George Eldon Ladd

No scholar influenced me in my early career as much as George Eldon Ladd. I join thousands to say we were (or are) Laddian. In 1974, when I was about to finish my sophomore year at Cornerstone University (where I’m giving the commencement address today), I was at Eerdmans the day they unloaded the freshly printed copies of his A Theology of the New Testament. I gobbled one up and by the time I graduated from college I had read and read and read that thing. Ladd’s argument was that salvation-history, the dynamic of now but not yet, was at the core of Jesus’ kingdom vision and the theology of the entire New Testament.

I never met Ladd, nor did I ever hear him give a lecture. But during my college career I read his book on the rapture (The Blessed Hope: A Biblical Study of the Second Advent and the Rapture), his lectures that dismantled the current form of dispensationalism (Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God), and while in college I loved his book on Jesus’ eschatology (The Presence of the Future: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism). His view of the kingdom of God as the dynamic reign, hammered out during his disputes with dispensationalism, became standard fare for evangelicals and no scholar influenced evangelicalism in the 50s-80s more than Ladd — though I now think his framing of the issue led him to see kingdom in too spiritual of terms.

But for many of us, Ladd provided an eschatology that broke free of the traps of the discussions of those days and exhibited a model of interacting with the best of scholarship. He was always committed to spreading the gospel in the whole world.

But what was Ladd like? John D’Elia, A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship in America, has told us. The story is told well; the story, however, is not one of a hero but of a broken Christian scholar. D’Elia’s scholarship is excellent and this book deserves to be on the shelves of every theological library. Ladd single-handedly reinvigorated evangelical scholarship and D’Elia tells that very story. I couldn’t put the book down.

Here are the basics: Ladd’s family life was not comfortable or warm or financially stable; he was intelligent, was encouraged by some, and eventually got a college degree — but to his dismay it was not from an accredited college and so getting into graduate programs became taxing to him. Ladd pastored and participated — as one gifted to articulate theology — in denominational meetings and disputes. Eventually Ladd acquired a vision: he would find a way to the real academic table, he would prove that evangelicals are as good as scholars as the liberals.

I entered the academic world when many evangelicals were seeking to do the very thing Ladd sought to do: find a place at the table. Ladd wrote his dissertation at Harvard, was hired at Fuller in 1950 and taught until 1982, and wrote all those books in those days. But there are some sad dimensions of his story, three of which deserve to be mentioned and I do so with a heart for Ladd: his family life was anything but happy, he struggled with alcohol, and The Presence of the Future, his first major book — the one designed to give evangelicals a place at the table — was trenchantly criticized by Norman Perrin in a review, and that review hit Ladd so deeply that he considered himself a failure from that point on. [That book was originally titled Jesus and the Kingdom.] His NT theology, though published many years later, emerged from those early years when he was developing the eschatology of Jesus, and his scholarship from the days of that review on were never quite the same.

We are in debt to this very fine and judicious study of John D’Elia, and I would urge younger scholars to read this book to get a feel for what those of us who are 50+ have experienced and went through when we were coming of age, because George Eldon Ladd was a Titan, his work irreplaceable, and his impact incalculable.

Perhaps because we have weathered those “at the table” hopes and yearnings, and certainly because of my own participation in the academic world (which I love), Ladd’s vision is not as vital as it once was. Nor should it be. I don’t believe our goal as Bible or theology scholars is to be deemed among the finest of scholars or to find a place at the table, but to be faithful to Jesus Christ and to the gospel and to orthodox theology and to academic rigor. Yes, we are to work to discover and to be creative, but the driving passion to prove ourselves at the feet of others falls short of a true Christian telos. I’d put it this way: we are called to be faithful, whether we are accepted or not.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.jonrising.blogspot.com Jon Rising

    Scot,

    Thanks for the review.

    I, too, read the book, wincing in many places as D’Elia pulled back the curtain and let me see the failings and weaknesses in Professor Ladd’s life.

    Although I am a curious guy (and with my prior interest in Ladd, I could not help but read this book), I am still ambivalent about the appropriateness of uncovering someone the way D’Elia has here.

    But, the book having been written, the lessons are there for us to learn from. I think you have framed those lessons well in this review.

