Books Faith

Impressions of “Faith Alone: The Heart of Everything,” by Bo Giertz

Six years ago, I read Bo Giertz’s The Hammer of God, a Swedish-Lutheran book about the role of the priesthood that greatly influenced my view of the sacraments. More recently, Nile Sandeen of True Armchair Theology took me to task for what I saw as a weakness in Giertz’s theology: a Nietzschean will to salvation. Sandeen suggested I look at this as “spiritual impoverishment,” and also that I read Hammer’s prequel, Faith Alone, which takes place during the Swedish Reformation. Helpfully, Sandeen also provided a substantial review of that work to get me started.

My review is more scattered and is an overview of three broad areas: Historical Context, High Points, Low Points, and Meta-Commentaries. By the end, I conclude that Giertz is effectively a neo-scholastic, an influential doctrine in the Catholic Church at the time of writing but shed by the Vatican around the time of the Second Vatican Council.

Throughout this post, I criticize Giertz for advocating a doctrine of justification of works and rejecting the need for faith in the sense that Catholics, from Martin Luther to Pope Benedict, have supported. Before I begin, let me share the description I am using of those terms to minimize confusion hopefully:

In the light of this, one can reach some understanding of the Christian language of “justification” through baptismal faith. The doctrinal assertion that justification is by faith and not by works means that justification happens through sharing in the death of Christ, that is, by walking in the way of martyrdom, the daily drama by which we prefer what is right and true to the claims of sheer existence, through the spirit of love which faith makes possible. Conversely, to seek justification by works means trying to save oneself through one’s own efforts in isolated concentration on the principle that finds the inevitable fruits of one’s actions in one’s destiny. As worked out in detail in particular cases, this attempt can take very subtle forms, but the basic pattern is always the same. Justification by works means that man wants to construct a little immortality of his own. He wants to make his life a self-sufficient totality. Such an enterprise is always a sheer illusion. This is true no matter on what level it is undertaken, whether in a primitive fashion or with the utmost scientific sophistication in the attempt to overcome death by means of medical research. Such self-assertion is as root a refusal of communication, which issues a misjudgment about reality at large and the truth of man’s existence in particular.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg. 98 (1977)

Historical Context

I started reading Faith Alone knowing almost nothing of the Swedish Reformation. I both felt I learned a lot of history from Faith Alone, and also that I was continuing mapping events to the English Reformation, of which I am more familiar.

Unlike in England, where Henry VIII introduced the Reformation as a method of defaulting on property guarantees to the Church, the Reformation entered Sweden before Gustav engaged in an almost identical attack on the Church. This meant that much of the Swedish Church was Lutheranized before heavy-handed government intervention. The clean mapping of Catholic priests as anti-King and Protestant reformers as pro-King is not so neat. A crucial scene, near the end, is with a Reformed priest providing three sacraments – Reconciliation, Communion, and Anointing of the Sick – to a Catholic priest. Likewise, the Swedish Language “mass” is described as “precisely” the same as the Latin mass.

This is in keeping with the same sacramental view that Giertz expressed in Hammer of God.

High Points

Faith Alone focuses on three men, who between them make two men and two priests: Father Peter, the priest of the neighboring parish Father Andrew, and Andrew’s brother, Martin. In general, Peter represents Giertz’s idealized view of the Swedish Lutheran Church, Andrew a sympathetic view of the Roman Catholic church, and Martin a sympathetic view of low-church Christians, who in an American context would be called “evangelicals.” The perspectives of each are carefully presented in a self-consistent and unfolding way. Each character owns his respective narrative – persons or events viewed negatively by one will be viewed positively by the other, and as characters and positions in life change, characters’ beliefs, perspectives, and impressions also change.

It’s rare for an author to take such competing perspectives and write each so well. The closest I can remember is A Canticle for Liebowitz, but there the multiple views were from Catholics (or nominal Catholics) across the centuries, not Calvinist, Lutheran, and catholic intellectuals in the same chaotic time.

Low Points

The Will to Salvation

The most objectionable part of Faith Alone is Giertz’s gnostic or “Secret password” view of salvation, where God demands individuals perform certain, specific mental works to be worthy of His love. Heaven is earned through the mental act of belief in “undeserved grace”:

“Yes, I mean, I received back heaven when I was led to believe in the undeserved grace.”
Faith Alone, pg. 270

This distinction seems critical for Giertz. One does not enter Heaven because of undeserved grace but because of one’s belief in undeserved grace. A work of intellect and will is required, but not of charity or prayer. To Giertz, the primary goal of Christianity is not the love of Christ, or imitation of Christ, or even love of neighbor, but the recitation of a mental passkey:

But above all, he admonished all of them to hold to the great article concerning justification by faith.
Faith Alone, 257

Christ’s view of what commandment is above all is somewhat different:

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these
Mark 12:28-31

More than “love or prayers” is having the correct mental password to Heaven.

