A Q&A on the New Testament Devotional Commentary, Volume 1 from Bo Giertz with Bror Erickson
What I like about Giertz’s approach is the devotional nature of these commentaries. He’s a pastor concerned with what these texts have to say to us today.
1. What initially prompted you to take up this translation project? And how does it fit into the overall body of work that you’ve translated from Bo Giertz?
It’s long been my goal to translate the major works of Bo Giertz into English, and these commentaries are considered by many to be among his most important works. I first heard of them while in seminary and arranged to purchase them shortly thereafter. So I have been using them in my own sermon and Bible Study preparations for a long time. I would often translate the sections corresponding to the gospel or epistle lesson that I was going to be preaching on the next Sunday. Over time, these piecemeal translations meant I had most of the commentaries translated and only needed to fill in the gaps. I always found these commentaries to be extremely insightful and useful in applying the text to modern-day situations.
Bo Giertz wrote these commentaries in the late 1970s through the early 1980s as he was translating the New Testament. This was a project he took up after retiring from being Bishop of Gothenburg. In this way, they reflect the culmination of a long life of prayerful and academic study, yet he wanted to write them for the layman. So many commentaries are either written for academics or skip academic discussions altogether. However, Bo Giertz knew that many academic discussions were affecting the way laymen were reading their Bibles and were often corrosive to the faith. He addresses these discussions in a very pastoral way to show where they do and don’t have merit. Without being polemical, he addresses the issues at play and gives a perspective that is enriching and nourishes the Christian faith. I found them so well done that, as with most of what Bo Giertz wrote, Christian charity compelled me to translate them for the benefit of others.
2. Can you tell us a little bit more about Bo Giertz’ reason for putting together these commentaries on the New Testament?
Giertz had a profound love for God’s word and God’s people, the church. He had learned the ins and outs of higher critical thinking and liberal interpretation as a student in Uppsala. However, he and his mentor Anton Fridrichsen had begun to question the feasibility of these new interpretations. When they took a trip to Palestine to see the milieu in which the gospels were written they became convinced of the historical veracity of the gospels as they were written. Anton Fridrichsen then started his “Biblical Realism” movement as a counter to both the higher criticism of men like his friend Rudolf Bultmann and the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth. Unfortunately, Dr. Fridrichsen died rather early and though he left many insightful notes, essays, and monographs, he was never able to turn the movement into a magnum opus. Later, Bo Giertz would say he spent his life trying to share what he had learned from Anton Fridrichsen. I believe these commentaries are really a continuation of that work and a bit of an homage to his beloved friend and mentor.
3. Giertz’ Introduction starts with the question: “What is a Gospel?” Why do you think he chose to start here, rather than just diving into Matthew?
There are so many misnomers as to what is meant by gospel, and then the perceptions of what is meant by “a Gospel.” It is necessary to address the question of what these Scriptures we call Gospels were meant to be, and what their purpose was in the church if we are going to get a clear picture as to what they mean for us today. Bo Giertz wants to bring to our attention that the Gospel is good news, as he says a joyous message brought to us by Jesus Christ and communicated to us through his disciples. These Gospels were not meant to be biographies as we think of them, but to drive home the new life we have in Jesus Christ who forgave our sins with his death on the cross and justified us all with his resurrection from the dead.
4. Did you notice anything distinct about Giertz’ approach to providing commentary on the New Testament versus how other commentators have approached their work?
I often get frustrated with commentaries because they tend to either be painfully pedantic plagiarisms or they go out of their way to say why the text does not actually mean what it says. Many commentators feel the need to fill space with tedious lectures on Greek or Hebrew grammar, and rarely get around to any real exposition of the text or application of it. What I like about Giertz’s approach is the devotional nature of these commentaries. He’s a pastor concerned with what these texts have to say to us today, so he occupies himself first and foremost with what they had to say to the first believers to hear them read in church. He doesn’t shy away from academic discussions, and will often deal with grammatical discussions too, but only when these are pertinent to the proper understanding of the text and always in a manner that preserves the devotional nature of the work as a whole.
5. Can you tell us a little bit about the experience of doing this translation, and how it enriched your understanding of The New Testament?
I grew up hearing the gospel in my denomination, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. I think one of the hazards of growing up Lutheran in the United States is that you perhaps find yourself too often defending your faith against Reformed and Arminian positions. The texts become battlegrounds of interpretation. It is easy to develop a polemical edge that unwittingly distorts the passages in question because you are so used to objecting to bad interpretations. In this way those bad interpretations tend to influence your own reading of the text. Many commentaries themselves spend way too much time addressing these controversies. What I really enjoyed about these commentaries is that Bo Giertz often seems oblivious to these controversies and disputes. It’s doubtful that he actually was. Yet he just goes to the text, and often I was left thinking, wow! He’s right! That text is addressing a completely different topic than the one we have allowed it to be shoehorned into! Translating these commentaries has been and continues to be (there are two more volumes following this one) a very refreshing exercise in that manner.
6. Is there any advice or thoughts you want to share with potential readers?
I suppose my advice is to listen carefully. Bo Giertz can often be a very nuanced writer. I myself am not always sure I agree with him, yet I am always thankful for the perspective he offers. At times he will take a position that will make one prone to American Fundamentalism a bit uneasy, yet he is no liberal either. He is distinctly Lutheran and adheres very strictly to the old position of Lutheran Orthodoxy that Scripture is to be read in view of salvation alone. He isn’t interested in reading the text for things that the text was not written for. Whether he personally believed what the text had to say on scientific questions or not was really beside the point for him. He doesn’t want to get bogged down in those discussions. They are not what the text is concerned with and so they are not what he is concerned with. The Scriptures were written for our salvation, and this is where Bo Giertz wants to keep the conversation. In this way, I also think many who today are struggling with fallout from fundamentalism that no longer holds, and yet find progressive agendas of more liberal minded churches a bit too much to swallow, will find these commentaries to be a refuge of sanity focusing their faith on what matters, Jesus Christ risen from the dead for you.