A Critique of Transubstantiation


In my freshman year of college, as a newly minted theology student, I began to think through the question of “Why do we reject Transubstantiation?” I was blessed to have a Systematics professor who assigned the Reformed Orthodox,[1] so, naturally, I picked up my copy of Francis Turretin’s Institutes and scoured the section on Transubstantiation. What I read was inconclusive.

There was no “killer” argument in Turretin until I read this: “It is the property of substance to subsist by itself, so the formal reason of an accident is to be in another thing or to inhere in it. And so great is their communion with and dependency upon substance that they cannot exist even for a moment without a substance.”[2] What Turretin argues here is groundbreaking, Transubstantiation does not work because accidents need a substance.

This argument provided the certainty for which I was longing. It was not an argument that rested on probability or could be liable to differing interpretations. It turned Transubstantiation into a philosophical impossibility and metaphysical absurdity. However, my excitement was soon extinguished. This section lasted only a few sentences.

This problem haunted me again and again. John Wycliffe argues that “accidents do not have existence unless they inhere, since all accidents are modes of substances,”[3] and goes little further. John Cosin is agnostic about its possibility but denies its actuality.[4] Daniel Featley, in Transubstantiation Exploded, argues for “the necessary dependance of accidents on their subjects,”[5] yet never explains it philosophically, but only quotes St. Augustine as an authority. Pendlebury writes, “accidens est ens in alio. Accedentis esse, est in esse, i.e. esse in subjecto. The very Being of an Accident consisteth in its existing in a Substance or Subject; and it can be no longer than its Subject is in being.”[6] Andrew Willet argues that “It is against the nature and propertie of accidents and externall formes to be without a subiect.”[7]

I continuously searched through the Reformed and Anglican Divines, yet there was never an explanation of the argument. Nobody dealt with St. Thomas’ defense of his doctrine that “accidents continue in this sacrament without a subject,”[8] except to regurgitate the same line. Then, I discovered Dietrich of Freiberg. Dietrich (Theodoric) of Freiberg was a Dominican theologian and philosopher, successor to St. Albertus Magnus, and contemporary of St. Thomas Aquinas. He writes an entire treatise, De Accidentibus, responding to the specific metaphysical claims St. Thomas Aquinas makes about accidents in the Eucharist, setting forth a truly Aristotelian account of accidents, responding to the specific justifications of St. Thomas, and showing the disastrous metaphysical effects of the Thomistic account.

Most importantly to Protestants, he was vastly influential on the Stella Matutina’s rejection of Transubstantiation. Wycliffe here becomes a bottleneck, communicating the general idea of Dietrich’s response to St. Thomas on this point, but with far less detail. By the time the Reformers pick up Wycliffe, and this argument is communicated to the next generation, it has withered into a one-sentence argument when it truly deserves a treatise. Therefore, we must take up the mantle of the humanists and return ad fontes.

What is Transubstantiation?

The biggest obstacle to refuting Transubstantiation is understanding Transubstantiation. Some time ago, I saw a certain Anglican ask in a Facebook group, “Why do some Anglicans reject Transubstantiation when the Book of Common prayer speaks of ‘eat[ing] the flesh of thy dear Son?’” This question erroneously confuses Transubstantiation with non-memorialism. Instead, we must come to understand Transubstantiation in its (admirably) elaborate scholastic system, as proposed by St. Thomas Aquinas and confirmed Dogmatically at Trent.[9]

The standard explanation given is that “the substance (breadiness) of the bread is transformed into the substance (Christness) of the body of Christ, while the accidents (appearances) of the bread remain.” While this is a much better explanation, it still betrays a wrongly placed emphasis. The Reformed were not burned for denying the real presence of Christ; they were burned for affirming the real presence of bread. The distinctiveness of the Romanist view of the Eucharistic presence is not the presence of Christ; it is the presence of bread (or lack thereof).[10]

A brief addition of two words to the second half of this explanation is necessary to make it a sufficient definition, that is, “without subject.”[11] Our definition becomes “the substance (breadiness) of the bread is transformed into the substance (Christness) of the body of Christ, while the accidents (appearances) of the bread remain without subject.” This definition allows us to zero in on the central error of Transubstantiation. It causes a metaphysical rift in the sacrament. We do not have the substance of Christ with the appearances (accidents) of bread; to the contrary, we have the substance of Christ under the appearances of bread. This distinction is an important one. What we have in the Romanist doctrine of the Eucharist is “floating” accidents. They are appearances, but the appearance of nothing. There is no substance that these accidents express, but they are accidents of nothing. Their substance is stripped away and replaced with nothing. It is the appearances of bread without breadiness.

