Rahner – The Trinity


The English title  of Rahner’s famous monograph on the Trinity (its intended title was Mysterium Salutis) may perhaps lead one, erroneously, to believe that it is an exhaustive expostulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, replete with all the subtle philosophical flourishes that have sustained the formulation of the doctrine throughout its rich conceptual history. Such an understanding of Rahner’s task in his monograph The Trinity would unfortunately be mistaken. Rahner’s The Trinity is not so much a complete account of the Trinity as it is an overview of two important issues of Trinitarian theology:  the relation of the economic to immanent trinity (what has been called Rahner’s rule) and the usage of the term “person” in Trinitarian theology. Because Rahner’s rule is the subject of innumerable theological debates and can be found expressed much better elsewhere, I will instead focus on Rahner’s idea of the term person, as well as with his interaction with Barth’s reformulation of person in the context of his proposal for the usage of “mode of being” in lieu of “person” in CD I/1, §9.

The term “person,” associated with the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity in Western theology, of course has certain conceptual difficulties because it has been the subject of rather wide-ranging anthropological developments since its codification in Trinitarian orthodoxy. Specifically, when we speak of three “persons” it appears as if we are speaking of three centres of self-consciousness or three individuated subjectivities. This connotate tritheism of various sorts and is certainly not what is meant by the term “person” when employed in its Trinitarian context (106). Instead of abandoning the concept, Rahner, in a rather Roman Catholic theological move, explains that it is not up to the individual theologian to decide changes in doctrinal language, which should be left up to the magisterium (108).

All the same, however,  Rahner decided to set aside “person” and offer some definitional context. My edition of The Trinity helpfully begins with a glossary of terms, defining among others, what the term person means in the context of Rahnerian theology as a “distinct manner of subsisting” (109). Rahner considers this to be superior  to Barth’s usage pf “manner of being” that he outlines in CD I/1 because it is more in harmony with the definition as traditionally employed by the church (110).

While I appreciated much of Raher’s nuanced discussion of Trinitarian theology, I don’t quite agree with his usage of “person.” In its stead, I offer my own provisional proposal. Regardless of the term “persons” theological venerability it no longer means what it once did. When it is used in Trinitarian doctrine, it has to be qualified rather dramatically, so that the term no longer means what it does in its contemporary usage. I propose that we therefore abandon it for a more technical and precicse (and ancient) term like hypostasis, which does not carry with any definitional baggage (itself being a term not used outside of theology) and proceed to define it as we would, instead of trying to salvage “person,” which truly dies the death of a thousand qualifications.


3 Responses to “Rahner – The Trinity”

  1. AJ Says:

    As I was reading your post, I was thinking “why not hypostasis, and remove this issue?” Then you suggested the same thing, robbing me of my insightful comment.

    The problem with hypostasis, of course, is that it transliterates into Latin as substantia/substance, which is NOT what is meant in the Greek. Further, to suggest that the source of the Trinity is “substance,” the substance of the “Father” for example, creates additional problems with antiessentialism.

    For my part, I like “prosopon,” the which comes into Latin as persona, but would then be stripped of all the individualistic connotations modernity puts into person. Of course, its just not as cool as hypostasis.

    • A.J. Smith Says:

      Prosopon seems fine to me, I just don’t see any need to rescue the term person. Tillich in his ST though, has a different view of language thinks we should try and salvage these words (such as “spirit” in English). Maybe he is on to something?

      • AJ Says:

        I like spirit, reinterpreted, and much better than “soul,” which comes off as a “substance.” Of course, Tillich is thinking in German…and geist is such a cool word.

        There is a problem with rejecting words like “person” because of the baggage they carry with them in favor of words like hypostasis, which presumably carry no baggage and can be given whatever meaning we assign to them. The issue is that words like persona, hypostasis, and prosopon were chosen precisely because of (and maybe in spite of) the common meaning in the terms. If we use ancient words that have no apparent meaning in language, then we lose the analogical relationship of proportion implied in the first sense. We say God is a person, for example, because we realize that there is a relationship of proportionality (both like and unlike) between persons I encounter in the world and the encounter with God that transcends the world. If we use hypostasis, what then would we mean and how would we communicate what we mean?

        Unless, of course, you think that the use of analogy is a tool of the devil, in which case you can just forget my suggestion! But then how would we talk about God in any meaningful way without analogy (and metaphor)?

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