Section Two

by Karl Rahner

Section Two

What the Sources of Revelation State About Human Origins

1. The new formulation of the question

In the second part of this essay we shall try to throw some light from quite a different angle on the theological problem regarding man's evolutionary origins and on the direction in which an answer to the theological question is to be sought. Until now the aim has been to see clearly from the positive declarations of the teaching Church what a Catholic scientist may or may not say as a Christian in the matter of evolution. We are now seeking the reason for this, that is, what intrinsic reasons connected with the very essentials of the message of faith impel the teaching Church to draw boundaries and issue permissions. This inquiry has to be linked with the question of what Scripture has to say on our problem, for it is of course only to be expected that the one question will involve the other.

It is well-known that the statements of Genesis 1-3 and their repetition in other contexts in Scripture and Tradition have been the chief cause of obstacles in the way of adoption by theology and the Church's magisterium of a neutral or even permissive attitude to modern evolutionary theory. The account of the creation of Adam and Eve seemed to affirm such a direct and exclusively creative intervention of God that in addition to God as efficient cause, only inorganic matter could have any place as material cause therein. Hence the position adopted by Tradition and theologians almost down to our own days was understandable, and is still held by some to be the more probable view. The revealed account of creation mentions only the "dust of the earth" as material cause; there is no certain scientific doctrine to the contrary; therefore there is no reason to abandon a "literal" interpretation of Genesis, all the more so as the history of the theory of evolution shows that this tends to be regarded in a radically materialistic way as a complete explanation of man's origin, and so involves theses which are certainly heretical.

Consequently we must ask what does the biblical account of creation actually state? It is clear that only an outline can be offered, and its detailed justification would exceed the limits of what is possible here.4 The problem of the content of that account, the problem, that is, of what is actually asserted and what is mode or manner of making the assertion, can in principle only be solved if the literary character, genre or form of the biblical account has been clearly determined in accordance with sound principle. That is the only basis on which content asserted and manner of statement can be distinguished without perpetually giving an impression of arbitrariness and grudging compromise. What we wish to maintain is that the literary character, the genus litterarium of the biblical account is that of popularly expressed historical aetiology.

2. Preliminary reflections on method: direct and indirect Revelation

Before attempting a more detailed explanation of this concept, a few preliminary observations may assist. In the first place, even when a definite proposition must be regarded as revealed by God, it is still possible to inquire whether precisely that proposition as it stands derives from the direct communication of God to the human spokesman of Revelation, or whether it was revealed by being implicitly contained in the direct primordial Revelation which itself primarily concerned something else. If the latter, the recipient of Revelation developed and expressed it under divine guarantee, perhaps, as for example in scriptural inspiration, which however is formally distinct from Revelation. Such propositions are still revealed if they are developed by the original first recipient of Revelation while still under the guarantee of God's actual Revelation and if they are set down in inspired Scripture. Yet in relation to the .primordial and direct communications of God, they have a derivative character and in a certain sense they are already theology, that is to say, they are not primary Revelation. Consequently in regard to propositions that belong to Revelation it still remains possible to ask the source whence they were known, how they were revealed, and in what respect, and the reply need not in every case be that God, who knows all things, simply made them known.

This consideration can be applied to our case. Negatively it can probably be said quite simply that the account of creation in all its parts is not an "eye-witness report" of what happened, by someone who was there, whether it be God or Adam who is thought of as the reporter. Or, to express it in more learned fashion, the account of creation does not depict the event which it reports with the actual observable features of its occurrence. Consequently it is not the report of someone who is describing and is in a position to describe a visible event of an historical kind because he was present and saw how it happened. If that were the case, then the figurative trappings and modes of expression which are certainly present would be meaningless there. Nor would a reader expect them, if the occurrence to be reported had its own actual observable historical and therefore at all times intelligible and communicable features and provided the reporter were present at the event. Nor are the figurative modes of expression simply to be explained as didactic devices designed to assist a primitive hearer's comprehension, for even to him much could have been differently said without prejudice to his understanding. To put the matter once again negatively, we can and indeed must of course affirm that what is contained in the account of creation as a proposition actually affirmed, is true, because God has revealed that content. But that statement does not imply the proposition that what is narrated there is reported by God in the manner in which it is expressed, because he was present at the event reported and is giving an eye-witness account even if it is one with some rather metaphorical features. The question really is, therefore, what is the source of the knowledge that the author of Genesis had of what he reports, or how was it known to the sources which he incorporated into his work under the light and protective guarantee of inspiration? Our answer is that he knew it as historical aetiology. This concept must therefore be clarified, first of all in itself, and then in its application to Genesis.