“Therefore, salvation is lost as soon as a man teaches or believes that there is something good on earth that we must first accomplish before we can be saved. Then a man sets works between him and God. But every work, even the best is painted with sin… Then a man only opens a deeper abyss between him and the Holy One. Then he puts a rule before Heaven’s gate. Not even our love or our prayers, yes, not even our crushed hearts are anything so perfect, so free from laziness, reluctance, pride and complacency that they form a bridge between God and us.”
Faith Alone, pg. 251-252

The “secret password” nature of Giertz’s theology means that no behavior can be worthy of emulation aside from the gnosis of the correct mental formula. It is worthless to observe others doing good deeds. The only modeling is others who have the valid mental password:

He does not see the holy saint before him as a model for how he ought to be, but he only sees the neighbor who suffers need and goes to him to serve him.
Faith Alone, pg. 203

Desire to do good is the greatest sin (not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, not the love of money, but desire to do good). Giertz reasons that such a desire, unlike those other sins warned against by Christ, competes in priority with the importance of the secret password, the ontological labor he believes God demands:

“Want to be pious!” I will tell you one thing, Martin: it is the greatest sin there is to want to be pious!”
Faith Alone, pg. 202

To Giertz, God wants nothing to do with compassion for your neighbor. That does not serve God. They serve your neighbor, who cannot be a bridge to God. Unlike two thousand years of Jewish and Christian theology, which see the beginning and end of the Ten Commands twinned, Geirtz sees them opposed, or at the very least love of neighbor is an epiphenomenon to the love of God.

“God does not want to have my good works. My neighbor shall have them. God wants to have my faith.”
Faith Alone, pg. 201

Christ, in the New Testament, presented a different perspective:

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ’Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me
Matthew 25:37-40

The Moral Implication of Forbidding Rebellion in 1943 Europe

In another post at True Armchair Theology, Nile wonders why American Luterhans are more likely to admire Bonhoffer than Giertz. I do not know if Bonhoffer is less likely to associate a secret password view of salvation. But I suspect one reason is that Faith Alone can easily be read as an apologia for collaboration with Nazi Germany, while Bonhoffer’s life demonstrates the opposite.

“A Christian never rebels. He knows that he is worthy of condemnation for the sake of his sin. Consequently, he can never have a worse authority than he deserves. To suffer injustice is hard but salutary.” (pg. 198)

Written in the middle of the Second World War, with Sweden as a compliant state to Nazi Germany, Geirtz is explicit that any rebellion against any government is a sin. (Presumably, such a sin is meaningless if one knows the secret password). I find this incomprehensible unless one realizes that Geirtz is writing more than a decade into the reigns of Hitler and Stalin. He knew the stakes. And found both Hitler and Stalin hard but salutary.

“If a man lives in justification by faith, then he knows he is a sinner who can only be saved for Christ’s sake. Then he is happy if only the gospel is freely proclaim and there is access to the sacraments. Then he can leave all ceremonies and leave off judging the lives of others.”
Faith Alone, pg. 187

Giertz’s advocacy for quietism in the face of the worst genocides of the 20th century may, perhaps, be one reason. Giertz, outlining his political philosophy of cooperation with a government no matter how evil (a question that Bonhoffer decided came down on the other side of, and which on a national level Bonhoffer’s employer, the Swedish government, sadly agreed with), Giertz has a point-of-view character explicitly describe the current ruler as an anti-Christ:

It is inconceivable that Giertz was not thinking of Hitler, who in a country across a small waterway was ruling a substantial Lutheran population when he suggested writing letters and prayers, but no resistance action, as a method of removing the antichrist:

For us, it is enough to know that God still allows King Gustavus to rule and that it pleases God to govern his sinful Swedish people through a great sinner.
Faith Alone, pg. 198

I, and I suspect Bonhoffer, disagree with the pattern. In particular, we, unlike Geirtz, would strongly disagree with the statement: “It is enough to now that God still allowed Hitler to rule and that it pleased God to govern his sinful German people through a great sinner.”

Likewise, as Bonhoffer actively worked with the anti-Hitler resistance, I suspect he would have disagreed with Giertz’s commandment against active measures against such a government.