From this flows the primary objection of Dietrich and the Reformed. They claim that Roman Catholic theology has given itself enough rope to hang itself, their metaphysics and their theology are incoherent, they have destroyed nature by grace rather than perfecting her. They claim that accidents, by their very definition, are those things that inhere in a substance. Transubstantiation posits that accidents do not inhere in a substance. Therefore, this breaks the law of non-contradiction (to say that accidents are x, yet in this situation, accidents are not-x).

What is an Accident?

Now that we have our definition of Transubstantiation down, especially concerning the non-inherence of the accidents of bread, let’s look at what precisely an accident is to provide a solid foundation for the remainder of this critique. A basic definition that is taught is “An accident is an appearance of a thing.” While this is undoubtedly true, it is not sufficient to understand the entirety of what an accident is. An accident is not only the appearance of a thing; it is more fundamental than that. Weight, height, location, etc., are all accidents of a certain thing, yet they are not sensory.

Instead, an accident is that instrument of relation for a substance. A substance has no mass, no smell, no size, no shape, nothing. A substance in itself has no relation to the world; it can affect nothing, change nothing, be moved by nothing. However, a substance is never found alone in this sad state. Substances are found with those “instruments of relation” by which a substance becomes dynamically related to the outside world. In this, it becomes a “thing.” You can touch a thing, but you cannot touch a lone substance. You can smell a thing, but you cannot smell a lone substance. However, when a substance comes together with accidents to form a thing, a substance can be smelt, seen, touched, moved per accidens (according to its accidents). There is this co-natural and interdependent relationship between substances and accidents; we cannot encounter pure substances (for, they would have no relation to you), and we cannot encounter pure accidents, as we will show.

The Incoherence Displayed

Now that we have all the tools in our toolbox, we can display how the idea of accidents being without a substance is incoherent. First, we say that accidents are fundamentally a relation of a substance to other substances. Speaking of a “pure relation” without a thing to which it is related is pure madness. Let’s say I tell you that I am “One inch taller.” You would rightly ask, “One inch taller than what?” I shoot back, “I am One inch taller than pure Six-footness!” You would laugh me to scorn, rightly. To even try to conceptualize the pure relation of height leaves you to question my sanity. Why would it be any different in the circumstance in which Rome speaks? Height is fundamentally a relation of a thing; it is not and cannot be a pure relation except in the mind.

Second, we say that accidents are fundamentally predications to a thing. When we speak of something being white, or fat, or tall, or in China, we speak of something. That is, we predicate these accidents to a thing. There is a certain substance that we are speaking of these accidents as being native to. Let’s say I say “is white.” You ask, “Well, what are you predicating whiteness to?” I respond, “I am predicating whiteness to nothing, I am speaking of whiteness as whiteness exists in itself and of itself.” At this point, you are contemplating throwing me in an insane asylum. How would one even contemplate whiteness? Yes, we can rationally distinguish between the substance of a thing and its whiteness, but we cannot distinguish to such a degree that there is a complete detachment. When we think of whiteness, we think of white paper. When we think of circularity, we think of a circle. When we think of tallness, we think of a tall man. It is inescapable because accidents are predications of things. To say that they inhere in no subject and therefore are predications of nothing is incoherent.

Third, we say that accidents are fundamentally expressions of a substance. Without accidents, a substance is not much. It is relegated to the world of pure potency (and pure potencies do not exist). A substance is in act to the world and expresses itself to the world through its accidents. Speaking of these actions or expressions of a substance in a pure sense, without a substance, would again be madness. It is as if I said, “I love the Book of Common Prayer.” This statement is my expression of a particular act towards a certain object. In the same way, accidents are the expressions of substances towards the world. Now, conceive me loving the Book of Common Prayer, yet I am removed from the equation. It is still my act of love, but nobody is doing the loving. It is impossible.

