Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.


During the Middle Ages two controversies were carried on over the doctrine of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper before the view of transubstantiation was finally adopted. One controversy occurred in the ninth century; the other in the eleventh. The controversy in the ninth century was between Radbertus and Ratramnus, both monks in the monastery in Corbie, France.

Radbertus taught that the bread and wine were literally changed into the body and blood of Christ, while Ratramnus taught that Christ was present only spiritually in the sacrament.

That controversy finally died with the death of the two antagonists, and without any resolution to the problem. Both views continued to be taught in the church, although little by little the views of Radbertus gained ground.

The second controversy took place in the eleventh century. This too took place between two monks. In a way, it was more important than the first one because this controversy led directly to the adoption of transubstantiation as official church dogma. It took place between Berengar and Lanfranc, although Berengar is the principal character. On his life we concentrate our attention.

The Early Life of Berengar

Berengar was born in or near the city of Tours in the year 1000. Tours was an important city in France because, as every schoolboy knows, Charles Martel defeated the invading Moslems at Tours in 732, slammed the southern door of Europe in their faces, and prevented Mohammedanism from overrunning Europe. A ditty helped the memory: “In 732, at the battle of Tours/Charles Martel defeated the Moors.”

He was early committed to the monastic life and rose quickly in the Benedictine Order. He became canon and director of the cathedral school in Tours, in which school he sharpened his teaching skills. Soon he was elevated to the rank of archdeacon in Angers, but retained his love for teaching. Berengar was a popular teacher, whose fame soon spread throughout France, and students from every part of France flocked to his school.

Berengar the Man

Berengar was something of an enigma, however. He was, himself a monk, deeply devoted to monasticism. Yet he could understand that a monastic life did not enable one to escape from the world. He saw the dangers inherent in a life of seclusion. He wrote to his fellow monks:

The hermit is alone in his cell, but sin loiters about the door with enticing words and seeks admittance. I am thy beloved—says she—whom thou didst court in the world. I was with thee at the table, slept with thee on thy couch; without me, thou didst nothing. How darest thou think of forsaking me? I have followed thy every step; and dost thou expect to hide away from me in thy cell? I was with thee in the world, when thou didst eat flesh and drink wine; and shall be with thee in the wilderness, where thou livest only on bread and water. Purple and silk are not the only colors seen in hell,—the monk’s cowl is also to be found there. Thou, hermit, hast something of mine. The nature of the flesh, which thou wearest about thee, is my sister, begotten with me, brought up with me. So long as the flesh is flesh, so long shall I be in thy flesh. Dost though subdue thy flesh by abstinence?—thou becomest proud; and lo! sin is there. Art thou overcome by the flesh, and dost thou yield to lust? sin is there. Perhaps thou hast none of the mere human sins, I mean such as proceed from sense; beware then of devilish sins. Pride is a sin which belongs in common to evil spirits and to hermits.

Berengar was a man of rare learning and deep piety.

He also was brave—up to a point. He was not afraid to challenge church authority when he believed it was wrong. Nor was he afraid to stand up for his views, as long as it did not mean suffering. Twice he recanted when faced with the threat of death. Twice he regretted it. Finally he died in sorrow for betraying the truth which he believed.

His writings reveal, as one historian put it, a worthy man, a loving Christian of tender and placable nature. His learning was vast, and he was a most zealous student of the fathers. He practiced medicine as a physician and was a theologian among theologians. He was admired as an orator and preacher of no little ability. He was friend and counselor to some of the foremost men in France, and occasionally moved in the highest circles without losing his humility.

But he was, in all respects except one, a man of the church. He agreed with church doctrine, good and bad, and opposed the general teachings of the church only on the question of Christ’s presence in the sacrament.

Berengar’s Life of Controversy

Berengar had done his homework. After careful study of the fathers and the teachings of Scripture, he had come to the conclusion that the view which was later called transubstantiation was a vulgar superstition. It was contrary, he said, to Scripture, to most of the fathers, and to reason. It was contrary to Scripture because, although Jesus had said in John 6 that He was the bread of life, He had clearly meant this in a symbolic sense. Although a few of the fathers had taught what Rome was now teaching, many more, including Augustine, had repudiated such notions. And it was unreasonable in the extreme to believe that something that looked like bread, felt like bread, and tasted like bread, was not bread, but a human body.

He could have saved his breath. While here and there a few agreed with him, his views were quite in the minority.

His most influential opponent was Lanfranc, whom we only briefly mention. Lanfranc was one of the great Roman Catholics of the Middle Ages, but he enters our present story only marginally.

Lanfranc was born 1005 and entered a monastery early in life. He became Prior of the prestigious convent in Bec in Normandy in 1045, but was appointed to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury in England. This position was the highest ecclesiastical post in the whole land. He served in that position from 1070-1089. From that position he carried on a running battle with the English kings in a relentless defense of papal claims against the struggles of the kings to free themselves from papal rule.

But he did find time to answer Berengar. He did this in a book which was useful in establishing transubstantiation as official church dogma.

Berengar’s views concerning the symbolic presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper frightened the church half out of its wits. This is evident from the fact that the regional synods that met to condemn Berengar were almost more in number than one can count. They followed upon each other in such rapid succession that sometimes two or three were held in the same year.

