Peterson the Inquisitor

I’ve been reading Erik Peterson’s recently translated essays as part of the “political theology” background to my devil project, and wow, there is a lot of odd stuff in there. For instance, in the essay “What is Theology?” he argues that Christian dogma, insofar as it is a responsible extrapolation (through reasoned argument) of the deposit of Christian teaching entrusted to the Church, makes a “positive legal claim” on humanity. What does this mean?

Dogma is the objective and concrete expression of the way in which God in the Incarnation has physically moved in on humanity. It is so exactly right an expression for this state of affairs that every turn against the dogma, such as, for instance, that which a heretic undertakes, fittingly has its consequence as a punishment imposed on the body of the heretic. The teacher of error, who unlike the heretic does not violate the dogma, but simply teaches falsehood, cannot appropriately like a criminal be punished in his body; one can banish him as a disturber of the peace of the land, but that is something quite different from the punishment of a heretic.

If I’m reading this correctly, it seems as though Peterson is saying, almost as an aside, that of course the Church had the right to torture heretics under the Inquisition. There’s also interesting bits later on about how Protestant Churches could only claim to be “Churches” in the proper sense of the word insofar as they were able to draw on the coersive power of the state to enforce dogma (since presumably they would never have the intrinsic power to punish bodies, given that they cut themselves off from valid apostolic succession).

8 thoughts on “Peterson the Inquisitor

  1. Mad.

    As regards reading for the project, Norman Cohn’s Europe’s Inner Demons might be good to read? Sorry to say it like that but I haven’t got round to it yet myself. Also the references to the devil in Julian of Norwich.

  2. I think it may be helpful to read Peterson as framing the punishment of the body in respect to the sacrament of the Eucharist. Keep in mind, this whole essay is contained within the framework of understanding of the incarnation in relation to a proper understanding of theology.

    Just as the orthodox understands that Christs’ body (in the host) nourishes our body and sets it apart for resurrection, so the heretic either misses out on the eucharistic nourishment, or consumes what could be redemption as a kind of judgement instead. The bodily punishment is fully actualized in the resurrection, either when the redeemed live forever with God in bodily form, or the damned live in eternal bodily anguish.

    The preceding sentence to the one you mentioned reads,

    “…theology exists only in the time between Christs’s first and second comings, and that, just as certainly as Christ assumed a body for his coming, in order to engage the human world concretely, so now the revelation of God has also concretely pressed hard on humanity.”

    This “concerete pressing” takes the form of what Peterson is calling “dogma” – a manifestation of Christ’s incarnation, mediated through the physical Church alongside the sacraments.

    Peterson’s emphasis on dogma soon evolves into an emphasis on both dogma and sacrament: “The Gospel… is a positive legal claim, grounded in the factual accomplishment of the death and resurrection of Christ and continued… in dogma and sacrament.”

    “…Dogma and sacrament are a continuation of the Incarnation…”

    I don’t think Peterson here is really thinking of the inquisition or the torturing of bodies… rather, that our bodies without proper connection to the body of Christ (through sacrament) suffer “consequences”.

  3. @Christopher – Peterson writes, “[Not] all Church teaching is… already dogma, but only that which can be traced back to Christs’s speaking. Dogma belongs to the speech of Christ in exactly the same way as exegesis belongs to the speech of the prophets.”

    Maybe this helps?

  4. Aric, That is a really contorted reading. When he draws the comparison with the teacher of error, he says that unlike the heretic, the erroneous person can’t be punished physically “like a criminal” — hence the heretic is punished “like a criminal.”

  5. To be more precise: yes, Peterson’s larger point is what you’re saying. But that does not exclude my reading. In fact, if my reading is correct (and I don’t see how one can dismiss it given what he says about the Protestant state Churches), then I think it would really complicate what he’s doing with the sacraments.

  6. I saw that, it just felt so out of place that it seemed improbable – I kept wondering, why in an essay fundamentally about incarnation does he slip in a quick bit about the legitimacy of ecclesial power to punish bodies? Given Peterson’s extreme unsettlement with the political events that were underway at the time in addition to his developing conversion to Catholicism, a reading focusing on the sacramental relationship to our bodies seemed at least plausible (but certainly nothing I feel the need to defend further). Anyway, it was just a quirky thought in an attempt to make sense of what otherwise seems, as you mentioned, “really odd stuff.” Alas, I’ve apparently concocted something even weirder.

  7. It’s because one of the practical consequences of the Incarnation is that Christ has “loaned out” his authority to the Twelve, who then made the bold (and unanticipated) decision to found the Gentile Church when the Jews turned out to be less than enthusiastic about Jesus — and until he comes back, the Church possesses that fullness of power and authority (and can even augment it through the expanding body of dogma, etc.).

    To me, it seems like the earthly authority is almost more important to Peterson than the sacraments. But that may be because the earthly authority stuff is so much weirder, so it sticks out more.

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