Karl Rahner

The OCR DCT specification names Karl Rahner as the inclusivist whose views you need to study.  You need to understand his teachings about anonymous Christians and anonymous Christianity, the Church, God's Grace, God's action in creation and in history and open Catholicism.  A brief overview of Rahner's thought can be found on the general inclusivism page here.  This page provides a more thorough look at Rahner's ideas.


The Jesuit movement (also known as the Society of Jesus) is a Catholic religious order founded by St Ignatius of Loyola in 1534.  Jesuit values include vows of poverty and chastity.  Historically they see themselves as soldiers of Christ and value proselytising.

Karl Rahner was born in Germany in 1904.  He entered the Jesuit order as a novice in 1922 and was ordained as a priest in in 1932.  He attended the University of Freiburg to study Philosophy and whilst there attended lectures by Martin Heidegger. Rahner then moved to Innsbruck university where he taught for some years.  During WWII Rahner left Germany and continued his teaching career in Vienna.  He wrote widely on a range of subjects and his theological ideas drew from diverse sources including traditional Christian authorities like Aquinas but also from newer ideas like those of Heidegger.

Rahner was a Catholic priest and his views were not always welcome by the establishment, many of whom regarded him as non-traditional and radical (for a Catholic theologian!).  In 1962 he was told that he could not give lectures or publish books without first gaining specific permission.  In other words, his work was censored.  However, in spite of this he was well-respected and Pope John Paul XXIII appointed him as a expert adviser during Vatican II (1962-1965).  He was one of seven theologians to work on the document concerning the Church's attitude to non-Christian religions.  The final version of the document does not reflect all Rahner's ideas (it does not, for example, say that non-Christians can be saved outside Christianity) however, in Rahner's influence on it seems apparent.

In 1964 he moved to the University of Munich as a Philosophy professor, then to University of Münster as a theology professor before finally returning to Innsbruck in 1981.  

Rahner is often regarded as one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the twentieth century.

Key ideas:

God's Grace:

God's grace is his power to save.  For Rahner, God's grace enters the world through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus.  Once Jesus has brought this grace into the world then it can be mediated (distributed) by non-Christian religions.  Rahner makes it very clear that without Jesus' action people would not be able to be saved.  Mankind is sinful and does not deserve salvation.  Salvation is bought at a price.

Traditionally Catholicism has taught that God's grace is available primarily through the activity of the Church.  Sacraments like communion, confession and baptism are ways of receiving God's grace.  Excommunication was often believed to cut people off from the grace of God.

History and Creation:

It may seem problematic for God's grace to be present before Christianity if it was only brought into the world by Jesus.  However, remember that God is supposed to be transcendent.  Thus from God's perspective the Incarnation, death and resurrection do not really have a specific point in time and the grace that they incur can affect all people no matter when or where they lived.

Rahner says that God is revealed through Creation which enable people to have natural knowledge of God.  However, this natural knowledge (as Calvin said) would be mingled with error.  

Rahner points out that Christianity itself has a pre-history.  Things led up to it.  For example, for many Christians prophets like Isaiah seemed to have predicted the coming of Jesus.  Thus, Christianity was always God's plan.  It was always intended to be the absolute religion, but from a human point Christianity has a starting point in history and there was a time before it existed.  As the Old Testament shows, God acted in the time before Christianity.  Therefore, God's grace must be available outside of the Church and without explicit Christian belief.

Anonymous Christian and anonymous Christianity:

Rahner uses the idea of votum ecclesiae which is a term he takes from Aquinas.  This means that wanting (even implicitly wanting) to be part of the Church is enough to receive God's grace.

Very simply an anonymous Christian is a person who isn't a Christian but who acts like one.  However, it is not simply a matter of a person through their own efforts leading a good life.  Rahner thought that those people who led that type of life had genuinely (though implicitly) accepted God's grace and therefore lived their lives in a way resulting from his action in their lives.  Rahner held the traditional Christian view that humans are fallen and inclined to sin.  Therefore, moral and spiritual actions are only really attainable with God's help.  Thus if a person behaves in a moral and spiritual way they must have God's grace in their life.

