Why isn't Bo Giertz more loved in the ELCA?
This question goes in part to the lack of popularity due this theologian who had every bit of potential to be as widely known and loved as contemporaries of his such as Lewis and Bonhoeffer were. Instead, having been pushed aside by English speaking Swedish Lutherans, he fell into relative obscurity until recently. And that is only because some Missouri Lutherans really picked up the ball in bringing about a renaissance of his works in America with a new wave of translations, articles, and email groups to keep interest alive and create new interest.
He's 20th Century Lutheranism's best kept secret.
Who is Bo Giertz
I won't feel bad if you ask the question. In fact, I'm more surprised these days when someone does know who he is than doesn't. As such, many find it surprising to learn that of the wide array of theologians in church history and my massive pastoral library Giertz has the top seat. Even as a Luther nut, seen by some of my colleagues as a Luther apologetic or semi-expert, I find Giertz to be a better read. I'll go in a bit as to why that is, but let's first explore the question of who is Bo Giertz?
Bo Giertz, born August 31, 1905 (happy birthday Bo!) was the son of a rather prominent Swedish couple (in fact a biography of his father's life has recently just been released). His mother was an heiress to a telephone fortune and his father was a nationally famous surgeon, such that he even became a personal surgeon to the Queen! His upbringing was like that of many of Sweden at the time; only a passing connection with the church. Giertz was baptized, but not raised in the faith. As such he grew up an atheist; not the type of atheist that Christians imagine (some hedonistic heathen of all forms of depravity), rather he - like his parents - was a very moral man. He also had an upbringing that would set himself up well in life. For example, his parents would hire a different nanny each year, alternating between ones who spoke English and German so as to build out the children's language skills (something Giertz became very well accomplished at in life). Along with these languages, his father used to make him do his surgical notes in Latin!
Giertz's path to becoming the most influential person in the Church of Sweden in the 20th century (he was voted that at the end of the century in a survey by the Church of Sweden's weekly newspaper) really begins when he goes off to college. There he encounters atheists more of the milieu of Christian stereotypes. Not only did their immoral living disgust him, but he was bothered by his inability to convince them to live differently. In short, Giertz realized his morality had no firm underpinnings. It was purely a choice with no authority to rest upon. Around this same time, Giertz attends a lecture by Nathaniel Beskow that convinces him that God exists (or at the least that it is not an irrational conclusion). These events set Giertz on a whole new trajectory. He changes course from studying medicine with aspirations to become a doctor to instead go into theology and biblical studies. First with an aim towards a PhD but later with a movement towards being a parish pastor. Giertz even famously got an audience with the Queen (whom his father was treating) and when he told her he just wanted to be a parish priest she made him promise that's all he would ever seek to be. Giertz's studies included spending half a year at an excavation in the holy land and studying under the founder of biblical realism Anton Fridrichsen. These had a profound influence on his life and work.
Before becoming ordained and working in the parish, Giertz worked with the high school youth movement in Sweden (a form of the Oxford group) and spoke before thousands of students all around the country. The youth movement aimed at especially promoting the four absolutes: holiness, purity, unselfishness, love. Giertz took this style of preaching into his first parish, but his membership had a strong influence from the famed Swedish lay preach Rosenius and they essentially chastise Giertz for not preaching the atonement. Giertz comes to realize his preaching in no way saves. He seeks help from Gösta Nelson, another pastor and essentially job shadows him for 6 weeks. Nelson introduces Giertz to the other major influencer of his theology, the works of Henrik Schartau, the giant of West Coast Swedish Pietism. Rosenius' atonement theology and Schartau's ordo solutis and ecclesiastical emphases become the backbone of Giertz's theology, especially in the work he will become most well known for Stengruden (or as we know it in English The Hammer of God).
In his second parish of Torpa, Giertz begins to gain his fame. He writes two theological text books Kristi kyrka (available in English as Christ's Church) and Kyrkofromhet (Church Piety, still in translation process though portions are available in English, check out "Life by Drowning"). But then came Giertz's most acclaimed work: Hammer of God. One of Sweden's all time best sellers, this novel (really a set of three novellas that take place in the same area of Sweden across 125+ year span) was, according to Giertz, an attempt to take what he wrote in his textbooks and show what they mean/how they play out. He would go on to write several other books and novels (including my recently reviewed Faith Alone and With My Own Eyes).
