman.[896]

[890] Ignatius, Ephesians 20.
[891] John 6:53…
[892] Ignatius, Ephesians 1:1.
[893] Ignatius, Smyrnaeans 6:2.
[894] Preserved Smith, “Christian Theophagy: An Historical Sketch,” The Monist 28:2 (1918), 203.
[896] Valerie I.J. Flint, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 178, 214, 282, 285.

Referring to Jesus’ words in John 6:53 (“unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in yourselves”), Conner adds in a footnote [891]: “It is of course impossible that these words originated with an observant Jew who followed the prohibition against eating blood (Leviticus 17:13-14) or from the first followers of Jesus (Acts 15:20).” Conner’s citation of Acts 15:20 refers to the decree of the Council of Jerusalem (c. 50 A.D.) which enjoined Christians to “abstain from things defiled by idols and from sexual immorality and from what has been strangled and from blood.” This verse sits awkwardly with Stefanick’s claim that the earliest Christians viewed themselves as drinking the blood of Christ at the Eucharist.

Finally, it needs to be borne in mind that Aramaic, the language used by Jesus, does not contain the copula “is.” In his work, New Testament Theology (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1994; paperback edition 1995), George Bradford Caird addresses this point in his discussion of St. Paul’s account of the Eucharistic words of Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:25), where he quotes Jesus as saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Caird comments as follows:

The fact that Aramaic, like Hebrew, contains no such copula, should warn us against building a metaphysic on one word… A more significant point is that predication does not necessarily signify the identity of subject and predicate. There are many other logical connections which may be expressed by the same form of words. Here it should be obvious that Paul does not identify the cup with the new covenant. It follows therefore that in his version of the saying the copula has the value of ‘symbolizes’ or ‘represents.’ (p. 229)

So there we have it. In the oldest Biblical account of the Eucharist, written by St. Paul, Jesus did not say, “This is my blood,” but “This cup is the new covenant in my blood,” which ruins Stefanick’s case for taking the words of Christ literally, since a cup cannot be literally equated with a covenant.


(b) Did Jesus prove his claims by rising from the dead?

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ by Piero della Francesca, c. 1463–65. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Catholic apologist Chris Stefanick also states in his video: “If you rise from the dead, I’ll believe anything you have to say.” But of course, he wouldn’t: nobody would believe a person who rose from the dead but asserted that 2 + 2 = 5, for instance. The statements of even a resurrected person have to satisfy the demands of reason. They must also be intelligible: a resurrected person who claimed that colorless green ideas sleep furiously would be given a blank stare. The question we need to address here is whether the claim that the Eucharist is Christ’s body and blood is equally nonsensical.

In any case, the claim that we should put our faith in someone who performs a supernatural feat like rising from the dead overlooks the possibility of malevolent spirits (demons) being able to either duplicate this feat or fool people into thinking that they’ve witnessed it. During the Middle Ages, Scholastic philosophers such as St. Thomas Aquinas insisted that God alone could raise the dead, but nevertheless acknowledged the possibility that demons could trick people into believing that they’d witnessed a resurrection. Guided by St. Augustine, who had taught that visible matter “obeys God alone” when it comes to its form, St. Thomas Aquinas insisted that certain physical transformations were beyond the power of the demons to bring about – “for instance, that the human body be changed into the body of a beast, or that the body of a dead man return to life” (S.T. I, q. 114, a. 4, ad. 2). These miraculous changes can only be effected by God. Nevertheless, demons can sometimes make people think that they have witnessed even these fantastic feats – either by directly acting on their imaginations, by “by the local movement of animal spirits and humors,” especially during dreams (S.T. I, q. 111, a. 3) or by clothing “any corporeal thing with any corporeal form, so as to appear therein,” thereby creating an illusion (S. T. I, q. 114, a. 4, ad. 2). Referring to the supernatural miracles that only God can perform, Aquinas writes that “if at times something of this sort seems to be effected by the operation of demons, it is not real but a mere semblance of reality.” In the same article (S. T. I, q. 114, a. 4, obj. 3 and ad. 3), Aquinas acknowledged the objection that ordinary people would find it impossible to distinguish between God’s authentic miracles and the devil’s fake miracles, but responded by quoting a saying of St. Augustine, that evil magicians perform these feats for their own glory, while holy men perform them for God’s glory.

