A Shepherd’s Letter, written by Bo Giertz and translated by Bror Erickson, is now available for purchase from 1517 Publishing.
1. What initially prompted you to translate this book?
A Shepherd’s Letter is an important book for those who want to understand what Bo Giertz was about. He wrote it on the occasion of becoming Bishop of Gothenburg, a rather prestigious diocese on the west coast of Sweden that was known even in the 20th century for high church attendance. Translating this book is a part of my ongoing project to see all of his major works translated to English.
2. This book has been described as “Bo Giertz distilled and served neat.” Can you elaborate on how this work differs from his other theological works?
Earlier in Bo Giertz’s writing career in books like, Christ’s Church, Bo Giertz adopted a text book type approach to writing. However, he was dissatisfied with that approach to writing by the end of the 1930s. It had limited appeal and so was not reaching the people he wanted to reach with the gospel. In the 1940’s he began to experiment with historical fiction as a means to convey the gospel. This was much more successful. Of course, The Hammer of God is still his most famous work and has been translated into various languages. He followed that up with Faith Alone, The Heart of Everything which I think is a much better novel, and then With My Own Eyes. In A Shepherd’s Letter he returns to the somewhat textbook approach of Christ’s Church but now his writing is improved greatly by his work with fiction. It is more condensed, and yet livelier in its prose.
3. Many people are familiar with Bo Giertz’ famous novel The Hammer of God. In what ways is this book a good supplement when reading that work?
Bo Giertz visits several themes within The Hammer of God that bring his own theological influences to life. The chief influence is Schartau’s Order of Grace which he uses as the plot device. This would be followed by a Rosenian emphasis on the doctrine of justification and atonement. These two men, Schartau and Rosenius, were responsible for different revivals separated by both geography and time. Giertz’s genius was to show their compatibility with each other within an orthodox Lutheran theology. Other influences that make their appearance within Giertz’s novel are “Biblical Realism,” and “Liturgical Renewal.” These influences actually appear in all of Giertz’s works in one way or another.
However, in A Shepherd’s Letter he takes them with a more direct approach so that you can see exactly what Giertz is driving at in away that perhaps can get lost in the story line of A Hammer of God. He also addresses very clearly a misconception concerning Schartau’s “order of grace” that sometimes gets read into The Hammer of God. Some want to hear Schartau as being prescriptive rather than descriptive, so a person must experience the order of grace in order if they are to be saved. This turns a helpful device for pastoral care, a device that can be used by a pastor to better understand and address certain spiritual conflicts a person might be experiencing, into a means of spiritual torture. In A Shepherd’s Letter he takes up this order of grace explicitly and is very adamant that the order is descriptive at best, and over all unimportant. The order doesn’t matter, it’s grace that is important.
4. The book opens with a discussion of the church at large in the first chapter titled, “Crises and Sources of Strength.” Could you help us understand the context Bo Giertz is writing in at the time?
Bo Giertz wrote A Shepherd’s Letter in 1949. The devastating effects of WWII were still being felt quite acutely in Europe, and the threat of soviet military aggression, as well as nuclear war were quite prominent. Christians had been systematically persecuted by the Nazis, and this systematic persecution continued in soviet countries. However, in western Europe, church leaders like Bo Giertz saw how increasing industrialization was also assisting an increasing secularism. There were huge population shifts into the city and people lost track of the church even as the church lost track of the people during these shifts. Some political parties were actively hostile to the church also. The trends toward secularism and atheism in the west have continued of course, and have also become a point of consternation for believers even to this day. This age has not ceased to be evil since Paul designated it as such in Gal. 1:4. So the church continues and will continue to suffer crises, and so the essay “Crises and Sources of Strength” takes on a sort of timeless dimension that way.
5. Giertz says early on: “If a person wants to see what true Christianity means,” they must examine and understand a threefold inheritance for Christians today. This inheritance is given by the early church, the Reformation, and the Awakenings. How do these three historical periods/occurrences provide the complete picture of Christianity, according to Giertz?
History is uniquely important to the Christian faith in that Christianity is uniquely tied to a particular historical event, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the climax of our scriptures which Luther and Lutheran theologians often refer to as salvation history, or the history of salvation. This is not an “alternate” or revised history, as perhaps some scholars of Barth might maintain, but history, our history, a record of events that have occurred in the space/time continuum we inhabit, subject to the same methods of historical inquiry used by any responsible historian. Other religions can be called historical in the sense that they have been around fo a long time, and their founders and practitioners have been historical figures, yet when studying these other religions, the history is not necessary to the religion in the same way, even as a person might find the Ten Commandments for instance, to be true regardless of whether or not Moses received them on Stone Tablets from God. You can believe that happened or not, it’s still hard to argue against “Thou shall not murder.” If Christianity were just about morals the history behind it would not be so important. However, because Christianity is about the salvation accomplished for us in the death and resurrection of Christ, the death and resurrection of Christ better be as factual as Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, or we as Christians are most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:19.)
This one historical event sanctifies all of history for us Christians. The salvation history continues even if the denouement plays out in ways that are hard for us to decipher. We realize that this is God at work in history through his church, which, because it is comprised of sinners, will go astray from time to time and will need correction. Sometimes those correctives can be an over correction. Yet this history impacts us, it shapes who we are and how we think. So on the one hand, a study of our history can be an act of repentance, though we should be careful not to be judgmental of our forefathers. We can see their faults, and try to correct those faults in our own life, but we must be careful to realize we have our own blindspots just as they did. So we can learn something about ourselves in studying the history of the church. We can find new old ways of thinking concerning the problems that we face, that may have been forgotten and are most helpful just now.
In this way, history becomes a source of strength for us. Today historical inquiry is all too often an exercise in condemnation. Even our heros get vilified because they were not prescient enough to have our sentiments and views on things. So history becomes a harsh judge and many are quick to assume their opponents are going to be on the wrong side of history. This is a charge that is often leveled at the church for views many believe to be antiquated in regards to sex, family life, or whatever might be the case. Bo Giertz has a refreshing view of history in the face of this: Jesus Christ is the Lord of history. His historical opinion is the only opinion worth considering. History won’t judge us, he will. We already have his judgment. He gave it to us from the cross, where he acquitted us with his death. And we can read that history now to see how he brings it all to an end.
6. Is there any advice or thoughts you want to share with potential readers?
This book is a short and quick read, and yet the contents of it are profound. Giertz applies law and gospel throughout the entire book. He challenges cherished perceptions and myths about Christianity in general, the early church, the Reformation and the Awakenings specifically. Yet he is always forgiving. The reader should also know that the Awakenings he refers to were historical events in Sweden that share some aspects with those that occurred in America at roughly the same time. Yet they should not be equated. The Awakenings in Sweden are characterized by the Lutheran heritage of that country in ways that an American reader might find confusing if they did not keep this in mind. With that said, the reader will find aspects of his assessment concerning these various movements are both applicable and insightful for the American context with a little imagination.