3. The concept of historical aetiology5

Aetiology in the widest sense is the assigning of the reason or cause of another reality. In a narrower sense it means indicating an earlier event as the reason for an observed state of affairs or occurrence in human affairs, the observed state of affairs being the means whereby the cause is known. This reference back to an earlier event may take the form of a figurative representation of a cause which, however, is only designed vividly to express and impress on the mind the state of affairs actually observed. That is mythological aetiology, and it may be quite conscious and deliberate or it may be accompanied by belief in the occurrence of the earlier event. Frequently in this matter without consciously realizing it the human mind hovers in an imaginative, meditative way in the attempt to represent to itself the present condition of mankind, or of a nation or an actual concrete situation, as something that imposes inescapable obligations, and at the same time to trace this back to its original cause, and the one endeavour supports and conditions the other. The reference back to an earlier event may, however, be genuine, that is to say, the objectively possible, well-founded and successful inference of an historical cause from a present state of affairs. The state of affairs itself is more clearly grasped and the real cause and its present consequence are seen in one perspective. The degree to which the true historical cause is grasped in its own concrete reality may vary considerably. Correspondingly the manner in which the inferred cause of what actually exists is stated, because it is a case of something merely inferred, is almost inevitably expressed in a more or less figurative manner which does not belong to the earlier event itself but derives from the world of experience of the aetiologist. This is historical aetiology.

4. Its application to Genesis

This conceptual apparatus can be applied to the statements in Scripture about the proto-history of mankind. Modern Protestant exegesis which in the last decade or two has influenced Catholic exegesis here and there, would like to regard those statements as mythological aetiology. What Scripture says of the first human being would then be simply the permanently valid statement concerning man in general, even if this were also "historical", in the sense that it does not express a necessary essence of man but what always happens, although it need not have done so. This sort of "history" is also called proto-history, meta-history, faith-history and so on. Catholic theology, in accordance with the teaching of the Church (Denzinger 2121 ff., 2302, 2329), firmly holds that the statements of Scripture, in what they actually affirm, concern really historical and actual events which took place at a quite definite point of space and time in this world. Nevertheless, the possibility is also open to Catholic theology to conceive these statements as historical aetiology, that is, as statements which man made from the standpoint of his later experience of the history of salvation and perdition in his relations with God. From that experience and in it, he could recognize what must have occurred "at the beginning". Provided the foundation of the aetiology is correctly and fully made use of and provided care is taken to determine what is affirmed on its basis, it is possible to consider that what is actually asserted in the scriptural accounts may be understood to be the outcome of historical aetiology of that kind, such as would be possible at least with the assistance of God's Spirit. In most of the points that are to be regarded as historical (Denzinger 2123), it is not difficult to see that, as regards creation, the special creation of man, the equality of the sexes,6 the unity of the human race (from the experience of the unity of the history of redemption), man's original condition (which in Genesis has not the fullness of content which can be recognized only since Christ). Even with regard to original sin, the great theologians of the Middle Ages7 considered some such knowledge of it, at least of a conjectural kind, to be possible.

In weighing such a suggestion, it must always be remembered that the starting-point of historical aetiology of that kind is not the abstract nature of man but his nature as it is experienced under God's redemptive action in sacred history and under grace. On that basis more can be said about the "beginning" than is possible in pure philosophy; for example, on the theme that death ought not to have existed. Furthermore, the degree of certainty of such historical aetiology can be increased by the fact that the rational inference is drawn under the light of faith and of inspiration, as of course happens in recognition of more precise precepts of the natural moral law. The interpretation of these accounts of proto-history as historical aetiology makes it possible to explain why these accounts appear in a garb which does not derive from the outward visible historical features of the events themselves, and also why in that history of origins, man recognizes himself as he is now and always. A means is then available also for indicating on more definite principles how distinctions are to be drawn between the content that is affirmed and the manner in which it is affirmed. This theory would not need to deny a tradition regarding "original revelation" provided the latter were rightly understood. In fact it would explain how such an original revelation could endure through the long period of early man, some thousands of years, that is, because the content which was handed down could be grasped perpetually anew. On the other hand, it becomes clear why this appears in Scripture embodied in a manner of expression which is that of the period of the Scripture itself.

