Rahner on Original Sin

Karl Rahner by Letizia Mancino Cremer

(c) Letizia Mancino Cremer

Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner first published his landmark systematic work, Foundations of Christian Faith: an Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, in 1976. Although the title may seem to indicate that the material is simple or easily accessible, Rahner draws on every aspect of his German Catholic heritage to write it, which is to say that this is not a book for somebody who hasn’t dealt extensively with continental philosophy or Catholic theology. He sets out to articulate many of the basic features of Christian theology, beginning with man in his transcendental subjectivity, freedom, guilt, and the like. Perhaps spurred on by the recent interest of Bobby Grow, one of my long-time follows, in the doctrine of sin–I found Rahner’s treatment of “original sin” unique and worth considering.

Rahner posits that everybody acknowledges that the world in some manner exists in a state of disrepair. However, the Christian perspective on this disrepair isn’t identical with other views. He writes about “the pessimism of Christianity”:  that although all are touched by sin and although most do attempt to alleviate “this situation of guilt,” all our virtuous acts are tainted by guilt, and yet Christianity’s “radical realism” concerning the fundamental state of humanity promotes “the best service” for creating better people, societies, etc.:

But this human experience, which is really quite obvious, is prevented from becoming innocuous by the message of Christianity and its assertion that this co-determination of the situation of every person by the  guilt of others is something universal, permanent, and therefore also original. There are no islands for the individual person whose nature does not already bear the stamp of the guilt of others, directly or indirectly, from close or from afar. And although this is an asymptotic ideal, there is for the human race in its concrete history no real possibility of ever overcoming once and for all this determination of the situation of freedom by guilt. Throughout its history the human race can indeed, and always will strive anew to alter this situation of guilt, and even do this with very real successes and as an obligation, so that to neglect this obligation would itself be radical guilt before God. But according to the teaching of Christianity this striving will always remain co-determined by guilt, and even a person’s most ideal, most moral act of freedom enters tragically into the concrete in an appearance which, because co-determined by guilt, is also the appearance of its opposite.

By rejecting an idealistic as well as a communistic optimism about the future, Christianity believes not only that it is giving witness to the truth, but also that it is performing the best service for a “better world” here and now. It believes that it has offered the world adequate moral imperatives and obligations extending all the way to responsibility before God and to the risk of eternal guilt. It believes that its historical pessimism is also the best service towards improving the world here and now, because the Utopian idea that a world functioning in perfect harmony can be created by man himself only leads inevitably to still greater violence and greater cruelty than those which man wants to eradicate from the world. Such a pessimism, of course, can become the excuse for not doing anything, for offering people the consolation of eternal life, and really for offering a religious attitude not only as the opiate of the people, but also as an opiate for the people. But this does not alter the fact that the radical realism which comes to expression in the pessimism of Christianity as we have formulated it with respect to the situation of our freedom is true, and that therefore it may not be disguised.[1]

He goes on to suggest that the original sin is rooted at heart in “a rejection of God’s absolute offer of himself in an absolute self-communication of his divine life.” He distinguishes this with the view that original sin was a rejection of a “divine law within the horizon of God himself.” Because we ourselves have an apprehension of our own guilt, and because we can reasonably infer that all those around us are also guilty, we are forced to the view that there was an original instance of freedom awry, for otherwise the current environment of universal guilt is inexplicable. Furthermore, the character of our present guilt “must be measured by the theological essence” of our original sin–the rejection of god’s “absolute offer of himself.” Note below:

What is specific about the Christian doctrine of original sin consists in two things:

  1. The determination of our own situation by guilt is an element within the history of the freedom of the human race, an element which is imbedded in its beginning, because otherwise the universality of this determination of the situation of freedom and of the history of the freedom of all men by guilt is not explained.
  2. The depths of this determination by guilt, which determines the realm of freedom and not freedom as such immediately, must be measured by the theological essence of the sin in which this co-determination of the human situation by guilt has its origins.

If this personal guilt at the beginning of the history of the human race is a rejection of God’s absolute offer of himself in an absolute self-communication of his divine life …, then the consequences as a determination of our situation by guilt are different than they would be if it had merely been the free rejection of a divine law within the horizon of God himself. This divine self-communication, which is called the grace of justification, is what is most radical and most deep in the existential situation of human freedom. As divine grace it lies prior to freedom as the condition of possibility for freedom’s concrete action. Self-communication of the absolutely holy God designates a quality sanctifying man prior to his free and good decision. Therefore the loss of such a sanctifying self-communication assumes the character of something which should not be, and is not merely a diminishing of the possibilities of freedom as can otherwise be the case in the instance of a ‘hereditary defect.’[2]

Rahner’s note that god’s (holy) self-communication was “prior to [Adam’s] free and good decision” makes the first sin a far more serious matter than it would otherwise have been. By rejecting god and not simply a command of god, man suffers on an ontological rather than merely experiential level. Of course, one has to wonder the degree to which one can drive a wedge between god’s self-communication and god’s “divine law.” In the degree to which “do not eat” reflects and comes from god-in-himself, god in his essence–it seems as though to reject that law would be to reject god. It remains to be seen if Rahner clarifies this point further in the work.

In any event, Rahner continues, articulating a brief positive account of the original sin:

Original sin, therefore, expresses nothing else but the historical origin of the present, universal and ineradicable situation of our freedom as co-determined by guilt, and this insofar as this situation has a history in which, because of the universal determination of this history by guilt, God’s self-communication in grace comes to man not from ‘Adam,’ not from the beginning of the human race, but from the goal of this history, from the God-Man Jesus Christ.[3]

For Rahner, the doctrine is an explanation of the current state of affairs–indeed, the only adequate explanation for our “universal and ineradicable” position. However, and this point seems to be muddled a bit by the grammar–Rahner argues that original sin cannot be an explanation for our present situation unless it is that “God’s self communication in grace comes to man … from the goal of this history, from the God-Man Jesus Christ.” He seems to suggest that our descent into freedom to choose absurdity is explicable only by virtue of its resolution in time–by the Epiphany, by the Incarnation. The historical origin of sin works toward the “self-communication in grace” of God-in-flesh, without which it’s meaningless and properly absurd.


[1] Rahner, Karl. Foundations of Christian Faith: an Introduction to the Idea of Christianity. Trans. William V. Dych. Seabury Press: New York, 1978. 109 – 110

[2]112 – 113

[3] 114

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