Rahner’s Biblical Notion of Anonymous Christianity During Holy Week

Rahner’s Biblical Notion of Anonymous Christianity During Holy Week March 31, 2015
Rahner suggests how Revelation embraces us all. (Diego Velazquez, Christ Crucified, 1492; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100).
Rahner suggests how Revelation embraces us all. (Diego Velazquez, Christ Crucified, 1492; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100).

Holy Week is the most sacred holiday on the Christian calendar. It commemorates the final revelation of God’s nature for Christians. As such it is a holiday of public proclamation for the most numerous religion in the world. It is when all the wonderfully gruesome displays of salvation history are most visible.

So why talk about the Rahner’s anonymous Christianity now? Because it seems to be the polar opposite of Holy Week, but it isn’t. I didn’t intend to write about this but I opened the Bible (a surefire way to make trouble) the other day and read the following in the Epistle to the Romans:

rahner foundations
The magnum opus of an orthodox traditionalist at heart.

18 The wrath of God is indeed being revealed from heaven against every impiety and wickedness of those who suppress the truth by their wickedness. 19 For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, they have no excuse; 21 for although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 While claiming to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes. 24 Therefore, God handed them over to impurity through the lusts of their hearts for the mutual degradation of their bodies. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and revered and worshiped the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. 26 Therefore, God handed them over to degrading passions. Their females exchanged natural relations for unnatural, 27 and the males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another. Males did shameful things with males and thus received in their own persons the due penalty for their perversity. 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God handed them over to their undiscerning mind to do what is improper. 29 They are filled with every form of wickedness, evil, greed, and malice; full of envy, murder, rivalry, treachery, and spite. They are gossips 30 and scandalmongers and they hate God. They are insolent, haughty, boastful, ingenious in their wickedness, and rebellious toward their parents. 31 They are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Although they know the just decree of God that all who practice such things deserve death, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Therefore for Romans 1 divine judgment is immanent to human existence. That’s merely a fancy way of saying that sin is its own punishment. It is the case even when someone has not consciously accepted revelation, because “what can be known about God is evident to them” and that has been the case since “the creation of the world.”

If we keep reading and run across Romans 4, then it becomes apparent that salvation is also something that can be known before explicitly orthodox assent and making a positive covenant with God. The following words from St. Paul imply the possibility of implicitly orthodox assent:

9 Does this blessedness apply only to the circumcised, or to the uncircumcised as well? Now we assert that “faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” 10 Under what circumstances was it credited? Was he circumcised or not? He was not circumcised, but uncircumcised. 11 And he received the sign of circumcision as a seal on the righteousness received through faith while he was uncircumcised. Thus he was to be the father of all the uncircumcised who believe, so that to them [also] righteousness might be credited, 12 as well as the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised, but also follow the path of faith that our father Abraham walked while still uncircumcised.

The early Christian Fathers used this passage to credit the grace of Christ avant la lettre to those who chronologically preceded the coming of Christ.

After reading these passages I tried to track down my copy of Rahner’s Foundations of Christian Faith. Unfortunately it appears to be buried deep in my book boxes in a tent in my dear friend’s backyard (long story) about forty miles from where I am right now. Instead I found the next best thing, an excerpt from Karl Rahner in Dialogue where he gives a quick rundown by what he meant by anonymous Christians:

christian hick
Hick rejects Christian orthodoxy, therefore he rejects Rahner too. Hicks, what can you do?

Rahner: Anonymous Christianity means that a person lives in the grace of God and attains salvation outside of explicitly constituted Christianity… Let us say, a Buddhist monk… who, because he follows his conscience, attains salvation and lives in the grace of God; of him I must say that he is an anonymous Christian; if not, I would have to presuppose that there is a genuine path to salvation that really attains that goal, but that simply has nothing to do with Jesus Christ. But I cannot do that. And so, if I hold if everyone depends upon Jesus Christ for salvation, and if at the same time I hold that many live in the world who have not expressly recognized Jesus Christ, then there remains in my opinion nothing else but to take up this postulate of an anonymous Christianity.

Theologian on Earth: So do you believe that the Holy Spirit works through other religions?

Rahner: Certainly.

ToE: So missionary work is more than a dialogue than a one-way street?

Rahner: Yes. On the side that leads from the Church to the non-Christians there travels the message of the unsurpassable and normative role of Jesus and his saving meaning for all people. From the non-Christian side there travels something perhaps completely different, which can turn out to be very important for me.

Is there anything in these deeply Christological ruminations that we can’t find in Romans? It doesn’t seem so to me.

What Rahner says is biblically grounded in Romans and many other passages. So much so that liberal Protestant theologians such as John Hick in The Myth of Christian Uniqueness took exception to Rahner’s formulations, because they seemed too “imperialistic” by imputing Christianity to those who belong to other religions or no religion at all.

nongbri before religion
The concept of religion is not entirely an orthodox notion.

The problem with Hick is that he ignores how traditional orthodox believers thought of members of “other religions.” I put the last phrase in parentheses, because the notion of discrete religions is a recent liberal theological invention that was invented within the last several hundred years.

In Before Religion Brent Nongbri describes how traditional Christian societies reacted to cultures that did not share their orthodox beliefs:

As these Christians began to encounter groups of people whom modern scholars would designate as members of other religions (such as Manichaeans, Muslims, and Buddhists), they developed ways of interpreting “other” peoples, none of which involved the category of religion. In some cases, these “orthodox” Christians incorporated people they regarded as somehow alien into biblical frameworks in which all others (that is, both different kinds of Christians and what most modern people would call non-Christians) were deviant Christians or heretics. In this light, I examine the phenomena that modern scholars have come to call “the religion of Manichaeism” and “early Islam,” descriptors not often used by premodern “orthodox” Christians, who by and large regarded followers of Mani and Muhammad as Christian heretics.

There we go! Now Rahner sounds like a traditionalist that he really was deep down. He only took these historical and the biblical insights then ran them through a much more charitable (read: Christian) hermeneutic.

A book on our senses transformed.
A book on our senses transformed.

In the end, the events of Holy Week help us to look at “non-believers” in the light of Christ, or according to what John Panteleimon Manoussakis calls, in his stunningly sensuous book God After Metaphysics, “the fourth reduction,” the reduction of hope, of seeing the world eschatologically, that is, fully, as it shall be in Christ:

But in order to see it [the other person in Christ], we have to hold each person up, so to speak, to the light that shines from a future unknown and unseen, refusing thus to decide about the definite being and the definition of the person on the grounds of who he or she is or has been. The truth of the other person does not lie in his or her past or present but in the eschaton.


That’s what I call Easter eyes. Rahner had them.

I know this video is horribly tacky, but that’s never stopped me before:

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