The purpose of this book—reprinted nearly forty years after its original publication—is to expound a “new approach” to the question of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. According to Schillebeeckx, a new approach is needed because times have changed since the Council of Trent at which the doctrine of transubstantiation was affirmed over against certain Reformation doctrines (most notably Zwingli’s). Schillebeeckx does not want to deny transubstantiation, but thinks there is a great risk in relying on the Aristotelian metaphysics that once was able neatly to distinguish between substance and accident. The charge is that modern physics has discredited Aristotle in this regard, now making his philosophy of nature a liability. Schillebeeckx thinks it is not only possible but also imperative to reformulate a kind of transubstantiation doctrine free from this liability—in fact, he asserts, the early Christians had precisely this kind of doctrine.
This, of course, raises the oft-noted and oft-debated question of the status of theological statements that depend on philosophical frameworks that inevitably change over time. But Schillebeeckx is not primarily interested in questions of method of which Christ’s presence is a mere example. Rather, he sees an enormous opportunity for recapturing a fuller meaning of the Eucharist’s sacramentality, claiming that the tendency, especially among neo-scholastics, has been to articulate too “objective” a function for transubstantiation. The focus has been too exclusively on the material change of the bread and wine. What has been neglected, Schillebeeckx thinks, are the elements that set the sacramental context of the practice: its function as a meal of fellowship and unity. Here, Schillebeeckx makes use of an approach that dates the book somewhat (but, in my view, is not disastrous to it), using the language of phenomenology and inter-subjectivity (a human person is only a person in relationship, and so on).
He begins, not with a philosophy of nature (Aristotle), but with anthropology, taking seriously the irreducibly historically-situatedness of Christ and of every eucharistic remembrance of Christ. This leads him to speak of signs, but not of mere signs, since the ability for any sign to “work” is not just a question of a change in attitude on the part of the one who reads the sign, but actually denotes a real change in the thing that is nevertheless more sacramental than material. Schillebeeckx’s formulation comes close to making it sound like this is therefore a change that we make in a thing, such as when he uses the example of a colored cloth: when does it “become” a flag? Does this becoming constitute a change? Yes, he says, it really changes, but not materially; it is a change of sign. Yet he insists that our naming of reality is never exhaustive of reality’s mystery which, because creation is a gift, must always lie beyond our control.
The first half of the book is a detailed exposition of how the Council of Trent reasoned and finally settled on its final wording regarding real presence. Schillebeeckx needs this section in order to show first that there were varying degrees of attachments to the doctrine and to the philosophy of nature that undergirded it, and second that these are separable in order to move on to his constructive proposal. This section has great historical and methodological value on its own. And I venture to say that there could be even greater value in debating his “new approach,” although because it is—ironically and yet not inconsistently—cast in a philosophical idiom (not to mention a fresh Vatican II ecumenical spirit) that does not have quite the currency it did mere decades ago, I am not sure that such debates will happen.
But certainly of greatest value is Schillebeeckx’s attempt to articulate how the change of the eucharistic elements is bound up with the historic existence of the concrete congregation who celebrates it as well as with the celebrative setting itself, the church and the church’s receiving the gift of Christ himself while also giving itself to God in sacrifice and to each other in unity. Holding these things together is difficult and noble. And together with the more dated aspects of the book, we are reminded that theology is always an unfinished task since figuring out how to say these things in every age is a constant challenge.