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The Blood of the Martyrs: Erik Peterson's Theology of Martyrdom and Carl Schmitt's Political Theology of Sovereignty

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 June 2018


There is a growing literature on the theological roots of Schmitt's theory, however, such interpretations depart from the same position as Schmitt: from the political into the theological. In this quarrel between politics and theology, there is a less known contender, the theologian Erik Peterson, who developed a theological critique of Schmitt and shows the impossibility of a Christian political theology. In Political Theology II (1970), Schmitt criticizes the apolitical nature of Peterson's theology, but he ignores Peterson's theology of martyrdom. This paper recovers the centrality of martyrdom in Peterson's theology and argues that the martyr represents a counter model to Schmitt's sovereign. For Peterson, martyrdom is not apolitical act, but a public claim in which the martyrs testify in the public sphere that the highest human good is not political but eschatological. By recovering this eschatological dimension, Peterson shows the limits of Schmitt's interpretation of the political.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 2018 

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1 Schmitt, Carl, Glossarium: Aufzeichnungen aus den Jahren 1947 bis 1958 (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2015), 3.10.47; 18CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Lilla, Mark, The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals and Politics (New York: New York Review of Books, 2001), 67Google Scholar.

3 Meier, for instance, proposes a re-evaluation of all Schmitt's political theory by considering how his idea of political theology presupposes revelation and subordinates politics to it. However, Meier argues that Schmitt behaves less like a Catholic and more “like a Protestant” (Meier, Heinrich, The Lesson of Carl Schmitt: Four Chapters on the Distinction between Political Theology and Political Philosophy, expanded ed. [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011], 11Google Scholar). Contrary to this interpretation, Storey portrays Schmitt as a Catholic thinker by focusing on his early works (Jenna Silber Storey, “Devil's Advocate: Politics and Morality in the Work of Carl Schmitt” [PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2010], 17). However, considering his later works, especially Schmitt's Political Theology II (1970), it is possible to identify gnostic elements in his thought (Gillespie, Michael Allen, The Theological Origins of Modernity [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008], 360n47CrossRefGoogle Scholar). Another interpretation is provided by Storme, who argues that, despite Schmitt's earlier Catholicism, his Nazi and post–World War II writings are embedded in a political-theological Marcionism, in which the Mosaic God is opposed to Jesus, the Christ (Storme, Tristan, Carl Schmitt et le marcionisme: L'impossibilité théologico-politique d'un œcuménisme judéo-chrétien? [Paris: Éditions du CERF, 2008], 85, 154, 229Google Scholar). Herrero, on the other hand, minimizes the gnostic affinity and characterizes Schmitt as a “mystic of order,” an instrument of God's will, by exploring the shared absoluteness between the political and the theological (Herrero, Montserrat, The Political Discourse of Carl Schmitt: A Mystic of Order [London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2015], 181Google Scholar).

4 See Hollerich, Michael, “Catholic Anti-liberalism in Weimar: Political Theology and Its Critics,” in The Weimar Moment: Liberalism, Political Theology, and Law, ed. Kaplan, Leonard V. and Koshar, Rudy (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012)Google Scholar; Geréby, György, “Political Theology versus Theological Politics: Erik Peterson and Carl Schmitt,” New German Critique 35, no. 3 (Fall 2008): 733CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Peterson, Erik, “Monotheism as a Political Problem: A Contribution to the History of Political Theology in the Roman Empire,” in Theological Tractates (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), 233n168Google Scholar.

6 Robben's work Märtyrer presents a systematization of Peterson's theology of martyrdom, but does not present the political implications of this theology and its role in the theological-political debate with Schmitt (Robben, Andreas, Märtyrer: Theologie des Martyriums bei Erik Peterson [Würzburg: Echter Verlag, 2007]Google Scholar). Stoll published an excellent and complete analysis of Peterson's theology which dedicates a whole chapter to Peterson and Schmitt's relationship, but Peterson's theology of martyrdom is not placed at the center of his critique of Schmitt (Stoll, Christian, Die Öffentlichkeit der Christus-Krise: Erik Peterson eschatologischer Kirchenbegriff im Kontext der Moderne [Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2017], 178–248, 349–68Google Scholar).

7 Erik Peterson, “Witness to the Truth,” in Theological Tractates, 174.

8 Peterson considered his father responsible for his early “atheistic” upbringing, while his mother believed in God even though her faith was never fully connected to any Christian denomination. See Nichtweiß, Barbara, Erik Peterson: Neue Sicht auf Leben und Werk (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1992), 2728Google Scholar.

9 Schmitt, Carl, Political Theology II: The Myth of the Closure of Any Political Theology (Cambridge: Polity, 2008), 51Google Scholar.

