Karl Rahner’s Transcendental Christology

Central Argument: Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen

When Veli-Matti  Kärkkäinen sets forth a description of Karl Rahner’s Christology in Christology: A Global Introduction, he makes a very important first move, which is to frame Rahner’s theological task as the “holding together [of] two seemingly contradictory premises: the universal saving action of God and the necessity of supernatural revelation and faith in Christ.”[1] What Kärkkäinen cites as key to what Rahner is “holding together” is the two premises of revelation and faith and how, essentially, they must occur “at a universal, transcendental level.”[2] In this regard, Kärkkäinen notes that Rahner is concerned with how “God reveals Godself” to humanity through the human experience,[3] but, also, based on the extent to which Rahner wanted to respond to the challenge of modern Western culture’s hesitance to believe in a transcendent God.[4] With this in mind, according to Kärkkäinen, Rahner’s the crux of challenge was to confront any “talk about God mainly in immanental terms.”[5] So, the transcendental method Rahner employs is, as Kärkkäinen describes, a philosophical tool used to show that by definition a human being is ‘spirit,’ open to receive revelation from God.”[6] This “openness” is particularly predicated on transcendental experiences, which Kärkkäinen defines as occurring “whenever a human being acknowledges that human life is more than just what one sees in everyday life.”[7] It is through these transcendental experiences that, for Rahner, an openness to revelation becomes revealed evidence and, as Kärkkäinen further asserts, the grace of God in Christ [becomes] nothing foreign to the structure of the human being but belongs to its core.”[8]

This is particularly important to how Rahner appropriates the term “transcendental.” Rahner applies the term, according to Kärkkäinen, as a way to suggest that “human beings transcend the limits of ‘nature’ and are oriented towards the Holy Mystery that Christian theology calls God.” Rahner’s “transcendental” view of God plays itself out in Rahner’s approach to Christology, where Kärkkäinen identifies Rahner’s main Christological task as the following: “to inquire into the possibility of an absolute God-man, an absolute Savior.”[9] Accordingly, Kärkkäinen notes that Rahner’s Christology situates the role of Jesus as one that is situated in “mediation” – Kärkkäinen makes this particularly explicit by ascertaining: “in [Jesus’s] person, Christ is the historical presence of God’s disclosure to humans.”[10]

What ultimately –and rather logically –arises from this “disclosure” is the sense that Christ is the absolute Savior. This means, then, if following Kärkkäinen’s discussion very carefully, that Christ’s absolutism as Savior encompasses salvific value that, in turn, ushers forth a perpetual salvific trajectory in its existential meaning for all of humanity. Here, Kärkkäinen argues, through Rahner’s view of soteriology, that “salvation encompasses not only our ‘divinization’ but also the beginning of the process of the divinization of the whole world.”[11] Consequently, Kärkkäinen suggests that Rahner’s notion of Christ’s divinity is “accentuated by [a] larger soteriological vision.”[12] Salvation as human “divinization” comes to bear specifically in Kärkkäinen’s understanding of Rahner’s Christological-soteriological perspective in the following manner:

Human beings, while finite, are also able to transcend themselves as “spirit.” For Rahner, this is also a crucial Christological affirmation. It was God who willed this transcendental nature of humanity to make room for a genuine self-expression of God in the form of humanity… Salvation for Rahner is participation in the divine life to which the entire structure of the human being is naturally oriented, over and above that which human nature is able to ascend to on its own.[13]

As an extension of this, Kärkkäinen makes a great final assessment that, in brief, explains Rahner’s “transcendental Christology” as this: “in [Christ’s] person is the self-communication of God’s presence to humanity and the opportunity for human participation in the divine nature.”[14]

