The Triune Gift of Self: A Reformed Critique of Karl Rahner’s Theology of Divine Self-Communication

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Karl Rahner, SJ (1904–1984) was one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the twentieth century. Theologians often encounter him first through his trinitarian “rule,” which states that the “economic” Trinity is the “immanent” Trinity and the “immanent” Trinity is the “economic” Trinity. While many can recite the rule, few understand its significance. We endeavor to offer a comprehensive study of Rahner’s doctrine of trinitarian personality by tracing this thread through the doctrine of God, theological anthropology, Christology, and soteriology.

By understanding the hypostases of Son and Spirit as ad intra self-communications, Rahner formulates a means for the triune God to communicate himself to human beings, the divinely equipped recipient of his gift of self. When the eternal Son of God expresses himself concretely, he is expressed as a hypostatic union of divine and human natures. rough this hypostatic union Christ actualizes and consummates the relationship between God and man by becoming the climax of divine gift and its human acceptance in freedom. For Rahner, this divine self-communication elevates humanity to consummate life through the beatific vision.

In this study, we argue that Rahner’s formulation of trinitarian personality cannot sustain a fully trinitarian gift of self, because it is trinitarian in mode of delivery only—in manner, but not in matter.  Therefore, it is not properly a divine gift of self. By appealing to the twentieth-century Reformed theologian Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987), we propose a doctrine of perichoresis to ground a biblical-theological and systematic model of æonic image conformity as an alternative. The beatific vision (and glorification) ought to be construed in a covenantal context as an eschatological transformation, which recovers the threefold image of God bestowed upon man at creation and elevates him to an estate higher than that in which he was created. In contrast to Rahner’s theology of divine self-communication, the glorified man does not become incorporated ontologically or hypostatically into God. Rather, as believers are conformed to the image of Christ, they participate in his resurrection glory, manifesting more fully its ultimate source, the triune God himself.

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