Dictionary Definition



1 the Roman Catholic doctrine that the whole substance of the bread and the wine changes into the substance of the body and blood of Christ when consecrated in the Eucharist
2 an act that changes the form or character or substance of something [syn: transmutation]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. Conversion of one substance into another.
  2. In the context of "Christianity|in Roman Catholic dogma": The doctrine holding that the bread and wine of the Eucharist are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus.


conversion of one substance into another
  • Icelandic: ummyndun, myndbreyting
Roman Catholic dogma
  • Icelandic: eðlisbreyting, gjörbreyting, eðlisbreytingarkenningin
  • Russian: пресуществление

Extensive Definition

On the related belief that Christ is present in the Eucharist in body, blood, soul and divinity, see Real Presence.
Transubstantiation (in Latin, transsubstantiatio) is the change of the substance of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ occurring in the Eucharist according to the teaching of some Christian Churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, while all that is accessible to the senses remain as before. In Greek it is called (see Metousiosis).

Theology of transubstantiation

"Substance" here means what something is in itself. (For more on the philosophical concept, see Substance theory.) A hat's shape is not the hat itself, nor is its colour the hat, nor is its size, nor its softness to the touch, nor anything else about it perceptible to the senses. The hat itself (the "substance") has the shape, the colour, the size, the softness and the other appearances, but is distinct from them. While the appearances, which are referred to by the philosophical term accidents, are perceptible to the senses, the substance is not.
When at his Last Supper, Jesus said: "This is my body", what he held in his hands still had all the appearances of bread: these "accidents" remained unchanged. However, the Roman Catholic Church believes that, when Jesus made that declaration, the underlying reality (the "substance") of the bread was converted to that of his body. In other words, it actually was his body, while all the appearances open to the senses or to scientific investigation were still those of bread, exactly as before. The Church holds that the same change of the substance of the bread and of the wine occurs at the consecration of the Eucharist.
Because Christ, risen from the dead, is living, the Church holds that, when the bread is changed into his body, not only his Body is present, but Christ as a whole i.e. body and blood, soul and divinity. The same holds for the wine changed into his Blood. This belief goes beyond the doctrine of transubstantiation, which directly concerns only the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.
In accordance with this belief that Christ is really, truly and substantially present under the remaining appearances of bread and wine, and continues to be present as long as those appearances remain, the Catholic Church preserves the consecrated elements, generally in a church tabernacle, for administering Holy Communion to the sick and dying, and also for the secondary, but still highly prized, purpose of adoring Christ present in the Eucharist.
The Roman Catholic Church considers the doctrine of transubstantiation, which is about what is changed, not about how the change occurs, the best defence against what it sees as the mutually opposed interpretations, on the one hand, a merely figurative understanding of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (it teaches that the change of the substance is real), and, on the other hand, an interpretation that would amount to cannibalistic eating of the flesh and corporal drinking of the blood of Christ (it teaches that the accidents that remain are real, not an illusion, and that Christ is "really, truly, and substantially present" in the Eucharist, not physically present, as he was physically present in the Palestine of two millennia ago).
In the acrimonious arguments which characterised the relationship between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism in the 16th century, the Council of Trent declared subject to the ecclesiastical penalty of anathema anyone who "''denieth, that, in the sacrament of the most holy 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; but saith that He is only therein as in a sign, or in figure, or virtue" and anyone who "saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood - the species only of the bread and wine remaining - which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation''". Many Protestant groups now celebrate Holy Communion more frequently than in years past, and no longer see such a practice as 'Roman'. There is also the tendency in some Protestant denominations to consider Christ to be present in the Eucharistic elements, though none would subscribe to belief in transubstantiation.
As already stated, the Roman Catholic Church insists that the "accidents" that remain are real. In the sacrament these are the signs of the reality that they efficaciously signify.And by definition sacraments are "efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us."