10 Mehring, Reinhard, Carl Schmitt: A Biography (Cambridge: Polity, 2014), 308–9Google Scholar.

11 Schmitt, Carl, The Concept of the Political, expanded ed., trans. Schwab, George (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 5758CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schmitt, Carl, The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes: Meaning and Failure of a Political Symbol (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 72, 83Google Scholar.

12 If in a first moment Peterson's decision to move to Rome was a deliberate gesture, after 1934 his stay became for him an act of resistance, which implied a significant material sacrifice for him and his family. He did not want to raise his children under National Socialist indoctrination and considered that he had the “right to emigration for the sake of faith.” See Nichtweiß, Erik Peterson, 863–68.

13 Schmitt, Carl, Roman Catholicism and Political Form, trans. Ulmen, G. L. (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996)Google Scholar.

14 This work was originally published in an edited volume in honor of Max Weber: Schmitt, Carl, “Soziologie des Souveränitätsbegriffes und politische Theologie,” in Hauptprobleme der Soziologie: Erinnerungsgabe für Max Weber, ed. Palyi, Melchior, vol. 2 (Munich: Duncker & Humblot, 1923)Google Scholar. In this initial version, the last chapter, “On the Counterrevolutionary Philosophy of the State (de Maistre, Bonald, Donoso Cortés),” is absent.

15 McCormick, John P., “From Roman Catholicism to Mechanized Oppression: On Political-Theological Disjuncture of Schmitt's Weimar Thought,” in Thomas Hobbes and Carl Schmitt: The Politics of Order and Myth, ed. Tralau, Johan (New York: Routledge, 2011), 138Google Scholar; Mehring, Reinhard, “A Catholic Layman of German Nationality and Citizenship,” in The Oxford Handbook of Carl Schmitt, ed. Meierhenrich, Jens and Simons, Oliver (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 79Google Scholar.

16 Schmitt, Political Theology II, 47–48.

17 1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 9:15.

18 Carl Schmitt, “The Visibility of the Church: A Scholastic Consideration,” in Roman Catholicism and Political Form, 50.

19 Schmitt, Roman Catholicism, 19, 30.

20 Schmitt, Carl, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 36Google Scholar.

21 Manent, Pierre, The Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic, trans. LePain, Marc (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 311CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Herrero, Political Discourse of Carl Schmitt, 174–77.

23 Schmitt, Political Theology, 36.

24 See Schmitt's essay “Age of Neutralizations and Depoliticizations,” in The Concept of the Political, 80–96.

25 Schmitt's interpretation of the relationship between Protestant theology and political liberalism is a good example of his methodology. See Schmitt, Political Theology, 2.

26 Leo Strauss, “Notes on Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political,” in The Concept of the Political, 118.

27 Schmitt, Political Theology, 21.

28 Schmitt, Glossarium, 23.5.49; 184.

29 Schmitt, Roman Catholicism, 32.

30 Schmitt, “Visibility of the Church,” 56.

31 In the Dictatorship (1921), Schmitt was already dealing with the anthropological roots of political science and considered “anthropological pessimism” as a rational technique of political absolutism (Schmitt, Carl, Dictatorship: From the Origin of the Modern Concept of Sovereignty to the Proletarian Class Struggle [Cambridge: Polity, 2014], 6Google Scholar). And, in the preface to the second edition of Political Romanticism (1925), he identifies in the natural goodness of man and the denial of original sin an important thesis of romanticism, but its pivotal feature was placed in the “subjectified occasionalism” and in the shift from the authority of God to the “genius of the ‘ego’” (Schmitt, Carl, Political Romanticism [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986], 1–3, 1718Google Scholar).

32 Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, 58, 61.

33 Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:27.

34 Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, 28–29.

35 Gal. 3:28.

36 Taubes, Jacob, The Political Theology of Paul (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), 51Google Scholar.

37 Roberts rightly criticizes the hypothesis that Schmitt has a “strong political theology” (Roberts, Aaron B., “Carl Schmitt—Political Theologian?,” Review of Politics 77 [2015]: 452CrossRefGoogle Scholar).

38 Schmitt, Carl, The Nomos of the Earth: In the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum, trans. Ulmen, G. L. (New York: Telos, 2006), 6266Google Scholar; Schmitt, Carl, “Three Possibilities for a Christian Conception of History,” Telos 147 (Summer 2009): 169Google Scholar; Schmitt, Carl, Land and Sea: A World-Historical Meditation, trans. Zeitlin, Samuel Garrett (Candor, NY: Telos, 2015), 17, 68Google Scholar.

