Chapter Seven: Christianity as Church

In this, the second longest chapter, Rahner shows that the Church belongs inextricably with Christianity itself. Part 1 explains that the Church is not the primary truth of Christianity, but still fundamental.

Part 2 explains what it means to say that the Church was founded by Jesus Christ. Jesus did not personally authorize all the explicit features of later Christianity, but he gave them to the Church as possibilities.

Part 3 shows the relation between the Church and the New Testament. Rahner synthesizes the various NT portraits of the Church, showing the church as a structure, as a unity of various local churches, and as united in Christ.

In Part 4, Rahner outlines what he calls the "fundamentals of the ecclesial nature of Christianity." Christianity can be said to be autonomous and a divine law unto itself. For that reason, it belongs to the necessary historical and social mediation of salvation.

Photo by Adolf Waschel. Scanned from Karl Rahner in Dialogue: Conversations and Interviews, 1965-1982. Edited by Paul Imhof and Hubert Biallowons. Translation edited by Harvey D. Egan. New York: Crossroad: 1986. Photo appears between pages 186 and 187.

Part 5 offers, in 24 pages, an "indirect" method for showing the legitimacy of the Catholic Church. Rahner begins the method by offering three "norms" for authentic Christianity: it existed from the beginning until Reformation times, many find it in Catholic Christianity, and it operates in an authoritative way independent of the believer. These norms undergird Catholic Christianity.

In Part 6, Rahner argues that the formation of the scripture is a "fundamental moment" in Christian tradition, not a separate source of truth alongside of tradition.

Part 7 defines the Church's teaching office. It helps the Church to persevere in the truth because it confronts Christians with the challenging demand of Christ to believe, i.e., to enter into a living relationship with God.

Part 8 suggests that Christian life is necessary but limited. Just as we are bound to our families, even in recognizing their limitations, says Rahner, so we are bound to the church.

Part 1: Introduction

(VII.1, p. 322). In this first part, Rahner claims that the ecclesial aspect of Christianity is not an adjunct to personal faith in Jesus Christ. No, faith concerns the whole human person, whose nature is interpersonal. The ecclesial nature of the Church corresponds to the interpersonal nature of human beings (A). The ecclesial dimension is not, however, the primary dimension of Christianity. There is a hierarchy of truths, and ecclesial consciousness is subordinate to higher truths (B). Rahner explains that he does not intend to offer a full justification for believing that Catholic Christianity is the one church intended by Christ. Instead, he wants to show why Catholic Christians may confidently trust in the church handed down to them.

A. The Necessary Institutional Mediation of Religion and Its Special Nature in Christianity (VII.1.A, p. 322). What is the church? Rahner calls it “The historical continuation of Christ in and through the community of those who believe in him, and who recognize him explicitly as the mediator of salvation in a profession of faith” (322). Then he makes three initial observations.

First, Rahner acknowledges that the period since Jesus can be called "the period of the church," because after Jesus our hope has acquired a new and eschatological character. But then he qualifies his observation, perhaps out of fear of sounding triumphalistic. He insists that even the period before Jesus was "encompassed by God's salvific will" (322).

Second, he remarks that the Christian understanding of religion is necessarily ecclesial. Human beings, he says, are "co-determined" by interpersonal communication. Such communication belongs to the church as well, for religion concerns the whole of human existence, even the interpersonal.

Finally, he notes that many thinkers in the nineteenth century lost sight of this "institutional" aspect of the church. They thought they could appropriate religion in a private kind of interiority. But today we acknowledge that an individual cannot discover personhood by looking for it as something contrary to his or her social nature.

B. The Doctrine of the Church is Not the Central Truth of Christianity (VII.1.B, p. 324). One could easily find in the Catholicism of recent centuries a kind of “militant ecclesiality” which expressed an extreme reaction against individualism. This extremism proclaimed that belonging to the church is “the most specific and central thing about Christianity” (324). Rahner rejects this view. He notes that many dimensions of Christianity – such as the Sermon on the Mount, love, and the freedom of the spirit – might be considered “suspect” in such a militantly ecclesial climate.

Against this militancy, Rahner (quoting Unitatis redintegratio, no. 11) reminds readers of the doctrine of the hierarchy of truths. There are many truths in Christianity, and not all of them are equally foundational. The doctrine of God, for example, is more fundamental than ecclesial consciousness.