During World War II Sweden maintained a position of neutrality. Giertz on the other hand housed refugees and members of the resistance and their families from other Scandinavian countries. Some of these he had no idea would be coming to stay with him, and yet he welcomed them anyways.
Then in 1949 Giertz would become elected Bishop of the Gothenburg Diocese (thus going from a young atheist all the way to bishop!). Giertz does not write many books during this time besides his bishop mannifesto Herdebrev (i.e. Pastoral Letter, a portion of which has been translated into English with more on the way) and his diocese reports (although many sermons and shorter articles of his do appear during this time, in English for example, one can purchase a collection of ordination sermons in the book Then Fell the Lord's Fire). After his retirement in 1970 however, Giertz again becomes a prolific writer, this includes Knights of Rhodes (recently reviewed here), his New Testament Commentaries (Romans is already available at 1517 Publishing with more on the way, including the first volume covering I believe the synoptics later in 2021), and his two part devotional (published in English in one copy as To Live With Christ). Especially through writing and speaking invitations and interviews, Giertz contributed to the life of the church all the way until his own death in 1998.
Having offered a brief biography, let me share how Giertz became such a force in my own theological world. Like many, it came from a profound experience of reading the Hammer of God. Some pastors became pastors after experiencing that book. Some seminaries have used it as a textbook.
For me, I was in my last year of seminary and in kind of a bad place in regards to it all. I had no intention of leaving seminary, but I kinda wanted to. So one day I went to the DVD section of the seminary library looking for something to rent to take my mind off of my studies. As I looked at the various titles I noticed one by the title Hammer of God. I thought "what the heck is this"? It sounded like something of the ilk of Jonathan Edward's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God". Being the pretentious know-it-all that I was, I picked it up to read the back to get a better sense of how to mock and shame it. But as I read the description, it didn't sound like the fire and brimstone message I expected. Instead, it sounded evangelical. So I rented it. And even though it was Swedish with English subtitles, I watched it. This specific version only covered the first chapter of the book (a longer version covers the entire first novella). But yet that brief 30 minute flick struck me (especially thanks to the performance by the actor who plays the despairing Johannes) and as the movie description said it was based on the best selling novel, I immediately wanted to read the novel. What was more, I thought to myself "I think I have this!" It was a recommended reading for one of my classes. But being recommended only I never picked it up (we have enough to read in seminary). So I grabbed it, and began reading. That launched me into the world of Giertz.
Following reading Hammer I immediately wanted to see what else was available by him. And I had gotten into him luckily at just the right time. Prior to a 21st century renaissance of his works, there was very little available in English. There was Liturgy & Spiritual Awakening and Message of the Church in a Time of Crisis which was not widely available. I was fortunate enough to get access through the seminary library to it. Same with the old edition of With My Own Eyes that also was not widely available. There was also Preaching from the Whole Bible. But just before this time, a whole realm of new stuff started coming out. I was able to read Knights and To Live with Christ, and in a book Hammer For God there was a collection of other smaller works/excerpts available. And since then more and more has started to become available (especially thanks to Bror Erickson). Giertz had me pouring over theology outside of class. As I was awaiting call after seminary, there was a brief period where I wondered if I would ever get a chance to interview with a congregation, and as a fallback I started preparing for the possibility of doctoral studies. I began taking Swedish that I might incorporate Giertz's work into a doctoral dissertation. He has remained my favorite theologian since. This last summer as I went on sabbatical, he became a primary focus on my time on sabbatical. I even finished translating an essay of his not before brought into English. Because he was so pivotal in my pastoral formation, he was the force of renewal and growth for me this summer. I have sometimes described my theology as located at the intersection of Forde and Giertz.
So what is it in Giertz that makes him my favorite theologian? Here are some of the reasons why:
- Like Bonhoeffer, faith is a living thing to him. Those who appreciate say The Cost of Discipleship will find an equally demanding (and yet evangelical not legalistic) concept of faith in Giertz's works. He always writes in a manner that makes clear and tangible the power of the Gospel. You cannot read him without getting a sense that "this stuff matters". To quote him, "Grace is not simply a pious word. It is real, just as real as rain or thunder. God stirs powerful forces to reach us with this reality."
