Carsten Johnsen was born in Norway February 23, 1914. He memorized the dictionary from A to Z when he was a student of Latin, English, French, and German at the University of Oslo, becoming a linguist par excellence. During his early student days, he read The Conflict of the Ages Series by E. G. White. He gave up his inborn enthusiasm for romanticism, and dedicated his life to what he called, “the rock-bottom realism of Seventh-day Adventism.”
He finished his “Lektoreksamen” (a seven year university study, equivalent above a masters but below a doctorate) at Oslo University in 1940 at the age of 26, specializing in Romance Philology.1
After many years of teaching he went into new fields of study, this time in France, at the University of Montpellier, where he earned a doctorate in Philosophy and the History of Ideas. His dissertation was entitled Essai sur l’Altérocentrisme contre l’Egocentisme en tant que Motifs Fondamentaux du Caractére Humain (Université de Montpellier, 1968, age 54). This was translated into English with the title of The Part of the Story You Were Never Told About Women, and published in the USA just prior to his death.
He also studied at Faculté de Théologie Protestante, where he earned a doctorate in Theology. His French dissertation here was Essai sur l’Unite de l’Homme, which was published in 1971 at age 57 by the Oslo University Press in English with the title of Man, the Indivisible—Totality Versus Disruption in the History of Western Thought.
He married Ester Henriksen, and had a son Per by this marriage. Ester died of tuberculosis. He remarried, and with his second wife Sylvi Haugland he had a second son Andreas.
He had a lifetime of teaching at Adventist and other schools in Norway, Denmark, Austria, France, England, Ethiopia, and the United States. His last assignment prior to retirement was as Professor of Philosophy, Systematic Theology, and Christian Ethics at the Graduate School and the Theological Seminary at Andrews University, from 1968 to 1978 (age 54 to 64). During his retirement he continued teaching and writing, spending his time between Norway and the United States, with short-term volunteer teaching assignments in Jamaica and Kenya.
In 1972 as a result of cooperation between Andrews University and the Norwegian Universities, he began to conduct summer courses in Alpes de Provence, the French highlands bordering on Italy and the Mediterranean. On a mountain farm near Sisteron, described by tourists as “La Perle de la Provence,” youth from many countries gathered every year to find, in the Ethics and Philosophy of Christian Realism, a knowledge which makes life meaningful.
His motivation did not come from the marketplace. Like the prophets of old, he did not speak because people listened or write because his views were in great demand. He worked tirelessly, inspired by the grandeur of the message on which he staked his life.
He died July 30, 1987 in Norway at age 73.
(adapted from obituary by Sigve Tonstad in Layworker, January 15, 1988)
Footnote: 1. Philology is the study of language in written historical sources; it is a combination of literary criticism, history, and linguistics. Romance Philology focuses on the Romance languages.
by Bill Brace
He wasn’t even my first choice.
I’m not sure that I can accurately remember how I ended up in his class at seminary. I do recall with some degree of confidence, now almost four decade later, that the class I much preferred was full. The professor of said class was one of the most popular and stimulating; thus, the reasons why my casualness on registration day did me in. Much to my disappointment I was directed to a section with a teacher I wasn’t sure I had ever heard of before in my life.
His name: Carsten Johnsen.
His appearance, his demeanor and, his total lack of charisma on that first day of class left me pining for the other professor. Ditto for day two . . . and day three. Short of stature and reading daily from his fresh manuscript with a monotone voice—those made for, in my mind, an unbearably long quarter ahead. How could this have happened to me?
But then I began to listen. It reminds me now of how James Boswell describes his first encounter with the young and diminutive William Wilberforce, the great liberator of slavery in Britain, as rendered in Eric Metaxas’ book, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery. Boswell came upon Wilberforce in one of the latter’s campaign stump speeches. Here is his observation of that original encounter: “I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table; but as I listened he grew and grew, until the shrimp became a whale.”1
I listened . . . and listened some more. By day four or five I was hooked! At the conclusion of my seminary career I had become abundantly happy and richly blessed via Dr. Johnsen’s insightful understandings of the deep theological truths bequeathed to God’s remnant church.
