Sunday, June 15, 2008

Book Review: A Place at the Table by John A. D'Elia

John A. D'Elia
A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship in America
Oxford: OUP, 2008.
Available at OUP in the UK and US
Available at

I first read G.E. Ladd in seminary where his excellent NT Theology was mandatory reading for NT 101 and Ladd also convinced me of the coherence and persuasiveness of historic pre-millennialism (despite my dispensational theology lecturer). John A. D'Elia has done a service in providing a biography of one of the most important biblical scholars in North American evangelicalism in the second half of the twentieth-century. The rehabilitation of evangelical biblical scholarship in America is very much indebted to G.E. Ladd. But Ladd's story is a complex one as it is a tragic one as well. His attempt to refute dispensationalism which he saw as a threat to the intellectual credibility and theological charity of evangelicalism was largely a success, but his attempt to gain the respect of non-evangelical scholars (in his view) failed and made him a bitter and twisted alcoholic. D'Elia provides a biography that merges together Ladd's academic career and personal life with great effect and detail.

Chapter one covers "Early Life and Academic Preparation (1911-50)" which details Ladd's troubled family life and his conversion by the sermon of a female preacher in a methodist church. As a child he was tall and thin and nicknamed "freak" due to his statue. D'Elia covers Ladd's early study at the irenic Gordon College, his marriage to Winifrid (aka "Winnie"), his initial pastoral ministry, and draw to an academic profession. Ladd had a hard time finding entrance into a graduate school but after a prolonged search with much rejection he was finally accepted at Harvard University where he studied under the famed Henry Cadbury. During this period, Ladd began to distance himself from dispenationalism climaxing in his Ph.D thesis on the eschatology of the Didache. Ladd eventually ended up at Gordon College before coming to Fuller where a new chapter in his life began.

In chapter two, "The Emergence of a Strategy (1950-54)", D'Elia marks out Ladd's maturing as a scholar and his aim to engage the non-evangelical world. Ladd's son Larry suffered from cryptorchidism (undescended testicles) which adversely affected his physical and mental development. According to D'Elia, Ladd's strategy was to aim for an erudite level of scholarship rarely seen in evangelicalism, express modern biblical criticism within the boundaries of a conservative theology, and to distance himself from dispensationalism by critiquing its origins and foundations. John Walvoord remained a long time nemesis of Ladd concerning his critique of dispensational theology. Ladd did his best to avoid the RSV controversy (although I learned that several members of the translation committee were investigated during Joseph McCarthy's search for communists).  This period was one of consolidation for his time at Fuller.

"Old Battles and Partial Victories (1954-1959)" is covered in chapter three. Dispensationalism remained a hot topic even among the Fuller faculty and especially through Charles Fuller, although Dan Fuller was more clearly on Ladd's side theologically. The dispensational controversy came to a head at Western Seminary were the faculty was decimated by the issue (only in America!).  Ladd constantly urged that matters of eschatology be treated with a degree of charity and liberty and himself claimed that: "My hope for the future is not a millennium, it is the Lord Jesus Christ" (p. 9). Building on his first book Crucial Questions about the Kingdom in another book The Blessed Hope Ladd made a further critique of the idea of a pre-tribulation rapture. It was also during this time that evangelicalism, centred around Billy Graham and Christianity Today, emerged from the separatist fundamentalist movement. But at this time there were indications that Ladd was abusing alcohol and his behaviour was often becoming unseemly in purportedly making unwanted advanced towards a student's wife. Ladd undertook a sabbatical in Heidelberg and was elected to SNTS after being nominated by F.F. Bruce and Henry Cadbury.  While there was some opposition to his nomination, Matthew Black pointed to the high quality of Ph.D candidates from Fuller studying at St. Andrews University in Scotland. Ladd was intellectually developing and he started exploring Martin Kahler's distinction between historie and history and Cullmann's Heilsgeschichte, but D'Elia's view is that Ladd's premillennialism remained a hindrance to his full acceptance in broader academic circles (p. 89). 

