A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship in America

By John A. D'Elia
New York : Oxford (2008). 271 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
20.1 (Spring 2009) : 101-103

George Eldon Ladd was one of the foremost evangelical NT scholars in twentieth-century America. He almost single-handedly pioneered the “now and not yet” view of eschatology which currently is probably the dominant view among a majority of evangelical scholars. Whatever one thinks of his approach to the NT teaching about kingdom of God, he must acknowledge the huge role he played in defining evangelicalism through his teaching and literary works. And yet this acclaimed scholar, during what some considered the pinnacle of his career, considered himself a failure for not fulfilling his own promise. During this period he descended further and further into depression and alcoholism and became more and more alienated from his immediate family. What can one make of such a complex career?

John A. D’Elia, currently minister of the American Church in London and graduate of Fuller Seminary where Ladd taught, has authored the most insightful and interesting biography of an academic that this reviewer has ever read. D’Elia’s volume, a revision of his doctoral dissertation at University of Stirling under David Bebbington, is a thoroughly researched work that does justice to Ladd’s great contributions while not engaging in the hero-worship that marks that type of biography termed a “hagiography.” D’Elia thoroughly mines the large amount of historical archives at Fuller Seminary and utilizes Ladd’s extensive personal correspondence to bring insight into the heart and mind of this troubled giant. Personal interviews with many of Ladd’s former colleagues and students add a familiar touch to the plethora of official historical sources.

Ladd’s early life in New England as a self-described “freak” growing up in the home of a family that often moved and suffered poverty is thoroughly traced. D’Elia looks for keys to Ladd’s persona throughout his emergence as a promising Bible college student, young pastor, and eventually as an academic at Gordon College and finally at Fuller. He traces Ladd’s painful, almost decade-long struggle to get into a doctoral program, which finally culminated in a doctorate from Harvard in 1949. W hen all his doctoral dreams were fulfilled and the invitation came to be part of the Fuller faculty that was being built in the late forties and early fifties, one would think that the young man who had been so teased would find fulfillment as he approached middle age. The theme of D’Elia’s biography, reflected in the title and subtitle of the book, is that Ladd desperately desired to earn “a place at the table” of mainstream scholarship in America and Europe. Furthermore, he desired to do this while maintaining a more open evangelicalism than what he had experienced during the first forty years of his life. His career is traced through that upward effort that, in Ladd’s own opinion, ended in abject failure.

Ladd’s conflict within the evangelical fold is traced primarily through his efforts to rehabilitate evangelical scholarship by overthrowing what he considered to be the repression caused by Dispensationalism. His early works, Crucial Questions about the Kingdom of God and The Blessed Hope, were internal polemical works directed against the Dispensationalism associated with Dallas Seminary. Ladd’s debates with John Walvoord, President of Dallas at the time, are thoroughly explored. Ladd also desperately desired to secure that place at the table, however, not by simply tilting against dispensationalists, but by convincing critics outside the evangelical fold that an evangelical scholar could do critically acclaimed, scholarly work. When Harper and Row finally published his magnum opus in 1964 titled Jesus and the Kingdom, he was confident that his place at that table was secured. The book describes, however, his deep emotional pain when a critical scholar, Norman Perrin, savaged Ladd’s book in a scholarly journal in 1965. D’Elia makes a strong case that Perrin’s review, despite positive reviews both within and without evangelicalism, was the turning point in Ladd’s life and career. After that crushing experience, even though he published five more acclaimed volumes before his physical decline in the late seventies, D’Elia portrays Ladd as a defeated man who was just going through the motions.

Along the way, D’Elia offers insights into Ladd’s involvement in the struggles of Fuller Seminary as the school was finding its identity in the fifties and sixties. For professors in theological education, the description of those battles is a familiar one, since many institutions slowly shake off the restraints which they perceive as holding them back. The fundamentalism of the founder Charles Fuller and the similar influence of Harold Ockenga were the losers in this battle at Fuller. Though Ladd was one of those progressives who won out in the end, he never enjoyed the fruits of that victory because of his perceived failures outside the school in the world of scholarship. Compounding all of this is the sad story of his alcoholism and depression, which the author traces through many personal interviews, as well as the disciplinary actions against him because of his drinking.

Much is here from which to learn, whatever be the reader’s denominational identity. One missing element, however, in the author’s thorough analysis of each of Ladd’s volumes is his overlooking of the second edition of Jesus and the Kingdom, re-titled by his new publisher Eerdmans as The Presence of the Future. In this second edition (1974) and in the likewise unmentioned volume The Pattern of NT Truth (1968), Ladd responds to Perrin’s critical review. The impression left by these omissions is that Ladd retreated after the perceived defeat of his life-long project. On the contrary, though he never wrote again for a secular publisher like Harper and Row, he did in these books offer one last salvo against the critical rejection of his ideas.

One of the endearing things about Ladd was his whole-hearted commitment to world evangelization. He believed, as he felt Matt 24:14 clearly taught, that when the gospel is proclaimed throughout the world, then Jesus would return bodily. At the end of this very significant book, this reviewer was filled with a combination of appreciation and sadness for George Eldon Ladd. As an undergraduate in the late 1960s, I read Crucial Questions and The Blessed Hope. Little did I know that at that same time across the country the author was going through torment because he sincerely believed that he had not earned that “place at the table” which he so earnestly desired.

Perhaps another lesson emerges here, and it is not one that D’Elia suggests. At the end of the day, Christians answer to the Lord and not to men. Can one really expect that those in the liberal establishment will ever accept evangelicals? In consideration of the legacy of Ladd’s life and career, Paul’s statement in Gal 1:10 keeps ringing in m years: “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God?”