Essay / Theology

How to Read Karl Rahner

Rahner Karl Rahner (1904-1984) is near the top of the list of most influential and important Roman Catholic theologians of the twentieth century. This Jesuit super-genius was one of the advising theological experts (periti) at Vatican II.

Last year, Alvin Kimel over at the pontifications blog declared that “the theologians and clergy of the Catholic Church need to get over him, past him, beyond him. It’s well past time to move on!” While I basically agree with Kimel about that, I would make a distinction between “getting over Rahner” and “never having read him in the first place.” Sure, he’s a liberal theologian who is constantly making the bedeviling blunders of theological liberalism. So if you’re looking for a trustworthy guide and a doctrinal mentor, I would no more send you to Karl Rahner than I would send you to Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, or Friedrich Schleiermacher on the Protestant side. On the other hand, his thought (as can be said of those other above-named titanic theologians of classical liberalism) is so profound and many-sided that he is worth studying. So my advice to young theologians is, if you’re into Rahner, be sure to get over him. But if you’ve never read him, or if you’ve never done the thought project of re-casting classic Thomist theology in modern categories, or if you’ve never watched a thinker who was mind-blowingly at home in the patristic and medieval heritage attempt a speculative synthesis of contemporary theology, then give him a listen. His theological project is a cautionary tale. But it’s also a mental workout, an attention-getter, a chance to be instructed in things you’ve never thought about, and an engagement with the great tradition.

When you read Rahner, the quotient of philosophical-theological jargon is pretty high. Normally when a teacher introduces a difficult subject, the task is to use normal, non-technical language to ease students in to the subject matter. But in some subjects, the technical vocabulary is inseparable from the subject matter, and to become educated in the subject is to become familiar with the jargon. So here is the introductory lecture on How to Read Karl Rahner that I gave last week for a Modern Theology class. These notes do not include my own critical evaluation of Rahner’s thought. Feel free to rend your garments as you read certain passages; but again, my task here is to describe, not assess.


Karl Rahner is one of two giants (Bernard Lonergan is the other) in the movement known as “transcendental Thomism,” that revival of Thomistic thought which several thinkers (beginning with Rousselot and Maréchal) brought about by circumventing reactionary Neo-Thomism and placing Thomas’ ideas into conversation with modern philosophy. The word “transcendental” in this phrase is intended to be evocative of two historical meanings. First is the Scholastic meaning, “that which is applicable to all being,” e.g. goodness, truth, and beauty. Second is the meaning in the Kantian tradition, “the a priori conditions of all possible experience.” These two meanings combine in transcendental Thomism to refer to the possibility of our knowledge of revelation; the a priori subjective conditions in the believer (this is the Kantian element) for knowledge of the totality of reality, the infinite horizon of knowledge which is holy mystery (this is the Scholastic element). (See F. Fiorenza’s essay in Fiorenza & Galvin, Systematic Theology, p. 38).


“Dynamic unity-in-difference is the pattern for the systematic coherence of Rahner’s thought.” (Anne Carr, in her Rahner entry in the Handbook of Christian Theologians, p. 376). This pattern plays across every theme in Rahner: Grace and nature, essence and existence, divinity and humanity, transcendence and history, original self-posession and conceptual reflection. Rahner’s vision is of a rich, plural, permanent, inclusive unity which refuses to “collapse into deathlike identity.” This vision of dynamic-unity-in-difference, based on an updated hylomorphism, is “the Rahner thing” stated formally (materially “the Rahner thing” is the coherence of grace and nature). Learn to think in this shape and the rest of Rahner is much easier to track; a matter of following him through the vast content of Christian faith as he poses questions to it and offers new interpretations of it in his 4000+ publications over the course of 40 years.

