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The Ear: Jan Paulsen, former General Conference President, on Theology


Jan Paulsen was president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists from 1999 until June 25, 2010.  Born in Norway, he first served the church in his own country and, also early on, in both Ghana and Nigeria.

In 1976 Paulsen became principal of Newbold College in England.  Beginning in 1983 he was president of the Trans-European Division.  Before becoming president of the General Conference, he served, starting in 1995, as a General Conference vice president.  

His career spanned five decades.  In 2011 his native country named him a Commander of the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit.

Paulsen was the first world church president to hold a doctoral degree, which he earned from the University of Tübingen in Germany.  He considers the late Edward “Ted” Heppenstall, a long-time Adventist seminary professor, to have been a key theological mentor.  Two books — When the Spirit Descends and Let Your Life So Shine—came out during his presidency.  In 2011 he published Where Are We Going? His Let’s Talk appeared in 2013.   

Paulsen is married to Kari — their wedding took place in 1955 — and they have three children and three grandchildren.

Here is Paulsen’s perspective on doing the work of theology:

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

Answer: Theology, on its own, is a collection of sometimes obscure and essentially dead statements with no self-existent rights. Theology comes alive, and finds its legitimate role, when it becomes a catalyst to facilitate communion and communication between God and the objects of his love: human beings. Therefore, theology’s primary question is not “Who has the best formula?”, but “What happens to people who have to live with it?” If theology does not speak to the needs of the people, and provides hope and vision for the journey, it has failed and is useless.

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: Interpreting the Bible safely is not a one man’s or woman’s job. Therefore, beware of claims to private ‘revelation’, for it is notoriously unreliable. Two perspectives to be kept in mind when searching Scripture prayerfully:  One is the inner harmony within Scripture which demands that you let its broadest input guide you in interpreting one particular section.  The second is that you, with an open mind, have searched what others have found in examining the passage under study; and that you are equally open to let others test and assess the validity of what you believe you have found. The latter is particularly important in a community of shared faith, such as our church.

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: Fear is an impediment both to discovery and to a harmonious life. Fear is not an ingredient in God’s mission to draw sinful men and women to himself. Being secure in Christ, personally and as a community of faith, lays fear to rest.  Add to that the conviction that you are what you are as a community because it was God’s plan and act which brought it about. When you hold these elements strongly, you will find rest, even as you accept that the process of discovery goes on.

Question: You were born into the Seventh-dayAdventist Church.  But why do you remain in it?  In a conversation with, say, your child or a close friend, what would you offer as the most important reason? 

Answer: The Seventh-day Adventist Church has been my home since I was a child. I would not know how to be anything other than an Adventist. This is where I belong; this is my home; this is where I will stay until the Lord returns.

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