Philip Trower Home Page

Back to Contents Page

Chapter Twenty-One


That a man who reflected on the teachings of the Church for a good fifty years and poured out books and articles about them will almost certainly say a lot of things that are useful and true can be taken for granted. We can also assume that up to a certain point in his life, Rahner believed all the Church's teachings as the Church has always understood them. Men fall into errors by degrees. This explains the great, though by now perhaps diminishing number of Rahner's Catholic admirers. There is always something refreshing about hearing the same truths expressed in new words or from a new angle. It is like reading the Gospels in a different language.

But as we have just seen, by the mid-1960s, one-time admirers were beginning to realise that something was going seriously wrong. It was not a question of the odd error here or there but of a transformation of the underlying substance of his thought from Catholic to something less than Catholic, and it is the more or less final state of that substance that I shall try to outline as it had come to be when he published his Grundkurs des Glaubens in 1976 (Foundations of Christian Faith (FCF), New York, Crossroad, 1982, translator William V. Dych). Von Balthasar and Ratzinger both note symptoms of the transformation on the devotional level: the first mentions Rahner's waning interest in the Sacred Heart, the second his cooling feelings for Our Lady.

Before the publication of Foundations, most of his strictly theological writings had appeared in the form of articles on particular subjects in periodicals. These were gradually collected and published in the multi-volume series, translated into English under the title Theological Investigations. Others could be found in dictionaries and encyclopaedias. All this made it difficult to see what he was saying, as it were, "in the round." His famously contorted style was another obstacle to comprehension. All this however changed with the appearance of Foundations, which Ratzinger calls a "comprehensive Summa." But it is a summa in one volume of under five-hundred pages. It is not exactly a pleasure to read. Nevertheless anyone with a reasonably good education, a measure of determination and a rudimentary knowledge of Kantian epistemology should be able to get the gist of it.

Since then comprehension has been made easier still by Fr Dych's book. This illuminating survey of his teacher's career and theology had Rahner's personal approval, and the author's candour and clarity of style give it additional value. With these two books, it becomes possible for non-­experts to understand the basics of Rahner's later theology.215

One should also be aware at the outset that Rahner was essentially a theologian with a mission, which is not quite the same as a vocation. Every theologian has a vocation to meditate on and expound the Catholic faith, and we can be certain that that is what Fr Rahner too saw himself called on to do. But early on he formed two specific further aims.

The first was "the need to dispel the notion that Catholic theology was a monolith in which everything of importance was settled" (Dych p. 10). This was a viewpoint shared by the majority of the conciliar reformers. Indeed, the Council itself opened up a number of theological questions for debate without settling them. The difference in Rahner's case was that he came to regard almost everything as "unsettled," which, as we shall see, included the doctrine of the Trinity.216

His second objective seems to have taken shape while he was involved in pastoral work in Vienna. Closer acquaintance with pastoral problems had led him to the conclusion we are already familiar with. Faith and practice were in decline because the way the faith was presented was too remote from people's experience. Catholic belief in its entirety must therefore be reformulated in terms corresponding with that experience. Even if this were true, the odd thing was thinking that using the terminology and concepts of modern German philosophy — the most remote of all philosophies from a common-sense view of the world could remedy the situation. 217

The undertaking has been compared to St Thomas Aquinas' use of Aristotle. But there is a notable difference. The primary sources for St Thomas' theology were Holy Scripture and the Fathers, whom the saint quotes in abundance, and after that Aristotle, Plato and pseudo-Dionysius whom he uses to bring out the concord between reason and revelation.

Philosophy, for St Thomas, was truly the handmaid of theology. Rahner, in contrast, makes theology the handmaid of philosophy. A distinguished German scholar has spoken of Rahner's "diffidence" towards Holy Scripture, and this is easily confirmed by looking at his books. They contain startlingly few references to Holy Scripture, the Fathers or any other ecclesiastical sources either in the, text or footnotes.

Kant, then, will provide the "new St Thomas" with his theory of knowledge, Heidegger with his philosophy of man, Hegel with his cosmology or general world-view. Together they will, as it were, permeate his theology from below until they have transformed it into a religious philosophy largely independent of divine revelation.

The extent of the transformation can be judged by his statement that "a 'demystificatory theology,' rightly understood, will need to be aware that propositions like 'There are three persons in God,' 'God sent his Son into the world,' 'We are saved by the blood of Jesus Christ' are purely and simply incomprehensible for a modern man if they remain, in the old fashion of theology and of statement, the point of departure and arrival of the Christian message. They generate the same impression as pure mythology in a religion of the past." ("Fundamental Theological Directions" in Summary of Twentieth Century Theology, Herder, 1970, III, p. 539, quoted in "Rahner the Untouchable," 30 Days, no. 4, 1993). "Modern man feels that thousands of statements in theology are just forms of mythology." He can no more take seriously the words "Jesus is God made man" than the fact that "the Dalai Lama regards himself as the reincarnation of Buddha."

