Paul Wells was born in Liverpool, England and grew up in the ruins and aftermath of the Second World War. His parents were Christians converted through a Bible study. During the war, his father was a conscientious objector, which subsequently meant social rejection and poverty for several years after the conflict ended. When Paul went to the University of Liverpool in 1964—the same year that four Liverpoolians made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show—he found that his home church had provided few reasons for faith, so he spent a good deal of his undergraduate years reading Luther and Calvin. His interest in French literature gave him a particular fondness for Calvin’s works, which led to his reading books on Reformed theology by Westminster faculty. As he grew in his understanding, he decided, with encouragement from Geoff Thomas (’64) and Paul Helm, to cross the Atlantic and study at Westminster.
Paul’s first experience in the dining club in Machen Hall was a culture shock because of a question from a tall Canadian, “are you a Van Tilian or a Dooyeweerdian?” Despite the heavy-duty inquiry from a fellow student, he was surprised at the approachability of the faculty when compared to the aloof scholars in English academia. He profited particularly from the teaching of the rookies Dillard, Frame, and Gaffin, while Biblical theology was a wonderful discovery flowing especially from the lectures of Clowney, Kline, and Palmer Robertson.
In 1972, Paul and his wife, Alison, met with evangelist Gene Boyer at Westminster regarding opening a theological seminary in southern France. With Ed Clowney’s encouragement, the Wells went to Aix-en-Provence, north of Marseilles, to lay the groundwork for Faculté Libre de Théologie Reformée. During those early years, Wells enjoyed the Reformed commitment and fellowship of his faculty colleagues Peter Jones and William Edgar until they left for other ministries. A major encouragement at the beginning was to work with the first dean of the seminary, Pierre Courthial (DD ’79). Wells managed to complete his ThD at the Free University of Amsterdam despite his busy schedule at the seminary. Continuing to increase his workload, Pierre Marcel, founder of the Calvinist Society of France, recruited Paul to become the editor of La Revue Réformée in 1982, which is widely recognized as the leading evangelical journal in the French-speaking world. As well as preaching and teaching, he has applied himself to producing readable books to make the Reformed faith known in France. He recently published a book originally written in English, Cross Words, which has now been translated into French and Dutch.
In France, 2009 will be an important year because it is the five-hundredth anniversary of John Calvin’s birth and the anniversary of the French confession of faith, La Confession de la Rochelle (1559). During the past year, Paul Wells has been working with Mademoiselle Marie de Védrines, a well-known figure in French Protestantism, making a new translation of the Institutes in contemporary French. Publication is expected in March 2009 (Editions Excelsis).
Reflecting on the state of French Christianity today, two-hundred years of persecution has left little of the Huguenot heritage. Just as in America, many French believers see theology as unnecessary and dangerous for the gospel message. In the main-line French Reformed Church (ERF), Calvinists, in the sense we understand them, can probably be counted on two hands. The smaller Free Reformed Evangelical Church (EREI), to which Dr. Wells belongs, has problems defining its mission. However, a remarkable feature of French life today is the rapid growth of evangelicalism due to a growing immigrant population and church planting by Americans and other missionaries. Contributing to this movement, Wells is currently the President of the French Association of Evangelical Theologians, which has a membership of about fifty. Dr. Wells is optimistic that his efforts in the French seminary will bring long-term benefits as its graduates proclaim a doctrinally sound gospel message.
Paul Wells lives at Aix with Alison, who teaches the English language to adults. They have three children that live in England and Spain. If they ever manage to reach retirement age they will stay in France and hope to live at Montauban in the southwest, where the great Calvin scholar Emile Doumergue once taught theology. Looking back on his many years of educational ministry, Dr. Wells comments that, “In over thirty five years serving the Lord in France, Westminster helped me, by the grace of God, to hold a line when many others had no line to hold.”
Click here to listen to Dr. Wells' recent lecture at the third annual Richard B. Gaffin lecture