Bo Giertz, A “Regular Priest”
I was first introduced to the work of Bo Giertz in Rome. It was in that city that Bo Giertz had promised his queen that he wanted to be nothing, and would be no more than a “regular priest.” We would say pastor, but in Sweden Lutherans still call their pastors priests. Bo Giertz was there for his studies at an archeological dig. He had majored in classics in undergrad before studying theology. His queen was there convalescing. Bo’s father was her physician. With a family like that he seemed to be destined to be anything but a “regular priest.” His father, an atheist, was still a bit disappointed he wasn’t pursuing the career in medicine that he had prepped Bo for since he was 12 and started writing up his father’s medical records in Latin. A regular priest? Really? It was his pursuit of being a regular priest that caused him to be such a great confessor of the Lutheran faith in the twentieth century.
My introduction to Bo Giertz was like that of most English speaking pastors for the last few generations. It was “The Hammer of God,” a novel that has been required reading at the seminaries for some time. My dad handed me the copy while I was still contemplating becoming a pastor. It captured my imagination, and sealed my resolve to finish out my enlistment and study to become a regular pastor. It was like putting blinders on a horse. I could no longer see anything but that goal. He presented the Gospel in such a clear way in that book, showed the need for it in the midst of so many false theologies the devil uses to capture and torture the souls of the pious. The only annoying thing I found about reading the book was that there was nothing else available by the guy in English! I really had no idea that there was so much material by this “regular priest” waiting to be translated.
Anyone who reads Bo Giertz realizes rather quickly that he was anything but a “regular priest.” His love for the Gospel could not be contained. Perhaps this is because he knew what it was like not to have the Gospel. His father was an atheist, his mother was an agnostic. He learned to mock the faith reading Darwin and Haeckel as a confirmation student who enjoyed heckling the pastor in charge of his instruction. It wasn’t until his own atheism was challenged by the immorality of his atheist friends at university in Uppsala that he became convinced of the existence of God through the apologetic lectures of Nathaneal Beskow. But it wouldn’t be until he actually became a pastor that he would learn to love the Gospel.
It was his concern for morality that brought him out of atheism, and that concern dominated his early years as a Christian, even throughout his theological studies, and the trip to Palestine that would lay the ground work for the Gospel-laden book “With My Own Eyes.”
Bo Giertz was gifted, and his theological mentor, Anton Fridrichsen, really wanted him to pursue a PhD in exegetical theology. It was with that intent that Bo Giertz had gone to Palestine in 1931. Dr. Fridrichsen, a student of higher criticism who was friends with men like Rudolph Bultmann, was beginning to have his own doubts about the 19th century methods of criticism with which he had been trained. He was beginning to believe that the New Testament was actually written by the apostles who were close to Jesus, rather than second and third generation Christians following exaggerated legends. He was starting a new school of thought that would be called “Biblical Realism,” and it would be visiting his student Bo Giertz in Jerusalem that would give him the raw data he would need. He told Bo Giertz to take note and record everything, to walk every hill and valley and learn the rocks and the trees, to watch how the people worked and did daily chores. Bo would later say that after that trip he could smell the dirt when he opened up his Greek New Testament. But when he returned, he realized two things that would keep him from pursuing a PhD. He wanted to get married, and he wanted to be a pastor. Later in life he would be given an honorary doctorate, but his highest earned degree would remain a bachelor’s degree. Highly astute and more academically capable than most professors, he would eschew academia for the rest of his life to work with and for the common people of the church, to strengthen their faith and bring depth to their understanding. In that way he remained a “regular priest” even when he was elected to be Bishop of Gothenburg at an unprecedented young age.
His first years out of University, he spent as a leader in the youth movement. He would spend weeks at a time on the road speaking to audience after audience with no fewer than five hundred and often as many as five thousand at a time. But most of this time was spent with the principles of Moral Rearmament, known in the English Speaking world as the Oxford Movement. It wasn’t until his first couple years as an actual parish pastor, doing a sort of internship that he would realize he had never actually preached the Gospel. His people were patient, and brought him to understand the importance of the atonement even for believers. When he finally received a parish of his own he went about rectifying that.
His first, and really only parish was Torpa in Sweden. It was a rather small parish. He might have an average attendance of fifty for Sunday mornings. It would seem that had to be discouraging. He also lost his first wife at this time after she had given birth to their son Martin. But like Loehe in Neuendettelsau a generation earlier, he found the rural setting not to be an exile, but an opportunity. Small parishes are not as demanding on a pastor’s time, and smart pastors like Loehe and Giertz have often found these settings free them to serve the church in ways that an urban setting with all the prestige would keep them from being able to do. Loehe used his time to set up a mission society responsible for churches all over the world, as well as a huge amount of literary production. Giertz would also take the time to write books that would in time become classics of the faith, books such as “The Hammer of God” and “With My Own Eyes.”
With My Own Eyes would sell some sixty thousand copies on the continent before being translated into English for the British market in 1960. He would write it in 1948 just before he was elected Bishop of Gothenburg. It would be the last book, aside from Bishop reports, that he would write until his retirement. However, this book would somewhat start an exegetical project capturing the Spirit of Anton Fridrichsen’s “Biblical Realism.” This would include such books as “Preaching from the Whole Bible” (a collection of small articles he would write on the Sunday periscopes), “To Live with Christ” (a book of devotions that follows the Church Year) as well as his commentaries on the New Testament (which I am currently translating for The 1517 Legacy Project).
However, “With My Own Eyes” shows just how extraordinary a regular priest Bo Giertz was. In these pages he invites the reader into the Gospel so that you can open your Bibles and smell the same Palestinian dirt he smelled on an archeological dig in 1931. He brings you into the first century to walk with Jesus through the countryside as He instructs His disciples and addresses the concerns of His people, and in doing so He fills your heart with a peace that surpasses all understanding as the Gospel is presented in living color.