C. The Difficult Question About the Church (VII.1.C, p. 324). The difficult question is, “Why [do] we believe that our concrete church is the church of Jesus Christ”? (324). It would be difficult to answer this question, says Rahner, so as to do full justice to the traditional assertions about the church in Catholic theology. To answer the question fully, one would have to (1) analyze the treatment in Matthew 16 of the apostolic office, and (2) show why an episcopacy with apostolic succession belongs to the church which Christ intended. Rahner says that such an answer is beyond the scope of the Foundations.

His intention is rather to reflect, as a Catholic Christian, upon his membership in the church. He wants to show that he and other Christians have no reason to cast doubt on the church handed down to them in their existentiell situation.

Part 2: The Church as Founded by Jesus Christ

(VII.2, p. 322). In this second part of Chapter VII, Rahner raises his fundamental, pastoral question: with what right can a Catholic Christian confidently assert that his or her church is the church intended by Jesus Christ? The issue is not whether Jesus intended a church, but rather what features he intended (A). In order to answer this question, Rahner lays out three minimal presuppositions: Jesus proclaimed a historical event (i.e., the kingdom of God), he drove a wedge between his followers and the Jews, and he foresaw his death (B). The major difficulty is proving that Jesus intended a church, because the church cannot establish a relation to Jesus on its own (C). In order to resolve the difficulty, Rahner lays out some basic principles, the first of which is that Jesus intended God’s Word to remain as a permanent presence in the world (D). Next, he applies his principles to the question of continuity. We do not have to show that Jesus authorized all the explicit features of later Christianity, but only that they were possibilities given by Jesus (E). Finally, Rahner lists the four concrete historical acts by which Jesus can be said to have founded the church, namely, his gathering of disciples, his teachings which they maintained, the power he bestowed on them to continue his work, and the position he granted Simon Peter (F).

A. The Question (VII.2.A, p. 326). “Is my church the church intended by Jesus Christ?” The question is fundamental, says Rahner, because it focuses on the connection between Jesus Christ and the church. Rahner rejects the 19th-century view that the church is merely a spiritual community without an institutional dimension. Anyone who advocates the unity of the churches, he says, must reject that view.

But Rahner is not opposed to at least entertaining the question of whether Jesus, with his imminent expectation of the kingdom in a temporal sense, intended to found a church. He allows the question but answers it by expressing what he takes to be a scholarly consensus. Most scholars recognize, he says, that "something like the constitution of the church is found soon after Easter" (327).

The fundamental debate is not whether a church was intended, but rather what features belong to it. Did Jesus intend the primacy of Peter, the role of the Twelve, and the apostolic succession. In addition, there is a still more essential question: was there, in New Testament times, one church among the many which could claim to be the church intended by Christ?

B. Presuppositions for the "Founding of the Church" by Jesus (VII.2.B, p. 327). In order to contend that Jesus founded the church, Rahner insists upon three presuppositions:

The first is that Jesus did not intend to teach universal religious ideas so much as he meant to proclaim that a historical event. The event was the breaking-in of God's kingdom, had been achieved in his person.

The second was that his teaching drove a wedge between his followers and the Jews. Why? Because he offered salvation to everyone, not just to his own ethnic group or to an ascetical sect like the Essenes.

The third was that Jesus foresaw his own death. He also foresaw that, through his death, the victorious closeness of God's kingdom would be fulfilled. Moreover, he foresaw that there would be a period of time between his death and the arrival of God's kingdom. During that period, faithful Christians would have to wait.

Unless one accepts these minimal presuppositions, one must believe that Jesus acted unreasonably up to and during his passion. He could teach universal ideas without dying, he did not have to proclaim salvation to all, and there was no need to promise the kingdom if he disbelieved in it.

C. The Thesis and Its Problem (VII.2.C, p. 328). The meaning of the thesis, “Jesus founded the church,” is that the church has its origins in Christ. The church does not establish a relation to Jesus “autonomously and by itself.” Rather, the establishment of the church is “an act of Jesus and not primarily an act of the church itself” (329).

Rahner concludes this short article with a series of questions: could Jesus have intended that his narrow circle of disciples "would ever continue with essentially the same function in what we see in the church later as bishops?" (329). Could Jesus foresee a juridical organization? Could he foresee the privileged position he bestowed upon Cephas as a permanent institution?

D. The Attempt to Respond: The Principles Involved (VII.2.D, p. 329). Rahner wants to clarify the sense in which one can say that Jesus “founded” the church. In order to do so, he lays out some basic principles, principles that lead to a minimal but affirmative assertion.