  • Matt

    Thanks for reviewing this, Scot. As an evangelical scholar who SO knows the pull of academic legitimation, do you (or your readers) have thoughts about how one might resist that pull? Doubtless learning and re-learning the love of the Father goes at the top of the list. But any strategies, habits, practices that people have found helpful?

  • Ric Hudgens

    Edward John Carnell was at Fuller during the same period as Ladd and also had serious personal struggles – fighting insomnia, depression and prescription drug addiction (he may have died of an overdose). It was very costly for this first generation of fundamentalist children to step away from their tradition and still distinguish themselves from the opponents of fundamentalism. C S Lewis (somewhere) cautioned us against judging anyone, because we don’t know where they may have started from. Regardless of Ladd’s (and Carnell’s) struggles their work (and perhaps even their example) still has significance.

  • Jodi Fondell

    Scot…did you know that John D’Elia is a very close friend of ours?! We’re going to be with him next week at an International Pastors Conference! Great review!
    Take care.
    Jodi

  • Jim Hampton

    Thanks, Scott, for the summary of the book. Like many others, Ladd was required reading during my seminary days, and so I have also been reading D’Elia’s book on Ladd.

    The thing that struck me most was how one person (e.g. Perrin) could have so much power/influence to have impacted Ladd negatively the way he did. As an academic in practical theology, I fully understand and appreciate the need for rigorous academic debate. It’s part of our DNA. :-) However, I am routinely distressed when “established” academics lack any charity when reviewing younger academics’ works. I’ve seen way too many younger scholars who, upon seeing a review that scorched them by someone they looked up to, basically give up and not write anything else. When I read about the impact Perrin had on Ladd, it simply reinforced for me the need to demonstrate grace-filled and love-infused honesty with younger scholars, remembering I was once there.

    As always, thinks for keeping us aware of new titles we should be reading.

  • Gilbert Bilezikian

    Thanks for the information relative to a biography of the professor who became my hero and academic mentor at the seminary that is now Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. The three years I studied under him set me on a path of emulation that led to a life-time of New Testament scholarship and teaching.

    The recent reprint of my first book, The Liberated Gospel, A comparison of the Gospel of Mark and Greek Tragedy, shows this dedication: In memory of Professor George E. Ladd, giant among teachers.

  • Georges Boujakly

    We accept biblical personalities’ weaknesses much more readily than our present day leaders and scholars.

    Embracing another fellow Christian in his struggles is the height of charity.

    I now expect a “glaring” weakness (es) on the part of any leader (past, present, and future) from the least to the greatest of us even if at times I’m still surprised by it (them).

    We are broken vessels in the process of restoration. Thank God that Ladd never gave up.

  • SFG

    Ladd’s books had a very big influence on me when I studied in seminary (graduated in 1979)and showed me a clear path out of dispensationalism and fundamentalism into a theology that was based on the Kingdom of God.

    One of my older missionary colleagues was a TA for Ladd at Fuller, and as we talked about Ladd, it was clear that while while my friend knew that Ladd had many personal problems, he held Ladd in the greatest esteem as a Christian scholar.

    It is clear that George Ladd was a “broken Christian scholar” but he remains one of my theological heroes.

  • http://drgtjustwondering.blogspot.com diana trautwein

    Has anyone ever yet met a Christian scholar (or a Christian, period) who was not broken in some way? I think that’s the whole point, actually. We are all a mess, in one way or another. And we have all been saved by grace and called by our Savior to be our best selves. That means, this side of heaven, that we’re all cracked pots with all those cracks still visible, but somehow – miraculously and gloriously! – held together by the love of God. John D’Elia has done us a service if he has underscored this marvelous truth in the telling of Ladd’s story. I’m ordering that book today. Sorry, John, that I haven’t done it earlier! (He and I TA’d together while students at Fuller and have reconnected via Facebook. Let’s hear it for social media!)

  • Tim Gombis

    I read this book a year or so ago and could NOT put it down. A gripping story. He was indeed a broken person, but he’s never really a dark figure in the book. Definitely conflicted in several ways. The book seems honest and revelatory without passing judgment. A great read.

  • http://getrad2.blogspot.com Blessed Economist

    I read GE Ladd thirty years ago when I was at theological college. The other students were excited by his work, because they were looking for a way to escape from dispensational eschatology, but it left me disappointed, because he did not go far enough.