Scriptural foundations

While the word "transubstantiation" is not found in Scripture and the doctrine is not explicitly stated there, those who believe that the reality in the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ and no longer bread and wine hold that this is implicitly taught in the New Testament.
Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Roman Catholics, who together constitute about two thirds of Christians, hold that the consecrated elements in the Eucharist are indeed the body and blood of Christ. Some Anglicans hold the same belief. They see as the main Scriptural support for their belief that in the Eucharist the bread and wine are actually changed into the Body and Blood of Christ the words of Jesus himself at his Last Supper: the Synoptic Gospels and Saint Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians recount that in that context Jesus said of what to all appearances were bread and wine: "This is my body … this is my blood." Belief in the change of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ is based on these words of Christ at the Last Supper as interpreted by Christians from the earliest times, as for instance by Ignatius of Antioch.
Many Protestants do not accept this literal interpretation of these words of Jesus. They say that Jesus repeatedly spoke in non-literal terms e.g. "I am the bread of life", "I am the door", "I am the vine", "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees" (Bible verse |Matthew|16:6-12), etc. Figurative language in the Synoptic Gospels, the gospels that give the words of Jesus at his Last Supper, includes: "You are the salt of the earth ... You are the light of the world" (Bible verse |Matthew|5:13-14) and many other verses. They believe that because what Jesus was holding when he said "this is my body" appeared to be bread, it was very obvious to the apostles that he was not speaking in a literal sense. They quote David's words in Bible verse 2|Samuel|23:17, where, speaking figuratively, he said of water that had been obtained at the risk of men's lives: "Is not this the blood of the men who went in jeopardy of their lives?" They point to Bible verse |Matthew|16:6-12, where Jesus spoke of "the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees": the disciples thought he said it because they had brought no bread, but Jesus made them understand that he was referring to the teaching of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. However, such Christians do not view the bread and wine of the Lord's supper as common bread and wine but respect them as symbols of the body of Jesus Christ, who was the Word made flesh and was crucified for our salvation.
Believers in the literal sense of Christ's words, "This is my body", "This is my blood" claim that there is a marked contrast between metaphorical figurative expressions that of their nature have a symbolic meaning and what Jesus said about concrete things that he held in his hands and presented to the apostles.
The Gospel of John presents Jesus as saying: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you … he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him" (), and as then not toning down these sayings, even when many of his disciples thereupon abandoned him (), shocked at the idea, which appeared to be in conflict not only with ordinary human sentiment but also with the Noahide Law's prohibition against consuming the blood even of animals (see Bible verse |Genesis|9:4, Bible verse |Lev|17:10-14, cf. Bible verse |Acts|15:19-21 and Council of Jerusalem).
In response to a report that, when Corinthian Christians came together to celebrate the Lord's Supper, there were divisions among them, with some eating and drinking to excess, while others were hungry (Bible verse 1|Corinthians|11:17-22), Paul the Apostle reminded them of Jesus' words at the Last Supper (Bible verse 1|Corinthians|11:23-25) and concluded: "Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord" (Bible verse 1|Corinthians|11:27).
In general, Orthodox and Catholics consider it unnecessary to "prove" from texts of Scripture a belief that they see as held by Christians from earliest times, since the Church and its teaching existed before any part of the New Testament was written, and the teaching of the apostles was thus transmitted not only in writing but also orally. They see nothing in Scripture that contradicts the traditional teaching that the reality beneath the visible signs in the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ. Instead, they see this teaching as definitely implied in the Bible.
Christians of Protestant tradition postulate that the only doctrines that need to be held are those expressed or implied in the Bible, and deny that the Bible implies that the bread and wine are in reality changed into the body and blood of Christ. They claim that this belief contradicts what they see as the central message of the gospel of Christ and that it is therefore heretical. They say that inspired Scripture documents strange doctrines infiltrating the Church even while the apostles were still living, doctrines that had to be defended against by the "elders of the church".

