Bo Giertz – True Pastor and Insightful Writer

Bo Giertz – True Pastor and Insightful Writer

In 1927, Bo Harald Giertz had an audience with Queen Victoria of Sweden, who had been a patient of his father Knut. Knowing that Bo was studying theology, and that he was a top student, she asked if he wanted to become a professor. He replied he just wanted to be a [Lutheran] priest. She then made him promise he would be a “true priest.”

From Atheist to Pastor

            Giertz was born on August 31, 1905, in Räpplinge on Öland, an island off the east coast of Sweden. His father Knut was a well-known surgeon and his mother Anna was a daughter of Lars Magnus Ericsson, the founder of the Ericsson telephone company.

            During his summer visits with his grandparents, Bo learned from Lars a passion from technology. He also attended the parish church and heard the gospel preached, something he never did with his parents (his father was atheist and his mother agnostic).

            Giertz’s career seemed set from the start. From his teen years, he often assisted his father at his surgical clinic and recorded the proceedings in Latin. In 1942, he enrolled in the school of medicine at Uppsala University.

            There, he met students from the Young Christian Movement (YCM), who were able to explain their faith with honesty and clarity. He was also impressed by the difference in behavior between these Christians and his atheist friends. He eventually moved away from his father’s atheism and decided to study theology. Though obviously displeased, his father accepted his choice but told him he would not continue to support him if he changed his mind again.

            Giertz studied New Testament under Anton Fridrichsen, who taught in opposition to the liberal, and much better-known, Rudolf Bultmann. A trip that Fridrichsen and Giertz took to Palestine deepened Giertz’s convictions of the historicity of the Christian faith and inspired his book, With My Own Eyes.

Discovering the Gospel

            In 1932, the year of his graduation, Giertz married Ingrid Sofia Margareta Andrén (known as “Ninni”). The same year, he began a three-years ministry as a travelling consultant for the Lutheran Church's High School Student Association, visiting schools all over Sweden.

            He was finally ordained in 1934, and served for a year as a vacancy pastor in two rural towns, Ostra Husby and Ekeby. At that time, he was still influenced by YCM, that presented a Christianity that was clear and rational, but void of a true gospel message.

            “The YCM academic piety questioned or ignored Christ's work of atonement,” he wrote, “in order to make the Gospel more understandable and acceptable to our time. In Ostra Husby, I was given reason to re-think this approach. I could not help but notice that in the midst of all the love and appreciation with which I was met, there was, nonetheless, a touch of disappointment that I did not preach Christ as one would have wished.”[1]

            Giertz discovered the gospel through the works of Henric Schartau – generally known as a Pietist – and with the encouragement of vicar Gösta Nelson.

            By 1938, he had three children (Lars, Birgitta, and Ingrid), so he applied for a more permanent position as assistant vicar of the small parish of Tora. He accepted the call, and spent the next three and a half years there. Besides preaching, he wrote several books, including his famous novel, The Hammer of God.

The Gospel through Fiction

            To his surprise, The Hammer of God became a national success, ranking third bestseller in Sweden in 1941. The purpose of the book was to retell, in down-to-earth stories, the main principle he had already laid out in previous theological works, such as Christ’s Church and Church Piety, namely the gospel as the foundation of both the Church and the Christian life.

            Through this fictional writing, Giertz was able to bring out, through real-life situations, questions, doubts, and perplexities that Christians might hesitate to face. One example is a conversation between old, confessional pastor who challenged a young Pietist, Fridfeldt, to consider more carefully the words he was using and the message they conveyed.

            “So you are a believer, I’m glad to hear that,” said the pastor. “What do you believe in?” It took a while before Fridfeldt could reply, because the answer seemed too obvious, “In Jesus, of course. I mean – I mean that I have given Him my heart,” he added.

            The older man’s voice became suddenly as solemn as the grave.  “Do you consider that something to give him?”  By this time, Fridfeldt was almost in tears.  “But sir, if you do not give your heart to Jesus, you cannot be saved.”

