“A Philosophy of Sacramentalism”
by H. Maurice Relton. D.D.


from the eleventh chapter of his book, CHURCH AND STATE (1936)

Our need is a philosophy of sacramentalism. It will be found that ultimate the same problems confronts us for solution. In Philosophy the question is the relation of Being and Becoming: in Theology the relation of God to the world; in Christology the same Cosmic problem expressed in terms of personality is the relation of the Divine and human natures in the Person of Christ; in the Church and Sacraments, regarded as the Extension of the Incarnation, the same question presents itself in the relation of the spiritual to the material; in Eucharistic doctrine the relation between the sign and the Thing signified; in Psychology the Body-Mind relationship. Solutions of the philosophical problem repeat themselves in the Cosmic problem, in Christology, in Psychology and in Sacramental doctrine. Thus a thorough0going dualism in philosophy is reproduced in the cosmic problem in Deism, where no true relation between God and the world is secured. This repeats itself in Christology in Nestorianism, where no true union between the two natures is achieved, and in Eucharistic doctrine, in Virtualism, which fails to unite the sign to the Thing signified; and in psychology in the theory of psycho-physical parallelism.

On the other hand, a Monistic theory in philosphy finds its counterpart in Pantheism in theology; in Monophysitism in Christology; in the theory of Consubstantiation in the Eucharist; and in epiphenomenalism, whether spiritual or material, in psychology.

The four chief Christological errors are reproduced in sacramental theories, and it will be found that just as there are four terms of the problem whether in philosophy, theology, Christology, psychology, or sacramentalism, so there are four corresponding solutions, all seeking to do justice to one or other aspect of the problem; all partially true; and all erroneous in over-emphasis or undue neglect of one or other factor in the problem.

Thus, corresponding to Arianism in Christology, we find Zinglianism in sacramental theory; Apollinarianism is reproduced in the doctrine of Transubstantiation; Nestorianism finds expression in the sacramental theory known as Virtualism; Monophysitism is reproduced in the doctrine of Constubstantiation.

What we have to do is to find a sacramental theory corresponding to the Chalcedonian Definition in Christology and running back through Theism in theology and the doctrine of Transcendence and Immanence to a sound philosophical background and a true solution to the cosmic problem. This will avoid by negation all four Christological errors and their reproduction in theories of the Eucharist regarded as an Extension of the Incarnation. It will, positively, conserve the true Catholic conception of the Incarnation as formulated at Chalcedon and give us a sound sacramental doctrine rooted in a sound Christology, and appealing both to philosophy and to psychology for confirmation of its underlying principles.

There must be a “way of peace” in the discussion of the nature of Christ’s Presence in the Holy Communion. Is it to be found along the following lines?

1. That Christ is present in, through, and by means of, the Sacrament, is a fact of spiritual experience, ultimately independent of any particular explanation of the manner of that Presence.

2. Historically, there have been four main theories of the mode of the Presence: none of them satisfactory; all of them containing a partial truth; each of them right in what it affirms, wrong in what, by implication, it denies. The simplest way to grasp these four variants is to take the familiar Catechism definition of a Sacrament: “An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ Himself, as a means whereby we receive the same and a pledge to assure us thereof.” We have four things in this definition: the sign; the Thing signified; the union between these two; the difference between them preserved in the union.

Corresponding to these four points are four Sacramental errors which arise from a failure to do justice to one or other of these four factors; Transubstantiation mutilates the sign as Apollinarianism did the Manhood of Christ. Zwinglianism denies the real objective presence of the Thing signified; Virtualism separates the sign and the Thing signified, failing to secure a true union between them; Consubstantiation confounds the two, so that neither retains its full reality.

3. The Anglican doctrine of the Real Presence is an attempt to avoid all these four errors. The best analogy we can suggest is that of ourselves as persons, possessing body and soul. We are ourselves sacraments. We have an outward and visible sign (the body) of an inward and spiritual reality (the soul or mind or spirit). Body and soul are indissolubly united and, in that union, the difference between the two is preserved. Psychologists are familiar with various attempts to solve the Body-Mind relationship and with errors arising from a failure to do justice to one or the other of the four above-named factors in the problem. Christologists know the same problem in the Person of Christ.

4. Now the analogy may be pressed in this way: We are conscious of ourselves as a unity and yet, in that unity, we know of a difference between our bodies and our minds – the one material; the other spiritual. We know that we are in our bodies. We know that Christ is present in the Sacrament. Do we mean, in both cases, locally present at a place in space at a moment in time? Crudely conceived, this is the popular belief, but the more thoughtful amongst us know that the presence of the mind in the body is not a materialistic and local but a spiritual presence. We know Body as extension in time, we know Mind as boundless. The Mind cannot be conceived of as spatially located in any particular part of the body, and yet in some sense where the body is, there am I. So in the Sacrament, Christ is not locally present. His Presence is spiritual and yet where the sacrament is, there in some sense is He.

