The two-volume set from the “Selected Works” of Erik Peterson (1890–1960) includes a variety of writings, such as lecture fragments, book reviews, autobiographical notes, sketches, letters, and diary remarks. The material is presented in a critical edition for the first time. It has been arranged by Dr. Barbara Nichtweiß, a Roman-Catholic theologian from Mainz, who is the chief editor of the entire project and an eminent expert on Peterson’s thinking. Throughout the volumes, she offers helpful historical comments and clarifications.
Peterson grew up in Hamburg. He received his doctorate from the University of Göttingen, where he then completed his Habilitation and served as Privatdozent (lecturer without salary). From 1924 until 1929 he taught Church History and New Testament in Bonn. In 1930, he converted to Roman Catholicism. After his failure to find a professorship at a Roman-Catholic faculty in Germany, he moved to Rome in 1933, where, after many years of hardship for himself and his family, he finally was awarded a position as professor extraordinarius in 1947 andordinarius in 1956.
Volume 9/1 consists of texts by Peterson himself, which are arranged in five parts: 1) Theological Foundations and Perspectives, 2) Theology and Mysticism, 3) Positions on Evangelical Church History, 4) Contemporaries, and 5) Protestant Churches. The central systematic-theological issue is the question “What Is Theology?” In 1925, Peterson published a famous essay under the same title, which led to a lively debate with Bultmann and Barth. It was later included in his collection “Theologische Traktate” (first published 1951, critical edition 1994 in vol. 1 of the Selected Writings, English translation 2011). Person regards theology as a rational continuation of the “Logos-revelation” in the Gestalt of the dogma. In short, the Logos became flesh and then dogma. For a Protestant theologian, not only in the 1920s, this is a startling claim.
In the winter semester 1923/24, Peterson offered a lecture cycle on Thomas Aquinas, which is published here for the first time (9/1, 67–190). Karl Barth, who also taught in Göttingen at the time, attended the lecture cycle on a regular basis and admitted that Peterson helped him to understand better the relation between reason and revelation. In a letter to Eduard Thurneysen from December 1923, Barth even granted the possibility of ‘natural theology’ on the basis of revelation (9/2, 201). For Peterson, Aquinas saw that theology asks for those truths that are necessary for salvation. He wondered if there still existed a “lively Protestant church” (9/1, 153) with an ability to adhere to and shape the dogma in a meaningful way. He was convinced that any church worthy of its name should be able to speak on doctrinal matters in a binding way. If a church loses its power to form the dogma, the theology of such a church loses its character and substance.
The question, then, is: what does Peterson mean by “dogma”? In the introduction to lectures on the Patristic history of doctrine, he offers a definition: “the dogma is a truth that has been revealed by God and explicitly proclaimed by the ecclesial teaching office as an object of necessary belief for all” (9/1, 191). The Protestant churches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries appear to him as strong enough to set forth ecclesial teachings, but strictly speaking these teachings do not qualify as dogma, since their authority was guaranteed by state law, not by church law.
Volume 9/2 offers shorter texts, including autobiographical statements, letter exchanges, and brief comments by persons who knew or met Peterson. The gem of the volume is the letter exchange between Peterson and Karl Barth between 1921 and 1936, which from Barth’s side begins only in 1928 (some of his letters probably are lost). The two men agreed and disagreed on important issues: in steadfast opposition to historicist or psychologist approaches in theology, they agreed that dogmatic theology is vital for the church, but they disagreed on the task and nature of theology. Their conversation is characterized by occasional misunderstandings and a touch of sadness, although Peterson’s conversion clarified their relationship. Barth thought that Peterson found in Roman Catholicism something that harmonized with his Pietistic sensibilities.
A further inspiration for Peterson’s conversion was Kierkegaard’s attack on nineteenth century Protestantism. According to Oscar Cullmann, Peterson agrees with Kierkegaard that Protestantism (i.e., Lutheranism) is blind for the importance of sanctification (see 9/2, 492). In a critique of Paul Althaus from 1925, Peterson raises an interesting question: did Kierkegaard even think of himself as a Christian (see 9/1, 313)? If he did not, his stance may be similar to Overbeck’s detachment from theological contemporaries. He may be counted among the forebears of existential philosophers in the 1920s, especially Heidegger, but his influence on Barth’s early dialectical theology, even on Romans II, is small. Barth himself commented in the preface to the book that Kierkegaard ranks on the same level as Dostoyevsky, i.e., as a literary writer and philosopher, but not more than that. The idea of an “infinite qualitative difference” between God and human beings, which is sometimes regarded as a specialty of Kierkegaard, is as old as the book of Kohelet.
Peterson’s late musings on the “fame” of great theologians (9/1, 598–600) reveal a sharp, critical, and humble spirit. By now, it is clear that his thinking has more in common with Hans Urs von Balthasar than with Barth. In December 1954, von Balthasar wrote to Peterson, “In one way or another, everything remains fragmentary, but we have a love for our fragments, our spirit is well tailored to this dimension.” And he continued: “Karl Barth sends you kind regards. He writes and writes into a hole: again, a new huge volume is complete, on Christ as Prophet [KD IV/3.1], a theme for him, and I look forward to reading it” (9/2, 394).
On the whole, the two volumes offer a wealth of material and, as the last quote shows, a few curios. The second volume should become a standard reference for further studies on Barth’s theological development, especially in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.