And if you are not placed to either punish or preach, or even govern, then you shall not sit with your arms crossed, but you should clasp them hard and regularly pray to God for your prince, that God gives him a new heart r removes him.
Faith Alone, pg. 198

When discussing (though not using the term) just war, Giertz’s mouthpiece insists on pacifism before state power. Note the denial of Augsburg and Orange: the Holy Spirit cannot do political work through men. There is no just war against a government. Having good works from God here prevents one from receiving those good works through the bridge of men.

“But then is a Christian defenseless?”

“Not at all! Do you not have God? he helps us far more than we have deserved. First, he more often than not keeps good authority with power, disciplining works of violence so that you can live securely. And if it should please God to discipline us through the hands of those who do violence. Do you have anything to say about it?”
Faith Alone, pg. 239

The passage immediately continues with the most horrific view of social or political justice imaginable. Giertz presents a vision of justice, not as one with love and mercy, but as universal torment:

And what exactly are you?”

“A sinner,” said Herr Andreas ver quietly.

“Can a sinner receive worse authority than he deserves”?
Faith Alone, pg. 239

One might say, in fairness to Giertz, he advocated cooperation with Nazi Germany not because he was a coward but because it fit his idea of social justice.

But while saying that Hitler’s regime, which had committed universally known crimes for a decade as of the publication of Faith Alone was fulfilling social justice may truly reflect Giertz’s philosophy, I suspect most readers would find that more, and not less, horrific than if Giertz were merely a coward.


The Mystery of Reformation-Era Swedish Catholocism

Giertz’s views of Roman Catholocism are sympathetic, historical (Giertz mentions Wednesday fasting, and he implicitly references several articles of the Fourth Lateran Council), and sometimes puzzling. These are areas where Father Andrew, the Roman Catholic, acts in ways that appear inexplicable for a priest but are also never criticized by another character or by a recollection. As such, they seem to be consistent with Giertz’s views of Catholocism, or at least Catholocism during the Reformation.

One such area is that Father Andrew appears to be the least sacramental of the characters. For instance, in the aftermath of a battle, the Catholic priest loses the oil necessary for the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Consider the priest’s (accurate, I think) reaction to losing the holy oil required for the Anointing of the Sick:

A bullet smashed into the stone. The clang of metal and moss whirled in his ears. He hurried faster with his prayers and stretched out his hand to rub his thumb in the chrismatory. Only then did he discover that the little bronze container was gone, swept away from the stone by the bullets. He jumped up and searched on the other side in the snow. It was splattered with anointing oil. The chrismatory was mangled, and the ointment lost.

Wild wrath gripped him. Would these church plunderers and peasant murderers also keep him from giving the last rites to the dying? With his thumb, he rubbed the last of the oil in the vat. He reached for Linnart. He solemnly anointed the churchwarden’s boy. It was the last parishioner he would be able to anoint today.

What should he do? Here he stood with his smashed chrismatory. As a priest, he had nothing more to do today. His eyes flickered, and it thundered in his head. He began to half run up the ridge and kept himself hidden behind fir trees…
Faith Alone, pg. 122

Why is Anointing of the Sick the only sacrament that is an option here? Why does the priest view himself as unable to perform the Sacrament of Reconciliation? This is never mentioned and never criticized, so either reflects an otherwise lost strand of Swedish Catholocism, or else an odd aspect of Bo Giertz’s imagination.

Earlier in the same scene, the priest puzzlingly expects penance before absolution of sins.

He dared not use the power of the keys before Staffan did penance in some form anyway. Neither would he try to convince him to give away any of his poor possession s– the widow and the children need them before anyone else. If he could just persuade him to do something else for penance, then he would not hesitate to say the absolving words that his heart longed to say to the man as he bled out: Ego te absolvo – I absolve you. Faith Alone, pg. 120

I have never encountered this perspective anywhere. Perhaps it is a lack of my knowledge. But from the Summa Theologica (circa 1270) to the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, the order always appears to be implied verbal confession, then absolution, then penance.

The Will of Salvation in Catholic Thought

Giertz’s focus on the sacraments, combined with his focus on intellectual Will to believe specific dogma (as opposed to prayer, alms, a loving heart, imitation of Christ, etc.), remind me of the decaying state of neo-scholasticism in the Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council.

(Briefly, Neo-scholasticism is the attempted application of Greek philosophy, especially Aristotle, as a rubric to deriving theological dogma from the Church Fathers and the Scriptures. It derives from Thomas Aquinas’s attempts to do so, such as his discussions of why Jesus was circumsized or are ghosts real. A few weaknesses of neo-scholasticism are a seeming intolerance of mystery (a view especially held in the east) and a lack of appreciation for literary genre as a mode of interpretation – by classical rules, for example, the Bible is a comedy, as it ends with the marriage the protagonist. For the sake of fairness, a neo-scholastic description of neo-scholasticism is available here.)