Historical development

Patristic period

That the Eucharist conveyed to the believer the body and blood of Christ was universally accepted from the first, and the elements were very commonly referred to as themselves the body and blood. Even where the elements were spoken of as "symbols" or "antitypes" there was no intention of denying the reality of the Presence in the gifts. Later, as the earlier conception of a "symbol" as that which conveys and is what it represents gave way to the understanding of it as being other than what it represents, the description of the bread and wine as symbols dropped out or was denied.
A letter by Saint Ignatius of Antioch of about the same date as the Didache is an example of a Church authority (a bishop) defending belief in the Eucharist as the same body and blood in which Christ died and was raised again. Ignatius's teaching was directed against the Gnostics, who denied the reality of Christ's body and blood and of his death, since they considered he was an immaterial spiritual being. Writing to the Christians of Smyrna, in about 106, he warned them to "stand aloof from such heretics", because, among other reasons, "they abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again."
In about 150, Justin Martyr wrote of the Eucharist: "Not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh."
The Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. 380) says: "Let the bishop give the oblation, saying, The body of Christ; and let him that receiveth say, Amen. And let the deacon take the cup; and when he gives it, say, The blood of Christ, the cup of life; and let him that drinketh say, Amen."
Ambrose of Milan (d. 397) wrote:
Perhaps you will say, "I see something else, how is it that you assert that I receive the Body of Christ?" ... Let us prove that this is not what nature made, but what the blessing consecrated, and the power of blessing is greater than that of nature, because by blessing nature itself is changed. ... We observe, then, that grace has more power than nature, and yet so far we have only spoken of the grace of a prophet's blessing. But if the blessing of man had such power as to change nature, what are we to say of that divine consecration where the very words of the Lord and Saviour operate? For that sacrament which you receive is made what it is by the word of Christ. But if the word of Elijah had such power as to bring down fire from heaven, shall not the word of Christ have power to change the nature of the elements? You read concerning the making of the whole world: "He spoke and they were made, He commanded and they were created." Shall not the word of Christ, which was able to make out of nothing that which was not, be able to change things which already are into what they were not? For it is not less to give a new nature to things than to change them. But why make use of arguments? Let us use the examples He gives, and by the example of the Incarnation prove the truth of the mystery. Did the course of nature proceed as usual when the Lord Jesus was born of Mary? If we look to the usual course, a woman ordinarily conceives after connection with a man. And this body which we make is that which was born of the Virgin. Why do you seek the order of nature in the Body of Christ, seeing that the Lord Jesus Himself was born of a Virgin, not according to nature? It is the true Flesh of Christ which crucified and buried, this is then truly the Sacrament of His Body. The Lord Jesus Himself proclaims: "This is My Body." Before the blessing of the heavenly words another nature is spoken of, after the consecration the Body is signified. He Himself speaks of His Blood. Before the consecration it has another name, after it is called Blood. And you say, Amen, that is, It is true. Let the heart within confess what the mouth utters, let the soul feel what the voice speaks."
Other fourth-century Christian writers say that in the Eucharist there occurs a "change", "transelementation", "transformation", "transposing", "alteration" of the bread into the body of Christ.

Middle Ages

In the eleventh century, Berengar of Tours denied that any material change in the elements was needed to explain the Eucharistic Presence, thereby provoking a considerable stir.
The earliest known use of the term "transubstantiation" to describe the change from bread and wine to body and blood of Christ was by Hildebert de Lavardin, Archbishop of Tours (died 1133) in about 1079, long before the Latin West, under the influence especially of Saint Thomas Aquinas (c. 1227-1274), accepted Aristotelianism.
The objective reality of the Eucharistic change is also believed in by the Eastern Orthodox Church and the other ancient Churches of the east, where Aristotelian philosophy never prevailed.
In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council used the word transubstantiated in its profession of faith, when speaking of the change that takes place in the Eucharist. It was only later in the thirteenth century that Aristotelian metaphysics was accepted and a philosophical elaboration in line with that metaphysics was developed, which found classic formulation in the teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas."