In short: the argument that Jesus’ resurrection proves his claims regarding the Eucharist is not as straightforward as it appears, even if we are prepared to grant the accuracy of the Gospel narratives regarding Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist.


(c) Is transubstantiation a more reasonable belief than creation ex nihilo?

A monstrance, or a liturgical vessel used to exhibit the consecrated Host. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Catholic apologist Chris Stefanick also claims that for a Divine Person like Jesus, changing the “whatness” (or substance) of bread and wine into himself, while leaving the appearance as bread and wine, should be far easier than the task of creating all things out of nothing. But the real question we need to confront is not whether the transubstantiation (to use the Church’s dogmatic term) of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ is easier than creation ex nihilo, but whether it’s as reasonable to believe as creation ex nihilo. And it is here that we run into difficulties.

The word “transubstantiation” is a technical term, but its meaning was handily articulated back in the fourth century by St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who wrote that in the Eucharist, what “appears to be bread is not bread, though perceived by the taste, but the Body of Christ, and what appears to be wine is not wine, though the taste says so, but the Blood of Christ.” The Council of Trent taught that in the Eucharist, “only the appearances of bread and wine remain” (Session XIII, canon ii), but wisely refrained from speculating as to how this feat was accomplished. (The Catholic Encyclopedia provides a brief overview of such speculation in its article on transubstantiation.)

But what does it mean for the appearances of bread and wine to remain, where bread and wine no longer exist?

In his video, Stefanick speaks of Jesus as leaving the appearance as bread and wine while changing the substance of the bread and wine into himself. The term “leaving” indicates that he regards the appearances of bread and wine as properties of the bread and wine. Otherwise, Stefanick would have to instead speak of Jesus as creating the appearance of bread and wine while changing the substance of the bread and wine into himself – surely a possible feat for a Divine Person, but a bizarre one, as it would be tantamount to Jesus’ creating a “holy hallucination” (i.e. generating the appearance of a thing where nothing actually exists), inviting the question of why a Divine Person would do such a strange and deceptive thing. While this kind of miracle is presumably possible for God to accomplish, it could never be reasonable for us to believe in such a fantastic feat: the belief that what we are looking at actually is bread and wine would always be epistemically better-grounded. (One could also appeal to Ockham’s razor here.)

That leaves us with the traditional understanding of transubstantiation: that God somehow preserves the properties of bread and wine, even when the bread and wine are no longer there (i.e. after the words of consecration in the celebration of the Eucharist). So the question we need to address is whether it even makes sense to speak of the properties of a thing (bread or wine) as remaining when the thing itself is gone. I would argue that it does not, since not even God can do something logically absurd (e.g. make a square circle). The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is therefore discredited. (And as we’ll see below, rival Protestant explanations of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist fare no better.)

To see why the properties of bread and wine cannot exist without a subject, let us begin by examining the actions, reactions and underlying powers of bread and wine. Bread and wine are natural agents, which take part in chemical reactions with the surrounding air and alter it – for example, when bread sheds some of its natural moisture into the air and turns dry, or when wine evaporates. Indeed, the mere fact that we can see and touch bread and wine is enough to show that they possess a genuine agency: anything which is visible needs to be able to reflect light, while anything tangible must be able to act on the mechanoreceptors in our sensory nervous systems. However, it simply makes no sense to speak of an agent’s actions as continuing in the absence of the agent itself. Nor can we speak of an agent’s reactions, or for that matter its powers to act and react, as persisting in the absence of the agent itself. To suppose otherwise is to engage in Alice-in-Wonderland metaphysics: “I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice; “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!”

