Grace for a new generation

Galvin, John P.

THE BUHNER REVOLUTION-1 Grace for a new generation JOHN P. GALVIN NOT quite ten months have passed since the German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner died at Innsbruck on March 30,1984. It is far too...

...BY RE-ARTICULATING the Christian message as a unified account of God's self-gift to the world, Karl Rahner transformed the face of Catholic theology...
...But Neo-Scholasticism could not be displaced by individual criticisms, no matter how compelling...
...His achievement was of a different order, and of greater importance...
...Judgments of that sort, risky under all circumstances, require at a minimum the perspective afforded solely by the passage of time...
...so too did the history of its human acceptance...
...Against this procedure, Rahner argued in behalf of conceiving christology in close conjunction with the theology of grace...
...In part for legitimate pedagogical reasons, in part on specious theoretical grounds, Neo-Scholasticism divided its account of Jesus Christ into three distinct areas, all separated from its theology of grace...
...Such a conception of Christianity could address the urgent religious need to retrace the disparate "mysteries" of Christian faith to the one core mystery from which they came...
...Again, an awareness of the state of the question as it stood at the time of his writing is an essential prerequisite to understanding his contribution...
...they were also starting points for new exploration...
...The broad outlines of his conception have exerted a strong influence on contemporary theology...
...While these choices may simply reflect the placement of emphasis, other alternatives are mutually exclusive...
...Commonweal: 42...
...Jesus' public life and resurrection were examined in fundamental theology, from the limited perspective of his public claim to messianic authority and the divine confirmation of that claim in the events after his death...
...Contemporary discussions of the relationship of Christianity to other religions, of liberation theology, and of Christian spirituality are all cases in point...
...In 1950, fearing that the gratuity of grace was compromised in the nouvelle theologie, Pope Pius XII denounced its proposals in the encyclical Humani Generis, and harsh administrative measures were taken against the theologians involved...
...It may stress the theme of God's personal presence (uncreated grace) or the theme of grace as a created gift of God (created grace...
...Karl Rahner received his doctorate in theology in 1936, and began to teach dogmatics the following year...
...Since human openness toward God would be meaningful even without grace, as the enabling condition of human knowledge and volition, nature did not require that grace be given...
...In each of these instances, Neo-Scholastic theology typically opted for the second alternative...
...ANY THEOLOGY of grace is forced to set certain accents and to make certain decisions...
...Adapting both Scholastic theological vocabulary and the philosophical terminology of Martin Heidegger, Rahner coined the term "supernatural existential" to describe this transformation of the human condition: it was "supernatural" because it was a result of God's free self-gift...
...Yet Rahner diverged from Neo-Scholasticism in decisive respects...
...indeed, grace was so far above nature that its presence could not be experienced apart from unusual mystical states...
...Rahner therefore proposed a basic identification of Jesus as the definitive Savior...
...The result was a conception in which the personal initiative of God was safeguarded, while the ominous separation of grace and life was overcome...
...God's self-gift to the world was not limited to the interior life of isolated individuals...
...According to this theology, human nature provided no obstacle to the conferral of grace, but had no positive orientation toward it...
...Drawing on earlier philosophical studies and spiritual writings, he envisioned the human person as "spirit in world'' always oriented toward God in every act of knowing and willing...
...or it may see grace as quite separate from nature, perhaps even inaccessible to human experience...
...Commonweal: 40 He shared by temperament and training the Scholastic predilection for speculative thinking, and was keenly aware of the practical significance of many issues which seemed, at first glance, abstruse and recondite...
...The key to its construction lay in rethinking the theology of grace and christology...
...THE INDISPENSABLE counterpart to Rahner's reflection on the theology of grace lies in his reexamination of christol-ogy...
...Far from being the end of Jesus' existence, this death led of itself to resurrection not a separate event, but the final, permanent validity of Jesus' personal existence before God...
...In Rahner's judgment, anthropoeentrism was not, in its core, inimical to Christianity...
...The properties of grace were analyzed in considerable detail, but with an unmistakable tendency to envision grace in less than personal terms, to speak of it as one would speak of a sub-human reality...
...in keeping with the social, historical dimension of human existence, grace, when freely offered, necessarily sought public expression in human history...
...Finally, explanation of the salvific work of Christ looked solely at his death, defending Anselm of Canterbury's interpretation of the Crucifixion as satisfaction vicariously offered to God for human sin...
...it is not without reason that the New Testament includes four Gospels...
...The person of Christ was considered in isolation from his life, with focus on the teaching of the Councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451) on Christ's divinity and humanity...
...On the contrary, it was an outgrowth of central Christian convictions...
...In effect, Rahner's option 25 January 1985:41 on each of the four choices mentioned above was just the opposite of that of Neo-Scholastic theology...
