Hobbes on Transubstantiation

Hobbes on Transubstantiation May 19, 2016

One of the faults of discourses, argues Hobbes (Leviathan, 1.8), occurs when “men speak such words as, put together, have in them no signification at all.” The words are spoken for different reasons: They “are fallen upon, by some, through misunderstanding of the words they have received and repeat by rote; by others, from intention to deceive by obscurity.” Normal human beings don’t talk like this: the “common sort of men seldom speak insignificantly,” and for this reason the scholastics of the world count them “idiots.” The scholastics, he claims, are the madmen.

Transubstantiation provides Hobbes with a leading example: “after certain words spoken they that say, the whiteness, roundness, magnitude, quality, corruptibility, all which are incorporeal, etc., go out of the wafer into the body of our blessed Saviour, do they not make those nesses, tudes, and ties to be so many spirits possessing his body? For by spirits they mean always things that, being incorporeal, are nevertheless movable from one place to another. So that this kind of absurdity may rightly be numbered amongst the many sorts of madness; and all the time that, guided by clear thoughts of their worldly lust, they forbear disputing or writing thus, but lucid intervals. And thus much of the virtues and defects intellectual.”

He discusses transubstantiation under the heading of “abuses of Scripture,” the second of which is “the turning of consecration into conjuration, or enchantment. To consecrate is, in Scripture, to offer, give, or dedicate, in pious and decent language and gesture, a man or any other thing to God, by separating of it from common use; that is to say, to sanctify, or make it God’s, and to be used only by those whom God hath appointed to be His public ministers . . . and thereby to change, not the thing consecrated, but only the use of it, from being profane and common, to be holy, and peculiar to God’s service. But when by such words the nature or quality of the thing itself is pretended to be changed, it is not consecration, but either an extraordinary work of God, or a vain and impious conjuration. But seeing, for the frequency of pretending the change of nature in their consecrations, it cannot be esteemed a work extraordinary, it is no other than a conjuration or incantation, whereby they would have men to believe an alteration of nature that is not, contrary to the testimony of man’s sight and of all the rest of his senses. As for example, when the priest, instead of consecrating bread and wine to God’s peculiar service in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (which is but a separation of it from the common use to signify, that is, to put men in mind of, their redemption by the Passion of Christ, whose body was broken and blood shed upon the cross for our transgressions), pretends that by saying of the words of our Saviour, ‘This is my body,’ and ‘This is my blood,’ the nature of bread is no more there, but his very body; notwithstanding there appeareth not to the sight or other sense of the receiver anything that appeared not before the consecration” (1.45).

Hobbes compares this to the magic of the Egyptian priests who turned rods to serpents. Jesus’s “this is my body” cannot be taken literally without abusing Scripture. Hobbes suggests that if it implies transubstantiation, it is a transubstantiation only of “the bread which Christ himself with his own hands consecrated. For he never said that of what bread soever any priest whatsoever should say, ‘This is my body,’ or ‘This is Christ’s body,’ the same should presently be transubstantiated.”

Debates about sacramental theology, in short, continue to be part of political thought and philosophy well into the seventeenth century.

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