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Theology, Aesthetics, and CultureResponses to the Work of David Brown$

Robert MacSwain and Taylor Worley

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199646821

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199646821.001.0001

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Revelation, Christ, and Fundamental Theology: David Brown and Karl Rahner in Dialogue

Revelation, Christ, and Fundamental Theology: David Brown and Karl Rahner in Dialogue

(p.29) 2 Revelation, Christ, and Fundamental Theology: David Brown and Karl Rahner in Dialogue
Theology, Aesthetics, and Culture

Richard Viladesau

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

David Brown's theology of a continuing revelation that includes an aesthetic component poses a particular set of problems for both Christology and fundamental or philosophical theology — specifically for the attempt to discern the reasons of credibility of Christian faith. Is the idea of a divine ‘incarnation’ rationally credible at all? In what way is the ongoing process of revelation related to the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth? What criteria are there for judging the sometimes contradictory ‘trajectories’ of tradition, including those of Christian art? This article suggests that a comparison of Brown's idea of revelation with the fundamental theology of Karl Rahner discloses a number of complementarities and indicates possible directions for responses to such questions. It also points out difficulties that arise, especially regarding art as a theological locus, and indicates further questions that may be put to both Rahner and Brown.

Keywords:   Rahner, David Brown, fundamental theology, philosophical theology, revelation, Jesus Christ, history, art, credibility, rationality

In one of his memoirs, physicist Werner Heisenberg (Nobel Prize winner, formulator of the ‘Heisenberg principle’ of uncertainty in quantum theory) reports a conversation between himself and his fellow-physicist Wolfgang Pauli (Nobel Prize winner, discoverer of the exclusion principle or ‘Pauli principle’ in quantum physics):

Wolfgang asked me quite unexpectedly:

‘Do you believe in a personal God? I know, of course, how difficult it is to attach a clear meaning to this question, but you can probably appreciate its general purport.’

‘May I rephrase your question?’ I asked. ‘I myself should prefer the following formulation: Can you, or anyone else, reach the central order of things or events, whose existence seems beyond doubt, as directly as you can reach the soul of another human being? I am using the term “soul” quite deliberately so as not to be misunderstood. If you put your question like that, I would say yes…’1

The conversation reported by Heisenberg probably still represents the ‘state of the question’ about God for many scientifically educated people in the West—certainly for a good number of the university students I encounter in my classroom. The issue is not so much whether there exists some reality that can be called ‘God’—that is, some ‘central order’ behind the universe (and for some, behind our moral instincts). Even many who style themselves ‘scientific’ atheists or who are attracted to the spirituality of non-theistic forms of Buddhism are willing to admit such a reality, although they resist calling it (p.30) ‘God’. The more crucial question for such people, as for Heisenberg, is whether that reality is personal: does the ultimate reality communicate with us, in something like the way we dialogue with other humans?

Heisenberg goes on to remind Pauli of the dichotomy posed by Pascal’s famous Mémorial: ‘“Dieu d’Abraham, Dieu d’Isaac, Dieu de Jacob” non des philosophes et des savants.’2 Is God the God of the Bible, or the God of the ‘philosophers’ and the scholars? Today the God of the Bible—the Yahweh who is revealed in personal dialogue with ‘his’ people—is frequently seen as an anthropomorphic projection belonging to a naïve or even fundamentalist mentality. This God seems to many to be a mythical figure far removed from the ultimate Being of the natural philosophers (whom today we call scientists): the God of Thomas Jefferson, Isaac Newton, Spinoza, and Einstein.

Can we responsibly affirm the Scriptural God who can ‘reach’ and be reached by humanity—but in a way that does not violate the conventional norms of reason and of history?

