The reality of revelation was one of the fundamental questions that occupied 1 Tyrrell as a writer until he died on 15 July 1909. The centenary of his death is an opportune time to engage this English Modernist in a dialogue with Karl Rahner on the subject of revelation. Tyrrell insists on the primacy of the interior experience of revelation. An exaggerated emphasis on inner religious experience, however, led him inevitably to a separation of the interior dimension of revelation from its verbal expressions and doctrinal formulations.

Rahner also affirms the primacy of the originating inner experience of God but stresses at the same time the intrinsic unity between this transcendental revelation and its categorical, historical dimension. Revelation corresponds to the symbolic nature of the addressee. The Mystery of the Incarnation is the point of reference for understanding God's self-communication. The fullness of revelation has been realized in the indissoluble and irreversible unity of the Divine Logos with the Man Jesus.


George Tyrrell, the embodiment of Modernism's temperament and fate, was a prolific and impassioned writer. In 1907 he put together his selected writings on theology and devotion and added an important chapter on revelation which is a central theme in his works. He published it at the height of the Modernist crisis with the title Through Scylla and Charybdis. The title is suggestive of the dangerous course chosen by Tyrrell in navigating between ‘Scylla’ the (conservative) ‘rock of tradition,’ and ‘Charybdis,’ the (liberal) ‘whirlpool of progress’.1 The book, which Tyrrell thought would be his last theological work, represented the most cogent statement of his ‘conservative-left’ position.2 He signed the Preface in May 1907.

On 3 July 1907 the decree Lamentabili condemned sixty-five propositions drawn from the modernist writings, mostly from Loisy. On 8 September 1907 the encyclical Pascendi was published condemning modernism as ‘the synthesis of all heresies.’ Tyrrell was undoubtedly ‘one of those at whom the encyclical was principally aimed.’3 The modernists attempted ‘to harmonize the data of revelation with history, the sciences and cultures.’4 Unfortunately, they appeared on the scene at a time when the Church felt threatened by anti-authoritarian thinking and thought only of defending itself. Neo-scholastic theologians supported the Magisterium. Yet Tyrrell was not deterred by the Church's condemnation. He led the modernist resistance through his writings and lectures until he fell critically ill of Bright's disease and died on 15 July 1909. T. M. Schoof regrets, with A. Vidler, that the modernist theologians ‘who were working for renewal were not given any chance to discuss their developing ideas seriously within the Church.’5

Karl Rahner launched his long and extraordinary theological career a few decades after Tyrrell. Besides a long list of books and articles Rahner produced the multi-volume Theological Investigations. ‘Rahner is well known for his openness to new contributions and new approaches.’6 He is convinced that the question raised by Tyrrell and the other modernists regarding the concept of revelation and an adequate answer to it ‘are still of fundamental importance in the present confrontation and involvement of Christianity with modern intellectual life.’7 Rahner, according to George Vass, predicted that theology and also the ‘Magisterium of the future … will delve even more deeply into the essence of revelation.’8 Rahner started his reflection on the subject by answering the very question concerning the nature of revelation. Like Tyrrell, Rahner endeavored to correlate human experience with God's revelation.9 On the centenary of Tyrrell's death it is thus opportune to give Tyrrell the chance, not afforded to him then, to discuss his ideas regarding revelation with Rahner, who grasped the significance of the issue.

The dialogue is divided into topics that establish Tyrrell's concept of revelation. Each point is followed by a corresponding exposition of Rahner's position.


Tyrrell asserts in Through Scylla and Charybdis that the word revelation ‘is used primarily to denote an experience, and secondarily, to denote the record or expression by which that experience is retained and communicated to others.’10 He refers to revelation, on the side of the recipient as an experience of the Divine. He uses the term ‘experience’ in the sense of concrete, personal, first-hand contact with the Divine, as against God's word through another or through the ‘inference of the understanding’ formulated in abstract propositions. Revelation is an intuitive immediate contact with God. On the side of the revealing God, revelation is the action initiated by Him, ‘the self-manifestation of the divine in our inward life’ (SC, p. 205). Revelation is an interior event because God who is Spirit reveals himself to the human spirit. Thus, revelation is a spiritual contact with the divine, an inward vision or religious experience. It is ‘a complex spiritual experience – an experience made up of feelings and impulses and imaginings’ leaving its impress in the mind, in the heart and will. God is revealed just ‘as a cause is revealed in its effect’ (SC, pp. 282, 287). The complex effect of God's action in the spirit of the recipient makes the latter conscious of the presence of God as its cause. The active presence of God works to transform the recipient. At the heart of the inner revelatory experience is communion with a loving God. ‘Divine love, and love of God, and of man in relation to God is the very sum and substance of religious experience’ (SC, pp. 284, 304).

Rahner presents two aspects of revelation: transcendental and historical. Tyrrell's description of revelation as inner religious experience corresponds to what Rahner calls transcendental revelation. In Foundations of Christian Faith he explains that beyond the unthematic or 'natural revelation' which is really the presence of God as question, there is the real revelation of God.' The real revelation of God ‘has the character of an event. It is dialogical, and in it God speaks to man and makes known to him something which cannot be known always and everywhere in the world simply through the necessary relation of all reality in the world to God in man's transcendence. … Rather presupposing the world and transcendental spirit, the real revelation discloses something, which is still unknown for man from the world: the inner reality of God and his personal and free relationship to spiritual creatures.’11 In Theological Investigations Rahner writes that in revelation ‘God wished to give himself in an absolute, radical self-communication in grace as the innermost kernel of our existence and, precisely thus, as the permanent mystery always coming nearer for the acceptance in love.’12 He declares in his ‘Observations on the Concept of Revelation,’ that this self-communication of God in divinizing grace effects ‘the transcendental experience of the absolute and merciful closeness of God which deserves to be called God's self-revelation’ (‘OCR’, p. 14).