Anonymous Christians can be saved but Rahner thinks that anonymous Christianity is only really valid until the person encounters Christianity.

The Church:

Rahner was a Catholic.  Therefore 'the Church' in its institutional sense is the visible body of Christians who worship together, take part in the sacraments and s share beliefs.  The Church is the body of Christ on earth (i.e. it does his will) and has authority by virtue of apostolic succession by which the priests can trace their legitimacy back to Jesus.

Traditionally many Catholics held that there was no salvation outside the visible Church (extra ecclesium nulla salus).  Rahner rejects this idea - or at least rejects the idea that this applies only to the visible Church.  He expands the definition of 'Church' to include all those people who might be members of the invisible Church.  Those who through votum ecclesiae might be part of the ecclesium ab Abel.

Open Catholicism:

Open Catholicism really refers to the whole of Rahner's theology.  It is the idea that rather than being a closed exclusive community of those who are saved Catholicism is open to the possibility of truth and salvation in non-Christian religions.

Transcendental Theology:

This is not a term you need to use (thankfully!) but it is useful nonetheless.

God is often described as 'transcendent'.  This means that he is outside or beyond time.  Humans, by contrast, exist within time or within history and within space.

The historical nature of human beings means that Christianity has to come to an individual within their own personal history for it to be accessible for them.  This is not a complicated idea.  It just means that they have to encounter it within their own timeline.  This means that a posteriori knowledge of God through Christianity has to come in a physical historical way.

However, Rahner believes that as despite being stuck in time and space humans are made by God in such a way that they are receptive to the transcendent and they reach out beyond their own existence.  Humans are both 'of the world' and 'not of the world' (we could simplify this by saying that we are both material and spiritual, body and soul).  This enables people to be receptive to God's grace in an a priori sense.  Again we could simplify this idea by comparing it back to Calvin's idea that people have an innate sense of divinity.  Humans are created to have an awareness of God.

Thus, although people have to encounter Christianity temporarily within time they can already be living in a state of grace due to their transcendental nature which reaches out to the transcendent God.

Rahner's Four Thesis:

First Thesis:

Rahner says that the starting point for any investigation of the relationship between Christianity and non-Christian religions is the belief that Christianity is the one true religion.

'Christianity understands itself as the absolute religion, intended for all men, which cannot recognize any other religion beside itself as of equal right.'

Christianity has this absolute status because it rests on Jesus who Rahner believe was God's self-revelation.  The basis for Christian superiority is the doctrine of the Incarnation. Rahner makes it clear that the Incarnation is the basis of God's relationship with humanity as a whole and that Christian teaching provides the authentic interpretation of the Incarnation. 

'This relationship of God to man is basically the same for all men, because it rests on the Incarnation, death and resurrection of the one Word of God become flesh.  Christianity is God;s own interpretation in his Word of this relation of God to man founded in Christ by God himself.'

However, whilst Rahner thought that Christianity is true and encapsulates the way that God wants to be known he recognises that it is not possible for Christianity to be the only way for people to know God and to reach salvation.

This is because Christianity and the Church have not always existed.  Christianity has a pre-history (Rahner believed that the Old Testament pointed forward to Jesus) and it would obviously be impossible for people to believe explicitly in Jesus before he lived or to be a member of the Church before it had been established.  

'...the Christian religion...has a beginning point in history; it did not always exist but began at some point in time.  It has not always and everywhere been the way of salvation for men - at least not in its historically tangible ecclesio-sociological constitution...'

For Christianity to be the way of salvation of people they have to encounter it. They have to actually become aware of it existing within their own period of history.

Second Thesis:

Remember salvation is only possible due to Jesus' action so Rahner remains true to the solus Christus (only in Christ) principle.  Jesus brings God's grace into the world but other religions can mediate it.  

It is like Jesus bought presents for everyone in the world.  Non-Christian religions can distribute the presents but without Jesus first buying them there would be nothing to distribute!

