A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical
Scholarship in America
reviewed by William Varner
George Eldon Ladd (1911–1982) was one of the twentieth century’s foremost Evangelical New Testament scholars. While he played a significant role in defining Evangelicalism through his teaching and literary work, for much of his career he regarded himself as a failure because he did not attain his personal academic goals.
The story is tragic: During the period of his greatest public fame, he privately descended into depression, alcoholism, and alienation from his family. The weight of these self-imposed goals was of such crucial significance that his biographer John D’Elia, a senior minister of the American Church in London and a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary, has made Ladd’s desire to earn a “place at the table” of mainstream academic scholarship the theme of his book, as reflected in its title and subtitle.
When his ten-year struggle for acceptance to a recognized doctoral program culminated in a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1949, and the invitation came to be part of the fledgling Fuller faculty, Ladd believed himself to be closing in upon his goal of developing a more open Evangelicalism than he had experienced during the first forty years of his life. This would demand three broadenings in Evangelical scholarship: greater openness to the historical critical methodology, freedom from bondage to Dispensationalism, and, while maintaining a high view of Scripture, shedding the burden of biblical inerrancy as defined during the modernist-fundamentalist struggles in the early twentieth century.
Ladd’s early books, Crucial Questions About the Kingdom of God and The Blessed Hope, were polemical works directed against the Dispensationalism associated with Dallas Theological Seminary. D’Elia thoroughly explores his debates with John Walvoord, President of Dallas at the time. Ladd desired to secure his reputation, however, not by tilting against Dispensationalists, but by convincing critics outside the Evangelical fold that scholars of the movement could produce academic work of the highest quality.
Productive Yet Defeated
When Harper and Row published his 1964 magnum opus, Jesus and the Kingdom, he was confident that his place at the table was finally secured, but when the well-known redaction critic Norman Perrin savaged his work, he suffered a deep emotional wound from which he was never to recover. D’Elia makes a strong case that Perrin’s review was the turning point in Ladd’s life and career. Even though he published five more acclaimed volumes, he was, after that experience, a defeated man.
D’Elia’s narrative elaborates Ladd’s involvement in the struggles of Fuller Seminary as that institution was finding its identity in the 1950s and 1960s. The theological changes that took place at Fuller during his tenure were similar to those of other confessional educational institutions that were shaking off the doctrine of their founders. The fundamentalism of the evangelist Charles Fuller and the conservative Evangelicalism of its first president, Harold John Ockenga, were finally defeated by Ladd and other progressives, but it was a victory he was never able to savor because of the failure he perceived in the academic world’s reception of his scholarship—a story made even sadder by his depression and the disciplinary action the seminary was forced to take in response to his excessive drinking.
While those concerned with the church’s educational mission will find much of value here, there are omissions that concern this reviewer, particularly the failure to mention the second edition of Jesus and the Kingdom, re-titled by Eerdmans as The Presence of the Future (1974). In this second edition and in the likewise unmentioned The Pattern of NT Truth (1968), Ladd graciously responds to Perrin’s criticisms.
The impression left by the omissions is that of a full retreat after the Perrin episode. On the contrary, while Ladd never again wrote for a secular publisher like Harper and Row, he did offer in these books an impassioned response to his severest critic.
D’Elia’s carefully researched biography places George Eldon Ladd’s literary production in the context of the life from which it arose, a highly productive life, but one whose holder never found the “place at the table” he so diligently sought.
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“Reserved Seating” first appeared in the January/February 2009 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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