Lesser but still significant influences were Teilhard and radical biblical scholarship. Who in the world of high theology of his generation and outlook could escape them?

Although Fr Teilhard had no time for existentialism it was too gloomy from Teilhard, Rahner learned to look at the universe as a process in which each level of being gives rise to the one above through a process of "self-transcendence." It is as though the universe were pulling itself up by its bootstraps. All beings are endowed with this fundamental urge. "If becoming is really to be taken seriously, it must be understood as real self-transcendence (his emphasis), as surpassing oneself, as emptiness actively achieving its own fullness..." "It is of the intrinsic nature of matter to develop towards spirit" (Foundations of Christian Faith, p. 184).

As for biblical scholarship, while not having much personal interest in it, he seems to have taken its more radical conclusions for granted. "The accounts from which we can acquire knowledge about Jesus of Nazareth, if we can acquire it at all, are ... one and all faith assertions" (FCF, p. 244). From "an historical point of view a great deal has to be left open in an inquiry about the pre-resurrection Jesus" (FCF, p. 248). Our "historical knowledge of Jcsus, of his self-interpretation and of the justification he gives for it is burdened with many problems, uncertainties and ambiguities" (FCF, p. 235). "Jesus saw himself not merely as one among many prophets ... but ... as the absolute and definitive saviour, although ... what a definitive saviour means and does not mean requires further reflection" (FCF, p. 246).

However, German philosophy remained the dominant influence, and to understand how it changed Rahner's understanding of central Catholic doctrines we must start with a look at his theory of knowledge. With idealists, this is always where the troubles begin.

For a follower of Kant, it will be remembered, there are three kinds of knowledge: categorical knowledge, transcendental knowledge, and the dictates of "practical reason" which give us our ideas of right and wrong. Here we are only concerned with the first two categorical knowledge which comes to us via the senses from outside, and transcendental which is somehow or other generated within.. For acquiring knowledge of God,  Rahner sees categorical knowledge as decidedly inferior to transcendental knowledge. Categorical knowledge which includes divine revelation and the doctrines of the Church because it comes from outside, can never tell us how things really are "in themselves." Categorical statements therefore can only be approximations to the truth, ever open to revision. Interiorly, on the other hand, we are the direct objects of God's "self-communication." We have a contact with Him or "pre-grasp" (Vorgriff) that, no matter how vague (or unthematic), is much more genuine. "When, says Rahner,"we assume for the miracles and mighty deeds of Jesus and for his resurrection the function of grounding the faith, this is not to maintain that such knowledge induces and justifies faith from outside as it were" (FCF, p. 239). Faith corresponds with "our supernatural ... experience of God's absolute self-communication." This is why doctrinal formulations always have to be brought into line with inner experience. It also explains Rahner's growing agnosticism (not about God's existence but about the possibility of knowing almost anything about Him) and, I think, what Fr McCool of the Rahner Reader has in mind, when he speaks of "the dialectic between the mind's categorical knowledge of sensible reality and its conscious, though unobjective grasp of God as the term of its dynamism" being "crucial for Rahner's dogmatic theology" (Rahner Reader, pp. xxv-mcvi). This could be translated as "the dialectic between what the Church has said its doctrines mean and what Rahner's 'unobjective grasp' of God has told him they mean. This is what is crucial for Rahner's dogmatic theology." 218

We are now ready to look at the way the dialogue between transcendental knowledge and categorical knowledge in Rahner's theology, along with the philosophies of Hegel and Heidegger, altered Rahner's understanding of the Incarnation and the Trinity.

Who and what is Christ? The Church has always said "God and Man," and when asked how He could be both, has replied, through the Council of Chalcedon: by taking a human nature without losing His divine nature. He is a single divine person with two natures, a divine one and a human one. But this idea Rahner simply will not have.

Already at the beginning of the Council he was writing from Rome to his friend Fr Vorgrimler: "When I sit around a table with Daniélou, Ratzinger, Schillebeeckx and so on, I realise that I have not yet grown old. In my view they are still not aware of how little water Christology approached from the top down will hold today. It begins by declaring simply that God was made man" (Note, 30 Days, October 1992, p. 50).