Thomas’ Justifications

St. Thomas was not dumb; he saw that he was open to such an attack and spilled much ink defending this radical claim of the tradition. He did so throughout his career, in four places: Thomas’ Commentary on the Sentences,[12] Quodlibet IX,[13] Summa Contra Gentiles,[14] and Summa Theologica.[15] If one reads those sources and compares them to one another, one will see, remarkably, that St. Thomas is consistent from his Doctoral days to his death. He has three bread and butter arguments that he brings forth to defend this doctrine. 1. He redefines what an accident is. 2. He points to the book of causes and makes an argument from Divine power (i.e., “it is a miracle”). 3. He points to the primacy of dimensive quantity (the physical component of a thing) and posits an ability of accidents to inhere in it.

First, the redefinition of what an accident is. St. Thomas argues that while saying that “an accident is something which inheres in a subject” is an okay definition for explaining the typical mode in which an accident acts, it is by no means an exhaustive definition of the true “quiddity” of an accident. Instead, he argues that this definition is only how an accident “normally” represents itself (the natural mode of being). St. Thomas proposes a different definition of an accident, that is, a “thing to which is owed being in another.”[16] He rejects the idea that he is providing any sort of “redefinition,” instead, he argues that he is being more precise. This redefinition, he argues, refutes our objection because the accident is still owed being in another, but it is now by the power of God, not in the substance of bread.

St. Thomas still, even with this redefinition, cannot have his theory stand. For thing X to be “in” thing Y means that thing Y is the material cause of thing X. This definition still requires a material cause somewhere. God’s power cannot replace this because God is simple and has no accidents. To say that God replaces the material cause and is a material cause Himself would be impious.

Second, St. Thomas argues from the Book of Causes. The specific quote is, “The first cause makes a more vehement impression on what is caused by a second cause than the second cause itself.”[17] Thomas argues that God is the first cause, and substance is the second cause of an accident. A first cause is more powerful than a second cause; therefore, the effect of the second cause can be produced by the first cause without the use of the second cause.

St. Thomas is sloppy here with his proof text. While it must be affirmed by every Aristotelian that “the first cause makes a more vehement impression on what is caused by a second cause than the second cause itself,”[18] St. Thomas is making a false inference. The author of the book of causes is only speaking of causes of the same genus when it comes to the first cause acting the effect of the second cause. In the application St. Thomas is making, the first cause is an efficient cause, while the second cause is a material cause. Dietrich further writes, “If some thing by its essence, according to the notion of its quiddity, intrinsically depends on some principle [in this case, a material cause], then to say that a thing exists apart from such a principle is to fall into contradiction.”[19] This is also the one objection that Francis Turretin responds to. He writes, “It is different with a material and formal cause, which God cannot supply because he can neither be a part of a body, nor be informed, nor inform. He also cannot perform the office of a subject, to which it belongs to receive in itself an essential or accidental form, because he is in the highest degree simple and most perfect. Hence although God can make accidents with their subjects, it does not follow in like manner that he can also produce the former without the latter; not from a lack of power, but from the incompossibility (incompossibilitate) of the thing.”[20]

Third, St. Thomas argues from the primacy of dimensive quantity (physical component) and argues for the ability of accidents to inhere in the dimensive quantity of a thing. Thomas states that a particular genus of accidents (qualities) can inhere in another genus of accidents (quantity). That is to say, whiteness inheres in the physical extension of a certain thing, and in turn, the physical extension of that thing inheres in the substance or can inhere in itself since it is a sufficient material cause for the qualities of a thing.

Dietrich’s response to this is that St. Thomas “must be joking.” It is difficult not to have a similar response today. First, it is absurd to say that quantity acts as a metaphysical mediation of inherence for other accidental qualities. Why argue this? This hypothesis leads to internal incoherence in one’s metaphysics. Is the quantity of a thing now its material cause? It turns into a mess. Other accidents are now expressions of the quantity of a thing rather than the substance of a thing. It becomes the accident of an accident, not the accident of a thing. Thus, the “accidents of bread” become the “accidents of the accident of quantity in bread.” Second, it is absurd to say that other accidents could inhere in quantity alone in these circumstances. The obvious question arises, “what does quantity inhere in?” Why does quantity become so special that it is the only accident that does not need substance?

