Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Bishop Bo Giertz (1905-1998)

In my unintended series on significant theologians of the 20th century without earned doctorates, yet another name must be added: Bo Giertz.  As far as I can determine, this great theologian of Sweden who became a very prolific and popular writer while also attaining great respect as a scholar, never earned an actual doctoral degree.  Yet, as happens so often, he is the subject of dissertations himself and remains an inspiration for generations of theologians and pastors.

Many have provided more than adequate summaries of this great man's life, a feat I will not attempt to reproduce here.  A nice biographical sketch can be found at the Lutheran Student Fellowship of Pittsburgh, among other places. Basically, Giertz was a man of the church.  His active career can be divided into two parts: his time as a parish pastor in Torpa, Sweden (1938-1949), and his time as a bishop in the Church of Sweden in Gothenburg (1949-1970).  His first few years in the ministry (1934-1938) appear to have been spent as an assistant to the bishop with special responsibilities for work with the youth.  The first eleven years as a parish pastor produced an incredible output of writing, which included what is most certainly his most famous work, the Hammer of God, a novel written in 1941.  This was the first work of Giertz to enter my own library, a book I purchased before becoming a pastor, yet did not finish reading until well into my ministry.  The second work to enter my library was a little booklet entitled "Liturgy and Spiritual Awakening," published in 1950.  It is actually part of the pastoral letter Giertz wrote upon taking up his position as bishop.  My copy came by way of the library of the Rev. W. H. Krieger, former pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Traverse City, where I once served as senior pastor years after him.  Krieger, also a past president of the Michigan District and vice president of Synod, was one of the early proponents of liturgical renewal in Synod, which he modeled at Trinity and is still evident today.

A short sample from that booklet shows us Giertz's deep appreciation for the ancient liturgical forms, but always as tools useful in the present as well:

Liturgy "speaks wisdom among those who are full grown."  It uses all the richness of the Scriptures, all the meaningful symbols and prefigurements of Christ in the Old Testament.  It prays the prayers of the Psalter anew, it listens to the prophesies and finds in them the deepest mysteries of the gospel.  It loves exactly those hidden things that only slowly unfold themselves and that constantly give the mind something new to ponder.  Just because the liturgy constantly turns back to the same holy forms, it dares to make use of the hidden wisdom of the Scriptures.  Therefore it also loves that music which beneath an obvious simplicity hides unfathomable depths of humble worship and joyful lodging.  It loves to lift its soul to God in the haunting music of the Kyrie or the reverent joy of the Preface.  In all this it is very unlike the mood of awakening....

The good bishop understood the strength and invaluable treasure we have in the liturgy, and speaks well to our day when the ancient forms are frequently discarded and dispensed in exchange for what are seen as more effective and useful forms.  Note his wise words next to those who have fallen in love with the contemporary fixation with change, yet unintentionally fall into the very formalism they despise:

There can be no normal church life without liturgy.  Sacraments need form, the order of worship must have some definite pattern.  It is possible to live for a short time on improvisations and on forms that are constantly changing and being made over.  One may use only free prayers and yet create a new ritual for every worship situation.  But the possibilities are soon exhausted.  One will have to repeat, and with that the making of rituals is in full swing.  In circles where people seek to live without any forms, new forms are nevertheless constantly taking shape.  Favorite songs are used again and again with monotonous regularity, certain prayer expressions are constantly repeated, traditions take form and traditional yearly ceremonies are observed.  But it would not be wrong to say that the new forms that grow up in this way are usually less attractive and more profane than the ancient liturgy.  They contain less of God's Word, they pray and speak without Scriptural direction, they are not so much concerned about expressing the whole content of Scriptures, but are satisfied with one thing or another that seems to be especially attractive or popular.  The new liturgy that grows in this manner is poorer, less Biblical, and less nourishing to the soul than the discarded ancient order.

Bishop Gietz is an old voice needed in our new day more now than ever.

And this is all the more amazing considering that this great champion for the truth came from a position of atheism as his starting point.  He would also later become a voice in opposition to the liberalizing trends in his own church body, such as the ordination of women which he opposed.  Even in retirement he did not stop working and writing, and remains for all of us an example of a true churchman.

The only other work of Giertz presently in my library is the more recently translated devotional To Live With Christ.  It was published by Concordia Publishing House in 2008, and is now also available in Kindle and ePub editions, for those able to utilize it in this way.  I have used it and highly recommend it.  As more of his work is translated and published I hope to add these to my library in time as well.

May his work continue to inspire and instruct the church today.  We need his wisdom.

[For those desiring a more developed bibliography for further reading and study of Giertz, go to this site.]

1 comment:

Bror Erickson said...

He Donald,
Great review of Bo Giertz. He never earned a doctorate. He really turned his back on Academia to become a pastor after meeting with the Queen of Sweden. Originally he meant to become a medical doctor like his dad, but upon becoming a Christian took a different route.
In any case, since you like Bo Giertz I think you will like "Then Fell the Lord's Fire" which just came out.