Political Theology's Haunting of Contemporary Politics

Erik Peterson’s Thought

Erik Peterson and Carl Schmitt had met as early as 1919 but became better acquainted in 1924 when Peterson took a Church History and New Testament chair at the University of Bonn. This was a period of development for Peterson’s thought and he would eventually cross the Tiber in 1930 at great personal expense. The road to Catholicism was not a short one for Peterson and his relationship with Schmitt was significant in multiple ways. They were friends who commonly shared ideas and spoke highly of each other.

Not the least significant of these shared ideas was that in Peterson’s own study of the New Testament he discovered that it was rife with legal terms. Thus, according to Peterson’s astute biographer Barbra Nichtwieß, the friendship between Schmitt and Peterson led to certain parallel insights in their respective disciplines as well.[1] Both thinkers are apocalyptic, but whereas Schmitt’s apocalyptic identifies a particular political crisis and emphasizes the importance of political decision, Peterson’s focuses on the cosmic and revelatory transformation that has occurred through God’s decision to become incarnate in Jesus Christ. God’s decision on the Cross is a uniquely theologico-political act that passes from an old order and establishes a new. Here Peterson begins to part ways with Schmitt, for this passing of the aeons fundamentally disrupts any and all mundane politics. It not only precedes them but, as such, forms a more powerful law and unity than any merely human willing or community.

When Peterson argues in his pre-conversion essay “What is theology?” that there is a difference between theology and myth that is grounded in the three presuppositions that there is revelation, faith and obedience, he is making more of a political statement than is obvious at face value. Peterson argues that Jesus Christ continues to be proclaimed through Christian dogma which establishes laws of belief to which every Christian must subscribe, before all other political orderings.[2] Nichtweiß explicitly identifies this as an apocalyptic determination of Peterson’s which, using Schmitt’s language, understands the Christ to have established a permanent “state of exception.” The old aeon has passed, which Christ has redeemed through the foolishness of the Cross. This means that a new order is already arriving, one that transfigures the values of the world and comes from God’s decision in Christ. The constant attempt to assume all political ordering into an absolute legal framework independent of Christ and his revelation is always undercut by the eternal “exception” of Christ who reveals how human pride and striving fall short. The revelation of this divine decision thereby relativizes and judges all other decisions, whatever their political value.

This apocalyptic and eschatological dimension is often not sufficiently noted when referring to Peterson’s most famous work, “Monotheism as a Political Problem.” In this essay, Peterson traces Trinitarian theology in the early Church and concludes that, with the definition of the Trinity that rejected various expressions of Monarchianism and Subordinationism (amongst others) in the early Church councils, any conception of political theology as legitimized by an analogy or relation between the political and theological has been destroyed. The simplicity here belies the nexus of issues Peterson navigates to get to this conclusion. Peterson sets in his sights here the early church theologian and hype-man Eusebius of Caesarea who served as a counselor to Constantine the Great and was a proponent of Arianism against the soon-to-be vindicated St. Athanasius of Alexandria at the Council of Nicaea. Peterson extols the role of the Cappadocians in the development of Trinitarian theology and their singular sensitivity to both preserving the balance between Oneness and Threeness and subverting any analogy that would make the God of Jesus Christ “like” any other deity. In Peterson’s analysis, the work of St. Gregory of Nazianzen is front and center. Nazianzen argued that the “children of Greece amused themselves” with conceptions of anarchy and polyarchy, but that Christians hold that monarchy is the most valuable. While this might suggest the beginnings of an argument for Schmitt’s God/lawgiver analogy where power flows from the top down, Gregory carefully subverts those expectations by raising up the Threeness, such that how God “is” in himself is not capable of grounding any analogy between God and human political ordering.

