Michael Bird on Transubstantiation

For the past week I’ve been reading portions of Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology. Bird describes himself as “an ex-Baptist postmodern Presbyterian Anglican.” (23) He writes from a Reformed postion and says he “gravitate[s] toward the Calvinistic scheme of theology.” (23) The distinctive of his theology lies in his emphasis on the gospel. “The evangelical theological project” he writes, “is to construct and live out a theology that is defined by the good news of Jesus Christ.” (42) He continues, “Obviously an evangelical theology is one that lunges, leaps, works, worships, prays, and preaches from the gospel itself. Where a theology cannot trace its trajectory back to the gospel, there it is not evangelical.” (45) It is the only theology I know of that contains a good amount of humor. Many will find his theology refreshing, honest and offering a genuine contribution to theology. What I write below is not meant to take away from the benefits I have had reading this work. His critique of the Catholic view of transubstantiation, however, left me a bit disappointed.

In line with his Reformed theology Bird argues for a spiritual presence in the Eucharist but thinks it’s unwise to try to explain how this can be opting for the counsel of John Calvin to “rather experience than understand” the sacrament. (792) He says the Eastern Orthodox have the right idea in the appeal to mystery. (787) After exploring the various views of the Lord’s Supper he says “we need some eucharistic charity, as all Christian traditions share something in common by affirming the memory, proclamation, and presence of Jesus with his people in the Eucharist.” (792)

Having said this I was surprised with his appraisal of the Catholic view of transubstantiation. He writes,

“Against the Catholic view, it appears to have gone beyond ‘presence’ to virtual ‘mutation’ of Jesus in the elements. Though Thomas Aquinas and the Council of Trent deployed the resources of Aristotelian thought and the arsenal of their eucharistic tradition to explain the real presence, in the end, transubstantiation still sounds ‘weird.’ The Catholic magisterium has not fashioned a satisfactory answer as to how the elements are both bread and wine and Jesus’ body and blood at the same time. If you have to invoke Aristotle and some kookie distinctive between substance and accidents, then you are pretty much grasping at straws.” (787)

Without attempting to defend transubstantiation I think a few comments are in order.

1)      Saying that the Catholic position has gone “beyond” presence to virtual mutation is to assume what is in question—the manner of the presence. In other words Bird is assuming the “presence” can’t be a transformation of substance. The use of “mutation” prepares the reader for his coming comment that the position sounds weird.

2)      Bird says the magisterium “has not fashioned a satisfactory answer as to how the elements are both bread and wine and Jesus’ body and blood at the same time.” Satisfactory to whom? Certainly not to Bird or to Protestants. But that’s not to say it doesn’t satisfy Catholics.

3)      He says the position sounds “weird.” This is just a subjective appraisal. In reply one could ask with Peter Kreeft, “Once you have swallowed the camel of the Incarnation, why strain at the gnat of the Eucharist?” (Ecumenical Jihad, p. 151) Indeed, Bird asks this very question latter in the work. “But if one believes that the Word became flesh, then why cannot one believe that the Word meets us afresh in the bread of a meal that Jesus himself instituted?” (789)

4)      He describes the Aristotelian distinction between substance and accidents as “kookie”. He does not elaborate on what makes this distinction “kookie” but it doesn’t seem all that kookie to philosophers such as J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig (see Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview pp. 214-26) Millard Erickson says that while moderns persons may find the Catholic view “strange, if not absurd . . . [f]rom that philosophical perspective, [substance/accidence] transubstantiation makes pefectly good sense.” (Christian Theology, p. 1041)

5)      Finally, Bird claims that the Catholic view amounts to “grasping at straws.” I found myself wondering where is the line drawn between “eucharistic charity” and belittling a position?

Bird is entitled to a vigorous critique of views he does not hold. (In fact, it is expected in a work of this kind.) But there is little more here than subjective appraisals (it sounds “weird”) and unsupported allegations that serious philosophical distinctions (held by far more than just Aristotle and Aquinas) are kookie. Catholics will be little affected by Bird’s case against transubstantiation and some may take offense at the ease in which he dismisses their view.

Evangelical Theology

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5 thoughts on “Michael Bird on Transubstantiation

  1. Bottom line. You or Baker Books will not be blessed by God for accommodating an ecumenical & non-biblical doctrine of transubstantiation.

  2. These critiques of Bird’s treatment stand on their own and deserve thoughtful consideration. Thanks for the keen observations, Louis.

  3. So, you mention some “benefits” from reading Evangelical Theology. Care to elaborate here or, better, offer a new post highlighting some of these? I’ve found Bird very refreshing and solid at most every turn (albeit, I’m not in agreement with him entirely).

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