Karl Rahner on the word “God” in the New Testament
A heavyweight Roman Catholic scholar looks at the use of ho theos in the New Testament.
A heavyweight Roman Catholic scholar looks at the use of ho theos in the New Testament.
Catholic theologian Karl Rahner’s (1904-1984) essay “Theos in the New Testament,” published in Vol. I of his 1961 Theological Investigations, is like a short book, a dense treatise on biblical theology. There’s a lot going on here, but in this post, I’ll highlight a few of what I consider the more interesting bits relating to NT language.
Rahner observes that the God of both OT and NT is a great self, a Person with a proper name, who freely and intelligently acts in history; God is a unique and provident god. (This is in keeping with his approach to the Trinity.) He then notes the pervasive and central NT theme of monotheism:
When Jesus was asked which was the first of all the commandments and answered that it was the commandment of love—and this is the heart of the Pauline and Johannine message too (Romans 13:10; 1 Corinthians 8:3; 1 Corinthians 13; Colossians 3:14; 1 John 3:11) —he himself in this critical context (Mark 12:29) cited the Shema… This confession of the one God runs through the entire New Testament. In Jesus’ own words, eternal life is that they should know the only true God (John 17:3) and be mindful of the glory which is from this one God alone (John 5:44)… Thus testimony to the uniqueness of the sole God is constantly recurring: eis ho theos [God is one] (Romans 3:3o; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Galatians 3:2o; Ephesians 4:6; 1 Timothy 2:5; James 2:19), monos theos [“one God,” or “only God”] (Romans 16:27; 1 Timothy 1:17; 1 Timothy 6:15; Jude 25; Revelation 15:4). Now this monotheism is not just a fragment of tradition taken over from the Old Testament… It is bound up with the basic Christian confession; and when Christ wanted to state as briefly as possible what that eternal life was which he offered men, he spoke of the knowledge of the one true God (John 17:3). When St Paul, in the earliest portion of the New Testament, sums up what has come about in the Thessalonians who have become Christians, once again the first item to be mentioned is conversion to the living and true God in opposition to the many false gods (1 Thessalonians 1 :9). And from God’s uniqueness St Paul derives support for two of his central themes: the calling of the Gentiles to the same rights in the New Israel (Romans 3:28-30; Romans 1o:12, 1 Timothy 2:4-5), and the unity of the multiple workings of the Spirit among Christians in the one Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:6 ; Ephesians 4:6). …Confession of faith in the one true God is one of the essential elements in the Gospel of Christ. (pp. 100-101)
As we’ll see, the NT not only asserts monotheism, but it also tells us who this one god is.
In order to see the NT clearly, Rahner tries to bracket off his trinitarian assumptions.
…what we are trying to discover is who is meant when the New Testament speaks of ho theos [“God,” literally, “the god”]. Thus our task is not to present the teaching of the New Testament concerning God as Trinity; this is simply presupposed as a doctrine of faith. We take it as something given that the content of the Church’s teaching concerning God as Trinity in the Unity of one and the same essence, is present in the New Testament too, though it is formulated there in different and simpler terms. But we are not concerned to ask whether, according to the New Testament, the three we find named there, pater, huios, pneuma hagion, are distinct from each other and yet identical with the divine nature possessed in common. Presupposing all this, we wish to learn which of these three is meant when the New Testament speaks of ho theos. (p. 125)
As Rahner notes, trinitarian usage of “God” is highly equivocal: it can refer to the Trinity, the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit. (p. 126) As an aside, I note that historically this phenomenon only goes back till just before the time of Augustine. But Rahner’s question is: is this New Testament usage? Rahner asserts that it is not.
We maintain that in the New Testament ho theos, signifies the First Person of the Trinity… and this applies to every case in which another meaning of ho theos does not become clearly evident from the context. (pp. 126-127)
In other words, normally “God” in the NT means the Father, but in rare circumstances, the context will demand our reading “God” as referring to something or someone else.