- Giertz was not an academic. He wrote for the parish. His stuff is incredibly accessible and yet not watered down or absent profundity. Even though Christ's Church is in my opinion the finest work on ecclesiology, it is written in a voice of how I relate to it all. In this manner, his stuff is always pastoral, and as a pastor and a Christian it always feels relevant. He writes with a pastor's heart.
- And while he writes for lay people, his high education and upbringing come through in his work. Before I learned it was being translated by others, I at one point was translating his John commentary, which he even entitles The Gospel According to John in Modern Swedish with Explanations for Laymen and yet while not bogged down in the academic as it is written for laymen, it still is filled with very competent theology and awareness of scholarship and archeology. His introduction exposes one to the criticisms of Johannine accuracy, and questions of date and authorship. His assessments of these go into archeological discoveries and early church sources and the like. He reminds me of NT Wright in this regard. Accessible and directed towards the whole church, and yet with a knowledge as good as any biblical scholar. His translation of the New Testament into Swedish was lauded.
- Along with all these elements to his writing style - accessible yet intellectual, from a pastor for the church, with a sense of warmth and authenticity in his explanations - Giertz was also immensely gifted at being comprehensive. Preaching from the Whole Bible for example shows his ability to draw comprehensive themes and tie together many inter-related passages regarding a specific topic of faith. Christ's Church likewise does this in what each chapter addresses. One often reads him and feels he brings it all together and does so with all the elegance spoken of above. His comprehensiveness also means he has probably written at some point about something you are wondering about. He also has had a very broad appeal. Non-Lutherans have acclaimed and embraced his work. It is a hallmark of a good theologian to not only be able to be approved within their own denomination but to be embraced by the wider church. It is a rare thing in the church, yet those in Giertz circles have seen his appeal and acceptance reach beyond simply those "Lutherans" who are closest to him in theological appearance.
- Not only is it his ability to bring all these things I know together, but he exposed me to the ordo solutis, something I had never encountered before theologically. And his novels especially show a great strength in this theology when one does not make it necessary steps/order but rather a description of God's workings upon the Christian. His ability to take the heart of Schartau's approach and yet enrich it with his baptismal theology as well as the heavy atonement emphasis of Rosenius really allows Giertz's approach to the theology keep one from over-psychologizing and possibly despairing. He really makes law and gospel apply to a person's spirituality in a more profound way than many Lutheran theologians. His ability to speak of spiritual impoverishment gives new life to the second use of the law than the narrow theological language that has traditionally categorized it, and as such he has expanded its use in preaching in a good way.
- Along with giving it a good place in the ordo salutis, Giertz is in fact the finest theologian I have ever read in regards the sacrament of baptism. Even as one who himself was baptized as an infant but did not come to faith until much later, he does not see that as a slight against baptism but actually embraces how that reveals the depths of the gospel. Anyone struggling with the biblicism or wisdom of infant baptism would do well to read him. Like his style of everything else, he wonderfully and powerfully makes clear that baptism matters.
- One need only read his chapter "una sancta" in Christ's Church to appreciate Giertz as an ecumenical theologian. He speaks strongly for every effort of healing divisions and especially against new ones. While acknowledged even by more conservative Lutherans as firmly orthodox and confessional, he shows how one can be committed towards unity all the same. He does not sacrifice truth for it, but believes nonetheless that it belongs to the truth. Giertz's desire for greater unity also shows in his ability to find value in other movements (readers of Hammer of God will notice the place these non-mainline movements have in helping the characters along the way, while still emphasizing the importance of Evangelical Lutheran theology in making clear the gospel). He shows what these movements emphasize rightly and yet exposes and speaks to what they lack. He is a gift to the whole church in this way. He also shows this in his commitment to remain in the Church of Sweden even after he felt it had made wrong decisions (more on that later). He did not leave the church or advocate leaving the church. Watching my own church body (ELCA) suffer a split just over a decade ago in which the voices that asserted they were committed to internal reform instead changed course and advocated and facilitated an exodus (yes I'm looking at you Lutheran CORE), I deeply appreciate Giertz's approach. Not only does Giertz stay, but he doesn't try to pummel those he disagrees with. He writes with compassion, and is willing to listen and point out areas where he finds agreement with his theological opponents. This compassionate approach to discord is sorely needed in the church today.
- His varied writing styles - from sermons, to essays, to commentaries, to narratives allow one to experience his theology in a multitude of ways. This makes it easier to understand and adds to its comprehensive feeling.
