Theology, History, and Christian Unity
by Brett Salkeld
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Pub Date 19 Nov 2019 | Archive Date 27 Mar 2020
Baker Academic & Brazos Press, Baker Academic
“This is an important book on a sensitive topic. It offers a fresh approach to a seemingly intractable problem in ecumenical relations and is well researched and judicious in its judgments. It will be a significant new resource for ecumenical dialogue.”—John Cavadini, professor of theology and director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life, University of Notre Dame
“It is a great scandal that the Eucharist, the sacrament of Christian unity, has been the occasion for fracture and division in the body of Christ. At the heart of many of the controversies has been the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Brett Salkeld’s book is the best ecumenical study of this topic to appear in years. He asks Catholics to consider what the Church actually teaches on the subject, and invites Protestants to wonder if their own eucharistic doctrines aren’t in fact closer to transubstantiation than they’ve been led to believe. Agree with Salkeld or not, his book is a model of charitable and intelligent ecumenical theology.”—Joseph Mangina, Wycliffe College, Toronto School of Theology
“I learned so much from this book. Salkeld boldly touches the third rail of ecumenism: the doctrine of transubstantiation, the very mention of which is bound to raise the hackles of both Protestants and (increasingly since Vatican II) Catholics. He defends the startling suggestion that Lutherans, Reformed, and Catholics can find in a proper understanding of ‘transubstantiation’ the position on real presence that each yearns to uphold. As he shows, the meaning of the term had become obscured by the sixteenth century, just as it largely has today. Salkeld writes with love and admiration for his fellow Christians. May this wonderful book enrich Christian unity as we approach the mysteries of the Lord’s table.”—Matthew Levering, James N. and Mary D. Perry Jr. Chair of Theology, Mundelein Seminary
“In December chill the laborer hastens home at dusk to the hearth. So Brett Salkeld’s work in this time of ‘ecumenical winter’ warms the reader with the glow of ecumenically intentional dogmatics. If Protestants still wish to douse the fire with a bucket of cold water to the effect that Rome has never heard the witness of the Reformation, Salkeld’s careful and sympathetic reading of sixteenth-century eucharistic theology, like Elijah’s fire on Mount Carmel, vaporizes the objection.”—Paul R. Hinlicky, Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies, Roanoke College; Docent, Evanjelická Bohoslovecká Fakulta, Univerzita Komenského, Bratislava, Slovakia
Available on NetGalley
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Brett Salkeld has written an accessible book on a difficult subject: the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Salkeld writes with a light touch, seeking to build ecumenical bridges rather than knock down opponents. He’s clear about his convictions. Rather than being an insurmountable stumbling block, Thomas Aquinas’s classic formulation of transubstantiation provides a way through the theological weeds. As Salkeld points out, while transubstantiation may be regarded as a lynchpin of Catholic/Protestant disagreement, in fact it’s “a word that almost no one, Catholic or Protestant, actually understands.” Acceptance or rejection of the word has moved beyond theological utility to become an “identity marker.” Salkeld seeks to recover an authentic understanding of transubstantiation as a way to maintain the two great strands of Eucharistic reflection: the symbolist and the realist, represented (historically if not in actual fact) by Augustine and Ambrose.
There are challenges. Transubstantiation draws on Aristotle’s antique worldview, which leaves it open to charges of both being pagan and outdated. However Sankeld demonstrates that Thomas did not merely use, but also transformed Aristotle, in what he calls “Aquinas’s re-inscription of Aristotle’s physics.” So too, transubstantiation seems unnecessarily speculative. Why not follow Luther and “cling simply to the words of Christ?” Because, writes Salkeld, “in order to avoid devolving into fideism or skepticism, faith must seek understanding.” Perhaps the greatest challenge to Salkeld’s project is the confounding difficulty of understanding exactly what Thomas was saying with transubstantiation, with its specialist vocabulary of substance and accidents, local vs. nonlocal vs. repletive vs. circumscriptive vs. definitive presence. Take this line from the Summa in which Thomas describes how Christ is present “in the way that substance is under dimensions, and not in any dimensive way, i.e., not in the way that the dimensive quantity of a body is under the dimensive quantity of the place that contains the body.” Not for nothing Luther punched at the Catholic status quo in his Babylonian Captivity of the Church by claiming that no layman could hope to understand Thomas’s “fine-spun theology.” At least for a newbie reader of Thomas like me, Salkeld’s words describing pre-Thomistic eucharistic theology ring a little true of transubstantiation as well: “the resulting [theological] machinery ends up with so many tiny moving parts that it breaks very easily and requires a high level of expertise to repair.”
The book shines as a comparative work, taking a deep dive into Luther and Calvin as representative strains of Protestant eucharistic theology. Luther tilted toward the realist side and in so doing “lost his grip on the sacramental nature of the Eucharist when he ignored the significatory value of the bread and the wine.” Calvin, though often inaccurately lumped with Zwingli, invokes the Holy Spirit to describe how Christ is present both in heaven and in the elements. But Calvin ultimately fails to distinguish if or how “the Sacrament actually offers us something or only confirms that we possess it already.” For Salkeld, transubstantiation, with its careful distinguishment between the real substance of Christ present and the symbolic power of the bread and wine, is the cure for what ails Protestant eucharistic theology.
With the earnest ambition of a true ecumenist, Salkeld shares his wish list at the end of the book. “Transubstantiation need not be an ecumenical stumbling block,” concludes Salkeld. Instead, he holds three noble hopes: that Christians will realize that ecumenical agreements on the Eucharist are “not a fudge” but stand on authentic shared convictions; that “ecumenists may be emboldened to treat the question of transubstantiation head-on;” and that “clarity and consensus” on transubstantiation can “spur ecumenical hope.”
Whether Salkeld’s ecumenical hope can be realized or not, this book makes clear that transubstantiation deserves more than to be just waved away by skeptical Protestants and Evangelicals. As Salkeld demonstrates, transubstantiation is a compelling and authentic expression of fides quaerens intellectum.