A critical analysis of Karl Rahner's Christology
Written on Thursday 20 November 2003 for University of Cambridge, BA Theology Part IIA
© Ben Green 2003
A critical analysis of Karl Rahner's Christology
Like Schleiermacher, and unlike Barth, Rahner's Christology begins with anthropology. For this reason perhaps his treatment of mankind rings a little truer than Barth's (for example). However the danger with this approach is that it tends toward Ebionite heresy.1 Rahner very carefully attempts to safeguard against this, whilst at the same time trying to right the imbalance he sees in Christology which has not done justice to the humanity of Jesus. One of the most important ways he attempts this safeguard is in his use of tradition. He seeks to understand and explain in modern terms the tradition he has inherited, showing that it stands up to modern approaches.
Rahner describes his Christology as transcendental anthropology, and his anthropology as deficient Christology.2 Following his essay On the Theology of the Incarnation I will look first at what it might mean to be man and then at what it might mean for God to become man.
How do we know what human nature is? This is one of the fundamental questions of theology.3 For Rahner, we can work it out from a massive experiment, from all the lives of all the billions of people who have ever lived. We experience this nature every day, so should therefore be able to say what it is.4
First, human nature is transcendent. This means that our 'spirits' (to use Rahner's term) are on a never-ending quest for answers. But because man is essentially a mystery, whenever we answer a question about ourselves and reach that horizon, another horizon has opened up before us. Each quest, each answer, leads to new horizons, leading Rahner to state that humans have infinite potentiality - we never reach the end of our questioning and answering. We must not place any limit on human possibility. Rahner puts this continual striving for the horizon - yet never reaching it - at the centre of his theological anthropology. He says that this striving is striving for the infinite (because we never get there), and identifies that infinite with God. We continually strive for this infinity because we hope that he will speak to us from his infinity, bringing the horizon to us.
Second, one of the possibilities of human nature is that it can be assumed by God, that God can assume it "as his reality." This assumption of human nature by God marks the fulfilment of the continual striving of human nature for God. In this relationship with God, human nature gives itself entirely to him; "the incarnation of God is therefore the unique, supreme, case of the total actualisation of human reality, which consists of the fact that man is in so far as he gives himself up." This total self-abandonment to God is called the potentia oboedientialis.5 Through the incarnation and the ultimate outworking of this potentia we see that it "is not one potentiality along with other possibilities in the constituent elements of human nature: it is objectively identical with the essence of man."6 In the incarnation God assumes human nature completely, human nature gives itself wholly to God.7
Rahner very quickly points out two things that this does not mean.6 First, it does not mean that the possibility of the hypostatic union can be understood a priori, or independently of its actual existence and revelation to us. Any "extension" or "culmination" of human possibilities (such as the incarnation) is justified, but it remains hypothetical until it can be proved. Thus the "essence of man" cannot be 'worked out', it can only be revealed, and was so in the incarnation. Second, it does not mean that the possibility for hypostatic union must be fulfilled in every human subject. Each man is endowed with "the possibility of being assumed,"8 but that does not mean that the possibility must be actualised in every one of them. Apart from the simplistic statement that by looking at the human condition we see quite clearly that the possibility is not actualised in us, Rahner gives a reason why not: it is not necessary. The fullness of human nature has been revealed to man as being in God, not in himself; he knows this because of the incarnation. He attains his "supreme fulfilment," toward which he is always moving, when he "adoringly believes" that there is a man who has given himself wholly to God and who has been accepted by God. Rahner identifies this man with "Jesus of Nazareth". In him God spoke once and for all.9 Of all men he is closest to God, of all men he alone knows that only the Father "knows his [Jesus'] mystery" - we think that only we can understand ourselves - and so he alone knows the Father.10
