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Impulses for a systematic Concept of Sin from Karl Rahner and Raymund Schwager

Autor:Wandinger Nikolaus
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Abstrakt:Although one could say that Rahner and Schwager start out at opposed ends, in order to develop a concept of sin, they seem to meet quite in the middle and thus each contributes to solving some problems in today's theological speech about sin. The article gives a brief ex-position of the conception of the two theologians and offers a little sketch of further possible development.
Publiziert in:# Published in: Milltown Studies 47 (2001), 1-13.
Datum:2001-10-10

Inhalt

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Introduction

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Most of the times, when I tell ordinary people about the topic of my dissertation, I can see how they get a strange look. To a certain extent I think that is because it is about sin. People don't like to talk about it anymore. And I think that it is not just their being too easy-going and careless that makes them dislike sin-talk, it is some problems with the concept of sin, as it is commonly held. So, in my introduction I will try to show some of those problems. But even before that I will attend to the question of what I mean by a "systematic concept of sin".

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Sin as a Topic of Dogmatic Theology

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That is to mean that I am not considering sin as a moral theologian would. I am not concerned with the question of whether this or that behaviour is sinful or not, and how grave a sin, and so on. These are very complicated matters, especially nowadays with the bioethics debate raging wildly, and I leave these questions to the experts in the fields of moral theology and ethics.

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However, what does a moral theologian really say, when he or she teaches that some behaviour is sinful? What does it mean to say of something that it is a sin? What conception do we have of what it is to sin? These are questions for systematic or dogmatic theology.

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In 1954 K. Rahner reworked the outlines for a complete Catholic dogmatics, which he had drafted in 1938 together with H. U. v. Balthasar, and published them in the first volume of his Theological Investigations. In the introduction to it he writes:

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"Dogmatics cannot abstain from saying the really dogmatic aspects of moral theology itself. That is simply part this discipline… The proper, encompassing and regular laying of the foundations of what Christians can do, should do and may do, the answer to the question: what must I do to inherit life? is the proper object of dogmatics itself."(2)

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In that sense I am concerned with the dogmatic, or systematic concept of sin.

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Problems with the commonly held Concept of Sin

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Now let us return to the question of why people don't want to hear about it anymore. There are manifold reasons. Sin-talk, of course, has been misused by the church to intimidate people and frighten them of hell and damnation, press money from them, as Martin Luther protested against, and so forth. Yet these are problems of canon law, pastoral care and also psychology, but not of dogmatics proper. However, if there is something wrong with the dogmatic concept of sin, these can spring up much more easily. So without the intention of diminishing the relevance of these questions, I would say they come later on. First we have to attend to problems in the systematic realm. However, modern systematic theology will utilize insights from these disciplines for its own progress. There can no longer be a separation of these realms, but a difference of perspective has to be maintained.

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I think the over-emphasis on the danger of damnation had as a consequence the attempt by moral theologians and dogmaticians to find strict criteria for really dangerous, so called grave or mortal sins. And they found them: a grave sin can only be done, when I knowingly and willfully commit a deed that is objectively morally wrong in a grave manner. The clue is "knowingly and willfully". That seems to say: I only commit a grave sin, when I want to commit a grave sin and are completely within my senses. It is not enough that I know that the Church teaches something to be a grave sin, I must know that it is a grave sin. This greatly alleviated the fear of committing such a sin. Because let us be honest: who would do it under these circumstances? Most of our everyday sins are different: they just happen out of thoughtlessness, out of negligence and so forth. In the Catholic world they were known as venial sins, and they are not as bad.

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And then there was the concept of original sin that St. Augustine in a sense brought into the Church. Most elements of this concept became official Church teaching. Moreover, it was not only retained by all the reformation churches, it was even emphasised much more by them. But when modern understanding of evolution arrived, this concept could not be sustained anymore in a plausible way: The human race after all did not seem to come from one couple. How should primitive people, more akin to the homo Neanderthalensis than to modern humans, commit a sin that would affect all of humanity, in fact all of creation? How was a sin to be passed on through propagation? And finally, how could a loving God condemn all the descendants for one sin of the forebears?

