It has been said that the theology of Thomas Aquinas is like a hologram. Every part contains every other part. Therefore, to study any question from his corpus in depth is to get an introduction to his theology as a whole. This was certainly my experience. And my study of transubstantiation has equipped me to write and teach about not just the sacraments, but Christology, ethics, Christian anthropology, ecclesiology, eschatology, the doctrine of God, even Scripture. The laser beam that shot out from the doctrine of transubstantiation and subsequently unfolded the whole hologram of Thomas’s theology for me was undoubtedly his doctrine of creation, specifically, the way Thomas understands the relationship between God and creation.
Which takes us back to Aristotle and article 8 of question 75 of the Summa. Aristotle believed in the eternity of the universe. Since something exists, something has always existed. It is only the Judeo-Christian understanding of a radically other and transcendent God that could make any sense of the universe having a beginning, of a creation out of nothing. And of such a God Aristotle was quite innocent. Aquinas, though he finds Aristotle’s categories quite useful, breaks with Aristotle on the foundational question of the eternity of the universe. And this has radical consequences for the way he can use Aristotle in his theology, not least on the question of the Eucharist.
This is because it is only a creator God like the God of the Judeo-Christian biblical and philosophical tradition that could possibly change bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood without transforming their physical characteristics. In article 8 of question 75, Thomas distinguishes transubstantiation from natural change, or transformation, because in natural change natural causes act in natural ways to produce change. So, for example, a fire can turn a wooden log or plank into smoke and ashes. But he also distinguishes it from creation ex nihilo, which is not, properly speaking, a change at all, since there is literally no thing that becomes some other thing. While it is unlike both natural change and creation ex nihilo in these ways, transubstantiation is like natural change in that one term becomes another term, and like creation ex nihilo in that only the power of a transcendent creator God could effect it.
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