Behind every move Rahner makes is his position on nature and grace. His entire theological project has its roots in an attempt to formulate the relationship of nature and grace in a way that undercuts post-Tridentine extrinsicism (the supernatural as a superstructure), but does not render grace so constitutive of human nature as to jeopardize its gratuity (as 1950’s Humani Generis understood Henri de Lubac to do). This problematic has long vexed Catholic theology, and grew increasingly troublesome in the early twentieth century. Rahner’s solution to the problem is simple and far-reaching: he turns it upside down. Instead of starting with “pure nature” as a reality existing in itself, to which grace must then be properly related (neither too extrinsically nor too intrinsically), Rahner begins by reflecting on grace itself as the primary element. Grace is, first of all, God’s own self-communication to us, the gift of Godself, the life of the Trinity opened up to us. In traditional language, Rahner gives priority to uncreated grace (God as self-gift) rather than created grace (interior sanctification). Scholastic theology had tended to emphasize created grace, basing the new relationship with God on an entitative or ontological change in the human person. Rahner reverses this trend by arguing that the created grace within a person is only the consequence of that which is primary, the personal presence of God to the human being (see Roger Haight, The Experience and Language of Grace, p. 122). Or, in hylomorphic terms, God’s gift of self-presence is the form (act), while created grace in the human person is the matter (potentiality). Grace is thus the self-communication of God to humans in the mode of quasi-formal causality. It is “formal” causality (as opposed to efficient causality, such as in creation) because God brings it about by means of informing human nature in actively being present to it. It is a second action of God distinct from creation, and is the basis of a new, supernatural relation to humanity. Apparently Rahner adds the prefix “quasi” to emphasize that it is only analogically predicated of God (or maybe to distinguish it from the true formal causality that we will enjoy in the beatific vision?). In quasi-formal causality, God imparts Godself to the creature as form, thus becoming the end and destiny of the creature.

On the basis of this more unified and personal conception of our relationship to God, Rahner sets out to answer the question of how human nature can be both conceivable without grace and yet capable of its truest fulfillment through grace. Rahner’s solution to this problem involves two technical terms: the supernatural existential and obediential potency. First is the supernatural existential. An existential (a category borrowed from Heidegger) is a basic structure which permeates the whole of human existence (e.g. being in the world, being with others); and “supernatural” indicates that this particular existential is not given with human nature, but is instead a gratuitous gift of God. It is the initial effect of the offer of grace (independent of human response), constituting a universal factor in the situation in which our response is possible. The next important term is obediential potency, a capacity which is open to fulfillment and yet is meaningful even if fulfillment is not granted. For Rahner, human nature as such is obediential potency for God’s self-communication. Thus there is no such thing as ungraced nature, or “pure nature” as in the old extrinsicist thinking. Nature is always confronted by the offer of grace. Even if the divine self-communication did not occur, human nature would still be meaningful as a structure open toward being itself, which would be necessary as the possibility of human acts of transcendence in knowledge and will. Thus our nature, as unrestricted openness toward being, is obediential potency for the offer of grace; and grace remains God’s free self-gift which human nature does not demand as something owed to it. Yet when freely given, grace takes its place at the core of our existence, as our highest fulfillment. This stance on nature and grace has effects in every area of Rahner’s theology, not least in his method. To begin with, the coherence of nature and grace is the justification for Rahner’s extensive use of philosophy in his theological program. (Walter Kasper, following Hans Urs von Balthasar, considers “philosophy’s legitimate limits in theology” to be the biggest issue in assessing Rahner’s legacy. See Kasper’s “Karl Rahner, Theologian in a Time of Upheaval,” Theology Digest 28 (1990), 206)

Rahner employs philosophical reflection so pervasively and so fundamentally in his work that it constitutes an adequate point of entry into his theology as a whole (Carr in Handbook, p. 376). In fact, Rahner begins his one-volume synthesis, Foundations of Christian Faith, from this point of view: he develops his theology there as an analysis of human experience and its transcendental and historical conditions. Human knowledge and freedom transcend themselves in an unbounded way, and this can only take place against an infinite horizon which is itself grasped in a dim and unthematized but ever-present knowledge, or pre-apprehension (Vorgriff). This pre-apprehension is present in all experience as a “secret ingredient” which is constitutive of personhood. From here Rahner moves to a consideration of the term of transcendence, Holy Mystery. For this nonthematic awareness to become a more explicit knowledge of God, transcendental revelation must be fulfilled by categorical revelation, which can be explicitly accepted or rejected. The concern to relate transcendental analysis to concrete historicity is a constant theme of Rahner’s work, and shows up especially in his Christology.

