Presbyterian Theology

William J. Klempa, Exploring the Faith: Essays in the History
and Theology of the Reformed Tradition
(Toronto: Clements
Academic, 2009)

This splendid volume by principal emeritus of the Presbyterian College, Montreal, spans four decades, from 1972 to 2008. I learned a great deal from this wide-ranging collection of discussions from the Reformed tradition.

The style of the book is consistent: it is modest, even-handed, appreciative but non-doctrinaire throughout. The character of the essays, articles and sermons is cheerful and spiced with humour—reminding the reader that theology, as Karl Barth said, is a cheerful science. The material evinces a writer doing theology for the Reformed church in both its catholic and local expressions. Rev. Dr. John Vissers, editor of the volume, says, “[Klempa] is committed to doing theology in the service of the church.”

Many themes draw the collection together. One is Klempa’s interest in the Reformed tradition in Canada. While he is astutely aware of the complex and multiple influences that constitute the Reformed/Presbyterian reality, he traces and interprets them as they get traction in the Canadian situation. In all but one of the essays in the first section he exposits aspects and trajectories of the Reformed tradition as they come to be transplanted into a Canadian situation from Scotland, England and the Continent. The import of democratic fervour, social radicalism and a great interest in education, evidenced in Thomas McCulloch at the Pictou Academy, are described. The Moderates of the Scottish Enlightenment came to dominate the church and universities of Scotland and so their tepid influence was also felt in the colonies. Klempa refers to Thomas Chalmers’ characterization of the Moderates: “Their sermons were … compared to a winter’s day, ‘they were cold, clear and short,’ and it has been said that they ‘let sleeping dogmas lie.'” Hmm.

Klempa also offers a history of Presbyterian theology in Canada to 1875. He tests the contention that Canadian theology is characterized by a dependent spirit, which has looked only outside for leadership and ideas. He argues against this thesis for a vitality of Canadian thought. He introduces us to a series of important characters in Canadian theological thinking: Thomas McCulloch, Henry Esson, Michael Willis and John Watson are some of the most significant names. His conclusion is that while Canadian writers did not seek a specifically “Canadian” theology they did produce one with “a local habitation and a name” which is worthy of our respect and careful attention.

The book also contains an essay to mark the 50th anniversary of the PCC’s Declaration of Faith Concerning Church and Nation. Dr. Klempa delivered this paper to the 2005 meeting of the Canadian Society of Presbyterian History. The Declaration has its immediate origins in two overtures to the 1942 General Assembly, which ultimately issued in the 1955 Declaration.

However, Klempa traces the origin of the Declaration to the theology of Karth Barth as appropriated by W.W. Bryden and other authors writing in the short lived The Presbyterian Student. The rise of National Socialism and the co-opting of much of the German Church through the Nazi policy of coordination (Gleichschaltung), led to prophetic protest against the “Nazi deification of the state” (in the words of M.N. MacOdrum). Drawing on the resources of the theology of Karl Barth, people like Bryden, James D. Smart and Arthur Cochrane alerted the church in Canada to the dangers of unquestioning patriotism and unqualified loyalty to the state. “All things in the church’s life and message, Barth had insisted, needed to be brought to the touchstone of the Word of God, especially issues relating to church and state.” Both the origins of the PCC’s church doctrine committee and the Declaration, lay in the history of this theological appropriation for the Canadian context. Klempa’s attention to the dialogue and debate found in the pages of The Presbyterian Student bring needed attention to this important resource for those considering the history of Barth’s reception in Canada.

Klempa concludes this essay with a word of warning given the current propensity of government toward “an omni-competent state.” He maintains that the church in Canada can expect tension and conflict in a time when the state does not respect its limits. In a note he makes explicit reference to the state’s redefining of marriage, “a religious concept.”

Perhaps the most prominent feature of this collection is its glad recognition of indebtedness to others. Put another way, it is an exercise of the communion of the saints. In Geneva, at the celebrated Museum of the Reformation, one exhibit is particularly striking. Around a dining room table, there are a series of empty chairs. Each chair represents a luminary from the Reformed tradition. You can sit at the table and listen to distinct voices on the topic of predestination. You hear the words of Calvin, Turretin and Rousseau, among others. In any case, reading Klempa’s book is a lot like this Reformed conversation across the centuries. Common themes—the covenant, the Westminster Standards, war and peace and eldership—are taken up. And the voices are Presbyterian/Reformed thinkers through the ages—Puritans, Barth, Calvin and Smart, McCulloch and many others. Klempa, of course, has his own voice—it comes through in his wise retrieval from the deep resources of Reformed thought and practice and from his
listening to scripture.

In the piece entitled, Faith, Courage and Ministry, an address given at a Presbyterian College convocation, which I was present to hear, Klempa draws on the catholic heritage of the church. He espouses courage as a crucial virtue for the church in a time like ours. His words give voice to the heart of his own theology.
Finally, I want to say that when it comes to courage, here as elsewhere, Christ is our pattern. His was a perfect courage deeply rooted in a faith in God and a love for men and women. He had the courage to be perfectly obedient to God, the courage to speak the truth, to risk unpopularity, to stand utterly alone. He had the courage to set his face steadfastly, to go to Jerusalem knowing what awaited him there. Above all, he had the courage to bear our shame and death, darkness and spiritual desolation in dying for our sins.


About Richard R. Topping

Rev. Dr. Richard R. Topping is professor of studies in the Reformed tradition at St. Andrew’s Hall and co-editor of Calvin: Theology, History Practice.