I'll call you a a Christian if you'll call me a scholar...

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(Tim) Our American-African correspondent, David Wegener, just sent in this review of John D’Elia's A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship in America (Oxford University Press, 2008).

This biography is a parable of the dangers of seeking the approval of the world. Didn’t our Lord say, “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Mk 8:36). Yet this is what Ladd sought, and along the way he lost his soul. He was one of the most respected evangelical Bible teachers of the mid-twentieth century. Nobody from my generation can teach on the kingdom of God and not quote George Ladd. Yet he craved the acceptance of the world and, when he did not attain it, his life fell apart. Didn’t the Apostle write, “The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so” (Rom 8:7). The world will never accept us. It can’t.

Ladd became a Christian as a young man, sensed a call to the Christian ministry, trained at Gordon College and then entered the pastorate. Somewhere along the way, he changed direction and began to pursue further education so that he could do scholarly work on the Bible...

Eventually, he got a doctoral degree in Classics and New Testament from Harvard University. He taught for a while at Gordon College, then in 1950 he went to teach at Fuller Theological Seminary, the school with which his name is closely associated.

Ladd wanted to do scholarly writing that would command the attention of liberal Bible scholars and grant evangelicals “a place at the table” in theological discussions. He studied and taught and neglected his children and wrote articles and went on sabbaticals and developed a drinking problem and watched his marriage deteriorate and finally got a secular company to publish his magnum opus, Jesus and the Kingdom. When a liberal New Testament scholar, Norman Perrin, reviewed the book and dismissed it attacking Ladd in the journal, Interpretation, Ladd was devastated.

Devastated is not too strong a word. Ladd said openly that his life quest had been in vain. He gave up. His drinking problem became worse until his superiors at Fuller disciplined him for it. Ladd talked about divorcing his wife. He became further estranged from his children. He rejected his friends and former students who heaped praise on him. He sought psychological counsel and it helped, but only a little. His life spiraled out of control. He never overcame his drinking problem and the only reason he was allowed to continue teaching was because of the scandal it would have caused at a delicate time in Fuller’s history (the early 70s) when they were trying to minimize the damage done by the elimination of inerrancy from Fuller’s Statement of Faith. Is this the kind of man we want to train the next generation of Christian ministers?

Along the way we learn … Ladd was converted by the preaching of Miss Nora Cash, a graduate of Gordon College … Restrictions on women preachers only appeared after the Fundamentalist controversies of the 1920s and 1930s (?!) … Harvard’s approach to Biblical studies is called “theologically neutral” … Ladd’s mentor at Harvard, H.J. Cadbury, is called a “thorough-going skeptic” and a “brilliant exegete” … Some of the translators of the RSV were investigated by Senator Joseph McCarthy as he looked for communists in the early 1950s … A car dealer in Portland, Oregon was tried in 1955 for selling a car on Sunday … The church was peripheral to Ladd’s life, a means to an end, even as he portrayed his life as one in service to the church … Of the parallels between the career aims, perceived failure and psychological decline of Ladd and Edward J. Carnell, Fuller’s professor of Apologetics and Philosophy of Religion …

D’Elia is sympathetic to Ladd and portrays his decline in psychological terms, as the inevitable waiting to happen. Perrin’s review just happened to be the trigger. Ladd had a very distant relationship with a stern father. He was a tall, shy, awkward youth, nicknamed “the freak.” This led to his fragile self-esteem. He was constantly seeking the approval of others but was unable to connect emotionally with those closest to him. All of this is certainly true.

The author does fault Ladd’s theology just a bit. His eschatology spoke of the tension of the Christian who lives between the already and the not yet. He has received the first fruits of Christ’s redemption, but the whole package is still future. Wholeness is not ours in this life. This meant that Ladd could live with such a gap between what he wrote about and how he actually lived.

But is that all? What about Ladd’s career aim? Why were/are evangelicals so restless in their need for affirmation from the world? Was this a godly or proper aim? I remember years ago reading the autobiography of Carl Henry (Confessions of a Theologian). Henry was of the same generation of evangelicals as Ladd. They were constantly embarrassed by the theological expression and anti-intellectualism of their fundamentalist elders. Henry was also constantly lamenting the lack of prestige enjoyed by evangelicals from their secular counterparts. Did everyone in that generation have poor self-esteem? Why did they think the world would ever accept them? Some of them were even Calvinists and so they should have known better.

A few writers, like D’Elia, praise Ladd and Jewett and Carnell, as the sacrificial pioneers who took the hard knocks and opened up doors for evangelicals today and made it possible for them to teach in fine universities and have their articles accepted in mainstream theological journals. Yet what do we really see today?

(1) Either Evangelicals separate their faith completely from the work they do in the academy. (2) Or they’ve so compromised the faith that they are saying just what the world is saying anyway so the offense is gone. (3) And all Evangelicals must agree to play by the rules of the academy:

  • don’t talk about certain topics like the evils of abortion or homosexuality;
  • whatever you do, always be civil and genial and irenic, and never raise your voice in anger, unless it is against logging companies;
  • please the language czars;
  • nuance your statements so there is always some ambiguity in what you say; and
  • don’t get caught making a pass at your graduate students or their wives.

Ladd was mainly a compromiser. He had to choose between giving up his higher-critical methodology (and thereby displeasing his mentor and the worldly community of Bible scholars) or giving up his doctrine of inerrancy. He chose the latter course, as did his colleagues at Fuller (although they hid it for as long as they could until finally being “outed” in the 1970s).

All in all, this is such a sad story, but it's a story we'd better learn well.

We have got to get rid of our lust for academic respectability when we choose men to lead our churches and seminaries.