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Ancient and medieval philosophy distinguished between accident (“nonessential property”) and substance, as both Plato and Aristotle considered the former as secondary at most and Aquinas emphasized its relative and dependent aspects. Philosophical understanding prepared the way for its use in theology, in the doctrine of the Eucharist, to elucidate the nature of the divine presence in the bread and wine. As early as about 1200 Alain of Lille spoke of transubstantiation (Theologicae regulae), and Aquinas taught that after the consecration the physical accidents existed with the divine substance but without inhering. This was accepted until the widespread rejection by the Reformers, who thought not at all of accidents but much more symbolically rather than literally about the substance itself. The Council of Trent continued the medieval teaching, though without mention of accidents, and this continues to be the Roman position. Reformed theology has never ceased to disagree fundamentally, though it has its differences in interpreting the nature of the actual presence.

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