Pope's Address to Participants in Erik Peterson Congress

His Thought «Always Has a Vision of the Whole of Theology»

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VATICAN CITY, OCT. 28, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI delivered Monday upon receiving in audience the participants in the International Symposium on Erik Peterson.
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Dear Brothers in the Priesthood,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear Friends,
I greet all of you with great joy who have come here to Rome on the occasion of the International Symposium on Erik Peterson. In particular, I thank you, dear Cardinal Lehmann, for the cordial words with which you have introduced our meeting.
As you said, celebrated this year are the 120 years of the birth in Hamburg of this illustrious theologian; and, almost on this same day, Oct. 26, 1960, Erik Peterson died, still in his native city of Hamburg. He lived here in Rome, with his family, for some periods beginning in 1930, and afterward he established himself here from 1933: first on the Aventine, near St. Anselm, and subsequently on the outskirts of the Vatican, in a house facing St. Anne’s Gate. That is why it is a particular joy for me to be able to greet the Peterson family present among us, his esteemed sons and daughters with their respective families. In 1990, together with Cardinal Lehmann, I was able to give your mother, in your apartment, on the occasion of her 80th birthday, an autograph with the image of Pope John Paul II, and I happily remember this meeting with you.
«For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come» (Hebrews 13:14). This quotation from the Letter to the Hebrews could be the motto of Erik Peterson’s life. In fact, he never found a true place, in his whole life, where he could get recognition and a stable dwelling. The beginning of his scientific activity fell at a period of upheavals in Germany after World War I. The monarchy had fallen. The civil order seemed to be at risk given the political and social disturbances. This was also reflected in the religious realm and, in a particular way, in German Protestantism. The liberal theology predominant up to then, with the proper optimism of progress, had entered into crisis and left room for new theological lines confronted among themselves. The contemporary situation posed an existential problem to young Peterson. With both historical as well as theological interest, he had already chosen the subject of his studies, as he affirmed, according to the perspective that «when we stay with human history alone, we are faced with a meaningless enigma» (Eintrag in das Bonner «Album Professorum» 1926/27, Ausgewahlte Schriften, Sonderband S. 111).

Peterson, I quote him again, decided «to work in the historical field and address especially problems of the history of religions,» because in the Evangelical theology of the time, he did not succeed «in making headway among the cumulus of opinions to things in themselves» (ibid.). On this path he came increasingly to the certainty that there is no history separated from God and that in this history the Church has a special place and finds her meaning. I quote again: «That the Church exists and that she is constituted in an all together particular way, depends closely on the fact that (…) there is a determined, specifically theological history» (Vorlesung «Geschichte der Alten Kirche» Bonn 1928, Ausgewahlte Schriften, Sonderband S.88). The Church receives from God the mandate to lead men from their limited and isolated existence to a universal communion, from the natural to the supernatural, from fleetingness to the end of times. In his work on the angels he affirms in this regard: «The path of the Church leads from the earthly to the heavenly Jerusalem, (…) to the city of the angels and of the saints» (Buch von den Engeln, Einleitung).  
The starting point of this path is the binding character of sacred Scripture. According to Peterson, sacred Scripture becomes and is binding not as such, it is not only in itself, but in the hermeneutics of the Apostolic Tradition that, in turn, is made concrete in the Apostolic succession and thus the Church maintains Scripture in a living present and at the same time interprets it. Through the bishops, who are in the Apostolic succession, the testimony of Scripture remains alive in the Church and constitutes the foundation for the permanently valid convictions of the faith of the Church, which we find first of all in the creed and in dogma. These convictions are continuously displayed in the liturgy as a living space of the Church for the praise of God. The Divine Office celebrated on earth is, therefore, in an indissoluble relationship with the heavenly Jerusalem: Offered there to God and to the Lamb is the true and eternal sacrifice of praise, of which the earthly celebration is only an image. Whoever participates in the Holy Mass stands almost on the threshold of the heavenly sphere, from which he contemplates the worship carried out by the angels and the saints. Wherever the earthly Church intones her Eucharistic praise, she is united to the festive, heavenly assembly, in which, in the saints, already a part of her has arrived, and gives hope to all those who are still on the way on this earth towards the eternal fulfillment.
Perhaps at this point I should insert a personal reflection. I first discovered the figure of Erik Peterson in 1951. At the time I was chaplain in Bogenhausen, and the director of the local publishing house Kosel, Mr. Wild, gave me the volume, just published, «Theologische Traktate» (Theological Treatises). I read it with increasing curiosity and let myself be truly impassioned by this book, because the theology I was looking for was there: a theology that employs all the historical seriousness to understand and study the texts, analyzing them with all the seriousness of historical research, and not allowing them to remain in the past, but that, in his research, he participates in the self-surmounting of the letter, enters into this self-surmounting and lets himself be led by it and in this way enters into contact with the One from whom theology itself comes: with the living God. And thus the hiatus between the past, which philology analyzes, and the today, is surmounted by itself, because the word leads to the encounter with reality, and the entire timeliness of what is written, which transcends itself toward reality, becomes alive and operating. Thus, from him I learned, in the most essential and profound way, what theology really is, and I also felt admiration, because here he does not only say what he thinks, but this book is an expression of a path that was the passion of his life.
Paradoxically, precisely the exchange of letters with Harnack expresses to the limit the unexpected attention that Peterson was receiving. Harnack confirmed, more than that, he had already written with precedence and independence, that the Catholic formal principle according to which «Scripture lives in the Tradition and the Tradition lives in the living form of the Succession,» is the original and objective principle, and that sola Scriptura does not function.