Excursus: What is Possible?

Before we conclude, the question may arise in some people’s minds: “Isn’t it impious to say that something is impossible for God?” To some, to even speak of impossible or possible for God is an absurd and atheistic concept. Some have even resorted to this argument to defend Transubstantiation. Siger of Brabant, a contemporary of St. Thomas, wrote, “Some people argue fallaciously believing that they can show and demonstrate by natural reason that the first cause can make it (come to pass) that the accident can exist without the subject of that accident.”[21] He falls into Fideism and states blankly that Philosophical conclusions must bow to theological ones.

Here we have two dangerous responses that I expect to arise in those readers who wish to still cling to Transubstantiation. First, we have a faulty view of God. When we speak of omnipotence, we do not say that God can do anything; instead, God can do anything insofar as it does not entail a contradiction, i.e., is impossible. A famous example is the question, “Can God make a square circle?” The answer to this question is no; it involves a contradiction, for squareness and circleness are mutually exclusive. Second, we have a faulty view of reason. The conclusions of faith and the conclusions of reason must not contradict each other. Here we show, on a disputed question, that a certain solution to this problem contradicts the clear conclusions of reason. This means that this certain answer to the disputed question is not correct. This is not to say that those certain, creedal truths of faith (such as the incarnation, Trinity, etc.) could be objected to in the same way, for necessarily, since they are true in the realm of faith, so also they are true in the realm of metaphysics. This question is not of the same type but is disputed within the church catholic.


In conclusion, I pray that this spurs interest in scholastic debates over the doctrine of Transubstantiation and sends us back ad fontes. This article is merely a summary of the great riches of late medieval scholastic thought when it comes to the issue of the inherence of accidents and how it relates to Thomas’ larger metaphysical vision. There is plenty of work to be done (there is not even a published translation of De Accidentibus), yet, the contemporary return to our Patristic and Scholastic Fathers will be the spark that will cause the fires of Reformation to burn again.


  1. For those not familiar with the phrase “Reformed Orthodox/Scholastics,” it refers to a group of Reformed theologians in the first two centuries of the post-Reformation church who followed the model of the Medieval Scholastics in their method of theology and were influential on the writing of the Reformed confessions. Prominent examples include: Francis Turretin, Petrus Van Maastricht, and Peter Martyr Vermigli. A good work that provides a historical overview is Van Asslet’s Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism. A work that provides a detailed account of their theology is Muller’s Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics.
  2. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, XIX.xxvii.vii
  3. John Wycliffe, De ente praedicamentali, ch. 5, p. 38.
  4. John Cosin, The History of Popish Transubstantiation, 173
  5. Daniel Featley, Transubstantiation Exploded, 96.
  6. Henry Pendlebury, A Plain Representation of Transubstantiation, as it is Received in the Church of Rome, 7.
  7. Andrew Willet, Synopsis Papismi, The 13th Generall Controversie.
  8. St. Thomas Aquinas, ST.III.Q77.A1.C.3.
  9. Catechism of the Council of Trent, Question XLIII.
  10. Francis Turretin writes, “From what has been said the statement of the question is clearly gathered. First, it is not inquired about the presence of Christ in general—whether Christ is present in the Eucharist (which is asserted on both sides)” (Institutes 19.28.4). Turretin goes on to say that the argument is “concerning the mode of this presence: Is it corporeal and by indistancy (adiastasian) or is it spiritual? The Romanists and Lutherans hold the former; we hold the latter.” This is a misunderstanding on Turretin’s part. A Corporeal presence is denied by the Romanists, as St. Thomas writes, “As stated above (A. 1), any part of Christ is in this sacrament in two ways: in one way, by the power of the sacrament; in another, from real concomitance. By the power of the sacrament the dimensive quantity of Christ’s body is not in this sacrament; for, by the power of the sacrament that is present in this sacrament, whereat the conversion is terminated. But the conversion which takes place in this sacrament is terminated directly at the substance of Christ’s body, and not at its dimensions; which is evident from the fact that the dimensive quantity of the bread remains after the consecration, while only the substance of the bread passes away.” (ST.III.Q76.A4.C)
  11. St Thomas writes, “The species of the bread and wine, which are perceived by our senses to remain in this sacrament after consecration, are not subjected in the substance of the bread and wine, for that does not remain, as stated above (Q. 75, A. 2); nor in the substantial form, for that does not remain (Q. 75, A. 6), and if it did remain, it could not be a subject, as Boethius declares (De Trin. i). Furthermore it is manifest that these accidents are not subjected in the substance of Christ’s body and blood, because the substance of the human body cannot in any way be affected by such accidents; nor is it possible for Christ’s glorious and impassible body to be altered so as to receive these qualities.” (ST.III.Q77.A1.C)
  12. St. Thomas Aquinas, InSent IV.11-12
  13. St. Thomas Aquinas, Quodlibet IX, q. 3
  14. St. Thomas Aquinas, SCG4.C65
  15. St. Thomas Aquinas, ST.III.Q77.A1
  16. St. Thomas Aquinas, InSent IV. ad 2
  17. Liber de Causis
  18. Ibid.
  19. David Roderick, Thomas Aquinas on the Separability of Accidents and Dietrich of Freiberg’s Critique, 129.
  20. Turretin, Institutes, 19.27.14
  21. Siger of Brabant, QsLdC, 41, 54–56.