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So you could say: grave sin and original sin have become almost irrelevant in the perception of many believers; hardly anybody sees them anymore. What is left is what Catholics call venial sins, and why make such a fuss about them? People make mistakes, that's life, why give it the solemn name of sin? This is, I think, the problem a systematic theologian faces, when he or she talks about sin today. Let's see, whether we get any help from Karl Rahner with that.

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Sin as an irrevocable Self-Determination against God

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The Approach from the Essence of Sin

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To a certain degree Rahner stands in the very tradition I have just described in a very oversimplified manner. He distinguishes these types of sins, calls the relationship between them analogous, which in this context is to mean that they are actually quite different from one another and the word sin is not exactly the same, when used here. But Rahner also transcends this tradition in very important aspects. (3)

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For him the appropriate definition of sin is grave sin, and a grave sin is a self-determination of human freedom against its very essence. Human freedom for Rahner is the ability to determine oneself irrevocably. It is not in the first place to choose between orange or grapefruit, it is to choose who I am. Freedom for Rahner also is not the ability to change my mind ever again, it is the ability to irrevocably fix my mind and so make a decision for eternity. Therefore, for Rahner, human freedom is only completed in death, which makes our decisions irrevocable.

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Thirdly human freedom is not the ability to choose on an equal footing between good and bad. Since for Rahner all human persons live under the permanent existential of God's grace, the essence of human freedom is to irrevocably choose to love God. Therefore to choose not to love God is a self-determination of that freedom against its very essence. Thus damnation, if it occurred, would not be an external judgement by God, it would be the con-natural result of the human decision itself.

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This conception of human freedom might sound existentialist and one might ask, where we can find that in our everyday lives. This objection should, however, not be made, before we have attended to the conditions under which this human freedom operates for Rahner.

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The Properties of human Freedom

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Human persons being finite creatures, being bodily creatures, being social creatures can exercise their freedom only within a situation or a space of that freedom. (4) These situations on the one hand enable us to use our freedom: they supply us with occasions for acting. On the other hand they limit our options and therefore limit the exercise of our freedom; not only in the primitive sense that I cannot choose bananas, if I have got only oranges and grapefruits, but also all psychological barriers and everything that psychology, psychoanalysis or neuro-science could tell us about handicaps of human freedom would fall under a limitation of the space of freedom in Rahner's terminology.

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And these limitations can also be brought about by other people, by people living with or before us. So original sin for Rahner would be such a limitation of the space of our freedom brought about through all generations by the first human beings. Interestingly, early on he held fast to the teaching of monogenism, but later he came to the conclusion that it plays no role for the doctrine of original sin whether humankind stems from one or many couples. (5) However, Rahner always held the belief that all of humanity was deeply interrelated with each other, also with respect to our relationship to God. For Rahner, original sin is the lack of salvific grace due to a personal sin of our forebears. However, we do not really lack that grace, it came to us through Jesus. For Rahner it does make a difference, whether we would have had that grace through all our forebears or whether we received it only through Christ. For grace is not a thing, it is a personal relationship to God, and with relationships it does make a difference, through whom they are mediated.

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Rahner emphasises very strongly that God does no count the sin of our forebears as ours. Original sin has nothing to do with appropriating collective guilt. He stresses that so much that at one point he even remarks that Church teaching could as well have forbidden to call original sin "sin", and could have meant just the same thing by it. (6)

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Another aspect of freedom is that its space influences, how much a decision really determines the person him/herself. Not every decision does that. Some just remain on the surface and do not determine the person in depth. Therefore we can regret actions, can reverse decisions, can feel remorse and convert to God or can lose faith. For Rahner it is a fact that we never know for sure, whether we right now determine ourselves in an irrevocable way or not. At the same time Rahner holds that this self-determination is conscious in a certain way, but it need not be reflexively conscious. That corresponds to the Catholic teaching that nobody can know for certain - without any special revelation from God - whether he or she will be saved or not. The reason for that is not God's having secrets from us, but our own freedom's being veiled from us, and only God can unveil it to us in the last judgement.