39 Schmitt, Nomos of the Earth, 60.

40 Augustine, The City of God, 20.19.

41 Schmitt, Nomos of the Earth, 60.

42 As early as the “Visibility of the Church,” Schmitt argues that Christianity provides a new foundation for mundane authority (“Visibility of the Church,” 50–51), and, in his study on the Leviathan, he uses Hobbes's formula “Jesus is the Christ” to affirm the “eternal relation of protection and obedience” (Leviathan in the State, 83).

43 Schmitt, Glossarium, 23.5.49; 184.

44 Voegelin, Eric, “The Political Religions,” in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, vol. 5 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000)Google Scholar; Gontier, Thierry, “From ‘Political Theology’ to ‘Political Religion’: Eric Voegelin and Carl Schmitt,” Review of Politics 75 (2013): 36CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

45 Riedl, Matthias, “Order,” in The Encyclopedia of Political Thought, ed. Gibbons, Michael T. (Oxford: Wiley, 2015), 6Google Scholar.

46 Peterson, Erik, “Göttliche Monarchie,” Theologische Quartalschrift 4 (1931): 562–63Google Scholar.

47 Herrero's argument that Peterson kept his distance from Schmitt and criticized him in “Monotheism” to preserve his “political correctness” is historically incorrect (Herrero, Political Discourse of Carl Schmitt, 167). Herrero accepts Schmitt's self-image as someone who received a “Parthian attack” from Peterson while he was running away to Rome. However, Peterson's critique of the theological foundations of Schmitt's thought in his two earlier essays (“Kaiser Augustus” and “Göttliche Monarchie”) were prior to Schmitt's embracing the new regime.

48 Peterson, Erik, “Kaiser Augustus im Urteil des antiken Christentums: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der politischen Theologie,” in Religionstheorie und Politischen Theologie, vol. 1, Der Fürst dieser Welt: Carl Schmitt und die Folgen, ed. Taubes, Jacob, 2nd ed. (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag / Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh, 1985), 174Google Scholar.

49 Peterson, “Kaiser Augustus,” 174.

50 Ibid., 177.

51 Ibid., 180.

52 See Taubes's letter in Political Theology of Paul, 110–11.

53 Augustine, De vera religione 43.84.

54 Hollerich, “Catholic Anti-liberalism in Weimar,” 24–25.

55 Aristotle, Metaphysics XII.10, 1076a.

56 Peterson, “Monotheism as a Political Problem,” 71.

57 Ibid., 73.

58 Ibid., 88.

59 Ibid., 90.

60 See Ratzinger, Joseph, The Unity of the Nations: A Vision of the Church Fathers (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the theological-political problem of Christian proclamation and the unity of the nations, the influence of Peterson's “Monotheism” on Ratzinger's work is clear in the latter's abundant references to “Monotheism.” Even the structure of Ratzinger's argument follows Peterson. It begins with a discussion of Origen, then it criticizes the political theology of the Roman Empire and Eusebius's attempt to create “political theocracy.” Finally, the book concludes with a defense of an Augustinian “theology of the political.”

61 Peterson, “Monotheism as a Political Problem,” 95.

62 Ibid., 102.

63 Ibid., 103.

64 Ibid., 105.

65 Schmitt, Political Theology II, 35.

66 Ibid., 44.

67 Ibid., 43.

68 Ibid., 31.

69 Ibid., 83.

70 Ibid., 82.

71 Bauerschmidt, Frederick Christian, “The Trinity and Politics,” in Oxford Handbook of the Trinity, ed. Emery, Gilles and Levering, Matthew (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 537Google Scholar.

72 Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine, ed. and trans. Cameron, Averil and Hall, Stuart G. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999), 177 (4.61–62)Google Scholar. See also Commentary, 341–42.

73 Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 87 (1.44).

74 Dagron, Gilbert, Emperor and Priest: The Imperial Office in Byzantium (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 131Google Scholar.

75 Barnes, Timothy D., Constantine and Eusebius (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), 173Google Scholar.

76 This intellectual development gave birth to the political idea of “caesaropapism” which, nevertheless, was never fully adopted in Byzantium. See Dagron, Emperor and Priest, 132 and chap. 9.

77 Erik Peterson, “The Church,” in Theological Tractates, 37.

78 Stoll, Die Öffentlichkeit der Christus-Krise, 197.

79 Ibid., 198.

80 In a postcard from August 13, 1938, Peterson criticizes Schmitt's book on the Leviathan and argues that the polemic against “indirect powers” makes sense only if one renounces one's claim to be a Christian and decides in favor of paganism: “die Polemik gegen die potestas indirecta hat nur dann einen Sinn, wenn man darauf verzichtet, ein Christ zu sein und sich für das Heidentum entschieden hat” (Landesarchiv Nordrhein-Westfalen, Standort Duisburg [Nachlass Carl Schmitt], RW 579, no. 270).