5. If we say that we (meaning the spiritual self, Inner Ego, Mind, Soul or Spirit) are not in space, we can in the same sense say that He (Christ) is not in the Sacrament. He could not be defined as being “present” in this sense by any chemical or scientific tests, any more than our presence in our bodies could be revealed by a microscopic examination of the brain or a chemical analysis of the various parts of our bodies. Yet He is present in the same sense of “presence” in the Sacrament as we are in our bodies. If we say we are not in space, whilst occupying bodies which are in space, we may also say that Christ’s Presence is not in space, whilst He occupies the species of bread and wine which are in space. No quantitative analysis will yield the secret of such a Presence and its manner. May we say then that there is a Presence of Christ in the Sacrament which though it eludes analysis, is not material? It is not a natural presence which would be spatial but a supernatural Presence which transcends space.

6. Could we unite in our belief in a Real Presence which is not the subjective creation of our own imagination or of our faith, since faith does not create what is not there, but perceives what is? Could we further agree amongst ourselves to safeguard the manner of that Presence by paying due regard to the four errors which we must avoid in any considered statement we make as to how He makes Himself knowns to us in the Breaking of the Bread? Hooker’s moving words point the way to peace: “What these elements are in themselves it skilleth not, it is enough that to me that take them they are the body and blood of Christ, His promised in witness thereof sufficeth, His word He knoweth which way to accomplish; why should any cogitation possess the mind of a faithful communicant but this, O my God, Thou are true, O myy soul that art happy!”

7. Could we agree in Eucharistic doctrine on the basis of the following Formula of Concord: There is a real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist which, thou it eludes definition and baffles analysis, is not material?

We may now take two incidents from the Gospel narratives which in our opinion do help to illustrate the kind of attitude it is possible to adopt towards this difficult problem of the nature of the Real Presence of Christ. We are aware of formidable objectives which can quite legitimately be urged against them and of criticisms which will at once suggest themselves against our use of them. Nonetheless we put them forward as at least a stimulus to thought upon the subject.
The first is suggested by a passage in the published volume of the Farnham Conference on Reservation and it embodies an idea of Canon Streeter who always impresses us as a stimulating thinker even when, as in Christology, we find him singularly unconvincing and inadequate in his handling of the subject.

“We must try,” he says, “to get back into our ritual and, therefore, first of all into our thoughts, the atmosphere of the Emmaus story – the first Eucharist, be it noted, after our Lord had risen from the dead. Here, surely, we have a glimpse of what a Communion service should be. They talk together of the things that had happened, their thoughts are full of Jesus of Nazareth, his might in word and dead, how he was crucified, and how it had been told them that he was now alive. So natural, so human, is their intercourse with one another and the unseen stranger – then suddenly, at the simple friendly meal, their eyes were opened, and they know that what they have been doing is to hold converse with their Lord.”

We will not turn aside to discuss the adequacy or inadequacy of this description as covering the full content of the experience of the Disciples in this incident. We will however, note at least these points. (1) Remembrance, commemoration of the Wonderful Person and His Work followed by (2) a sudden full realization of a Presence which nonetheless had been there all the time. (3) That consciousness of the reality of the Presence synchronizes with a particular act at a particular moment of time. He makes Himself known to them in the Breaking of the Bread and finally (4) He vanished from their sign. They would have loved to have retained Him or if we prefer so to express it – to have retained the vivid consciousness of His Presence but (5) work remains for them to do as the result of the experience. They must forthwith go and tell the good News to others. (6) The Presence is vouchsafed in this context; i.e., it is an experience intimately bound up with Commemoration of Himself and His Passion. Moreover, (7) He Himself is the Unseen Celebrant and it is His act which brings about or is instrumental in effecting so blessed a realization in them of His Presence.

Our second illustration is taken from the Appearance to the assembled company in the Upper Room.
The doors being shut. . . . Jesus came and stood in the midst and saith unto them – Peace be unto you. And when he had said this, he showed unto them his hands and his side.

Here again we have the marks of time and place intimately associated with the appearance of the Risen Lord or the realization in the experience of His followers of the Real Presence of the Risen Lord. There is a moment or interval of time when in some sense He is not in the room followed by another moment when He is. And presumably the interval between these two moments in time is covered in some sense by His passage through space. He is not in the room to all appearance. The doors are shut. There is a passage through matter without any visible disturbance or alteration of its particles and then He is in the midst of them making visible the marks of His Passion. Let us note again the whole context culminating in this reiterated reference to Calvary.