Subsequently he carries on a persistent polemic against the idea that Christ was a "pre-existent divine being." Chalcedon's "descendency Christology" Christ descending to earth and assuming a human nature without ceasing to be God smacks, he repeatedly tells us, of mythology. It leaves the impression that Christ's human nature was just a disguise the Divinity put on during a visit to earth like a Greek god. It suggests that God did not become a real man. Such an idea is incomprehensible to modern man, or if he can understand it, he won't buy it. Chalcedon's out-dated descendency Christology must therefore be replaced by a properly worked out "ascendency Christology" that modern people can understand.

How then does "ascendency theology" differ from "descendency theology"? It could, of course, mean that Christ was a good man who gradually became more and more "god-like," or that at some point God came to dwell in him, or adopted him as a son (the old adoptionist heresy). But it wasn't in Rahner's character to peddle such a tired idea, even if he had not had other reasons for thinking differently. 219

To understand Rahner's "ascendency Christology" we have first to look at his doctrine of the Trinity, which, if left to ourselves, we might find hard to understand, but to which we have happily been given a key. The key was provided by Msgr Theobald Beer, a German scholar, in a series of articles and interviews about Rahner, appearing in the international monthly 30 Days in late 1992 and early 1993. Von Balthasar has called Beer "the greatest living Luther expert." The interview was conducted at the Gustav Siewerth Akademie in Germany, and the founder and director, Prof. Alma von Stockhausen, a Hegel authority, also took part in it.

Basically, the Monsignor claimed, Rahner does not believe in the Trinity as the Church understands it. He has replaced the God of Christianity with a God resembling Hegel's Absolute Mind of which the universe and humanity are thought-projections.

The article produced a chorus of infuriated protests from Rahner enthusiasts throughout Germany. A professor Neufeld of the Rahner archive in Innsbruck claimed that Rahner never revealed "any kind of debt" to Hegel. In reply the author of the interview, Guido Horst, quoted Hans Küng on a matter like this surely an authority. "The great mind?' writes Küng, "behind this closely considered deepening of classical Christology is, while allowing for the influence of Heidegger, none other than Hegel" (The Incarnation of God, Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 1987, p. 539). Frs Dych and McCool, both dedicated Rahnerians, likewise take Rahner's debt to Hegel for granted. But perhaps the most convincing evidence for the truth of Msgr Beer's contention is not this or that authority but the flood of light it throws on the whole drift of Rahner's later thought.

If Msgr Beer is right, for Rahner, the Son and the Holy Spirit are not persons in the Church's sense. They did not exist with the Father from all eternity. They are functions of God, or "modes of subsistence" which only come into operation as He begins to create or "objectify" Himself. Rahner, says Msgr Beer, "does not accept as having a biblical foundation the personhood, distinct from the Father, of the Son and the Holy Spirit ..." He "seeks a God for Whom the history of the created world is only one moment in the history of God himself" (30 Days, no. 10, 1992).

Rahner confirms this. "One ... must take every care" he writes, "to keep everything that might suggest 'three subjectivities' away from the concept of person. Hence, even within the Trinity there is no reciprocal  'Thou.' The Son is the self-expression of the Father, which, yet again cannot be conceived of as 'speaking'; the Spirit is the gift which yet again does not 'endow: " (Mysterium Salutis II, p. 462, quoted Horst, 30 Days, no. 4, 1993.) Thus, to quote Beer again, in Rahner's theology there is "no inter-Trinitarian love, no true Thou for the Father to give his heart to." Indeed, Rahner contemptuously dismisses attempts to understand the inner life of the Trinity. Of "the imposing speculations in which, since the time of Augustine, Christian theology has tried to conceive the inner life of God ... perhaps we can say that ultimately they are not all that helpful" (FCF, p.135). Like Luther, Rahner is only interested in God in so far as he does things "for us." Besides, prior to the creation, there was in effect no Trinity to have an inner life to speculate about.

However Rahner's God is not as loveless as Hegel's. Hegel's Absolute Mind "objectifies" or becomes "other" than itself in order to understand itself. In its objectification it discovers what it is. Rahner's God wants to communicate Himself to "the other" in order to awaken a response of love. This is where ascendency Christology or Rahner's way of understanding the Incarnation comes into the picture. Christ is the climax of God's efforts to produce a creature capable of responding adequately to his self-communication when he sets the evolutionary process going. "When God wants to be what is not God, man comes to be." 220 One is tempted to add: and lots of other things too. Dinosaurs, coelacanths, giraffes. And why omit angels?