81 Schmitt, Political Theology II, 92.

82 Agamben uncritically accepts Schmitt's interpretation and unfairly accuses Peterson of endorsing the extermination of Jews. See Agamben, Giorgio, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), 7, 16Google Scholar.

83 For a fair account of Peterson's interest in and relationship with Judaism, see Nichtweiß, Erik Peterson, 545–49.

84 Peterson, “The Church,” 32.

85 Ibid., 39.

86 Erik Peterson, “The Church from Jews and Gentiles,” in Theological Tractates, 52.

87 Agamben, Giorgio, O Mistério do Mal: Bento XVI e o Fim dos Tempos (São Paulo: Boitempo, 2014), 40Google Scholar.

88 Pieper, Josef, The End of Time: A Meditation on the Philosophy of History (London: Faber and Faber, 1954), 138Google Scholar.

89 Bilbao, Gabino Uríbarri, “La Riserva Escatologica: Genesi del Concetto in Erik Peterson,” Pontificia Academia Theologica 12 (2013): 273313Google Scholar.

90 Gal. 5:15; 2 Cor. 5:16–17.

91 Rom. 6:5.

92 Anglet, Kurt, Der eschatologische Vorbehalt: Eine Denkfigur Erik Peterson (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2001), 30Google Scholar.

93 Nichtweiß, Erik Peterson, 768.

94 Ibid., 179.

95 While Peterson's works do not deal directly with current political events, his concerns about the deterioration of the political situation in Germany can be observed in his letter to Jacques Maritain from January 3, 1936 (Peterson, Erik, “Der Mensch in seiner Welt,” in Offenbarung des Johannes und Politisch-Theologische Texte, ed. Nichtweiß, Barbara [Würzburg: Echter Verlag, 2004], 255Google Scholar).

96 This essay is a compilation of three earlier articles: “Der Märtyrer und die Kirche” (The martyr and the church), “Die Offenbarung und die Märtyrer” (The revelation and the martyrs), and “Die Märtyrer und das priesterliche Königtum Christi” (The martyrs and the priestly kingship of Christ). In the Theological Tractates, it is preceded by the essay “Christ as Imperator” (1936), which deals with similar topics and was written at the time of the radicalization of the Nazi dictatorship.

97 Peterson, Erik, “Existentialismus und protestantische Theologie,” in Marginalien zur Theologie und andere Schriften (Würzburg: Echter Verlag, 1995), 54Google Scholar.

98 Peterson, Erik, “Was ist der Mensch?,” in Theologische Traktate: Mit einer Einleitung von Barbara Nichtweiß (Würzburg: Echter Verlag, 1994), 138Google Scholar.

99 Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, 71.

100 Erik Peterson, “Witness to the Truth,” in Theological Tractates, 157.

101 Peterson, Erik, “Martirio e Martire,” in Enciclopedia Cattolica, vol. 8 (Vatican City: L'Enciclopedia Cattolica, 1948), 233–36Google Scholar.

102 John 18:38.

103 Peterson, “Witness to the Truth,” 174.

104 For a good interpretation of the Pauline concept of “powers” (exousia) and its political-theological relevance, see Berkhof, Hendrik, Christ and the Powers (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1977)Google Scholar.

105 Robben, Märtyrer, 66.

106 Peterson, “Witness to the Truth,” 167.

107 In The Concept of the Political Schmitt deals mainly with the concept of “real enemy,” or public enemy, but in Theory of the Partisan he expands his analysis to encompass civil war and the concept of “absolute enemy,” or foe. For references to this distinction, see Schwab, George, “Enemy or Foe: A Conflict of Modern Politics,” Telos 72 (Summer 1987): 194201CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Ulmen, G. L., “Return of the Foe,” Telos 72 (Summer 1987): 187–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

108 Schmitt, Leviathan in the State, 57.

109 Ibid., 85.

110 Erik Peterson, “Christ as Imperator,” in Theological Tractates, 148.

111 Erik Peterson, “Der Kaiserkult: Zur Einführung in die Offenbarung des Johannes,” in Offenbarung des Johannes und Politisch-Theologische Texte, 9.

112 Peterson, “Christ as Imperator,” 147.

113 Nichtweiß, Erik Peterson, 804.

114 John 18:36.

115 Stoll, Die Öffentlichkeit der Christus-Krise, 246

116 Ibid., 248.

117 Erik Peterson, “Politik und Theologie: Der liberale Nationalstaat des 19. Jahrhunderts und die Theologie,” in Offenbarung des Johannes und Politisch-Theologische Texte, 240.

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