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For the same reason, when we do something wrong, we cannot discern whether that was a consequence of original sin, whether it remained on the surface of our person and thus was merely a venial sin, or if it really turned our very self irrevocably away from God.

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As we can see, while Rahner started out having very clear distinctions, we find that in the concrete these distinctions get very blurred and almost vanish, at least from the human point of view. Now let us attend to Raymund Schwager's approach.

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Sin as persisting in a false Image of God

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Starting from the Drama of Jesus' Life and Death

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The basic work of Schwager's certainly is his Jesus in the Drama of Salvation (7) . In it Schwager interprets Jesus' life from the beginning of his public ministry to the coming of the Spirit as a drama consisting of five acts. I cannot elaborate on that here, but I want to provide a first idea by merely naming the five acts and their defining situations.

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Act One is constituted by Jesus' message of the kingdom of God, the Basileia. Act Two shows his discussions and arguments with the religiously powerful of his time, the scribes and Pharisees, in which Jesus resorts to the language of conflict and uses parables of judgement. Act Three tells the events of his trial and execution, as he is being judged. Act Four shows what the resurrection means for Christ and the believers. And finally Act Five is the situation that still exists today: the situation between the coming of the Spirit and the second coming of Christ.

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One of the results of Schwager's analysis is that this drama is a process of clarifying and darkening, veiling and unveiling the right image of God. That image is shown in the purest way in Jesus' message of the Basileia, his words and deeds in the First Act. However, his adversaries were not able to accept an all-forgiving God and therefore they had good reason to be Jesus' adversaries. They did not persecute him out of base motives, but because they were convinced that he really was of the devil, meaning that he was distorting God's image. Thus, putting Jesus to death was merely being consistent with their image of God. On the other hand, Jesus' only way to remain true to his message in that situation was to non-violently submit to what was happening to him, without giving up his convictions. So, in that sense, Jesus' death was necessary because of the situation brought about by his enemies, and was also freely accepted by Jesus. If the drama ended here, we would not know who was right about God. However, in raising Jesus, God decides in his favour. The resurrection shows that Jesus' view of God is the right one. In order to keep Jesus' ministry going the Holy Spirit is sent and the new community, the Church, formed. However, this community bears with it the essentials of all five acts, so the Church is not free from false images of God or conflict, but it has come out of the process of discerning them from the right God and thus is able, guided by the Sprit, to do so ever again.

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So far, the short version of the drama. Seen from that perspective, sin is exactly believing in a false image of God, and clinging to it with hardened hearts.

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"They do not know what they are doing"

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This becomes especially clear in that the pinnacle of sins, the killing of the Son of God, is done in such a way that Jesus asks for forgiveness for his persecutors with the remark that they do not know, what they are doing (cf. Lk 23:34). For Schwager this reveals two things: Firstly that God wants to forgive. Even on the cross Jesus is the perfect image of the Father. So his prayer is not something to soothe God's wrath, rather it is a revelation of God's willingness to forgive. Secondly his remark shows something of the essence of sin: when people are the gravest sinners, they - in a certain sense - do not know what they are doing.

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This view, which at first glace is very contrary to tradition and to what we heard above, can be shown as very consistent with Paul's remarks on sin which show human persons as the slaves of sin, and sin really being the agent rather than the person (cf. Rom 6-8). To understand that still better, I will have to add two more elements of the drama of Jesus. For Schwager the judgement of God that Jesus threatens in the Second Act is always human self-judgement. However, that self does not designate the individual self, but rather humanity as such. The consequences of sin that fall back on humanity are a self-judgement of sinners. This kind of judgement admittedly does not conform to modern judicial standards, but it conforms very well to biblical remarks about God's judgement. And isn't it true that we suffer all the time from the sins of other people? Still one step further: Does not every sinner, at least unconsciously, suffer from his or her own sin, as well? So, every human person is a victim of sin in a certain sense, even the perpetrators of sin themselves - who are, by the way, really all human persons (except Jesus and Mary).