This last statement could be misinterpreted as advocating a Christology of consciousness (that Jesus differs from us in dignity rather than in kind - only he knew the Father perfectly, and his divinity is in that perfect knowledge). Rahner recognises this and so states the reason why he said it; his Christology of consciousness is not set over against an ontological Christology of two natures.11 Rather it complements the other by setting right the general trend in Christology (as he sees it) to under-emphasise the humanity of Jesus Christ. Often in Christology, according to Rahner, although the theologian states the concern to do justice to both natures, the divinity is over-emphasised. This leads, or can lead, to the false conclusion that the divine Logos wrapped himself in "the disguise of a human nature". No, says Rahner, the Logos was made, not given the appearance of man, "Jesus is truly man."12
This moves us onto the next section: what does it mean to say that God became man? Can God really become anything? Surely becoming implies change? Christian theology, quite rightly for Rahner, proclaims God as unchangeable, immutable, the one who is from eternity the same. In this is mankind's security - man knows that God is faithful and will fulfil his promises to him. "It is only because of [God's] infinite fullness that the processes of spirit and nature can be more than the pointless self-awareness of absolute emptiness that collapses into its own void."13 This 'aspect' of God is a dogma of faith for Rahner - one of the absolute fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith. "Nonetheless, it remains true: the Word became flesh."13 Rahner approaches this issue in three ways.
The first way that Rahner discusses this paradox is through a dismissal of traditional Christian attempts to 'deal with' it. Traditionally (according to Rahner), all the change in the God-man has been predicated of the human nature, not the Logos. There is a gulf placed between the eternal unchanging God and the finite mutable world. Rahner insists that this approach simply will not work, as it does not do justice to the process, the history which the Logos underwent. So he arrives at the statement, "If we face squarely the fact of the incarnation, which our faith testifies to be the fundamental dogma of Christianity, we must simply say: God can become something, he who is unchangeable in himself can himself become subject to change in something else."14 Essentially he appeals to the mystery of God, saying that we cannot really understand it - all we can do is to resort to dialectical theology, to state the opposites as both necessary dogmata.
The second way around this paradox is to posit becoming as 'part' of the divine nature, and human nature as created to complement this 'aspect' of God. Slipping into Trinitarian language, economically the Father is eternally unbegotten and eternally begets the Son, and the Spirit eternally proceeds forth from one or both of them. The Father expresses himself to himself fully and completely in the Son, the eternal Logos.15 This economic self-expression of God translates into and is continued by the immanent self-communication of God to his creatures - the former is the precondition of the latter, which is the outworking of the former in Creation. Man is created in such a way that God is able to communicate himself to Creation concretely, ultimately and completely. "If God wills to become non-God, man comes to be, that and nothing else, we might say."16 Man exists "because the Son of Man was to exist." Because our being is therefore grounded in God's specific action in the incarnation, which is a mystery, our being is also a mystery, "man is for ever the articulate mystery of God," and, "this finite being is the finitude of the infinite Word of God himself."17 Rahner is talking generally here, not simply about Jesus. So whereas we are not the ultimate divine self-expression, Jesus was and is that expression - thus the Word made man was continuation and outworking in Creation of the inner life of the Trinity. The Logos does not become something other than himself as such, he does not 'change' when he is made man, and he does not do anything other ad extram than that which he does eternally.18
The third way that Rahner looks at this paradox is through God's freedom to involve himself in history. This way is linked to the second, emphasising this as one of God's "free possibilities," indeed as the primary one among them. Secondary to this (yet the one which is usually emphasised) is the possibility for God to remain aloof from Creation, not involving himself in it. So again the incarnation does not imply change as such, but merely the outworking of God's nature and being in the world.
So now we have looked at what it means for Rahner to be man, and what it might mean for God to become. With Rahner it is necessary always to remember that he doesn't believe we can ever come to a final answer, because each answer we find brings new horizons and new questions to answer. This means that his writings could be seen essentially as questions and discussions rather than answers as such. In other words, he does not see his writings as answering all questions, or even as attempting to do so. His work is merely the continuation of that which was started at Chalcedon (with respect to Christology).
