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12 March 2006
  The Hammer of God

Hammer of God: 1973The problem with reviewing this book is that I have become a little too attached to it. Ugly cover and all, the 1960 translation from the Augustana Book Concern, in its 1973 softcover reprint by Augsburg Publishing House, has become the default edition of the Hammer of God for North American readers. But it is a glorious novel.

Bo Giertz, a Swedish Lutheran pastor, wrote this novel based loosely on pastoral events of his own ministry, and, more than that, based on the history of the Church in Sweden. We have here the story of three pastors, each spaced about 65 years distant from each other, in the same little country parish, the almost unpronounceable Ödesjö.

As such, we trace through three different waves — a legalistic revival, pietism leading to Anabaptistic leanings, and finally, modernism with social relativism. In each time period, the pastor comes in from seminary thinking he knows it all, succumbs to the curse of the age, then, under the guidance of an older, wiser pastor, is guided into proper Law and Gospel, theology of the Cross, faith and preaching.

Under this, the reader grows in an understanding of what is the right way to approach sanctification, Baptism, church discipline, the Lord's Supper, and several other topics which are always relevant. In a report I once wrote in Seminary I characterized this as Walther's Law and Gospel in novel form.

It perhaps sounds formulaic. In lesser hands it would be unreadable. But Giertz is an excellent writer, and, in the standard translation, the power of God's Word rightly divided shines through excellently. Any amount of explaining the book falls short of actually reading it. This is a book which is meant to be read and reread, savoured and allowed to simmer in one's mind.

Hammer of God: 2005Sadly, for the longest time, English readers had been cheated out of the fulness of the novel. We were led to believe that it was only 8 chapters long. Fortunately, Hans Andrae, an ELCA pastor still on the roster of the Church of Sweden, undertook a translation of the long-missing ninth chapter in a new edition of the Hammer of God released by Augsburg Fortress in 2005.

I would unquestioningly recommend this new edition were it not for the voluminous typographical errors.* It appears that in order to typeset the new edition AF must have used OCR software but not spent sufficient time re-reading the proofs. The typos range from amusing to confusing to brutal. I don't need (nor do I have time!) to list them. If you read the book, you will find them. AF has been apprised of the errors, and, should sufficient copies sell to warrant a second printing, the errors are supposed to be fixed for the second printing.

As such, the best way to approach this book in English is to read the introductory and background material from the new edition, chapters 1-8 from the old 1973 edition and then chapter 9 from the new edition. Alternately, you can learn Swedish and get an even better book, as there is a certain amount of the book which was abridged by Clifford Ansgar Nelson in the initial translation, including more historical background and dialogue in the first chapter and a longer sermon excerpt in the sixth.

Strongly recommended to anyone who wants to see what Lutheran pastoral ministry really looks like in practice, as well as anyone who wants to read a good, theologically sound, novel.

The Hammer of God
Bo Giertz, tr. C. A. Nelson and H. Andrae
Augsburg Fortress: 1973, 2005
ISBN: 0-8066-1310-6 (old), 0-8066-5130-X

Crossposted at A Beggar At The Table

*A comprehensive list of typographical errors from both editions, compiled by the Rev. Charles Henrickson, is available in a 53k PDF file through Xrysostom.

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