Luther on Thomas on Transubstantiation

Here’s an interesting little gem from that tenacious teutonic rabblerouser I came across in an article on the history of the doctrine of transubstantiation. I post it for your edification, amusement and amazement.

“Some time ago, when I was drinking in scholastic theology, the learned Cardinal of Cambrai gave me food for thought in his comments on the fourth book of the Sentences. He argues with great acumen that to hold that real bread and real wine, and not merely their accidents, are present on the altar, would be much more probable and require fewer superfluous miracles -if only the church had not decreed otherwise. When I learned later what church it was that had decreed this, namely the Thomistic -that is, the Aristotelian church -I grew bolder, and after floating in a sea of doubt, I at last found rest for my conscience in the above view, namely, that it is real bread and real wine, in which Christ’s real flesh and real blood are present in no other way and to no less a degree than the others assert them to be under their accidents. I reached this conclusion because I saw that the opinions of the Thomists, whether approved by pope or by council, remain only opinions, and would not become articles of faith even if an angel from heaven were to decree otherwise (Gal. I :8). For what is asserted without the Scriptures or proven revelation may be held as an opinion, but need not be believed. But this opinion of Thomas hangs so completely in the air without support of Scripture or reason that it seems to me he knows neither his philosophy nor his logic. For Aristotle speaks of subject and accidents so very differently from St. Thomas that it seems to me this great man is to be pitied not only for attempting to draw his opinions in matters of faith from Aristotle, but also for attempting to base them upon a man whom he did not understand, thus building an unfortunate superstructure upon an unfortunate foundation.”

qtd. in J. McCue, “The Doctrine of Transubstantiation from Berengar through Trent: The Point at Issue,” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 61, No. 3. (Jul., 1968), pp. 413-414. McCue cites this text as coming from A Treatise on the New Testament, that is, the Holy Mass, WA, 6, p. 508 and notes that this text was published in 1520.

Now, the interesting thing to me about this quote is that Luther is partially correct. Certainly what Aristotle says about the ontology of accidents makes transubstantiation problematic.  However, Thomas is trying to hew close to Aristotle’s line–it is Scotus who really comes out with an ontology of accidents that radically departs from Aristotle, since Scotus allows the existence of “real accidents” not dependent for their being on inhering in some substance.  I’ve wondered in the past about what exact flavor of Thomist Luther had been exposed to, but this quote seems to me to say that what Luther takes to be “Thomism” has a least an affinity with Scotus. Interesting thoughts.

2 Responses to Luther on Thomas on Transubstantiation

  1. mamasboy2100 says:

    While I don’t think Luther’s reasoning is illogical overall in this quote, some parts of it strike me as circular. For instance, he states, “I reached this conclusion because I saw that the opinions of the Thomists, whether approved by pope or by council, remain only opinions, and would not become articles of faith even if an angel from heaven were to decree otherwise (Gal. I :8). For what is asserted without the Scriptures or proven revelation may be held as an opinion, but need not be believed.”

    But how did the canon of Scripture itself attain this status of “proven revelation.” If the canon itself cannot be proven as revelation then how can one have a Scripture to put confidence in? How can Luther say to anyone that they are wrong based on what the Scriptures say, when they might simply be basing their ideas on the Gospel of Thomas or the Epistle of James? The idea of “proven Revelation” or setting up a canon of Scripture seems to have many of the same problems of reliability as Transubstatiation. Are there any articles of faith that can be confidently determined as Divine revelation, and how do we know that? Is it all just a house of cards built upon unverifiable conjecture?

    MB

  2. mamasboy2100 says:

    Sorry, that wasn’t really on-topic. I just never understood where Luther got his idea of “proven revelation.”

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