A Novel of the Reformation by Bo Giertz
Bo Giertz (1905-1998) was a Swedish bishop, theologian and novelist. His works are expressions and explorations of Orthodox Lutheran theology and piety.
He is best known in the English-speaking world for his novel The Hammer of God, about three generations of pastors, following them as they deal with the spiritual currents of each era – works justice, subjectivism, liberalism – in themselves and their parishioners, until they find the gospel of Jesus Christ. (Read this very glowing review of the novel by the dean of Christian literary critics, Leland Ryken, titled The Best Christian Novel You’ve Never Heard Of.)
Bror Erickson, an LCMS pastor who frequently commented on this blog, translated Giertz’s book other works in English. I have greatly benefited from the collections of his sermons, Year of Grace, Vol. 1 and Flight. 2.
Now Bror has translated another major novel, which can be described as the prequel to hammer of god or perhaps its sequel since it was published two years later in 1943. It is titled Faith alone: the heart of everything.
Whereas hammer of god focuses on a rural parish in Sweden during the 19th and 20th centuries, faith alone focuses on the very beginnings of the Reformation in Sweden.
Giertz neither whitewashes nor idealizes this event. In his account, King Gustav I – who reigned from 1523 to 1560 – appealed to the Reformation primarily to confiscate monastic lands and loot churches. He imposed the new theology with the help of brutal German mercenaries. Sweden, like Germany, had a peasant uprising, but while in Germany it was motivated by the radical Anabaptist Reformation, in Sweden the peasants revolted for the cause of traditional Catholicism. Both, of course, were crushed with great cruelty. (Gustav I should not be confused with his grandson Gustav Adolfthe devout and popular military genius who was the hero of the Thirty Years’ War.)
The novel centers on two brothers, one a traditional Catholic priest and the other an advocate of the new religion who became a scrivener for the king (i.e. a scribe who copied documents at that time before word processors and xerox machines). The priest, repulsed by the looting of his church by state officials and their treatment of his parishioners, joined the rebellion. The scribe becomes disillusioned with the immorality of the court—as well as his own immorality—and joins the Anabaptists in search of a deeper spiritual life.
The two brothers search for a way to earn their salvation, but come to the point of realizing they cannot. But a Lutheran pastor, realizing the corruption of the state and its church policies, brings the gospel of Jesus Christ to bear on their lives.
The book is full of theological debates and discourses, which may bore some readers, but which will make the novel all the more enjoyable for others. here is an excerpt from the pastor’s conversation with the failed and guilt-ridden priest:
“Anders, it is not your sins that separate you from God, but your virtues. Or more exactly: it is that you must have something to contribute before presenting yourself before God. This is why God allowed you to be stripped of the shroud of holiness that you wore in Fröjerum. Not because you were zealous and pious. God grant that all priests are as zealous as you! But because you made it an article of faith and your righteousness and put it between you and Christ. Now you are poor, destitute and naked, like the prodigal son. Now the heavenly Father is standing and waiting for you. Now he wants to embrace you and clothe you with the most precious garment, which is called the righteousness of Christ, in which no thread is woven by your hands, but for this very reason it lasts forever.
Lily This interview with Bror Erickson about the book.
Photo: Bo Giertz by unknown author, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons