“They can demonstrate the effect of the law engraved on their hearts, to which their own conscience bears witness.”
- Romans 2:15, New Jerusalem Bible
In hisDictionary of Theology, KarlRahnerdefines “anonymous Christianity” as the fact that:
“...a person can deserve God's grace and thus salvation even if he,inculpably, is not formally a member of the church, is not baptized, indeed even considers himself to be an atheist.”1
On the face of it, Rahner's definition challenges our notions of church membership as a token of “chosenness”. Going deeper still, we are faced with the option of foregoing evangelism infavourof a new theology whose premise is that God wills that all be saved. Yet one would not be true to Rahner's own vision unless one were to examine the context of his proposition.
For Rahner, the nature of God's revelation to humanity allows for ana prioricapacity for faith.2 He points to a transcendentalism in both God's communication to humanity and in the vessel of that grace, humanity itself, which grants inner, experiential knowledge that precedes and informs the creedal formulations of explicit Christianity.
Thepredicamentalor historical aspect of revelation, then, is also dependent upon the transcendental; God's revelation progresses from the general (yet personal) to thesalvific, from the knowledge of the existence of God to an encounter with Christ. According to this view, we are led from the objective reality of creation which testifies to the glory of God, to the subjective, personal offer of redemption of the cross.
Rahner considers the current reality of aEurocentricchurch and offers a fresh commentary on the predicament of those persons belonging to other cultures, one which does not presuppose their misery.3 Rather, he reaffirms what St. Paul said in Romans, namely, that God has been revealed to all of humankind. The Gospel, too, has touched everyone whether they have responded to it or not, indeed, even if they have never even heard it, for Christ said “When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all people to myself.” (John 12: 32).
An anonymous Christian may be one who follows the promptings of the inner voice, but who, for reasons of culture or disdain for the hypocrisy of professing believers, does not identify with the external, visible component of the church. The writer of this paper's own mother may be classified as something of an anonymous Christian. She received healing from osteoarthritis by calling on the name of Jesus and has begun attending services, but for fear of reprisal from herMoslempeers, she has not committed to catechism or baptism as of yet. Her day-to-day dying to self, however, lends her the vestments of a true believer.
What of the fears espoused by some, that Rahner's understanding may lead people away from the task of evangelism, called for so explicitly in the Bible and by theMagisterium? In fact this is a good question, which will serve to clarify Rahner's position. Anonymous Christianity does not downplay the importance of explicit faith; rather, it serves as a marker pointing to the fuller potential yet to be realized, a faith that is to be recognized and celebrated and nurtured.4
In Rahner's eyes, “...there must be degrees of membership in the church... from the explicitness of baptism into a non-official and anonymous Christianity.”5 He links this state of justifying grace to a positive inner disposition towards Christ.6 The magisterial support for this position comes from Vatican II, which affirms that those persons, who no fault of their own, have never heard the Gospel, may be saved.7
The idea of anonymous faith is not one that is foreign to the Bible, either. RecallNaamanthe Syrian asking Elisha to forgive him if he stood before an idol (2 Kings 5:18). Jesus, too, pointed out the superiority of a faith of works over a faith of explicit confession (Matthew 7:21-27). Rahner'sthought helps shine a light on some sensitive areas and encourages us to reach out to the lost, who, in his eyes, have already the seeds of explicit faith in their hearts.
Moore, S. Karl Rahner's Notion of the Anonymos Christian. (Toronto: St. Michael's College, 1971).
New Jerusalem Bible. A. Cowan, nihil obstat. (New York: Doubleday, 1990).
Rahner, K. “Anonymous Christians”,Theological Investigations, VI, trans. by Karl and Boniface Kruger (London: Darton,Longmanand Todd, 1969).†
Rahner, K. “Anonymous Christianity and the Missionary Task of the Church”,International Documentation on the Contemporary Church, April, 1970.†
Rahner, K. “Can We Still Believe?” inDo You Believe in God,edited by Richard Strachan (trans.), p. 9-11. 1969. PaulistPress.
Rahner, K. “Theological Interpretation” inSacramentum Mundi,Vol.5 . 1970. Herder & Herder.
Rahner, K. and H.Vorgrimler,Theological Dictionary, trans. by R.Strachan(New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1981).
Vatican II,Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: LumenGentium, Art. 8. Acta Apostolicae Sedis57 (1965) 12 . English trans. from W. Abbott, ed.,The Documents of Vatican II, trans. ed., J. Gallagher (New York: Guild Press, 1966), p. 23.†
1 Rahner, K. and H. Vorgrimler, Theological Dictionary, trans. By R.Strachan(New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1981), p. 15.
2 Rahner, K. “Theological Interpretation” in Sacramentum Mundi,Vol.5, p. 350. 1970. Herder & Herder.
3 Rahner, K. “Can We Still Believe?” in Do You Believe in God,edited by Richard Strachan (trans.), p. 9-11. 1969. PaulistPress.
4 Ibid, p. 11; Rahner, K. and H. Vorgrimler, Theological Dictionary, trans. by R. Strachan (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1981), p. 15.
5 Rahner, K. “Anonymous Christians”, Theological Investigations, VI, trans. by Karl and Boniface Kruger (London: Darton,Longmanand Todd, 1969), p. 391.
6 Rahner, K. “Anonymous Christianity and the Missionary Task of the Church”, International Documentation on the Contemporary Church, April, 1970, pp. 75-76.
7Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, Art. 16. AAS57 (1065) 20. Abbot, p. 35; One is reminded of the Lord's descent to Sheol where he preached salvation to the souls from the time of the flood (I Peter 3:19).
- † These references were not accessed directly, but were found in Moore.