David Brown on Revelation and Christ

Much of the answer to the above question will depend on one’s conception of how God acts and reveals. In his earlier work on the Trinity, Anglican theologian David Brown defined revelation as ‘a process whereby God progressively unveils the truth about himself and his purposes to a community of believers, but always in such a manner that their freedom of response is respected’.3 In Tradition and Imagination Brown expands considerably on this idea. Revelation is not a unique miraculous disclosure from above, enshrined once for all in a particular sacred Scripture,4 but is an ongoing ‘personalist’ and ‘interactionist’5 process in which God ‘accommodates’ to different human situations, ‘constantly responding to changed circumstances’.6

Brown’s emphasis is on the continuity of scriptural revelation with ‘tradition’: both that out of which it arose and that which follows from it. Contemporary scholarship has shown that the writing of the scriptures was a complex process, in which there was frequently a ‘moving text’ (273). Moreover, the movement did not cease with the establishment of a canonical version; continuing reflection and interpretation created conceptual and imaginative (p.31) patterns that not only went beyond scripture, but sometimes implicitly challenged or changed its meanings. Brown concludes that

changes in our conception of how the Bible came to be written and in the nature of its impact in subsequent centuries require a different conception of the relation between revelation and tradition than that which has held sway throughout the history of Christianity.…[W]e need to think of a continuous dynamic of tradition operating both within the Bible and beyond. That ‘beyond’ will then sometimes be found to merit status as revelation no less clear than what preceded it. Indeed, sometimes the best interpretation of the situation will be that a corrective view has been provided to what was probably the dominant biblical view. (365)

Once we have become aware of the historical situatedness of texts, it can no longer be plausible to confine God’s revelatory activity to scripture (5); we must extend it also to the reception, interpretation, and expansion of the Scriptures in the community of faith. While this process involves conceptual and doctrinal elements, Brown stresses the place of imagination, which he thinks has been undervalued in the past (274).

Having developed this argument in detail in the first two parts of this volume, in the third and final portion, entitled ‘Christ: change and imagination’, Brown considers the implications for the notion of Christ’s divinity. The incarnation is an instance of ‘divine accommodation’ (the title of the sixth chapter). Jesus had to be ‘in certain key respects’ ‘a child of his own time’ (274). Moreover, there could not be a real entry of God into the human condition ‘without some abandonment of the usual accompaniments of divinity’ (276) Brown therefore presents Jesus as

someone so thoroughly shaped by the social setting in which he found himself that in retrospect we must declare some at least of his beliefs false.…Probably he thought that the end of the world as we now know it was imminent, and as a corollary he may well have died disappointed or in despair.…Most significantly, the human Jesus had no consciousness of his own divinity. (108)

Because Christianity is a historical religion, who and what Jesus actually was ‘matters hugely’ (275): we cannot be satisfied simply with affirming a ‘Christ of faith’. On the other hand, although it is tempting to make Jesus’ words always have universal significance, ‘if he were achieve maximum relevance to the people of his own immediate time and place, might this not mean that what he said had to be reinterpreted within a growing tradition, as fresh applications were sought for new situations, and perhaps even to a considerable degree?’ (276). In the incarnation, then, God became committed to a developing tradition. Incarnation could only be made known in gradual perception (279). This applies also to Jesus himself. Thus, as noted above, Brown discounts any explicit consciousness of divinity, suggesting instead that Jesus’ (p.32) mind may have been ‘suffused with the divine’ on an unconscious or subconscious level (278).

Brown traces the development of the affirmation of Christ’s divinity through the New Testament texts and the early tradition: from the historical Jewish charismatic to the self-consciously incarnate divinity of John’s gospel. He argues that appeal to the life of Jesus alone is insufficient to ground belief in his divinity. On the basis of his resurrection and exaltation, the church became convinced of Jesus’ identity with the ‘Son of Man’ and ascribed a new significance to him. Brown considers several cases illustrating the differences between Jesus’ teaching and that of the church: obedience to the Law; imminent eschatological expectations; and Jesus’ death in disillusionment and perhaps in despair (302–16). None of this, however, militates against the notion of the incarnation. ‘The incarnation was a lived narrative of accommodation to the human condition’ (321). This has an important implication: even if Jesus is the incarnation of divinity, his historical figure need not be the sole model for Christian life, nor need it be universally applicable to every human situation (373).

