Keckermann on Transubstantiation

by Matthew Gaetano

For reasons that continue to perplex me, some of our readers still think that we at TRF don’t take seriously the fundamental theological debates of the Reformation. It seems to me that, while we are obviously interested in inter-confessional dialogue, we have also been quite clear about our conviction that the controversies of the sixteenth and seventeenth are (at the very least) points of departure for those conversations. Our early-modern forebears remind us–Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed, evangelicals, etc.–of what was (and, in many, many cases, still is) at stake in these doctrinal debates.

Now, perhaps certain formulations have shifted in the past 500 years; in a few cases, greater clarity may have been reached. But we don’t need to look to developments since the 1500s to achieve deeper understanding; at times, our early-modern ancestors show us that modern polemics have either failed to draw the line in the right place or have created new points of controversy that were not really at issue during the Reformation itself.

At any rate, I think that Bartholomew Keckermann’s discussion of the Lord’s Supper may be pertinent to this larger issue. As discussed in a previous post, Keckermann was a famous Reformed theologian, philosopher, and author of textbooks during the early-modern period. He approached philosophy from a broadly Aristotelian perspective and did not hesitate to take up metaphysical issues. This makes his treatment of philosophical issues touching on Eucharistic debates especially interesting.

In modern discussions, one often hears criticisms of the old Roman Catholic position as buying into outdated metaphysical views or as wrongly bringing philosophy into theological contexts or as slavish to Aristotle or other statements of that sort. By contrast, Keckerman attacks transubstantiation for how it subverts Aristotelian philosophy. After talking about the theological problems with the teaching, he says,

[458] The dogma of transubstantiation conflicts with principles that are supreme and true forever (verissimis in aeternum): that accidents are not without the subjects to which they are determined. Therefore, since the color, odor, and taste of the bread and wine are accidents determined to bread and wine, they surely could not be without the substance of bread and wine. It conflicts with the testimony of the four senses–vision, touch, smell, and taste–which most evidently testify that substantial bread and wine exist and remain there. But how much the testimony of the senses has force even in theology is clear from the fact that Christ and the angels appeal to this sort of testimony [459], as we have copiously proved in our teaching on logic.

So, we should obviously not forget the major debate about transubstantiation during the Reformation era. Despite the massive controversies between Lutherans and Calvinists about the Eucharist, there was agreement between the Protestant confessions regarding the rejection of transubstantiation. More relevant to this passage, though, is the fact that a Calvinist theologian and philosopher like Keckermann does not reject transubstantiation because it is too Aristotelian or metaphysical or anything like that. Rather, he points out that having accidents without a subject or substance contradicts the supreme principles of true philosophy. Basically, Keckermann is saying that transubstantiation contradicts philosophical truths expressed by the Aristotelian tradition. Roman Catholics, in his view, were not being Aristotelian enough!

Of course, Catholic philosophers and theologians responded to this objection in the Middle Ages and in the aftermath of the Reformation. But how well do we know those responses? More importantly, has the shape of the disagreement over transubstantiation changed in any way over the past 400-500 years?

2 thoughts on “Keckermann on Transubstantiation

  1. As interesting as this is, I do believe that the accident/substance philosophical argument is about as relevant today as Lawrence Welk is to millennials. 95% of Protestants don’t know or care about the historic doctrine and a large percentage of Catholics don’t even see it as a dividing line. The nature of the debate needs to be one that unites, not divides, so that the world may believe. How could it possibly unite? Well, the same way that walking into an arena wearing the home team’s jersey unites a fan base. We can argue over whether it’s the same as what the team wears or is a replica, but when you get right down to it, we both love the same team.

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