In his later work Rahner explains that the universal salvific will of God objectifies itself in the self-communication of God that is called grace, and which, at least as offer, is given to every person's freedom in all ages and places in history.13 This offer of grace to the open spirit of man penetrates to the innermost depths of his being, radically reorientating him toward the immediate presence of God and communicating an inner, conscious non-objective ordination to the God who saves and beatifies; an immediate but non-objective transcendental experience of the nearness of the silent mystery.14 Rahner affirms that this inner experience of God can be aptly called revelation, that is, transcendental revelation.

For, ‘if God's self-communication is free and if it is consciously grasped by a person, even if this occurs without thematic reflection, then the two conditions for supernatural revelation are realized in the strict sense of the term.’15 Revelation is completed when it is recognized and accepted in faith as the gracious self-manifestation and self-giving of God.

Rahner points out that the mystics ‘experience grace, God's immediate proximity, union with him in the Spirit.’ But he is convinced that ordinary Christians can have ‘the really mystical experience,’ that is, the experience of grace without the accompanying phenomena recounted by the mystics. The grace of God enables us to move ‘toward God's immediacy in himself up to the point one day of the immediate vision of God.’16

He states further: ‘This inner self-communication of God in grace at the core of a spiritual person is destined for all men, in all of his dimensions, because all are to be integrated into the single salvation of the single and total person. Therefore all transcendent subjectivity possesses itself not for itself alongside history, but in this very history which is precisely the history of transcendence itself ’(FCF, p.172).

Grace, then, as God's self-communication, is a constitutive inner element of revelation. Rahner affirms the primacy of the originating inner experience of God, given with God's self-communication in grace, in relation to its conceptualization. ‘No doubt, the actual event of revelation in man begins also so ‘profoundly’ in his innermost centre … that every conceptual objectification of what is thus communicated is secondary in comparison, even though this objectification is also utterly willed in itself by God and guaranteed in its rightness (by a public revelation, in which this revelation must be passed on to others besides the direct bearers of revelation)' (TI 5, p. 39). Rahner here supports Tyrrell who consistently held and defended the primacy of the originating inner experience over its external expression.


Tyrrell distinguishes two moments of the revelatory experience. The first moment is the inward and wordless action of God upon the human spirit. This is revelation in its truest sense. The second moment is the spontaneous reaction of the recipient to the divine action of the first moment. Here, the recipient or prophet under the influence of God's touch spontaneously reacts and expresses the first hand experience in ‘ideas, forms and images wherewith the mind is stocked in each particular case’(SC, pp. 208–9). This is a human expression but is inspired by the divine ‘showing’ or vision of the first moment. The language, the imaginative embodiment of religious experience, is at best suggestive. As an utterance inspired by the Spirit it is called prophetic expression, which may be regarded as a prolongation of the revelation experience, hence, revelation in a secondary sense (SC, pp. 303–4).

It is in the form of prophetic expression that the experience can be retained and can be communicated to others. The purpose of such a communication is ‘to evoke the same spiritual phenomenon in others, to bring them to like relation to the Eternal.’ Because it is intended for all, the prophetic presentment is ‘within the apprehension of all’ (SC, pp. 303, 326). The wise and the simple, or the cultured century and the one that is primitive, both have equal access to this more concrete, imaginative and symbolic presentation of revelation. Tyrrell emphatically stresses the interior reality of revelation: ‘It is indifferent to the essential idea of revelation whether the Divine Spirit causes the revealed truth to spring up in our minds, or throws a supernatural and revealing light from within on a truth presented to us from without. In both cases, the revelation is from within, is individual and incommunicable’ (SC, pp. 314–15).

The prophetic utterance may include theological, scientific and historical concepts but these are not utilized for their respective proper values. ‘Prophetic truth cannot be used, as statements can be used from which we may deduce other statements’ (SC, p. 289). For Tyrrell, revelation is not a statement which can be used in a syllogism. It is rather an experience that is best expressed symbolically.

Rahner's theology of revelation cannot be correctly understood on the basis of the transcendental dimension alone. Revelation has a predicamental (or categorical, historical) dimension. God's self-revelation in the depths of the spiritual person automatically tends to objectify and express itself categorically in the concrete history of the person, in words and actions.

God's self-revelation in the depths of the spiritual person is an a priori determination coming from grace, and is itself unreflexive. ‘It is not in itself an objective, thematic expression’ but it is ‘something within the realm of consciousness.’ This ‘transcendental revelation is, however, itself always mediated categorically in the world, because all of man's transcendentality has a history.’ It happens in the historical material of a person's life. ‘If God's self-revelation in grace is to become the principle of concrete action in its objective and reflexive consciousness,’ including the social dimension, then this non-objective self-revelation of God in grace ‘must always be present as mediated in objective and reflexive knowledge, regardless in the first instance of whether this is explicitly and thematically religious mediation or not.’ Rahner affirms that this ‘mediation’ possesses its history, which is under the direction of God whose transcendental revelation has a dynamism towards its historical realization and mediation or objectification for ‘it is the principle of divinization of the creature in all its dimensions.’ This historical mediation is itself the revelation of God. Every religion tries to mediate the non-reflexive revelation historically, and there are moments of success made possible by the grace of God. Because of man's sinful condition, however, the objectifications are intermingled with error. These objectifications are provisional and incomplete (FCF, pp. 172–73).

The history of revelation in the usual and full sense of the term is present where God's self-communication is successfully mediated by a correct interpretation of it made possible by God himself who directs its course. This interpretation in word and deed is realized in the prophets who are believers capable of expressing their transcendental experience of God correctly.