Rahner rebuts arguments that “God” in the NT should just mean God generally, not specifically the Father. (pp. 132-138) One such argument is: aren’t there a lot of texts where Jesus is called “God”? He concedes that there may half a dozen of them. (pp. 135-6)
Thus we have six texts in which the reality of the divine nature in Christ is expressed by the predicate theos. In none of them—it is not unimportant to note—is theos alone, without the addition of modifying clauses but with the article, used to speak of Christ. Theos is either found without the article (John 1:1, John 1:18; Romans 9:5), and so suggests a kind of conceptual generality; or it is particularized in some way, and so suggests that what is being referred to is not simply to be identified with what is elsewhere meant by ho theos. It is further to be observed that in all these cases (with the exception of Titus 2:13), theos stands as predicate or has a predicative sense, and in this way suggests the more general connotation of the word in the context. But the word never appears by itself as grammatical subject, about which something else is said, as though it were a characterization of Christ needing no further explanation, like kurios [“Lord”], for instance (Luke 7:13; Luke 10:1; John 4:11; John 6:23; John 11:2; Acts 9:10-11; 1 Corinthians 7:10-12; 1 Thessalonians 4:16, etc.). But what is decisive for our inquiry is that these few texts in which Christ is called theos are vastly outnumbered by the other texts in which the New Testament intends to express Christ’s divine nature in one way or another, and yet does not make use of the word theos, as one would have expected if the word had a quasi-generic signification. Christ is called ‘Son of God’, the ‘true Son of God’, kurios, ‘Logos of God’, eikon [image] of God… All these are ways of trying to express Christ’s divinity, and what is more to express it as clearly as possible, without any pedagogic attempt to withhold the full sense of the affirmation, as may have been the case when Christ began to reveal himself; and yet in all these texts the writers avoid the use of theos for Christ. (pp. 136-137)
Right. Rahner chooses not to question his Catholic assumption that the writers in the above ways are trying to say that Jesus had a divine nature. One might think they could have done that far more clearly and often! But he surely is correct in noting what is at best an extreme reticence to use theos about God’s Messiah. He immediately continues,
The only way in which this can be explained is that for the linguistic sense of the New Testament theos originally signified the Father alone. Ho theos does not start by being neutral in a generic way, so as to be applicable to the Father and also, without explanation, to the Son. Originally it is associated with the Father and thus primarily signifies him alone; it is only slowly, as it were shyly and cautiously, that the expression is detached from him and evolves in such a way that a few texts (John 20:28; Romans 9:5; 1 John 5:20) venture to use it of Christ. (pp. 137-138)
And we should pause to add that various translators and exegetes challenge all three of those cases!
He proceeds (pp. 138f) to give a “Positive demonstration” of his thesis. In brief, Rahner observes the overwhelming NT usage of ho theos for the Father. He the God who raised Christ, Christ’s god and Father, the one whom we access through the mediation of Christ. Many passages mention God/the Father and Christ, assuming their distinctness. This is the Father’s spirit which is “the holy spirit.” Even “in the so-called Trinitarian formulas” we often having “God” standing in for the Father. (p. 141)
This same one is YHWH:
The God whom the Jews believed to be their Father, is the God from whom Jesus has proceeded and who has sent him: the Father in the Trinitarian sense (John 8:32). (p. 142)
Rahner can’t quite get those trinitarian goggles off of his head. Nonetheless, he is seeing clearly the NT pattern of usage of God-terms, theos and ho theos.
We may outline our results as follows. Nowhere in the New Testament is there to be found text with ho theos which has unquestionably to be referred to the Trinitarian God as a whole existing in three Persons. In by far the greater number of texts ho theos refers to the Father as a Person of the Trinity. It should be noted here that in the texts in which ho theos is used without its being absolutely clear from the immediate context who precisely is meant, the expression never contains anything which is not said of God in other texts; and in just these other texts, this God may be recognized (directly or indirectly) as Father in the Trinitarian sense. Besides this there are six complete texts in which ho theos is used to speak of the Second Person of the Trinity, but still in a hesitant and obviously restrained way (the restriction is concerned of course not with the reality but with the use of the word). In addition, ho theos is never used in the New Testament to speak of the pneuma hagion [Holy Spirit]. These findings are sufficient in themselves to justify the assertion that when the New Testament speaks of ho theos, it is (with the exception of the six texts mentioned) the Father as First Person of the Trinity who is signified. (pp. 143-144)
Rahner ends with a several concluding observations such as that when in the New Testament Jesus is called “the Son of God” this means the Son of the Father. (pp. 144-145)
Really, aside from those six alleged instances where theos is used of the Son, the above conclusions are indisputable facts. Dear student of scripture, a triad of questions for you:
It strikes me that this sort of attention to undisputed textual facts is important.