In his final chapter Brown considers art as revelation. He notes that throughout history most Christians’ primary experience of their faith was visual, and secondarily aural or written (322; cf. 367). In very broad strokes, Brown traces the place of innovation and tradition in art from the Roman period to the late Middle Ages, attempting to demonstrate that the doctrine of the incarnation provided Christianity with a new attitude toward creativity and that through it there arose in turn new insights into the full implications of God’s identification with humanity (322, 323–64). Although his examples largely stress the positive side of change and ‘accommodation’ in continuing revelation, Brown is careful to distance himself from the idea that tradition goes infallibly in the direction of further insight and relevance (a position that he sees in Roman Catholic magisterial statements). We must, he says, ‘recoil from any too facile a notion of the Christian tradition as uniformly a positive development’ (364).

A Fundamental Theology of Revelation

Brown’s theology of revelation thus naturally raises the question of the criteria by which one may distinguish legitimate and positive developments from misdirected or even harmful ones. This issue is taken up in the last part of Brown’s next volume, Discipleship and Imagination, in a chapter entitled ‘Posing Pilate’s Question: Truth and Fiction’.7 Throughout Tradition and Imagination, however, Brown is engaged in a systematic type of theology, (p.33) accepting the premise that the ‘incarnation’ has in fact taken place. Although differing in many ways from conventional systematic theology, Brown’s theology in Tradition and Imagination is ‘systematic’ insofar as it begins with doctrinal premises, is concerned with their inner coherence, and is addressed primarily (though not exclusively) to an intra-ecclesial audience. Still, he recognizes that ‘it is one thing to assert this claim [of total identification of God with our human nature], quite another to make it a reasonable belief’ (278). One must eventually also ask the radical question: what grounds are there for believing that such a thing took place at all, or that it took place specifically in Jesus? As Brown says: ‘Coherence is easier to apply because the test will then be conformity or fit with existing Christian doctrine. This is not to deny the necessity of asking at some stage the more fundamental but more difficult question of correspondence with reality, the way in which God has in fact acted across history’ (135 note 68).

Although Brown draws primarily on Biblical and imaginative language, he sees a theology of imagination as complimentary to an ‘ontological’ approach (287–8). Like Paul Tillich and like most Roman Catholic theologians, he seems to reject a strict dichotomy between the God of the Bible and the God of the philosophers and scientists—a dichotomy more characteristic of Pascal, Karl Barth, and traditional Protestant theology. It is therefore interesting to compare Brown’s Anglican theology of revelation to one that explicitly adopts the viewpoint of a ‘fundamental’ type of theology: that is, one that explicitly examines the truth of doctrine from an ontological perspective. A fundamental theology of revelation, or elements of it, can be found in a great deal of twentieth-century Roman Catholic thought.8 In what follows, I shall rely primarily on arguably the most influential Roman Catholic theologian of that century, Karl Rahner, to provide a basis for comparison with Brown’s ideas on revelation and Christ.9

Rahner asks: does the ultimate Holy Mystery of Being reveal itself to humanity, or does it remain forever the unapproachable horizon of consciousness? That humanity has a desire and a need for a revelation from God may be seen from two points of view. First, the human spirit has an unlimited openness in its dynamism to know and love; there is a ‘natural desire’ to see God. That is, God is the only possible final satisfaction for the longing inherent in human beings (Augustine’s ‘inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te / our hearts are restless until they rest in you’). This does not imply that such satisfaction is attainable; but it encourages us to look to history and experience (p.34) for a possible communication from God. Second, humanity is confronted with a problem of evil, in ourselves and in the world. Again, we may turn to experience and history to ask: has God provided a ‘solution’ to the human need for salvation?

Rahner appeals to existential experiences like obedience to conscience, the call to an absolute love of neighbour, hope for the world, and the ability to face death confidently as evidence that we can have experiences that point to a transcendence of the ‘natural’ horizon of finite being; that we do in fact live in an existential engagement with God (provided, of course, that we are freely open to it)—even if it is not thematically conscious. This leads us to look hopefully to the religious claims that God has communicated with humanity: in other words, that ‘revelation’ has taken place.

