Works Reviewed: Erik Peterson Theological Tractates (edited, translated and with an introduction by Michael J. Hollerich) Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2011, xxx +256 pages.
The term ‘political theology’ can be strikingly disconcerting, particularly when bandied about with a relaxed familiarity. Does it not suggest an unwarranted conflation of temporality and eternity? While all beliefs are certainly charged with political meaning and motivation, the use of political as a modifier to theology seems crassly manipulative. There are authors who appear to identify fully with the spirit of their time. Generally the resources offered by their thought are quickly exhausted or repurposed to quite different ends. Then there are those who exist much less comfortably within their eras, those whose presence is shadowy but persistent.
Erik Peterson (1890-1960) is such a figure. A German theologian and church historian, he was referred to by his friend Karl Barth as a rangedstalt, or “person on the margins.” Peterson described himself, echoing St. Paul, as one “born out of due time.” Does the recent translation of Peterson’s Theological Tractates into English, over 50 years after his death, suggest an end to this marginal status? Will Peterson be vindicated or, at the very least, accorded a definitive place in the history of ideas? In his wonderful introduction, Michael Hollerich argues that such a judgment would be inconsistent with “Peterson’s own refusal to seek closure before its time.” We should, he says, leave it to the future to decide whether Peterson was born too early or too late.
“Monotheism as a Political Problem”
What are we to make of Peterson’s “refusal to seek closure”: is it a sign of wisdom or merely indecision? And what does it have to do with political theology? Midway through the Theological Tractates is an essay entitled “Monotheism as a Political Problem?” For students of political theology, this is the Peterson essay. It is the essay in which, much to the chagrin of his sometime friend Carl Schmitt, he absolutely refuses to countenance political theology as a Christian possibility. It begins with an epigraph from St. Augustine that proved devastatingly prescient of the political situation in Peterson’s time: “Pride has a certain hunger for unity and omnipotence, but in the primacy of natural things, all of which are transient as a shadow” (68).
Peterson argues that the European Enlightenment “preserved nothing of the Christian belief in God except ‘monotheism,’ a result as dubious in its theological substance as in its political consequence.” He then launches into a vigorous investigation of the doctrine of Monarchy in the early church as a derivation of a monotheism that is itself the political imperative of the Arian heresy. This political usage allowed the Pax Romana to be interpreted as the fulfillment of Old Testament eschatology, where national pluralism was suspended by the advent of the Roman Empire. The rule of the one emperor was to be seen as inherent to the vanquishing of polytheism by the one true God. To this claim Peterson responds:
Nevertheless, the doctrine of the divine Monarchy was bound to founder on the trinitarian dogma, and the interpretation of the Pax Augusta on Christian eschatology. In this way, not only was monotheism as a political problem resolved and the Christian faith liberated from bondage to the Roman Empire, but a fundamental break was made with every ‘political theology’ that misuses the Christian proclamation for the justification of a political situation. (104)
This essay, which delves deep into antiquated theological niceties, with no reference at all to the political situation of Nazi Germany, was well understood by his contemporaries as a powerful polemic against a “new Arianism.” Arianism in this case stood as a cipher for the political theology of those Christians who had allied themselves with Hitler. “Monotheism as a political problem” is also a valuable resource at a time when the church must again take stock of its political commitments and allegiances.
The dogmatic assertion that Christianity admits of no political theology is, of course, not an unassailable position. It could be argued that Peterson’s case does no more than legitimate the existing order or, as Schmitt posited, that Peterson’s specific case study does not possess the universal validity Peterson claimed for it. Schmitt, known to posterity for coining the phrase “political theology” and for connection to Nazism, bitterly rejected what he viewed as Peterson’s escape into an imaginary “theological sanctuary” immune from political claims and realities.
In the introduction, Hollerich notes that Schmitt’s accusations rest on the misreading of Peterson as attempting to inhabit an apolitical space. Peterson instead asserts the superiority of the religious to the political. He writes:
[T]he supranational kingship of Christ admitted of no merely national rival, and genuinely imperial rivals had ceased to exist in the modern world. The Church’s claim to exercise a potestas indirecta in matters political definitively separated a Christian from a pagan conception of politics (xxv).
This statement seems to me worth serious consideration. I am not convinced that the modern age has had no genuine imperial rivals, but Peterson certainly thought so. And this conviction opens up a number of theological possibilities, as well as raising questions that continue to fester within the body of the Church.
“Monotheism as a Political Problem,” is only one of the essays presented in Theological Tractates. I have chosen to focus on it because an interest in political theology has shaped my reading. The other essays presented are no less valuable. Hollerich rightly suggests that the reader whose main interest was in the aforementioned essay will “find the other papers illuminating in the way they fill out the political dimension of [Peterson’s] theology, for his celebrated repudiation of ‘any such thing as a Christian political theology’ was in no way a denial of the Church and of Christianity.”
