Quibble About Lutheran Dislike of the Term “Consubstantiation”

Quibble About Lutheran Dislike of the Term “Consubstantiation” April 20, 2011

Allegoric representation of Sacramental union, the Lutheran doctrine of Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, after a woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553). In the front Communion under both kinds is pictured with (on the left) Martin Luther giving the chalice to John, Elector of Saxony. [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


A former Lutheran, not-sure-what-he-believes-now-but-attends-Mass friend of mine stated in my comboxes:


Catholics have this bad tendency to try to label other people. E.g., Catholics call the Lutheran view of the presence of Christ in the sacrament “consubstantiation,” but Lutherans just call it “real presence.”

This is a reasonable point, since it is largely true (though Catholics aren’t the only ones who do this: other Protestants do, too).
In this instance, however,  it is mostly a matter of semantics. Lutherans believe Christ is “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. This is precisely what non-Lutherans usually mean by “consubstantiation” (bread and wine are present and so is Christ at the same time). It’s just substituting one word for a phrase, where they mean the same. Lutherans don’t like the term, as far as I can tell, because of its association with both Aristotelian metaphysics and the linguistic connection with the Catholic transubstantiation.
Martin Luther didn’t care for the term “Lutherans” either, and I doubt that Wesley would have appreciated “Wesleyans” or Calvin, “Calvinists”, but that didn’t stop their followers from adopting those terms, anyway, since Protestantism often suffers from overly man-centered tendencies. To me it is more offensive to go against the wishes of your own founder than it is to use the description “consubstantiation.”
The larger problem of terminology with regard to the Eucharist is use of the same words in different ways. Thus an Anglican (or Lutheran) may say “real presence” but they don’t mean by that what the Church historically believed for 1500 years (in this regard, see the excellent article, What Do We Mean by ‘The Real Presence’?, by Fr. Dwight Longenecker).
This raises a conundrum when a Catholic refers to it, because in order to properly educate and to accurately note proper distinctions, we have to point out that meanings are different. “Consubstantiation” seems to be accurate enough for that purpose. If Lutherans don’t like it, then I suggest that they give us some term to use other than the vague, wax-nose “real presence.” The problem is the absence of another similarly descriptive word. “Real presence” is insufficient, since several denominations use it, and mean different things by it. Perhaps I could describe the Lutheran eucharistic view as “in, with, and underism”. But would that be preferable? Of course it would be a silly terminology.

This (humorously) illustrates the problem: the need for accurate description of various theological views. No one has any doubt as to where Catholics stand: transubstantiation means, literally, “change of substance.” No ambiguity, no confusion or unclearness. A person may disagree with that, but they know exactly what it is, by the term, and looking up what the term literally means.

Lutherans don’t like consubstantiation, but they haven’t offered us anything else besides “real presence” — a description that doesn’t convey in the slightest the distinctive Lutheran take on the Eucharist. Descriptive terms and labels are used precisely as “technical terms”: in order to avoid the need for a paragraph explanation of concepts, when a word can suffice (and a dictionary as well, if one wants to get the precise definition).

Nor is consubstantiation nearly as offensive, in my opinion, as the usual “Romanists” and “papists” that we are habitually called by the more anti-Catholic wing of Lutheranism. For example, here is Rev. Paul T. McCain, writing on his very prominent Lutheran website, Cyberbrethren:
Seems I have touched a bit of a nerve with my remarks about the “Corpus Christi” festival, which I regard as Romanist bunk and tomfoolery,. . . (6-16-06)
It is not we who call ourselves Lutherans. Rather, our adversaries call us that. We allow this to the extent that this title is an indication of the consensus that our churches have with the orthodox and catholic doctrine that Luther set forth from Holy Writ. Therefore we allow ourselves to be named after Luther, not as the inventor of a new faith but as the asserter of the old faith and the cleanser of the church from the stains of Papist dogmas. (10-31-10)

The second paragraph is quite remarkable, in that it uses papist: a term that any idiot knows is not what Catholics call themselves, while at the same time claiming that Lutherans have adopted their name because of the use of “adversaries.”  But no one has forced them at gunpoint to use this name. It’s a voluntary matter. They chose it and use it. So they have no right now to protest that it derived from their “adversaries”.

I am unaware of a book called The Catechism of the Papist Church or a self-described category of “Romanist apologetics.” Plenty of our adversaries use those terms but it doesn’t follow that we do ourselves. Yet I am supposed to believe that Lutherans had no choice but to use a term they themselves object to? It’s beyond ludicrous and it strikes one as after-the-fact spin and rationalizing.

I should also note in passing that this notion that Luther “reformed” the Catholic Church and took it back to some supposed “old faith” (McCain’s words above) is factually untrue. It’s the fundamental “Protestant Myth.” The fact of the matter is that Luther was for the most part a revolutionary (one who overthrows and introduces brand-new elements), not a reformer (one who restores former things that have been lost or corrupted).

Lutherans (and other Protestants) know we don’t call ourselves by those terms (papist, Romanist) but no matter, they are used, anyway. And that is a question of preferred title (an ethical issue of rudimentary courtesy universally acknowledged), whereas the other involves complicated metaphysical-theological distinctions, and so, by virtue of that, is not nearly as straightforward or simple a matter compared to the alternate names Catholics are called.

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