Perhaps no other concept of the 20th century has gained more attention and created more controversy than Karl Rahner’s ‘anonymous Christian’. From its conception in the early volumes of Rahner’s magnum opus Theological Investigations, this concept has pushed forward the dialogue regarding inclusivism and the way in which Christian truth should be understood in an increasing religiously pluralistic world. Rahner fully embraced the notion that people who never have heard, or even turned against the Christian gospel, may in fact still be saved through Christ. Even though these people would not be considered cultural Christians, in reality they should be considered anonymous Christians. In the following essay, I will attempt to flesh out further the meaning of this concept by locating it within Rahner’s theological framework and the larger context in which it has been received and discussed.
Karl Rahner is first and foremost a systematic theologian. Trained in the Jesuit order within the larger framework of Catholicism, Rahner quickly developed an Ignatian sense of spirituality in which he felt drawn to “seek God in all things” (O’Donovan 7600). In addition to this, his reading of the Belgian scholar Joseph Marechal led him to engage the transcendental philosophies of Kant and the idealism of Hegel—both of which developed in him a sense of the transcendental and universal. However, it was not until Rahner moved to Innsbruck and began work on his Theological Investigations that he began to systematize his own theological positions. In the years following 1954, Rahner strove to draw out the implications of his thoughts in the form of a theological anthropology of global significance that emphasized the universal call of God into salvation of all of humanity. This background served as the theological foundation from which he formed the concept of the ‘anonymous Christian’.
Rahner develops the ‘anonymous Christian’ out of two seemingly conflicting biblical convictions, namely God’s inclusive call to salvation and the exclusive means for this salvation. 1 Tim. 2:4 describes God’s inclusivity, in that God desires for “all [people] to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (New International Version). In a commentary on this notion of inclusion, Rahner connects this text to God’s covenant peace and love for all people:
But can the Christian believe even for a moment that the overwhelming mass of his brothers not only those before the appearance of Christ right back to the most distance past (whose horizons are constantly extended by palaeontology) but also those of the present and of the future before us, are unquestionably and in principle excluded from the fulfillment of their lives and condemned to eternal meaninglessness? He must reject any suggestion, and his faith is itself in agreement with his doing so. For the scriptures tell him expressly that God wants everyone to be saved (1 Tm 2:4); the covenant of peace which God made with Noah after the flood has never been abrogated: on the contrary, the Son of God himself has sealed it with the incontestable authority of his self-sacrificing love embracing all men (Rahner 16:219).
With respect to exclusion, the Bible is also clear. In John 14:6 Jesus defines himself as “the way and the truth and the life” and follows this self-designation with the exclusionary “No one comes to the father except through me” (NIV). Christ alone is the means for salvation and it is only through him that one is saved. Herein rests the tension that Rahner faces behind his ‘anonymous Christian’: on one hand, he desires to take seriously God’s all-inclusive love, but on the other hand, as a pious Catholic theologian, he is unwilling to replace Christ as the crucial means for salvation.
Rahner was painstakingly clear about what his position was not, and by explaining this he was able to define what an ‘anonymous Christian’ is. Part of Rahner’s worry was that he would be interpreted as a religious relativist along the lines of John Hick.1 Hick emphasizes the essential similitude within all world religions, and, in likewise fashion as the metaphor of the blind men and the elephant, he describes the process by which religions discern truth merely as the ascent up the same mountain along different paths. In this respect, all faiths—whether Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism—are essentially the same and therefore may have no claim to exclusivity. To this form of relativism, Rahner reserves sharp criticism:
An intrinsic element in his Christian and Catholic beliefs is the conviction of faith that now at any rate Christianity is the unique and absolute religion founded by God through Christ and prescribed by him for all men; that is the way of salvation which God, of his salvific will, has created for all and made radically binding for all to follow. We cannot adopt that attitude of religious relativism which regards all religions as on the whole equally justifiable, and the confusion and disorder among them as relatively unimportant (Rahner 10:31).
With this criticism leveled against relativism and the emphasis that “it is only in Jesus Christ that…salvation is conferred, and through Christianity and the on Church that it [is] mediated to all men” (Rahner 10:31) Rahner has cleared the ground in which he can offer a positive definition of what he means more precisely by the term ‘anonymous Christian’:
We prefer the terminology according to which that man is called an ‘anonymous Christian’ who on the one hand has de facto accepted of his freedom this gracious self-offering on God’s part through faith, hope, and love, while on the other he is absolutely not yet a Christian at the social level (through baptism and membership of the church) or in the sense of having consciously objectified his Christianity to himself in his own mind (by explicit Christian faith resulting from having hearkened to the explicit Christian message) We might therefore but it as follows: the ‘anonymous Christian’ in our sense of the term is the pagan after the beginning of the Christian mission, who lives in the state of Christ’s grace through faith, hope and love, yet who has no explicit knowledge of the fact that his life is orientated in grace-given salvation to Jesus Christ.