In other words, while orthodox Christology could make sense of medieval political models that united sacred and secular power under the kingship of Christ, that theological foundation could not under any circumstances be extended into a Trinitarian Monarchianism, which would get around the particularity of the Incarnation and create a universal political analogy between God and the lawgiver. Schmitt wanted to create such an analogy that would support the decisionistic aspect of law that he advocated—just as God creates and rules in Jesus Christ, so too must the lawgiver be understood in a comprehensive sense of enacting law from the top down to its application and efficacy. Peterson disallows Schmitt from extrapolating a larger political theory from the theological argument that there is a linear, monarchical descent from God to Jesus Christ (and hence, by analogy, from the lawgiver to law). Peterson’s repristinating of the Cappadocian Trinitarian theology, which became Christian orthodoxy, digs a trench between God and world—God just somehow is both Oneness and Threeness, distinct and unified. Any access to transcendent unity and peace must be in and through the particularity of Christ, not some larger political analogy. As one author has succinctly summed it up:

Gregory makes it clear that the Christian concept of God is neither monarchic nor polyarchic nor anarchic. All other opinions about God (namely, the monarchic, the polyarchic, and the anarchic) ultimately result in a stasis, a fight or a rebellion. The triadic unity and the transcendent peace of the Trinity, however, have no corresponding example in the created world. This text certainly addresses Schmitt's core idea, that of the analogy between the secular and the theological. In Cappadocian theology, Peterson reminds us, this analogy is excluded in principle: “With the development of the orthodox dogma, the idea of divine monarchy loses its political-theological character.”[3]

No analogy between the revelation of God in Christ and any political ordering can supplant that infinite difference between how God is in himself (including in Christ!) and how human political community can be ordered.

What Nichtweiß has helpfully highlighted is how these abstract Trinitarian issues actually connect quite concretely to questions of political engagement and reconciliation. When Schmitt grounds his political ordering on the friend/enemy distinction, it is supported by a decisionist conception of authority that requires that authority to direct a fundamental violence and antagonism into identifiable divisions of friend/enemy in order to hold back chaos. Schmitt bracketed the command to forgive one’s enemies within the private domain in order to prevent it from subverting the public necessity of his friend/enemy distinction. Peterson refuses to privatize the friend/enemy distinction as well but makes the apocalyptic turn in order to understand the most fundamental distinction to be between the followers and enemies of Christ, understood to be under the banner of the Antichrist. This friend/enemy distinction is not read politically but eschatologically such that the frame of reference for the political “weapons” to deal with such a conflict are similarly eschatological—love, forgiveness, prayer, worship, and reconciliation.[4] In this way, Peterson disentangles Christianity from the web that Schmitt would like to enmesh and limit it and, in so doing, allows for the catholicity of the Church and the possibility of a far broader reconciliation to shine through. Furthermore, Peterson refuses to privatize this faith and constantly refers to the necessarily public (öffentlich) nature of Christian worship.

This essay understands Peterson to be going directly after Schmitt with his rejection of political theology. Subsequent interpreters of this debate have, for the most part, understood this to be the case. However, Barbara Nichtweiß remains in the best position to assess the issue from the perspective of Peterson himself. She is far more circumspect, concluding, “As long as there are no unambiguous testimonies as to whether and in what way Peterson might have seen in Schmitt a ‘political theologian,’ this question will have to be left open.”[5] Nichtweiß must be deferred to here, and her acknowledgement of the ambiguity should give some pause before dismissing Peterson’s theological positions as being entirely determined by refuting Schmitt. For while Peterson’s insights do refute Schmitt on key points, they also are too fundamental to the rest of his work to be considered simply occasional.