Transitional Movements of Thought
Theological Tractates is composed of eight essays or short works arranged in chronological order of their initial publication. They provide a fragmented view of what proved to be a fragmented and transitional life. Peterson was born into a secular Lutheran household, but a conversion experience brought him into the fold of the Pietist revival movement. Later in life he converted to Catholicism. These transitions give some indication of the trajectory of Peterson’s thought, although throughout these movements Peterson continues to pursue a rigorous and difficult theological program that often sets him at odds with the communities to which he belongs.
As a Protestant, Peterson wrote “What is Theology” (1925), which challenges the dialectical theology of Karl Barth. Peterson here claims that the dialectical reference to God wherein theology is always an open question both in method and content is in reality no theology at all. Theology depends on the subordination of human knowing to dogma. The Incarnation is the revelation of God in the flesh and therefore is partially knowable in a positive sense. At this stage one can already see Peterson’s Catholic leanings, although it is also true that his affection for dogmatics did not translate into the production of dogmatic theology.
The challenge to Barth continues in “Correspondence with Adolf von Harnack (1928-29) and an “Epilogue” (1932). The central concern of this correspondence was the loss of Christianity’s public character, and the fate of the Protestant church. Exploring the challenges facing the Protestantism of their day, these two great thinkers propose various solutions. An added concern in the Epilogue, written after Peterson’s conversion to Catholicism, is the possibility of engagement with the Catholic Church. At this point Peterson has despaired of the existence of any Protestant church in Germany with which the Catholic Church could engage in confessional exchange. Citing the three possible paths for a Protestantism without dogma—as a shift to the universal truths of reason, a secularized mysticism, or activism—he dismisses each of these in turn as inadequate and contradictory to the original presuppositions of “Evangelical faith and Evangelical life.” Admittedly here Peterson’s prime example of Protestant origins is Luther and “traditional Protestantism” which “never intended to replace dogmatic verities with universal truths of reason” and blocked the path to secularized mysticism through “the struggle of Luther and traditional Protestantism against religious ecstatics” (27). Von Harnack, on the other hand, explores the possibilities of radical Reformation, Anabaptism, Quakerism, and congregationalism, and envisions a future of independence and intentional community. Set side by side, these two radically different visions portray a tension that continues to be felt in the church and in theological discourse.
Peterson’s View of the Church
I am not entirely convinced that Peterson understood von Harnack, or that in the end he fully escaped the dictates of political theology. Von Harnack’s reference to radical Reformation suggests an understanding of political commitment that is not wedded to statehood, which Peterson in his focus on traditional state Protestantism refuses to recognize. No doubt von Harnack’s “intentional community” has a smattering of voluntarism, just as Peterson’s commitment to tradition and dogmatic authority poses the problem of authoritarian nostalgia. At any rate the fate of the Church, still unknown, is bound up with the concerns of this correspondence.
The Church continues to occupy a central role in Peterson’s works. “The Church” (1928-29) forms a bookend to Peterson’s correspondence with Harnack, and was to prove the source of some controversy following Peterson’s conversion. Peterson builds on Alfred Loisy’s dictum that “Jesus proclaimed the kingdom and it is the church which came.” From this premise Peterson continues to work out the specific sense in which the church is political, not as a religious-political entity in the sense the Messianic Kingdom was, but also not simply restricted to “service” (38, quotations in the original). Surprising, perhaps, that the writer of this essay went on to become Catholic, although there were some Catholics who resonated with the character of the Church described by Peterson, as well as many who opposed it. For the contemporary reader, a greater difficulty lies in Peterson’s treatment of Judaism. Peterson explicitly attributes the fact that the Kingdom did not come to the fact that Jews as a people did not believe in the Son of Man. The polemic against Judaism continues in “The Church from Jews and Gentiles.”
Admittedly, Peterson treats the connections between Christianity and Judaism with a good deal more grace than most of his contemporaries. Hollerich notes that “The Church from Jews and Gentiles” has been admired for defending the integrity of the revelation to Israel, although less forgiving readers will note the “unhappy features of its attitude to Judaism and to Jews” (xxiii). Peterson was certainly not immune to the usage of anti-Jewish stereotypes. In my own estimation the essay is overly indebted to a simplistic linear narrative which, while entrenched in church thought for well over a thousand years, has been revealed to be historically inaccurate. Again, however, Peterson is far more aware than most of his contemporaries that Jew and Christian are not simple oppositional identities. The early church admitted to both Jewish and Gentile Christians who, in their common bond as Christians, did not simply relinquish their identities as Jew and Gentile.
The Anthem of the Church
Following “Monotheism as a Political Problem” is the “The Book on the Angels: Their Place and Meaning in the Liturgy” (1935). Peterson was a serious student of angelology, and indeed his understanding of the political character of the church is largely dependent on its existence as a liturgical polity. Hollerich notes that while an “ethereal triad of angels, liturgy, and mysticism may seem like an unpromising platform from which to expound on the public character of Christianity” this is exactly what Peterson does (xxvi). Peterson draws on Sacred Scripture, especially the book of Revelation, as well as the ecclesiastical tradition, to make the case that there is a heavenly worship in which the earthly Church participates, which has an “original relationship to the earthly sphere” (116). Worship is political, but it does not take its cue from earthly existence, which is why the anthem of the Church always transcends national anthems. The nature of the Church’s liturgy dictates its incorporation into the angelic praise.
