by Erik Peterson, Edited and Translated by Michael J. Hollerich
Stanford, 296 pages, $24.95
Germany’s most famous convert from Protestantism to the Catholic Church between the two world wars, Erik Peterson was also one of the most gifted theologians of his generation and, though Pope Benedict XVI has long been a student of his works, one of the least acknowledged. His best-known work, the Theologische Traktate, now splendidly translated by the University of St. Thomas’ Michael Hollerich, offers essays as clairvoyant as they are challenging.
Written between 1925 and 1937 as Peterson was watching the rapid decomposition of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Third Reich, the essays demonstrate the inescapably public and political character of the Church. Peterson calls into question the ways in which Western Christianity has all too often accommodated itself to modernity, imagining that all people of goodwill invariably march into an ever brighter future where divine providence and human progress converge.
Born into a secularized Lutheran family in Hamburg, Peterson became the rising star of the “history of religions” school, the then leading Protestant school of rigorous historical-critical inquiry into the Bible and Christian origins. This scholarly focus gave him important ballast. To know the depth and solidity of the Christian tradition preserved Peterson from succumbing to the feeling—one common in the twentieth century—that our situation demands a “new” form of Christianity.
Peterson was received into the Catholic Church late in 1930. While his conversion derailed his German Protestant academic career, his complete lack of romanità (he made no bones publicly about his dislike of the reigning pope) made it virtually impossible for him to find an academic position in Rome. Only in 1937 did he secure a lectureship in the Papal Institute for Christian Archaeology, which in 1947 was upgraded to an extraordinary professorship. His death in 1960 after a stroke left behind his Italian wife and five children.
Why bring Peterson back, especially to an English-speaking audience? (In Germany, he has been the subject of a monumental biography and a twelve-volume edition of his works.) In this historian of Christian origins, we encounter a theological prophet who read the future by studying the ancient past.
The two essays that frame the volume introduce Peterson’s insights. The opening essay, “What Is Theology?” is arguably still the most incisive critique of dialectical theology. Associated with Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, and Friedrich Gogarten, this early twentieth-century movement reflected a rebellion against the liberal Protestant tradition that made God’s revelation into an extension of human subjectivity or an outgrowth of the historical process.
Peterson unmasks Barth’s early dialectical theology as a highly sophisticated but ultimately failed attempt at overcoming this liberal tradition. Camouflaging the otherwise obvious with a dazzling dialectic, Barth’s theology suffers from the same defects as liberal theology: the flight from authority and dogma—in short, from a view of revelation that has staying power, as it were, that can form and shape our identities as Christians.
“It is impossible to answer the question ‘What is theology?’ if we forget that the Word of God has become flesh and has spoken about God,” writes Peterson. Against the negations of dialectical theology, which cleared away the facile truisms of liberal Protestant theology but left nothing enduring in its place, he observes that “it belongs to the fantasies of contemporary thought to construct a theology without dogma. That construction is a delusion.”
Dogma—according to Peterson, the best protection against the dogmatizing of theologians—is not, pace all forms of Catholic modernism and liberal Protestantism, an extension, let alone a mere expression, of the human act of faith. It is in fact the extension of Christ’s speaking about God. The continuing objectivity of revelation affirms the real authority of God in history, including the history of our own age. This, Peterson’s crucial insight, not only led him into the Catholic Church but also steeled him against any theology that threatened to subsume the dogmatic authority of the Church into the categories (and the control) of our world.
The concluding essay, “Witness to Truth,” attacks a settled and self-contented, yet tired, bourgeois interwar European Christianity, Catholic as well as Protestant. “Bourgeois” Christianity assumed a fundamental convergence between middle-class social mores (what “good people” think) and the teachings of Christ, a mentality that left the churches of Europe vulnerable to cultural captivity.
In the essay, a study of martyrdom that offers a profound political reading of the Book of Revelation, Peterson reminds his readers that “the apostolic Church, which is founded on the apostles, who became martyrs, is also always the suffering Church, the Church of the martyrs. And a church that does not suffer is not the apostolic Church.” The loss of belief in the necessity of martyrdom “eliminates suffering for the Church . . . and thereby deprives the concept of the preaching of the gospel of its original meaning.”
