Happy Radbertus Day!
By the Revd Canon Chuck Collins
Happy Radbertus Day (April 26th)! Saint Paschasius Radbertus (785-860) was the first theologian to articulate “transubstantiation.” He didn’t use the term that became widely used in the latter part of the 12th century, but in his “De Corpore et Sanguine Domini” (Concerning Christ’s Body and Blood) Radbertus taught the idea that the substance of the bread and wine in Holy Communion becomes the actual body and blood of Christ – so, when you look at the consecrated elements, raise them to be worshipped and gazed upon, or carry them around the neighbourhood in a glass box for everyone to see, they may seem like ordinary bread and wine but they are the actual flesh and blood of Jesus. April 26 is Radbertus’ feast day in the Roman Catholic Church. Transubstantiation was officially adopted by the Roman Church at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and reaffirmed by the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Transubstantiation is the official teaching of Roman Catholics today (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1373-77).
Ahh, but another monk at the same time, in the same Benedictine abbey of Corbie (northern France), was Radbertus’ student, Bertram Ratramnus. Both were respected theologians when the West Frankish King Charles the Bald asked Bertram to comment for clarification about the real presence of Christ in Holy Communion – “whether that which in the church is received into the mouth of the faithful becomes the body and the blood of Christ in a mystery or in truth.” Bertram Ratramnus wrote a more complete reflection of real presence responding to his teacher’s recent assertion of transubstantiation. Bertram rejected the theory that Christ is corporeally present in the bread and wine of the sacrament. He stated that when Jesus first said “This is my body…This is my blood,” he was obviously standing there with the disciples, and there was a vast difference between himself and the elements he was holding in his hand. Bertram said what Archbishop Thomas Cranmer would later also say, that the sacrament of the table is an extension of the ministry of the Word: “Because even as the visible substances of bread and wine nourishes and rejoices the outward man, so the word of God, who is the living bread, by the participation thereof, refreshes the souls of the faithful” (Cranmer: “For as the word of God preached putteth Christ into our ears, so likewise these elements of water, bread, and wine, joined to God’s word, do after a sacramental manner put Christ into our eyes, mouths, hands, and all our senses”). Cranmer also picked up from Bertram that Christ is present in Holy Communion “only after an heavenly and spiritual manner” (Article 28); Bertram wrote: “For it is spiritual food and spiritual drink which spiritually feeds the soul and bestows on it the life of eternal happiness.” It was Nicholas Ridley who was first convinced by Bertram’s argument against transubstantiation stating: “This Bertram was the first that pulled me by the ear, and that first brought me from the common error of the Romish church, and caused me to search more diligently and exactly both the Scriptures and the writings of the ecclesiastical fathers on this matter” (“Disputation at Oxford”). Due to its popularity in Protestant circles The Book of Bertram, Monk of Corbie, A.D. 840, On the Body and Blood of the Lord, was placed on the list of forbidden books by the Council of Trent in 1559.
Anglicans reject the teaching of transubstantiation because it renders one portion of scripture in such a way that it is repugnant to other parts “and hath given occasion to many superstitions” (Article 28). We believe that Jesus bodily ascended to heaven, and that any idea that he rushes back to make a bodily showing in bread and wine or that there’s any kind of re-sacrifice of Christ on an altar seriously compromises the meaning of the Cross of Christ, his bodily Ascension to the right hand of the Father, and the Second Coming of Christ. We understand that, in every celebration of Holy Communion, Christ is spiritually present, and that his real presence is not located in the transformation of the bread and wine, but in the hearts and affections of Christians who receive the grace of the sacrament by faith (Articles 25 and 28). Anglicans also reject any idea that there is a sacrificing priesthood who has the power in some invented special anointing to make ordinary bread into the body of Christ because we have only one mediator between God and his people, Jesus our Great High Priest (1 Tim 2:5).
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the architect of the Book of Common Prayer (and all the Anglican formularies), stated that “They [Roman Catholics] say that Christ is received in the mouth and entirety in with the bread and wine: we say, that he is received in the heart, and entirety in by faith” (The True and Catholic Doctrine, 1550). The focus of historic Anglicanism is not a change in the bread and wine, but a miracle so much greater: the transformation of the faithful recipients, who by the Holy Spirit are linked afresh to the saving efficacy of Christ’s Incarnation and Passion.
The Revd Canon Chuck Collins is the Director for the Centre for Reformation Anglicanism, (www.anglicanism.info).