Karl Rahner, The Trinity, translated from “Der dreifaltige Gott als transzendeter Urgrund der Heilsgeschichte” in Die Heilsgeschichte vor Christus by Joseph Donceel, with introduction, index and glossary by Catherine Mowry Lacugna (New York: Herder & Herder, 1997).


Karl Rahner wrote this treatise (for it is rather short and concise to be called a full book) because, as he says, despite all the Christian creeds and decrees of the magisterium, most Christians are, in fact, monotheists. In the everyday life of most Christians the Trinity and its full meaning is lost. As most of literature shows, says Rahner, Christians are more apt to simply speak of “God” in a single abstract, and speak of “God” becoming man, almost to the point that most could still conceive that “God” could become man even if there was no Trinity. The reason for this sad state of affairs is what Rahner calls “textbook theology” which speaks of God abstractly as a “divine hypostasis” without distinguishing the persons from each other. This is the result of a much larger problem, that ever since Augustine theologians have been happy to speak of “God” in such a way that one is led to believe that any person of the Trinity could have become Incarnate.[1] This has been the norm ever since the treatises of Aquinas On the One God and On the Trinity were studied precisely in that order, moving from considering the divine essence of God first and only then considering the three persons. This not only destroys the order of divine revelation it also isolates the Trinity from man and the world.[2]

The problem with this for Rahner is that the Incarnation does indeed tell us something about “God”, or, more precisely, about the Trinity. It tells us that the second person of the Trinity, the Logos, was uniquely revealed through the Incarnation and thus the Incarnation tells us something unique about the Logos. The Incarnation then is something which distinguishes the person of the Logos from the persons of the other members of the Trinity, the Father and the Spirit.[3] The Trinity, then, is connected to man because it is in the Trinity that we see the “mystery of salvation”.[4] It was because of this “mystery of salvation” that the Logos became Incarnate, that is the role he plays in salvation history. Therefore, Rahner posits his thesis: “the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity”.[5]

Rahner explains this thesis by appealing to the doctrine of grace. According to Rahner the way each of the divine persons communicates to us to the world in their unique way is the same way they communicate to each other.[6] When we access the doctrine of the Trinity in Jesus and the Spirit in salvation history the Trinity is manifest to us. The Trinity is not given to us as an abstract statement which we must muster up the faith to believe in, it is stated to us because we have already received the grace concerning this mystery through our real relation to the immanent Trinity.[7] When start from this perspective we can see how the Trinity is revealed through history.[8]

Having laid this groundwork of his working hypothesis, Rahner in the second section of the book moves through what the magisterium has stated and reflects upon it. Rahner first considers the terminology which is applied, notably the terms “person” and “essence”. Rahner understands the distinction between person and essence, but asks whether we should, at this time, replace “person” with a word more fitting to the original meaning of subsistence. Rahner believes that “person” has gained a different shade of meaning over time, so that many today understand “person” not as subsistence but as a center of consciousness and activity, which causes a heretical understanding of the dogma of the Trinity.[9]

Rahner then works through what the official doctrine of the church on the Trinity is by examining what the magisterium has stated on the Father, Son and Spirit. Rahner shows that there are distinct characteristics to each person, but the three are only “relatively” distinct, meaning that they do not have the same formal identity but possess the one and the same godhead.[10] Therefore, in the official doctrine of the church there are three subsistences,[11] and these subsistences are understood in two ways: economically they are three concrete of being given and immanently they are three relative concrete ways of existing of one and the same God.[12]

Rahner then moves into his third and final section in which he advances his own outline for Trinitarian theology. Building upon what he has already stated in the first section of the book Rahner posits God as “the Father” who then self-communicates himself through the Son and the Spirit when the Son and the Spirit exercises their “hypostatic function” (i.e. the Son Incarnating and the Spirit descending).[13] This self-communication is given to a personal recipient, the human personal subject who is created as a demand of this self-communication.[14] This self-communication has two basic modes, truth and love, truth as concrete history and love as the absolute future.[15] These two things are not the same, but both are necessary and they both condition the other.[16]

Having established the economic Trinity through this principle of self-communication Rahner asks whether this economic Trinity brings one to the immanent Trinity which is declared by the church. Rahner answers that such a self-communication belongs to God “in himself” by reason of definition.[17] Therefore the economic Trinity is based in the immanent Trinity, for in the Trinity the Father mediates himself to himself, the Son is the one who is uttered for himself in truth and the Spirit is the one who has received and accepted for himself in love. This double self-communication of the Father makes distinct the one who is uttered and the one who is received, but these are all bond together in a “relative” way.[18]

Rahner then moves to a full critique of the word “person”, expanding upon his previous critique in the first section. Rahner reiterates that person originally meant only the distinct subsistence and only obliquely did it mean a rational nature. However, in modern times person is thought of primarily in a spiritual-subjective way.[19] Therefore, Rahner posits that we explain “person” with “distinct manner of subsisting”.[20] For Rahner this term sidesteps the modern understanding of “person” as “personality” and thus escapes an implied tritheism and emphasizes the unity of God.[21]

Rahner concludes that this treatise lays the groundwork for a fuller understanding of Christology and pneumatology. For when we understand that the Incarnation of the Logos was not “random” but that the Incarnation is a manifestation of the Logos, or that the doctrine of grace in fact possesses a Trinitarian structure, then the doctrine of the Trinity is truly preserved and made evident in Christology and pneumatology. While Rahner admits that he has bypassed some aspects of this discussion he affirms that he has dealt fully with Scripture, revelation, and kerygma in this essay.[22]

Rahner’s basic thesis that the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and vice versa has many positive possibilities. It fully accounts for the actual sequence of revelation of God to the world and considers the doctrine of the Trinity from the way that we as humans really interact with this doctrine in history. This keeps the doctrine of the Trinity based in reality, not fanciful speculation.

