Did Pope Gelasius (r. 492-496) Deny Transubstantiation?

Did Pope Gelasius (r. 492-496) Deny Transubstantiation? March 24, 2021

Reformed Protestant apologist Matt Hedges wrote an article entitled, “Documentation for Pope Gelasius’ Denial of Transubstantiation” (3-23-21). In it, he claimed:

Here is an interesting quote from Pope Gelasius concerning the nature of the elements of the bread and wine in the Eucharist:

“The sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, which we receive, is a divine thing, because by it we are made partakers of the divine-nature. Yet the substance or nature of the bread and wine does not cease. And assuredly the image and the similitude of the body and blood of Christ are celebrated in the performance of the mysteries.” (De duabus naturis in Christo Adv. Eutychen et Nestorium, this quote from Gelasius is attested in a few different sources: [1] [2] [3] [4]) . . .

This contradicts the definition of transubstantiation given by Rome:

“But in the Eucharist-a supernatural transformation-substantial change occurs without accidental alteration. Thus, the properties of bread and wine continue after consecration, but their essence and substance cease to exist, replaced by the substance of the true and actual Body and Blood of Christ.” (Dave Armstrong, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism [Sophia Institute Press; Manchester, NH, 2003], pg. 81)

“If anyone says 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 denies that wonderful and singular change of the whole substance of the bread into the body and the whole substance of the wine into the blood, the appearances only of bread and wine remaining, which change the Catholic Church most aptly calls transubstantiation, let him be anathema.” (Council of Trent, Session 13, Canon 2).”

Some Roman Catholic apologists have responded to this clear quote from Pope Gelasius by insisting that he is speaking only of the accidents, or outward appearance of the bread and wine. Yet the clear reading of Gelasius is his plain assertion that the substance does not change, which is explicitly contradictory to what the Roman Catholic church teaches today concerning the doctrine of transubstantiation.

He provides further analysis from scholars which can be read there. Now here is the Catholic reply:

[I]t is assumed wrongly that by the words “nature” and “substance” the Fathers cited, writing centuries before heresies had made accurate definition and precise terminology necessary, intended to mean what the Tridentine Fathers meant by them. This is demonstrably untrue. The words ‘substance’ and ‘nature’ are synonymous with what at Trent were called the ‘species’ or ‘accidents.’ This is surely evident (a) from the context of the various passages, where a conversion (metabolen), to use Theodoret’s word, of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, is mentioned; (b) from the fact that they constantly and uniformly speak of such ‘nature’ and ‘substance’ as symbols; (c) from Leibnitz’ (a Protestant authority) well-known observation that the Fathers do not use these terms to express metaphysical notions. (W. R. Carson, “The Antiquity of the Doctrine of Transubstantiation”, in American Ecclesiastical Review, Dec. 1903, pp. 421-439)

Pope Gelasius categorically affirms the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. . . . Second, Pope Gelasius was concerned in defending the nature of Christ not the Eucharist. So he was not so concerned in giving his understanding of the Eucharist as he was in explaining the mystery of the Incarnation. Remember, the Church was concerned with various Christological heresies at this time which denied the two natures, the two wills, and the one [divine] personhood of Christ. At this point in time, the mystery of the Eucharist had not so developed in the mind of the Church to force upon the mind of Pope Gelasius an expression of the Eucharist in the terms of transubstantiation. The Church had to develop a theological language to express the mind of the Church on various matters of faith. The Church was just beginning to express its thoughts to describe the change of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. There was no question regarding a Real Presence in the Eucharist; however, it is another matter regarding the type of change (consubstantiation, transubstantiation etc.). At best, Pope Gelasius was simply saying that the appearance [accidents] of bread/wine remain alongside the Real Presence in an attempt to explain the mystery of the Incarnation, since Christ humanity remains alongside His divinity. . . . his theological vocabulary did not allow him to express the mystery of the Eucharist with any more precision. (Joe Gallegos, Cor Unum Apologetic Website, “Church Fathers FAQ” / “Did Pope Gelasius deny the doctrine of transubstantiation?”)

