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.…

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