But evolution is a slow business. Even when man at last appeared, his response to the divine self-communication remained minimal for hundreds of thousands of years. Eventually, however, the long process of cosmic self-transcendence reached a climax. The initial breakthrough, presumably, had been the first fully hominised anthropoid. Man represents "the basic tendency of matter to discover itself in spirit through self-transcendence." The end of the process will be man's "full self-transcendence into God by means of God's self communication," and it is this final stage of the upward journey that begins with the birth of Christ. In Christ, evolution produces the first man whose "Yes" to God was total, and in reply God said "Yes" to mankind as a whole.

The "absolute guarantee that this ultimate self-transcendence ... will succeed and has already begun is what we call the 'hypostatic union.' The God man is the initial beginning and the definitive triumph of the  movement of the world's self-transcendence into absolute closeness to the mystery of God. In the first instance this hypostatic union may not be seen so much as something which distinguishes Jesus from us but as something which must occur once and only once when the world begins to enter on its final phase" (FCF, p. 181).

It is only in this sense that Rahner (we are talking of course about Rahner in his latter years) is willing to accept Christ as saviour and redeemer. He is as averse to the idea that the passion and death of Christ were a sacrifice for sin as he is to the idea that He was a "pre-existing divine being." There is no place in his system for a theology of the Cross. He tells us we should not take as much notice of Christ's "bitter sufferings" as of his death. He carries on a "constant polemic against a legalistic doctrine of satisfaction." He makes no attempt to explain the New Testament statement that Christ bore our sins on the Cross. He attributes our redemption to God's saving will rather than to anything Christ did for us. 221

"For Rahner," Msgr Beer says flatly, "Christ was just a man" (30 Days, Oct. 1992, p. 53). And taking the words in their normal sense, Msgr Beer is of course right. But you can seldom make such a forthright statement about Rahner without eventually finding you have to qualify it in some way.

For instance, in the pages of Foundations (212-228) where he deals with the Incarnation, he repeatedly asks his readers to consider what the Creed means when it says that Christ became man, with special emphasis on the word became. We must not, he tells us, "understand this fundamental dogma of Christianity in a mythological way" (FCF, p. 180). What does he mean? After enough repetitions, the penny drops. He is using the notion of kenosis, God's self-emptying, to imply that God, or the part of Him that turned into non-God, was literally transformed into a man. He or It ceased to be divine. (The Latin creed, of course, says that Christ "became incarnate" or "took flesh," which is rather different.) However, since what is non-God has all emanated from God and will eventually be absorbed back again into God, everything from Christ down to pebbles on the beach can in this sense be considered divine.

Here is how Rahner puts it After rejecting the idea that God could assume a human nature without its affecting his nature as God, he writes: "On the contrary, the basic element according to our faith, is the self-emptying (sic), the coming to be, the kenosis and the genesis of God himself,  who can come to be by becoming another thing ... without having to change his own proper reality which is unoriginated origin. By the fact that he remains in his infinite fullness while he empties himself ... the ensuing other is his own proper reality" (Theological Investigations, vol. IV., pp. 114­115, quoted by Beer, 30 Days, no. 4, 1993.) If one tried to bring consistency into these speculations, one would have to say that the Incarnation really began with the Big Bang or when God said "Let there be light," and that the millions of years preceding the historical appearance of Jesus were the time of his gestation in the womb. All this is highly ingenious. But it is hardly Christianity


215. Rahner's articles "Incarnation" and "Jesus Christ" in the theological encyclopaedia Sacramentum Mundi also Throws light on it, and the introductory passages in Fr McCool's Rahner Reader (1975) are a first-rate guide to his theology as a whole. Unfortunately, the latter predates the German original of Foundations (1976) by a year.

216. An experienced Divine Word missionary speaks of his "genius for making perfectly clear concepts as hazy as possible" and his gift for "creating problems without solving them." H. van Straelen S.V.D., The Catholic Encounter with World Religions, 1966, p. 102.The author was professor of modern philosophy and comparative religion at the University of Nagoya. Japan.

217. See Appendix II.

218. Obviously we can never know God as He is in Himself, just as we can never know other people as God knows them. But we can still say things about God and other people that are lastingly true.

219. A charitable member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith once tied to persuade me that "ascendency Christology" simply meant that we should start by concentrating on Christ's manhood because that was the order in which the apostles got to know him.. Rahner does in fact make this point. But such a simple idea on its own would hardly have required him to devote so many pages on the subject.

220. FCF, p. 225. Alternative translation: "If God wants to be non-God, man is born, that and nothing else. Von Balthasar, Cordula, Ignatius, p. 106.

221. Von Balthasar, op cit., pp. 108-9.

Copyright © Philip Trower 2006, 2011, 2018

Version:   16th February  2021

Home Page

Book Contents

Reflections on Scripture