Whenever and wherever this objectification of revelation is accomplished for a community of people and not only for the individual existence of an individual as such; when the mediating translation is accomplished in those persons whom we then call religious prophets, bearers of revelation in the full sense, and when it is directed by God himself in the dynamism of his divine self-communication in such a way that it remains pure, although it mediates perhaps only partial aspects of the transcendental revelation; and when this purity of revelation in its objectification by the prophets and our own call by this objectified revelation is shown to be legitimate for us by what we call signs, then we have what is called public, official, particular and ecclesially constituted revelation and its history, we have what we are accustomed to call ‘revelation’ in an absolute sense.(FCF, pp., 173–74)

The aforementioned absolute revelation is an historical event, for it is a free decision of God calling for a free historical response on the part of man. This is historical and particular also ‘in the sense that it does not take place everywhere in this official and, as it were, reflexively guaranteed purity.’ The particular history of revelation exists within the universal history of salvation and revelation, but it is an eminent moment of this salvation history (FCF, p. 174).

Rahner keeps the unity and reciprocal relation between the transcendental and historical (which includes the prophetic words) dimensions of the one revelation. Tyrrell's claim above that the prophetic expression of a revelatory experience can never adequately express the original experience is true in the sense that it does not give full expression to it. The experience transcends the finite expression. Rahner contends, however, that the prophet objectifies and ‘declares it correctly, that is without error (though imperfectly), with divine guidance and attestation’ (Concise Theological Dictionary, p. 419). God's self-revelation objectified or expressed by the Old Testament prophets reached its ultimate fulfillment in Christ.


Christ is the final and fullest revelation of God (SC, p. 295). Tyrrell agrees with the Fathers of the Church that the ‘death of the last apostle closed the normative or classical period of Christian inspiration’ (SC, p. 324). Revelation did not stop with the apostles. ‘But a peculiar character rightly attaches to that which was the effect of immediate contact with Christ, and of the Spirit as it was breathed forth from his very lips. This has rightly been regarded as alone classical and normative, as the test by which all spirits and revelations in the Church are to be tried.’ The truth of apostolic revelation is ‘the truth of fact and experience,’ the experience that ‘brought them face to face with God’ (SC, pp. 292, 291). The apostles' experience of Christ is accessible to us in its recorded expression in Scripture (SC, pp. 347–48). It is the Spirit of Christ within us that makes us understand the classical expression of apostolic revelation.

Apostolic revelation is a prophetic vision; it is inspired and not a product of deliberate understanding and judgment. It is the ‘illustrative value or truth' of the ‘categories and judgments and conceptions of the contemporary Jewish and Hellenic mind’ which ‘possess the authority of revelation,’ but ‘not their several proper values’(SC, p. 326–27).

Revelation in its first moment, the action of God upon the passive recipient, is a wordless experience. Its expression in the second moment is a spontaneous reaction of the human mind to the divine action of the first moment and makes use of ‘the ideas, forms and images wherewith the mind is stocked’ (SC, pp. 208–9). This is a human expression but is inspired by the divine ‘showing.’ Jesus' experience and its expression in words are to be understood in the same way. His statements would not have been received by Peter as divine, if they had not been ‘revealed … inwardly and spiritually to the Apostle. The spoken words of Jesus were therefore not revelation; but at most an occasion of revelation. He was a revealer only so far as, being God, He could speak to the heart as well as to the ear and brain.’ Christ's revelation given to the apostles is not to be found in the statement but ‘in the interior experience of redemption through Christ, which it occasions and by which it is interpreted’.17

Rahner also asserts that revelation as the self-communication of God has reached its unsurpassable climax in Christ. In Christ God has definitively given God's self to the world. ‘In Jesus, God's communication to man in grace and at the same time its categorical self-interpretation in the corporeal, tangible and social dimension, have reached their climax, have become revelation in an absolute sense’(FCF, pp. 174–75). Christ, the Son of love, is the Amen of revelation, ‘a conclusion as fulfilled presence of an all-embracing divine plenitude’ (TI 1, pp. 48–49).

Jesus Christ is the Amen of revelation because the eternal Word, the immanent image and self-expression of the Father, has created and expressed himself in the humanity of Jesus, thus taking it as his own (FCF, pp. 222–26). This is the hypostatic union –‘a technical term which means that in Jesus Christ a human being became the created self-expression of the Word of God through permanent union of the human nature with the divine Person of the Logos.’18 If the term symbol is understood in a strongly realistic sense as a sign in which the thing signified is really present, this union of the human nature with the Logos (as understood above) makes the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, ‘the absolute symbol of God in the world, filled as nothing else can be with what is symbolized.’ He is the symbol of God par excellence. We can therefore understand that ‘Jesus in his whole human reality is the expressive presence of what – or rather who – God wished to be in free grace, to the world,’ and he is that ‘in such a way that this divine attitude, once expressed, can never be reversed, but is and remains final and unsurpassable.’ Rahner concludes that ‘the Logos, as Son of the Father, is truly in his humanity as such the revelatory symbol in which the Father enunciates himself, in this Son, to the world – revelatory because the symbol renders present what is revealed’19‘He who sees me sees the Father’ (Jn 14:9). Jesus Christ in his whole humanity is the revelation of the Father.

Rahner affirms that the climax of the history of revelation has taken place in Jesus Christ. In it has been revealed ‘the absolute and irrevocable unity of God's transcendental self-communication to mankind and of its historical mediation in the one God-Man, who is at once God himself as communicated, the human acceptance of the communication and the final historical manifestation of this communication and acceptance.’ (‘OCR,’ pp. 14–15). Rahner explains further: ‘The reality of the divine self-communication creates for itself its immediacy by constituting itself present in the symbol, that does not divide as it mediates but unites immediately, because the true symbol is united with the thing symbolized, since the latter constitutes the former as its own self-realization’ (TI 4, p. 252).

