Transubstantiation and 1 Corinthians 11:27-29

by Luke Wayne
2/16/17

The Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation teaches that the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper literally transform into the physical flesh and blood of Jesus' human body. Though they still look, feel, smell, and taste like bread and wine, they are no longer bread and wine. Their substance has transformed into the actual substance of Jesus' body and blood. In support of this, some Roman Catholics appeal to Paul's Words to the church at Corinth:

"Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly," (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).

The Roman Catholic argues that partaking of the elements in an unworthy manner could only be such a grave issue if we were talking about the literal body and blood of Christ rather than symbols of them. Further, they contend that the language of "guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord," and " does not judge the body rightly," imply that the actual body of Jesus is present and in view. On their face, these contentions fall flat.

Regarding the issue of symbols, the objection disregards how important symbols can be. When protesters burn the American flag, it causes outrage among many American citizens. It doesn't matter that it's "just a piece of cloth," and a "mere symbol" of the nation rather than the nation itself. Indeed, in some nations, such displays of contempt for national symbols is a punishable offense. Among Roman Catholics, there is a deep reverence for images that represent Christ, Mary, or the saints, and it is a grave offense if someone were to desecrate these symbols even though the symbol is obviously not the actual person. Symbols can be extremely important if what they represent is important. The severity of the consequences does not prove any mystical transformation of substance.

And as to the language, finding them "guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, "does not necessarily mean that the literal body and blood of the Lord is present. Note, for example, the words of our Lord:

"Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar," (Matthew 23:34-35).

Those who killed the apostles and other early Christians that Jesus sent out into the world were guilty of the blood of all the righteous ever to live. The Apostles did not transubstantiate into the literal blood of Abel or Zechariah. Rather, the murder of Jesus' messengers symbolized an affirmation of all the violence that their father's had done to the prophets before them. The blood of the righteous from Abel to Zachariah was not physically present, yet in their act, they were guilty of it. Therefore, the mere language of being "guilty of the body and blood of the Lord" does not automatically mean that they are actually eating Jesus' human flesh. The Roman Catholic would need FAR more than these phrases to substantiate such a claim.

That said, let's walk briefly through the context. Paul begins this section of his letter by saying:

"When you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you," (1 Corinthians 11:20-22).

The sin that Paul is addressing here is not one of mistreating the elements or failing to hold them appropriately sacred. The issue is mistreating fellow Christians and not treating them as appropriately sacred! We have to keep in mind that, at this time, communion was sill eaten as a meal. There were no church buildings. Christians gathered to break bread in homes. It was not a tiny bite of bread and a little sip of wine. It was practiced as a "feast before the Lord," not utterly unlike the Passover from which it derived. Understanding this, we can get the picture Paul is painting. Some Christians would begin eating before others had arrived. Some would have an abundance while others would have none at all. Ironically, they were gathering for communion with no regard for those with whom they were supposed to be communing! The Corinthians ought to be gathering together in the unity that Christ has purchased them and worshiping God selflessly together as one. Instead, each man came only for the bread and wine. Because of this, Paul goes so far as to say that what they are eating is not even the Lord's Supper (a phrase that makes little sense if the nature of the Supper is a change of substance in the food and drink rather than the symbolic meaning of the gathering). If we look ahead to the end of the passage, we will see that this is Paul's consistent point:

"So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you will not come together for judgment. The remaining matters I will arrange when I come," (1 Corinthians 11:33-34).

So the passage begins and ends with the same idea. Wait for one another and share together among all. Put your brother first and in this way honor the Lord at the table. This is what it means to partake of the Lord's Supper. So having established this, Paul goes on to recount the night Jesus first instituted communion:

"For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, 'This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.' In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes,'" (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

Some will latch onto Jesus' words "this is my body," and insist that this must mean a literal transformation of the bread into flesh, but note that Paul says in the next chapter:

"You are Christ’s body," (1 Corinthians 12:27, see also Colossians 1:24).

This phrase obviously doesn't mean that the church transformed into Jesus' physical flesh and blood. In the same way, there is no reason to think that Jesus' point was that the bread was actually His body, a body that was still sitting at the table and passing out the bread to them. In fact, after reporting Jesus' words, Paul still says, "whoever eats this bread," not "whoever eats this flesh," or "whoever eats Christ's body." Also, in Paul's telling here, Jesus doesn't identify the wine as His blood, but rather He says that the wine is the covenant which His blood established! The wine can't physically transform into a covenant because a covenant is not a physical thing. Paul isn't trying to emphasize the importance of the physical substance of communion. Instead, Paul is establishing the purpose of communion:

  • "This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me."
  • "This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me."
  • "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes."

It is here that we get back to our key text:

"Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly," (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).

Note that Paul, again, speaks of "whoever eats the bread," and, "he is to eat of the bread." Paul always refers to what they eat as bread. Moreover, Paul says that whoever consumes the bread and cup in an "unworthy manner" is guilty. Unworthy of what? Of what you are there to commemorate and proclaim. Is your gathering a proclamation of Christ if the poor among you go hungry while those with sufficient leisure to arrive early eat their fill? It is a high calling to gather as one people in the name of Christ and partake of His memorial feast. It is no small thing to mistreat our brothers and call it a proclamation of Christ! The passage goes on to conclude:

"For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world. So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you will not come together for judgment. The remaining matters I will arrange when I come," (1 Corinthians 11:30-34).

To "judge the body rightly, " (v 29) is the same as to "judge ourselves rightly," (v 31). This isn't about the bread becoming literal flesh. It is about Christ's people becoming one and remembering Him properly together. That is at the heart of Christian worship, and it is this that we must be careful not to forget lest we come under the correcting chastisement of our Lord. So, no, this passage is not about transubstantiation, and to make it so is to miss the far more important point.