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The Ear: Former Adventist Review Editor on Thinking Theologically


William Johnsson, the New Testament scholar and long-serving previous editor of the  Adventist Review, has just moved from Maryland to the Loma Linda area, where he is an adjunct professor in the school of religion.  He continues to represent the Seventh-day Adventist Church in interchurch and interfaith activities.

Johnsson studied chemistry in his native Australia.  His faith led him, however, into ministry and teaching in the service of the church, and he and his wife, Noelene, became missionaries in India.  In 1973 he completed a doctorate in New Testament studies at Vanderbilt University, and for a time taught that subject at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University.

In 1982 he became editor of the Adventist Review, and continued in that post through 2006.  Among his books is a study of the Letter to the Hebrews entitled In Absolute Confidence.  His most recent book is Life Is Good, the Best Is Still to Come, published in 2013.  Another, Jesus of Nazareth: His Life and Teachings, will appear shortly.

Here are Johnsson’s reflections on the task and method proper to the doing of Adventist theology today:

Question: What theologians say or write may seem abstract, theoretical.  How do you connect your work with the actual battlefront of human existence, where we confront not only dreams and joys but also disappointments and extreme suffering?

Answer: I hold strongly that theology divorced from life is a useless enterprise and may become evil. Theology should be done at the intersection of the Word, life, and reflection.  As I work, I constantly seek to keep before me readers and people in the pew.

Question: People expect that as an Adventist Christian you will take Scripture as the highest written authority for your work.   How do you respond when the Bible seems to have various perspectives on a topic — on, say, marriage, the disciplining of wrongdoers, the use of violence or some other matter?  What principle of biblical interpretation helps you make sense of all this, and come up with insight applicable to Christian life today? 

Answer: I try to take account of the total data from scripture, both Old Testament and New Testament. The “hard nuts” warrant extended study: they may rattle my cage. The chief hermeneutical principle is Jesus — what He taught by life and word. All else must yield to Him. Where scripture seems to speak with two voices and I cannot find a Christological solution, I have learned to live with the tension of unresolved problems.

Question: Many church members believe Adventism is dealing with an identity crisis, driven, perhaps, by anxieties concerning our eschatology or our relationship to scientific knowledge.  Those who read widely and otherwise interact with the wider intellectual culture see our church going through intense self-analysis about who we are and what our role is.  Where do you think this discussion ought to take us?

Answer: Discussion needs to encompass at least three areas.  The first is a candid examination of our roots, both positive and negative aspects.  The second is a critical evaluation of the church today, focusing on strengths, weaknesses and dangers.  The third is identification of the teachings and values that should focus our mission regardless of when the Lord returns.

Question: You belong to the Adventist Church.  But why do you remain Seventh-day Adventist?  In a conversation with, say, your child or a close friend, what would you offer as the most important reason? 

Answer: To a large degree this church has made me what I am. I am not about to walk away, in spite of any craziness. I’m staying because it’s my church, and I want to help move it toward the light. 

Image: William Johnsson addressing the Spectrum/Adventist Forum Conference in September 2013.

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