Rahner's analysis is theologically more penetrating than Tyrrell's. Tyrrell recognizes the importance of symbols in communicating the experience of revelation, but his notion of symbol lacks the strong realistic sense given to it by Rahner, particularly when it is applied to the Incarnate Logos. Rahner insists that a transcendental revelation has a dynamism to mediate itself historically and categorically; its historical, categorical mediation in word and deed is also a revelation. Tyrrell tends to separate the verbal expression from the interior revelatory experience; Rahner, by contrast, stresses their unity. It is ‘through the hypostatic union and in the incarnation of God in the created, spiritual reality of Jesus’ that both dimensions ‘have reached their climax, have become revelation in an absolute sense’(FCF, pp. 174–75). In this absolute unity, the Word who is God takes as his very own the full humanity of Jesus. The works performed and the words spoken by Jesus properly belong to the Word, the Son of the Father. Revelation's content is actually made available through ‘our Lord's spoken word.’20 The words of our Lord in Scripture are, ‘when we read them in faith, once more animated by [the] self-communication of God. Thus they are not only words about God … and thus only human words. They are indeed words of God.' 21 Rahner also makes it clear that, ‘spoken and written word only becomes the word of God absolutely as such in the interior grace-given occurrence of faith.’(‘OCR,’ p. 18). It is the grace of the Holy Spirit that produces a specific effect in human consciousness that enables us ‘to apprehend the objects of faith given through the hearing of the external announcement, under a ‘light,’ a subjective a priori under grace (the formal object), which is not available to someone without grace’ (‘OCR,’ p. 10; TI 18, p. 189–90).


Tyrrell writes: ‘As little as Christ's knowledge of the Father was an inference, so little was his revelation of that knowledge a formula.’22 Jesus imposed by his life the imaginative vision of his revelation.23 The Church translates and interprets this vision into the intellectual terms and symbolisms of each age. It imposes the formula, the dogma, as safeguarding the vision, the inward religious experience. Dogma ‘is a religious truth imposed authoritatively as the Word of God, not as a conclusion of theological reflection’ (SC, pp. 4–5). Hence: ‘To treat them as miraculous ‘theologoumena’ is to degrade them to the plane of reason’ (SC., pp. 329–30). The dogmatic decisions of the Church reassert the apostolic revelation. The dogmatic assertions only protect revelation but they do not possess either theological or revelational value (SC, p 293). ‘It is only the revealed kernel and not the theological husk to which they can bind our consciences.’24 Devoid of its theological value, dogma is not subject to development.

Rahner responds to the problem of dogma raised by Tyrrell and the Modernists. He affirms that revelation is primarily a saving event. ‘Revelation is not the communication of a definite number of propositions … but an historical dialogue between God and man in which something happens, and in which the communication is related to the continuous ‘happening’ and enterprise of God. … Revelation is a saving Happening, and only then and in relation to this a communication of truths' (TI 1, p. 48). This saving Happening has reached its unsurpassable climax in Christ and God has given himself definitively to the world. ‘It is because the definitive Reality which resolves history proper is already here that revelation is ‘closed’’ (TI 1, p. 49). This ‘closed’ Revelation is ‘made to the believing Church, in possession of the revealed Reality itself' (TI 1, p. 49).

Nevertheless, Rahner also emphatically declares that knowledge of the revealed and saving reality ‘can only be gained through the faith that comes from hearing and speaks in human concepts and human propositions. Any attempts to transcend this divine message – in some ‘religious experience’…– so as to grasp this reality immediately and without reference to the message, is delusive and impossible, and must inevitably lead to a modernistic realization of Christianity.’ Since revelation ‘moves within the sphere of our intellectual and moral ‘consciousness,’’ it is ‘inseparably dependent upon the announcing Word’ (TI 1, p. 49).

In Christ the Word utters what is present. The Church possesses Christ and his Spirit. The Church's hearing of the Word and the reflection upon the Word heard ‘are not merely a logical activity’ but ‘they are a reflexion on the propositions heard in living contact with the thing itself’ (TI 1, p. 50). Rahner consequently asserts, ‘There exists not only a development of theology, but also a development of dogma, not only a history of theology but also … a history of faith’ (TI 1, p. 46). He gives two reasons for this. First ‘the Church understands her doctrinal decisions not just as ‘theology’ but as the Word of faith – not indeed as newly revealed, but as the Word which utters Revelation itself truly and with binding force.’ Second, ‘this doctrinal Word can be understood within broad limits and at the same time not as a merely external, verbal modification of the original revealed propositions’ (TI 1, p. 46). Rahner concludes that, ‘a development of dogma does in fact exist, as is shown in the actual practice of the Church when she proclaims a doctrine’ (TI 1, p. 47).

The final revelation in Christ ‘that closes and discloses the infinite, has the human word as a constitutive element of its essence, as long as we are still on pilgrimage in time far from the Lord, and do not see God face to face. And we must also remember that even the immediacy which we await as the consummation will be an immediacy mediated by the Word of God become flesh’(TI 4, p. 10). It is part of the dogma of the Incarnation

that this self-communication of God really takes place in the human word, and not merely on the occasion of it. Human words are not merely the external occasion for a pneumatic or mystic experience of transcendence directed towards the God who is nameless. Spirit and word can only be possessed in their indissoluble unity, undivided and unconfused. Hence the human word is open from the start to the infinitude of God. … And the Divine Spirit is given in and through the word, assumed by himself, in his own infinity and concrete reality (TI 4, pp. 12–13).


Tyrrell's major concern is to offer a solution to the dilemma of the Church which must remain faithful to the Christian revelation and yet credible in the face of critical history and science. He theorizes that the main problem lies in the confusion between revelation and theology. The solution is to be found in a basic distinction between revelation and theology (SC, pp. 240–41).