What about the qualities of a thing? Here, the notion of appearances persisting in the absence of a subject seems to get a toehold in our language: we can imagine the qualities of bread and wine (whiteness and roundness, for instance) as continuing to exist, even in the absence of the bread and wine themselves. However, we need to distinguish carefully here, between our first-person experiences of an object (our sensation of whiteness, for instance) and the underlying tendencies within the object that give rise to those experiences. It is only the former that we can imagine as persisting even in the absence of the object itself: for example, looking at a bright light may generate afterimages, which may be still seen after the luminous object is removed from our field of vision. However, this is not a case of an intrinsic property of a thing persisting even after the thing itself is gone. If we now consider the tendencies of an object to generate our first-person experiences (or qualia, as philosophers call them), it should be readily apparent that such tendencies can only exist within the object itself, and therefore cannot remain in the absence of the object.

A stained glass window of Thomas Aquinas in St. Joseph’s Catholic Church (Central City, Kentucky). Image courtesy of Nheyob and Wikipedia.

It might be wondered how Catholic philosophers have circumvented these obvious difficulties. The Catholic Church’s foremost theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, discussed these problems at length in Book IV of his Summa Contra Gentiles. In chapter 65, he argues that one accident (or property) of the Eucharistic bread and wine kept all the other properties in existence: “only the quantity tending to measure subsists without a subject, and this supplies a subject to the other accidents.” God can make an accident (or property) exist without a subject, because the Divine power “can produce the effects of any second causes whatever without the second causes themselves.” What makes quantity unique among the accidents of a thing is that it individuates things of the same kind. (Consider, for instance, two identical-looking white polar bears. We say that they are two distinct individuals because they occupy different positions in space, and for the same reason, the whiteness of one bear can also be distinguished from that of the other.) Thus in the Eucharist, writes Aquinas, “the measurements subsist of themselves and … the other accidents are founded on these as on a subject.” What about the actions and reactions (or passions, as Aquinas terms them) of the bread and wine? In the following chapter, Aquinas contends that it is “the sensible qualities which are the principles of actions of this sort.” He goes on to say that at the priest’s words of consecration in the Catholic Mass, God miraculously confers on the accidents the ability to subsist which is proper to substance, “and, as a consequence, [they] are able to do and to suffer the things which the substance could do and suffer if the substance were present.”

What shall we say in response to Aquinas’ defense? First, it needs to be pointed out that Aquinas based his metaphysics on that of Aristotle, whose treatment of the accident of quantity is notoriously problematic: for instance, he lists lines, surfaces and even bodies as continuous quantities, despite the fact that bodies are substances. I should add that unlike Aquinas, Aristotle would have stoutly denied the possibility of accidents existing without a subject. However, let us be charitable, and suppose that the quantity that Aquinas was envisaging refers to either the two-dimensional surface of the Eucharistic bread and wine, or its three-dimensional structure. Aquinas may have believed that the other properties of the Eucharistic bread and wine could be viewed either as properties of its surface or its structure. But this will not do. First, it simply makes no sense to speak of the surface of a thing as persisting when the thing itself is gone. Nor can we meaningfully speak of the structure of a thing as persisting when the thing itself no longer exists. Second, Aquinas’ suggestion that it is the qualities of bread and wine that perform their actions after the consecration in the Mass overlooks the fact that qualities are ultimately tendencies (as we argued above), and it makes no sense to speak of a thing’s tendencies as persisting when the thing itself is absent. Third, Aquinas’ likening the relation between substance and accident to that between a cause and its effect is profoundly wrong-headed. Substances don’t just cause their properties (or accidents): rather, they endow them with their very identity. Not even God can make Jack’s height, or Jack’s abilities or Jack’s actions exist in the absence of Jack himself. For without Jack, they are no longer Jack’s height, Jack’s abilities or Jack’s actions. The very best God can do is to replicate these properties by generating them directly Himself. But then they are not Jack’s properties but in some sense, God’s.