In this characterization, Rahner points to the ultimate transcendence of the truth of God and makes a clear distinction between cultural Christianity and this truth. Salvation may come direct to each individual regardless of his or her cultural context, such that this individual may fully reject the cultural form of faith, while remaining faithful to his or her own existential relation to the revealed truth he or she experiences.
Naturally, Rahner places great emphasis on intentions. As he noted above, salvation is open to those individuals who are living in the state of Christ’s grace through faith hope and love, but it is essential that they are living properly and intend correctly. The Vatican, in its document “Lumen Gentium” from the second Vatican council implicitly affirms Rahner’s doctrine in the admission that “Those also can attain to everlasting salvation who, through no fault of their own, do not know the gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience” (Vatican II, quoted by Rahner 14:290).
Such an emphasis on intentions is not foreign to the Christian world, but has found historical expression both in Johannes Climacus’ discussion of the necessity of subjectivity in faith2 as well as C. S. Lewis’ description of Emeth’s ‘proper’ worship of the false god Tash3: for Climacus, faith entails first and foremost a proper relation to truth regardless of its context, and for Lewis right-intended worship done in purity to a false god may be interpreted as pure worship of the true god. Nevertheless, Rahner and the Catholic Church have pushed the idea of intentions further than the subjectivity of Climacus or Lewis and have placed even more focus on good works and the individual’s responsibility:
[Man] already accepts [the] revelation [of God] whenever he really accepts himself completely, for it already speaks in him. Prior to the explicitness of official ecclesiastical faith this acceptance can be present in an implicit form whereby a person undertakes and lives the duty of each day in the quiet sincerity of patience, in devotion to his material duties and the demands made upon him by the persons under his care…
In this respect, the ‘anonymous Christian’ becomes an individual who shares, to some extent, in his or her salvation through his or her own efforts. This characteristic, among others, has been the source of much criticism of the ‘anonymous Christian’ by other members of the Christian community.
Rahner’s concept has been attacked by several Christian groups who do not see his inclusivism as congruous with the teachings of the Bible and early apostles. More conservative Christians who adhere to an exclusivist position cite texts such as Acts 4:12 in which the apostles Peter and John proclaim “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (NIV) as proof that proclamation and acceptance of the signifier (i.e. name) of God is a necessary condition for salvation. Catholic groups, especially the more conservative ones that include the Society of St. Pius X, see the concept of ‘anonymous Christianity’ as threatening the necessity for free will in the act of choosing Christ over other forms of religious belief. Even liberal Christians reserve criticism of the concept as presumptuous or paternalistic in its approach to other religions in that it sees all other religions operating merely as unconscious and less pure forms of a more robust Christianity. Although Rahner may have never intended that his concept carry relativistic or derogatory connotations, such may indeed be the consequences of his theology.
Besides the criticisms listed above, the concept of the ‘anonymous Christian’ seems to create a major problem for the Christian exercise of missions. In the end of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus commands his disciples into missions with the great commission: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (NIV). Clearly missions play a central part in the practices of the church, and the idea of anonymous Christians being saved apart from such missions appears to offer yet another criticism against Rahner’s position. Rahner, however, sees such an interpretation of his theology as clearly wrong headed:
It would be quite foolish to think that this talk about ‘anonymous Christianity’ must lessen the importance of mission, preaching, the Word of God, baptising, and so on. Anyone who wants to interpret our remarks about anonymous Christianity in this way, has not merely fundamentally misunderstood them, but has not read our exposition of them with sufficient attention (Rahner 6:396-397).
Instead Rahner argues that missions are still crucial in order to bring people to explicit faith in Christ. As he notes:
In speaking of the universal missionary task of the Church as a right and duty of the Church herself this is taken to include the basic duty of every man to become a Christian in an explicitly ecclesiastical form of Christianity, because it is quite impossible to separate these two entities from one another (Rahner 12:161).
In this Rahner seems to push the line of paradox: individuals are saved without missions, but the Church should still send out missions regardless of that fact. In this way he seems to reflect an understanding of faith more in line with the protestant paradox of faith and works from the call in Phil. 2:12 to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” even if it is actually “God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purposes” (NIV). We are called to act even if, fundamentally, our actions do not determine the results.
With his concept of the ‘anonymous Christian’, Karl Rahner attempted to harmonize the inclusive and exclusive senses within the Bible into a systematic theological category. In doing this he has created a good deal of controversy, but even more importantly he has opened the dialogue between different religious groups concerning the nature of truth and God’s revelation. It is difficult to say what will become of Rahner’s theological ideas in the coming years, but even if nothing further develops with regards to concept of the ‘anonymous Christian’ the dialogue it has created thus far is more than enough to warrant it a place among the greatest ideas of the 20th century.
Bible: New International Version Student Bible. Grand, Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.
Hick, John. God and the Universe of Faiths. New York: Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1973.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Scientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. Trans.
Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: University Press, 1992.
Lewis, C. S. The Last Battle. New York: Collier Books, 1970.
O’Donovan, Leo J. “Karl Rahner.” Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. New
York: MacMillan Reference USA/Thomson Gale, 2005. 7600-7602.
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- Theological Investigations. Trans. David Morland. Vol. 16. London:
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