- His time as an atheist allows him to engage the world of unbelief in an important way that makes his voice invaluable to the church. He can talk science and reason and show how many arguments for unbelief need not be embraced. He can speak as one who personally did not need the church to consider himself an ethical person, and yet already before coming to faith began to sense the shaky foundation such ethics were built upon. There are many in the US who see religion as an old morality that is no longer necessary. Along with the world of unbelief, he writes about general religiosity that often passes itself for Christianity, something many of us in the US have encountered as well. The situation in the US today is more and more reflecting that of his in Sweden in the mid-20th Century. This modern relevance adds to the you might say objective relevance of his works.
- Giertz's view of the Bible and biblical authority has been incredibly helpful. His desire to bring his mentor Fridrichsen's concept of Biblical Realism is part of his theology of a living God (and by extension, the need for living faith). He roots theology not in theory but in activity, and that sense of the realness of it all begins with the scriptural witness. Yet he does not get bogged down in inerrancy debates, yet he holds to the absolute authority of the Bible. His "religious view" of the Bible is quite helpful. He asserts several things 1) we need not define how the Bible was inspired, only that it is the inspired Word of God. This can encompass not only the first authorship but even processes of redaction and the canonization and interconnectedness of passages. 2) we ought not dismiss or dissect it in such a way that lords over it but receives from it. He puts it this way: God saw to it that the Bible was written just the way it needs to be, precisely how God wanted it. We need not question if it matters. The fact that we have received it means it is important even if we in a given time/situation cannot see why. However he adds 3) that the Bible was written for a specific purpose, and if one uses it outside of that to seek answers it never intended to give they should not be surprised if one gets an incorrect answer. In this way he moves us away from a lot of the contemporary debates we typically encounter. He argues that science is not religion's enemy. He gets us out of the debates and into the use. He avoids a lot of the errors of both more conservative and liberal approaches to scripture that are either too dismissive or too narrow in their biblical approach.
- Being a bishop, Giertz has a fair amount to write for pastors. In the midst of reading Hammer for the first time I had my candidacy approval interview (getting a final stamp of approval from the greater church to seek call and ordination). I remember heading back on the train, on one hand feeling (and trying to show) a readiness for ministry while reading a book that showed a series of young pastors who thought the same and were humbled greatly and realized how much they did not know, not only for ministry but for themselves! This had a profound effect on me. Then Fell the Lord's Fire is practically a devotional work for pastors. It constantly speaks to me in my work and in my own faith. Though far away and many years separated, it feels as though he were my own bishop. A second bishop to me. One who pushes and comforts with just the right amount of force in both.
Giertz's absence from the ELCA
All this begs the question "why is Giertz not more well known and loved in our church today?" Why is he the best kept secret of 20th century Lutheranism? For my part, I cannot recall encountering anyone who truly dislikes Giertz's stuff, but too often meet those who simply never encountered it, or never seen or knew of anything beyond Hammer. But the mass amount of testimonies of those who have encountered Hammer (since if they have been exposed to Giertz, it is almost certainly through Hammer) give a taste of the impact he could have on the church if his stuff was more widely read.
The reason begins I think in our own church, the ELCA. Since most of the Swedish Lutheran churches in America who most naturally would have been the ones to bring his works into American Lutheranism through their historical and ethnic ties to the Church of Sweden, it falls especially to the question of why he doesn't have a bigger place in our church.