The Catholic Encyclopedia, in its article on transubstantiation, attempts to draw a distinction between two classes of accidents: modal accidents, which cannot be separated from their substance “without involving a metaphysical contradiction, e.g. the form and motion of a body”; and absolute accidents, which can be conceived of as separate, such as “the quantity of a body.” I have provided reasons above why I think quantity cannot be separated, even mentally, from its subject; but let us suppose that I am wrong, and that the structure of a thing can exist apart from the underlying substance. What would that prove? What it would mean is that substance is metaphysically redundant – at least, in relation to bodies. In other words, if absolute accidents are real, then the substance of the bread and wine is not.

I conclude, then, that the Catholic defense of transubstantiation rests upon philosophically muddled thinking. And as far as I can tell, the Eastern Orthodox Church’s doctrine of metousiosis (literally, change of essence) is basically the same doctrine, although the Orthodox tend to refrain from describing the exact manner in which Christ becomes present. That leaves us with Protestant accounts of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, which I shall discuss below. As we’ll see, these accounts are problematic, for their own reasons.


(d) Is Christ’s presence in the Eucharist an act of love?

Stefanick depicts the Eucharist as a gift of love on Christ’s part. He is of course right here, if the Eucharist is indeed the body and blood of Christ. What he omits to mention, however, is that the Eucharist is also a curse which can even bring death to those who receive it unworthily, according to St. Paul (1 Corinthians 11:27-30):

27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.

For Christians, then, the Eucharist turns out to be a double-edged sword, to be handled with great care, inviting the obvious question: how worthy must one be, in order to profitably receive it? There appears to be no simple way to answer this question. For the more mired we are in sin, the more blind we are likely to be to its presence in us. Additionally, many actions and attitudes which would have struck us as perfectly normal fifty years ago are regarded as reprehensible and even wicked today (casual racism being an obvious case in point), and vice versa (changes in sexual ethics and child-rearing practices being relevant examples here).

The sensible conclusion to be drawn here is that the Eucharist is a gift for only some, perhaps a minority, of Christians, and that those who believe themselves worthy of it are liable to be mistaken – in which case, they are eating and drinking judgment on themselves, in the words of St. Paul.


(e) Is receiving the Eucharist tantamount to cannibalism?

Finally, Stefanick maintains that receiving the Eucharist is not cannibalistic, since Catholics who receive the Eucharist are receiving a living body, not a dead one. To my mind, however, that does not make their act any the less cannibalistic. What Stefanick needs to say is that Christ is in no way harmed by being received in the Eucharist: once dead, he dies no more. What he also needs to show is that Christ’s body is not divided into parts when believers receive the Eucharist – for if it were, then the charge of cannibalism would surely be justified. St. Augustine of Hippo was well aware of this difficulty, and stridently opposed a crudely literal understanding of the Eucharist in his Sermon 227, preached to newly baptized Christians who were just about to receive the Eucharist:

What you can see passes away, but the invisible reality signified does not pass away, but remains. Look, it’s received, it’s eaten, it’s consumed. Is the body of Christ consumed, is the Church of Christ consumed, are the members of Christ consumed? Perish the thought!

In his Tractate 11 on the Gospel of John, Augustine heaped ridicule on those followers of Jesus who interpreted his words on the Eucharist (in John 6) in a carnal sense:

For when the Lord Jesus had said, Except a man eat my flesh, and drink my blood, he shall not have life in him, some who followed Him were offended, and said among themselves, This is a hard saying; who can hear it? For they fancied that, in saying this, Jesus meant that they would be able to cook Him, after being cut up like a lamb, and eat Him: horrified at His words, they went back, and no more followed Him.