In his ‘Letter to Von Hugel, 10 February 1907,’ Tyrrell declares that revelation is primarily an inner experience. Secondarily, it is a record of that experience, ‘the work of the inspired era of origins.’25 Theology depends on this revelation as its subject matter and is the rationalization of Christian revelation. Revelation is a knowledge (mental impression) supernaturally given to man in a total religious experience of which it is a part (SC, pp. 284–85). Theology is a self-acquired knowledge (SC, p 279). It is not part of the Church's divine mission. ‘The apostles were sent not to teach theology, but to preach the Gospel’ (SC, p. 300). Revelation is a ‘showing’; it is something given; it is received in man as an impression; it is not the result of reflection (SC, pp. 281–83). Theology is reflection upon the mental or imaginative impression made by the revelation experience. Since the theologian understands the total revelation experience to be an effect, ‘he then endeavors to divine the nature of its causes and to draw certain theological and metaphysical conclusions’ (SC, p. 284). Theology ‘furnishes the religious spirit with new living categories for its self-expression in harmony with the general thought of the time’ (SC, p. 238). ‘Revelation is not statement but experience,’26 whereas theology is theory and statement about experience. ‘Theology is human; Revelation is Divine. Revelation is a supernaturally imparted experience of realities – an experience that utters itself spontaneously in imaginative popular, non-scientific form; Theology is the natural, tentative, fallible analysis of that experience’ (Medievalism, p. 129).

Tyrrell is particularly critical of scholastic theology, which in his opinion confuses theology with revelation. He describes it as ‘the essay to translate the teachings of Catholic revelation into the terms and forms of Aristotelian philosophy; and thereby to give them a scientific unity’ (SC, p. 86). He explains how this confusion took place. ‘When theologians take the dogmas or articles of the creed and use them as principles or premises of argumentation, when they combine them with one another, or with truths outside the domain of faith, so as to deduce further conclusions to be imposed on the mind under pain of at least ‘constructive’ heresy, the resulting doctrinal system is what is here meant by theologism’ (SC, p. 204). It is a pseudo-science ‘because it treats prophetic enigmas and mysteries, which of their very nature are ambiguous and incapable of exact determination, as principles of exactly determinable intellectual value, and argues from them accordingly’ (SC, pp. 204–5). Theologism is ‘a hybrid system which, applying logical deduction to inspired and largely symbolic prophetic utterances, imposes its conclusions in the name both of revelation and of reason, as binding at once on the conscience and on the understanding’ (SC, p. 251). This, Tyrrell judges, is wrong. True theology, Tyrrell contends, is ‘the fruit of philosophic reflection on the facts of religious experience among which facts the apostolic Revelation is central and normative.’ True theology is ‘any system so long as it preserves its free scientific and critical attitude, and claims no other sort of authority than that of reason.’ For ‘a science whose conclusions are from time to time nailed down to the counter by divine authority as final and above criticism, is no science at all’(SC, pp.350–51).

Rahner's definition of theology is as follows:

[Theology] is essentially the conscious effort of the Christian to hearken to the actual verbal revelation, which God has promulgated in history, to acquire a knowledge of it by the methods of scholarship and to reflect upon its implications. Thus it does not produce verbal revelation but presupposes it, and yet theology cannot be sharply distinguished against revelation, because this revelation itself already includes an aspect of scientific scholarship of a conceptual and propositional kind which, as such an aspect of faith and of responsible proclamation directed at others, impels towards further development, reflection and confrontation with other fields of study and knowledge and from its own resources makes reflection possible (Concise Theological Dictionary, p. 497).

Rahner agrees with Tyrrell in stressing the centrality of apostolic revelation and the requirements of a scientific method in theological reflection. However, he disagrees with Tyrrell's sharp distinction between revelation and theology. Theological reflection already forms a component of God's revelation in Scripture. Theology ‘is tied to the revealed word of God as permanently present in the Church, which preserves the revelation it has received by its living magisterium (Tradition) and interprets it with constant reference to Holy Scripture.’ The fact that its methodical reflection is pursued within faith ‘does not remove its scientific or scholarly character, since absolute commitment can perfectly well co-exist with a critical attitude that does not a priori exclude anything from the ambit of its critical investigation’ (Concise Theological Dictionary, p. 498).

Dulles defines theology in The Craft of Theology as ‘a methodical effort to articulate the truth implied in Christian faith, the faith of the Church.’27 Postcritical theology ‘seeks to unite the creative with the cognitive, the beautiful with the true’ (CT, p.15). Tyrrell intimated the creative and beautiful in the way he articulated his understanding of the reality of revelation. He associated revelation with love and beauty.


Common Ground

Tyrrell and Rahner both underscore the dialogical-personal character of revelation. Revelation is God's self-communication in grace, within the deepest self of the human person. It is God himself with the effect of his active presence that the recipient personally experiences. God offers this personal communication of Himself in the Spirit to all men and women of all times and places.

Christ, the Spirit and the Father are central to their treatment of revelation. God's revelation reached its unsurpassable climax in Christ who is the perfect revelation of the Father. The Old Testament, which was fulfilled in Christ, was the work of the Spirit. The apostles' direct experience of Christ is apostolic revelation. Apostolic revelation is made accessible to us in its classical and normative expression in Scripture. Jesus commissioned the Church to safeguard the apostolic revelation. The Spirit, the gift of the Risen Christ to the Church, continues to work in the believers enabling them to experience in their own time the revelation of Christ.

Tyrrell and Rahner both affirm the depth and richness of the experience of the revealing presence of God. Too deep and dense for propositional discourse, the experienced reality is communicated symbolically. They both emphasize the primacy of experience over doctrine in the understanding of revelation. Revelation must always be something more than doctrine. Revelation as an interpersonal communion between God and man cannot be in the first instance doctrine. This also follows from the nature of faith, which goes out in the first place to a God who speaks, and only secondarily to ‘truths’ he communicates.