First, he says that Jesus, as absolute saviour and God's self-communication, intended God's Word to be a permanent presence in the world. Jesus would not have been who he is "if the offer of himself which God made in him did not continue to remain present in the world in an historically tangible profession of faith in Jesus" (329-330). Insofar as faith in God's self-communication has its origins in Jesus, the church has its origins in him.

Second, the faith of the church is a public profession. It is the faith of a community. Since faith is communal, and has its origin in Jesus, the church has its origin in him.

Third, the faith that forms community must have a history, and be part of salvation history. In this history, every later epoch continues to have its origin in an earlier epoch, even when it diverges from it. "In order that a historical decision in one epoch be binding for later epochs for the sake of preserving historical continuity, all that can be seriously required is that this decision lay within the genuine possibilities of the church's origins and does not contradict these origins" (331).

E. Application to the Problem of Continuity Between Jesus and the Church (VII.2.E, p. 331). Having accepted the principles articulated by Rahner in the previous article (namely, the principles of the believers’ faith, of their public profession, and of the nature of historical continuity), one can then draw important consequences.

First, we can assert that the church was founded by Christ if we can say that later decisions of the church, now termed "binding," were at least possibilities given through Jesus.

Second, we do not need (according to Rahner's method) to trace back to the sayings of Jesus concrete structures such as a permanent Petrine office or a monarchical church constitution.

If it is fair to grant these two consequences, then we can grant that the church developed freely "from out of her origins in her full essence" (332).

F. The Acts of Jesus Which Founded the Church (VII.2.F, p. 332). Can we point to definite acts of Jesus, acts which Biblical scholarship can show belonged to the historical Jesus, acts that did in fact “found” the church? Relying mainly upon the work of New Testament exegete Rudolf Schnackenburg, Rahner notes three such acts:

First, Jesus did gather around him disciples who in turn assembled a "people of God." The significance of the Twelve was to recall the 12 tribes, and so to indicate Jesus' claim upon all of Israel, an "eschatological Israel" (333).

Second, the Christian community stayed together after Jesus' death. The members believed themselves to be the Elect. They were introduced to "the mystery of his suffering." They were encouraged to endure persecution. The community was intended by Jesus to be a community that called all to metanoia and faith.

Third, there was an "ecclesiological mandate" in the sayings of Jesus, according to Anton Vögtle. The mandate bestowed Jesus' powers on his disciples in order to continue his work.

Fourth, the "Cephas-sayings" of Jesus founded the tradition by which Simon was called Cephas or Peter (Mt. 16:18f.). The meaning of these Cephas-sayings is that "Jesus wants to found his community of salvation on Simon and on his person as on a rock." The saying about the keys means that "Peter is given power to grant admission to the future kingdom" (334). Beyond these basic four provisions, says Rahner, all is left to the Spirit, to the Spirit-led history of the church, and to the history of the original church.

Part 3: The Church in the New Testament

(VII.3, p. 335). What were the characteristics of the original Christian community? It was distinct from Judaism from the start, says Rahner, possessing its own cult, reaching out to the gentiles, and viewing itself in eschatological terms (A). Then Rahner gives an overview of the portrait of the early church in various NT documents. First, he looks at the Lukan and Matthaean portraits. The Lukan is marked by its recasting of world history in Christological terms, and the Matthaean portrays Christianity in ecclesial terms (B). Paul’s letters regard the church in terms of its link to the traditions about Christ, to the Jerusalem community, and to aspects of the church echoed in the rest of the NT (C). In 1 Peter, Hebrews, the Johannine Letters, and the Apocalypse, we find a variety of ecclesial elements: the priesthood of believers, a community united in a common sacrifice, a sacramental and eschatological community (D). Finally, Rahner presents a synthesis of the NT ecclesial portraits, according to which the church is a structure, a college of various local churches, and a unity in Christ.

A. On the Self-Understanding of the Original Community (VII.3.A, 335). How did the earliest Christians understand themselves? Rahner asserts that they first called themselves “the saints” and perhaps the “community of God.” They did not see themselves as community within Israel, but rather as a community assembled by Jesus, assembled and called by him. It had its own cult (apart from Jewish worship) and eventually extended its mission to the pagan world. The Pentecost experience defined for the community its nature as “eschatological,” and showed itself to be a community “obligated” to holiness in life. Even the earliest Christians distinguished themselves from Israel.