Augustine nonetheless affirmed the Real Presence: in the sermon quoted above (no. 227), he told his audience of newly baptized Christians, “That bread which you can see on the altar, sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ.” In another sermon (no. 234), he declared that the bread “which receives the blessing of Christ, becomes Christ’s body.” But while Augustine manages to refute the charge of cannibalism, a critic might argue that he has painted himself into a corner: he is forced to suppose that Christ’s body can be truly present, but in a spiritual rather than a physical manner. What’s more Augustine seems to believe that while the body of Christ is present in the Eucharist, it is not in any sense eaten. It is fair to ask: does it even make sense to speak of a body being present in a non-bodily mode? And if the bread which becomes Christ’s body is eaten by believers, can we maintain at the same time that Christ is not in any sense eaten? I will leave it to my readers to decide.


B. The central flaw in all Christian accounts of the Real Presence: what does it mean to say that believers receive the body of Christ in the Eucharist?

Anonymous portrait of John Calvin, c. 1550. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

By this stage, readers may be wondering: do Protestant accounts of the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist fare any better than the Catholic account? I shall argue that they do not.

Among Protestants who affirm the Real Presence, there is a diversity of views as to the exact manner in which Christ is present in the Eucharist, and how he becomes present. Lutherans hold that the body and blood of Christ are present “in, with and under the forms of consecrated bread and wine” and that the consecrated bread and wine are mysteriously united with the body and blood of Christ, respectively – a doctrine known as “sacramental union,” which is often confused with the Lollard doctrine of consubstantiation, which simply states that Christ is physically present in the Eucharist, along with the bread and wine. Methodists believe that for those who receive worthily, “the bread which we break is a partaking of the body of Christ; and likewise the cup of blessing is a partaking of the blood of Christ.” Thus in the Eucharist, the real presence of Christ is communicated to the believer, in a mysterious manner. Calvinists and Reformed Christians teach that while Christ’s body and blood are really present, this presence is communicated in a spiritual manner (a doctrine sometimes known as the “mystical real presence”, “spiritual real presence” or “pneumatic presence”). Finally, Anglicans (many of whom consider themselves Protestants) hold a great variety of views, ranging from the Anglo-Catholic belief that Christ is corporeally present in the Eucharist in some mysterious manner, to the Low Church belief in a purely spiritual presence, to consubstantiation (a view defended by Edward Pusey of the Oxford movement), to receptionism (the belief, common until the nineteenth century, that although the bread and wine remain unchanged, the communicant receives the body and blood of Christ by receiving the sacrament worthily).

Regardless of whether they conceive of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist as physical or spiritual, all of these accounts agree on the following points: that Christ is not spatially present in the Eucharist, as a body is present in a place, but that nonetheless, believers who partake of the Eucharist truly receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ. These claims appear to make no sense whatsoever, for two reasons. First, the idea of a body having a non-spatial mode of presence is flat-out absurd: take space and time away from a body and what you are left with is no longer a body. Second, the only possible ways of “receiving” a body are by (i) consuming it, so that it becomes part of you, (ii) being consumed by it, so that you become part of it, or (iii) interacting with it: that is, either physically altering it or being physically altered by it. Since the risen body of Christ is indestructible and imperishable, it is incapable of being broken down and incorporated into our bodies; nor can our fragile, perishable bodies become part of Christ’s immortal body. That leaves option (iii): that Christ’s body is present by way of interaction. However, there seems to be no possible of this occurring either, since our human bodies are incapable of moving or physically altering the risen body of Christ, and since Christ’s risen body has no physical effect on our mortal bodies.

