Yesterday, I reviewed a new book by John A. D’Elia on the legacy of George Eldon Ladd. Today, I am following up that review with a few questions for John about his book on Ladd. John is the senior minister of the American Church in London and is author of A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship in America.
Trevin Wax: In your book, you claim that George Eldon Ladd attempted to rehabilitate evangelical scholarship in the United States. How did he go about doing this?
John D’Elia: Ladd grew up in an evangelical environment where participation in the broader world of
scholarship had been largely abandoned. After the Scopes Trial in 1925 many evangelicals retreated into their own safe networks of Bible colleges and seminaries, churches and missions organizations, and as a result lost their voice among people who believed differently than they did. Ladd–and others in his era–believed that the call to Christian leadership was a call to engagement rather than separation, and so he set out to rehabilitate the image and content of evangelical scholarship in the broader academy. It should be made clear here that Ladd and his fellow travelers saw this as their contribution to the evangelistic efforts of evangelicalism. It wasn’t a sellout or accommodation, but rather a brave attempt to be a witness for Christ in the secular academy.
The ‘how’ part of this question is important: Ladd earned a Ph.D. under the rigorous guidance of
Harvard’s liberal faculty, and emerged with his conservative theology intact. He then published books
and articles within and beyond the traditional conservative boundaries, and earned a hearing from–if
not the respect of–many non-evangelical readers. He spoke at scholarly conferences and participated in a wide range of academic activities. That’s how he sought to rehabilitate both the image and content of evangelical scholarship in the broader culture.
Trevin Wax: How did Ladd’s thought develop over his lifetime?
John D’Elia: Ladd started out as a committed dispensationalist, but abandoned it gradually over time. That’s really the only dramatic shift in his thought until his death. What’s interesting to me is that he retained a very conservative theological outlook without what he perceived to be the militant excesses of dispensationalism. Ladd argued not against dispensationalism, but rather against the tendency among dispensationalists to reject any biblical interpretation that didn’t match their own.
Trevin Wax: You write about Ladd’s negative reaction to a review of Jesus and the Kingdom by Norman Perrin. Why do you think Ladd reacted so strongly?
John D’Elia: Well, Ladd was a pretty broken guy in many ways. He was mistreated by his dad, who then died in his first days in college. The family was poor and debt-ridden, and he was very tall and gawky. Ladd remembered being ridiculed because of his looks both at school and at home. That he grew into an adult with some emotional wounds is not surprising. What was tragic was the way this brutal review landed in the midst of those wounds and tore them open. Ladd wanted to do something great for the Kingdom, and when it didn’t happen he was wounded deeply.
Trevin Wax: What is the legacy of Ladd’s scholarly work? Does his legacy go beyond his historic premillennialism?
John D’Elia: Ladd’s legacy within evangelical scholarship is hard to overstate. I argue in the book that he carved out a place for evangelicals in what was then the threatening and bewildering world of critical biblical scholarship. By demystifying the methods of critical scholarship, Ladd made them available to evangelicals who wanted to use them in their study of the Scriptures. Historic premillennialism, then, is really an incidental part of Ladd’s story. The real achievement in Ladd’s career can be found in the wide range of biblical scholars who sat at his feet and then went on to make their own mark. Those scholars are as diverse as John Piper and Robert Mounce on the
one side, and Eldon Epp and Charles Carlston on the other.
Trevin Wax: What lessons can seminary students and professors learn from Ladd’s personal failures as well as his achievements?
John D’Elia: Obviously Ladd’s story functions as a cautionary tale for those who want to make an impact for the Kingdom in any endeavor. As a working pastor I know that God’s plan isn’t always the same as ours, and that trusting Him means acknowledging that we might not each become the next Billy Graham, or Bill Bright, or even George Ladd. Our identity–and I’m switching gears now to exhortation–is found in being forgiven sinners who are called to serve God and His world. When we forget that we run the risk of opening wounds just as deep as the ones that tormented Ladd.
But as I write that I want to make it clear that despite his brokenness, Ladd represents a truly heroic sort of Christian service that we don’t see much anymore in our world of specialization and polarization. Whatever else he failed at, and I admit that’s a pretty long list, Ladd engaged the culture of his day with faith and courage. He made a difference that continues today for believers who hear God’s call to be witnesses to the Gospel in every corner (and profession) of the earth. Whatever Ladd’s personal failures may have been, he served his Lord and Savior with distinction and passion, and never lost sight of the fact that all of our work plays a part in taking the saving message of Jesus Christ to all the nations of the world.
Ladd’s life is not only a warning. It takes a double-dose of gall for any of us to focus only on Ladd’s failures, without at least a nod to his enormous achievement at a crucial time in church history. So much time and effort was wasted in the postwar era on squabbles and division among Christians. It was men like George Ladd who tried to rise above the static and express the Gospel clearly and faithfully to a world that needed to hear it badly.