A revelation from God must have two aspects: it must be God’s act, and at the same time it must be received freely and consciously by human beings. Hence it is both gift and reception (or ‘achievement,’ insofar as that reception is a free response). These two are not on the same level, however. A major axiom of Rahner’s theology is that human freedom and divine action are related directly, not inversely. That is, the more our actions are free and responsible, the more they are created by God.10 Hence there is neither ‘competition’ nor ‘partnership’ between human accomplishment and divine action, as though God did one part and we did another. Finite beings and their free actions are not ‘outside of’ or ‘in addition to’ God’s being or act. This is an immediate inference from God’s transcendence: God is not a limited being alongside others, but is the transcendent creator—which means at the same time that God is absolutely immanent to all being, and is more ‘present’ or ‘active’ as creator the more the creature achieves and realizes its existence.11 (Again, we may see an echo of Augustine: God as ‘interior intimo meo /closer than [we] are to [ourselves]’.)

If God’s revelation is an absolute and final ‘answer’ to the human openness to and desire for the infinite, then that revelation cannot be any created reality, but can only be God’s own self communicated to the creature. Thus for Rahner revelation is not a matter of a supernaturally imparted knowledge of propositional truths about God or the world, but is rather God’s gift of God’s self to the creature (corresponding to the theological ideas of divinization, inhabitation, intimate union in love, uncreated grace, vision).

The being of the world is a process of becoming, one in which there is (sometimes) active self-transcendence. This is possible because God is the (p.35) inner dynamism (the creator as ‘final cause’) of the movement of creatures.12 To affirm supernatural grace is to say that God becomes this dynamism in such a way that God is not merely an asymptotic never-reachable horizon; rather, immediate with union God in God’s self becomes the final end toward which humans move in self-transcendence.13 This gift is ontological: it comes to humans as conscious beings. But God is not encountered as an object. Rather, the absolute and inconceivable mystery of God is experienced concommitantly, implicitly, as the source and goal of our acts of knowledge and love.

For Rahner this gift is properly called ‘revelation’ because it is the giving of a personal self (God) to an other. Hence once again the heart of revelation is not the conveying of information, but an interpersonal revealing or giving of self. ‘This radicalizing of human transcendentality to the immediacy of God can further be understood as revelation because it gives to knowledge and freedom a new, otherwise unattainable, formal object. It is a personal revelation of God because it is given through God’s free, personal self-communication, which constitutes the actual essence of grace.’14 The implicit and unthematic offer and gift of God as a dynamism to God’s self in the depth of consciousness can be referred to as the ‘transcendental’ element in revelation. But ‘every transcendental human experience is always mediated by a historical experience and forms a unity with it. Human beings come to a grasp of themselves as transcendent creatures oriented to God’s incomprehensibility only through human intercommunication and by experiencing the world…’15

Revelation then becomes a fact insofar as it is actively received, at least on an implicit and pre-conceptual level. This reception is ‘faith’ on its most basic level. But our mode of reception is essentially tied to our bodiliness and hence to the concrete world we live in. Our relation to God is mediated by an understanding and a freedom that depend on sense knowledge and social situations, including language and culture. The attempt to objectify, verbalize, conceptualize God and God’s activity, as well as its implications for human life, must thus take place in accord with human capacities and contexts. As the Thomistic axiom states, ‘quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur’—anything that is received is received according to the manner proper to the receiver.16 Concretely, this means that revelation must be received in accord (p.36) with historical probabilities, kinds and stages of cultural development, linguistic possibilities, and above all the human intellectual and moral disposition for conversion (or lack of same). Thus revelation does not happen once for all, fully achieved, but evolves with human capacity. It is always shaped not only by grace, but also by the innate and acquired a prioris of the human situation (including our interior plurality, our sin, and the conditioning of our lives by the sins of others—what the Christian tradition calls ‘original sin’).

Since Rahner holds that God’s grace is universal, it follows that revelation is also universal. It is formulated above all in the history of religions; but it also includes elements of every positive human effort to confront the question of existence, including philosophy, ethics, the arts, and culture. The history of revelation, in its wide sense (‘general categorical revelation’), is co-extensive with the spiritual history of humanity.17 At the same time, this history of revelation is limited in its truth and insight by the limitations of its receivers and formulators. There is an ‘excess’ of the transcendental that cannot be reduced to its human appropriation; but at the same time as revelation it is genuinely limited by the latter. This applies preeminently to religion. Religion is the usual expression of people’s attempt to respond to God; to this extent, it is the symbolic expression of revelation and faith. But at the same time, it is also the expression of the limitations and the failures of the human response to God. Hence Rahner says that ‘…the history of religion is at the same time the most explicit part of the history of revelation and the intellectual region in which historical misinterpretations of the transcendental experience of God occur most plainly and with the most serious consequences, and where superstition most clearly flourishes. But it is always a case of both, and always in ambiguity which for us is inextricable.’18