At this point, one might be inclined to ask: how did the early Christians explain the manner in which believers receive the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist? Two sayings – one by St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110 A.D.) and one by Tertullian (c. 200 A.D.) – suffice to convey the tenor of their thought. In chapter 20 of his Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Ignatius describes the Eucharist as “the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but [which causes] that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ.” And in chapter 8 of his work, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Tertullian wrote that “the flesh feeds on the body and blood of Christ, that the soul likewise may fatten on its God.” From the foregoing excerpts, it is apparent that they believed that eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ could strengthen them spiritually, enabling them to mystically partake of his resurrection, in anticipation of the General Resurrection that they eagerly awaited. In other words, the body and blood of Christ do indeed possess causal powers to transform those Christians who receive them worthily, but these powers are spiritual powers. But at this point, a skeptic might reasonably confess himself baffled: how can a body, however gloriously exalted it may be, possess powers which no body, qua body, can possess?

I am forced to conclude that the doctrine of the Real Presence, in whatever form it is upheld by Christians, is so muddled and confusing that an honest seeker after truth may well find it indistinguishable from gobbledygook.



I have endeavored to state the skeptic’s case as forcefully as I can, with regard to the sacraments. I’d now like to sum up and formulate a few general conclusions:

(i) It must be frankly admitted that the beliefs of many Christians as to how the sacraments operate can only be described as magical. The four cases I put forward in part 1 of my essay, on baptism, point to severe problems with the popular notion that that the supernatural is governed by ironclad rules. What Christians need to do is decouple the sacraments from the conventional conditions of their being bestowed, and adopt a broader and more humane approach: if every reasonable effort has been made to follow the rules governing the administration of the sacraments (regarding materials, actions, words and intentions), then they must be presumed to have been bestowed, even in cases where it subsequently turns out that the rules were not in fact followed. Also, the superstitious notion that God cannot withhold His grace, even if the celebrant is acting unlawfully, needs to be junked. A child who is “baptized” contrary to the wishes of his or her parents is not baptized at all;

(ii) The nonsensical notion of sacramental grace as a bare disposition also needs to be jettisoned. It might be more helpful to view it as an actual and ongoing experience of the Divine: a sensus divinitatis, if you will. It is quite conceivable that infants experience this sense of the presene of God, too, even if they cannot articulate it;

(iii) Talk of natural substances like water acting as a vehicle of grace is also nonsensical. It would be better to simply say that water is the sign chosen by God for His bestowal of grace on human beings, and that He chose this sign for a good psychological reason: He knows what it signifies to us (washing and purification);

(iv) With regard to the Eucharist, I may have to reconsider the possibility that bodies (at least, resurrected ones) can actually have spiritual properties, after all. I must confess I find this a baffling notion, but without it, it appears to me that no sense can be given to the doctrine of the Real Presence. The faith of the early Church was that by receiving the Eucharist, believers came to partake of the risen Christ’s immortality. That sounds like a good starting point for a theological inquiry into how Christ is present in the Eucharist;

(v) Christians would do well to avoid explanations of the Eucharist that involve metaphysical absurdities. They would also do well to acknowledge that bread and wine are more than mere chemical substances. They are also foods, and as such, anthropological realities. Perhaps we should say that the presence of Christ precludes us calling them bread and wine any more, for they are no longer merely foods. At any rate, the question of what happens to the bread and wine is subordinate to the larger question of how Christ becomes present;

(vi) The suggestions I have made above are speculative. I have to admit that in the end, I do not know what grace is, and I do not know what it means to say that it is bestowed on infants at baptism, or on believers who receive the Eucharist. Nor can I explain the manner in which Christ can be said to be present in the Eucharist. If I were a non-Christian, I would find that level of vagueness enormously frustrating. It is only because I have been raised in the Christian faith that I can live with this level of “not understanding.” Unbelievers therefore have my sincere sympathies.

Further reading

Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition. The Sacrament of Baptism. Part Two, Section 2, Chapter 1, Article 1. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington D.C. 2019.
Fanning, William. “Baptism.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907.
Godfrey, W. Robert. Why Baptism? Westminster Seminary California. Also published in Modern Reformation, Vol. 6 No. 3, May/June 1997.
Kennedy, Daniel. “Sacraments.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912.