Whatever the case may have been at the time of Peterson’s treatise and whether or not he had the Reichtstheologie of National Socialism and/or Schmitt in his crosshairs, Schmitt apparently felt the significance of “Monotheism as a Political Problem” to be significant enough to write another essay entitled Political Theology II (1970) in response.[6] The text was published ten years after Peterson’s death and here Schmitt continues to evidence the contradiction and ambiguity that marks so much of his career. Schmitt contends that Peterson cannot retreat into some “purity” of the apolitical through theology, even Trinitarian theology. He argues that there is no place beyond the political and that the decision to be “non-political” is already a political one. Here, and again as Nichtweiß has noted, if Schmitt is not to be accused of “deliberately misleading,” then he has at the least very much misunderstood Peterson.[7] Schmitt clearly is not interested in engaging in the very robust vision of the political that was articulated by Peterson in his works on martyrdom, liturgy, and angelology. Peterson was politically engaged and did not understand there to be any easy separation between Christian faith and the political, but he did refuse to subordinate revelation to the political and he refused to prioritize anything other than Christian worship and witness to the truth, although that of course could very much include prophetic witness against injustice and oppression. Peterson is political but is just not political in the way that Schmitt wants him to be.

Schmitt's Haunting of Peterson and Contemporary Politics

Why should we care about this debate? I think there are three takeaways here of fundamental importance. First, and in regard to Schmitt, the question raised by the German political theorist about the theological/political analogy is one that continues unabated today and has been further complicated by the contributions of Henri de Lubac and Ernst Kantorowicz. Schmitt did not have access to the historical studies that would provide a richer narrative of the medieval political project and its gradual deformation into political modernity, as some read it. That would come later, but we can provide something of a background here. As previously stated, the representative function of the sovereign monarch participated in the coincidentia oppositorum made possible by Christ. However, as many commentators have picked up on and developed from Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies, the analogy between Christ and sovereign monarch in the medieval context gradually became divorced.[8] While Christ united the eternal and temporal in his Person, the eternal and lasting dimension of the body politic was separated from the physical body of the monarch which could die. The laws and juridical apparatus of the monarch’s “immortal” body were gradually but more and more separated from the physical one. This enabled a complex and durable shared political and cultural project wherein the laws of the body politic could endure beyond the death of the monarch. And the unity of the entire project pre-existed any social contract or particular culture but was made possible through the theological scaffolding provided by orthodox Christology and made present by the liturgical action of the Church in Christ. Such a political coherence was clearly not without its problems and abuses, but it had rich explanatory power and surprisingly equitable conceptions of justice. The decline begins when, as so famously articulated by Henri de Lubac and picked up by Kantorowicz, the idea of corpus mysticum migrates from Christ in the Eucharist and the Church to the body politic.[9] Now seemingly immortal and all-powerful political ordering flows not from God incarnate but from the people themselves.

Schmitt does not have all the texture of the history which de Lubac’s Corpus Mysticum and Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies provide, so his narrative lacks theological nuance. Schmitt’s key claim in Political Theology is that there is a fundamental analogy between God and creation and the lawgiver and law that could be made sense of in a Christian context but has been lost with the rise of the liberal project. On the one hand, this is very close to what has been accepted by many as historically true. On the other hand, what is true politically (that the transition to modernity involved appropriation of theological concepts) is not necessarily true theologically (that the medieval political project relied upon the theological concepts that Schmitt had in mind). Not only has Peterson subverted Schmitt’s claim from the perspective of Trinitarian theology, but de Lubac is particularly important here as his telling of the theological narrative understands a dynamic relationship between Eucharist and Church, which is far more democratic and performative than Schmitt countenances. Nevertheless, Schmitt appears to have touched upon a point of fundamental importance for criticism of liberalism in identifying the appropriation of theological concepts even if he is wrong about what those theological concepts exactly are. Furthermore, the appropriation of Schmitt’s insights by critics of liberalism often also appropriate his authoritarian view of political ordering without appreciating the theological nuance supplied by de Lubac.