Finally, Rahner’s attitude toward the authority of the theological tradition should be mentioned. Precisely because he knows the tradition so well and takes it so seriously, he refuses to treat it as a series of Delphic oracles which need occasional cosmetic updating. Dogmatic statements are statements of faith which point beyond themselves to the pre-conceptual experience of faith in prayer and worship. The official decisions of the teaching office indicate, in a historically and culturally conditioned way, truths which are binding on theologians. But the language and concepts of dogmatic definitions are not thereby absolutized; they remain open to, and in fact demand, clarification and reinterpretation. Rahner intends to de-positivize the teaching of the church and make it an occasion for real grappling with the content of revelation. A clear example of this is his treatment of the Chalcedonian definition as a starting-point rather than a final formulation. Similarly, Rahner opposes the idea that dogma is a kind of grab-bag of disparate beliefs held together externally (“all that stuff we Catholics believe”), and instead struggles to see Christian truth as an organic unity.


God is the all-encompassing theme of theology; all the rest of dogmatics is contained in the doctrine of God. Although Rahner is perhaps chiefly thought of today as a theologian who brings the ideas of God and humanity into radical proximity, he is also one of the strongest recent proponents of a theology of divine freedom, or, in more characteristically Rahnerian language, inexhaustible transcendence (cf. essay 13 in Rahner’s Theological Investigations volume 20). Rahner’s entire scheme of God as the term of human transcendence, the mystery into which we lose ourselves in order to be constituted as persons, demands that God be inexhaustibly transcendent, and that we love God first of all for Godself and in Godself. “Human beings should not speak first of their own salvation, but of God. Our true salvation is precisely the God who does not exist solely to be our salvation.”

God is the holy mystery; but this mysteriousness is not the result of God being at some vast distance from us. Instead, God is the mystery of the absolute proximity of the divine self-communication. This mystery of God with us is the one mystery with which Christianity has to do: God’s self-communication in the incarnation of the Word and in divinizing grace in the Spirit. In this way Rahner centers his theology on the doctrine of God as Trinity.

Bemoaning the absence of this doctrine from “the catechism of head and heart” by which actual Christians live, Rahner undertook a renewal of Trinitarian theology. To this end, he made two major contributions to the standard treatment of the. First, he set forth what has been subsequently called “Rahner’s Rule,” that the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity. In other words, God as revealed in the economy of salvation is identical with God in se. There is not a primordial Trinity above which is the pattern for how God is manifested in our experience; “the Trinity of God’s relationship to us is the reality of God as he is in himself: a trinity of persons.” This is related to the second contribution, and that is his attributing necessarily distinctive roles to the three persons. The most striking instance of this is Rahner’s rejection of the long-standing (but odd) idea that any of the three persons could have become incarnate. If the economic Logos is identical with the immanent Logos, then the role of the Son in history must have a real bearing on the inner-Trinitarian role of the Son. Indeed, Rahner argues that it is appropriate for the Son to become incarnate because it is the character of the Son (as Logos) to be the expression of the Father.


This brings us to an aspect of Rahner’s anthropology which follows immediately from the doctrine of God because of Rahner’s integral doctrine of the Incarnation. The human nature which Christ takes on at the incarnation is not something extrinsic to him, or an alien element. Instead, human nature is something intrinsic to the Logos in a special way. Human nature is what comes into being when God exteriorizes Godself, or more precisely, when the Son expresses the Father in the realm of what is not God. When God wills to graciously give Godself to an other, humanity comes into being as the real symbol of the Logos. (FC 225) The humanity of Christ, and more generally human nature, is the grammar of God’s self-communication. Thus nature comes into being as the possibility for grace; anthropology is deficient christology; and creation exists for the sake of self-communication.

Further, the concept of “human nature” must finally be read off of the incarnation. Although we can define many things about humanity by way of the “regional anthropologies” of the sciences, what is finally distinctive about human nature is its self-transcendence into mystery, or its acceptance (or rejection) of grace. Since this occurs consummately in the hypostatic union, we see the fullest expression of human nature in Jesus Christ.