B. On the Theology of the Church in Luke and Matthew (VII.3.B, p. 336). Luke’s special contribution to a theology of the Church was that he defined a “period of the Church” between the ascension and the parousia. There is, for Luke, a period of history belonging to Israel, belonging to Jesus, and belonging to the church. Only because of the disbelief of Israel, Luke suggests, did the church take up a mission to the pagan world.

Matthew's special contribution is a theology of the church. Schnackenburg called Matthew the "ecclesial gospel." In Matthew, the call of Jesus "does not merely address the individual in the interiority of his conscience," Rahner says, "but rather it really builds church communities around Jesus" (337). In Matthew we find a distinct law of Christ, a cult, and leadership in Peter and the Twelve.

C. On the Pauline Theology of the Church (VII.3.C, p. 337). Although Paul was not particularly concerned about drafting a “church constitution” for later times (when his direct apostolic mission was over), nevertheless he preaches a doctrine that has several ecclesial elements. For example, Paul respects the principle of tradition, seeks the approval of the Jerusalem community, and has respect for “the church in its totality with its antecedent structures” (338).

How did he understand the "church in its totality?" It was a church (1) composed of Jews and pagans (Eph. 3:4, 6), in which (2) the unfinished role of Israel in salvation history was recognized (Rom. 9-11), a church (3) founded sacramentally on Baptism and Eucharist, (4) recognized as a single entity composed of smaller, localized churches, and (5) both a cosmic reality and a heavenly presence expressed in terms of the "body of Christ."

In the Pastoral Epistles, we find an image of the church with a strong institutional stamp. This image, however, does not contradict the eschatological image of the church reflected in the earliest letters of Paul.

D. Other New Testament Ecclesiologies (VII.3.D, p. 339). In this brief section, Rahner looks at four texts significant for NT ecclesiology. The first is 1 Peter 2:4-10. It is remarkable for its strong emphasis on the church as a spiritual house, erected on the Holy Spirit, with Christ as cornerstone. In 1 Peter also we see a holy priesthood of all Christians offering spiritual sacrifice.

The second text is the Letter to the Hebrews. Its foundation is the OT idea of a pilgrim People of God (an image drawn from Exodus). It also presents the church as an eschatological community, destined to enter heaven because Christ has entered there. The church is both a "heavenly Jerusalem" in anticipation and the place of temporal struggles and trials.

The third "text" is the collection of Johannine letters. They present the "church" (without ever using the word ecclesia) in terms of its sacramental life and its foundation in the Holy Spirit. It looks to the future when the scattered children of God will form one flock.

Finally, the Apocalypse reminds the persecuted church of its eschatological dignity. The great beast persecutes the church because it is the bride and the lamb. From the flock of the redeemed in heaven, it draws strength to continue struggling and its assurance of final victory.

E. Unity and Variety in the New Testament Image of the Church (VII.3.E, p. 340). A brief overview of the NT texts related to the church suggests that the church has not one but many levels. There seem to be, however, a number of common aspects: (1) a marked institutional structure with various offices; (2) an interconnection among the various churches; (3) an inner life variously described as being on pilgrimage, as being one body, and as being composed of witnesses to the truth of Christ. Rahner concludes that, contrary to older opinions in NT research, Paul’s view of the church is not incompatible with that of the original community or with that of the so-called “early Catholicism” of Luke and the Pastoral Letters.

Although it is true to say that the same image of the church did not prevail everywhere, nevertheless one does not have to prove a single image of the church to maintain the thesis of unity. It is also true that not all of the elements of what traditional Catholic theology would call the "divine constitution of the church" were present until the beginning of the second century. For example, consider the formation of the NT canon, which was not complete until then.

But despite the fact that we see a development in the church, even in the apostolic period, still we need not conclude these developments were arbitrary or false. Rather, they give us insights (says Rahner) into the different ways we might structure today's church.

Part 4: Fundamentals of the Ecclesial Nature of Christianity

(VII.4, p. 342). In this brief part, Rahner makes an argument for the ecclesial nature of Christianity based on his transcendental theology. God’s transcendental call to human beings is not just a call to individuals, but to the essence of humanity – including humanity’s communal and social dimension (A). The essence of humanity is addressed only by a religion that comes from God, and is not a merely human projection. Because it comes from God, religion is autonomous, a divine law unto itself, and it possesses authority (B). The church belongs to the necessary historical and social mediation of salvation. To think that the Christian individual can dispense with religion and its social dimension is an illusion (C).