Gelasius notes that the Eucharist is “a divine thing” (divina res) and by consuming the divine thing we become partakers of the divine nature. Gelasius also says, “Yet the substance or nature of the bread and wine does not cease to be.” Does this mean that he believed that the bread and wine remain after consecration? I have two reasons to doubt this to be the case.

First, the preceding line identifies the Eucharist as a “divine thing.” Surely, if the Eucharist was Christ’s body and blood plus the substance of bread and wine, he could not say that. It would only be partly divine.

Second, Gelasius himself later says, “Thus, as the elements pass into this, that is the divine substance by the operation of the Holy Ghost and none the less remain in their own proper nature…” Although his language is imprecise, he does, nevertheless, state that the elements (bread and wine) “pass into” the divine substance. Is this not transubstantiation? If not, it sure does sound like it. He also says “…and nonetheless remain in their own proper nature.” What does he mean by nature? Since the “divine thing” isn’t manifested after consecration, it seems to me that what he means by “nature” must be the accidents or appearances of bread and wine. In other words, the elements (of bread and wine) become (pass into this, that is the divine substance), yet they retain their nature (i.e., physical appearances or accidents). If this is so, it mirrors the definition given at Trent. (Steve Ray, “A Critique of William Webster’s article: ‘The Eucharist’ “)

Matt claims: “the clear reading of Gelasius is his plain assertion that the substance does not change”. This is shown to be a falsehood, once the larger context is consulted, as Steve Ray alluded to. Here is the passage shortly after what Matt cites:

[B]y the work of the Holy Spirit they pass over into the divine substance while nevertheless remaining in their own nature [Lat. in hanc, scilicet divinam, transeant sancto Spiritu perficiente substantiam, permanentes tamen in suae proprietate naturae] (Patrologia Latina [PL], 224 [Supplementum 3], 773-74; Latin translation provided [I believe] by James T. O’Connor, The Hidden Manna: A Theology of the Eucharist, San Francisco, Ignatius Press: 1988, p. 72)

O’Connor further comments:

As is obvious, the letter is not directly concerned with the Eucharist but rather with the Christological Mystery of the two natures in the One Person of the Lord. This Mystery was attacked by both Nestorians and Monophysites and was the subject for two Church councils, Ephesus and Chalcedon. The letter seeks to use the eucharistic Mystery as an illustration for the Christological truths. It works from the implicit assumption, accepted by all parties, that the eucharist is Christ. But, says the author, it is also bread and wine, thereby illustrating how Christ’s Person is one, his natures two. It is easy to see how the comparison could be made, and it indicates that the notion of a total change in the elements was not yet so fixed in Christian thought that alternative solutions did not present themselves. (Ibid., pp. 72-73)

St. John Henry Cardinal Newman drew the same distinction between nature and substance that Pope Gelasius did in the second excerpt I have cited:

I consider the ‘natura’ of bread and wine remains – though the substance does not. The substance is that which we neither see nor touch – the natura is that which presents itself to the senses. The substance is the foundation or resting place of the natura.

When our Lord appeared as a gardener to St. Mary M. – and ‘under another form’ to the two disciples, He took upon His personal substance a new nature, a foreign nature, as He now takes the sensible qualities of bread or wine. . . . The Church uses the best words, and she speaks of Transubstantiation. (Letters and Diaries, vol. xxvii, 115; Letter to Miss Rowe, 3 Sep. 1874)

He commented further on the distinction between substance and accidents in the Eucharist:

