William Hordern, Canadian theologian

Published August 17, 2016

Few preceded him. He had only several like-minded contemporaries and today, he has many successors. To my mind, William Hordern was a pioneer theologian who helped many Canadians think and live theologically as contextual Christians. Simultaneously, he was grounded in a deep awareness of church tradition and universality.

I believe it is fitting to reconsider this unassuming 20th-century mentor of mine whose legacy continues to emerge.

“Once your teacher, always your friend,” he wrote me during a particularly trying period of my life. I was gratified by the supportive compliment, even as I realized that he would probably have said that to countless people he helped as an academic pastor. During my early theological studies, I had first encountered his popular work A Layman’s Guide to Protestant Theology—a bestseller written in the 1960s. After moving west to Winnipeg and then Calgary, I got to know him personally, and his story began to unfold for me.

Bill was born in Dundurn, about 42 km south of Saskatoon, and grew up on a farm during the Depression. He attended the University of Saskatchewan and St. Andrew’s College. “The Dirty Thirties” influenced and shaped his theology. When he became a United Church minister, there was always a strong social justice dimension to his preaching and advocacy. He continued this focus throughout his life and in various denominational settings.

In 1945, he began studies at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. He learned from and became student assistant to several notable theologians, including John Bennett, Paul Tillich (who introduced him to Lutheran theology) and Reinhold Niebuhr. Upon graduation, he sent job applications to many Canadian schools, but was turned down by all. One letter, received from a Toronto college, stated explicitly: “we don’t hire Canadians.” Thankfully, times have changed!

His early teaching ministry was at Swarthmore College (near Philadelphia) and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL. During those years, Hordern became a Lutheran. That was primarily because of his love for Luther’s theology of grace (influenced by Augustine and Calvin).

In 1966, after turning down invitations from several well-known American schools, he returned to Saskatchewan to become president of Lutheran Theological Seminary Saskatoon (LSTS). There he invested the best years of his life until his retirement.

During that time, he wrote a second major study, Living by Grace—a modern interpretation of Paul’s doctrine of justification. Over the years, many Canadian pastors and theologians across the spectrum have been influenced by his books. He still deserves to be read today.

The William Hordern chair in theology at LSTS is currently held by one of his students, Gordon A. Jensen,* who writes helpfully about how Hordern sought to tear down walls and rebuild bridges between university and seminary, church and society, using a contemporary interpretation of Pauline theology.

Theology and religious studies have evolved considerably in this country these past 50 years. Hordern’s contextual work has greatly influenced many. It has guided my theological formation, which I consider to be both ecumenical in perspective and Canadian in focus.

*The Theology of William Hordern: Living by Grace by Gordon A. Jensen is located at: http://scholars.wlu.ca/consensus/vol36/iss1/6/

Thanks also to Douglas John Hall, professor emeritus, McGill University.


Wayne A. Holst was a Lutheran pastor (ELCIC) for twenty-five years; he taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary for a quarter century and co-ordinates adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.


  • Wayne Holst

    Wayne A. Holst was a Lutheran pastor (ELCIC) for twenty-five years; he taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary for a quarter century and, for 15 years, he has coordinated adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.

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