There are a few points of critique however. Rahner presupposes a vast amount of knowledge in German philosophical language, Scholastic theology, and modern Catholic doctrine upon the reader. While he may have understood his audience this way when he was writing this treatise, it dramatically reduces its appeal to a broader audience. When Rahner speaks of On the One God and On the Triune God one is thrown into the debate without any background into what these documents are and where they came from. Rahner offers only small clues in later chapters. In general, Rahner offers further explanation and clarification in footnotes and one is left to wish that Rahner had expanded the text by including what is in the footnotes in the main text and spent more time explaining his argument and terminology.

Furthermore, Rahner spends much time going through the official doctrine of the church on the Trinity, all of section two is devoted to this. One can wonder why Rahner spends so much time on this except to prove that his working hypothesis of the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity are a better explanation of these dogmatic formulas. Rahner as a Catholic seems bound by the magisterium, and he quotes from their documents extensively. Indeed, he hardly ever quotes directly from Scripture, though if one is careful one can conjecture the Scriptural underpinnings of the magisterium statements which he quotes. Rahner, while he criticizes the “textbook theology” which modern Catholic dogmatic formulas has produced, still seems eager to keep his theology acceptable to magisterial theology. This perhaps is a positive thing in that it keeps him from venturing too far afield and provides a framework in which he develop, nevertheless, it seems that his systematic tends to strain against itself under this weight.

When it comes to Rahner’s main topic of argument, that of “person” there are positives and negatives. One can applaud Rahner for seeking to understand “person” along the “Greek” lines of a concrete subsistence of each distinct person. However, replacing the term completely seems rash and his alternative is questionable. While it is true that some people may misunderstand “person” to mean tritheism Rahner’s alternative of “distinct manner of subsisting” seems to be just as misleading, at least, how it is presented in English translation. A “manner of subsisting” could be taken to mean that the one Godhead takes on different manners of subsisting as he sees fit, and hence one is left with modalism. When one understands Rahner to mean that the “distinct manner of subsisting” means precisely that Father, Son and Spirit are unified but have their own distinct ways of being then there is no possibility of modalism, but if the proposed alternative requires more explanation than the original term is the alternative actually more clear?

There is throughout the book a weakness when it comes to pneumatology proper. Spirit is written with and without quotation marks around it throughout the book, but it is not very clear whether there is a difference between these two uses. Rahner speaks mostly of the “Spirit of the Father” or the “Spirit of the Son” without clearly defining the relationship between these two. It seems that Rahner locates pneumatology mostly on the level of grace without explaining how this relates to the third divine person/”distinct manner of subsisting”.

Rahner defines “God” finally in the third section as the Father and then uses “God” throughout the section without further explanation or distinction from when he uses “God” to refer to all three persons as a whole or as abstract divinity. One can assume that when Rahner says that God is revealed in the Son through the Spirit he means “God” as Father, but it is not entirely clear or consistent. Even so, this definition of “God” as Father is integral to his thesis because it allows him to posit the self-communication of the Father to the Son and Spirit is also the self-communication of “God” to the world, hence connecting the economic and immanent Trinity. Nevertheless, Rahner does not spend a lot of time defining just how “God” is the Father.

Finally, there are a few stylistic matters. Comma use when it comes to subordinate clauses is uneven, causing even greater confusion to Rahner’s already terse style. In English the use of unqualified antecedents becomes much more than confusing than they would be in the original German, causing the reader to have to carefully match each noun with its referent. There is although, the inclusion of key terms of the original German included in brackets, which allows the reader to match where Rahner is using the same terms even though this is obscured in the English.

Altogether, I found this text to be helpful in explaining how one should properly approach the doctrine of the Trinity. Matters of terminology aside, I believe Rahner convincingly presents his argument that the way the Trinity is in its distinct persons, and the way the Trinity acts by those distinct persons in the world, are related. Perhaps with this explanation more people would, indeed, understand the Trinity without becoming monotheists or tritheists. The Trinity would then be understood in the way it impacts one’s personal everyday life in grace and salvation.

[1] P. 10

[2] Pp. 20-21.

[3] P. 11.

[4] P. 21

[5] P. 23

[6] Pp. 34-35.

[7] P. 39.

[8] P. 41.

[9] P. 57.

[10] P. 68.

[11] P. 73

[12] P. 74.

[13] P. 86.

[14] P. 91.

[15] P. 98.

[16] P. 99.

[17] P. 100.

[18] P. 102.

[19] P. 108.

[20] P. 109.

[21] P. 112.

[22] P. 120.