Chapter four covers, "Beyond the Borders (1959-93)," Ladd began his magnum opus on "Jesus and the Kingdom" and persuaded Harper & Row to publish it. However, his drinking became more heavier and during a sabbatical in Germany D'Elia says that Ladd "sampled some of the city' s tawdrier attractions" (I'm afraid to ask what that means) (p. 94).  Ladd also started reading Bultmann and to think through the issues that he raised. Ladd's reaction to Bultmann was not entirely negative, but hardly embracing.  The choice of David Hubbard as President of Fuller meant the victory of the progressives at Fuller and D'Elia points out that Ladd and Paul Jewett wanted to replace "inerrancy" with "infallibility" as the seminary's statement of faith. But the election of Hubbard gave Ladd a sense of security in light of criticisms of him from Walvoord at DTS and John Warwick Montgomery at ETS.

In chapter five, "The Costs of Engagement (1963-66)" we begin to see the end of Ladd's attempt to be accepted by a wider strand of biblical scholarship. Ladd spent ten years researching and writing a book on the Kingdom of God which he hoped would put him in the limelight outside evangelicalism. Many of the reviews of the book were positive, but Norman Perrin of Chicago University was absolutely scathing, and this haunted Ladd for the rest of his life and he believed that he had failed to be taken seriously by non-evangelical academics and he henceforth abandoned any attempt to write academic works for a broader audience ever again. But as D'Elia points out there are striking parallels between Ladd and Perrin, both were former baptist pastors and both were determined to make up for their background by excelling in their profession. I also learned that Perrin called Cullmann's Heilsgeschichte "Bullgeschichte". Ladd became despondent and called himself "an academic failure" and "a scholarly wipeout" (p. 140). How tragic that one review could so turn a man against himself and his own work! Ladd's alcohol problem worsened and his marriage deteriorated further. During a sabbatical in Germany he visited a psychiatrist on a US Army based and was recommended that he abandon his Christian faith (p. 144). Ladd was a broken man believing that he had been humiliated by Perrin.

Chapter six covers, "Surrendering the Quest (1966-82)" and D'Elia narrates the final stages of Ladd's life that, though productive with five books, was typified by emotional, physical, and spiritual disintegration.  Ladd considered divorcing his wife and even brought up the possibility with David Hubbard. By now Fuller was a megaseminary and Ladd had an immense reputation in evangelicalism. His alcohol abuse was no longer a rumour but a well known fact at Fuller and he even appeared inebriated at the funeral of a faculty member (p. 161).  D'Elia rightly asks as to why Ladd was allowed to remain on staff and hints that it was probably the desire to avoid bringing the seminary into disrepute (p. 163). Even Robert Guelich, who was like a surrogate son to Ladd, bore the brunt of his scorn on at least one occasion.  Ladd blamed others for his situation: "His wife was frigid, his children were disappointing, and other theologians were too critical" (p. 165). Ladd finally retired in 1976, Winnie died in 1977 which shook him greatly with much guilt, and he and his soon could be seen staggering around Pasadena drunk (p. 171).  Ladd's health deteriorated and he died in 1982 after being in a semi-conscious state for two years from complications with pneumonia. 

Overall, D'Elia's treatment of Ladd is sympathetic. D'Elia concludes that Ladd was a pivotal evangelical figure in the post-war period. I loved the reference to Dan Fuller who reportedly said that in 2000, Dallas Theological Seminary had finally caught up to where Ladd was in 1955 (p. 181). D'Elia concludes: "Ladd's scholarly work was not groundbreaking in the broader academic world - the audience to whom his major work was directed - but it functioned as such for the subculture from which he wrote, and this is another of his lasting achievements. Nearly four decades before a new generation of evangelicals could lament the scandal of the evangelical mind and propose the outrageous idea that scholarship could be distinctively Christian, Ladd bet his reputation and professional life on both of these ideas. That he was largely unsuccessful in his own time is beside the point. He set a standard that later evangelical scholars would have to reach or exceed if their work was to find acceptance in the broader academy. Generations of highly regarded evangelical scholars owe an unpaid debt to George Ladd for opening doors to them at the highest levels of academic discourse, and making possible their place a the table" (p. 12).

