Monday, December 20, 2010

Van Dam. The Elder - A Book Review

Van Dam, Cornelis. The Elder: Today's Ministry Rooted in All of Scripture. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009. 283 pp. Softcover, $17.99.

The Elder is one volume in P&R's new Explorations in Biblical Theology series that tries to find the middle ground between academic and semi-popular books. This "solidly reformed" series' target audience ranges from the seminarian to the "thoughtful lay reader." Van Dam does a good job at connecting with his target audience by writing a book that is easily read, full of Scripture references, and seasoned with a few footnotes and two bibliographies.

Van Dam's chief goal is to "enhance a biblical understanding and functioning of the office of elder" (xii). His central presupposition is that there is continuity between Old Testament (OT) elders and New Testament (NT) elders. This continuity "need not be doubted"; yet, his justification is not convincing. Add to this the presence of some contradictions and the blurring of some Biblical categories, and one gets the feeling that Van Dam's system, rather than the text of Scripture, is driving his theology. To use N. T. Wright's analogy, it would seem that the roaring lion of Scripture is here often turned into a tame pet made to stand on its hind legs and dance a jig.

A prime example is the discussion about the typically reformed division between ruling and teaching elders. Van Dam uses his presupposition of continuity with the OT to justify this division. While he claims that NT (ruling) elders are truly parallel with OT elders, Van Dam claims a different parallel for the "minister of the Gospel," who is analogous to the Levitical office of the priest as an administrator of the Word and official spokesmen for God. Yet, according to Van Dam, he is "in essence a specialized elder" (117). So, besides the obvious question of what Van Dam does with the concepts of the priesthood of all believers and Christ being our only mediator with God, one wonders: if the "minister of the Gospel" is indeed a specialized elder, why is he paralleled to the OT priests and not to the OT elders? It seems that his theological system forces this two-step. A similar suspicion arises when ruling and teaching are presented as separate gifts to justify separate offices. Yet, only ten pages later, the pastor is declared to need multiple gifts. So, since a pastor should have multiple gifts, why does the differentiation of gifting force two separate offices?

The discussion on church discipline, while initially encouraging, is similarly affected by his system and also harmed by inconsistencies. While the initial phases of church discipline are enacted by the congregation, in Van Dam's view, the elders are the only ones who can move forward with the final step of church discipline and with re-admittance to the body due to true repentance. They are the gatekeepers who can shut the doors of the kingdom and separate the excommunicated one from "blessings such as forgiveness of sins" (174). In light of these strong statements, one is confused to learn that the elders cannot condemn the excommunicated one to hell. What then does it mean to exclude one from "blessings such as forgiveness of sins," and to shut the doors of the kingdom? The need for church discipline is also unclear: at times, the focus, driven by the OT parallel, is on the purity of the body, and at times, the focus is on the repentance of the sinner.

In addition to major jigs, there are also several other smaller reels that continue to weaken this volume. Van Dam is not consistent with his understanding of the interrelation between office and authority. At times, Van Dam associates the authority of the elder with God or with the Word, but not with the office as such. At other times, he associates authority with the office itself. The distinction between spiritual gifts and church offices seems to be acknowledged when useful, but ignored when not. Passages teaching about apostles are applied to elders without justification, just to mention a one example.

On a positive note, Van Dam reveals his pastor's heart when he exhorts elders to know the Bible and to know their flock. For him, the role of an elder "is not about getting something," but about giving (201). These biblical exhortations are much appreciated in an age of pastor-as-CEO. Also much appreciated is his stance that women should participate in the church, but that they do not need to be an elder in order to use their gifts in the body.

While this volume had a few good points, it was overall very disappointing. I would still strongly recommend to all who wish to understand Presbyterian and Reformed theology with respect to the office of the elder. In a time when many Baptists are often more enamored with following systems of theology than the Bible itself, I hope that an attentive reading of this volume will douse their torrid love affair for manmade systems and bring them back to the careful study of the lion of Scripture.


Eric Holcombe said...

"His central presupposition is that there is continuity between Old Testament (OT) elders and New Testament (NT) elders."

Mael, as a "thoughtful lay reader", ;)I would agree with that statement on its face (though I doubt I agree with Van Dam much beyond based on your other statements from the book). Elders are older men. We are taught by Scripture to respect age and that the hoary head is a crown of glory IF it be found in the way of righteousness. Not all elders are recognized by the assembly (or in Scripture, appointed by apostles) as bishops (overseers) or deacons. But I doubt that is what Van Dam meant...

