Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Freedom to Say "No"? Karl Rahner's Doctrine of Sin

Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Freedom to Say "No"? Karl Rahner's Doctrine of Sin

Article excerpt

Karl Rahner's provocative thoughts on sin and human freedom, often cited uncritically, as if they bore a sort of authority, have yet to be critically examined.(1) Still less has his theology of sin been exploited as a point of departure for critically assessing his theology as a whole. Pursuing this task, I argue, despite my profound admiration for Rahner, that his notion of sin as a free and definitive "no" to God creates insurmountable inconsistencies in his doctrine of sin and indicates foundational inadequacies in his theological system. I suggest that these problems are rooted in a fundamental tenet of Rahner's theological method, namely, his practice of endowing engraced human nature with divine-like attributes.


Even casual students of Rahner know he defines sin as a free "no" to God. The subtleties and implications of this definition, however, often elude the most sophisticated commentators. In some places Rahner seems to imply that a free "no" must also be definitive. Other texts seem to deny it. In some articles he emphasizes the equal freedom of the "yes" and the "no." There are others, though, in which he contests it. Consequently, in what follows I subject the relevant texts to more intense scrutiny than is usual in Rahner studies.

Sin as a Definitive "No" to God

The Christian faith, according to Rahner, affirms that sin in its essence is a free and definitive "no" to God, a rejection of God's gracious offer of self-communication. Human freedom is so radical and comprehensive, he argues, that it makes even God an object of choice, a choice which brings the human being to definitive completion as a "yes" or "no" to God. Modern people, however, find this claim incomprehensible, observes Rahner, for it is difficult to imagine any human beings uttering such a titanic "no" to God. We can see, our contemporaries reason, how humans may transgress a law of God or perhaps deny a finite concept of God, but this is not the same as denying the very person of God.(2) Isn't it true, the objection continues, that evil is better explained in terms of tragic fate rather than by the Christian notion of sin?(3)

Rahner's doctrine of sin is definitively shaped by the challenge of the modern objections. Accordingly, he accepts the task of demonstrating the possibility of a fully free "no" to the true God, the very person of God, i.e., the possibility of "really and truly saying "no" to God himself - and indeed to God himself, not merely to some distorted or childish notion of God."(4)

Drawing on his earlier work, in which he developed the concept of the supernatural existential (ubernaturliches Existenzial),(5) Rahner argues that God has freely chosen to be ever present to each human being in intimate closeness as an offer of self-communication. God is not merely the receding horizon of infinite being that grounds the possibility of human knowledge of finite entities(6) and of human freedom vis-a-vis finite goods.(7) God also offers God's very person as an object of choice, and so makes possible a free "yes" or "no" to the true God. The horizon (God) which makes freedom of choice possible becomes itself the object of decision.(8)

God, according to Rahner, becomes the object of this choice, not directly but indirectly. The decision about God takes place in decisions about finite things, since God is unthematically present in every act of choice as its ground and goal. God is the author of the world of finite entities, other persons, and our own essential nature. Insofar as we say "no" to this finite reality, we also say "no" to God who is simultaneously experienced as the ground of our subjectivity. Rahner explains,

Of course, in so far as the source of the existence of an affirmative or negative attitude towards the absolute God lies precisely in the adoption of a right or wrong attitude towards finite goods (or those conceived as finite) in their divinely caused order, in virtue of the necessary relation of spirit to the absolute which supports freedom, freedom is in the last analysis the possibility, through and beyond the finite, of taking up a position towards God himself. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.