The goal of God's actions in the world is his complete self-communication to the entire cosmos.19 Although this is actualised in the incarnation, in Jesus the Saviour, who is the ultimate example of it, it is not limited to him. God's self-communication is to the human race, and through them as well, not simply through Jesus. The freedom and self-consciousness of the "cosmic subjectivities," as Rahner calls them, are part of this communication. "Every self-manifestation of God takes place through some finite reality."20 However each of these manifestations can be superseded simply by God creating a new one. If the manifestation is to be ultimate and for the whole of humanity, if it is to be "really the final and unsurpassable divine self-communication, then it must be said that it is not only posited by God but is God himself."20 So although God communicates himself partly through the world, the fullest divine self-communication is in the man Jesus.
For Rahner, this ultimate divine self-communication happened in our history, as I have said. It is God's primary free possibility to be able to involve himself in our history. So God's revelation to us is tied to an event in history - but is not limited to that event. For God's self-communication to the world does not begin with nor is it confined to the man Jesus, but "it is absolutely legitimate, and indeed necessary, to think of the whole movement of God's communication of himself to the human race... as something based on this event."21 The implications of this lead us back to the hypostatic union - God is not merely acting on the world but is an intrinsic part of it "in its very climax."22 Jesus is truly man, the divine Logos becomes material, but he brought this materiality into being in such a way that it "expresses him, the Logos himself, and lets him be present in the world."22 So God's self-communication to the world very clearly involves human nature fundamentally in it, God creating it so he could use it to communicate himself to us and to the world. Thus this ultimate divine self-communication is, and indeed must be, "a concrete, tangible phenomenon in history."23 God actually and really assumes human nature in order to communicate himself to those who share in that nature. Thus the hypostatic union is the central event, the beginning and climax of God's actual self-communication to us in our own history.
Concerns about Rahner's method are sometimes expressed. His use of philosophy and metaphysics is troublesome for some, who are extremely wary of the danger of reaching the 'wrong' conclusion using such tools. Barth especially was very aware that although some 'non-Biblical' approaches sometimes reach God appropriately, the risk that they won't and the danger of that far outweighs their usefulness. The danger comes from the fact that when one approaches Christian theology with a conceptual framework or idea, such as the 'supernatural existential' that Rahner uses,24 Christian theology is often made to fit into that framework or around that idea. Barth and many other theologians have been deeply concerned that this kind of approach would betray the core truths of the Christian faith, as they see them.
A similar concern applies to Rahner's use of anthropology. I think that the most worrying statement for Barth in this regard would be, "[human nature] is so well known that we can recognize its basic constituents and distinguish its essential contents from accidental modifications on the one hand and from ultimate self-hood on the other. We can then give the name of 'nature' to the ultimate constituent and content and say that that is 'what' it is."25 Barth strongly disagreed with this, saying that the 'phenomena of the human' never lead us to a true picture of humanity, they are the symptoms rather than the cause. For Barth, the true picture of human nature is rather to be found in Jesus.
Another slight criticism is that Rahner almost too easily and too quickly translates the economic Trinity into the immanent, and vice versa. He uses the inter-personal relationships within the Trinity to help explain the incarnation as the outworking of an internal 'aspect' of God. Von Balthasar especially was concerned about the ease with which Rahner equates the economic with the immanent, because it fails to do justice to the infinity and essential unknowability of God. It can also relegate the Father and Holy Spirit into 'supporting roles' in the Christ-centred history of salvation. However it is somewhat unjustified I think to say that Rahner endangers the mystery of God, as that is one of his central ideas and he bears it out well. I think that von Balthasar over-expresses his case somewhat, but the concern is still there in some form.