The answer, surely complex, must begin with Giertz's opposition to women's ordination. As I reread him this summer, one sees how inescapable that element of his theology is. Part of this is because that was the issue of the day, and while I disagree with Giertz on this, part of me can appreciate how the way the change played out in Sweden would be problematic. But because Giertz does touch on this in a number of his writings, and in fact the media in Sweden rather unfairly dubbed him "Bishop Bo Giertz, women's pastor opponent" (which reminds me of poor Apostle Thomas being forever dubbed "Doubting Thomas" and highly characterized by that moment). In short, he was villainized for it in many ways, when as I mentioned above, he deserves credit for staying in the Church of Sweden and speaking still with compassion and a willingness to embrace what he could from those he disagreed with on the subject. But just as surely as the media in Sweden really tried to dismiss him because of this (which speaks all the more to how he was voted the most influential person of the 20th Century in the Church of Sweden) it likely impacted the willingness to bring his stuff to English. Nelson, the first real translator of Giertz doesn't translate anything of his after 1970, nor does anyone else until some people in the Missouri Synod who are knowledgeable in Swedish (an anomaly of that church body who are from the German Lutheran tradition) begin translating him about 20 years ago. But even there he has been stereotyped by some as a "pietist" because of his influences of Western Swedish Pietism (which is quite different from the German pietism that Walther writes against and most LCMS Lutherans mean when they say "pietist"). This sudden silence of his work in the ELCA while simultaneously finding a home in the LCMS to me suggests that women's ordination caused Giertz to be silenced in our church because we didn't want an oppositional voice. And while I come at this differently (not being a woman), I do think we're kind of throwing the baby out with the bathwater if that's the case. We don't reject all of Luther because of On the Jews and Their Lies, and some of the other things he writes that we would not embrace today. We filter it, we are clear about what we reject about it, we try to understand where he came from without excusing or embracing. Sure I think Giertz mistranslates the name "Junia" in Romans and doesn't rightly harmonize 1 Cor 11 with 1 Cor 14 (interpreting the former according to the latter instead of the other way around), but I can see where he is coming from, appreciate some of his exegetical work nonetheless, and learn from his handling of he debate. If anything keeps the ELCA from promoting his stuff, it almost certainly is this.
Giertz does have other theologies that do not sit well with liberal thought as well though. Every once in a while he categorizes it in a way those of a more liberal church body might object to, especially if they wholeheartedly embrace their body's liberalism (I share some of Giertz's concerns myself and have never been turned off by it). Bultmann for example has some strong influences in some corners of the ELCA, and Giertz completely disagreed with him and felt he over-philosophized Christianity (Giertz essentially takes here a stand with his mentor Fridrichsen, who though a friend of Bultmann completely disagreed with him theologically). Also, from Rosenius, Giertz regularly emphasizes atonement. Most often this is some form of substitutionary atonement theory (although I'm told he does at times reference Ransom theory as well in his commentaries). Atonement in general, but especially in this way has been under heavy criticism for some time now. Although a reader of Giertz will find he does not embrace a form of atonement that is too legalistic or pitting Father against Son as many critics characterize this form of atonement theory. Fans of Forde (who are critical of over-embracing any atonement theory) should however appreciate that Giertz, like his approach to biblical inspiration is less interested in saying in which way Christ atoned for us, but instead focusing on its reality and what it means for me. That is, his atonement theology is less about the theory and more about the proclamation and effect. Nevertheless, you can find it in his stuff.
These especially will put him at odds with modern trends in our church and its predecessor bodies. Add to it he comes from Sweden, wrote in a language that few knew in America, fewer knew its ecclesiastical forms, and even fewer wanted to translate him and he fells to obscurity. The language was probably a huge roadblock, but especially when coupled with theological elements that flow against the currents of the church's direction. Then there was the fact that he was picked up and embraced by the LCMS, and many in our church probably sadly saw that as more reason to not read him. But those stereotypes and caricatures don't do him justice or realize the pastoral heart he writes with. In our American climate, we expect him to write in a way that reflects our stratified culture, but he doesn't. That's precisely why we should be reading him.
The other issue, once we get past language and differences, is publishing. Our majors publishers (Augsburg Fortress for ELCA, Concordia Publishing House for LCMS) each to my knowledge have only one work of his available (Hammer of God for Augsburg, To Live with Christ for CPH). This has kept Giertz out the main stream, especially in our church body. Is it any surprise that Hammer is often the only work of Giertz's many ELCA pastors are familiar with. One must go to a plethora of other smaller publishing houses to find his other works. Thankfully now we have a steady stream from 1517 publishing making one not have to go all over kingdom come to get his stuff. Their ongoing work with Bror Erickson means that as more people in the ELCA start discovering and shopping from this newer publishing house they may find more of his works. But it also means we need more advocating, promotion, and scholarship of his work in the ELCA. If we do, he can speak to another generation with his pastoral warmth and have a profound impact on more.
I firmly believe I am a better pastor today because of my reading of Giertz. It's why I have taken up the cry for more to read him. And it's why I'm wondering why more have not yet taken up the cry in my church, and hoping that confronting some of the reasons doesn't discourage us, but rather allows us to move past them and understand that in spite of whatever has kept him a secret, he's our best kept secret.
And it's time to spill the beans on this secret. For the sake of the church.