May we now in the light of these two illustrations consider if only in passing the vexed and thorny questions of (a) the Sacrament Reserved and (b) the extra-liturgical cultus of the Blessed Sacrament.

Reservation for the sick and whole needs no justification in the light of the practice of the Primitive Church and the admitted needs of our Church members under modern conditions. Given the Church’s belief in a real presence of Christ in the Sacrament and of the fellowship of the gathered communicants with their Risen Lord and one with another in that Service, it would follow inevitably that those present at the Service would desire to extend to absent ones the benefits of the Eucharist. Again, since the Church is the only Society which refuses to part with its members at death and declines to believe that the links which bind living and departed members of the one Body of Christ are severed but, on the contrary, are preserved and strengthened in the Communion of Saints, the logic of these convictions was shown in the annual commemorations of the “birth-days” of the confessors and martyrs and the anniversaries of the Eucharist in the cemeteries. There were other ways also by which the Church sought to relate the Eucharist to the daily lives of the members of the Church and so to emphasize the sense of fellowship and membership in the One Body of Christ.

That abuses were likely to arise and in fact did arise in connection with a permission to carry the Sacrament away from the Church and to reserve it for reception in another place than that in which it had been consecrated, pointed obviously to the necessity of rules and regulations which should govern the use to which the Sacrament reserved might be put. Quite clearly the primary and essential purpose of Reservation was governed by the purposes for which the Eucharist itself was celebrated, viz.: (a) commemoration (b) Offering and (c) Communion. That worship and adoration should be an underlying and expressed accompaniment of all these purposes need not be stressed. The point to note is that what is called an extra-liturgical cultus formed no part of the practice of the Primitive Church nor could it be justified by the purposes for which the Primitive Church was led to introduce and to sanction the custom of Reservation.

Given that there is a real and actual Presence of Christ Himself in the Eucharistic elements after the act of consecration, that Presence and the benefits conveyed are clearly dependent upon the purpose of the whole Eucharistic Service. Any effort to extend the Service so as to embrace absent members, whether whole or wick, can only be justified if the desire behind the effort is to embrace a larger company within the field of operation of the Service enacted and the benefits resulting therefrom.

It is quite another matter to use the Fact of the Sacrament Reserved for this purpose as an opportunity of commencing another Service of a relatively different character and purpose from that original Service which resulted in securing the Sacrament Reserved. Put more briefly, the point is, whether Reservation for one purpose can legitimately be made use of to render possible Reservation for another purpose?

The theological implications of the Extra-Liturgical Cultus of the Blessed Sacrament were very carefully canvassed at the Farnham Conference on Reservation, and reader may refer to that for a study of the case as it present itself to-day to theologians. We are not concerned to examine it on these lines, still less to register our opinion or a verdict for or against it.

If both Exposition and Benediction have become regular features of the devotion life of the Western Church, and if members of the Anglican Church, Catholic though Reformed, assure us of its undoubted devotional value and plead for its practice, at least let us be quite clear (i) that upon whatever other grounds such a cultus may be defended, we must lay down as beyond dispute the fact that the Presence of Christ is the Sacrament is essentially a Presence as our sacrificial Food, and (ii) that we cannot claim either primitive practice or the theology of the Primitive Church as sanctioning a belief that the Presence in the Eucharistic Bread and Wine was, and is a Presence vouchsafed for any purpose other than that we have indicated. It may be so, but we cannot claim that it is so on any of the above grounds.

It was clearly pointed out at the Farnham Conference that the cult cannot be based on the Institution of our Lord, nor on Apostolic teaching and practice, not on primitive custom, nor on Catholic usage. This is not to condemn it outright, but certainly to indicate the precarious foundations upon which it rests and to justify the Anglican Bishops in their refusal to authorize it as present in the Revised Prayer Book.

If now we go back to our illustrations, we can perhaps perceive a reason why perpetual Adoration is not possible this side of the grave. How the two on the road to Emmaus would have loved to retain Him! Yet He vanishes in the Breaking of the Bread and leaves them free in the glory of that experience: not like Mary, to sit for ever at His Feet in worship, but like Martha, to be up and doing in the strength of that Meat.

The whole impetus behind the movement in favour of a wide extension of the extra-liturgical cultus, we may well believe, is devotional and arises from a more intense desire in the heart of the faithful communicant to be ever with the Lord. We must remember, however, that a devotional experience which does not find expression in active service and self-sacrifice may easily degenerate into a morbid and unhealthy mysticism. If the devotional use of the Blessed Sacrament, outside of its immediate purpose, is a good and desirable form of prayer like, for example, the “Three Hours” Devotion on Good Friday, or Tenebrae, or the Evangelical Prayer-Meeting, we must above all things else be careful lest the strong current of Sacramentalism at present making itself felt both inside and outside our Church life and worship should carry us off our feel and land us in religious excesses ultimately harmful to the best interests of the devotional life of the people. If the permanent results of “revivalism” are seriously in question, we do well to view with suspicion something of the same kind in what some would ask us to believe is the “Catholic” equivalent of it.