However, Rahner argues that if God really wills to reveal (or ‘give’) God’s self to humanity as the gift of ‘divinization’, this gift and revelation cannot remain always anonymous, general, imperfect, and ambiguous. There must exist a full realization of that communication—otherwise, it does not really take place at all.19 Hence there arises the idea of a ‘special’ categorical revelation, a human appropriation and formulation of God’s self-communication in which that revelation is victoriously and definitively present. Has such an event taken place in history, or will it only occur at the ‘eschaton’, the end of history?20 This cannot be determined a priori; but we have the right and duty to look to the Christian claim that this ‘definitive’ revelation has taken place in (p.37) Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (which includes, but is not restricted to, what Bultmann called a resurrection ‘into the kerygma’).

Rahner proceeds by a dual movement of correlation that constitutes a Christology ‘from below’ in the radical sense: it begins not merely with the humanity of Jesus (the object of historical and exegetical study), but with our common humanity (the object of a ‘transcendental’ anthropology). The latter uncovers the essential presupposition of revelation: the possibility of humanity to be the recipient of God’s self-gift. Hence it attempts to show that the object of Christian faith is not a priori unbelievable, but rather corresponds to, illuminates, and brings to explicit awareness a relation to God operative in our deepest experience. This allows us to go beyond the Jesus of history and kerygma to Jesus in theological faith understanding.

Rahner concludes that in Jesus we find God’s ‘absolute saving event’: ‘the permanent beginning and absolute guarantee that [human] ultimate self-transcendence…[into God] will succeed and has already begun’.21 This can only be a human being who freely and completely accepts God’s self-offer, and whose death is therefore manifest (in the resurrection/exaltation of Christ) as the definitive event of God’s salvation in history.22

Rahner insists on a strict connection between the ‘Christ event’ and the universal gift of grace, which implies (in a term from the Greek Fathers) a ‘divinization’ of humanity. The Christ event differs in degree and in historical significance, but it is the same in kind as what is given to every human who accepts God’s absolute gift. Hence the ‘hypostatic union’ is not so much what distinguishes Jesus from us, but what must occur once (and only once) when world begins to enter its final phase.23 Thus ‘we can speak of a true God-humanity (Gottmenschentum) of the entirety of humankind’.24 It follows that the active influence of God on the human nature of Jesus is of the same kind as the influence of God on all free creatures.25

From Jesus as ‘definitive’ or ‘victorious’ event of salvation/revelation one may extend the notion of a ‘special’ categorical revelation forward to the church: for there would be no definitive revelation if it did not become permanently present in a historical collaboration (which implies also historical change and adaptation).26 The notion may also be extended backward to the (p.38) history of Israel; and both backward and forward to other religions, to the extent that they may be considered a Spirit-driven preparatio evangelica or a ‘searching Christology.’ But even this ‘special’ revelation remains subject to the intrinsic limitation of any embodiment or expression of God’s absolute Mystery, and except for its definitive occurrence in Christ, remains affected as well by human sinfulness and its social effects.27

Comparisons, Confrontations, and Questions

This brief summary of a ‘Rahnerian’ theology of revelation is far from complete, and makes no claim to do full justice to his thought. Much less can it represent the many variants introduced by others who have explored similar lines. However, it may suffice to serve as a basis for a number of comparisons and contrasts with Brown’s work.

One topic of conversation might be the notion of revelation itself. Brown appears to hold a largely ‘propositional’ idea of revelation: God unveils certain ‘truths’ about God and God’s purposes (110). Rahner on the other hand sees revelation as God’s communication of God’s very self; the ‘content’ of faith arises in the human history of acceptance of that gift.