As to the word ’accidents’ it has high authority, but is a scholastic, not a dogmatic word – ’Substance’ however is dogmatic, and the simple question is, what it means. The Church gives her own sense to words; and this very word ’substance’ which occurs in the Nicene Creed, did not take its place there without fearful controversies and divisions, from the unwillingness of numbers to give up their own sense of the word and to accept the ecclesiastical. Now as to the Holy Eucharist, the word ’substance’ denotes nothing which enters into the idea of effect, nothing which appeals to the senses. Intoxication is an effect – poisoning is an effect – they are the effect of a force – but force is distinct from substance. What we see, taste, hear etc etc. is no part of the substance of a thing. . . . Catholics hold, that, though the bread, that is, the substance of bread is not present, yet all those effects upon our senses and upon our bodies, which would follow, were it present, do follow though it is not present – viz colour, size, taste, solidity, power of nourishing (for Saints have lived upon the Sacred Host) power of poisoning etc etc. – The change which takes place in Transubstantiation has nothing to do with these effects, – it relates to that which we know nothing about, and can know nothing about – that substance which is something altogether hidden from us. It is nothing to the purpose then, that, as you say, the species of wine after consecration can intoxicate. (Letters and Diaries, vol. xxii, Letter to J. O. Wood, 24 Oct. 1865)

The doctrine of transubstantiation, of course, developed just as all other doctrines develop. It is a particularly mysterious mystery: up there with other exceedingly complex doctrines like predestination, the two Natures of Christ, and trinitarianism (all quite difficult to express in any language whatever). Therefore, we would especially expect in this instance some imprecision and more primitive forms of language and expressions and descriptions (i.e., more than usual) in the Church fathers, and we see some of that (even perhaps self-contradiction, unless he was using different senses of single words, which is possible) in Pope Gelasius. Catholic writer Tim A. Troutman elaborates:

The claim that the Church fathers believed in Transubstantiation is not a claim that any particular father commanded a precise understanding of the doctrine as formulated by Trent. Any given Church father could no sooner express this doctrine precisely in its developed form than could any given ante-Nicene father express the Niceno-Constantinoplitan doctrine of the Trinity. Yet this does not mean either that they did not believe it, or even that it existed in mere “seed form.” The Nicene doctrine of the Trinity can be detected not only in the early Christian writings and in the New Testament, it is an unavoidable development. That is, anything other than the Niceno-Constantinopolitan doctrine of the Trinity would be contrary to the Tradition of the Church. Likewise, the affirmations that the fathers made about the Eucharist were not only compatible with Transubstantiation, they were incompatible with anything less. (“The Church Fathers on Transubstantiation”, Called to Communion, 12-13-10)

Andrew Preslar makes helpful comments about fluidity of language in the combox of this article (#203, 7-12-14):

[A]s a general matter, relative to Eucharistic doctrine (but especially to Christology), we know that fluidity of terminology over time and from place to place makes it possible to affirm the same thing (e.g., the realities of the appearances continue to exist, they do not change as appearances) in different ways (e.g., no change took place in the natural substances [appearances] of bread and wine). As warranted by circumstances, the Church can and does further define doctrine, and in so doing it must use particular words which, in the process and in that context, become more definite in meaning (e.g., “substance”).

Catholic apologist Joe Heschmeyer adds:

The first time we see the word “Trinity” used to describe God is in 181 A.D.  The reality is there, but crafting a precise philosophical language to capture these realities takes time.  In contrast to the kinks that the early Church was hammering out on everything from the Trinity to the Bible, their grasp of Eucharistic theology is almost shockingly clear.  Even though philosophical terms like transubstantiation are far in the future, we’re already seeing, by 200, terms like transmutation being used to describe what the words of consecration does to the bread and wine, and what the Eucharist does to our soul. (“Very Early Church Fathers on the Eucharist”, Shameless Popery, 11-17-10)

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Photo credit: Sharon Tate Soberon (1-23-13) [Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0 license]

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Summary: Many folks critical of Catholicism and especially its doctrine of transubstantiation bring up Pope Gelasius (r. 492-496) as a supposed denier of the doctrine. I show that this is not the case.

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