Peterson assumed this affirmation of the liberal theologian in all its seriousness and allowed himself to be shaken, disturbed, bent and transformed by it, and in this way he found the path of conversion. And with it he really took a step as Abraham, according to what we have heard at the beginning of the Letter to the Hebrews: «For here we have no lasting city.» He went from the security of a chair to uncertainty, without a dwelling, and he remained during the whole of his life deprived of a sure base and certain homeland, truly on the way with faith and for faith, in the confidence that by being on the way without a dwelling, he was at home in another way and was approaching ever more the heavenly liturgy, which had impressed him.
Given all of this one understands that many thoughts and writings of Peterson remained fragmentary because of the precarious situation of his life, after the loss of teaching, because of his conversion. But even having to
live without the security of a fixed salary, he was married here in Rome and constituted a family. With this he expressed in a concrete way his inner conviction that we, though foreigners — and he was so in a particular way — find support in the communion of love, and that in love itself there is something that lasts for eternity. He lived this foreignness of the Christian. He had become a foreigner in Evangelical theology and remained a foreigner also in Catholic theology, as it was then.

Today we know that he belongs to both, that both must learn from him all the drama, the realism, and the existential and human need of theology. Erik Peterson, as Cardinal Lehmann affirmed, was certainly appreciated and loved by many, an author recommended in a restricted circle, but he did not receive the scientific recognition that he deserved; it would have been, in some way, too soon. As I have said, Cardinal Lehmann cannot be sufficiently praised for having taken the initiative to publish Peterson’s works in a magnificent complete edition, and Mrs. Nichtweib, to whom he has entrusted this task, which she carries out with admirable competence. So the attention given to him through this edition is more than just, considering that now several works have been translated into Italian, French, Spanish, English, Hungarian and even Chinese. I hope that with this, Peterson’s thought will be diffused further, which does not stop at details, but always has a vision of the whole of theology.
My heartfelt thanks to all those present for having come. My particular gratitude to the organizers of this symposium, especially Cardinal Farina, the patron of this event, and Dr. Giancarlo Caronello. My heartfelt best wishes for an interesting and stimulating discussion in the spirit of Erik Peterson. I expect abundant fruits from this congress, and I impart to all of you and all those you bear in your heart the Apostolic Blessing.

[Translation by ZENIT]
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