Critical Analysis

In order to truly grasp Rahner’s appropriations of the terms “transcendent,” “transcendence,” and “transcendental,” I find it essential to discuss them as Immanuel Kant does in his Critique of Pure Reason. For Kant, these terms are embodied in the “transcendental idea,” which is a pure concept of reason.[15] The “pure” aspect to any concept, or object –that is, when it is a “transcendental idea” –is one predicated on being a priori. As such, this kind of object of understanding is something that is represented, or objectified, prior to all experience. These a priori concepts, through the process of a more rigorous experiential objectification, according to Kant, “indicate the synthetic unity which alone makes possible an empirical knowledge of objects.”[16] What this means, then, is that, when there is an encounter with an object of understanding, particularly one that is a transcendental idea, there is an initial knowledge of it as a “mere logical form” before there is a deeper, deliberative knowledge of it as an “empirical form.” Knowledge of an a priori object of understanding, as Kant argues, “[is] not to be obtained by mere reflection but only by inference.”[17] So, what arises here is the relationship between sense and reference,[18] where what can be logically inferred about an a priori object of understanding becomes an empirical point of reference.

Kant’s notion of the “transcendental idea” is particularly concerned with the dialectic, as is Rahner’s use of the term. Like Rahner’s “transcendental Christology,” Kant assertion about the transcendental dialectic, then, is based on the extent to which reason –“pure” reason, as it were –is a natural and unavoidable component of any dialectic formed between a subjective being and an object of understanding. Let me be clear here: this is a dialectic pitting the knower against the known. This knower-known dialectic is where I would argue Rahner is framing his “transcendental”: it is the situatedness of the knower, the situatedness of the known, and the degree to which the knower is “oriented” towards the known.

This orientation, of course, is, as Kärkkäinen describes, grounded on transcending the limits of nature. As I am sure Rahner would argee, these “limits of nature” are encased in the human existential predicament. Paul Tillich illustrates this “predicament” as one of estrangement in his Systematic Theology Volume 2: it is the extent to which, when human existence comes into being by being-thrown in the Heideggerian sense, humanity’s being recognizes that they are “estranged” from God’s Being and, in fact, the true ground of humanity’s own being itself.[19] In this respect, it becomes possible to say that, once humanity’s being recognizes that the “ground” of their being is not in the facticity of that being, humanity seeks a facticity that is, as Emmanuel Levinas would contend, “otherwise than being.”[20]

In light of Tillich’s specific argument about estrangement, Rahner is also concerned with the “ground” of human being. I find that Rahner is keenly aware of onto-theology, not just Kantian, but Heideggerian –the sense that “being” and “Being” are inextricably linked through issues of ontological value, existential meaning, and theological ramifications. Like Heidegger specifically, Rahner seems to be operating under the assumption that the connectedness of being and Being is as much an ontological concern as it is a theological one.[21] But, of course, Rahner offers some very important nuances that deviate from Heidegger, Kant, and Tillich. Rather than being concerned with seeking outwardly for the ground of humanity’s being, Rahner focuses the seeking inwardly –I would argue that Rahner conceives of this ground as being intrinsic, not extrinsic. That is, in order to “transcend” the finitude of Tillich’s human existential predicament, Rahner, as Kärkkäinen argues, suggests that the human “spirit” is the “ground.” But, more importantly, if taking Rahner a bit further, it is possible to suggest that the facticity of humanity’s “spiritual” side is contingent on having been “grounded” in God’s Being. Though there is “estrangement” in Tillich’s view, that estrangement is not one where humanity’s being is mutually exclusive from God’s Being. Instead, regardless of estrangement, God is within us. In other words, I would argue that what Rahner is precisely articulating –through the notion that God “willed” the spiritual nature of humanity within humanity –is that the “transcendental nature of humanity” is what makes it possible for God to “self-communicate” God’s Being in the form of Jesus’s humanity. The way that this “self-communication” occurs is through, as I have interjected with Kant, a transcendental dialectic.


[1] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Christology: A Global Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 140.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 141.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 142.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 143.

[14] Ibid., 144.

[15] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Translated by Norman Kemp Smith (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1929), 315.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 308.

[18] I am thinking particularly of Gottlob Frege’s notions of “sense” and “reference,” which, of course, owe their theory and praxis to Kant.

[19] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology Vol. 2: Existence and the Christ (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 44.

[20] Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence, Translated by Alphonso Lingis (Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991), 3.

[21] Martin Hediegger, Identity and Difference, Translated by Joan Stambugh (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1969), 59.


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