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Jesus, though being no sinner, also became a victim of sin, and he used that unjust condemnation and execution of himself to identify with all human persons, with respect to their being victims of sin. He chose to partake in their fate, although he was the only one who was really completely innocent, the only one who was merely a victim and never a perpetrator of sin. (8)

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When we take that together, we arrive at a concept of sin with the following essentials: Sin appears as a power ruling over humans(9) which prevents them from seeing God correctly and from having that wrong image transformed; it necessitates them to project their own sins on other people, making them into scapegoats, persecuting and prosecuting them. Thus ever more people become victims of sin, but that mechanism really is the human self-judgement which God allows to happen, and which the Bible often calls His judgement (cf. Rom 1:18-2:11).

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It is clear that this approach to sin stands in close kinship to a line of tradition best highlighted by the names of Paul, Augustine and Luther, and really is very near to the concept of original sin.

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Indeed Schwager's more recent book on original sin further develops this line of thought. (10) Only very few of the aspects of original sin he treats in it can be attended to here. It is, however, important to note that he takes from modern theory of evolution and genetics the idea that the old, mutually exclusive, distinction of propagation and imitation, so important to the Council of Trent's definition of original sin, has lost its exclusiveness: evolution tells us that behaviour learnt by imitation can become genetically encoded and then be passed on by propagation, while propagation is not just the act of begetting new life, but also of nurturing and raising it, which necessarily includes learning by imitation for the child. (11) That way we can understand more easily how faulty behaviour in earlier stages of humankind can influence later stages. Also small mistakes can - by a kind of snow-balling effect - have very grave consequences. So for Schwager it is perfectly conceivable that a wrong attitude, more like a sentiment than a deliberate thought, could change the way of human evolution very much. (12) Thus he is not shy about taking original sin as something that is really passed on from one generation to the next and might even accumulate in the process. (13) Schwager then brings together his understanding of self-judgement, as mentioned above, with that of original sin. He sets up the hypothesis "that human sin had effects reaching into human nature itself"(14) ; this "would be nothing but the most radical consequence of the self-judgement that God delivered humanity to. The concepts of judgement and of original sin thus approach one another." (15)

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Since Schwager's conception of sin does not emphasize the deliberate aspect of it so much, he also does not have a great problem with acknowledging that this thing being passed on, is a sin, because that concept has lost is intellectualistic and volitionstic aspects long before. This is a strength of Schwager's theology of sin, but it is also its greatest drawback. For he does insist that "all people still retain a responsibility for themselves, for which there is and can be no … substitution" (16) . It sometimes gets very hard to see, how Schwager can position that responsibility in his theology.(17)

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Sketching a new Concept of Sin

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What can we take from seeing these quite different approaches towards sin - Rahner's developing the whole concept starting from the idea of grave deliberate personal failing, and Schwager's coming just from the opposite end, emphasizing sin being the master of sinners?

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In fact, the closer one looks, the better and easier one can see that they meet in the middle. When Rahner talks about the concrete consequences of human freedom's being veiled, especially in his spiritual writings, (18) which belong to his theology quite as much as the abstract ones, he too cannot really distinguish between grave sin and venial sin and remnants of original sin, because those distinctions turn out to be only theoretical distinctions of aspects of the same phenomenon that is human sinning. They are useful distinctions for describing theoretical extremes, but in practice we will encounter an entanglement of them all and so they are not useful for describing the condition we are in.

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Schwager's approach realises that from the beginning because it does not start out with concepts taken from tradition but with the concrete event of Christ's life and death. However there the distinctions sometimes get blurred: we have to suppose there is a final responsibility for which there can be no substitution, but it is hard to find the spot to locate it. Here Rahner has an answer: it is where the human person really determines his or her very self irrevocably. We do not consciously know, where or how that happens, but we know that it does happen, because that really means being a person. And if God calls us to respond to His love with our love, and this is only possible for persons, we will have the chance to do so - or to refuse to do so.