Those truths of the Godhead, the revelations of His character, the role and function of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the context of the Great Controversy motif were unassailable. There were times in which some of my classmates took umbrage with Dr. Johnsen’s positions; however, with patience and gentleness, he led them to acknowledge the veracity of what he believed. My Ethics class was a case-in-point: in its concluding session, after a quarter of many delicate issues with landmines galore and with several students who took serious exception to his positions, for the only and single time in my schooling a professor was given a heart-felt ovation by all the collective attendees.
My appreciation for his influence which continues to shape my theology these many decades later knows no limitation to this very day. I, indeed, feel infinitely indebted to the Lord for the multiplicity of blessings brought to me by this man. (Forgive my gushing.) Known for verbosity in his books but articulate in his convictions, his intellectual insights will never fail to stimulate and establish your faith. If you have opportunity, avail yourselves of his books. You will never regret it. Hang in there as you read!
A good friend observed to me after Dr. Johnsen’s death, “Bill, I heard from a friend of Dr. Johnsen’s that he died of a broken heart.” That could have been . . . so much was his anguish for the trend of God’s remnant Bride. Now, over two decades since his death, I see him not only as a profound theologian, but also a prophet yet without honor.
Just two lasting impressions of Dr. Johnsen I would like to leave with you: First, the greatness of Johnsen’s mind and intellect is still without peer, and I have met many others who I admire in that context. Secondly, his deep and sincere attitude of humility. An example of that can be seen in a story. One day in class he shared with us the following: “In a country on the European continent, where degrees are your foremost identity and the basis for your status, a student inquired of a university professor: ‘Dr. so and so, I have a question.'”
However, before he could blurt out the inquiry, the professor, holder of two doctorates, interrupted with a brusque response: “Please, when you address me, ‘It is to be Dr., Dr.!'”
Subsequently, one of my classmates raised his hand and asked, “Dr. Johnsen, you also are a holder of two doctorates. How would you like us to address you?” In a flash back came the answer without a taint of false humility, “You may call me uncle.”
(New England Pastor, January-February 2012; republished by permission)
Footnotes: 1. Eric Metaxas, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 37.
One form of tribute is to develop material based on the the concepts Carsten was so effective in introducing to young minds (looking back 30-40 years). The following serve as examples of some of this material.
The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day, Andrews University Press (November 30, 2009), 589 pages; ISBN 978-1883925659; dedicated to Carsten Johnsen (Check the online reviews! Recall Carsten’s first chapter in Day of Destiny is entitled, “Does the Sabbath Make Real Sense?” In it he states, “From times immemorial one rule has appeared reasonable in all research on spiritual matters: Men must ask for meaning. This is a main concern of longing human hearts and truth-seeking human minds everywhere and at all times: Do things in our world make demonstrable sense?” Day of Destiny, p. 2.4.)
Diagram of Realism, Materialism, Spiritualism, and Pantheism (In the light of SDA history and theological trends; recall: “You probably remember my unfinished series of simple drawings intended to represent the highway road body of Christian Realism with those famous ‘ditches’ on either side, one standing for Spiritualism and the other for Materialism. You were also told that those opposites happen to meet somewhere. I had even drawn a line from each ‘ditch’ downward to some kind of cryptic meeting place. But I had covered that area where they converge with nothing but a large number of question marks. I told you I was not yet prepared to inform you exactly where the two disruptive pagan movements meet. But now I am somewhat better prepared. I think it is high time, not only you and I, but the whole world, philosophers and common mortals, get to know this: The extreme philosophy of spiritualism and the extreme philosophy of materialism meet in pantheism.” Omega, p. 47.1)
Thoughts on Materialism, Spiritualism, Pantheism, and Realism (Comparing and contrasting these concepts, in the light of sanctification; recall this theme of Carsten’s: “Nothing could be more foreign to spiritualism than that peculiar phenomenon: sanctification.” Omega, p. 60.1. And the section entitled “The Eros Motif’s Merciless War Against Holiness” Ibid., p. 112 ff. Carsten noted this about Omega: “In my book, The Mystic Omega of Endtime Crisis, I am giving a brief analysis of precisely some weird and little heeded facts connected with the pantheist movement as a special feature in our Church’s history, bent on destroying, in our peculiar environment, the effects of sanctification, making its penetration simply impossible.” Omega II, p. 8.4)
God of Creation (exploring briefly the alpha of apostasy, and what has been revealed about God)
(posted 17 July 2012; last edited 23 May 2016)