A. Christianity Is Necessarily Church (VII.4.A, p. 342). “Christianity must be constituted as a church.” That is Rahner’s central thesis. In saying that, he does not mean that the church must necessary be constituted in this way or that. He means rather that joining with others belongs to the very “religious existence” of humanity. It is not just a religious organization, but helps constitute the human being’s relation to God.

To be sure, the person who does not belong to a church does not thereby "lose" salvation. Indeed, such a person can have an ultimate and decisive relation to God. But church is the norm, says Rahner. Ecclesial Christianity is "the full and historical actualized Christianity of God's self-communication" (343).

The rightly-understood idea of church is one which springs from God's supernatural self-communication in Jesus Christ. This self-communication is not a relation between God and the isolated individual, but is rather a communication between God and the essence of humanity. That essence includes communal and social intercommunication.

B. The Autonomous Character of the Claim of Jesus Christ's Message (VII.4.B, p. 343). An element of what Rahner calls “the authoritative” belongs to the essence of the Christian religion. The call of God is not a merely transcendental affair, but comes in history. Religion becomes historically real not just when an individual accepts it in accord with his or her private mentality. No, it becomes real when the Christian adopts it as the religion of God, given by God to those who will treasure and conserve it. Religion must be acknowledged as a reality independent of the recipient – if it is to be something not merely at the recipient’s disposal.

To be sure, the objective, the authoritative, the institutional aspect of religion cannot take the place of Christianity's personal dimension. One must realize one's faith subjectively. Still, there is something in religion that obligates the individual, Rahner says. Religion is necessarily objective and one can orient oneself to it.

Religion must, in the end, be a "norm" for one's subjectivity. Christianity is the religion of a jealous God who makes demands on a chosen people. Without the autonomy of religion, that people is "abandoned" to its own poverty, problems, and the potentiality of distorting religion. The mission, mandate, and proclamation of the church "make the reality of salvation present for me" (344).

C. The Necessary Historical and Social Mediation of Salvation (VII.4.C, p. 345). History itself has salvific significance, says Rahner. Salvation does not take place merely in a subjective and transcendental interiority. For that reason, salvation must be mediated in history and society. The church belongs to the salvation history of God’s grace. It is “the categorical concreteness and the mediation of salvation and grace” (345). It expresses the transcendental.

It is an illusion, Rahner says, to think that human beings can organize themselves in a "reasonable" and "social" way and, at the same time, can abstain from any particular world view. Even supposedly "secular" state states make use of ideology and embody a particular world-view. In short, the "social" and the "human" dimensions of humanity are inextricably linked. So for Christianity to affirm that the Christian individual is also an "ecclesial being" with allegiance to a social view of Christian faith is not an incomprehensible statement. It reflects the fundamentally social nature of the human being.

Part 5: An Indirect Method for Showing the Legitimacy of the Catholic Church as the Church of Christ

(VII.5, p. 346). Rahner’s indirect method is not to try to solve the many historical questions about the division among the many branches of Christianity (A). His aim is rather to lay down some general principles about the necessity of Christianity being ecclesial, then apply them to his own Roman Catholic tradition (B). He starts by asserting the unity of the churches in the apostolic age, and then argues that even Evangelical Christians will admit that there existed some continuity between early Christianity and the Reformation (C). He then notes, on anthropological grounds, that it is legitimate for an adult to trust the faith handed down by earlier generations – and that Catholic theologians should acknowledge a certain legitimacy in the Protestant Christianity handed down to faithful people outside Catholicism (D). One must be satisfied that one’s church is “Christian,” but one need not become a theologian to reach that satisfaction (E). Next, Rahner tries to distinguish this basic principle from what he calls “ecclesial relativism.” His first norm is that the church of Jesus Christ had to exist until Reformation times, however unfaithful individual Christians were (F). His second norm is an appeal to experience: Rahner claims to have found the reality of Christian faith in Roman Catholicism (G). His third norm is that for any church to call itself Christian, it must exist in an authoritative way independently of the believer (H). When Rahner seeks his three norms, he finds them in Catholic Christianity (I). Moreover, he argues that the continuity between the church after the Council of Trent and the earliest church is stronger in Roman Catholicism than in any other branch of Christianity (J). Rahner then looks at the three “solas” of Evangelical Christianity (sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura) and asks what the Catholic can learn from them (K). He believes that these have helped all Christians to “crystallize” what is most essential about the faith (L). The divisions among Christians are interpreted as God’s effort to purify the faith (M). There is more that divided Christians have in common than that which separates them (N).