"A prime example is the discussion about the typically reformed division between ruling and teaching elders."

I see that a bishop (overseer) should be apt to teach (1 Tim 3). I don't see how this can somehow not be required for some elders if elder=bishop. Seems to be a problem for elder-as-an-office division makers. However, if an elder is simply an older man, it seems there could be some who aren't apt to teach, or that do not rule (make rulings or judgments) well, or that do not labor in the Word and doctrine. This seems in line with Paul's instruction to Titus: IF there be any elders with these characteristics...then ordain them as bishops (overseers).

Maël said...


how do you understand Tit 1:5 - "appoint elders in every town as I directed you"? I'm not sure we can read that text as appoint elders as overseers, do you?

Eric Holcombe said...

Only if you read through to verse 7. I understand the word elder in v5 to be used in the adjective sense. Is Paul talking about appointing men as elders (v5) and then describing that elders should be like bishops (v7)? If elder is an appointed office, what/where are those qualifications/marks of maturity? If Paul really means elder=bishop, why use two different words here in the same context?

Or is he talking about finding pre-existing elders (older ones) and appointing some of them (IF any be v.6) as overseers, "for a bishop(overseer) must be..." (v.7).

Maël said...


It would seem to me that the simple reading is that Paul is switching between both terminologies, as he does in other passages. Titus appoint elders ... if you find anyone who fits ... for due to their duty as overseers they must be ...

I'm not denying that the term elder is also used for an older person (you are correct that in Tit Paul is using an adjective, but he is using it as a noun - older ones). Yet, I think that other passages like Acts 20:17ff, 1 Pet 5:1ff, ... make it difficult to completely exclude the possibility that the term elder is also being used to describe a role in the church. Now, the age and wisdom attributed to the term elder are important to the role of elder (this is often forgotten today), but we have to be careful not to attribute only one possible meaning to any given term in the NT.

If your theory is correct: why is the term bishop not mentioned in Acts 14:23? There is no previous mention of overseer for us just to claim it was understood that they were appointing elders as overseers.

Why is Paul, in Acts 20, addressing the elders (no qualification here) and telling them that the Holy Spirit has made them overseers?

Eric Holcombe said...


Thanks for continuing to help me flesh this out. I agree with your statement that these are sometimes interchanged and I might end up making your case here (and I'm ok with that :) ). There is another way of stating this: Elder sometimes means older and sometimes means overseer, but overseer always means elder. I believe that all overseers are elders in this sense, but not all elders are overseers. There are no distinctions for elder (other than age which, how old is "old enough"?), but there are some given for those elders that are to be overseers in the NT church. Some of those qualities by their physical nature eliminate younger and (possibly?)unmarried men.
My theory is this: that the role of elder (older men looked to as authority) was already established in the culture of the Jewish people - though I haven't really seen a scriptural requirement for them in the OT other than as leaders of their households (which could be quite large). Their age alone would have been respected according to the Law. They have some recognized authority over their community (household/tribe) - making rulings/judgments according to the Law. Once Jesus is come and declared to be the Messiah, there is conflict (as seen in many of Paul and Peter's travels in Acts) along with the conversion of some of the people. Jews take sides, Greeks take sides. I am assuming that some of the traditional elders (aged and/or leaders) were split as well. I am reminded of Jesus' words that he would put a man at variance with his father and a person's enemies would be those of their own household (Matt. 10:35-37). So maybe I am in the number at Iconium who believed, but my "elder" of my household did not. And, maybe some number of the older men did also believe. So, the following of direction of elders was already established, but whom is my elder (in the leader/example to the flock sense) in this new household of faith since I am estranged from my normal community? I believe Paul and Barnabas chose some of the older men (elders) and ordained them as elders (elder=overseers). In the case of Acts 20, this has already taken place in the church body at Ephesus. Some of the elders (older) are overseers.

Maël said...


interesting thoughts ... I still think that you are making a leap in Tit 1 (I would like to see a more detailed interaction with the text to see the textual clues that warrant your "finding pre-existing elders and appointing some of them as overseers". I am also not satisfied with how this fits Acts 14:23 (see previous comment).

I'll have to think about it some more, but as of now, I am not ready to negate the use of the term 'elder' to describe a role in the church.

Eric Holcombe said...

I think it is hard to tell in the english when elder means simply "older one" and when it means something more (overseer). One thing is for sure: you can not appoint someone to be old.

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