Theology, History, and Christian Unity

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Brett Salkeld
  • Ada, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , November
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Historically speaking, one of the most divisive issues between Roman Catholics and Protestants has been over the question of transubstantiation, the Catholic doctrine that in the consecration of the Eucharist the substance of the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Despite ecumenical efforts in recent decades to seek agreement on eucharistic theology, this term is often consciously avoided in dialogues and documents. Brett Salkeld, in his recent book Transubstantiation: Theology, History, and Christian Unity, argues persuasively that this lacuna is a serious problem, which in fact has kept such ecumenical work from progressing. Thus, he seeks to address the matter head-on: “Consensus on ‘transubstantiation’ is important not because the word itself is essential for Christian faith but because, without such consensus, the Christian people won’t know whether official ecumenical agreements on the Eucharist have genuinely resolved our differences” (24–25).

In the first chapter, Salkeld lays out the history and current state of the dispute over transubstantiation. He notes how the term itself has become a sort of “identity marker” for both parties to either affirm or reject without much discussion, hence the tendency of the ecumenical movement to avoid discussing it directly. He goes on to explain how the concept of transubstantiation has been misunderstood as a physical or chemical change in the elements, and that such misunderstanding is extremely pervasive among Catholics and Protestants, lay and academic.

The central piece of the argument is that, because of shifts in language and metaphysics in the late medieval period, the meaning of “substance,” and thus transubstantiation, changed between the time of Thomas Aquinas and the Reformation. While substance was, for Aquinas, a strictly metaphysical category that allowed him to affirm Christ’s presence in the sacramental elements on a deeper level than the physical qualities of bread and wine, by the 16th century the term had come to mean something material, and thus led to a much more  physical conception of eucharistic  doctrine—one which the Protestant Reformers rejected.

In some ways, Salkeld makes the core of his argument in the first chapter, and the rest of the book simply backs it up with close readings of Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. The second chapter covers the development of transubstantiation as a defense against the controversy with Berengarius of Tours, who held that Christ’s presence in the sacrament was merely symbolic. Thus, the idea of a change in substance (while the accidents or physical qualities remained the same) was eventually adopted by the medieval church as an attempt to hold together the symbolic or sacramental dimension of the Eucharist alongside an affirmation that Christ is truly present in the consecrated elements. The bulk of this chapter is devoted to Aquinas’ eucharistic theology, which was largely an effort to articulate and expand on the doctrinal pronouncement of the earlier controversy. But Salkeld stresses that what Aquinas achieved was in fact a balanced and nuanced theology, which expressly avoids many of the problems that the Protestant Reformation would find with transubstantiation. Nothing in this chapter should come as a surprise to anyone who has read Aquinas closely on this question, but Salkeld helpfully contextualizes and synthesizes key passages from the Summa Theologica that address it.

The third and fourth chapters look at the eucharistic theologies of Luther and Calvin respectively, as the two most representative and influential figures in Protestantism. Not only does Salkeld seek to disentangle just what these two Reformers were and were not saying, but he presents a creative reading of them against the historical background already discussed. He draws a parallel between Luther and the church at the time of Berengarius: both were forced to articulate the coherence of their (previously undefined) belief in real presence once it was directly challenged (in Luther’s case, by Ulrich Zwingli’s memorialism); and both at times responded with unbalanced polemics that lent itself to overly physical interpretations. In a similar way, Calvin’s work on the Eucharist parallels that of Aquinas, in seeking a more balanced approach that addresses the legitimate concerns of all sides. Such an interpretation may seem shocking to the reader, but Salkeld is not attempting to cover up genuine differences in the respective theologies. Rather, he seeks to get to the heart of the primary concerns of each theologian, in order to show how those concerns show a surprising convergence with those of Aquinas and similar proponents of transubstantiation, properly understood.

Salkeld concludes not only that the “transubstantiation” rejected by the Reformers was in fact a distortion of the doctrine taught by Aquinas and the Catholic Church, but also that the alternatives put forward by Luther and Calvin are far closer to the actual doctrine than people tend to assume. He clarifies that he is not trying to force transubstantiation on Protestants as essential dogma: “The theology of transubstantiation is only that—theology. It is not the article of faith itself. Its function is merely to make coherent the article of faith and defend it against misinterpretation” (241). Rather, his intention is simply to clear up misunderstanding and pave the way for ecumenical dialogues to address the matter directly.

Salkeld writes as an experienced ecumenist concerned with getting to the root issues of historic disagreements between Catholics and Protestants. He is extremely thorough in his treatment of the historical and philosophical contexts of the three theologians he explicates. He seems to assume that the reader is well versed in theology. He does go to great lengths to explain the finer points of his argument, but some less than invested readers may easily be lost along the way.

The author comes to the topic from an unapologetically Catholic perspective. While he is very generous and charitable to his Protestant interlocutors, it still makes the argument somewhat one-sided, in that transubstantiation is simply a given. An equally thorough response by a Lutheran or Calvinist theologian might provide a worthwhile counter-balance to move the dialogue further.

On the whole, Transubstantiation is an excellent contribution to ecumenical discussions between Catholics and Protestants on the Eucharist. It is well researched and clearly written, and thus a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the topic. Whether it will accomplish its goal in the wider field of Christian ecumenism remains to be seen.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Kemp is the priest-in-charge at St. Paul’s Church by-the-Lake and an adjunct instructor in theology at Loyola University Chicago.

Date of Review: 
July 24, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brett Salkeld (PhD, Regis College, University of Toronto) is archdiocesan theologian for the Archdiocese of Regina, Saskatchewan, and has served for many years on the national Canadian Roman Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue. 



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