            “You are right, my boy.  And it is just as true that, if you think you are saved because you give Jesus your heart, you will not be saved. … One does not choose a Redeemer for oneself, you understand, nor give one’s heart to Him. The heart is a rusty old can on a junk heap. A fine birthday gift, indeed! But a wonderful Lord passes by, and has mercy on the wretched tin can, sticks His walking cane through it and rescues it from the junk pile and takes it home with Him.  That is how it is… And now you must understand that these two ways of believing are like two different religions, they have nothing whatever to do with each other.”[2]

            The same themes of salvation by grace through faith are predominant in all his works, including another novel, Faith Alone: The Heart of Everything, set between 1540 and 1543, during the largest peasant revolt in Scandinavia, and published in 1943. Many consider this to be Giertz’s masterpiece.

Bishop

            In 1942, tragedy struck his home, when Ninni died from a blood clot in her lungs soon after giving birth to their last child, Martin. Describing the sleepless nights that followed her death, Giertz recalled one Bible verse that sustained him more than others: “The Lord is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works” (Ps. 145:17). In a letter to his bishop, he commented that God had allowed him to retain a confidence in His love, even “in the midst of this awful darkness.”[3] Three years later, he remarried to Elisabeth Margareta Heurlin, who died in 1968.

            In spite of the heartache, Giertz stayed faithful to his promise to be “a true priest,” preaching the gospel and caring for his congregation. During the war, he gave hospitality to many Finnish refugees and to members of the Danish resistance movement who were being hunted by the Nazis.

            Overall, he was not looking for major changes in his life, not expecting any. The call to the bishopric in 1948 came as an absolute surprise.

            The election (by an overwhelming majority) of an assistant vicar to bishop was unprecedented but, in Giertz’s case, was a proof of the reputation he had earned through his sermons and books. He accepted the call, and moved from his small rural town to the Göteborg Diocese, the largest in church attendance in all of Sweden. He was only 43, an age that was considered young for the position. He was consecrated in the Uppsala Cathedral.

            Until his retirement in 1970, Giertz devoted his whole time to the bishopric, without writing major works. He traveled extensively, even to far-away countries such as Tanzania, India, and Brazil, for meetings and ordinations. The sermons he preached at the ordination of pastors were later collected into one book, translated into English under the title There Fell the Lord’s Fire. Meant as a treasury of reminders and suggestions for pastors, the book is equally useful to every Christian.

            Giertz suffered some fierce opposition when he contested the 1958 resolution by the Churchwide Assembly of the Lutheran Church in Sweden to open the pastoral office to women. Giertz was convinced that the Bible didn’t allow such an option. At the same time, he was saddened to see his name associated to this issue, as if this stance was what characterized his life and message. He thought it would distract people from the gospel he was committed to convey.

            Giertz resumed writing after his 1970 retirement, His late works include a novel, The Knights of Rhodes (an exploration of the theology of the cross during the 1522 siege of Rhodes), and a two-volume devotional work, To Live with Christ. He also retranslated the New Testament into Swedish, accompanied by 12 volumes of commentary, written for lay readers.

            Giertz died in 1998, at 92 years of age. He is considered one of the most insightful writers of the Swedish church. In fact, in 1999, the readers of Kyrkans Tidnig, the official weekly newspaper of the Church of Sweden, chose Giertz as the “most influential Swedish church leader during the 1900s.” And his influence has spread abroad, as his books continue to be translated in other languages, and readers continue to discover the clarity and simplicity of the message he has been faithfully teaching. He has genuinely been “a true priest.”



[1] Andrae, Eric, "Bishop Bo Harald Giertz-Pietism and the Ordo Salutis-The Office of the Holy Ministry, the Word, and Soul Care" (2003). Master of Sacred Theology Thesis. 392, p. 12

[2] Giertz, Bo, The Hammer of God: A Novel About the Cure of Souls, transl. by Clifford Ansgar Nelson and Hans Andrae, Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 1973, pp. 122-123.

[3] Giertz, Bo, Christ’s Church, transl. by Hans Andrae, Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2010, xv.