Related is the notion of revelation as ‘accommodation’, an idea that is central to Brown’s Tradition and Imagination. The concept of a God who ‘responds’ to changing circumstances and adapts divine revelation to them might at first seem a kind of anthropomorphic projection that is excluded by Rahner’s ontology. He states baldly that a God ‘who lives and acts as an individual being alongside other beings, as one being among the many in the whole, really does not exist’.28 The ‘accommodation’ of revelation to different contexts is not a matter of God’s changing either God’s ‘plan’ of revelation or what is revealed (God’s self), but rather is an aspect of the inevitable and a priori limitations of the receivers. God could not be revealed otherwise.

Nevertheless, Rahner implies that it is entirely legitimate and indeed inevitable to imagine God as a ‘person’ like us, communicating with us in interpersonal dialogue and acting as a good pedagogue by adapting the message to (p.39) the receiver.29 That is, the notion of a dialogical and ‘accommodating’ God is itself an accommodation—i.e., a way of thinking about God with our time-and-space conditioned imagination. What it means or intends30 is true: because of creation ‘in God’s image’, there really is an analogy between our being and God. But what our concepts can comprehend or our images picture is always inadequate to what God is, to the ineffable mystery that we anticipate and participate in, but never grasp. Rahner’s ‘reduction’ of theological assertions to anthropological ones—which is simply the other side of his ‘reduction (= leading back) to Mystery’—renounces any effort to comprehend God, explicitly proposing an essentially apophatic and mystical theology. Is this an instance of the ‘complementarity’ that Brown sees between ontological and imaginative theology? Or, as some have complained, has Rahner totally adopted the ‘God of the philosophers’ to the neglect of the Biblical deity?

A similar question arises with regard to Christology. Brown writes that ‘the incarnation itself exhibits the same sort of pattern as we have already noted elsewhere: divine revelation accommodating itself to particular social contexts and further developments’ (274). But he adds that God could have acted differently in this case (275). And he seems to ascribe Jesus’ human conditioning exclusively to a pedagogical concern: it is in order to make ‘maximum impact on his own day and people’ that Jesus had to be ‘a child of his own time’; and even this phrase is modified by ‘in certain key respects’ (274). Rahner’s theology on the contrary seems to imply that God could not have acted differently in the case of Christ than in other humans. If Jesus was truly and fully human, he must have been conditioned by his environment exactly as we all are, and not merely in some respects, however central. But Jesus’ full and total humanity does not in any way detract from his divinity (as Rahner understands it). As in every other case, the divine and human are directly related, not inversely. The more totally human Jesus became through the course of his life, death, and finally resurrection, the more he was an act of God or the ‘incarnation’ of God’s ‘Word’.

Rahner’s Christology therefore leaves room, like Brown’s, for development and change in Jesus. Jesus would also have shared the world-view of his times, and he would have lacked knowledge of many things. Brown appeals to psychological notions of the unconscious or subconscious to explain how ‘Jesus’ deepest consciousness might…have been suffused with the divine in a way that ours is not’ (278). Rahner’s explanation is more ontological. He likewise holds that Jesus made no explicit claim to divinity; he was implicitly aware of his deepest selfhood and his relation to God in the same way that all (p.40) humans are, by a ‘preapprehension’ of the absolute Mystery. This consciousness was of the same kind as the engraced and ‘divinized’ consciousness of every human who responds positively to grace—but it differed radically in degree and in completeness.

Brown and Rahner share the acknowledgement of both the necessity and the ambiguity of the church and tradition as an extension or continuation of God’s ‘special’ revelation in Christ. The church must adapt its message to different circumstances and cultures. On the other hand, there is an implicit danger in this. As George Bernard Shaw provocatively put it, ‘The conversion of a savage to Christianity is the conversion of Christianity to savagery.’31 Rahner includes art among the ways in which God’s self-revelation is embodied and communicated; but he says little of the concrete history of Christian art. Brown dwells primarily on what he considers legitimate developments and innovations in art, although he acknowledges that development does not always take ‘a positive, welcome course’ (362). Would a closer look at some of the misdirections and distortions contained in Christian art result in a more critical stance toward its history and its possibilities? Possibly one might dismiss as aberrations such instances as the illustration and text in the celebrated Bible moralisée from the court of Louis IX that depict Christ cursing the Jews from the cross (the accompanying illustration draws a parallel to Elisha’s cursing of the children who tormented him—24 Kings 2:23–4). But what of more persistent and fundamental themes, such as that of Christ as King, portrayed in the image of earthly rulers?32 And what are the criteria for judging which artistic developments are revelatory and which are aberrations?

