The Church: Her Nature and Purpose

By Luke T Zimmerman

A review of Bo Giertz, Christ’s Church: Her Biblical Roots, Her Dramatic History, Her Saving Presence, Her Glorious Future. Introduction and Translation by Hans Andrae. (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2010).

To hundreds of American Lutheran seminary graduates in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Bo Giertz [1905-1998] has become a familiar name. This is due to the translation of his writings from Swedish into English, works published by both major Lutheran publishers in the United States. The introduction of Giertz’s writings into the curriculum at the seminaries of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has brought him a new audience.[i] Through the translation of Giertz’s works, a Swedish voice forms part of the harmony of Lutheran teaching in America.

The increasing number of Giertz’s works translated into English includes his 1939 book, Christ’s Church. Rev. Hans Andrae, a retired Lutheran pastor from Sweden now living in the United States, has brought this book into the hands of English-speaking Lutherans. The first of Giertz’s published works, Christ’s Church presents a Lutheran discussion of the nature and purpose of the Church. The book consists of two parts: the first (Ch. 1-5) discusses the Church’s essence; the second (Ch. 6-11) speaks of how the Church brings salvation to the world. This arrangement is familiar to Lutherans, since the first part aligns with Articles 7 & 8 of the Augsburg Confession, while the second part treats the teachings of Articles 5 and 9-12 of the same document.

Chapter two begins Giertz’s discussion of the Church’s essence. This discussion starts with an exploration of her Biblical foundations. Examining the New Testament name for the Church—ekklesia—Giertz makes the connection between this term and the Hebrew word qahal, comparing the Church to the Old Testament nation of Israel. Giertz also treats various New Testament terms for the Church: “body of Christ” and “kingdom of God.” Taking these terms at full value, Giertz shows that individualism and sectarianism are contradictory to the Church’s nature—a lesson that that American Christians should heed.

Chapter three is a treatment of the four-fold description of the Church in the Nicene Creed: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Giertz provides a helpful historical summary of the schisms that have taken place within Christ’s Church on earth, honestly admitting the culpability of East and West, of Roman Catholic and Reformed, and lamenting the divisions. The author’s discussion of catholicity shows how Lutherans may fully embrace this term, including appropriating tradition when expositing the Scriptures.

Chapter four is a brief history of the Church in Sweden. For those unfamiliar with the Lutheran Reformation outside of Germany, this is a very useful primer. Giertz’s tracing of the roots of the Swedish Church and the way it received the Reformation shows the benefits of her keeping the Church’s historical form. However, Giertz speaks about the damage that the Enlightenment and “neo-Protestantism” inflicted upon the Church of Sweden. A return to the Church’s historical catholicity is needed: such a call deserves to be heard in every generation.

Part One concludes with a brief chapter on the parish church and how Christ is present within her and working through her. Part Two begins with a short chapter confessing that God is in our midst in the present day. The ways that Christ is present with His salvation in the Church forms the outline for the rest of the book, with a chapter on each of the means of grace.

Chapter seven about God’s Word is brief, yet the trust in the authority of the Scriptures is clearly seen. Giertz stresses the Lutheran understanding that the Scriptures are God’s authoritative statements that disclose what He desires to make known: the truth about mankind’s sin and God’s grace. He also states the key Lutheran hermeneutical principle: the Scriptures should always be read to learn about salvation. The author also emphasizes the dependence of salvation on hearing the Word of God and how the Church’s task of faithfully preaching it must not fall victim to estheticism: traditional or contemporary.

In chapter eight, Giertz discusses the Lord’s Supper. He puts forward six aspects of the sacrament’s essence: confession, remembrance, fellowship, seal of forgiveness, union with the Savior, and sacrifice. While lauding the greatness of the Lord’s Supper, Giertz also criticizes the infrequency that Swedish Lutherans had of participating in this sacrament. Giertz’s words would be helpful for Lutheran pastors seeking to increase communion frequency.