With Dulles, Joseph J. Smith affirms in Emil Brunner's Theology of Revelation the primacy of experience over its doctrinal formulation: ‘It cannot be denied that the immediate revelation of Christ to the apostles, in its inchoate form, was communicated without doctrine, that is, without precise conceptualization and carefully articulated enunciation. Catholic theology concedes … that ‘the ineffable experience of the Word holds a certain precedence over its doctrinal statement’’28

Christ's communication of revelation to the apostles was a communication by communion. ‘Christ roused in His apostles a living faith and love for Himself which made them receptive to the lessons of His gestures, His actions, His attitudes.’ They received from him ‘a vision of life and the world,’ an orientation of mind, ‘tendencies of thought and life which in turn developed in them His mind.’ The apostles absorbed revelation ‘not only through the truths He taught them orally and by the judgments they formed, but also by growing in their interior living possession of Christ’ under the influence of the Holy Spirit.29

Referring to Matthew O'Connell, J. J. Smith states:

In our experiential contact with being, and especially with persons, there are many things which we truly perceive, but which are not immediately known in clear concepts and judgments, but remain latent in phantasms, in ways of acting and thinking impressed on us by reality. ‘These are intelligibles in potency,’ and they exist in a ‘state of virtual understanding that seeks actuality.’ They possess a positive aptitude, a drive toward actual intelligibility. ‘In fact we have in a certain fashion, an actual, though negative, understanding of these potential intelligibles, inasmuch as we grasp in our intellection the inadequacy of our concepts and formulations in relation to the fullness of the empirically known object’ (EBTR, p. 170).

Rahner cites the case of a lover to illustrate this experiential, unarticulated type of knowledge, which, though prior to propositions, ‘is the starting point of an intellectual process which develops into propositions’ (TI 1, p. 63). The lover experiences a genuine and great love transforming his whole being. He lives and experiences this love in its entire fullness. ‘The lover knows of his love: this knowledge of himself forms an essential element in the very love itself. The knowledge is infinitely richer, simpler and denser than any body of propositions about the love could be’ (TI 1., pp. 63–64). Reflexive articulation by the lover is ‘part of the progressive realization of love itself’ (TI 1, p. 64). This blossoming love lives at every moment from its infinitely richer original source and from the reflexive articulation of the experience of love. ‘There exists an original, non-propositional, non-reflexive, yet conscious possession of a reality from which gradually is formed a reflexive (propositional), articulated consciousness of this original consciousness, as a shoot grows from the root. ‘Reflexive consciousness always has its roots in a prior consciousness entering into possession of the reality itself ’’.30

The apostles had a rich, unarticulated, global experience of Christ of this kind ‘lying behind propositions and forming an inexhaustible source for the articulation and explication of the faith in propositions.’ Their experience of Christ was ‘more elemental and concentrated, simpler and yet richer than the individual propositions coined in an attempt to express this experience – an attempt which can in principle never be finally successful’ (TI 1, p. 65).

The experience which the apostles had of Christ, at least in many cases, had a priority over the propositions of revelation, and yet formed a part of the original revelation. ‘Even in the many cases where our Lord's spoken word as such is the necessary starting-point of the Apostles’ faith because the actual content of Revelation is available in no other way, these words are heard in the context of a vivid experience of daily life in his company. And so, even in these cases, the concrete experience is an essential presupposition for the true and ever-deepening understanding of the words spoken and heard' (TI 1, p. 66).


Tyrrell's reaction to the neo-scholastic doctrinal understanding of revelation led him to the extreme of separating revelation from doctrine; this is where the basic difference between Tyrrell and Rahner lies. The prophetic expressions of revelation, according to Tyrrell, are not guaranteed in their proper values as representations of the revealed reality; only their illustrative value or truth ‘possesses the authority of revelation and demands the response of faith’ (SC, pp. 326–27). Revelation, in Tyrrell's view, is not a communication of truths. The prophetic expressions of the experience by the apostles in terms of these concepts and images do not enable us to grasp aspects of the revealed reality. They are simply symbolic expressions, which protect the mystery embraced non-conceptually in the experience of faith (SC, p. 163).

In this understanding of revelation, the first moment is devoid of concepts and images. But in his article ‘George Tyrrell and Dogma II,’ Francis M. O'Connor asks: ‘Is it possible that absolute truth can ever be known to man except through human concepts?’31 Furthermore, this hypothesis is too abstract to be convincing. It isolates what Rahner calls the transcendental aspect of revelation from its concrete context. The interior self-communication of God at the innermost center of revelation is mediated in history by word and deed; in particular, Christian revelation occurred through Jesus Christ, ‘who is himself both the mediator and the fullness of revelation’ (DV 2). Vatican II affirms that Christ mediated revelation ‘by the total fact of his presence and self-manifestation – by words and works, signs and miracles, but above all by his death and glorious resurrection from the dead, and finally by sending the Spirit of truth’ (DV 4).

The apostles had a rich, full, human experience of Jesus, which was determined by their personal communion with the Lord, and intensified and elevated by the illuminative communication of the divine Spirit. Right from the beginning this experience included concepts, images, symbols, words and actions.

Analysis of human experience shows that interpretation accompanies experience from the beginning. ‘Interpretative identification is already an intrinsic element of the experience itself, first unexpressed and then deliberately reflected on.’32 One cannot have an experience ‘without confronting it with … what is already present in one's mind and consciousness.’33 The hypothesis of a moment of the Christian experience of revelation devoid of concepts and images is not true to reality.

Rahner, as interpreted by J. J. Smith, has pointed out that the global experience of the disciples was accompanied by an interior self-communication of God ‘which is also called light, illustratio et illuminatio mentis et cordis, and which is known as grace.’34 It is the basic, inner element of all revelation wherever it occurs. When there is question of an official and public revelation destined for others, however, it only comes to its full nature in the divinely guaranteed objectification of this revelatory communication (TI 5, p. 40).

This description of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ does greater justice to its integral nature than that of Tyrrell. Tyrrell attempted to grasp the heart of the revelation process, but his ‘sound insights are vitiated by his excessive distrust of the conceptual element in revelation.’35 In effect he diminishes the cognitive content of revelation.