5. Content of the Genesis account on this view

What follows, if this concept of historical aetiology is applied to the account in Genesis as being its literary character? All that can be attained by aetiological inference of that kind taking as its starting-point concrete reality, in other words the supernatural history of redemption and grace of man as he is, forms the content of the statement. All the rest is its manner of expression, the form in which it is represented, its garb, the way the actual content is made concrete and tangible with the help of the mental imagery belonging to the world of the author, not that of the origins and of the first human beings themselves.

Both what is affirmed and what is not affirmed follows at once from this. What is stated is that man is the unique partner of God, taking part in a living interchange of speech and action with God and doing this in the living unity of his concrete corporeal nature. He is a partner without parallel on the earth and radically distinct from the animals, although he springs from the earth. It is stated that mankind exists in two sexes from the pure untarnished beginning, and that both sexes owe their origin to God's primordial will, are made "of the same stuff", both equally close to God's creative act and equally distant from all that is merely animal. It is stated that this direct relation to God must itself be realized in a way that involves an origin from this earth, being threatened by and vulnerable to the deadly menace of the powers of this world. It is stated that this participation in a dialogue of direct relation to God was always present, that it is not an occurrence that man can avoid if he wishes and which could be eliminated from the very constitution of his existence in history because it was not always part of it. On the contrary, it must rather be counted with the "beginning" of man as he was from the first willed and created by God. The direct relation to God belongs, therefore, to the inescapable features that define the structure of man's condition, which he may deny but cannot cast off. And because this direct relationship to the one absolute God and Lord of all, a relation transcending, that is, any particular, numinous, deified powers and forces of man's existence, is to be recognized as an inescapable fundamental feature of the condition of every human being, it is represented as having its basis "in the beginning", as belonging to man's origin. And so that man may know who he really is and what constitutes the basis of his own human existence, this human existence is traced back to its own beginning. It is not merely something interesting or obscure that is told him about this beginning, but what and only what constitutes the very foundation of his own existence as a life in God's presence. Mention is of course made of the historical and real beginning but not as something simply past, but as it still endures now, present in man as the foundation of his existence. The historical past is, of course, reported but simply because only from it as a past which is a beginning and source which still endures, is it really clear that what is of present significance in it and what it explains, is not a mere episode, but constitutes and remains the irreplaceable task and enduring law of life.

Nothing is stated regarding the manner of the immediate creation by God of man with his direct relation to God and who because of that relation, has a beginning which is also directly related to God and is therefore expressed as such. In the perspective of theological experience aetiologically viewed nothing can be said on that topic. Only one thing is stated about the manner of creation, and this can be recognized aetiologically, though not very easily, so that it was worth saying it, namely, that this creative intervention of God positing what is new and underivative, bore on a reality already there, the world already existing previous to man. How this actually took place in detail, however, is in the perspective of the kind of historical aetiology we are talking about and in view of the means available to it, purely and simply something past which cannot be inferred on the basis of the present. This is also the case because knowledge of those things would not throw any clearer light on man's existence in relation to God here and now. It is something which in principle remains an open question as far as religious knowledge is concerned and is a subject for secular inquiry. It is without importance for religion and cannot be known by theological aetiology, that is to say it is not attainable in any and every situation of the work of man's salvation.

A possible real connection with the animal kingdom is itself of relatively little theological importance, for anything in it that would be important for the theological interpretation of human life in the present, can also be known without it, that is to say, the vulnerability of man in face of the powers of this earth, man's temptation to see himself from the point of view of his animality, his liability to death, man's dynamic orientation and task of developing to his perfection from below upwards, beyond his beginnings. And all this, which is what is theologically important in evolution, if the latter were eventually held to have occurred, is already perceived in the Genesis account. Aetiologically the latter could not and did not make any statements regarding details of the way in which these structural features of human existence actually came about. When people, thought they had discovered such details in Genesis, they had not recognized its genus litterarium, its literary category and character, namely that of historical aetiology expressed in a popular and poetic form. If the account is read in some other way than this, it is not being taken more literally and seriously, but it is being misunderstood. A way of talking as if the account in Genesis was understood more literally by the older exegesis whereas this is no longer the case, should be altogether avoided, because it is false and confusing. A statement is all the more literally understood, that is to say, all the more fully and precisely, the more clearly and consciously the literary character of the statement in question is recognized. If we can do this better now than some time ago, it is we, not the exegetes of the nineteenth century, who understand the text "more literally".