The Eucharist
Aquinas, St. Thomas. Summa Contra Gentiles, Book IV, chapters 65-67. Translated by Charles J. O’Neil.
Cahill, Michael J. Drinking Blood at a Kosher Eucharist? The Sound of Scholarly Silence. Biblical Theology Bulletin: Journal of Bible and Culture, Vol. 32(4), 168-81, 2002.
Daly (S.J.), Fr. Robert J. “Eucharistic Origins: From the New Testament to the Liturgies of the Golden Age.” Theological Studies 66, March, 2005.
Duffner (O.P.). Fr. Paul A. Transubstantiation. The Rosary Light & Life – Vol 49, No 3, May-June 1996.
Loftus, John W. (editor). The Case Against Miracles. Hypatia Press, 2019.
Manning. Fr. Robert. The Celebrated Answer to the Rev. C. Lesley’s Case Stated Between the Church of Rome and the Church of England. London: Jones, Paternoster-Row. 1839 (Reprint).
O&H Contributor. The Doctrine of Transubstantiation in the Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy blog article. August 14, 2013.
Pohle, Joseph. “The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909.
Selwood, Pat. The Catholic Doctrine of Transubstantiation: An Exposition and Defense. Honors Thesis, Bucknell University. 2010.
The Canons of the Fourth Lateran Council, 1215. From the Internet Medieval Source Book, editor Paul Halsall. 1996.
The Council of Trent: Thirteenth Session, Canons. Source: Traditional Catholic.

14 thoughts on “An A-Z of Unanswered Objections to Christianity: W. The Sacraments

  1. “I have to admit that in the end, I do not know what grace is” – Vincent J. Torley

    Sadly, that would appear to be behind why this thread by a “Roman Catholic skeptic” was posted at TSZ about “the sacraments”.

    “It is only because I have been raised in the Christian faith that I can live with this level of “not understanding”.” – Torley

    Likely not. Many Christian converts are much more apophatically aware and non-ignorant compared with what you regularly display in your skepticism.

    It may be instead that you “can live with” it because you have departed considerably far from that faith, while embracing skepticism from online forums, which makes you write posts like this. This is your quasi-Catholic “true apologetics” series, after all, don’t forget, Vincent.

    Sending the same (reverse perspective) healing wishes as always north of Aus! _ / \_

  2. You’d be better off writing about Harry Potter. That world is at least mostly internally self-consistent.

    You could just have said the sacraments are made up nonsense, that’s why none of it makes sense.

    Gregory: It may be instead that you “can live with” it because you have departed considerably far from that faith, while embracing skepticism from online forums, which makes you write posts like this.

    Or he’s working his way through a process where at the other side he’ll be an atheist. And quite right too!

    Alternatively lock yourself away for a lifetime convinced that there is hidden wisdom in the politically edited words of ignorant sheep herders from thousands of years ago. Conspiracy theory much? Might as well put a hat on MAKE RELIGION GREAT AGAIN.

  3. graham2:
    VJT must have a lot of spare time to waste.

    Sad agreement. I understand what Torley is looking for, and he’s not going to find it at TSZ.

  4. Hi everyone.

    I should clarify that the aim of my A-Z series is not to prove or disprove Christianity (or Catholicism, for that matter), but to expose the gaping holes in Christian apologetics, by pointing to some simple, straightforward questions about the faith that apologists should be capable of answering, but apparently are not. The questions “What is grace?” and “What do you mean when you say that believers receive the body of Christ in the Eucharist?” are two such questions.

    I have no idea what grace is, and I can live with that, but at least I know what it’s not. It cannot be a “bare disposition.” If you’d like to try answering the question, then feel free. One thing I do know: Christianity will never make any headway among “Nones” unless its leading apologists tackle the questions I posed above, head-on.