In the first instance, this means that the Church’s worship is not that of a human religious society whose liturgy is tied to a temple. Rather, it is a worship that permeates the entire cosmos, in which sun, moon, and all the stars take part (121).
For Peterson, this permeating presence is not evidence of a kind of nebulous fusion, but rather a well-ordered life whose orientation owes much to the angelic hierarchies. Peterson views the monastic order as rising directly out of “the voluntary and continuous participation in the hymnic praise of the angelic orders” (124). The monk “imitates the angel’s way of being.” (124) This means that through the monastic order the liturgy is tied to angelic existence. Peterson recognized well that the role of monasticism and martyrdom had all but disappeared from the language of the official church. It had reappeared, in a very different and secularized form within both nationalist and internationalist political narratives.
The absolute primacy of worship over politics therefore admits to the serious nature of the conflict between Christ and the political machinery of particular regimes. The earthly regimes are not without their liturgies and sacraments, though these lack the power and authority of a heavenly destination. Suffice to say the public character of the Church is not dependent on the sanctions of the state.
One Born Out of Due Time
This vision of a transcendent reality, a liturgical politics that is beyond us, is a signal that we are in the presence of “one born out of due time.” Monks, martyrs and mystics are set before us as the primary political agents, though of course political agency is never the ultimate goal anyway. Noting the intellectual company that some of Peterson’s readers were wont to keep, Hollerich places him alongside the “iconising” generation of German-Jewish intellectuals that included Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Gershom Scholem and Theodore Adorno.
All of them hunted for a lost transcendence that they could no longer believe in. Erik Peterson, though an ardent Christian, had something in common with their restless dissatisfaction with the world as it is. Like Scholem and Benjamin, in particular, he was launched on a search in ancient texts for a world that was not so much lost as still beyond us (xii).
This search, this scouring of ancient texts for hints of what the future holds, continues to drive the Theological Tractates through its two final essays, “Christ as Imperator” (1936) and “Witness to the Truth” (1937). “Christ as Imperator” is a short essay on the ancient ruler cult that functions as a powerful critique of absolute power. It is also a testament to Peterson’s strength as an eschatological thinker. He charges liberal theology with failing to account for the eschatological and, therefore, political character of martyrdom in the early church.
Adolf von Harnack asserts that the military element in the Christian mentality derives not from Christian apocalyptic but from moral exhortation. I consider this one of those misunderstandings of Harnack’s, and of liberal theology, that show a failure of theological insight. We cannot understand the early Christian concept of the martyr without recognizing its connection with early Christian eschatology. Just reading Revelation will show these connections. Christ – who is emperor – and Christians – who belong to the militia Christi – are symbols of a struggle for an eschatological imperium that is opposed to all imperia of this world (147).
What this means, and Peterson forecasts here with absolute accuracy, is that the twentieth century will not have been without its martyrs. These martyrs will not be those who accommodate themselves to the official positions, whether Church or state, for
This is not simply a matter of a conflict between a state and a Church that face each other as two opposed institutions, and as institutions must find a modus vivendi; rather, a battle (and not merely an accommodation) has now become unavoidable because the institutional basis in the empire has been lost. With the expansion of the empire, the masses can no longer be governed simply through the institutions of the polis; the princeps, as leader (Fuhrer), has to unify all power in himself (148).
It is quite clear what is at stake. With the leadership/managerial cult and the ubiquitous presence of imperial imagery, the world suffers a tremendous idolatry. Yet the eschaton reaches back proleptically and, even now, the “historical and political world picture of this aeon” is “overcome in bloody conflict by the martyrs” (150). Even now the Eucharistic banquet “is not only a mysterium but already has something of the eschatological banquet in it.
“Witness to the Truth” develops the themes of “Christ as Imperator” further. It is a stunning exposition of the book of Revelation, and a paean to martyrdom. Above all, it is a claim of religious and political allegiance to the priestly kingship of Jesus Christ, whose kingship is bound not to this age but to the age to come.
No wonder, then, that Erick Peterson felt himself “born out of due time.” Could anyone whose thinking was so bound to eschatology feel at home in the present age? There is a lesson here for all of us who desire to accommodate ourselves to the present social and political orders. Of course, Peterson lived in a different time; the social and political concerns which spurred and shaped his writings are not necessarily ours. Yet some of the same temptations, those configurations of malignant power, threaten, even now, to return. Others have never left. Is now the age when Peterson will finally come into his own as a thinker? On this we cannot pass judgement, and probably it is the wrong question. What Peterson does offer are resources which stand less comfortably within our own era. Perhaps what it means to be born out of due time is simply to bear witness to what is yet to come.