Perhaps the most crucial question about revelation that might be addressed to both Rahner and Brown is that of the status of Jesus. Edward Schillebeeckx raised the issue starkly: Is the historical Jesus only the ‘symbolic point of reference of a kind of mysticism of being? Or is a historical event really the specific Christian access to God?’33 He notes that the Johannine writings already resist ‘any attempt to do away with Jesus of Nazareth in favor of a heavenly or spiritual Christ principle’.34 Can this position be reconciled with Brown’s or Rahner’s Christology? Brown sees ‘trajectories’ established by the historical Jesus that are the basis for later doctrines. But do Christians worship (p.41) Jesus, or a ‘trajectory’ from Jesus? Is it Jesus who is the ‘absolute saving event’, or is it the image or idea of the Christ that is revelatory and saving? (As Gandhi thought about Krishna and also about Christ.) And if the latter, which idea or image among the many that have been proposed?

I think that both Rahner and Brown could reply to these questions by saying that they posit a false dichotomy. It is the resurrected/exalted Jesus who gives God’s Spirit, who is the object of Christian worship and the centre of revelation. The resurrection points backward to the historical Jesus: it is precisely Jesus who is the resurrected one and who mediates God’s coming ‘Kingdom’. Yet it also points ‘forward’ to a future in the Spirit and finally to the eschaton, as the resurrection/exaltation of Jesus itself is a transcendent and ‘eschatological’ event.

Yet the question persists, especially if Christianity must speak to contemporary believers ‘placed as they are at once both inside and outside their respective religious traditions’ (367). In the light of the other world religions, what basis is there for affirming that it is in Jesus (alone?) that the incarnation of God took place, or that he is the resurrected/exalted one who mediates the giving of God’s Spirit?35 Brown writes that ‘it is impossible for someone who is truly human sanely to believe himself divine’—because humanity implies predicates that are necessarily non-divine (278).36 But is it any more possible to sanely believe someone else—even Jesus—to be truly human and divine? To come back to the starting point of these considerations: apart from the question of the notion of ‘revelation’ and its extent, what grounds do we have for thinking there is a ‘revelation’ from a ‘personal’ God at all? These are questions that Brown acknowledges must be faced. If so, they point to the need for a ‘fundamental’ level of reflection in contemporary theology—Anglican and Protestant, no less than Roman Catholic. From different directions, Brown and Rahner (and his followers) have made significant contributions toward such a theology. I suggest that further engagement and mutual critique between their ideas may be one possible direction for future fruitful reflection.37


(1) Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations. Translated by Arnold J. Pomerans (New York: Harper, 1971), 215.

(2) Blaise Pascal, Pensées. Edited by Ch.-M. des Granges (Paris: Garnier, 1964), 4.

(3) David Brown, The Divine Trinity (London: Duckworth, 1985), 70; cf. idem., Tradition and Imagination: Revelation and Change (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 110.

(4) Brown, Tradition and Imagination, 277.

(5) Ibid., 129. Brown here corrects his earlier use of the term ‘intervention’.

(6) Ibid., 131. Subsequent references to this volume will be given parenthetically in the main text.

(7) David Brown, Discipleship and Imagination: Christian Tradition and Truth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 343–406.

(8) One might cite such writers as Henri Bouillard, Henri de Lubac, Edward Schillebeeckx, Hans Küng, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Avery Dulles, Bernard Lonergan, Heinrich Fries, David Tracy, and others.

(9) In what follows I have tried to be faithful to Rahner’s ideas; but my construction of a theology of revelation also in some respects goes beyond what he has explicitly written on the topic.

(10) Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity. Translated by William V. Dych (New York: Crossroad, 1990), 79.

(11) Hence, as Rahner says, the distinction between God and the world is a unique kind of distinction and the source of all other distinctions. God is God’s distinction from the world. Ibid., 62–3.

