Several weeks back, Bryan Holstrom sent me a copy of his latest book The Gift of Faith: Discovering the Glory of God in Salvation (Ambassador International, 2012). This book is an able defense of The Doctrines of Grace, written in a very readable and approachable style. Though many “Five Points” books have been written, I read Bryan’s book with great appreciation. He does not simply reinvent the wheel in this discussion (though he does utilize good work from the past), he offers a unique and compelling presentation of these doctrines.
In light of this, you can understand how delighted I was that Bryan agreed to do a “blog interview” here on the Reformed Reader. Bryan is a unique author as he is not engaged full-time in ministry or academics. Instead, he reminds me of David Dickson, the 19th century ruling elder in Scotland who had a love for Christ’s church expressed by shepherding the flock and by instructing others by writing books.
This is the first blog interview that we’ve ever done, and it was very enjoyable and edifying to spend some time talking with Bryan Holstrom about his latest book. Many thanks to Bryan for his willingness to do this interview about The Gift of Faith.
Andrew Compton: The Gift of Faith is not your first book, you’ve written two prior, one on Christology and one on Infant Baptism, even though you are not a full-time minister or scholar. How have you managed to find time for writing and research and how has writing books helped you in your own work as a ruling elder?
Bryan Holstrom: With four young kids and a non-ministerial career, finding time for the work is definitely a challenge. But two things have made it easier to put in the late nights that are necessary to the task: a supportive wife and the fact that the work is very much a labor of love. If either of those two things were missing, the work would never get done.
As for how the writing has helped me in my work as an elder, it has definitely done so by sharpening my own theological insights into a number of issues. Reformed churches have always understood the nexus between doctrine and practice, that “doing theology” is an eminently practical concern. Elders must know what the Scriptures teach, and how to apply biblical truth to the life situations of those they shepherd.
I’ve often told others that if they want to learn a subject well, they should volunteer to teach a class on it. There are few things that will cement your knowledge of a subject more than having to present it to others in great detail in an intelligible and edifying manner. To some extent, writing carries that assignment to the next level by requiring even more precision—because you have only one chance to get it right. Anything that ends up on the written page will be there forevermore; so concepts have to be stated in a manner that is comprehensible to all and yet conveys the meaning precisely enough to avoid confusion. Being forced to do that has greatly sharpened my own understanding of the theological issues that I’ve written about, as well as my ability to communicate that understanding to others.
AC: When I read through The Gift of Faith, I felt that it was both a good instructive volume and a good polemical volume – both a good offense and a strong defense, so to speak. Did you have a particular audience in mind when you wrote this book?
BH: Yes and no. First off, I wanted the book to be accessible to all readers with an interest in the subject, regardless of their current theological persuasion. But I also wanted it to be more than a mere introduction to the issues involved. I wanted the reader to see not only how the Reformed understanding of the subject is the biblical one, but also to recognize the absurdity of the competing positions (primarily Arminianism).
At the same time it’s hard to write a book like this and not do so under the assumption that most of those who will eventually read it will probably already share my basic conviction on the subject, despite the fact that it represents a minority position within the broader evangelical church of our day. For them, my hope was that the book would not only reinforce that conviction, but would give them the confidence to contend for it more earnestly in the face of that opposition. I’m convinced that when one truly comes to an understanding of the doctrines of grace, and not an unfair caricature of them, that person is enabled to see the beauty and glory of God in ways that were not visible to them before. For the cause of God’s glory, that is something we should long to see happen in the life of every Christian. Thus, we should speak boldly (with a good offense and a good defense) upon the doctrines of grace to all who will listen.
AC: You mention this briefly in chapter 1 of your book, but perhaps you can expand a bit more here; how do you feel your book makes a unique contribution to discussion of the doctrines of grace? Do you feel that it took an angle or addressed topics sometimes left untouched by other books defending the 5-points?
BH: I wouldn’t dream of making the claim that I covered any new ground in the book, given the voluminous number of works that have been produced on the subject over the last 500 years. But I sought to cover the subject from a couple of angles that, while not unique, tend to get less attention than they deserve. First, I wanted to draw out how the individual parts of the system hold together and complement one another, and second, to focus on how they ultimately testify to the glory of God (hence, the subtitle).
For example, regarding the first angle, I’ve never understood how someone could call themselves a “four point Calvinist.” The five points of the system known as the doctrines of grace hold together in a logical manner, and I wanted to demonstrate how that was so. The denial of any one of the individual points brings confusion and inconsistency into God’s plan of redemption, and that cannot be. This is why I argue in chapter 3 that the establishment of the total depravity of man presents a prima facie case for the whole system. It is this angle that I think tends to be missing from many modern works on the subject. Too often the individual points tend to be treated as independent concepts or categories, resulting in a less-than-perfect picture of the whole.
With respect to the second angle, I wanted to demonstrate how the testimony of Scripture to the glory of God doesn’t merely fit better into a Reformed understanding of the subject, but likewise establishes a prima facie case against Arminianism. The latter system fails in this most basic respect—it attempts to preserve some credit for man in the area of salvation; and I believe that that fact alone should alert the serious inquirer to its deficiency as an explanation of the biblical data.
Finally, I wanted to accomplish all of this in a relatively brief volume. I’ll leave it to the reader to determine if I accomplished the first two goals, but the final work is less than 200 pages.
AC: In recent years, the Federal Vision has been articulating versions of election and perseverance that most Reformed bodies have found at odds with the scriptures and the Reformed confessions. Did this controversy affect how you addressed these matters in your book?
BH: Only somewhat. Because the Federal Vision (FV) teaches a synergistic system of salvation, it is to be included among those doctrinal systems that are condemned in the book. However, I chose not to explicitly bring it into the discussion for two reasons. First, the FV is more akin to Roman Catholicism than Arminianism, and it was the latter system that was the main focus of my refutation. Second, because of this, it would have unnecessarily complicated the discussion to separately treat the tenets of the FV. I opted for brevity and clarity over comprehensiveness in this regard.
AC: On pgs. 78ff. you discuss the Covenant of Redemption or Pactum Salutis, a doctrine often neglected in books defending the doctrines of grace. Do Calvinistic/non-covenantal defenses of the 5-points tend to suffer due to this omission?
BH: They do indeed. Calvinism is covenant theology, and when the covenantal structure of Scripture and redemption is ignored or minimized, the result is a truncated view of election and the doctrines of grace. This is why I have argued elsewhere that believing in the doctrines of grace doesn’t make one a Calvinist. The Reformed tradition is much richer and fuller than that, and to reduce it to the five points of Christian soteriology is to do it a serious injustice.
AC: Thank you, Bryan, for taking the time to sit down with me. It was informative and enjoyable for me and I trust it will be the same for our readers!
Christ Reformed Church