Rahner says that a non-Christian religion can mediate salvation.  Therefore, non-Christian religions can be lawful. In the first thesis Rahner previously described lawful religion as God's action on man; i.e. it is one that contains God's Grace. The second thesis goes on to explain that any non-Christian religion (not just the Abrahamic monotheistic ones) can contain God's Grace.  He explicitly says that they do not only contain 'natural knowledge' (which is available to everyone through creation) but also 'supernatural elements' (i.e. special revelation) from God.  Rahner is careful to make clear that this does not mean that all religions are equally lawful and nor does it mean that they are harmless.  Alongside the natural knowledge and the supernatural elements they also contain 'depravity'.

'...a non-Christian religion (even outside the Mosaic religion) does not merely contain elements of a natural knowledge of God, elements, moreover, mixed up with human depravity which is the reult of human sin and later aberration, It contains also supernatural elements arising out of the grace which is given to men as a gratuitous gift on account of Christ.  For this reason a non-Christian religion can be recognized as a lawful religion (although only in different degrees) without thereby denying the error and depravity contained within it.'

Although Rahner says that salvation is possible outside the visible Church the language he uses of non-Christian religions seems somewhat negative.  They contain 'depravity' and 'error'.  Later in the second thesis he says that they should not be regarded as harmless and he says that the Church must continue to protest against the them.

He goes on to explain that non-Christian religions can only remain lawful until superseded by Christianity.  Non-Christian religions are only valid until

'the point in time when the Christian religion becomes a historically real factor for those who are of this religion.'

Illustrating your points

This could be explained using an illustration:

Imagine a group of people with a very old and tattered copy of Shakespeare's plays. They can read some of the words, but bits are missing or illegible and they will naturally fill these gaps with their own imagination.  Therefore, their understanding of the play is full of errors. Imagine an expert on Shakespeare comes  and sees them perform their version of Romeo and Juliet. The expert can see that the basic story is Shakespeare's but it is not what Shakespeare intended.  The expert then shows them his own perfect edition of the play and uses his superior knowledge to explain what Shakespeare meant.

In other words, non-Christian religions are like an emergency measure which will 'do' for the time being but which are destined to be replaced at some point in the future by something better.  Rahner does not say exactly what it means for Christianity to become a 'historically real factor'  and he says it is something that must be left open to question.  It is therefore, possible for those who have heard of Christianity but have not had it become 'historically real' to them may continue to be saved through a non-Christian religion.

Rahner alludes to Acts 17 in which Paul preached at the Areopagus to the men of Athens.  He treated them as people who already had knowledge of God but whose knowledge was incomplete.  His Christian message added to and improved their basic understanding of God so that the person they worshiped as 'the unknown God' would become known to them.

The second thesis ends with Rahner stating his reasons for promoting inclusivism. He believes that it naturally follows on from believing that God wants all people to be saved.  If God genuinely wants all people to be saved then it must be possible for all people to access salvation.  As Christianity is not accessible to all people they must be able to attain salvation outside the Church.

'...if we wish to be Christians, we must profess belief in the universal and serious salvific purpose of God towards all men...We know, to be sure, that this proposition of fiath does not say anything certain about the individual  salvation of man understood as somethign which has a fact been reached.  But God desires the salvation of everyone.  And this salvation willed by God is the salvation won by Christ.'

Third Thesis:

Rahner's third thesis deals with how the Christian missionary should treat the non-Christian.  Rahner says that Christian missionaries should not assume that non-Christians know nothing of God and of truth.  If they have already been touched by God's Grace then that Grace is involved in all that person's spiritual behaviour even if they do not realise it.  Such a person, Rahner says, is an anonymous Christian.  The non-Christian 

'may be already someone on the way towards his salvation, and someone who in certain circumstances finds it, without being reached by the proclamation of the Church's message - and if it is at the same time true that this salvation which reaches him in this way is Christ's salvation, since there is no other salvation - then it must be possible to be not only an anonymous theist but also an anonymous Christian.' 

Fourth Thesis:

In his final thesis Rahner makes it clear that the visible Church continues to have a very central role even if it is not necessary to be part of it to be saved.  Instead, the Church is a visible symbol for what might be present elsewhere in a more implicit sense.  The Church is also a means of making the implicit explicit through the actions of missionaries who (like Paul) teach the anonymous Christians found in other religions the truth of what they worship without realising.

