A Novel of the Reformation by Bo Giertz

A Novel of the Reformation by Bo Giertz July 14, 2022

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 righteousness, subjectivism, liberalism–in both themselves and their parishioners, until they find the gospel of Jesus Christ.  (Read this highly appreciative review of the novel by the dean of Christian literary critics, Leland Ryken, entitled The Best Christian Novel You’ve Never Heard Of.)

Bror Erickson, an LCMS pastor who used to be a frequent commenter on this blog, has been translating Giertz’s other works into English.  I have greatly benefited from the collections of his sermons, Year of Grace, Vol. 1 and Vol. 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 entitled Faith Alone:  The Heart of Everything.

While Hammer of God focuses on one rural parish in Sweden during the 19th and 20th centuries, Faith Alone focuses on the very beginnings of the Reformation in Sweden.

Giertz doesn’t whitewash or idealize this event.  In his telling, King Gustav I–who reigned from 1523 to 1560–brought in the Reformation mainly to confiscate monastic lands and plunder the churches.  He enforced the new theology with the help of brutal German mercenaries.  Sweden, like Germany, had a peasant uprising, but whereas in Germany it was motivated by the radical Reformation of the Anabaptists, in Sweden the peasants revolted for the cause of traditional catholicism.  Both, of course, were crushed with great cruelty.  (Gustav I is not to be confused with his grandson Gustavus Adolphus, the 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 (that is to say, a scribe who copied documents in that age before word processors and xerox machines) .  The priest, repelled by the looting of his church by state officials and by their treatment of his parishioners, joined the rebellion.  The scrivener 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.

Both brothers are seeking a way to earn their salvation, but come to the point of realizing that they can’t.  But a Lutheran pastor, who realizes 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 bog down some readers, but they will make others appreciate the novel all the more.  Here is a sample, from the pastor’s conversation with the failed, guilt-ridden priest:

“Anders, it is not your sins that separate you from God, but your virtues. Or more properly: it is that you need to have something to bring before you step before God. This is why God has 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 would be as zealous as you! But because you made it into an article of faith and into your righteousness and put it between you and Christ. Now you are poor, destitute, and naked—like the prodigal son. Now the heavenly Father stand and waits for you. Now he wants to fold you in his arms and clothe you with the most precious garment, which is called Christ’s righteousness, in which not a single thread is spun by your hands, but for just that reason it lasts forever.”

Read this interview with Bror Erickson about the book.



Photo:  Bo Giertz by unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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