Protestant Reformation

In the Protestant Reformation, the doctrine of transubstantiation became a matter of controversy. While Martin Luther believed that the body and blood of Christ are really present in the bread and wine of the sacrament (a view often called consubstantiation by non-Lutherans), Huldrych Zwingli taught that the sacrament is purely symbolic and memorial in character, arguing that this was the meaning of Jesus' instruction: "Do this in remembrance of me".
In 1551 the Council of Trent officially defined, with a minimum of technical philosophical language,
In line with this definition, rejection of the doctrine of transubstantiation was considered heresy during the five-year reign (1553-1558) of Mary I of England. John Frith, John Rogers, and Rowland Taylor were executed for refusing to accept it, as recounted in Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Mary's successor Elizabeth declared that: "Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions"; and made assistance at Mass illegal.

Views of other Churches on transubstantiation

Eastern Christianity

The Eastern Catholic, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox Churches, along with the Assyrian Church of the East, agree that the bread and wine truly and actually become the body and blood of Christ. They have in general refrained from philosophical speculation, and usually rely on the status of the doctrine as a "Mystery," something known by divine revelation that could not have been arrived at by reason without revelation. Accordingly, they prefer not to elaborate upon the details and remain firmly within Holy Tradition, than to say too much and possibly deviate from the truth. However, they do speak clearly of a "change" (in Greek ) or "metousiosis" () of the bread and wine. Met-ousi-osis is the Greek form of the word Tran-substantia-tion.


During the reign of Henry VIII, the official teaching of the Anglican Church was identical with the Roman Catholic Church's doctrine, in defence of which the king wrote a book for which the Pope rewarded him with the title of Defender of the Faith. Under his son, Edward VI, the Anglican Church accepted a more Protestant theology, and directly opposed transubstantiation. Elizabeth I, as part of the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, gave royal assent to the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, which sought to distinguish Anglican from Roman Church doctrine. The Articles, declared: "Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions."
Anglicans generally consider no teaching binding that, according to the Articles, "cannot be found in Holy Scripture or proved thereby." Consequently, some Anglicans (especially Anglo-Catholics and High Church Anglicans) accept Transubstantiation, while others do not. In any case, the Articles are not considered binding on any but Church of England clergy, especially for Anglican Churches other than the Church of England. While Archbishop John Tillotson decried the "real barbarousness of this Sacrament and Rite of our Religion", considering it a great impiety to believe that people who attend Holy Communion "verily eat and drink the natural flesh and blood of Christ. And what can any man do more unworthily towards a Friend? How can he possibly use him more barbarously, than to feast upon his living flesh and blood?" (Discourse against Transubstantiation, London 1684, 35), official writings of the Churches of the Anglican Communion have consistently upheld belief in the Real Presence. Some recent Anglican writers explicitly accept the doctrine of transubstantiation, or, while avoiding the term "transubstantiation", speak of an "objective presence" of Christ in the Eucharist. On the other hand, others hold views, such as consubstantiation or "pneumatic presence", close to those of Reformed Protestant Churches.
Theological dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church has produced common documents that speak of "substantial agreement" about the doctrine of the Eucharist: the ARCIC Windsor Statement of 1971, and its 1979 Elucidation. Remaining arguments can be found in the Church of England's pastoral letter: The Eucharist: Sacrament of Unity.


Lutherans believe that within the Eucharistic celebration the body and blood of Jesus Christ are objectively present "in, with, and under the forms" of bread and wine (cf. Book of Concord). They place great stress on Jesus' instructions to "take and eat", and "take and drink", holding that this is the proper, divinely ordained use of the sacrament, and, while giving it due reverence, scrupulously avoid any actions that might indicate or lead to superstition or unworthy fear of the sacrament. However, Luther explicitly rejected transubstantiation, believing that the bread and wine remained fully bread and fully wine while also being fully the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Luther instead emphasized the sacramental union (not exactly the consubstantiation, as it is often claimed).