What a read! For me, Ladd's failings in self-discipline, marriage, fatherhood, ethics, personal relationships, and as a colleague were many; but in his quest to gain the respect of non-evangelicals he never seems to have contemplated abandoning evangelicalism or his deeply personal faith. This is the one deficiency I see in D'Elia's narration of Ladd. Ladd did not go the "liberal" track like others of his day (Norman Perrin is the obvious counter-point to Ladd here). Though he would sacrifice family and friends for the sake of courting the admiration of others, never did Ladd contemplate abandoning evangelicalism in order to acquire a place at the table. For that reason, he should at least be admired, especially when many of our own day (for often complex and sundry reasons) have jettisoned their evangelicalism. 
If I may make an unguarded personal note, Ladd's biography is disturbing for many of us who have used academic success as a means to compensate for feelings of inadequacy and inferiority from our childhood or adolescent years. Drive, ambition, and its accompanying successes may dull the memories of one's painful past and cruel tormenters, but they are an insufficient basis for self-esteem and self-identity. D'Elia's portrait of Ladd reminds me of the American from the musical Chess. The American (characterized after Bobby Fischer) is a brilliant, relentless, and self-consumed chess playing champion. Yet his story is only understood in light of his tragic childhood. The ruthless pursuit of success is entirely driven to validate his otherwise fragile personality and lingering insecurity. This is encapsulated in the song, "Pity the Child" and particularly touching is the line: "pity the child with oh so such weapons, no defence, no escape from the ties that bind". Ambition and success are weapons that can embarrass one's former adversaries, but they can also consume, control, and destroy the person and the people that they love the most. Perhaps then we should "pity" Ladd in this way. Success is the best revenge, but success is equally a narcotic that is addictive and destructive. Scholarship itself can be one of the illicit substances of success.  While faith can drive scholarship, scholarship can never be a substitute for faith.  It is great to be a man of words, but not if our walk does not match up to them. Evangelicals should remain thankful to Ladd (and to D'Elia for this impressive biography) because he ably refuted the hermeneutics of a crass dispensationalism,  he challenged the militancy with which dispensationalism was held in some establishments as a test for orthodoxy, he wrote a brilliant  A Theology of the New Testament which has influenced countless pastors and scholars, he championed of Heilsgeschichte, he wrestled with the relationship of faith and history, and he paved the way for evangelicals to enter the fray of modern biblical scholarship beyond their own constituency. His efforts impacted the scholarly maturing of evangelicalism by combining missionary fervour, faithfulness to biblical teaching, and a willingness to subject the relevant texts to critical analysis with a view to joining a wider academic discussion. Viewed this way, Ladd's personal tragedy is, I believe, eclipsed by the positive impact that he had upon evangelicalism as a whole, and all who follow after him in some respect stand on his fallible shoulders.

D'Elia has written a superb biography of Ladd, I had trouble putting it down, it is clear, well-sourced, and succinct (and those who knew Ladd personally are probably the best to arbitrate on his accuracy). This volume is necessary reading for anyone who wants to understand how evangelicalism emerged from the separatist shadows of the 1950s in America and how it eventually won a place at the table of modern academia. I commend this book also to evangelical scholars so as to be reminded that the best of men are men at best. 


Matthew D. Montonini said...


Great review, I look forward to reading it!

Peter M. Head said...

Thanks Mike,

Sounds a bit depressing actually. A lot more honest than most Christian biographies. But perhaps more information than I really needed!

Tim B said...

Yeah, his confliction does depress a bit, but kudos for his success for evangelicalism. And nicely written review, Michael.

DJP said...

...His attempt to refute dispensationalism which he saw as a threat to the intellectual credibility and theological charity of evangelicalism was largely a success, but his attempt to gain the respect of non-evangelical scholars....


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