Obviously Rahner’s whole system could be characterized as an elaborate theological anthropology; to avoid repetition I haven’t brought it all together again under this heading. The doctrines of God, anthropology, and christology bump right into each other and interpenetrate. Rahner’s position on standard questions in this area (image of God, sin) are fairly easy to discern at other points: Humanity is the image of God as spirit in the world (or as the grammar of God’s self-communication); sin and guilt (the true natures of which are only revealed to us as we experience forgiveness) amount to closing oneself off from the offer of God’s self-communication, etc.


Rahner develops his Christology in two tracks: historical and transcendental. He sees the two approaches as complementary.

His historical approach is an attempt to follow the development of the confession of faith in Christ; a kind of retracing of the disciples’ steps. He begins with a brief reconstruction of the substantial historic core of the gospels: the best critical investigations allow us to credibly affirm that Jesus was a fairly radical Jewish religious reformer who gathered disciples and carried out a prophetic ministry. His preaching centered on the Kingdom of God, and his message, accompanied by signs and wonders, confronted people with the demand for eschatological decision. Jesus was conscious of unique closeness to God; Rahner elaborates on the self-awareness of Jesus in terms of God’s presence as the inescapable, conscious, and yet never truly known self-possession of Jesus (he is especially concerned to refute the idea that Jesus had a fully conscious awareness of his identity with the Logos which amounted to the beatific vision). Finally, it belongs to the substantial historic core of our knowledge of the historical Jesus that he freely faced the death which came upon him (although it is unlikely that he talked about it in terms of saving significance).

The cross and the resurrection must be taken as a unity; this basic commitment of Rahner’s is partly explained by his theology of death. Death is the completion of one’s personal history of freedom; in death a final state is reached which includes all the constitutive dimensions of a life-history’s experience, and in which an individual life reaches permanent personal validity. Thus Jesus’ death is the culmination of his free self-disposal before God, and his resurrection is the permanent outcome of his life. “The resurrection of Christ is not another event after his suffering and after his death, but the appearance of what took place in Christ’s death: the performed and undergone handing over of the entire reality of the one corporal man to the mystery of the mercifully loving God through Christ’s collected freedom, which disposes over his entire life and his entire existence.” (Theological Investigations 4:128) The disciples were capable of perceiving this for the same reason that we are: we share a “transcendental hope in resurrection,” a need for our personal histories to have some permanent meaning and validity.

How is the death/resurrection of Christ salvific? Rahner concedes that according to the New Testament it must somehow cause (and not merely manifest) our salvation, but rejects the sacrificial schema employed at that time as no longer helpful or explanatory. Instead he suggests two other kinds of causality: 1. symbolic (also called “quasi-sacramental”), by which Jesus’ death is that part of the single human history which fully realizes God’s saving will and perfectly responds to it, and 2. final causality, since this perfect union is the end and goal for which humanity was completed. These models help explain Jesus’ death and resurrection as the cause of our salvation, but the result (and never the cause) of God’s saving will.

“An approach to Christology through anthropology is one of Karl Rahner’s major contribution to contemporary theology.” (see the Hentz essay in A World of Grace, p. 110) This is the transcendental Christology (or essential, or ascending Christology) in which Rahner seeks to connect Christology to the structure of human reality as we understand it today. Rahner develops “an a priori doctrine of the God-Man,” but he does not pretend “that such an a priori doctrine could be developed temporally and historically prior to the actual encounter with the God-Man. We always reflect upon the conditions of possibility for a reality which we have already encountered.” (FC 177) Rahner works out his “ascending christology” in three steps, according to which (1) all of creation moves toward fulfillment in human spirit, and (2) human spirit moves toward fulfillment in fellowship with God, which is (3) realized in Christ. In a little more detail: (1) Matter is involved in an evolutionary history of active self-transcendence into a higher reality; this reality is nature becoming conscious of itself in human spirit. This paradoxical active self-transcendence is made possible by God’s creative and co-operative presence as the ground of creation. (2) Human nature, as we have seen in the theology of grace, comes into being as the grammar of God’s self-expression. The highest goal of human life is the transcendence into God’s own life which is offered in grace. (3) But this offer of grace must be freely accepted by a historical subject within the common history of the human race. Jesus perfectly executes and embodies this acceptance; he is the absolute savior because in him union with God is irrevocable and unsurpassable. This is the hypostatic union: Jesus is truly human because he is “truly a part of the earth, truly a moment in this world’s biological process of becoming, a moment in man’s natural history.” (FC 195) The full presence of God in him is the full acceptance of God’s self-communication and immediacy.

