Torrance Kirby on the Sacramental Ontology of the English Reformers

On March 4th, Professor Torrance Kirby of McGill University delivered a wonderful lecture on the sacramental ontology of the English reformers in the middle of the sixteenth century. The issue of interest was the nature of the relationship between signum and res significata the sign and the thing signified in the Eucharist: How are we to understand the presence of Christ in the sacrament? Kirby notes that, interestingly, it was Erasmus of Rotterdam’s retrieval of a Platonic epistemology of metanoeia that played an extremely important role in the English reformers’ answer to this question. Metanoeia is a word used by Plato to denote the turning away from transient, material things in the realm of becoming to contemplation of the eternal Forms in the realm of Being. Put simply, metanoeia implies a sort of philosophical “repentance”–one that does not mistake the signum for the res significata, but acknowledges the hierarchical relation of the two. This appropriation of metanoeia took shape in the reformation movements in the sixteenth century. As Kirby says,

The conflicting claims of both traditional and evangelical sacramental theology are most evident in their respective assertions concerning the manner of the divine ‘presence’ and the mode of its participation on the part of the worshiper.  On the traditionalist side, in accordance with the doctrine of transubstantiation, the Mass placed profound emphasis on the ontological immanence of the holy in the consecrated elements of the sacrament.  So intimate was the bond between the sacramental sign (signum) and divine-human reality signified by it (res significata) that traditional orthodox teaching upheld an objectified ‘real presence’ in the physical elements of the sacrament.

For the Roman Catholic Church, it was (and is) extremely important to distinguish the “substance” from the “accidents” of Christ in the Eucharist. Christ is substantially present in the Eucharist–meaning that his body and blood make up the underlying “essence” or “thinghood” of the bread and the wine. The accidents are to the elements of the bread and wine as that which is present to human beings through the senses (i.e. the shape, dexterity, taste etc. of the bread and wine). Thus, here is the sense in which Christ is “really and truly present” in the elements–not “physically” in the common sense of the word, which would imply some sort of cannibalism. Transubstantiation, the doctrine of the “literal” or “real” presence of Christ in the elements of the sacrament, represented for these English evangelicals a superstition that was alien to “any learned man . . . any old Catholic doctor or father . . . any general Council . . . or the Holy Scriptures of God . . . or the primitive Church” (John Jewel’s “Challenge” Sermon at Paul’s Cross, 1559). If nothing else, it is at least clear that the state of public theological discourse did not mince words! Transubstantiation was an unfounded position, according to these English evangelicals. But if Christ is not objectively present in the elements of the sacrament, then in what sense is he present? In order to understand this more complicated hermeneutics of the Eucharist, the English evangelicals resorted to the Augustinian categories of the “sign” and the “thing signified”–the former representing the physical elements and the latter Christ himself. For evangelicals like Jewel it was clear that the doctrine of transubstantiation was problematic because it uncritically melded the sign and the thing signified together, leaving no room for an intelligible distinction between the two. This seemed like a clear violation of Augustine’s admonition against confusing the sign for the thing signified in his De Doctrina Christiana over one thousand years earlier. On the other hand, according to Jewel, there was an equally problematic conclusion: namely, the position of “memorialism” held by, among others, the Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli. Memorialism assumes a sort of opposite position to transubstantiation. Far from Christ being present objectively in the self-sufficiency of the elements of the sacrament, there was instead absolute absence in this regard. This too was problematic because it divorced sign and thing signified to such an extent that it left little to no properly ontological relationship between the two. Therefore the via media between these two extremes took the form of what Kirby calls “instrumental realism”:

[This] reformed hermeneutic redefines the meaning of sacramental presence as an action.  Real presence presupposes the faithful worshiper who is able to interpret the unity of the three things that ‘make the substance of the sacrament’: namely, the divine gift offered, that is the thing signified; the elements which depict the gift, namely the external visible signs; and finally the scriptural words of institution which articulate the link between the two.

This is the sense in which there is “real presence” in the Eucharist, according the English evangelicals of the sixteenth century. Of course, by re-tooling the notion of presence in such a manner, the implications extend far beyond the altar of the church. This rendering of the relationship between the sign and the thing signified represents a properly ontological commitment, meaning that all things signified–including being itself!–are implicated in such a vision. As Kirby remarks in the conclusion of his lecture,

By igniting the Great Controversy of the 1560s in his Challenge Sermon, Jewel also draws fitting attention to the pulpit at Paul’s Cross as one of the most important institutions in the formation of England’s religious and political identity in the latter half of the sixteenth century.

Indeed, it seems clear that such a revolution represents one of an important factor in the formation of religious and political identity in the Western world as a whole.

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