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Anonymous Christian According to Karl Rahner


The position of people of other faiths in other religions can be seen as an issue of controversy. Taking the example of Islam, the relationship between the religion and the adherents of Abrahamic religions, as well as the relation with non believers is vulnerable to many interpretations varying from violence to disregard. In Christianity such position is less controversial, at least in the last two centuries, but nevertheless, requires clarification. On the one hand, the Church in its declaration of the relation to non-Christian religions outlined the approach of tolerance and work “for mutual understanding… to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom” (POPE PAUL VI). On the other hand, the theological position of non Christians to the Church and God is vague.

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The term anonymous Christian introduced by Karl Rahner attempts to clarify the position of non Christians in Christianity. The term outlines the notion that God’s grace is existent through faith, hope and love, and provides the possibility for salvation of a corresponding faith for non Christians.

Nevertheless, the term itself requires clarification, where it might be understood that giving the title of anonymous Christian, who acknowledges the existent of Christianity and Christian faith, is enough to free Christianity from the responsibility of those who do not know God. In that regard, this paper analyzes the presentation and the explanation of the term anonymous Christian in Karl Rahner works, stating that the term anonymous Christian provides the validity of one’s belief, conditioned that such belief implies accepting God’s grace in some form, until the moment Christianity becomes historical situation. Assessing the difficulty of defining such moment, Christians are obliged to continue the mission of Church and propagating God’s words.


The declaration on the relation of the church to non-Christian religions, on the one hand provides a valuable direction for the development of theology of the religion, but on the other hand, leaves the theological status of non-Christian religions largely undefined (POPE PAUL VI). In that regard, Karl Rahner outlines several debatable moments, which were not covered in the declaration, and thus, open for discussion.

In Karl Rahner’s Theological Investigation, vol. V, the essay “Christianity and the Non-Christian Religions” contains four main positions:

  • Christianity is comprehended as the absolute religion, intended for all people, and no other religion can be equally recognized as legitimate.
  • Until the moment, when the gospel will effectively enter the historical situation of a particular person, non-Christian religions contain not only elements of God’s cognition, although combined with fallacies, but also aspects of God’s divine grace, and thus, should be recognized as legitimate religions.
  • With regard to the aforementioned, Christianity considers the adherents of non Christian religion, not as non Christians, but as anonymous Christians.
  • Christianity band the Church cannot be viewed as an exclusive community for the candidates for salvation, but rather as an expression of what every Christian hopes upon, and thus “religious pluralism will continue to be a feature of human existence (McGrath).

Viewing the adherents of non-Christian religion as anonymous Christians, a notion that will be explained later in this paper, Rahner defines this notion as “the pagan after the beginning of the Christian mission, who lives in the state of Christ’s grace through faith, hope and love, yet who has no explicit knowledge of the fact that his life is orientated in grace-given salvation to Jesus Christ” (Sau).

It should be acknowledged that religion is not a relation which people establish with God, but relation, which God establishes and reveals by His initiative. Christianity, in such way, is the only legitimate religion intended for all mankind without exception, being given by God as an interpretation of the words directed to man.

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On the other hand, Christianity is without a doubt a historical religion, as revolving around Jesus Christ, it has a specific historical period two thousand years ago. It did not exist always and everywhere, and accordingly it cannot be said the Christianity in its church-social form was always the only way of salvation for everyone. Thus, the question that arises is when Christianity obtains the status of obligatoriness. Does it happen at the same moment for every person of any culture and any nation? Or the beginning of Christianity can be connected to the moment of its efficient entry in a particular historical situation, when it becomes a historical reality? The second answer is exactly to which Karl Rahner is inclined, calling it corresponding to the “historicity of Christianity and salvation-history” (Plantinga 292).

The question that still remains is when Christianity becomes historical and actual for the adherents of other non Christian religions. Karl Rahner asserts the unacceptability of non Christian religions only from the moment of their historical meeting with Christianity. He believes that such religions contain elements of consecration and truth, which indicate the universality of God’s saving will, embracing every person in any epoch and any nation. The grace of Christ can reach a person in the existential situation, in which he lives. In that regard, every person in the natural order is “homo religious”, and has an individual religious experience. However, such experience can appear to full extent only in a social order, and thus religions constitute possible mediators of such religious experience. As every person is called to praise God, he not only can but also must use for such purpose the existent social form. Non Christian religions, in that regard, can be considered as initial, imperfect, and largely divergent, but still elements of positive history of salvation and revelation.

In Theological Investigation, vol. VI, Anonymous Christians, Rahner attempts to answer the questions before the Christians, when reflecting about the contemporary religious situation in the world. On the one hand, in the traditional cultures of the East, Christianity failed to take the leading positions. On the other hand, in the West, which some time ago could pretend to be Christian, gradually loses its significance, becoming merely one of the possible forms of religious existence, and with that the majority of people do not connect themselves with a particular religion (Rahner). This type of dilemma can be apparent, as Christians are convinced that in order to reach salvation people should believe in God, and not only in God, but in Christ as well. At the same time, following such belief, the idea that millions of people, both who lived prior to Christ, and who do not know him at present, are excluded by God from the fullness of life and plunged into the absurdity of existence. Such approach contradicts even the Holy Scripture, which states, “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (King James Version, Tim. 2.4).

Thus, if Christians try to combine these two beliefs, i.e. the necessity of Christian faith and the universality of God’s saving purpose, they come to the conclusion that that all people can in some way belong to the Church, and at that such possibility is not abstract, but actual historically concrete. Thus, the degrees of belonging to the Church include the explicit Christian confession, with its full attachment to the Church, as well as anonymous Christianity, which can be also called Christianity in its authentic meaning.

Nevertheless, the latter does not mean that anyone should be called anonymous Christian, irrespectively of whether he accepts God’s grace or not. A person who on denies and breaks his connection with God, should not be even called anonymous theist. On the other hand, Rahner does not exclude the possibility to consider as anonymous Christians even nonbelievers, who under objective circumstances do not know God, but strive to lead saintly life and act according to their conscience. However, the possibility of a long period in the status of anonymous Christian implies the responsibility of Christians toward this category of people.


It can be concluded that the definitions of anonymous Christians in Karl Rahner works should not be viewed as a way of separating the paths to know God. The awareness of the existence of anonymous Christians does not free at all from the responsibility and the concern about those who do not know Christ, and the strive to that their knowledge on the necessary truth is shaped in the form of evangelic words.

Works Cited

King James Bible., 2009. Web.

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McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology : An Introduction. 4th ed: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006. Print.

Plantinga, Richard J. Christianity and Plurality : Classic and Contemporary Readings. Oxford, UK ; Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1999. Print.

POPE PAUL VI. “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”. 1965. Vatican homepage. Web.

Rahner, Karl. Theological Investigations. Vol. VI: Longman & Todd Ltd 1961. Print.

Sau, Norman Wong Cheong. “The “Anonymous Christian”.” Church & Society 4.1 (2001): 23-39 pp. Web.

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