Francis O'Connor emphasizes that Tyrrell's dissociation of the inner experience of revealed reality from the concepts in which they must be clothed is most evident in his understanding of the Church's dogma, ‘a religious truth imposed authoritatively as the Word of God’(‘GTD II,’ p.168). What alone is revelatory in dogma is the ‘interior illumination by means of which the reality can somehow be discerned through the words … . But then if it is the interior light, which is principally responsible for orienting man toward the revealed truth, the use of one humanly produced image or concept rather than another becomes irrelevant and unnecessary’ (‘GTD II,’ p. 180). There is a radical alienation of the revealed truth from the concepts in which it is expressed. Tyrrell ‘was willing to eliminate from time to time the whole conceptual enveloping structure, since no part of it was essential to the revealed truth.’36 The expression in human concepts and words does not accurately mirror an authentic aspect of the revealed reality and therefore is not revealed in its content. On the other hand, the inner illumination is dissociated from the expression in words and concepts. ‘Two contradictory propositions can both truly illustrate one religious truth in successive ages.’37 This means that the discernment of the revealed reality under the interior illumination is independent of the concepts and words used in the formulation. Schillebeeckx observes: ‘The two aspects of the act of faith – the aspect of experience and the conceptual aspect – were, therefore, according to Tyrrell, completely separate … . This was inevitably bound to result in unorthodoxy’.38


For a clearer understanding of revelation it is necessary to make distinctions. But distinction must not be construed as an eventual separation that jeopardizes the intrinsic unity of, in Rahner's term, transcendental revelation and its historical, categorical mediation.

An adequate and balanced concept of revelation must give due consideration to both its interior and exterior dimensions. Dei Verbum has established this balance that Rahner explicitated and explained more fully in his theology of transcendental revelation and its historical, categorical mediation. In striking a balance between transcendental revelation and its mediation and in maintaining their unity, Rahner has the mystery of the incarnation as its foundation and point of reference. The fullness of revelation has been realized in the indissoluble and irreversible unity of the Divine Logos with the Man Jesus. Hence, all conceptions of revelation must be measured by their fidelity to this reality of revelation, which culminated in the Word of God made Man in Jesus Christ.

Revelation indeed occurs in experience; this experience is not merely interior, however, but corresponds to the symbolic nature of the addressee, an embodied spiritual person with a particular historical-social context. We find this all-encompassing form of experience in the mediators or bearers of revelation's experience of God's self-communication. We have Moses and the prophets of the Old Testament whose mediation was ordered to the Supreme Mediator, Jesus Christ, and the apostles who mediated their experience of God's fullest and final revelation in Christ.

God's self-communication in grace seizes the whole being of the mediator and engages him with all his human capacities. Joseph J. Smith describes the mediator's or prophet's experience of revelation in his ‘Revelation I,’ Lecture Notes. ‘God contacts the prophet in the depths of his person. This intimate contact frequently has repercussions in the sphere of the senses in the form of visions and auditions.’39 God's self-communication in grace effects in the mediator an inner connaturality with God. The mediator is ‘drawn into the ‘heart’’ of God himself. The bearer of revelation ‘knows’ God experientially, and participates in the divine ‘pathos.’’ He ‘discloses a divine pathos, not just divine judgment.’40 The mediator's inner affinity with God ‘enables [him] to recognize historical events, situations, deeds as corresponding to or opposed to God as experienced’ (‘Revelation I,’ 4K). He objectifies his inner experience of God's self-communication in words, images, actions, and other symbolic forms. A mediator of revelation ‘is one who not only experiences the gracious self-communication of God to men, but also objectifies and declares it correctly, that is, without error (though imperfectly) with divine guidance and attestation.’ The objectification does not fully express the grace-experience. ‘But a supernatural saving providence of God guarantees the agreement between the grace experience and its expression in words (and deeds)’ (‘Revelation I,’ 4K). For it is the mediator's mission to communicate to a community on God's behalf.

The intrinsic relationship between inner or transcendental revelation and its exterior categorical mediation is best portrayed by Rahner's classical example of a lover and his experience of love (TI 1, pp. 63–64). The original experience of love is fuller and richer than any of its exteriorizations but the expression is necessary to understand love's nature and to grow in this relationship with the beloved. As a matter of fact, a trend in today's theology is to relate revelation to love. Tyrrell anticipates this trend in theology. He affirms that love is the very sum and substance of God's self-communication. Love brings to the fore the interpersonal dialogic character of revelation. O'Collins and Kendall attest that ‘God's loving self-communication in history shapes the heart of Rahner's Christology and, indeed, entire theology.’41 In the book Retrieving Fundamental Theology O'Collins asserts: ‘Love catches up [revelation's] essential content’.42

In his First Letter John intimately connects knowing with loving. ‘Beloved, let us love one another because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God’ (1 Jn. 4:7–8). Love is the very nature of God and he is the origin of human love. Because God is love we can properly know him only by loving. Denis Edwards writes about the human experience of God by starting with the experience of human knowing and loving.43 The experience of knowing and loving on the human level serves as the anthropological-sociological foundation of the self-communication and self-giving of Divine love fully realized in Jesus Christ. Rahner has spoken of Christ as the living truth, the irrevocable faithful love of God. O'Collins relates love to truth. ‘Love recognizes the truth, discovering the real worth, beauty and deepest values in those who are loved.’ It ‘predisposes the lover to understand and appreciate the truth about the beloved’ (RFT, p. 121). Linked with love the truth of revelation's personal character stands out very clearly. Doctrines are not impersonal formulas but statements that determine the truth content of God's love personally revealed to us.


  1. 1 Autobiography and Life 2 (London: Edward Arnold, 1912), p. 318.