    The basic flaw in dispensationalism is that it sees all the negative scriptures as applying to the church age, whereas and all the scriptures that promise victory for God’s people on earth are pushed out into the future, in a millennium, of after Jesus return. This inevitably produced a pessimistic church sitting around waiting to be rescued.

    Although Ladd allowed evangelicals to leave the baggage of dispensationalism behind, he continued to read scripture through that same lens, that brings all the negative stuff into the present, but pushes all the good stuff out into the future. Ladd allowed a bit of the good stuff into the present, but it was only ever partial, as the real good stuff is still “not yet”. The implication I took from this is that the Holy Spirit is not up to the task that scriptures assigned to him.

    “Not yet” continues to be a cop out, providing an excuse for not expecting the good stuff in our time, and being content with mediocrity.

    Only now with the growing interest in the Kingdom of God is more of the good stuff sneaking aback into the present. In Surprised by Hope, NT Wright bring some of the good stuff down to earth, which is a step forward, but he still struggles to bring it back this side of the consummation where it really belongs.

    The church still need a new lens that sees the glorious promises of the scriptures being fulfilled on earth in this age through the working of the Holy Spirit who is all the fullness of God. It is time for theologians to give the good stuff back to the church and set the Holy Spirit free to fulfill his calling.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/euangelion/ Mike Bird

    Scot,
    I found it a fascinating read, though it is rather depressing in the latter half. Great as G.E. Ladd was, his life is a warning against seeking the praise of others, and the dangers of finishing the race poorly.

    My own review is here (http://euangelizomai.blogspot.com/2008/06/book-review-place-at-table-by-john.html).

  • http://abcwesterville.org Mark Farmer

    George wasn’t the last word for me (of course), but he helped to launch me in a study of the NT that was rigorous, exciting and open-ended. Thank you, George Ladd!

  • JoanieD

    To Diana in #9 who wrote, “That means, this side of heaven, that we’re all cracked pots with all those cracks still visible, but somehow – miraculously and gloriously! –held together by the love of God.”

    I love that!

  • EricW

    So despite his apparently writing about the dynamic reign of God in the here and now and not just in some dispensational future (I haven’t read Ladd, so I’m only going by this and other reviews of the book), was it practically (as in: “for all practical purposes”) just an academic or intellectual exercise for Ladd? Did he believe it?

  • rjs

    Great line – we are called to be faithful, whether we are accepted or not. It is true, but hard. We all want to be accepted. Sometimes being faithful means becoming enmeshed in controversies where being accepted is well nigh on impossible, on all sides.

  • http://samgamgee.org tom

    thank you. i’m grateful to better understand the first NT scholar i was introduced to in seminary. i better understand even now the tension in his life and mine of “the already and not yet.” as you say…”we are called to be faithful, whether we are accepted or not.”–indeed.

  • Dan Reid

    EricW,

    I was a student of Ladd’s. Let me assure you, with no doubt in my mind, Ladd believed it. He would break down in tears in class when speaking of the gospel of the kingdom. He was a complex, psychologically disordered, hurt and conflicted person. But he deeply believed.

    Dan

  • http://www.stpaulsnitro.org Mark E. Smith

    I still have my copy of NT Theology on my shelf. I can’t remember which prof at TEDS required it. In light of this post, I may have to pull it down and read it again.

  • http://tfj1943.blogspot.com Tom Johnson

    George Ladd was a passionate, intense, and compassionate NT scholar. I TA’d for him for two years in the 1960′s. He knew how to mentor graduate students and introduce them to the full range of NT studies. Unlike other faculty, Ladd never avoided the tough questions and pressed us to listen critically to all sides of theological and interpretive issues. Yes, he cared too much about what John Walvoord and Norman Perrin thought, but his strength was to engage in the conflict (which, along with family problems, broke him) for the good news of Jesus’ present and future reign.

  • Andy Nix

    I came across ‘A Theology of the New Testament’ in the mid 80′s when one of our college lecturers recommended it to us.

    It’s been the staple of my understanding of God’s wonderful truth ever since. The cost that G E Ladd paid in his personal life doesn’t surprise me. His reward will truly be in Heaven.

    Andy Nix


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