The Elder: Today’s Ministry Rooted in All of Scripture, Cornelis Van Dam, Phillipsburg: P&R, 2009. Soft cover, 283 pages, $19.20.
The office of elder is one of the hallmarks of Reformed and Presbyterian churches around the world. In fact, one of the great recoveries of the Protestant Reformation was the eldership. Though clearly taught in Scripture, this office had disappeared in the medieval church. History therefore reminds us that it is something that can never be taken for granted. With that in mind, we can be thankful for this new book by Dr. Cornelis Van Dam, professor of Old Testament at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Ontario.
The Elder is a contribution to a new series by P&R, Explorations in Biblical Theology. If this volume is any indication, this is a series worth watching. Under the editorial leadership of Robert A. Peterson, it seeks to relate selected themes of biblical theology in a popular and accessible style.
Van Dam has succeeded to do just that in the book under review. He exposits the Old Testament origins and contours of the office. He then demonstrates that the New Testament in many ways picks up this Old Testament office and only slightly reconfigures it. Along the way, Van Dam identifies many salient features that impact how today’s elders should regard their office.
A number of thorny issues are also discussed. For instance, the two-office versus three-office debate is considered. While noting that both the ruling elder and the teaching elder having elder offices, Van Dam makes a case especially from the Old Testament background that they are in fact two separate offices. He discusses the oft-considered question of the disobedience of the children of an office bearer or potential office bearer. His biblical insights and sage advice will be much appreciated. In the next-to-last chapter, Van Dam discusses whether or not women may be ordained to the office of elder, and whether Reformed churches should have elders for life. His answers to both questions are well-grounded in biblical teaching.
Indeed, one of the strengths of this book is its close and careful reading of both the Old Testament and New Testament on the office of elder. While one may not always agree with every conclusion, there is certainly a careful exegetical basis underpinning this volume. Another strength is its attention to history and especially the development of the eldership in Reformed and Presbyterian churches. For instance, Van Dam notes that the original Belgic Confession stipulated the laying on of hands not only for ministers, but also for elders (134). Finally, there are practical pieces of wisdom and direction for today’s elders scattered throughout the volume. It’s not only readable, but also eminently practical.
This book should be on the shelves of all elders, ruling and teaching. I’d also suggest it as a must-read for aspiring elders and pastors. Likewise, it would be an excellent resource for consistories to use as a training tool. To that end, Van Dam has also included questions for study and reflection at the back of the book, as well as references to additional resources.