Dr William Johnsson served for 24 years as editor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s flagship journal Adventist Review and more recently as a leader in the Church’s interfaith relations. Now retired and living in Loma Linda (California, USA), the expatriate Australian and Avondale College of Higher Education alumnus continues to write books and contribute to other church publishing projects. He is also a keynote speaker at the One Project’s gathering in Sydney (August 20-21) and Perth (August 27-28). Signs Publishing book editor Nathan Brown spoke with Johnsson and asked him about his passions for writing and for the Church.
Where did writing begin for you?
Writing is often cathartic, my own wrestling with the ideas and experiences.
I always loved to write but didn’t think of myself as a writer until much later in life. Yet, looking back, I remember winning a writing prize of some kind in seventh grade. But I think the first article I had published was when my wife, Noelene, and I went to India as missionaries in 1960. Within the first year there, I wrote an article about India and our experiences, which Adventist Record published on its front page. Then I began to write more and more for the Youth’s Instructor and for Record.
And being an editor. How did that come about?
That came to me rather than something I’d thought of doing. After our time in India, we were called to teach at the seminary at Andrews University in 1975. I enjoyed teaching, and I’d written my first book exploring the phenomenology of religion while in India, which is the only manuscript I’ve had published that was not specifically for an Adventist audience. Unexpectedly, I was then invited to become an editor at Adventist Review. But it was a good fit, because I love words and am fascinated by the ways people use words to communicate—although I admit I enjoy writing more than editing.
You’ve now published more than 25 books. Do you have a favourite?
That’s a difficult question. But I’m very pleased with my latest work on the life, teaching and passion of Jesus—Jesus of Nazareth—and it might become a favourite. But it will have to “bump” my devotional book Jesus: A Heart Full of Grace. That book was written under incredible pressure in 2005. Noelene and I have been reading through it for our worships together.
Life is Good is a small book but one that wrestles with some big ideas. You wrote it for your brother. Why?
Charlie and I were very close, but he died unexpectedly and we were unable to get back to Australia for his funeral. I received a recording of the funeral, and it shocked me to hear it. The funeral was so secular—and that really hurt. So, I was writing partly for myself and partly for my family, as well as for others. Writing is often cathartic, my own wrestling with the ideas and experiences.
Why do you keep coming back to Jesus in writing?
I do—and I hope I keep coming back to Jesus because it’s all about Him, even if that sounds like a cliché. When He enabled me to make that decision for Him as a teenager, it was a critical point in my life. Then a few years later, when I fought the decision to leave chemistry and go back to study for ministry, that was another huge decision. Since then, it hasn’t been a straight line—I’ve been inconstant—but I’ve had a clear sense of purpose and His leading in my life.
As you looking back over your writing and your ministry, what do you hope you have contributed to the Church?
There are two things that are like a double-barrelled answer: I hope Jesus has been foremost in all and—it’s almost saying the same thing but in other words—that grace has been a guiding principle.
Jesus of Nazareth
Dr William Johnsson’s two-volume Jesus of Nazareth is now available from Adventist Book Centres.
The One Project
Dr William Johnsson is a keynote speaker at the One project’s gatherings in Sydney (August 20-21) and in Perth (August 27-28). Register by August 12 at https://the1project.org/gatherings.
Nathan Brown is book editor at Signs Publishing in Warburton, Victoria.