(12) Rahner, ‘Die Lehre von der Gnade’, approved and published student notes from Rahner’s course ‘Theologische Anthropologie II: die Lehre von der Gnade’, given at Münster in the summer semester, 1968.

(13) Ibid.

(14) Rahner, ‘The Act of Faith and the Content of Faith’, Theological Investigations XXI. Translated by Hugh M. Riley (New York: Crossroad, 1988), 156.

(15) Ibid., 156–7.

(16) Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 75, a. 5; 3a, q. 5. Cf. 1a, q. 12, a. 4, ‘Cogitum…est in cognoscente secundum modum cognoscentis’—‘whatever is known is in the knower in the manner of the knower.’ See also Summa Theologiae, q. 14, a. 1, ad 3; q. 16, a. 1; q. 19, a. 6, ad 2; Summa Contra Gentiles, 2, 79, 7; De Veritate, q. 2, a. 3.

(17) Rahner, art. ‘Revelation’ in The Concise Sacramentum Mundi (New York: Seabury, 1975), 1462.

(18) Ibid., 1463.

(19) This follows from the idea of ‘final causality’.

(20) In early writings, Rahner says that this special revelation must be in history; later, he says it must be either in history, or at the end of history. Insofar as the resurrection of Jesus is thought of as the proleptic presence of an eschatological event, the two converge.

(21) Rahner, Foundations, 181.

(22) Rahner, Foundations, 211; cf. 193.

(23) Ibid., 181.

(24) Rahner, Ich Glaube an Jesus Christus (Einsiedeln: Benziger, 1968), 37; cf. ‘Methodology in Theology’, in Theological Investigations XI (New York: Seabury, 1974), 97.

(25) Rahner, Foundations, 287.

(26) For a discussion of the traditional notion of the ‘closure’ of revelation, see ‘The Death of Jesus and the Closure of Revelation’ in Theological Investigations XVIII. Translated by Edward Quinn (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 132–42.

(27) See Rahner, Foundations, 173.

(28) ‘Denn den Gott gibt es wirklich nicht, der als ein einzelnes Seiendes neben anderem Seiendem sich auswirkt und waltet uns so gewissermaßen selber noch einmal in dem größeren Haus der Gesamtwirklichkeit anwesend wäre.’ Karl Rahner, Grundkurs des Glaubens. Einführung in den Begriff des Christentums (Freiburg: Herder, 1976), 72. ET Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity. Translated by William V. Dych (New York: Crossroad, 1990), 62. The translation in my text is my own, with emphasis added.

(29) See Rahner, ‘Dialogue with God?’ in Theological Investigations XVII, 122–31. Cf. Foundations, 86–9.

(30) I use this word in the philosophical sense: ‘intending’ or ‘meaning’ as anticipating and ‘pointing toward’ a reality that is not adequately grasped conceptually or expressed verbally.

(31) George Bernard Shaw, ‘Maxims for Revolutionists’, #153.

(32) The notion of course is already present in the Scriptures, in the very proclamation of Jesus as ‘Messiah’, but the visual concretization of kingship in symbols of earthly rule added quite a different dimension, especially in the context of the (unholy?) alliance of Christianity with earthly kings. Brown seems convinced by T. F. Matthews’s arguments for seeing divine rather than imperial imagery in early Christian art. I am less so. Even apart from some instances where I think there are explicit modellings on imperial images, it must be recalled that imperial and divine symbols overlapped considerably. It is not a question of early church art adopting either en bloc; the borrowings are mixed and adapted.

(33) Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord. Trans. by John Bowden (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), 465.

(34) Ibid.

(35) Brown states that we should expect God to be revealed in other traditions (Tradition and Imagination, 112). How does this affect the significance of Christ?

(36) One might note, however, that there are apparently sane people who have in fact thought themselves divine. Hindu brahmins proclaim daily ‘aham brahmasmi’; the Muslim mystic al Hallaj was executed for blasphemy for his saying ‘ana al Haqq’, which nevertheless expresses an idea common in Sufism and in some Muslim philosophy. The concepts of ‘divinity’ and ‘humanity’ and their modes of identity and non-identity are not self-evident.

(37) For further reflection on the general question of how divine revelation can be conveyed through human imagination and the arts, see Richard Viladesan, Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Beauty, and Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).