Moreover, a use of the Reserved Sacrament such as we find in Exposition or Benediction does tend to suggest, if not to teach, a localization or materialization of the Presence in the elements.

We are prepared in the light of the foregoing examination of the doctrine of the Real Presence to accept fully and frankly the proposition that there is a Real Objective Presence of Christ in the Sacrament. When we have said this, we must go on to safeguard ourselves by adding (I) that such a Presence is not “material” nor (2) is it “local.”

Our proposition is best perhaps expressed in this way: There is a Real Objective Presence of Christ in the Sacrament, which, though it eludes definition and escapes analysis, is not material.

If these be acceptedj as a sound Sacramental principle, we are bound to safeguard ourselves from any dangers of superstition or any tendency towards magical conceptions of the Sacrament which must result if we forget our saving clause “not material.” We must remember Canon Quick’s warning against the danger of confusing “objectivity” with “externality,” as spatially conceived. We must reject Transubstantiation to the extent to which it involves us in a belief in a physical change in the elements and a localized Presence. With Aquinas we must agree that “the Body of Christ is not locally (localiter) in the Sacrament of the Altar: and with Newman when he reminds us that “we do not know how. We can only say that He is present, not according to the natural manner of bodies, but sacramentally.” Canon Quick gives us these two references and adds a third from the Council of Trent to the effect that “Christ the Lord is not in this sacrament as in a place.” He sums up his penetrating examination of this point in words which we should cordially endorse. If by “local presence” (he says), you mean that our Lord is present in the consecrated sacrament in a distinctive way, then the phrase is true: but, if by local presence you mean the natural presence of a body in dimensions of space, then the phrase is untrue.

Let us now take our second illustration so far as we can conceive it to have any bearing upon our immediate problem.

“The doors being shut . . . Jesus appears in their midst.” There is a passage of His Person through matter. If, however, He is to be conceived of as locally present in it, then in some sense He is caught by and fixed in the material particles of the door. Hence if He is to move towards the disciples in the room, the door must move with Him. He is a prisoner in the tabernacle! His movements are in some sense confined and circumscribed by the material substance of the door through which He had to pass in order to reveal His Presence to those in the room. Dare we compare such a passage to the passage of the Host from the Side Altar to the High Altar? At once the crudity of the thought is apparent. The thought of God being carried about, lifted up, conveyed from one place to another and of a worshipping company watching His progress as He is removed in the Tabernacle from one place in a Church to another before being “exposed” to view is, of course, only possible for the ignorant and foolish. Yet if we are to insist upon a localized Presence or a material accompaniment of that Presence as in some sense indissolubly one with that of which it is the accompaniment, we are really only expressing in another way the idea of the Risen Lord in His passage through the material door of the Upper Room being in some sense so incapable of wholly dissociating Himself from that through which He passed as to be caught or entangled in it. And this is not what we mean or the way in which we try to conceive of the nature either of His Presence in the Upper Room or of His Presence in the Sacrament Reserved.

Might we agree finally to abandon once and for all the word Transubstantiation? The thought of the Risen Lord passing through matter in order to reach His assembled Disciples does suggest another word which is at least well worth our careful and sympathetic consideration, viz.: the word Trans-elementation.

Attention has more than once in recent times been drawn to Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Oration on the Incarnation and its extension in the Eucharist. There is a resemblance, of course, between Gregory’s thought of trans-elementation and the later doctrine of transubstatiation. There are, however, clear differences, not the least of which is an escape from the doctrine of substance and accidents to the Aristotelian distinction of elements and form. “Trans-elementation,” if used, for example, in the way we have suggested in the light of the illustration of our Lord’s Presence in the Upper Room, might well enable us to preserve our belief in the reality of that Presence in the Eucharist and in some definite sense associated with material elements and yet quite clearly not permanently caught or located in the material vehicles of which He makes use in passing through them to reach us.

We will not, at this stage, attempt either to elaborate the possibilities of a Sacramental theory of the Real Presence which might conceivably be built up around this word and the philosophical implications suggested by it, nor will we at present press for its acceptance. All we will do is to remind ourselves of its existence in the theology of Gregory of Nyssa and ask for its consideration as a possible help in our discussions and disputes.

So much by way of a tentative contribution to a much-needed philosophy of sacramentalism.