Rahner – Hearer of the Word


I can only speak for myself (and Jeremy, because he told me) but we both found Karl Rahner’s Hearer of the Word to be somewhat tedious and even a little boring, and this in spite of its relative brevity (only about 157 pages). Some complaints: my version of the book (Continuum, 1994) had neither an index nor a bibliography, which I found unusual for an academic work. It also had numbers that, so far as I can tell, referred to nothing. For example, a sentence might read, “we must necessarily [107] be present to ourselves, affirm ourselves, and posit ourselves absolutely.” The inclusion of a number (in this case 107) in the sentence did not refer to anything and its inclusion is totally nonsensical to me. Perhaps I’m just not smart enough to understand.

In Hearer of the Word (1941), the philosophical companion to his similarly titled Spirit in the World, Karl Rahner seeks to establish or justify theology on firm philosophical ground. For Rahner, basically, there are two kinds of theology: one consists in listening to God’s Word, the kerygma, and the other consists in elaboration and thinking on this word, i.e. scholastic theology. In Hearer of the Word, Rahner sets up a kind of Roman Catholic neo-orthodox theology which assumes the givenness of God in Jesus Christ, and then ratiocinates how we can know God through what he has revealed. (As an aside, I generally loathe narrow theological definitions like “neo-orthodox” or “liberal,” but they will have to do here.) As mentioned, theology is for Rahner primarily what God has revealed; as such, theology can have legitimacy only insofar as it can show that it is possible for humans to receive revelation from God. Hearer of the Word is Rahner’s attempt to show how man is open to revelation from God. To perhaps oversimplify, Rahner claims that man’s self-transcendence or vorgriff – its inability to cease asking the question of reality qua being, or as Rahner puts the “being of beings” (25) – humans are open to revelation from God. “Only that makes us human: that we are always on the way to God, whether or not we know it expressly, whether or not we will it. We are forever the infinite openness of the finite for God” (53).


6 Responses to “Rahner – Hearer of the Word”

  1. AJ Says:

    This is a great text, one of my personal favorites. But yes, it is tedious. I sometimes think this goes back to the scholastic method, for Thomas is the most tedious of all.

    I am fairly certain, though I can’t find the explanation in my edition, that the numbers in square brackets refer to the original German text from 1941. As for the lack of footnotes, it should be pointed out that this was a series of ten lectures. If one reads recent lectures, from the Yale Terry series for example, they are usually not full of notes either.

    Interesting that you would call Rahner “neo-orthodox,” not that I don’t think certain elements of that movement fit, but he has been at times considered to be a methodological foil to Barthian neo-orthodoxy. While assuming church doctrine, Rahner usually begins his explication of theological themes from his metaphysical anthropology. So when Rahner wants to discuss, for example, what it means to say that God became human, he considers at length the question of humanity’s transcendence towards the infinite horizon as fundamental for making sense out of the incarnation. Only once this anthropology is established on the basis of philosophical method can we then move to answer theological questions.

    • A.J. Smith Says:

      Thanks for the clarification of the notes.

      I just meant neo-orthodox in regards to the givenness of revelation without the need for natural theology or apologetics.

  2. AJ Says:

    No problem, its a text I return to every couple of years, so I have something of an obsession with it!

    By the way, I like your ambitious reading project for the year.

    • A.J. Smith Says:

      The reason I didn’t get enough out of it as I should is probably because I came into the middle of his corpus. Other than the trinity, this is the first work of his that I have read. I probably should have read his work in a more coherent intellectual order.

      If you haven’t seen it, there is a great video about Rahner: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1bKWzPY0Yg

      • AJ Says:

        A.J. – Actually, “Hearer” is a great place to start, being part of Rahner’s pretheological works. It really sets up well his actually theological works.

        If you are interested in how he puts this method into practice as a theologian, you should look into his Theological Investigations, which is the “real Rahner.” You can of course go to the Foundations, but that is a textbook synthesis of earlier material. You might want to look up his articles on Christology, especially on the hypostatic union, from the Investigations, which puts his theological method on full display. (I don’t have the references for these articles, they are in a box in the bottom of my closet! I do believe they occur mostly in volumes 4 and 6 though.)

        I think here you would see what Rahner is up to as a theologian. He is doing apologetics, not unlike Tillich. Rahner above all is a Thomist (albeit a “Transcendental Thomist”), so natural theology is not a bad word like it is for Barth. Hence, categories like liberal and neo-orthodox, which are generally Protestant categories, are foreign to Rahner’s method.

        That is a nice video. I learned Rahner with the Jesuits, so they treated him like a saint. The personal stories make all the difference. I also found the Pannenberg video on your own site very interesting, though I haven’t watched it all yet. My dissertation was on Pannenberg and science, and yet I never thought to search youtube!

  3. Jeremy Says:

    Thanks AJ for posting this, I appreciate you catching us up on the project. Those who have been following this project should be aware that Wes had decided to step aside so AJ and I will continue the project.

    Other AJ,

    I’d encourage to read along with AJ and I as we move on. We encourage all commentators. This coming Monday I’ll begin posting on Tillich’s Systematic Theology. Thanks for commenting, I appreciate the engagement.

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