Second, and in relation to Peterson, Michael Hollerich concludes his introduction to Peterson’s Theological Tractates with the following question that we remain with after Peterson’s theological contributions: “What is the prospect for a Christian politics that appears to regard as illegitimate ‘every political system that does not let itself be limited by the kingship of Christ’?”[10] Peterson certainly provides a fundamental part of the answer in his articulation of the in-breaking of the Kingdom which occurs through the liturgy and Christian martyrdom, insights which he derived from his reading of the Book of Revelation. While any truly Christian political theology must hold on to the fundamental role of liturgy and martyrdom, that does not necessarily provide enough of a conceptual framework for the complex ways in which Christians are and will continue to be engaged in a rapidly changing world. The Second Vatican Council opened up the Church to a wider consideration of those possibilities, but contemporary assessment of engagement with the “world” is oftentimes in inverse proportion to the depth of depravity identified in it. Several prominent commentators continue to advocate for a substantial withdrawal while others argue for Christians to be at the frontlines of the fight for justice and mercy. It is difficult to see how any Christian answer, if it is truly to be an eschatological one, cannot include something from both positions.

Third, Schmitt’s political foundation of the friend/enemy distinction may be an obscure theoretical reference for theologians, but it is the modus operandi of many. Peterson’s rejection of Schmitt’s political analogy to theology is inseparable from his apocalyptic vision of reconciliation. Peterson rejects Schmitt’s neat separation of people into simple political divisions in order to hold open the possibility of a greater and more lasting reconciliation in Christ. Other political reconciliations can and do (indeed, must) participate in that reconciliation, but they are relativized against it. Political theologians should work towards considering how reconciliation might continue to be enacted beyond total and perpetual political agreement.

The question becomes, and this is where it gets much more difficult to answer, how do Christians show the power of Christianity to lead to real human flourishing without unwittingly participating in Christianity’s own instrumentalization by the political? How could one show the difference between a Christianity used by the political to bring about order and a Christianity faithful to God alone? The response is assuredly that there is not necessarily a conflict between the two, but discerning that prioritization requires a renunciation of power as relentless as the Cross. And it might also be possible that in a context where the power of manipulation offered by technology is of such unprecedented scope, a more considered refusal by Christians to participate in conventional politics might actually be the greater witness. By conceding Schmitt’s point, what should be pointed out as true from a historical perspective (that the secular appropriated Christian theological concepts in order to expand its own power) should not be read as true from a theological perspective. It is not true that what the theological and the political were really fighting about all along was the same thing, the same desire for power, the same type of control over people.

Peterson’s connection of Trinity and the impossibility of political theology remains relevant today because Peterson saw through Schmitt’s obfuscation of attempting to pull revelation down into the same metaphysical and historical playing field as politics. Peterson immediately connected any political claims to the deepest core and mystery of Christian faith, the Trinity, and in doing so reclaimed a cordon sanitaire on Christian faith’s own terms without cowing to whatever entrée the political would allow it. For Schmitt, this response might have felt something like the most gentle and gracious of caresses being met with a punch in the face but that is why, I would claim, Peterson’s response is so brilliant. Peterson escalates the controversy to the highest degree possible, and quite literally places it beyond Schmitt’s theological and political reach, by locating the foundation of the issue in the Trinity itself. Trinitarian theology is simultaneously so speculative, so difficult, and yet still so foundational that political theorists have no conceptual tools to deal with it even as it offers a host of resources for Christians to understand political engagement in the world, but now truly Christian political engagement. The openness of Trinitarian theology to engagement with the world walks on a knife-edge between instrumentalizing God and remaining open to the promiscuity of his grace in the world. Figures as diverse as Jürgen Moltmann, Sarah Coakley, Leonardo Boff, and Hans Urs von Balthasar all have taken up that offer to walk along the knife-edge and have made Trinitarian central for Christian action and mission.

This balance between the distinctiveness of Christian revelation and witness and its incarnation in an increasingly secularized world is likely the most pressing conversation in theology today. In the face of the dying of Christianity in the West and its blossoming in Africa and parts of Asia, Christian faith is under increasing pressure to be distinctive in a globalized world, to embrace its catholicity in extremely particular contexts and cultures. This task requires constant prayer, patience, and witness. Perhaps the witness of Erik Peterson deserves more attention. The most prominent student of his is Joseph Ratzinger (Unity of the Nations cites Peterson throughout). While his status as pope/pope emeritus grants him prestige and prominence, his reliance on Peterson can hardly be considered to have prompted a resurgence.

