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Implicit and explicit faith

Faith is the human response to God’s self-communication in general and to his self-revelation in particular. It is an overall response which encompasses the whole personality of the believer. If the traditional understanding of faith focused on the assent of the intellect and will to certain propositions, Rahner emphasizes something more: faith is not merely a partial response involving human faculties, but a response of the whole person in every dimension of life. Thus faith is, first of all, concrete faith in Christ as the realization of God’s infinite love. Second, faith permeates not only the positive aspects of existence but the negative ones as well, especially sickness, tragedy and death. In the face of human difficulties, the Christian faithfully turns to God’s healing and saving power on the basis of the concrete existence of the Church and its sacramental reality. As an answer to God’s call, faith does not originate in itself but is produced, maintained, strengthened and developed by God. Faith is a matter of grace in the created as well as in the uncreated sense, in the realization of God’s love in one’s individual life and, similarly, in the historical life of the Church.

Rahner often uses the expression ‘explicit’ to describe the concrete faith of Christians (a revision of the notion of fides explicata). He also identifies ‘implicit’ or ‘anonymous’ faith: this refers to the effects of the universal presence of God’s uncreated grace (a revision of fides implicata). God is the origin and aim of everything, and there is no aspect of life and no dimension of history in which divine love did not have its presence in some, often hidden, forms. Since God embraces history in its totality - with the focus on the event of the Incarnation - all ages, peoples and cultures are permeated by God’s transcendental revelation. We find everywhere the corresponding forms of faith. Anonymous faith is called so because it is distinguished from the explicit and positive faith of Christians. Christianity is the central, yet not the only, achievement of God’s love. There are human beings in every part of the world who respond to God’s self-communication in accordance with their cultural and historical circumstances. Every human person is born to be an ‘anonymous Christian’, naturally possessing the capacity of faith in God’s transcendental self-communication. The more expressly Christianity is aware of this fact, the more it is able to communicate God’s categorical revelation to humanity and activate an explicit faith in Christ.[1]

Rahner’s central message can be summarized as the discovery of the transcendental dimension of theology in and beyond the categorical realm. By applying this distinction, we can readily interpret many of his important insights. The transcendental, however, is not a logical category for Rahner but rather, just as for Kant, the name for a higher and richer realm of reality which sheds new light on the historical-empirical dimensions. We easily misunderstand Rahner when we do not take his meaning of the transcendental into account. The worst mistake we can make, for which Rahner may be partially responsible, is losing sight of the paramount importance of the positive, the explicit and the categorical. According to Rahner’s original intention, transcendentalism must not lead to relativism or the neglect of Christian traditions. On the contrary, Rahner hoped to offer a renewed awareness of the importance of Christian traditions by delineating an inclusive approach in which this importance may receive a more profound explanation.

Study questions

  • 1. What is the difference between the mindsets of von Balthasar and Rahner?
  • 2. What is the paradox of grace?
  • 3. What is the difference between categorical and transcendental revelation?
  • 4. What is explicit faith in Rahner’s thought?
  • 5. How would you define the notion of ‘anonymous faith’?

Further reading

Burke, Patrick, Reinterpreting Rahner: A Critical Study of His Major Themes (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002).

Kilby, Karen, A Brief Introduction to Karl Rahner Crossroad (New York, 2007).

Rahner, Karl, ‘Intellectual Honesty and Christian Faith’, Theological Investigations vii, 1971, pp. 47-71.

-, ‘On the Situation of Faith’, Theological Investigations xx, 1981, pp. 13-32.


  • [1] Rahner, ‘Atheism and Implicit Christianity’. See also Daniel Donovan, ‘Faith and Revelation’, in Declanand Hines (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Karl Rahner, pp. 83-97.
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