Monday, May 03, 2010

A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship in America by John A. D'Elia

This past weekend I finished reading A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship in America by John D'Elia. For those who do not know him, George Eldon Ladd was one of the most significant evangelical scholars of the 20th century. In this biography, D'Elia sketches the life of this fascinating man in a readable and engaging manner. It was hard to put the book down, and at a mere 182 pages of text (plus another 50 pages of endnotes) it is a fast read.

Central to the book is Ladd efforts to gain a "place at the table" for evangelical biblical scholarship at a time (1940s-1960s) when very few in the academy paid any attention to it. Ladd recognized that this was in part due to a failure by evangelicals to actually engage liberal scholarship rather than dismiss it outright. As a result Ladd was among a small group of evangelicals who pursued doctoral work in elite level Ph.D. programs such as Harvard as a means of establishing scholarly credentials that would enable them later to produce scholarship from an evangelical perspective that could gain a hearing in the broader academy. The fact that many evangelicals today have a seat at the table in the larger academy is due at least in part to Ladd.

Ladd's efforts to produce evangelical scholarship that would be received within the larger academy culminated in 1964 with the publication of Jesus and the Kingdom: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism (later renamed The Presence of the Future). Ladd hoped the book would a definitive study of the Kingdom of God in the New Testament, and the fact it was published by Harper and Row gave it a hearing in the broader academy. Ladd thought he had accomplished his goal of gaining a place at the table.

All of that changed when he read NT scholar Norman Perrin's review, which thoroughly trashed the book. Although Ladd's work was well-received by others, the prominence of Perrin within the academy meant that his review was devastating. Ladd was crushed, and as a result he spiraled downward into a depression that he never fully recovered from. The rest of his life he considered himself a failure, despite continuing to publish and teach for another ten years or so.

Before reading this book, I knew almost nothing about Ladd other than his groundbreaking work on the Kingdom of God. His New Testament Theology book remains a classic contribution to the field even 35 years later (a revised edition was produced in 1993 with some additional essays; I still use the text in my own NT Theology course). As I read the book, however, I was saddened to learn of the mess that was Ladd's personal life. D'Elia does a nice job of describing Ladd's upbringing and the effect it would have on him for the rest of his life (though I think this is overplayed at times). In his quest to gain a hearing for evangelical scholarship, he largely sacrificed his family, resulting in very strained relationships with his wife and two children. Because he set his hope on academic recognition, Ladd fell apart when he failed to received what he believed he deserved. He increasingly turned to alcohol and strongly considered divorcing his wife. The irony is that although Ladd considered himself a failure, he left behind a legacy of students who did go on to successful academic careers and gained a place at the table within the broader academy. Ladd simply did not live long enough to see this, dying in 1982.

Reading this book was a healthy reminder to me not to set my hope on academic achievement or recognition within the broader academy. I am grateful for my wife and kids who help keep me grounded and are a great source of joy in my life. I also am grateful for my local church an how it allows me to contribute to the growth of fellow believers in the gospel and how it applies to all of life.


DJP said...

Over-self-estimation, much, on Ladd's part? Machen didn't engage scholarship? Stonehouse? Murray?

Matthew S. Harmon said...


Probably some measure of over self-estimation, to be sure. But I think Ladd's perspective was shaped by the fact that when he went to Harvard for Ph.D. work he did not see scholarship by evangelicals or fundamentalists even on the radar map outside of evangelical or fundamentalist circles. For many in the broader academy, men like Machen, Stonehouse, Murray and others simply did not exist other than in a parallel universe. Ladd's goal was to change that by producing scholarship that would HAVE to be recognized by the larger academy because of its excellence and use of critical tools even though the conclusions remained "conservative".

BTW, thanks for the heads up on the typo. I think I fixed it now :)

Andrew Koetsier said...

Have you read "Jesus and the Kingdom: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism (later renamed The Presence of the Future)"? Would you recommend it?

Anonymous said...

My uncle, a tenured professor at my bible college, recently recommended this book to me. I have been having a difficult time with self-doubt and have a strong need for assurance. My uncle has been patient with me since he knows my upbringing (which was very poor) and has helped me considerably over the years with spiritual formation, counsel, and academics. He has also been a father figure to me in the absence of both of my parents. (The truth is my life has taken a radical transformation since coming to Christ but I'm still plagued by some residual effects of my childhood. Awareness of this helps considerably though.)

I'll never forget his words to me this week when he told me that self-doubt and inferiority are not to be toyed with. His example was Ladd and he recommended this book to me.

To some people Ladd's obsession may be difficult to understand, but for someone like myself it strikes a chord. Childhood is inescapable in several ways. And the need for worth and acceptance for adults who were not given this in childhood is incredible.

While I love my wife and daughter, I keep searching for value academically -- and I frequently fail to see it even when its staring me in the face. Between counseling sessions about inferiority, and a certainty that all of my professors had a very low opinion of me, the reality was I was gaining rapid favor at my college, earning prestigious awards that few students see, and having one of the highest GPA's in the school. Healing has come very slow but I trust Jesus to continue his work in me.

I do not know what all Ladd's misfortunes were in his childhood but I wouldn't be surprised to find that we share some similarities.

My apologies for using your blog as a platform for sharing so much personal information. I just felt like getting this off of my chest. Feel free to delete my comment.