Other Protestants

Many Protestant denominations believe that the Lord's Supper is a symbolic act done in remembrance of what Christ has done for us on the cross. He commanded the apostles: "This do in remembrance of me", after "he took bread, and gave thanks, and broke it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you" (Bible verse |Luke|22:19, Bible verse 1|Corinthians|11:24). Therefore they see it as a symbolic act done in remembrance and as a declaration (Bible verse 1|Corinthians|11:26) of faith in what they consider Christ's finished (Bible verse |John|19:30) work on the cross. They reject the idea that a priest, acting, he believes, in the name of Christ, not in his own name, can transform bread and wine into the actual body and blood of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, and many of them see the doctrine as a problem because of its connection with practices such as Eucharistic adoration, which they believe may be idolatry, worshipping, praying to, and kneeling before mere bread and wine, as if it were God. They base their criticism of the doctrine of transubstantiation (and also of the Real Presence) on a number of verses of the Bible, including Bible verse |Exodus|20:4-5, and on their interpretation of the central message of the Gospel. Scripture does not explicitly say "the bread was transformed" or "changed" in any way, and therefore they consider the doctrine of transubstantiation to be unbiblical from more than one approach. As already stated above, they also object to using early Christian writings such as those of Ignatius, Justin and Ambrose as support for belief in the real change of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, because such writings are not Scripture nor "writings that were able to be verified by any prophet or apostle", especially when they believe such doctrines contradict inspired Scripture, even if these writings seem to show that they were upheld by the early Church.
A few Protestants apply to the doctrine of the Real Presence the warning that Jesus gave to His disciples in Bible verse |Matthew|24:26: "Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not", believing that "secret chambers" (also translated as "inner rooms", "a secret place", "indoors in the room") may refer to the church buildings or church tabernacles in which consecrated hosts are stored. They thus do not believe the words of those who say that Jesus Christ (in host form) resides inside churches or in church tabernacles. They believe that Christ's words at the Last Supper were meant to be taken metaphorically and believe that support for a metaphorical interpretation comes from Christ's other teachings that utilized food in general (Bible verse |John|4:32-34), bread (Bible verse |John|6:35), and leaven (Bible verse |Matthew|16:6-12), as metaphors. They believe that when Christ returns in any substance with any physical form (accidental or actual), it will be apparent to all and that no man will have to point and say "there He is".
Protestant Churches that hold strong beliefs against the consumption of alcohol replace wine with grape juice during the Lord's supper. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also referred to as Mormons), a Restorationist sect, uses bread and water to commemoratively symbolize Christ's body and blood.
Others, such as some Presbyterian denominations, profess belief in the Real Presence, but offer explanations other than transubstantiation. Classical Presbyterianism held the Calvinist view of "pneumatic" presence or "spiritual feeding." However, when the Presbyterian Church (USA) signed "A Formula for Agreement" with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, both affirmed belief in the Real Presence.

Persons killed for believing in or disbelieving transubstantiation

transubstantiation in Catalan: Transsubstanciació
transubstantiation in Czech: Transubstanciace
transubstantiation in German: Transsubstantiation
transubstantiation in Spanish: Transubstanciación
transubstantiation in Esperanto: Transsubstancigo
transubstantiation in French: Transsubstantiation
transubstantiation in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Transubstantiation
transubstantiation in Italian: Transustanziazione
transubstantiation in Hebrew: טרנסובסטנציאציה
transubstantiation in Dutch: Transsubstantiatie
transubstantiation in Japanese: 聖変化
transubstantiation in Polish: Transsubstancjacja
transubstantiation in Portuguese: Transubstanciação
transubstantiation in Russian: Пресуществление
transubstantiation in Finnish: Transsubstantiaatio
transubstantiation in Swedish: Transsubstantiation
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