    I do use my posts as a tool to sort out my thoughts on various topics. While that hasn’t destroyed my faith, it has convinced me that the enterprise of attempting to argue for the faith is a fool’s errand.

    I work seven days a week. I do not have loads of spare time; I have loads of stamina. At 60, I can still (occasionally) pull an all-nighter.

    Kantian Naturalist,
    My 26-part series is a work-in-progress, and TSZ is as good a place in which to build it as anywhere else on the Web. What I’ll end up doing with the series when it’s completed remains to be seen.


  5. vjtorley: Kantian Naturalist,
    My 26-part series is a work-in-progress, and TSZ is as good a place in which to build it as anywhere else on the Web. What I’ll end up doing with the series when it’s completed remains to be seen.

    If you want to use TSZ as a repository for the series before publishing it, I certainly have no objection — Liz Liddle is paying for the site and she obviously doesn’t care about what we do with it.

    Unfortunately, if you’re looking for thoughtful, helpful feedback on your ideas, you definitely won’t get that at TSZ.

  6. “if you’re looking for thoughtful, helpful feedback on your ideas, you definitely won’t get that at TSZ.” – KN

    Yes, I agree with that.

    Yet it doesn’t seem that VJ Torley is actually aiming for that, since he’d have to be VERY NAIVE to think he’s going to get it here. Instead, it looks like he just wants to dump his “Catholic skepticism” here. This is counter-productive, though he doesn’t seem to realise it.

    “TSZ is as good a place in which to build it as anywhere else on the Web” – VJT

    This shows VJT can’t be trusted about what is “good” or “bad” or “harmful”, including to himself. He’s sold out his “Catholic skepticism” to Lizzie and seems to think that’s admirable. It’s not.

  7. Gregory,

    Or it’s that TSZ is tolerant of diversity of view. Disagree with what you say but defend your right to say it. And allow criticism of what you say.

  8. Gregory,

    I see VJT as thinking through his ideas, and writing them down as part of how he thinks through them. It probably doesn’t much matter to him whether anybody reads it. The exercise of writing them down is what matters to him.

    And, by the way, I don’t have any problem with him doing that.

  9. Neil Rickert: I see VJT as thinking through his ideas, and writing them down as part of how he thinks through them. It probably doesn’t much matter to him whether anybody reads it. The exercise of writing them down is what matters to him.

    And, by the way, I don’t have any problem with him doing that.

    Nor do I, except that Vincent is using TSZ as his repository instead of building his own web-site, and that means he is taking advantage of Lizzie’s permanent absence, since she’s the one paying for the upkeep on the site, not him. Even though she doesn’t mind, he’s still taking advantage of her.

  10. Just because there is some superficial similarities between some types of magic and the Christian sacraments, it does not follow that the sacraments are magical in the way in which they work. The sacraments are based on the promises and commands that Jesus gave to his apostles and to the Church.

    The graces received through the sacraments are given by Jesus himself to those who do what he commanded. And since you asked, grace is a gift of a deeper understanding and appreciation of the love, goodness, beauty, and truth that is God. These are the eternal transcendent qualities that motivate the Christian to pursue a life of virtue and holiness. There is nothing magical about the sacraments or grace at all.

  11. Lamont: The sacraments are based on the promises and commands that Jesus gave to his apostles and to the Church.

    Welcome to TSZ, Lamont.

    How do you come to this conclusion?

  12. A fair question but one that is too large to answer in a blog post. If you would like a concise answer check out section 2 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Available online and all the Biblical and historical references are provided.

  13. Lamont:
    A fair question but one that is too large to answer in a blog post. If you would like a concise answer check outsection 2 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Available online and all the Biblical and historical references are provided.

    Well, yes. Except that Biblical references amount to texts that have little to nothing in the way of corroboration from archaeology, non-Christian texts or any other sources. I also happen to live in the heart of Cathar country. The Catholic church did not cover itself in glory during the Albigensian Crusade.

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