Schmitt’s participation with the Nazi regime and his anti-Semitism are deplorable, even as different interpretations offer varying assessments of the depth of his culpability. But the haunting relevance of Schmitt is that many of the structural problems that he identifies—the conflict between norm and law, representation and unity, the fundamental inability of law to contain chaos by itself—remain with us. Additionally, the challenges that Schmitt identified in his own period have now been further exacerbated by technology and globalization. This results in political divisions where urban professionals in New York, London, and Paris have far more in common than their own compatriots, and various economically marginalized groups, rightly or wrongly, are starting to look for their own state of exception. Perhaps we cannot get rid of Schmitt because the problems that plagued his era are still plaguing our own.

EDITORIAL NOTE: The essential background to this essay can be found in Can Schmitt's Political Theology Be Redeemed?

[1] The definitive intellectual biography of Erik Peterson is Barbra Nichtwieß’s Erik Peterson: Neue Sicht auf Leben und Werk (Freiburg, Basel, Vienna: Herder, 1992). Nichtweiß is working with others to publish Peterson’s writings, which are projected to reach twelve volumes.

[2] “The Gospel is not good news that is directed ‘at everyone’—otherwise, how could it distinguish itself from the Communist Manifesto?—but a positive legal claim of God, from the body of Christ, which concretely touches every one of us, and that jure divino. It is a positive legal claim, grounded in the factual accomplishment of the death and resurrection of Christ and continued henceforth in dogma and sacrament. There is no meaningful theology that would not be an expression of the fact that the legal claim of God on every human being—which is a corollary of revelation—had been continued in the form of dogma and sacrament.” “What is Theology?” in Erik Peterson, Theological Tractates, trans. Michael Hollerich (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011): 11.

[3] György Geréby, “Political Theology versus Theological Politics: Erik Peterson and Carl Schmitt in New German Critique 105 (Fall, 2008): 16.

[4] For an excellent summary of the Schmitt/Peterson exchange and relationship, see Barbara Nichtweiß, “Apokalyptische Verfassungslehren:  Carl Schmitt im Horizont der Theologie Erik Petersons” in Bernd Wacker, ed., Die eigentlich katholische Verscharfung: Konfession, Theologie und Politik im Werk Carl Schmitts (Munich: Fink, 1994), 37–64.

[5] Erik Peterson: Neue Sicht auf Leben und Werk (Herder 1992): 816.

[6] Carl Schmitt, Political Theology II: The Myth of the Closure of Any Political Theology, trans. Michael Hoelzl, Graham Ward (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2012).

[7] Erik Peterson, 818.

[8] Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016). For comments on the relationship between political theology, Schmitt, Erik Peterson, and Kantorowicz, see Victoria Kahn, “Political Theology and Fiction in The King’s Two Bodies” in Representations 106:1 (Spring 2009); Montserrat Herrero, “On Political Theology: The Hidden Dialogue between C. Schmitt and Ernst H. Kantorowicz in The King’s Two Bodies” in The History of European Ideas 41:8 (2015).

[9] On the distinction between de Lubac, Kantorowicz, and Schmitt, see Jennifer Rust’s excellent “Political Theologies of the Corpus Mysticum: Schmitt, Kantorowicz, and de Lubac” in Political Theology and Early Modernity, ed. Graham Hamill and Julia Reinhard Lupton (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012): 147-176.

[10] Theological Tractactes, xxx.

Featured Image: Henryk Weyssenhoff, Premonition, 1893; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Michael Altenburger

Michael Altenburger is a University of Notre Dame Ph.D. in Systematic Theology.

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