A. Introduction (VII.5.A, p. 346). The normal method of fundamental theology, namely, to offer a direct historical proof that the Roman Catholic Church is the church of Christ, involves many difficult historical questions. Rahner says that this normal method is not practical and feasible for most Catholics. So he proposes an “indirect” method. He promises to show first the formal principles of his method, and then to apply those principles to the Catholic Church.

B. On the Necessity of Church (VII.5.B, p. 347). Church is “necessary” because (1) the human being is a historical and social being, and because (2) “Christianity claims the whole person for the salvation of the whole person” (347). It is an authoritative religion because Christianity is more than an affair of pious and subjective dispositions. In addition, it makes a claim that is the concretion of God’s demands. They are demands made by Jesus and his church. So the church is, first of all, necessary. The ordinary Christian believer necessarily belongs to a concrete and historical church.

C. The Church of Jesus Christ Must Be One Church (VII.5.C, p. 348). In addition to being necessary, the church of Christ is one church. It is not just a group of Christians forming pious communities, but comes objectively and with authority as the representative of Christ. The NT, and especially the writings of John and Paul, presupposes this unity. To be sure, the church exists wherever there is true Eucharist, Baptism, and Gospel. But the existence of these three presupposes the one church.

We do not have first individual communities or churches that combine for ideological reasons into a single church. No, the single reality that is church comes first, and manifests itself in the various communities. This is Paul's basic teaching, and Rahner puts it this way: "one and the same people of God filled with the Spirit of God becomes manifest in every local community" (349). Although the various "churches" of early Christianity were spread out and apparently independent, they had common features. Rahner lists them as follows: they were founded by those who carried out the mission of Jesus, they were led by an apostle (even if he was not present), they exchanged letters, and they were built upon Peter as the rock.

Even Protestant Christians recognize that the oneness and unity of the church is not for Christians to decide as they will. While there remains much disagreement about how the Christian church is to be one, nevertheless the conviction exists that there ought to be one church, and that its unity has not yet been sufficiently realized.

D. Legitimate Confidence in One's Own Ecclesial Community (VII.5.D, p. 350). Individual Christians have a right to assume that their ecclesial existence is legitimate. To be sure, individuals can and do break out of the situation of their existence, encounter an “existentiell revolution,” and conclude that the religion of their parents is inauthentic. But this is not the norm. No one can project the totality of his existence in an absolutely new way. The norm is to presume the legitimacy of the ecclesial situation bestowed by history. One trusts one’s parents, accepts one’s culture, and presumes the legitimacy of received values.

If this is true, then "it makes things more difficult for Catholic fundamental theology as an apologetic for the Roman Catholic Church which is also intended for other Christians" (351). How is Catholic theology to "come to terms with the fact of this real and genuine Christian experience which comes from other ecclesial denominations"? (351). Every genuine Christian experience, including the experience of Protestant Christians, "must be regarded as an experience of the power of our existence which is really grounded in the mystery of God" (351).

E. Criteria and Presuppositions (VII.5.E, 352). All Christians find themselves in a concrete experience of Christianity, in a specific Christian church. Good conscience demands that they examine whether this church contradicts the basic substance of Christianity. Further, Christians must judge how closely their church stands to the origins of Christianity in its ecclesial constitution. To be sure, ordinary Christians do not have to master all the exegetical, historical, and dogmatic questions of technical theology. But they must be satisfied that their church is truly Christian – however incomplete the basis for reflection is.

F. The Criterion of Continuity with the Origin as a Defense Against Ecclesiological Relativism (VII.5.F, p. 352). We can rely upon the concrete Christian church that has come to us, says Rahner, “if it has the closest possible historical approximation to the original Christian church of Jesus Christ” (352-353). The goal of all Christians is to affirm that their own church is indeed “the church of Christ.”

Although many people today would say that the church to which one wants to belong is "a question merely of historical accident and individual taste," nevertheless Rahner disagrees. Such a view was completely foreign to the sixteenth-century Reformers. They presumed that the true church of Jesus Christ had to exist somewhere. The Catholic Church could not be the true church, they agreed, because it lacked the basic elements of the Augsburg Confession. In it they found no genuine preaching of the gospel, no legitimate authority, and no correct administration of the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist.

Ecclesial relativism presupposes either that the true church of Christ as he willed it does not exist, or that it exists to such an extent among all the divided church "that it does not really have to be brought about" (353).