Christian Wagner

As an undergraduate, Christian Wagner studied Biblical and Theological studies at Reformation Bible College. For his graduate studies, he is a student at Davenant Hall, studying classical Protestantism. He is also a Catechist at his local parish in the Anglican Church in North America, pursuing the Priesthood in the Gulf Atlantic Diocese. His research interests include the Church Fathers, Thomism, and Scholastic Theology. He lives in Florida with his wife who is pregnant with their first child, coming in September.

'A Critique of Transubstantiation' have 2 comments

  1. September 12, 2021 @ 6:44 pm JN

    Many thanks for the fascinating piece! Just a question on your footnote on Vermigli—is there a standard, commonly accepted definition of what “corpor(e)al” means? If it means a local presence, then indeed Vermigli (and Calvin and others) misrepresents the Roman and Lutheran views. However, if it means just a “bodily presence” i.e. “presence of the body in some form, including illocal or substantial”, then it’s not necessarily untrue. I have even seen official LCMS documents speak of a “corporeal” presence, and certainly some RCs use the term.


  2. September 21, 2021 @ 3:34 pm Rev Justin Bianchi

    As a Roman Catholic priest, I found this essay intriguing. Christian makes an excellent point. Namely, the accidents of an object should inform a person about its being, substance, essence or form.

    Roman Catholic theologians often forget to state that obvious, namely, that a consecrated host, the eucharistic species, is a unique category of being. I was writing an essay on the eucharist recently, and came to the exact same conclusion: the accidents, or physical appearance of an object, should point to its being. To be sure, a consecrated host (normatively) has the weight, color, dimensions, volume, and chemical composition of bread. However, as Catholics, we believe that it is “the body and blood of Christ.”

    A substantive philosophical or metaphysical issue is that, for Roman Catholics, the accidents and the physical attributes of the consecrated host do not point to its being. In other words, the consecrated host is an entirely unique category of object. It has the physical qualities of one object, and the being of another.

    A well-educated Roman Catholic would never refer to this as a contradiction nor a fallacy. It properly belongs to the category of “paradox,” like the dual nature of Jesus Christ, the “coming” and the “already here” of the Kingdom of God, and the reality that Christ died and then rose from the dead, and the reality that Christ existed before he was born.

    Your essay very properly points out the bizarre paradox that, normatively speaking, the accidents of an object should point to its being. An yet in the case of a consecrated host, as Roman Catholics, (many of us) do not believe it to be so.

    Finally, I should concede that some Roman Catholics would agree with your position. However, some Episcopalians, as distant members of my family would attest, believe in transubstantiation, if not in name, then in fact.


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