If the meaning of our principle of historical aetiology, as opposed to an eye-witness report by someone who was himself present at the event, has been understood, we presumably also possess a criterion for judging what was correct in the description given by traditional theology of the blessed, supernatural, original condition of man, as opposed to what was a simplified projection into the past, into human beginnings, of the state of man as it ought to be and will be in the future. It is not that the theses of traditional theology regarding Adam's elevation to grace, his Paradise, his knowledge and so on, are to be unmasked and diagnosed as at the most anthropomorphisms or dreams of a golden age in which mankind expressed in vivid form a longed-for future rather than a past that had once existed and was lost? A genuine philosophy of history regarding the beginning8 of genuinely human history, and a genuine theology of the experience of man's own existence as a fallen one which cannot have been so "in the beginning", would show that where it is a question of the history of the spirit, the pure beginning in reality already possesses in its dawn-like innocence and simplicity, what is to ensue from it, and that consequently the theological picture of man in the beginning as it was traditionally painted and as it in part belongs to the Church's dogma, expresses much more reality and truth than a superficial person might at first admit. Such people always think that something is explained providing it is only brought in late, and that what comes later on no longer needs any explanation of its origin, apparently thinking that the more empty the beginning, the easier the final plenitude is to explain. But with insight into retrospective aetiology based on the present situation, much could be cleared up in the vivid representation of the inferred state of man which causes difficulties in view of the way we inevitably think today about human origins. Then, too, it will presumably be possible to leave it an open question whether the history of human descent as known to us does or does not possess features which only after the Fall of the first man can be thought of to some extent as a predominance of his pre-human past and of his environment, over a sensitivity to the world around him no longer protected by the gift of integrity, and over his lack of adaptation to a particular milieu. On theological grounds it is the first of these two suppositions which is the less probable.


A recent contribution to the question based on linguistic grounds is made by S. N. Kramer, History begins at Sumer (London 1958) pp. 195-9. It is clear on linguistic grounds, too, that the sacred writer can scarcely have intended that the text should be taken very "realistically". At all events, objection cannot be raised against the interpretation of the whole account of the beginning of history as historical aetiology, on the grounds that the formation of Eve thus stated is not attainable aetiologically, thus showing the whole interpretation to be faulty. It is stated that in the beginning God made woman equal in nature to man, on his model, in distinction to all animals. Such a content could perfectly well be arrived at aetiologically.


4 The matter is to be treated in more detail in another Quaestio Disputata, where the basic arguments will be gone into. The following may also be recommended: H. Renckens, Israels visie op het verleden (Tielt 1957), English translation, Israel's Concept of the Beginning (New York 1964).

5 We repeat what we wrote on this concept in Lexikon für Theologie und Kircbe, I ('1957) cols 1011 ff.

6 The biblical account of the formation of Eve from Adam's rib, and the Reply of the Biblical Commission in 1909 (Denzinger 2123: formatio primae mulieris ex primo homine), need cause no difficulty against the view indicated here. The Reply of the Biblical Commission is obviously expressed with deliberate reserve. It avoids the question of the precise mode of Eve's connection with Adam -- real or ideal. In fact, the number of theologians and exegetes is increasing who consider that nothing more is expressed in this feature of the biblical narrative than the important truth that Eve is of the same equal nature with Adam, "made of the same stuff", as we might say today, using a similar figure of speech to the dramatic one in Scripture. Cf. for example: Thomas de Vio Caietanus, Commentarii in V Mosaicos libros (Paris 1539); M.-J. Lagrange, "L'innocence et le peche" in Revue Biblique 6 (1897), especially p. 364; H. Holzinger, Genesis (Tübingen 1898); N. Peters, Glauben und Wissen im ersten biblischen Schöpfungsbericht (Paderborn 1907); G. Hoberg, Die Genesis nach dem Literalsinn erklärt (Freiburg 1908); M. J. Nickel, "Der geschichtliche Charakter von Gen 1-3" in Weidenauer Studien 3 (Vienna 1909) pp. 3-75, especially p. 42; J. Göttsberger, Adam und Eva (Munster '1912); P. Perier, Le transformisme. L'origine de l'bomme et le dogme catholique (Paris 1938); G. Remy, De la création à Père atomique (Paris 1950); A. Colunga, "Contenido dogmático del Genesis 2:18-24" in Ciencia Tomista 77 (1950) pp. 289-309; J. Chaine, Le livre de la Genèse (Paris 1951); J. de Fraine, De Bijbel and bet ontstaan van de mens (Antwerp 1953); H. Renckens, Israels visie op bet verleden (Tielt 1957), English translation, Israel's Concept of the Beginning (New York 1964).

7 Cf. for example, Dict. de théologie catbolique XII, cols 459, 463, 473.

8 Cf. on this A. Darlapp, "Anfang" in Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, 1 (219.57) cols 525-9.