Rahner achieves a high degree of integration among the four main events that constitute a Christology (incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection), but it seems clear that he gives priority the incarnation. He understands it, however, as the assumption of a life-history (and not of a static “nature”), so it includes the life and ministry which led to and reached fulfillment in the death, which in turn is not separate from the resurrection.

Soteriology And The Spirit

These two categories can be combined under the general heading of the experience of grace. Salvation takes place where grace is experienced in everyday life, and this is also the experience of the Holy Spirit. Rahner described the theme of his Foundations of Christian Faith in these words: “I really only want to tell the reader something very simple. Human persons in every age, always and everywhere, whether they realize it and reflect on it or not, are in relationship with the unutterable mystery of human life that we call God.” (Rahner in Dialogue p. 147) The experience of the Spirit is not to be sought primarily in extreme and explicit mystical or charismatic experiences (“the divine fire produces an awful lot of human smoke,” he remarked), but in everyday life, in the fundamental experience each of us has of ourselves. We do not experience the Spirit by staking out claims to great experiences as our possession or property, but only by forgetting ourselves. Rahner describes the universal range of possible experiences of the Spirit in everyday human experience: doing our duty, being kind to neighbors, laying down defensiveness, holding out hope in the face of loneliness, dying graciously, and so on. In summary, “experience of the Spirit occurs constantly in the life of anyone who is alive to personal self-posession and to the actions of freedom, and truly in control of his or her entire self.” (235) It goes without saying that this experience can be anonymous and outside of the church. The theme of “anonymous Christianity” is pervasive in Rahner, and not a side issue. What you think of this topic is bound up with your assessment of his whole system.


The church is the historical and social presence of God’s self-communication to the world in Christ. It is constituted as a unity between what it is (a society) and what it does (proclaiming the word, confessing the faith, and worshiping). God is present in self-communication in the church as truth and as love; in the Logos and in the Spirit. While Jesus Christ is the primordial sacrament, as God’s fundamental and original real symbol, the church is the primal sacrament as the presence of God’s self-communication. The seven sacraments are partial realizations of the church itself. “The church is the efficacious manifest sign of the presence of God, its real symbol, containing what it signifies; by grasping the sign human beings experience what it signifies.”

By some accounts, almost half of Rahner’s writings are ecclesiological. This is due to the fact that he wrote over a period of several decades in which many changes took place in society and the church. Rahner was acutely aware of the “end of Christendom” and envisioned the future form of the Church as resembling a little flock instead of an empire. He spoke of a diaspora church of voluntary association and a declericalized church of service. He also recognized the shifting of the center of gravity away from Europe and into Asia, Africa and Latin America, describing Vatican II as “the first act in a history in which the world-Church first began to exist as such.” Rahner called on the magisterium to recognize the necessary pluralism in contemporary theology and to exercise more of a listening and discerning role.


Rahner’s eschatology is situated between two extremes. The first extreme he calls “apocalyptic,” by which he means not the literary genre but the fundamentalist way of taking eschatological images literally as divinely-ordained forecasts descriptive of future events. The other extreme, however, is the thoroughly existential interpretation of eschatology typified by Bultmann and prevalent in much mid-century theology. This over-reaching demythologization reduces eschatology to statements about the present situation of individuals; what is missing (as liberation theology has protested) is any real future-reference. Rahner asserts that eschatology really has to do with an outstanding future which is yet to come. That future is hidden and mysterious to us, but because humans are essentially historical, we live toward the future so decisively that it is an inner moment of our actual being in the present. Thus the future is something known and present, but in a hidden way, and eschatology is real knowledge of the possible fulfillment of our present. “Eschatology transposes Christian anthropology and Christology into the terms of their fulfillment.” (Thompson in World of Grace p. 158) It is a kind of forward-looking draft of the fulfillment promised in God’s self-communication.

Rahner also has an unusually well-developed theology of death. And here’s something eschatological that I don’t quite follow, but it sounds important and quintessentially Rahnerian: “The immanent consummation of human history is the transcendent consummation, and vice versa.” (Theological Investigations 10:279)

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