Doctrine, Church and Life—the Fruit of the Word and the Enduring Legacy of Bengt Hägglund

By Fredrik Sidenvall

Translated by Bror Erickson

Something happens when the word is proclaimed and heard. It increases knowledge and produces insights within a person. New pieces are added to the puzzle of life and suddenly one sees and understands something new concerning the reality: There is a God and therefore I too exist; Jesus of Nazareth is God and man for my sake; today the Holy Spirit binds my heart together with God’s heart. The insights of different individuals concerning God’s word can be shared, brought together, and fitted into a coherent and enduring teaching, a doctrine to believe in.

On the rock of this doctrine, Jesus established his church, a community structured by God where there is communion between God and man, where there are ordinances of God by which his grace is conveyed till the end of time. Where people live with one another in the church founded upon true doctrine, they are filled and formed by a life that they themselves and others sometimes glimpse. This life has its deepest wellsprings in the Holy Spirit and in his word, and means that a person is healed into the image of God and molded for eternity.

Yes, in this way one can summarize how doctrine, life, and the church go together intimately. And what God has joined together, man ought not separate. But within Christianity today, we now have over a century behind us where very human powers and confusion have been devoted to separating doctrine, the concept of the church, and the spirit-filled life. Various revival movements at the end of the 19th century took up the baton from a jaded church that no longer seemed to reach out with the gospel. When men of the church felt challenged not only by increasing secularization but also by new forms of Christianity, it became important for them to stress the importance of the church’s own individuality: the pastoral office, liturgy, the sacraments, belonging to a holy, catholic church.

As those trends developed, we received a church without a spiritual life and a spiritual life without church. Those who defended the church and wanted to strengthen the Church of Sweden precisely as church, preferably in alliance with other major church bodies around the world, saw that ecumenical efforts were hampered point after point by Lutheran doctrine. It went the same way among the waves of revival. Those who longed for transformation and a spirit filled life from the Holy Spirit, who also wanted to capture every gust of wind, soon realized that any focus concerning doctrine hampered the freedom of God’s children and the Spirit’s wind.

Yes, doctrine can be seen has heavy ballast, but it is precisely ballast that keeps a ship from capsizing and sinking. True Biblical doctrine keeps the institution of the church together with the individual’s spiritual life.

During the twentieth century few have grappled with Christian doctrine to understand it and convey it, to safeguard it and to explain it in new ways. Bengt Hägglund, Professor of the history of Christian theology in Lund, in a particularly illuminating fashion filled a place that otherwise would have remained empty, and by doing so gave others inspiration and guidance to work with questions of doctrine. With his two books History of Theology and Patterns of Faith, he gave new generations of theologians important standards of work concerning how God has been understood, and how he ought to be understood. In a rich outpouring of ink in these last decades, he gave us important tools for understanding both the sender and the addressee, God and man, and to interpret the message itself.

There may soon come a time when longing for wholeness in Christianity will grow stronger. Those who defend the church will perhaps begin to long for both doctrine and life. Those who experience the spiritual life may begin to long for an understanding of that life, and for the church to give the fire a fireplace. In such a healing and strengthening of Christendom, Bengt Hägglund’s work will receive deeper and decisive meaning. Then the blessing of his work will be even greater. 

Fredrik Sidenvall, pastor in the Church of Sweden, serves as principal for the Lutheran High School of Gothenburg, where he lives with his wife Anna. He is editor for the weekly Lutheran magazine Kyrka och Folk (Church and Nation) and co-founder of the North European Lutheran Academy. 

Bror Erickson is pastor at Zion Lutheran Church in Farmington New Mexico. He has translated and published several books including Then Fell the Lord's Fire by Bo Giertz and Witness by Hermann Sasse. 

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