...The traditional christological formulations were not only definitive accomplishments inherited from the Christian past...
...In keeping with the nature of human freedom, the decisive act of Jesus' life-history could be nothing other than death, when Jesus, epitomizing his entire life, entrusted himself fully into the hands of his Father...
...While each of these topics involves further complex questions, Rahner's influence is an unmistakable factor in their discussion...
...While we have in this world no final dwelling place, not even theologically, we may well be grateful to him for a new vantage point from which to venture forth...
...As a result of these characteristics, it was theologically unproductive and spiritually sterile...
...It did not fall short of conciliar affirmations, for only one who stood in the unique relationship to God portrayed in classical christology could be the definitive salvific figure...
...they have helped overcome false dichotomies and transformed Catholic thought in a number of respects...
...Unlike most major theologians, he did not publish well-rounded studies of broader fields of theological inquiry...
...As a result, over the-course of more than four decades, Karl Rahner transformed the face of Catholic theology...
...Yet Neo-Scholasticism did not suffice to address the pressing religious issues of the day...
...It may concentrate on grace as the perfection of a human nature which is itself God's good creation, or on grace as divine healing of the wounds of sin...
...Yet, at least to modern ears, it was more carefully protected against tendencies to undercut Jesus' humanity...
...At that time, Catholic thought was firmly dominated by Neo-Scholasticism, a system which had arisen in the second half of the nineteenth century as an antidote to the chief intellectual currents of father JOHN p. galvin is professor of systematic theology at St...
...Unlike the medieval predecessors from which it drew much of its content, it was born of a spirit of reaction and closed to the world in which it lived...
...offered universally, though freely, God's self-gift transformed the core of human life...
...His thought is not the definitive expression of Christian faith...
...At first hearing, they may seem abstract and foreign to our immediate concerns...
...It could boast of serious scholarly accomplishment, especially in historical investigation of the great figures of medieval theology research which, ironically, served to undermine its own pretensions to absoluteness...
...Karl Rahner contributed more than any other theologian to the renewal of Catholic theology in the twentieth century...
...Explicit discussions of the theology of grace are less common today than they were thirty years ago...
...Rahner's own treatments of diverse issues, ranging from the purpose of the sacraments to the question of salvation outside the church, are in large part a pursuit of the implications of his understanding of grace...
...The depersonalized notion of grace, the sharp separation of grace and nature, and the confinement of grace to certain portions of life entailed serious consequences of a religious and pastoral nature, affecting as they did understanding of the relationship of church and world, of philosophy and theology, of liturgy and life...
...The corollary of all this, unintended but inevitable, was that grace had little to do with everyday existence...
...In Jesus, God's self-gift reached its insurpassable historical climax...
...It may hold that grace, while remaining God's free gift, is in fact constantly and universally present in the world...
...no theology is...
...A renewed theology of grace is one of his most significant, most salutary contributions to theology...
...More detailed incorporation of biblical material and more explicit consideration of ecumenical issues are also desirable...
...The proposed christology was open to being filled out in more detail, especially by exegetical investigation...
...or that grace is offered only intermittently, in certain privileged times and circumstances...
...It was Rahner's achievement, in this historical context, to develop a new theology of grace one which safeguarded the free divine initiative and yet avoided seeing grace as a foreign element in the universe, extrinsic to the world in which we live...
...without it, the current resurgence of interest in christology on the part of Catholic exegetes and theologians would scarcely be conceivable...
...In the years immediately following the Second World War, a number of French theologians, moved by both historical research and pastoral considerations, criticized the Neo-Scholastic conception of theology, in particular its conception of the relationship of grace and nature...
...Promoted vigorously by the church's magis-terium and widely influential in catechetical instruction, Neo-Scholastic theology was the chief vehicle in which the faith was articulated at all levels, the common language of Catholic thought...
...Yet a sufficient period has elapsed to permit, even demand, a modest appraisal, a provisional stock-taking of Rahner's theological significance, and an initial indication of the tasks likely to claim the attention of theologians who follow in his wake...
...In addition to offering a multiplicity of individual insights, Rahner, more than any other theologian of this century, enriched our basic understanding of the Gospel...
...The need for a renewal of theology was evident in many quarters, and various efforts in this regard had already been undertaken...
...Christian faith could legitimately and appropriately be seen as the highest confirmation of human existence, the fulfillment of the deepest human longings...
...it could only be challenged by a new conception of theology, a new paradigm of comparable or greater integrative power, able to incorporate in a new synthesis all the essential elements of Christian faith...