Here is an abbreviated list. He was condemned by Pope Leo IX at a Roman synod in 1050. He was summoned to a synod at Vercelli, to which he did not come, and was condemned in absentia—that is, without being granted a hearing. In Paris in 1051 he was threatened with death if he did not recant.

But an interesting thing happened in his home city of Tours in 1054. Present at the synod there was a man by the name of Hildebrand, destined to become one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of the Medieval popes (Gregory VII). Hildebrand was on papal business of another kind, but listened intently to Berengar’s views. Persuaded that Berengar was correct in his position, Hildebrand persuaded the synod to rebuke Berengar mildly, but to tolerate his views.

But Berengar was summoned to Rome in 1059 and condemned by a Lateran Council, which ordered him to recant on his knees and throw his books into the fire. Fearful of what would happen to him, he complied and went against his own conscience.

Back in France, he recanted his recantation and began to teach his views once again. At this point Lanfranc wrote his important book, and the weight of almost the whole church was against Berengar. At asynod in Poitiers in 1075 he was almost killed.

Hildebrand became pope and Hildebrand summoned him to Rome in an effort to protect him. But another Lateran council in 1079 would not even be persuaded by the pope, and in its fury condemned him once again. And, basest of all, when Berengar appealed to Gregory for help, Gregory abandoned him, fearful that his own orthodoxy would come into question. Berengar submitted and once again recanted.

But returning to France, he regretted what he had done and publicly announced that he was of the same opinion as formerly. Pondering Gregory’s betrayal, he wrote:

Confounded by the sudden madness of the pope, and because God in punishment for my sins did not give me a steadfast heart, I threw myself on the ground and confessed with impious voice that I had erred, fearing the pope would instantly pronounce against me the sentence of excommunication, and that, as a necessary consequence, the populace would hurry me to the worst of deaths.

He could hardly live with himself after this, and he retired to a lonely life of strict monastic seclusion on the island of St. Come. There he lived in regret for his cowardice, but died in peace in 1088.

The End of the Matter

Transubstantiation won the day. Berengar was the last voice raised in protest against such a monstrous view as Rome wanted. That view, as horrible as it is, became official Romish doctrine in 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council under Innocent III, and remains the official teaching of Rome.

Transubstantiation is not a doctrine that stands by itself. It leads to and is connected with other doctrines.

The view of transubstantiation developed along with the idea of the clergy as priests, that misnomer by which they are called yet today. But priests bring sacrifices. In the early church, when it was first suggested that clergy be called priests, the sacrifices they brought were considered spiritual sacrifices of thanksgiving.

But these sacrifices were, for all that, connected to the Lord’s Supper. The result was that in the minds of the people, and eventually in the entire church, these sacrifices were considered sacrifices of atonement. How was that to be explained?

The answer lies in the Romish doctrine of the mass. When a priest performs the mass, that is, administers the Lord’s Supper, he miraculously, but very really, changes the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood. By doing this, he performs the sacrifice which Christ offered for sin on the cross. Golgotha is reenacted. Calvary takes place in every mass. Christ dies a million times, at the hand of the priests. And the people, eating this bread and wine, participate in the sacrifice of Christ and eat His body and blood.

No wonder the Reformers could not find enough words to condemn this view. But they pointed out, with precision, that such a view denied the completeness and perfection of Christ’s one sacrifice for sin. And, just as wrongly, it introduced a terrible sin into the worship, the sin of idolatry. The mass, our Heidelberg Catechism says, is an accursed idolatry. Many evangelicals, lusting for union with Rome, think this language too strong and want to remove it. But let that never happen. Ursinus and Olevianus were right.

Other terrible doctrines followed.

The doctrine of concomitance was now taught. According to this doctrine, the people need only eat the bread and need not drink the wine (lest the blood of Christ be spilled) because Christ’s body and blood are present in both bread and wine.

The bread and wine were worshiped by the throngs in exactly the same way pagans bow before gods of wood and stone. And this worship of the elements became a crucial part of Rome’s liturgy.

Because a sacrifice took place at the mass, it was necessary to have an altar. The result was this: a priest, an altar, a sacrifice. It was all in place. But a priest took the place of the preacher and a sacrifice took the place of God’s Word; the altar took the place of the pulpit and the words of consecration (spoken in Latin so that none understood) took the place of preaching.

But none had to understand what was said, because the sacraments worked automatically (if I may use that word). If one actually ate Christ’s body and drank His blood, then Christ was communicated to the participant even though no faith at all was present. A person received Christ automatically. The doctrine was called ex opere operato, which Latin expression means that the sacrament has, in itself, and apart from faith, power to work grace.

The whole wretched system, cloaked in superstition of the worst kind, became a key building block in Rome’s mighty sacerdotal system, by which God’s people were held in bondage.

It took the Reformation to restore the truth. And the Reformation was a vindication of Berengar’s views, for Calvin taught the same as Berengar. Christ is present spiritually, and Christ becomes the possession of the child of God by faith, worked by the Holy Spirit.

The Confession of Faith states the Reformed view. You ought to read the whole article. We quote only a small part:

In the meantime we err not when we say that what is eaten and drunk by us is the proper and natural body and the proper blood of Christ. But the manner of our partaking of the same is not by the mouth, but by the spirit through faith. Thus, then, though Christ always sits at the right hand of His Father in the heavens, yet doth He not therefore cease to make us partakers of Himself by faith. This feast is a spiritual table… (Article 35).