By Shane Kastler
In A Place at the Table, author John A. D'Elia gives a fascinating account of one of the twentieth century's most influential New Testament scholars. George Eldon Ladd had a sharp mind and a strong desire to influence the liberal scholarly community for the Kingdom of God. Though raised and brought to faith in a Dispensational church, Ladd grew up to reject Dispensationalism in favor of Historic Premillennialism, which differentiates from Dispensationalism in that it does not hold to a pre-tribulational rapture, nor a distinction between the nation of Israel and the Christian Church. Ladd was educated at Gordon College (today known as Gordon-Conwell); and after pastoring several New England Baptist churches, earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University. Though his doctoral studies were under the tutelage of a liberal advisor, Ladd retained his evangelical faith and sought to write a work, from a conservative theological perspective, that even the liberal's of the higher criticism camp, would have to appreciate. Unto this end, Ladd devoted his academic life, and in the process, sacrificed much of his family life.
In many ways, Ladd was a deeply troubled man, as D'Elia depicts in this work. Ladd had a cold relationship with his father, who appears to have been overbearing. And he was jealous of his younger brother, who was always more popular, athletic, and approved of by their father. Ladd eventually marries and has two children, but his commitment (obsession) with his studies leads to an alienation with his wife, and children. Beginning in the 1950's Ladd starts to struggle with alcoholism and eventually sexual sin (D'Elia implies that Ladd probably had an affair while on sabbatical in Germany and also made a pass at the wife of one of his students.) His alcoholism becomes worse, until eventually his employer, Fuller Theological Seminary had to reprimand and suspend him for one year. Ladd considers divorcing his wife, but never does. She dies in 1976. In 1980, Ladd, who by now is an uncontrollable alcoholic, has a stroke and spends his last two years in a nursing home, dying in 1982.
Though Ladd's psyche was always brittle, it seems that he was ultimately pushed over the edge in the 1960s shortly after completing his magnum opus. For ten solid years, he had worked on a book called "Jesus and the Kingdom" that was meant to be a work to engage the liberal scholars of the day. One book reviewer, Norman Perrin, panned the book in a theological journal, and Ladd absolutely fell apart. From that point on, he considered his life a failure and he slid deeper and deeper into emotional duress and alcoholism. Friends, colleagues, and family all tried to help him but he refused. Ultimately his behavior cost him numerous relationships, including those of his children who rarely spoke to him. This is the tragedy of Ladd's life, and a lesson for those who would put work, even God's work, ahead of their relationship with the Lord and the family he has given them to care for. But Ladd's academic achievements were indeed profound.
While dispensational theology was the predominant
conservative view of the day, Ladd confronted it with some of its
unbiblical and extreme tendencies. In so doing, he was much maligned by
leading dispensationalists such as John Walvoord, but he added another,
much needed perspective to the debate regarding eschatology. Ladd is
still considered the most prominent twentieth century spokesman for the
millennial view known as Historic Premillennialism, and is widely read
on the subject even today.
Ladd also wrote a Theology of the New Testament, that some have considered on par with John Calvin's "Institutes of the Christian Religion" in its scope and influence. Clearly Ladd had something to offer the world of Christian scholarship. But sadly, his personal life didn't coincide with his stated, written beliefs.
My conclusion of this work is that it is a tremendous read for those interested in the theological academy, and for those who would like a glimpse into the personal life of this truly tragic figure. D'Elia does a masterful job of weaving the scholarly achievements of Ladd with his personal life in way that is interesting, albeit sad. Ladd's life and work have much to teach us in both positive and negative ways. D'Elia brings this out clearly in a book that is both intellectually challenging, and personally interesting. I recommend its reading, and the reading of Ladd's work, without reservation.
(NOTE: This review was originally written for Amazon.com on Feb. 24, 2009)