Chapter nine is about the new birth given in Holy Baptism. Giertz emphasizes how baptism makes an individual part of a new reality here on earth. It is how God’s life first flows into a person. The chapter also includes a short treatment about the propriety of infant baptism in the Church because it is an act of undeserved divine election, not a human deed.

The revival of private confession in the Lutheran Church is discussed in chapter ten. Giertz shows how this sacrament is thoroughly evangelical and should be provided in Lutheran parishes. The author answers several questions that are often raised by parishioners unfamiliar with private confession. Giertz’s discussion of this sacrament also includes a discussion about penance and satisfaction understood evangelically. This portion of the chapter may be unnerving to readers, but an open consideration of these two topics will likely reinforce already existing Lutheran pastoral practice.

The final chapter of the book treats the office of the holy ministry. Giertz begins his discussion by focusing on the commission that Christ gave to His apostles. That commission defines the office of the ministry, giving it divine authority and purpose. Having a divine commission, the holders of the office will know what is expected of them and be devoted to their calling. Giertz also speaks about the general priesthood of believers, distinguishing it from the office of the holy ministry. The author also briefly addresses the question of women’s ordination, speaking against it because it lacks divine institution. The chapter concludes with a discussion of apostolic succession and the importance of ordination in the Lutheran Church. This latter section would be very helpful for both new pastors and the congregations that they serve to read together.

Several incidents of errata are present in this edition of Christ’s Church. Inconsistency in italicizing foreign terms is noticeable. Occasional punctuation issues are also found. However, the errata present in this edition do not vary much from other first editions of self-published works.

Christ’s Church is not an exhaustive treatment of ecclesiology. But it does serve an important purpose for those who read it. Though brief, it does bring to the fore concepts and ideas about the Church that need to be emphasized and reemphasized among Christ’s people. This is seen in Giertz’s postscript:

It needs to be said with relentless persistency that even to people who call themselves Christian, the Church becomes all too often nothing more than an association of people who have become believers. They think that her foundations are placed in the human heart, that her beginning is the conversion of her members, that her attributes are certain pious characteristics, and that she is made up of people who think, act, and believe in a certain way.

Such an understanding of the Church loses her most important features. It leaves out her head, which is Christ, and her living pulse, which are the means of grace. It deprives her of that which makes her the Church, that which is not of this world but exists beyond all time and independent of all people. It reduces her to something far more insignificant than she actually is. (p. 177)

The truth about the essence and purpose of Christ’s Church cannot be heard too often, especially in the contemporary American Christian context.

Like the proverbial master of the house in Jesus’ teaching (Mt 13:52), there are new and old treasures brought out by the author. These treasures are accessible for both clergy and laity. The book would be very useful for a small group study about Lutheran teachings. The first of Giertz’s works, Christ’s Church whets the appetite for more from this author. One can hope that others will take up the task like Hans Andrae did in providing this gift from a bishop of the Swedish Church to English readers. Perhaps an English translation of the sequel to Christ’s Church, Church Piety (Kyrkofromhet), will be forthcoming. Giertz’s 20th century Scandinavian voice deserves to be heard by 21st century American Lutherans.

[i] The use of Giertz’s novel The Hammer of God in the 1999-2000 Field Education Classes led by Prof. John Pless at Concordia Theological Seminary was my first introduction to his works. Students from ELCA seminaries will have to relate their own accounts.

2 thoughts on “The Church: Her Nature and Purpose

  1. Paul Rubel

    Wish I would have read this review before I tackled the book. It would have made it a bit easier to follow. Giertz is my favorite Lutheran author. I use his “To live with Christ” as my devotional and have for two years. I put especially good topics on my Kindle and refer to them during weekly Bible classes. His down to earth and absolutely clear theology is especially good for the layman.
    Paul Rubel

  2. To quote Bo Giertz again, “the Church becomes all too often nothing more than an association of people who have become believers”! That is to say that there are non confessional churches out there and that, for many, this is now the ‘norm’ and probably know nothing else. We must heed this warning, brothers, lest we lose that which the Church has always held to be her ‘marks’, that which is considered true and essential in Word and Sacrament Ministry.

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