April 14, 2009
The Enigma of George Eldon Ladd
Last year I read John A. D’Elia’s A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship in America (Oxford University Press, 2008). I was a student of Ladd’s at Fuller Theological Seminary in the 1970s, and as a matter of fact, I even started out as his student in the Ph.D. program there. (That didn’t last long, and Ralph Martin rescued me from the situation.) I’ve long thought someone needed to write this biography. However, I also recall mentioning this thought to another Fuller faculty person of that era, who expressed the opinion that no good would come of it. He no doubt had in mind some of the personal tragedies that marred Ladd’s life and are disclosed in D’Elia’s biography.
Let’s name it and get it over with: alcoholism and deeply fractured family relationships. I think many of us students knew that Ladd was a personally troubled man, but we might not have been sure why. Some of it he would allude to in class, and in his later years he was known to break down in tears in the classroom (speaking, I might add, of the grace of God).
I don’t want to minimize this problem. For his wife and children especially, this was a legacy of shattered pieces. But I don’t think it was the most significant thing about Ladd. I think that for many of his students, he became a living example of how a tragic man, whose failings are now well known, was nevertheless used by God in a very significant way. (Sidebar: I was once lectured on the failings of Ladd by a professor at a Christian college. A few years later I learned that this professor was dismissed from his post for moral turpitude. Go figure.)
Ladd, like few other professors at Fuller in that era, rocked our theological world. He reoriented our understanding of New Testament theology in a way that would have lasting impact. His classes, taught in a Socratic manner, were thoroughly engaging and fascinating to me and to others. And for those of us who had imbibed a little or too much dispensationalism along the way, he was a powerful antidote. Or if you wondered exactly what the deal was with Bultmann and his tribe, Ladd was sure to straighten you out on that score too.
To this day, where two or three former Ladd students are gathered together, there are Laddian anecdotes (and verbal imitations) sure to break out in the midst of them. Ladd, with his New England accent and curmudgeonly demeanor, was our (somewhat disheveled) Prof. Kingsfield (John Houseman) of “The Paper Chase” (1973). And Kingsfield’s case of the “hairy hand” was Ladd’s case of dispensationalism’s misdrawn distinction between Israel and the church, which was for him a blight on the body evangelical.
One thing I found particularly fascinating in D’Elia’s book was how Ladd was taking on the dismantling of the exegetical substructure of dispensationalism from his first days at Fuller. And yet in the beginning he had to play a very circumspect game. For he was working in an environment—yes, in those days “even” at Fuller and certainly within the broader evangelical environment—in which a challenge to or departure from dispensationalism and its pre-trib rapture scheme was regarded as incipient liberalism. And if that does sound incredible today, we owe much to Ladd for the fact that it does.
D’Elia points out that John Walvoord of Dallas Seminary regarded the doctrine of a pretrib rapture to be an inoculation against liberalism. Why, D’Elia does not state. But if I can conjure up the history correctly, it was because this doctrine was thought to require a “literal” reading of prophetic texts, and a literal reading of inerrant Scripture was viewed as a bulwark against liberalism.
I do recall from my reading in dispensational literature years ago—and my early training at a dispensational Bible college—that amillennial interpretation of Scripture was viewed as engaging in essentially the same hermeneutic as liberalism (i.e., reading prophetic language in a nonliteral, “symbolic” manner). In any case, Ladd in the 1950s was in correspondence with Walvoord, and what Walvoord said about Ladd’s work mattered a great deal to Ladd.
Ladd, by the way, kept carbon copies (you need to be a certain age to know what I’m talking about!) of virtually all of his own correspondence, as well as the letters he received, and Ladd’s files were preserved (thank you, Bob Meye!) and made available to D’Elia. Consequently much of this can be tracked and documented. The result is a valuable aperture into a slice of evangelicalism in the 1950s and two decades beyond. And it is good to be reminded of what a different world it was from today.
And then, as most of Ladd’s students will recall, there was Norman Perrin’s devastating review of Ladd’s book on the Kingdom of God. The great unhinging. That will have to wait for another blog.