Book Review: The Elder, by Cornelis Van Dam
Cornelis Van Dam. The Elder: Today’s Ministry Rooted in All of Scripture. P&R Publishing, 2009. 304 pages.
My wife enjoys reading to our children each night before bed. Sometimes, I find myself listening outside the bedroom door. I confess that, more often than not, I’m completely lost.
Of course, I’m not lost physically. I know my way around my house quite well—I know, I’m winning at life. I mean that I’m lost in terms of what my wife is reading to the children. Having missed huge parts of the plot, and only overhearing bits and pieces, I have no idea what’s happening in these stories.
If we aren’t careful as pastors, we can do the same thing when reading Scripture. If we’re not constantly aware of the whole story we’ll miss important theological developments throughout the Biblical storyline and potentially even draw unbiblical conclusions.
One reason The Elder is such a useful resource is because Cornelis Van Dam has given us the whole “elder story,” from Genesis to Revelation. The elder concept is not solely a New Testament reality but has roots in the Old Testament. Van Dam does a great job of tracing this theme across the biblical story and bringing the entirety of Scripture to bear upon our understanding of what it means to be a pastor.
PUTTING ELDERSHIP IN THE LARGER BIBLICAL STORY
Many pastors begin their study of pastoral ministry with 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. But these epistles are deep into the biblical storyline. Van Dam’s book, however, The Elder provides a fuller understanding of the role of elder by exploring its Old Testament background. Drawing out both the continuity and discontinuity between the office of elder in the Old and New Testaments, Van Dam explores and addresses several questions:
- What names were used for the office of elder?
- What was the origin and place of the office of elder within the tribes of Israel?
- What were the Old Testament requirements for elder?
- How did the office of elder function prior to the monarchy, during the monarchy and during and after exile?
- How did elders function in a judicial capacity in the Old Testament?
- How does the New Testament continue and transform the office of elder?
One insight I found worthy of reflection was Van Dam’s exploration of the age of elders. The Hebrew term used for elders in the Old Testament is derived from the word meaning “beard.” An elder is therefore a male old enough to have a full beard. While the Old and New Testaments never require a specific age for elders, the implication is that an elder must be one who has reached a level of physical and spiritual maturity. The New Testament qualifications for elders emphasize this same point. While Van Dam is careful to state that “Scripture gives no specifically prescribed age for the office,” we do get insight that should inform how we look for, train, identify and install elders. As Van Dam writes, “It is striking that the Lord Jesus had years of preparation and maturation before embarking on his public ministry at the age of about thirty years (Luke 2:51–52, 3:23)” (28). While achieving 30 years of age isn’t a prerequisite for eldership (as being old does not an elder make), it should at least give us pause before laying hands on anyone prematurely.
However, the single biggest contribution of the book is its “biblical theology of eldership,” which is sorely needed and immensely valuable for pastors and for the church as a whole.
A FEW MINOR QUIBBLES FROM A BAPTIST
While I unreservedly commend this book to you, I should point out that since Van Dam is a presbyterian, Baptists will have meaningful differences between their understanding of the office of elder and Van Dam’s proposals. For instance, Van Dam leans a little bit more in the direction of elder-rule than I believe is biblically warranted. While elders certainly exercise rule in the church (1 Tim. 5:17), they do it by leading the congregation in its exercise of the “keys of the kingdom” (Matt. 18:15–20). To be fair, Van Dam appreciates and upholds congregational suffrage in exercising the keys of the kingdom, but he more forcefully emphasizes the authority of the elders than of the congregation. This has practical impact on the way discipleship works itself out in the church government and Baptists should note these differences.
Also, because the book is published from a Presbyterian viewpoint, it should come as no surprise that readers will find teaching in accord with a that particular form of church government. This includes a stronger link between church and family, a broader base than the congregation for authority, and a distinction between teaching and ruling elders. While these differences in no way obscure the great benefit and contribution the book offers, Baptists in particular should recognize Van Dam’s larger ecclesiological structures undergirding his book.
DON’T LET THE DIFFERENCES STOP YOU FROM BENEFITING FROM THIS BOOK
Differences aside, this book is a worthy addition to your library. The Elder is a useful book for your elders to read as a team. It’s also useful for teaching your “job description” to the church from a biblical-theological perspective. Above all, it will serve your soul by situating your calling in the larger story of Scripture, recognizing the privilege that is ours as pastors to serve as “preservers and nurturers of life in the covenant community” (137).