  2. 2 Nicholas Sagovsky, ‘On God's Side: A Life of George Tyrrell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), p. 217.

  3. 3 Sagovsky, OGS, pp. 224–25.

  4. 4 Dictionary of Fundamental Theology (1994), s.v. ‘Revelation,’ by Rene Latourelle.

  5. 5 T. M. Schoof, A Survey o f Catholic Theology 1800–1970, trans. N. D. Smith (New York: Paulist Newman Press, 1970), p. 67; See A. R. Vidler, Twentieth Century Defenders of the Faith (London: (N. P.), 1965), p. 37; A. R. Vidler, The Church in an Age of Revolution: Pelican History of the Church, Vol. 5 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961), p. 189.

  6. 6 Dictionary of Fundamental Theology, s. v. ‘Rahner, Karl,’ by Karl Neufeld.

  7. 7 Karl Rahner, ‘Observations on the Concept of Revelation,’ in Revelation and Tradition, by Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger (Freiburg: Herder, 1965), p. 11.

  8. 8 George Vass, ‘The Future of Theology: Homage to Karl Rahner’, Heythrop Journal 45 (2004), p. 479.

  9. 9 New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. (2003), s. v. ‘Rahner, Karl,’ by L. J. O'Donovan.

  10. 10 George Tyrrell, Through Scylla and Charybdis (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1907), p. 268.

  11. 11 Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, trans. William Dych (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), p. 171.

  12. 12 Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Vol. 5, trans. Karl-H. Kruger (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1966), pp. 38–39.

  13. 13 Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Vol. 14 (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1976), p. 288.

  14. 14 Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Vol. 10 (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1973), pp. 34–35.

  15. 15 Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Vol. 16 (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1979), p. 57.

  16. 16 Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Vol. 18, trans. Edward Quinn (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1983), pp. 192–95, 198.

  17. 17 George Tyrrell, ‘Revelation as Experience’, Heythrop Journal 12 (1971), pp. 131, 138.

  18. 18 Concise Theological Dictionary, 2nd ed., s. v. ‘Hypostatic Union,’ by Karl Rahner.

  19. 19 Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Vol. 4, trans. Kevin Smyth (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1966), pp. 225, 234–237, 239.

  20. 20 Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Vol. 1, trans. Cornelius Ernst (London: Darton, Longman &Todd, 1961), p. 66.

  21. 21 Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Vol. 22, trans. Joseph Donceel (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1991), p. 222.

  22. 22 George Tyrrell, Lex Credendi (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1906), p. 107.

  23. 23 George Tyrrell, Christianity at the Cross-Roads (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1909; Reprinted, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1963), pp. 72–73.

  24. 24 George Tyrrell, Medievalism: A Reply to Cardinal Mercier (London: Longmans, Green, 1908), p.50.

  25. 25 George Tyrrell to Von Hugel, 10 February 1907, George Tyrrell's Letters, selected and edited by M. D. Petre (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1920), p. 57.

  26. 26 Tyrrell, SC, p. 285; ‘Revelation as Experience – a reply to Hakluyt Egerton,’ A Lecture delivered at King's College, London, 26 March 1909. Edited with Introduction by Thomas Michael Loome. Heythrop Journal 12 (1971), p. 138.

  27. 27 Avery Dulles, The Craft of Theology (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1992), p. 8.

  28. 28 Joseph J. Smith, Emil Brunner's Theology of Revelation, in Logos 2 (Quezon City: Loyola House of Studies, 1967), 170; citing Dulles, ‘Theology of Revelation,’Theological Studies 25 (1964), p. 54.

  29. 29 Matthew J. O'Connell, ‘The Development of Dogma’, Thought 26 (1951), p. 515.

  30. 30 Joseph J. Smith, Brunner's Theology of Revelation, pp. 170–71; citing Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Vol. 1, p. 65.

  31. 31 Francis M. O'Connor, ‘George Tyrrell and Dogma-II’, Downside Review 85 (1967), p. 182.

  32. 32 Edward Schillebeeckx, Interim Report on the Books Jesus and Christ (New York: Crossroad, 1981), p.13.

  33. 33 Karl Rahner, ‘Theology in the New Testament,’ in Theological Investigations, Vol. 5 (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1966), p. 28.

  34. 34 Joseph J. Smith, Emil Brunner's Theology of Revelation, p. 172; citing Rahner, Theological Investigations, Vol. 5, p. 40.

  35. 35 Avery Dulles, Revelation Theology: A History (New York: Herder & Herder, 1969), p. 85.

  36. 36 O'Connor, ‘Tyrrell and Dogma II, ‘p. 177; Cf. Tyrrell, Medievalism, p. 50; Scylla and Charybdis, pp. 69, 217, 293.

  37. 37 O'Connor, ‘Tyrrell and Dogma II,’ p. 177; See Tyrrell, Lex Credendi, p. 252.

  38. 38 Edward Schillebeeckx, ‘The Concept of Truth,’ in Revelation and Theology, Vol. 2 (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1968), p. 12–13.

  39. 39 Joseph J. Smith, ‘Revelation I,’ Lecture Notes: Fundamental Theology (Quezon City: Loyola School of Theology, 2001), p. 4K.

  40. 40 Smith, ‘Revelation I,’ p. 4H-4I; ‘Pathos is used here in its theological connotation, signifying God as involved in history, as ultimately affected by events in history, as living care. Pathos means; God is never neutral; never beyond good and evil’ [Abraham Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper &Row, 1962), p. 231].

  41. 41 Gerald O'Collins and Daniel Kendall, The Bible for Theology (Mahwah, N. J.: Paulist Press, 1997), p. 54.

  42. 42 Gerald O'Collins, Retrieving Fundamental Theology (Mahwah, N. J.: Paulist Press, 1993), p. 120.

  43. 43 Denis Edwards, Human Experience of God (Ramsey, N. J.: Paulist Press, 1983), pp. 16–26.