Interview with an Alumnus

February 07, 2013

Rev. Neil Tolsma (M.Div ’65) recently published a book titled This is Love, available at the Westminster Bookstore. We had the opportunity to interview Rev. Tolsma about his new book, his time at Westminster, and the influence of Westminster’s professors on his many years as a pastor.

What degree did you pursue while at Westminster?
I graduated in ’65 with an M.Div. and after that I took a call at an OPC church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. I received the call before I graduated, and I was thankful for that. I was a bit older when I came to Westminster (Westminster) because I was in the military before going to seminary. I was 5 years out of high school when I started college before coming to Westminster.

I need to say how much I appreciate my experience at Westminster. I was there when Van Til, Murray, Clowney, Woolley, Skilton, and Kline were some of my teachers, so you can imagine the kind of solid footing I had in both systematic theology and biblical theology through their teaching. If I have been a good preacher, pastor, and counselor over the years, it’s in large part due to what I learned from them at Westminster.

Where did you go after Westminster?
I was in Ft. Lauderdale from 1965 until the end of 1974. In November of ’74 I came here to Wisconsin and I received a call to Falls OPC in Menomonee Fall, Wisconsin. I served there from ’74 to ’04 – 30 years – and then retired. The first thing I wanted to do when I retired was to write this book. I spent about 6 years writing it, and it took about 3 years to get it published. I have to say that I’m really in awe at the attention the book is getting. I never expected it and it’s a very humbling experience, but I felt that it was a book that needed to be written, so I’m grateful that people are reading it.

What initiated your thoughts in writing the book, and what helped you along the way in writing it?
Ephesians 5:1-2 tells us that we are loved by God in Christ and we should imitate him in loving one another. How can we begin to reflect that kind of love if we don’t know what that’s like? In counseling and meeting people over the years, I realized that even devout Christians really didn’t know what godly love looked like or how they should be loving one another in fulfilling that call to imitate God. That’s what I tried to show in the book – the faithfulness, condescension, gracefulness, and mercy of God, and also how we are to be humble and merciful and gracious in our contact with other people.

You mentioned some of the professors who had a profound impact on you during your time at Westminster – do you have any stories from your interactions with them?
My full first name is Cornelius, and I remember Van Til told the class that I was named after him, and we got a good laugh out of that. John Murray was also the first adult male to give me a hug. I was walking from Machen Hall down to class and he threw his arms around my shoulder as we walked along, and it was John Murray! It was difficult to take notes in his class because you were just so caught up in what he was saying. It was like a worship experience. In the end, I tried to take as many classes as I could with him. I took one on the person and work of Christ and it was a wonderful course that influenced my preaching.

Edmund Clowney also had such an impact on my preaching and understanding of looking at scripture in a biblical/theological fashion, which you can see reflected in my book. Kline opened my eyes to scripture in a tremendous way. I had grown up in a Christian home and heard hundreds of sermons, but his teaching helped move me beyond what I knew before in a wonderful way as I studied what all these men were saying from scripture and saw that it was true. Now, almost 50 years late, having studied the bible constantly day by day, I can say that they gave me a key to scripture and the riches of scriptures, which I’ve appreciated.

What are some other ways that your experience at Westminster has shaped your ministry in Florida and Wisconsin, and what are some things you would say to encourage a current student?
The piety of my professors and their love for scripture really came through during my time at Westminster. I wanted to reflect their devotion to the Bible and love for people. I know they were very busy men, and Clowney would say he regretted not having enough time to spend with us.

To current students, I would say that while you’re at Westminster, do the work and make sure you do the readings. Apply yourself and spend time to absorb as much as you can while you’re there. Talk to the professors as much as you can. I did not do enough of that. They’re busy men, but ask them questions.

I’ve met men who in their preaching seem to have ignored all the education they received from Westminster. It’s hard work, but if you’re willing to do the hard work in those early years, it gets much easier as you go along, and you begin to think of scripture according to those principles that you’ve learned. I look at the Bible and immediately think with a biblical/theological understanding, and how a passage relates to Christ. Clowney helped open my eyes to that, especially in his book Preaching and Biblical Theology.

One final question – Now that you’ve finished writing your book, do you have any plans to write another?
The first book deals with defining and describing the love of God. I’m writing a second book that will detail the practice of godly love. The first book has a redemptive historical setting, and the second will look specifically at the post-resurrection period, and the impact that has on the Christian life.