...Armed with a fixed catalogue of questions and answers oriented narrowly on the church's dogmatic tradition, it tended to classify both biblical thought and patristic theology as mere precursors of its own final synthesis, to be mined for support where this was feasible, ignored where it was not...
...It focused attention on created grace as a divine aid owed to no creature...
...Yet this is only one aspect of Rahner's conception...
...The theme of grace as overcoming evil, as salvific interruption of what ought not be, could well be accented more strongly...
...Yet, when offered, grace touched the core of human life and permeated every aspect of human existence and human history...
...Properly understood, this deceptively simple formulation reflected the way in which the historical Jesus had seen himself, and contained in essence all that Christian faith confessed about its Lord...
...Required were both fidelity to the dogmatic tradition of Catholic theology and an ability to wrest hitherto unsuspected meaning from the traditional material...
...Emphasis on God's free initiative in the offer of grace led to limiting its presence and to positing a sharp dichotomy between grace and nature...
...marked by defensiveness and hostility, it was more disposed to reject alternative views than to engage in constructive dialogue with them...
...Through pursuit of principles inherent in Christianity, Rahner developed a new, comprehensive vision of the disparate elements of Christian faith as aspects of one fundamental mystery: God's self-gift to the world...
...Rahner was well-versed in Scholastic philosophy and theology and drew from them some of his most central principles...
...grace, as one prominent Neo-Scholastic author wrote in an unguarded moment, "is like a net we throw over the Trinity to hold it in captivity...
...Typically inclined toward speculative reason and consciously seeking to restore medieval thought, Neo-Scholasticism offered a coherent synthesis of philosophy and theology, a tantalizing resolution to the human search for religious and intellectual certitude...
...The most characteristic element of modern thought was its focus on human existence, its "anthropocen-tric turn...
...Rahner's seminal work on christology has had far-reaching influence...
...In order to appreciate Rahner's achievement, it is necessary to situate his thought against the background of the theological landscape in which his work began...
...In the concrete world in which we live, each genuine act of love of neighbor far easier to discuss than to perform included in fact the love of God...
...In effect, Rahner argued that confession of Jesus' definitive salvific significance his position as the Christ included within itself a recognition of his divinity...
...The public history of the offer and acceptance of grace was thus complete...
...The integrative power of this paradigm allowed him to address a wide range of theological questions with penetrating insight, affecting the treatment of all branches of theology and influencing even theologians who did not adopt his basic orientation...
...Adherents of Neo-Scholasticism were not slow to defend their theories against this challenge...
...Provided only that the understanding of human nature was not unduly abbreviated, concentration on the human was not an alternative to orientation on God...
...In principle, though not always in the minds of its proponents, the an-thropocentric turn was quite compatible with a religion which proclaimed as its basic message the gospel of human salvation and insisted uncompromisingly that God's Word had become flesh...
...Interpretation of Jesus' death could attend with profit to the circumstances of his crucifixion, and the implications of the complex unity of his death and resurrection require further amplification...
...Grace was God's free, personal fulfillment of this natural openness, which nothing less than the infinite God could ultimately satisfy...
...Convinced that Catholic dogmatics could be read as "theological anthropology" without detriment to its content, and with great gain in deeper understanding and pastoral communicability, Rahner devoted himself to rethinking a myriad of issues from this perspective...
...It is far too soon to venture a definitive assessment of his impact on theology...
...The free, personal response which the offer of grace required and enabled was not restricted to specifically religious acts...
...Drawing chiefly on patristic sources, they proposed in its stead a more unified conception...
...Wisely suspicious of modern tendencies to develop a resurrection-centered christology, Rahner found the unifying core of christology in the Crucifixion...
...It was this vision which Karl Rahner provided...
...To stop at this point would be to imply a serious misrepresentation of his thought...
...Yet, as Rahner himself knew well, an exhaustive, integrated expression of Christianity is a goal which can only be approached asymptotically...
...it was "existential" because it permeated the whole of human existence...
...In articulating God's freedom in offering grace, a theology may envision grace and nature as thoroughly intertwined in the actual world in which we exist, not easily distinguishable from other factors in our lives...
...John's Seminary in Boston and visiting associate professor of religion and religious education at the Catholic University of America...
...Its unnuanced assessment of modernity as an alternative to Christianity and its consequent conception of theology as a remedy for the errors of the contemporary world entailed presuppositions which he could not accept...
...But the decisions made here determine our understanding of what it means to be Christian...
...Again he sought a unified conception one which would draw together the aspects separated by the Neo-Scholastic division between fundamental and dogmatic theology and its separate treatment of Christ's person and work...
...modern culture...
...Yet matters could not be settled in this fashion...

Vol. 112 • January 1985 • No. 2


 
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