A Church that does not suffer—a bourgeois church that identifies Christianity with the social order—is not the apostolic Church. It would behoove contemporary American Protestantism to meditate on the following sentence, a sentence worth the (quite reasonable) price of the Theological Tractates: “The secularization of Protestantism, which Kierkegaard fought against so passionately and to which he opposed the concept of the ‘witness of the truth’—meaning the concept of the martyr—is just the inevitable result of the Protestant rejection of the cult of the martyrs and the saints.” An American Catholicism all too happy about having arrived socially and politically and, until quite recently, all too eager to neglect, discourage, and eventually forget the cult of the martyrs and the saints should also pay heed.
The center of the Theological Tractates is “Monotheism as a Political Problem,” written in 1935, two years into the “thousand year” rule of the Third Reich. It offers a theological analysis of the totalitarian tendency of regimes to refuse to acknowledge a divine authority, an authority greater than themselves.
Based on his rigorous study of Roman political theology and of the theology of the Church Fathers, Peterson demonstrates that monotheism as a political problem originated in the Hellenistic transformation of the covenantal authority of God over Israel into the political authority of the secular ruler. This collapse of a singular divine authority into a singular political authority was one reason Arianism (a view that subordinated Christ to the Father’s supreme and singular divinity) was attractive for many emperors after Constantine, and why Arianism took on a second life among the Germanic tribes dominated by their ruler kings.
Christianity’s trinitarian dogma, however, undermined the Hellenistic doctrine of divine monarchy, and with it the theological warrants for a political “monotheism” that merged secular and sacred authority into the singular person of the supreme or autocratic ruler. Any analogy between the triune God and the autocratic state—and for that matter any analogy between the triune God and whatever form of human governance—had to fail and will have to fail in the future. “A fundamental break was made with every ‘political theology’ that misuses the Christian proclamation for the justification of a political situation.”
Peterson’s lesson for today? Christianity serves no political order—and that includes democracy. Rather, as the eschatological gathering of the heavenly polis , the ekklesia has an inherently public nature and an equally inherent political function that cannot be subsumed into the city of man. The Church is a societas perfecta , a perfect society—that is, a complete whole in itself and not (like the household or the secular city) an integral part of a larger whole, the “state” or the “civil society” or the “people.”
This insight played a central role in Peterson’s public witness. Discussing the future of the Protestant churches in Germany after World War I, and applying the lesson of the early Church, Peterson challenged the great historian and imperial apologist Adolf von Harnack in an exchange. Harnack welcomed “the development that leads more and more to independence and a purely intentional community in the sense . . . of Quakerism and Congregationalism.” He sought a Christianity sufficiently spiritual to transcend the political—and thus to leave the secular realm to be dominated by the state. “In the meantime,” he grudgingly allows, “we are still severely dependent on the remains of Catholic tradition among us, as it were, on the aroma of an empty bottle.”
Against the spiritualism and rejection of the public authority of revelation, Peterson argues that it is the Nicene tradition and, at its core, the trinitarian dogma that has allowed the Church successfully to avoid being co-opted by reigning political ideologies, be they from the left or from the right. “The Church,” he insists, “ceases to be a ‘public’ entity when it repudiates a dogmatic foundation.”
Read in light of the present conflict between the Catholic Church and the American government, Peterson’s essays are uncannily prophetic—and refreshingly encouraging. For they amount to nothing less than an unequivocal invitation to the Church to reclaim explicitly and intentionally its vocation as an unwavering witness to the truth. This witness has turned the Church at all times and in all places into a potent political danger for those who have reasons to fear the truth.
An eminent prelate of the Catholic Church in America recently made the sobering remark that he will die peacefully in his bed but that his first successor might be imprisoned and that his next successor might die the death of a martyr. For this possibility, one he saw enacted in his own country, Erik Peterson’s prophetic theology should prepare us.
Reinhard Hütter is professor of Christian theology at Duke University Divinity School and author of the forthcoming Dust Bound for Heaven: Explorations in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas (Eerdmans 2012).