'...the Church will not so much regard herself today as the exclusive community of those who have a claim to salvation but rather as the historically tangible vanguard and the historically and socially constituted explicit expression of what the Christian hopes is present as a hidden reality even outside the visible Church.'

Rahner finishes his thesis by advocating that Christians pray for unity of all people 'in the one Church of Christ' but he also states that the end of religious diversity is 'possibly too much to hope'.


Many Christians would say that Rahner's ideas have much to recommend them.

  • They can be said to follow logically from central Christian beliefs such as the belief that God desires salvation for all.
  • He retains a central role for Jesus and emphasises the necessity of the crucifixion and resurrection.  He maintains that without Jesus' death there would be no grace to be mediated by non-Christian religions.
  • He presents a solution to the issue of what happens to good non-Christians and he explain the presence of miracles, good moral values and the religious experiences found in non-Chrisitian religions without losing the distinctiveness of Christianity.
  • There are certain parallels between Rahner's ideas and those presented by church fathers such as Augustine and Aquinas who also argued that those who lived before Jesus could be saved through implicit faith.  To this extent he perhaps remains true to tradition.
  • One could also draw on Biblical teachings to support his position, notably Acts 17 in which Paul appears to regard the Athenians as anonymous Christians (though he does not use the term.

Thus we could present Rahner's theology as an example of the middle way that avoids the intolerance of exclusivism whilst also maintaining the distinctiveness of Christianity which pluralism loses.  Arguably it is a truly Christian attitude to non-Christian religions.  However, there are some key challenges to Rahner's view that need to be discussed.

Does he undermine the Church?

Rahner obviously would say that he does not.  The institution of the Church is, he thinks, essential.  It remains the body of Christ on earth (i.e. it does the will of Jesus and acts as his body). It has access to truth and to right doctrine which it should then spread out into the world.

  • However, by rejecting the doctrine of extra ecclesium nulla salus Rahner is saying that you do not need to take part in the sacraments like confession and Eucharist to receive God's grace through the mysteries of transubstantiation and absolution.  Those who were excomunicated and cut of from the sacraments were cut off from the salvific action of God.  If - as Rahner says - God's grace is available outside the Church then is the Church actually necessary at all?
  • Furthermore, the Catholic Church has traditionally defended its authority in terms of apostolic succession.  The priests in the Church can trace their authority back to Jesus.  In this sense the Church is legitimate and this is why the sacraments can be seen as effective, because they are enacted by a priest who stands as mediator between God and man.  Catholics traditionally believe that the Pope is the supreme representative of God on earth.  Rahner's theology arguably makes priests superfluous and their teachings optional.

In short, the traditional view of the Church is not that it is just a historical institution but a mystical entity which has a very real role to play in salvation.

Is the idea of anonymous Christians helpful?

Rahner thinks that those who act in a good way are able to do so only because they have been touched by and accepted God's grace.  This means that for him it makes sense to describe them as anonymous Christians.  They are not good through their own actions, but by the grace won by Christ.  Thus they are Christians in behaviour even if not in name.

However, a number of people object to the idea of 'anonymous Christianity'.

  • Von Balthasar (a contemporary of Rahner's and ) argued that Rahner has reduced being a Christian to acting virtuously.  This arguably gets perilously close to promoting the idea that you are saved because you are a good person.  Rahner of course would respond that you are saved by implicit faith in God's grace, the good actions come from that, they are not the thing that saves you.  However, consider whether you think Von Balthasar's criticism is fair.  Is being a Christian more than leading a certain type of life?  Does it not have to involve a degree of faith.

Hans Kung said that 'It would be impossible to find anywhere in the world a sincere Jew, Muslim or atheist who would not regard the assertion that he is an 'anonymous Christian' as presumptuous'.

