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Karl Rahner

Karl Rahner, SJ (March 5 1904March 30 1984) was a Germanmarker theologian who, alongside Bernard Lonergan and Hans Urs von Balthasar, is considered one of the most influential Roman Catholic theologians of the 20th century.

He was born in Freiburgmarker, Germanymarker, and died in Innsbruckmarker, Austriamarker.

Before the Second Vatican Council, Rahner had worked alongside Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac and Marie-Dominique Chenu, theologians associated with an emerging school of thought called the Nouvelle Théologie, elements of which had been criticized in the encyclical Humani Generis of Pope Pius XII.


His theology influenced the Second Vatican Council and was ground-breaking for the development of what is generally seen as the modern understanding of Catholicism.

Foundations of Christian Faith

Written near the end of his life, Rahner's Foundations of Christian Faith (Grundkurs des Glaubens) is the most developed and systematic of his works, most of which were published in the form of essays.

Economic and Immanent Trinity

Among the most important of his essays was The Trinity, in which he argues that "the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity". That is to say, God communicates Himself to humanity ("economic" Trinity) as He really is in the divine Life ("immanent" Trinity).

Although Rahner was emphatic that the identity between "economic" Trinity and "immanent" Trinity does not lead to Modalism, because God could not communicate Himself to humanity as threefold (dreifaltige) unless He were threefold in reality, some (e.g., Jürgen Moltmann) have found his teaching to tend strongly in a Modalist direction.

God's self-communication

Rahner maintained that the fulfillment of human existence consists in receiving God's self-communication, and that the human being is actually constituted by this divine self-communication. This reception of God is only full or complete at the end of time in the beatific vision, but is present now in seed-form as grace.


Rahner was a critic of substance theory and was concerned about the finality of liturgy. He proposed instead to re-name transsubstantiation into transfinalization. However, this theory was rejected by Pope Paul VI in the encyclical Mysterium Fidei.

Awareness of God

The basis for Rahner's theology is that all human beings have a latent ("unthematic") awareness of God in any experiences of limitation in knowledge or freedom as finite subjects. Because such experience is the "condition of possibility" for knowledge and freedom as such, Rahner borrows the language of Kant to describe this experience as "categorical."

Such is the extent of Rahner's idea of the "natural knowledge of God" — what can be known by reason prior to the advent of "special" revelation. God is only approached asymptotically, in the mode of what Rahner calls "absolute mystery." While one may try to furnish proofs for God's existence, these explicit proofs ultimately refer to the inescapable orientation towards Mystery which constitute — by transcendental necessity — the very nature of the human being.


For Rahner at the heart of Christian doctrine is the co-reality of Incarnation-grace. Incarnation and grace appear as technical terms to describe the central message of the Gospel: God has communicated Himself. The self-communication of God is crucial in Rahner's view: grace is not something other than God, not some celestial 'substance,' but God Himself. The event of Jesus Christ is, according to Rahner, the center-point of the self-communication of God. God, insists Rahner, does not only communicate Himself from without; rather, grace is the constitutive element both of the objective reality of revelation (the incarnate Word) and the subjective principle of our hearing (the Holy Spirit). Thus grace lies at both sides — without and within.

Mode of grace

Rahner's particular interpretation of the mode in which grace makes itself present is that grace is a permanent modification of human nature in a supernatural existential (a phrase borrowed from Heidegger). Grace is perceived in light of Christianity as a constitutive element of human existence. For this reason, Rahner denies the possibility of a state of pure nature (natura pura, human existence without being-involved with grace), which according to him is a counterfactual.

Anonymous Christianity

Anonymous Christianity is the theological concept that declares that people who have never heard the Christian Gospel or even rejected it might be saved through Christ. Non-Christians could have "in [their] basic orientation and fundamental decision," Rahner wrote, "accepted the salvific grace of God, through Christ, although [they] may never have heard of the Christian revelation." His writings on the subject were somewhat related to his views about the mode of grace.

Univocity and equivocation

Like others of his generation, Rahner was much concerned with refuting the univocal theology of the Counter Reformation. In the alternative he proposes, analogy, which Thomists and von Balthasar propose as the foundation of theology, is greatly diminished. Instead, equivocation dominates much of Rahner's thought.

Thus, although Rahner would claim St. Thomas Aquinas as the most important influence on his thought, nevertheless, his interpretation via the thought of Heidegger is such that any similarity between him and Thomistic theologians is minimal.

Further reading

  • Egan, Harvey J.; Karl Rahner: Mystic of Everyday Life (Crossroad, 1998)
  • Fischer, Mark F.; The Foundations of Karl Rahner: A Paraphrase of The Foundations of Christian Faith, with Introduction and Indices (Crossroad, 2005), ISBN 0824523423
  • Kilby, Karen; A Brief Introduction to Karl Rahner (Crossroad, 2007)

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