As a seminary student at Southwestern Seminary, I picked up and read a little 1956 work on eschatology called The Blessed Hope written by a theologian named George Eldon Ladd. To borrow that great phrase initially used to describe the effect that Barth’s commentary on Romans had on the liberal theology of his day, Ladd’s work fell like an atomic bomb on the playground of the dispensationalism in which I had been raised. On hindsight, it did much more than that. His argument against the pretribulation rapture from the position of a lack of historical attestation for that view coincided with a campus visit and lecture from Tom Oden on paleo-orthodoxy. The two combined caused me to have a kind of epiphanious crisis in which I began to understand more about the importance of historical theology and, more importantly, about what the church is and who God is. (If that doesn’t make sense to you, then you may not get the struggle that a lot of people feel when they have grown up in the radicallly ahistorical confines of free church Southern fundamentalism only to discover the shocking truth that what God did between the close of the canon and your birth actually kind of matters a bit. But more on that later, perhaps.)
Anyway, The Blessed Hope was, for me, the death knell of dispensationalism and particularly of the idea of a pre-tribulation rapture. As I’ve come to know more about the thought of George Eldon Ladd, I’ve come to appreciate him even more.
Now comes John A. D’Elia’s fascinating, enthralling, and heartbreaking biography of Ladd: A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship in America. It is a simultaneously devastating and sympathetic look at one of the 20th century’s greatest Evangelical minds…but not one of its greatest lives.
D’Elia reveals a tortured soul: too tall and too skinny as a child, Ladd carried with him the label of “freak” throughout his life. He seems to have been wounded deeply by the early cruelty of the children around him and by the absence of any real fatherly affection. He married a woman who carried similar wounds. Their marriage proved to be deeply troubled. In the midst of this, their son had serious physical and psychological issues, and their daughter harbored deep resentments, apparently, towards her father and his neglect of his son, her brother.
Ladd was a deeply flawed individual…which is to say, Ladd was human. It is safe to say that he seriously neglected his family in his relentless pursuit to achieve academic standing and credibility. His life’s ambition was to gain respectability for evangelical theology, a noble goal to be sure, but it’s hard to distinguish how much of Ladd’s goal was the rehabilitation of evangelical theology and how much was the rehabilitation of George Eldon Ladd’s self-image. Forever seeking to overcompensate for a fragile image of himself, Ladd hurt those closest to him in ways that are tragic and lamentable. When Ladd’s greatest work (in his eyes) was published, a negative review from a liberal scholar (Norman Perrin) sends him into a kind of spiritual, moral, and psychological tailspin that becomes nothing short of bizarre. (D’Elia correctly notes that the review itself could not have done this. Rather, it simply opened a wound out of which poured many of Ladd’s long-festering demons.) Eventually, Ladd turned to alcohol and died a broken man.
And yet, Ladd produced some of the most influential evangelical works of theology and scholarship in the last one hundred years. Furthermore, D’Elia paradoxically reveals a man who seems to have deeply loved the Lord and treasured the gospel and thrown himself passionately into more than a few noble, commendable, and God-honoring tasks. Ladd even seems to have been aware of his own brokenness and the pain he had caused others, pitifully revealing this fact to audiences of students.
What to make of this book? Well, it’s a page turner and was very hard for me to put down. It was not a hit piece in the least (Frank Schaeffer anyone?). It was sympathetic and balanced yet honest and revealing. It is a sad but well-told story. More than that, it is an important story and a powerful cautionary tale.
And what to make of Ladd? Ladd was a tragedy in so many ways. He never knew the effect his work had on scores of young ministers and laymen because he was too focused on trying to win the respect of the wider academic world. He never considered that the work he had done would be opening the eyes of young seminarians in 1996 in Ft. Worth, Texas.
Was Ladd a believer? Yes, I think he was. Was he deeply flawed? Yes, he clearly was. Does Ladd’s work still have value? By all means it does! Should he still be read today? Yes, yes, yes! And can his life serve as a cautionary tale against seeking validation in all the wrong places and losing perspective on what is most important? Indeed it can.
I daresay that nobody who reads this work will do so dispassionately. You will be changed by this book. You will see yourself on these pages and you will be warned. You may just have your heart broken…not by Ladd’s tragic tale, but by how much you may just see yourself in his story. I daresay that many ministers will resonate with this story of seeking approval, of achieving success, of gaining the respectability of your peers. But hopefully they will be cautioned by this story about the dangers of fixating on these things at the cost of integrity, family, peace, and joy.
Above all, this book will help you remember that God works with jars of clay, some of them deeply broken…which is to say, that God loves His people, even, and especially, in their brokenness.