John D’Elia on George Eldon Ladd

ladd-book.JPGJohn A. D’Elia’s biography of George Eldon Ladd has rightly been hailed as the definitive look on the American theologian who brought evangelical Christian scholarship to “a place at the table” of the world’s great theologians of his day. Ladd’s books are not only required reading in most seminaries but are also sold in local church bookstores. He was a thinker whose mind attracts all Christians, regardless of the stage of their journey into the Kingdom of God. For once and for all George Eldon Ladd clarified what Jesus meant when he proclaimed that “the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

So powerful and compelling was Ladd’s insight that his theological position has taken shorthand form through out the world – the Kingdom of God is “already/not yet.”

But in A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship in America, Mr. D’Elia reveals the personal struggles behind the great mind:

“All of [Ladd’s personal problems] – the family issues, the excessive drinking, and the failure to achieve the academic success he craved-did little to alter Ladd’s theological position.” (165)

The biographies of many important men show the opposite – their personal lives playing a pivotal role in shaping ideas and actions. How could George Eldon Ladd’s life acquire so different a character?

The author was generous in answering my questions.

PK: How is it that Mr. Ladd’s personal life avoided influencing his theological position?

JD’E: That’s a topic within Ladd’s story that was of particular interest to me as well–the way in which his ‘already-but-not-yet’ theology sustained his disastrous personal life.

My feeling was that even mature Christians can have their faith shaken by difficult/tragic/disappointing events in their personal lives. Since little if anything of substance turned out well for Ladd, I was making the observation that his own beliefs stayed consistent.

Now, as I read that back it seems even more notable than when I was writing
the book. I suppose one could ask the question: Why didn’t Ladd’s life
experiences make more of an impact on his theology?

PK: The fact that Mr. Ladd’s personal circumstances did not affect his Already/Not Yet position on the Kingdom of God is to his credit. Other Christians’ faith might not have withstood the facts of his personal life.

Did his theology give him an “excuse”, for want of a better word, for not addressing his personal problems?

In his book The Gospel of the Kingdom he writes that men cannot build the Kingdom of God, merely receive it or reject it. Is it possible that he considered taking action to improve his personal relationships as an act of unfaithfulness toward the way the Kingdom is to be built? Did he consider working toward improving his situation an act of human pride? In the same book he states that what God demands God must provide. Is it possible that Mr. Ladd heard God demanding better relationships for him, but failed to see God’s provision of the means to better the relationships in his life?

JD’E: That’s an interesting perspective on Ladd. I don’t see anything explicit in his writings that would lead me to the ‘excuse’ option, though that doesn’t rule it out, of course. Still, that may be a more contemporary interpretation of the link between Ladd’s theology and his self-understanding. Ladd did seek help—counseling, medication, etc., so we can’t paint him as too passive in this. It’s probably closer to the target to say that Ladd did what he could to address his issues, and considered himself faithful in hoping for their resolution when all things would be made new.

PK: Would Ladd rather suffer waiting for God than accept help from professional counselors? Did he worry that accepting such help might be seen as doubting God, lacking faith?

J.D’E: No. Ladd saw counselors often during his years at Fuller. He was instrumental in advising the School of Psychology, and happy to benefit from its expertise. Ladd also saw a psychologist on a military base during one of his sabbaticals in Germany. Ladd famously said that he had been helped more through psychology than through prayer.

PK: Mr. Ladd seems very typical of many New Englanders I have known here in Maine for the past 30 years. They will not seek help or accept help: it is seen as a sign of weakness for all, and a sign of a lack of faith among Christians. Emerson’s Self Reliance is in the air and was probably more so back when Ladd was growing up. Did he ever talk about that mentality in his growing up?

J.D’E: Ladd certainly has some New Englander in him, but he clearly warmed to a form of California openness. As I said, he saw professionals to talk about his problems, and more than a few of his contemporaries remember him discussing very personal issues with a high degree of candor. He mentioned his son’s physical and psychological issues, for example, in classes and even before large audiences. (Note: Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’, no matter how it has been ingested by the culture, is really about avoiding submission to any ideology rather than refusing help.)

Click HERE to order John D’Elia’s important book –A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship in America.

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