The most serious criticism with Rahner's conclusions (that is, apart from methodological concerns) comes from his attempt to make more of the humanity of Jesus, whilst at the same time preserving the immutability and divinity of God. In Barth there is an almost infinite gap between 'humanity' in its sinfulness and God in his holiness. Rahner certainly has a much higher view of humanity, "man is forbidden to belittle himself, because to do so would be to belittle God."26 I would argue that there is a real danger in Rahner's theology that in raising man up he reduces the distinction between Jesus and the rest of humanity, and actually therefore fails to do justice to Christ's humanity. The danger is in saying that the Logos could not come so low as to be like us, unless we ourselves are like him in the first place. The humiliation of Christ in Rahner's thought is not as great a humiliation as perhaps is called for in Philippians 2.27
Overall, Rahner is quite clearly standing in the Roman Catholic tradition and so seeks to do justice to ecumenical councils,28 whilst at the same time recognising that their statements are a beginning and not an end.29 He tries to use modern concepts to show how these traditional statements hold up and work within a modern framework. He is especially concerned with emphasising the true humanity of Jesus, feeling that in the past not enough has been made of it by theologians, beyond the nominal statement that Jesus was and is fully human. And yet he loses nothing of the "cosmic" importance and "eternal" relevance of this divine self-communication event in human history.
1 And conversely the danger for Barth's style of Christology is that it tends toward docetism.
2 Macquarrie, 305-306.
3 Who is God? - Who are we? - How do we relate to God?
4 Whilst being aware that human nature is ultimately a mystery. - Rahner, 146.
5 This argument - Rahner, 146.
6 Rahner, 147.
7 One could say that because man finds his true meaning in giving all he has to God, his highest potential is the potential to give up all other potentialities to God, to recognise that meaning cannot be found in any of them, only in God.
8 Because this potentiality is the central part of human nature - Rahner, 151.
9 I will come to Rahner's discussion of divine self-communication later in the essay.
10 Rahner, 147-148.
11 Rahner, 148.
12 Rahner, 169.
13 Rahner, 149.
14 Rahner, 149-150. In his footnote which comes after this sentence, Rahner clarifies some points which I will do here. Although it sounds a lot like that which Rahner is trying to avoid, saying that the Logos changes in something else, he says that it must not be taken in that way. It "must neither be taken as denying the immutability of God in himself nor simply be reduced to a changement of the other." He says that one dogma must not be used solely to determine the nature of another, using the Trinity as an example. He says that the doctrine of the Trinity, while not disagreeing with the dogma of God's unity, cannot be determined by that dogma. In the same way, the doctrine of the Incarnation, while not disagreeing with the dogma of God's immutability, cannot be determined by that dogma. What this really means is that the mysteries of man and God are too great at this point for our understanding.
15 Rahner, 151.
16 Rahner, 152.
17 Rahner, 152.
18 In doing this, Rahner moves the focus away from the dichotomy of immutability and change towards the direct correlation between the economic and immanent Trinities, as he sees it. In doing this, I am not sure that he actually achieves his goal of correcting previous Christology. Rather he brings man closer to God so the Logos 'changes less' when he is made man. I will discuss this in greater detail later in the essay.
19 Rahner, 167.
20 Rahner, 171.
21 Rahner, 168.
22 Rahner, 169.
23 Rahner, 170.
24 Although I haven't used this phrase yet, I have talked about the transcendental nature of man, always searching and never reaching the answer. Essentially this is the 'supernatural existential'.
25 Rahner, 146.
26 Rahner, 152.
27 Although I do recognise that Rahner is not a Protestant theologian and so has different concerns, the word 'humiliation' here simply refers to all attempts to describe the undeniable humbling of the Logos in making himself man.
28 Especially Chalcedon in his Christology.
29 Macquarrie, 306.
Set text: A Rahner Reader, pp 145-159, 166-172
Macquarrie, John. Jesus Christ in Modern Thought. London: SCM Press, 1990.
Rahner, Karl. Foundations of Christian Faith (tr. William V Dych). New York: Crossroad, 1993.