  • Many people have argued that the idea of anonymous Christianity is insulting/patronising etc to non-Christians.  To describe someone as a non-Christian is essentially telling them that they don't actually understand their own deep-seated faith.  They may think that they are worshipping their own God, but actually they are not.  In other words, the Christian evangelist is claiming to know more about the person's religion than they themselves do.  It is worth noting that Rahner does not encourage Christian missionaries to describe non-Christians as anonymous Christians to their face!  He is presenting a theological understanding of the place of non-Christians for the Christian evangelist to use. 

You could compare Rahner's theology to D'Costa's.  Rahner's theology seems to make it unlikely that non-Christians could contribute anything useful to the Christian understanding of God.  Everything they know is either superstitious human error and wrong or else it is what Christianity already says.  Anything distinctive about their religion must be rejected.  The Christian/non-Christian dialogue will all be one way (the Christians correcting the non-Christians).  However, D'Costa implies that Christians can actually learn something from non-Christians who know the same God but via different methods.

Is there any justification for the claim that Christianity is superior?

Rahner thinks that there is.  Jesus is God's self-revelation and therefore Christianity is the absolute religion which has access to truth about God.  Karl Barth and Calvin both said similar things about Jesus and Christian superiority. Christians frequently point to examples from Jesus ministry to demonstrate that he was God.  They might say that the virgin birth, his miracles, his compassion, his foreknowledge, his resurrection and his fulfilling of the scriptures are all evidence for the truth of the incarnation.  However, many others think that there are very good grounds to doubt the claim that Jesus is God.

  • John Hick argues that the term 'son of God' was a metaphor which was intended to show that Jesus behaved in a godly way.  He says that it was only later that it was taken literally.
  • One could argue that the idea of Jesus being fully God and fully man is incoherent.  One cannot be fully both.
  • One could also point out that the evidence for Jesus being God rests largely on the Bible.  Whether or not you accept it depends on what you believe about the reliability of the Bible.

If Jesus was not God, or if the claim that he was God can be shown to be unprovable then the Christian claim for superiority is undermined.

  • Alan Race has said that 'to say that one religion contains the fulest expression of religious truth and value, without any recourse to the empirical data of the other religions themselves, is tantamount to unjustified theological imperialism.'

Other points to consider:

There are other areas of his thought that you can challenge.

  • Is faith important?  If so, why?
  • He says that non-Christian religions are only being lawful up until the point that Christianity becomes a reality for that person.  Does this make sense? Can a person be an anonymous Christian in a Christian country?  
  • Non-christians can only be anonymous Christians provided they have not explicitly rejected Christianity.  Where does this leave evangelism?
  • Is his view of human nature too negative?  Do we actually need grace to be saved at all?
  • What about biblical teachings that imply that explicit faith and/or baptism are necessary for salvation?  How would he interpret these?

Final Thoughts:

In 2013 Pope Francis I wrote in a letter to the newpaper La Rebubblica

'You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith. I start by saying – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience.

Sin, even for those who have no faith, exists when people disobey their conscience.  To listen and to follow your conscience means that you understand the difference between good and evil. ' 

Many people interpreted this as Pope Francis I saying that atheists can be saved provided they follow their consciences.  This could be said to be similar to the idea that a person can implicitly respond to God's grace without explicitly responding to it.  

Pope Francis' first papal letter entitled Lumen Fidei, ('The Light of Faith) - which had in fact been started by his predecessor Benedict X - included similar sentiments:

'Because faith is a way, it also has to do with the lives of those men and women who, though not believers, nonetheless desire to believe and continue to seek. To the extent that they are sincerely open to love and set out with whatever light they can find, they are already, even without knowing it, on the path leading to faith. They strive to act as if God existed...'

Most theologians would regard the Catholic Church today as inclusivist rather than exclusivist.  Documents like Vatican II's statement on non-Christian religions and the Dominus Iesus document seem to reflect Rahner-esque teachings.  This could imply that Inclusivism is the most workable of the different approaches to the relationship between Christianity and non-Christian religions.

Further Reading:

Full text of Vatican II's statement on non-Christian religions here.

Article on Rahner's view of the church here.

Detailed overview of some of the themes found in his work here.

Article relating Pope Francis I's comments to Rahner here.

Text of the Dominus Iesus here.

Discussion as to whether the Dominus Iesus is liberal or conservative here.