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I think we can now take some clues from that for the problems I have stated in the beginning: first of all, let us attend to the idea that a grave sin has to be committed knowingly and willfully. Rahner in his Einübung Priesterlicher Existenz: "Moral theologians in their tractatus 'De Principiis' actually are touchingly good and harmless Christians. In it they tell us that a grave sin has to be committed with a clear consciousness of its being a grave sin. Of course that is true in a last metaphysical understanding, but this clear consciousness is the consciousness at the core of the person. The concrete human being can sin just where s/he pretends towards him/herself not to sin with all the dialectical sharpness of his/her existence that protects and defends itself and holds an apologia pro vita sua before God, denying that s/he is really sinning." (19)

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Since our freedom is veiled from us, we cannot tell for sure, whether a misstep was a grave sin or not. We can have clues to that, and therefore to reflect on one's conscience is not a waste of time, but it cannot give us the certainty that would justify either carelessness on the one hand or desperation on the other hand. So then, is the danger of damnation at hand again?

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It is not, because starting(20) from a concept of sin that does not ask first who is to blame, as that of the grave sin does, but from one which asks how does it separate me from God and his loved children allows us to put the emphasis, with Schwager, on the idea that we all are, in the first place, victims of sin, and that in as much as we are that Jesus has redeemed us from that by identifying with our being victims of sin. So most of our sinning will happen as a veiled entanglement of our very own faults and inherited faults: the child of unloving parents is more likely to mistreat his/her own children than the child of loving parents; a molested child is more likely to become a child molester him/herself than otherwise; and so forth.

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If we see sinning as a phenomenon consisting in all the aspects tradition liked to take apart, human everyday experiences of being victimised and victimising others, and maybe victimising others just because of having been victimised, relate to it much more and then sin-talk relates much more to people's everyday experiences. Then confessing oneself to be a sinner becomes much more relevant to human life, as well as easier to do.

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There is, however, a difference in that approach compared to an approach that leads to an attitude of always blaming others and never blaming myself (as some people accuse psychoanalysis of encouraging). The Christian concept would say: I cannot clearly distinguish between the fault of others and my own fault; they are intertwined as well. I can feel that someone has hurt me, but the other person might not be as fully accountable for that as I am not for many things I do. So this concept of sin would allow to hold on to the idea that there is responsibility, but at the same time would prevent us from locating it (21) and that way creating our own scapegoats. We are all entangled in the web of sin.

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The reason why that is not grounds for despair is that God can disentangle that web, He can unveil where the core of our person really was determined against Him, and where it was not. And as Christians we can trust that He will allot everyone the grace to be saved, which means, in Rahner's words, finally to determine oneself irrevocably towards God, in Schwager's words, to being finally converted to the true image of God and to being able to accept His forgiveness.

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Anmerkungen:

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 1. The following article is the slightly reworked lecture I was privileged to give before the staff of the Milltown Institute during my visit there as an exchange teacher in the European Union's SOCRATES-program. I want to thank SOCRATES for this possibility and the staff of the Milltown Institute for the warm reception I experienced there and the opportunity to offer these thoughts to a wider public. They are a brief sketch of my doctoral thesis which is still in the making.

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2. Rahner, Karl: "Über den Versuch eines Aufrisses der Dogmatik" in: Schriften zur Theologie Bd. 1. Einsiedeln-Zürich-Köln 1954, 9-47, 25f; now newly published in: Sämtliche Werke Bd. 4: Hörer des Wortes. Schriften zur Religionsphilosophie und zur Grundlegung der Theologie. Bearb. v. A. Raffelt. Solothurn - Düsseldorf - Freiburg 1997, 404-448, 416f. All translations, except when stated otherwise, are my own.