Against this relativism, Rahner proposes what he calls his first norm. It is that the Christian church began with Jesus Christ. The church of the intervening centuries, however depraved and unfaithful, supplied a continuity from the time of Jesus to Reformation times. No Protestant Christian, says Rahner, will argue that the Christian church began with the Reformation. Many Protestants will assert that their own churches have a concrete, historical continuity with the church of original Christianity.

G. The Criterion of Preserving the Basic Substance of Christianity (VII.5.G, p. 354). The second norm or principle in Rahner’s indirect method of justifying Catholic Christianity is that the “basic substance” of Christianity “may not be fundamentally denied in concrete Catholicism” (354). With this norm, Rahner departs from traditional ecclesiology. He does not want to argue, he says, that the basic substance of Christianity is guaranteed by the structures of Roman Catholicism. Instead he argues that he, in his concrete experience of faith, has experienced the reality of Christianity. His concrete experience as a Roman Catholic “does not contradict the basic substance of Christianity” which he has found in his own existence.

The true church can exist only where the gospel is preached in its purity, according to the Augsburg Confession, and that (Rahner says) is perfectly correct. An ecclesial community that denies a basic principle of Christianity cannot be the true church of Christ. So Rahner appeals to the Holy Spirit. He says that the Spirit bears witness to the reality of his own Christian experience.

H. The Criterion of Objective Authority (VII.5.H, p. 355). Rahner’s third norm or principle is that “the religious community of church must obviously exist as a reality which is independent of my subjectivity” (355). The church has an authority which stands over the believer and articulates a Christian reality which can never be reduced to an individual’s interpretation. Without a doubt, every objective reality is mediated in one’s own conscience. For me to perceive a Christian teaching as true, it must be true for me. But this does not alter the Rahnerian postulate: “Christian religiosity is not yet religion unless it includes the concrete and social reality of a church which is independent of me” (355). An authentically Christian church has an authority that is greater than one’s own subjective judgment.

vI. The Special Application of These Criteria in Our Situation (VII.5.I, p. 356). In this section, Rahner lays the basis for his application of the three norms, i.e., continuity, subjectivity, and objective authority. First, Christian truths do not all have the same existentiell and salvific significance, says Rahner, because there is a hierarchy of truths. The acknowledgment of this hierarchy, referred to in the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio, no. 11), means that some truths of the faith are more foundational than others.

Next, Rahner says that "other Christians" live in grace, are filled, with Spirit, are justified, and so on. To an extent, they are already united with other Christians. Finally, he says that only Evangelical Christianity (i.e., the Protestantism that remains close to its pre-Reformation roots) can be a question for Roman Catholics. Evangelical Christianity belongs, says Rahner, to the Roman Catholic's own history. By contrast, the Christianity of, say, Jehovah's Witnesses or the Latter Day Saints has severed its relation to the Reformation.

J. The Historical Continuity of the Catholic Church (VII.5.J, p. 357). Rahner’s basic conviction is that the Catholic Church most decisively accords with his three norms or principles. “It possesses in the concrete a closer, more evident, and less encumbered historical continuity with the church of the past going all the way back to apostolic times” (357).

To be sure, Rahner refuses to establish this connection by means of a detailed investigation. He says that such an investigation is beyond the scope of the Foundations. He believes such an investigation is unnecessary. "The historical continuity between the post-tridentine and post-Reformation church and the ancient church is greater, more evident and less ambiguous in the Catholic church," he says, "than in the other ecclesial communities, including those of Evangelical Christianity" (357).

Rahner insists upon the Petrine Office, which provides a continuity with the "Roman episcopacy" of the ancient church. It is hard for the Evangelical church to declare, he suggests, that this feature is superfluous or unchristian. Evangelicals rightly insist, he says, on justification by faith, gospel, Baptism and Eucharist. And no one can deny that the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages showed "massive tendencies" in its life, practice, and mentality that contradicted the central concerns of Evangelicals.

Having said that, however, Rahner makes a case for the Catholic's confidence in today's church. The contemporary Catholic need not concede, he says, that the church of the Middle Ages taught something "which was so contrary to the real and basic concerns of the reformers" (359) that its teaching would force him or her out of the Catholic church.

K. The Criterion of Preserving the Basic Substance in the Light of Reformation Controversies (VII.5.K, p. 359). Rahner proposes to examine the three basic “only’s” of the Reformation – only grace, only faith, and only scripture – in order to show that membership in the Catholic Church is possible for the conscientious Christian.