A very similar Will to Faith is advocated by the neo-scholastics:

So far we have seen that faith is an act of the intellect assenting to a truth which is beyond its grasp, e.g. the mystery of the Holy Trinity. But to many, it will seem almost as futile to ask the intellect to assent to a proposition which is not intrinsically evident as it would be to ask the eye to see a sound. It is clear, however, that the intellect can be moved by the will either to study or not to study a certain truth, though if the truth be a self-evident one — e.g., that the whole is greater than its part — the will cannot affect the intellect’s adhesion to it, it can, however, move it to think of something else, and thus distract it from the contemplation of that particular truth.
“Faith,” Catholic Encyclopedia (1911):


We have defined the act of faith as the assent of the intellect to a truth which is beyond its comprehension, but which it accepts under the influence of the will moved by grace and from the analysis we are now in a position to define the virtue of faith as a supernatural habit by which we firmly believe those things to be true which God has revealed.
“Faith,” Catholic Encyclopedia (1911):

The primary intellectual movement of the Second Vatican Council was against this view. Joseph Ratzinger (future Pope Benedict XVI) specifically emphasizes “baptismal faith” (obviously a type of faith that can be held by infants) as one of participating in a daily drama, as opposed to will to intellectual assent.

That Gietz and the neo-scholastics held nearly identical views of faith is fascinating, especially considering the possibility that such a view was not held by Martin Luther himself. As Nile Sandeen wrote on in a comment:

To be clear, Luther never taught faith as an understanding or idea but a living trust in the word of promise and spoke of infants possessing faith as well.

It’s certainly possible that martin Luther and Joseph Ratzinger, two native German speakers who found themselves in the forefront of reform movements, may have a converging theology. Ratzinger elsewhere suggested that the Augsburg Confession is a Catholic ecclesiastical document, a view supported by Lutheran writer Charles Arand’s claim that Augsburg reiterates the canons of the Second Synod of Orange. So perhaps the fundamental divide here is not between Catholics and Lutheran, but Catholic and Lutheran neo-scholastics who view faith as an intellectual act of will (such as Giertz), and those (like Luther or Ratzinger) who view as a living trust enacted through daily drama.

Giertz as a Neo-Scholastic

As I was editing this post I wondered if Giertz’s beliefs would be more coherent if two aspects of his writing were considered lexical tics and ignored: his (apparent dismissal) of salvation history and his (apparent) denial of bridge-building by other creatures.

Giertz consistently denies a middle-ground in the life of believers. Things are worthless (any good work, prayer, or deed) or bind God’s hands to force him to save you (recitation of the correct verbal formula). The Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar noted similar rhetorical techniques in the New Testament, which he argued that God desires 0certain things to be the subject of hope, not knowledge. Perhaps Giertz is applying something similar here. Some lines, which imply Divine Indifference to greater and lesser forms of the same sin:

“Yes, but such things as that can’t count, can they? They are just temptations! And if one doesn’t fall for them…”

“Then it is bad enough that you have the desire to do evil. Is it not written in Scripture,”You shall not lust“? Does Jesus not say that he who looks upon a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart? it does not help you a bit that you did not act on it.”
Faith Alone, pg. 185

Are contradicted by other passages already quoted above, such as Giertz’s accepting that a believer’s sin (albeit an ontological one) can lead to a “deeper” (or presumably, shallower) abyss (pg. 251).

Perhaps Giertz believes that Ontologies but not humans mediate salvation. That is, while adoring Mary and the Saints is excessively sentimental, adoring the Doctrine of Undeserved Grace, “praying” to faith, etc. are valid methods of mediation. Such a view makes Giertz less shocking. He becomes merely some strident neo-Scholastic applying toll penances of intercessory prayers to various sins, rather than (as he reads without the context) a Nietzchean fanatic. Perhaps some French theologian in 1900 Paris insisted that thirty Patre Nostsres were needed for the sin of hubris. Is it really so different that Giertz says one declaration of “I believe in Undeserved Grace” performs the same function?


Catholics often criticize Lutherans for taking steps seemingly designed to make reconciliation harder. Attempting to confer holy orders on female “priests” and “bishops,” for instance, is a definite change from whatever the last acceptable state of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church was. But by replacing the neo-scholasticism that seems to have been acceptable to Giertz with a focus on the Church Fathers, by integrating Luther’s criticisms of “works” into a more sophisticated definition of “faith,” the Roman Church appears to have left Giertz behind. Few in Rome demand toll penances of their flock. To those still under Giertz’s teaching, though, the full weight of the semantic formula must be carried, so they believe, to enter Heaven.

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger.”
Matthew 23:2-4

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