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3. For the following see especially: Rahner, Karl: "Sünde V. Dogmatisch" in: LThK 2 9, 1177-1181. Ders.: "Theologie der Freiheit" in: Schriften zur Theologie 6. Neuere Schriften. Einsiedeln-Zürich-Köln 1965, 215-237.

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4. Cf. In addition to the previously mentioned works by Rahner: "Der Leib in der Heilsordnung" in: Schriften zur Theologie Bd. 12: Theologie aus der Erfahrung des Geistes. Bearb. von K. H. Neufeld. Zürich-Einsiedeln-Köln 1975, 407-427. "Theologie der Macht" in: Schriften 4: Neuere Schriften. Einsiedeln-Zürich-Köln 51967, 485-508. Die Sünde Adams. in: Schriften zur Theologie Bd. 9. Einsiedeln-Zürich-Köln 21972, 259-275; "Kleine theologische Bemerkungen zum « Status naturae lapsae » : in: Schriften zur Theologie 14: In Sorge um die Kirche. Bearb von P. Imhof. Zürich-Einsiedeln-Köln 1980, 91-109; "Zum theologischen Begriff der Konkupiszenz" in: Schriften 1, 377-414, now newly published in: Sämtliche Werke, Band 8: Der Mensch in der Heilsordnung. Bearb. v. K.-H. Neufeld. Solothurn - Düsseldorf - Freiburg 1998, 3-32.

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5. Cf. "Theologisches zum Monogenismus" in: Schriften 1, 253-322; "Erbsünde und Monogenismus" in: Weger, Karl-Heinz: Theologie der Erbsünde (QD 44). Freiburg-Basel-Wien 1970, 176-223.

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6. Cf. :Die Sünde Adams". in: Schriften zur Theologie 9, 259-275, 263f.

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7. Schwager, Raymund: Jesus in the Drama of Salvation. Toward a Biblical Doctrine of Redemption. Trans. J. G. Williams & P. Haddon. (Ger.: Jesus im Heilsdrama. Entwurf einer biblischen Erlösungslehre). New York: Crossroad 1999 (hereafter abbreviated to JDS).

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8. Cf. JDS 171f., 191-196.

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9. Cf. JDS, 168.

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10. Schwager, Raymund: Erbsünde und Heilsdrama. Im Kontext von Evolution, Gentechnologie und Apokalyptik. (Beiträge zur mimetischen Theorie 4). Münster - Thaur 1997 (hereinafter abbreviated to = EHD).

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11. Cf. EHD 42-45; 136f.

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12. Cf. EHD 63-67; 111-116.

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13. Cf. EHD 67-73.

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14. EHD 77.

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15. Ibid.

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16. JDS 192.

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17. For some suggestions on that see: EHD 101-104; Wandinger Nikolaus: "'Denn sie wissen nicht, was sie tun'. Impulse zum Sündenverständnis aus der Dramatischen Theologie R. Schwagers" Forthcoming in Dramatische Theologie im Gespräch Symposion / Gastmahl zum 65. Geburtstag Raymund Schwagers (BMT 14). Innsbruck 2001.

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18. Cf. Rahner, Karl: Einübung priesterlicher Existenz Freiburg - Basel - Wien 1970, 63-70 (hereinafter abbreviated to = EpE). Rahner, Karl / Rahner, Hugo Worte ins Schweigen - Gebete der Einkehr (Herderbücherei 437). Freiburg 41977, 28. Rahner, Karl: Von der Not und dem Segen des Gebetes (Herderbücherei Bd. 647). Freiburg - Basel - Wien 91977, 30f.

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19. 1 EpE 54.

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20. The printed version here runs incorrectly: "because it starts from a concept of sin". The correct intended meaning is: Starting from a concept of sin with the characteristics mentioned allows us to shift the emphasis to where Schwager has put it.

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21. J. Werbick calls this the specific accomplishment of the doctrine of original sin. Cf. Werbick, Jürgen Schulderfahrung und Bußsakrament. Mainz, 1985, 80f.

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