Book Review: The Elder, by Cornelis Van Dam
I just finished my first volume in P&R's new series, Explorations in Biblical Theology, which happened to be The Elder, by Cornelis Van Dam. If this volume is representative of the quality and characteristics of the whole series, it should prove to be a very helpful undertaking. Van Dam seeks to see â€œtoday's ministry rooted in all of Scriptureâ€; and the step he has taken to help provide that scriptural rootedness is stimulating and considerable. I, for one, came away with a much greater understanding of and appreciation for the ancient and honorable office of the elder; and I suspect my experience would be shared by persons of all sorts of backgrounds and levels of theological education. I would strongly recommend the book to congregations, to the end that they might be more appreciative of the tremendous gift that God has given them in his gracious supply of elders, and more inclined to show them the honor and gratitude befitting the dignity of their office; but much more strongly would I recommend it to all current or potential elders â€“ the gravity of the office will be very deeply impressed upon you, but the vast blessings that God has interwoven into this high calling will doubtless be a constant source of strength and motivation.
The basic presupposition of the book (in keeping with the thrust of the whole series) is that, in order properly to understand the New Testament office of the elder, one must be well acquainted with its Old Testament roots and development. The eldership did not begin with the New Testament Church; elders were first given to help Moses carry out his tremendous task of leadership, and they continued to be a very significant force in God's Church from that day forward. The first congregations of believers after the resurrection of Christ would have been quite familiar, to varying degrees, with this history, and would have used their common knowledge as an interpretive background to the instructions that Paul and the other apostles gave them on this topic in their epistles.
Van Dam sees the office of the elder as comprising two distinct divisions: first, the office of the teaching elder, which has much functional commonality with the Old Testament priesthood, and indeed serves in one (typological) sense as a New Testament priesthood, in accordance with the prophecy in Isaiah 66; and second, the office of the ruling elder, which is built upon the role of those customarily designated as â€œeldersâ€ all throughout Israel's history. With an encyclopedic knowledge of the whole bible, he describes the functions of these offices, using the picture of a shepherd as an overarching interpretive image. When he arrives at the New Testament, he already has a very considerable framework in place, from which he competently deals with the power of the keys, the nature of the apostolic office and its relationship with the office of the elder, and the interplay and mutual responsibilities and privileges between the elders and the congregations.
Although it is not the burden of the volume, Van Dam addresses briefly but adequately two currently much-debated questions pertaining to the eldership: temporary or indefinite tenure, and female ordination. Finally, he concludes by detailing the privileges of the eldership, together with their attendant responsibilities, both with respect to elders and congregations. In this, there is much practical wisdom and fodder for deep and sober gratitude.
The tenor of the book is overall quite down-to-earth and applicational, notwithstanding its academic awareness. As Van Dam says in his preface, â€œAll of this has real-life implicationsâ€. Even as he often opined that the absolute necessity of the elder to have a very thorough knowledge of scriptures was inextricably linked to the need for a practical, heartfelt, and life-changing use of those scriptures, so he models that basic idea in his own writing. He is not just an academic speaking to academics â€“ he is speaking to real sheep with real and varied needs, who are really loved by the One Great Shepherd of the flock. And because of that, it is all the more imperative that his academic knowledge be extensive, but likewise that it be more than just academic. â€œElders do their work in the light of eternity,â€ he says in the concluding paragraphs of the book. â€œTheir shepherding work affects the eternal destiny of those in their charge. This breathtaking fact not only urges them to do their work as well as possible, but it also determines the manner in which the congregation receives their work.â€ In other words, the very magnitude and seriousness of this most precious gift of the Great Shepherd to his Church has very definite and eternal consequences both for elders and congregation. It would be a shame for either party to despise this tremendous gift because of a lack of knowledge and a cultural bent to egalitarianism. â€œCertain gifts need to be constantly rediscovered, lest they be taken for granted and neglected,â€ as Van Dam notes from the outset; and â€œthe eldership is one of those giftsâ€ â€“ a most beneficial gift indeed.
The Elder: available at Monergism Books