K (i). Sola Gratia: By Grace Alone (VII.5.K.i, p. 359). In this section, Rahner aims to show that the Evangelical linchpin, the doctrine that we are saved by God’s grace alone, is no less a linchpin for Roman Catholics. To be sure, Catholics reject predestination in the name of human freedom. But Protestants insist upon human freedom as well. All Christians must freely accept that their salvation is God’s initiative. Humans contribute nothing to salvation that is not, first and foremost, God’s free gift. In that sense, Protestants and Catholics agree.

K (ii). Sola Fide: By Faith Alone (VII.5.K.ii, p. 360). Sola Fide is the subjective side, Rahner says, of the Sola Gratia doctrine. The response to God’s grace is not a “work” of human beings, but “faith” in Paul’s sense. Faith is, of course, based on interior hope and must be fulfilled by love. Scholastic theology may have distinguished these, Rahner admits, in a “somewhat schematic” fashion. But they remain interconnected. To this Evangelical theology cannot object.

K (iii). Sola Scriptura: Scripture Alone (VII.5.K.iii, p. 361). The third basic “sola” is one against which Catholics may object. Catholics insist that the gospel comes from scripture and tradition, and not from scripture alone. Rahner starts from the concrete position of scripture studies in Evangelical Christianity today. Evangelicals will grant, he says, that scripture is a product of the church. It is based on the preaching of the living church, and so is the “result” of tradition. One cannot explain the formation of the canon without reference to the relation between scripture and tradition.

Rahner than goes on to assert that Evangelical Christianity has abandoned the principle of "verbal" inspiration of scripture. The doctrine of verbal inspiration views scripture as "the one and only product which comes immediately from God independently of any historical . . . process of becoming" (362). This has been abandoned, Rahner, claims. Because it has been abandoned, he says, one cannot "still maintain the principle of scripture alone in the sense which it had at the time of the reformation" (362).

Finally, Rahner argues that the principle of scripture as a norma non normata (a norm which is not mediated by others) can still be affirmed by Catholics. It is affirmed in two ways: first, in the sense that the church "does not receive any new revelation over and beyond this scripture" (363); and second, that the task of the church's teaching office is "to remain within the ultimate and eschatological revelation which has been handed down" (363) in scripture.

The substance of faith is immutable, but it can develop. Developments need to be judged by an objective authority, and the Catholic church claims that it can give a basic interpretation of scripture that is binding on individual Christians. God's word in scripture is capable of forming faith, but it does so (the Catholic believes) in the preaching of the concrete church. The norm for the teaching office in the Catholic church is not its own subjective view, but scripture itself (says Rahner), "for it does not receive any new revelations" (365).

L. The Three Reformation "Only's" and Catholicism: The Result (VII.5.L, p. 365). The three Reformation “only’s” should not lead one out of the Catholic Church, says Rahner. On the contrary, they have a central place in Catholicism. Other Evangelical theologies (e.g., Rudolf Bultmann’s theology of demythologizing) may well lead one out, but not the core teachings of the Reformers, because they embraced the traditional creeds.

M. The Positive Significance of Evangelical Christianity for the Catholic Church (VII.5.M, p. 366). Evangelical Christianity has significance for Catholic Christianity. It has crystallized the Christian faith, reduced it “to the ultimate, to what is most specific, to the animating power, and to that which gives Christianity its ultimate meaning” (367). Thanks to the “goad” of the Reformation, there has been a “corrective influence” on Catholics. Evangelical Christianity belongs to the historical moments that have had a powerful and beneficial impact on Catholicism.

N. The Fundamental Unity of Christianity and the Question About the "Meaning" of the Division (VII.5.N, p. 367). Why did God allow the division of Christianity? In order to answer this question, Rahner lays down two important assumptions: first, that Christians are united in a more radical sense than they are divided; and second, that the majority of Christians exist in a “guiltless” relation to their own churches and to other churches.

Having said that, Rahner concludes that the division among the Christian churches was allowed by God in order to make the reality of Christianity more clearly seen. Without the division, we would not experience the truths of Christianity as clearly as we do. "We have to force each other," Rahner says, "mutually to be and to become as Christian as possible" (369). This, he hopes, will help those from different churches to develop a theological unity, each working from within different traditions.

To read the remainder of this text, please order the printed version of The Foundations of Karl Rahner by Mark F. Fischer, published in 2005 by Crossroad Publishing (ISBN 0824523423).

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