Reflections on the Resurrected Christ
Karl Rahner, “Dogmatic Questions on Easter,” translated by Kevin Smyth, in Theological Investigations, volume 4, More Recent Writings (New York: Seabury Press, 1974).1,2
Karl Rahner was a German Jesuit priest who is widely considered to have been one of the foremost Roman Catholic theologians of our time. Rahner was born in Freiburg-im-Breisgau, Baden, Germany, on March 5, 1904, and died on March 31, 1984, in Innsbruck, Austria.3
After attending a gymnasium, [Karl Rahner] entered the Society of Jesus at the age of eighteen. He studied philosophy three years at the seminary of the Order in Pullach near Munich; taught two years at the Jesuit gymnasium in Feldkirch, Austria; and spent four years studying theology at the Jesuit seminary in Valkenburg, Holland. In 1932 he was ordained in Munich. His theological studies ended, and he followed Martin Heidegger’s courses at Freiburg for several semesters. In 1937 he began his academic career, which took him to Innsbruck, Vienna and Pullach, and in 1948 back to Innsbruck as professor ordinarius of dogmatic theology.4
Karl Rahner served as a theological expert at Vatican Council II, where he strongly influenced modern Catholicism. Both Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI were among those who publicly acknowledged their debt to his thinking.5 At the same time, Rahner was equally well known for his defense of Edward Schillebeeckx of the Netherlands in 1968, when this Flemish theologian was attacked for heresy as a result of his calls for more freedom of theological research within the Church and for theological pluralism.6
As Jakob Laubach has so eloquently inferred, Karl Rahner was committed to “man’s century-long struggle for self-understanding — that concern which would enable [man] to see God as the One whose own word became man, so that man once again might discover his selfhood in Him as the great mystery of divine love.”7
The Christian Church and the Resurrection
In his provocative essay “Dogmatic Questions on Easter,” Karl Rahner has confronted our generation with startling truth concerning the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Rahner shows that the Christian church has focused for 2,000 years on the incarnation of Christ (his conception and birth) and on the sufferings and death of Christ (atoning and substitutionary sacrifice). However, only recently has the church focused on the historical Christ, and there is virtually no focus at all on the resurrected Christ. Furthermore, Rahner contends that the church, to preserve its own interests, has actually avoided reflection on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It has deliberately fostered the “disappearance of the mediatory function of [the risen] Christ in salvation.” As Rahner states, “every text-book today offers a long treatise on Good Friday and disposes of Easter in a few lines.”8 What are the reasons for this?
1. “Occidental theology adopted a purely juridical [legal] interpretation of the redemption and of the meaning of Christ for salvation. . . . The one decisive event is Good Friday alone, as such. . . . Easter is really only interesting with regard to the private destiny of Jesus. It can have no real significance with regard to salvation.”
2. The humanity of Christ after his resurrection was obscured by those who determined to have “an immediate vision of God. . . . There seemed to be no room here for the humanity [of the risen] Christ. . . . The constant intercession of the risen Lord . . . and the bliss of conversing with him in his humanity, appeared almost as an anthropomorphism. It is no wonder that the piety of the West, refusing of course to abandon Christ and not finding sufficient satisfaction in the earthly life of Jesus, concentrated on the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.”
3. “The struggle of the church against Arianism . . . also contributed to the minimizing of the resurrection in theology and piety.” Arianism, named after the Greek Christian theologian Arius (d. 336 CE), denied that Jesus was of the same substance as God and instead held that he was only the highest of created beings.9 The church felt that any emphasis on the humanity of the risen Christ would compromise his divinity and support the Arian heresy.
4. The church concentrated on the “divinization of the creature by the Godhead who assumed it.” The church felt that “the cosmic process of divinization inaugurated by the incarnation could bridge the gulf between God and the creature, and attain its definitive triumph in the resurrection of Christ.”
The Death of Christ and the Resurrection
Paradoxically, the church’s failure to appreciate the significance of the resurrection of Christ and his mediatorial presence with man is the consequence of the church’s misunderstanding of Christ’s death as simply a legal act of sacrifice. Rather, “the human death of Christ . . . is the totality of the life of Christ in act, the definitive act of his freedom, the complete integration of his time on earth [his history] with his human eternity.” Then “the resurrection of Christ is essentially, and not merely through being juridically [legally] accepted by God, the event in which God irrevocably adopts the creature as his own reality.” When in his resurrection Christ adopted the creature as his own reality, he did not deny, forsake or abandon his history, nor did he deny, forsake or abandon man’s history.10
As the Catholic theologian Wilhelm Bruening rightly observed:
God loves more than the molecules that happen to be in the body at the time of death. He loves a body that is marked by all the tribulation and also by the ceaseless longing of a pilgrimage, a body that has left behind many traces in the course of this pilgrimage in a world which has become human through these very traces. . . . Resurrection of the body means that none of all this is lost to God, since he loves man. He has gathered together all dreams and not a single smile has escaped his notice. Resurrection of the body means that in God man rediscovers not only his last moment but his history.11
For 2,000 years the Christian church has avoided the truth of God’s adoption of the creature as his own reality. This reality was irrevocably realized in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Rather than exalting Christ’s transcendent humanity, the church has sought to divinize itself and to live in the immediate presence of the divine.
If we may use the scriptural expression that likens a thousand years to one “day” (Psalm 90:4; 1 Peter 3:8), we can say that two “days” have elapsed since the first Easter. Now, at the end of the millennium, we behold the dawning light of a new “day.” As we behold this third “day,” we now can begin to see the profound, eternal meaning of Christ’s resurrection.
- Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations Volume IV, is available from various booksellers listed in BookFinder at www.bookfinder.com/search/?ac=sl&st=sl&ref=bf_s2_a1_t1_1&qi=wrTwRGawdLcqZwmxp74Zwn0X5AM_1497963026_1:1:2&bq=author%3Dkarl%2520rahner%26title%3Dtheological%2520investigations%252C%2520volume%2520iv. (go back)
- Quotations not endnoted are from Karl Rahner, “Dogmatic Questions on Easter,” tr. Kevin Smyth, in Theological Investigations, vol. 4, More Recent Writings (New York: Seabury Press, 1974). (go back)
- See New Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “Rahner, Karl.” (go back)
- Jakob Laubach, “Karl Rahner,” in Leonhard Reinisch, ed., Theologians of Our Time (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1964), pp. 182, 183. (go back)
- See Encyclopedia Americana, s.v. “Rahner, Karl.” (go back)
- See note 3. (go back)
- Laubach, “Karl Rahner,” pp. 182, 183. (go back)
- Rahner, “Dogmatic Questions on Easter,” pp. 121-133. (go back)
- See American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, s.v. “Arius”/“Arianism.” (go back)
- See note 2. (go back)
- William Bruening, quoted by Hans Küng, Eternal Life? Life after Death as a Medical, Philosophical, and Theological Problem (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1991), pp. 111, 112. (go back)
This article was originally published April 1994 under the Quest imprint.