The Case of George E. Ladd
|George Eldon Ladd|
Nobody did more to introduce and promote the concept that the
has already come but not yet fully come than
Fuller Theological Seminary Professor Dr. George Eldon Ladd (1911 – 1982). In
Jesus Christ the Kingdom has broken into this world and manifested itself in
this present age. Redemption has been accomplished and the age to come has
begun. Here and there we see signs and evidences of the Kingdom. But, alongside
the age to come and the Kingdom, there remains this present evil age and the not
yet destroyed kingdom of the devil. At the Second Coming of our Lord the Kingdom of God and age to come will come fully and
finally. This is the great and blessed hope of the church. Kingdom of God
Sometime in the early 60s I had occasion to hear Dr. Ladd speak over a week’s time. I remember only two things: (1) From time to time during his lectures, he would stop, unable to continue, bow his head, compose himself, and then go on. The word I heard was that this had something to do with a son. (2) When he went swimming, some biddies present thought his bathing suit a little on the skimpy side.
When I became aware of the biography, A Place at the Table (John D’Elia, Oxford University Press, 2008), a few years ago, I found it out of my price range, so I waited till I found it December last on Amazon at significantly lower price. A week ago I finished reading it.
George Ladd was a complicated, conflicted, and tragic figure – which is close to an understatement.
While I enjoy reading speculative psychological analysis of people, I am reluctant to accept such at face value. How does anyone know, even a trained analyst, what makes a person what that person is? It seems to me that, for every person who turned out the way he/she is supposedly because of certain familial and environmental factors experienced in the growing up years, you can find at least one from the same background whose personality, character, and life were no so affected.
Nevertheless, Ladd’s biographer finds at least a partial explanation of Ladd in Ladd’s relationship with two parents who were both distant and hard of hearing and with a brother who was his superior socially and athletically. The author believes these things go a long way toward explaining Ladd’s lifelong feelings of inferiority and insecurity and longings for accomplishment and acceptance.
Ladd’s early career involved engagement with and refutation of the Dispensationalism which he had at one time believed. But, he saw as his real life’s work two inter-connected goals: (1) to gain "a place at the table” of Biblical scholarship for himself and other evangelicals by doing work of similar or superior quality to liberal critical scholars, and (2) to produce a magnum opus of Biblical theology dealing with the kingdom of God to be published by a major secular house.
All the while he experienced painful personal struggles and failures. He suffered lifelong depression, sometimes more, sometimes less, severe. He did not enjoy a happy marriage or family life. He studied and worked to such an extent that he was distant from and to his wife and children. Or, perhaps, because he was incapable of the healthy intimacy that marriage and family entail, he studied to avoid his family and to compensate for his relational inability and inadequacy. At times he considered divorcing his wife. His children became estranged from him.
As would fit with his sense of inferiority and insecurity, he was very sensitive to criticism whether from those inside (his biographer places him among progressive evangelicals) or outside (liberals, dispensationalists, conservative evangelicals) his own camp. This sensitivity to criticism exacerbated his difficulty in relationships with friends, colleagues, and students who disappointed him.
He came to view himself as a failure when his magnum opus, Jesus and the Kingdom, was not received as he had hoped. Sales were weak. The book was severely criticized and dismissed by liberal critical scholars whose respect, if not agreement, he most wanted. Most devastating was the nearly savage review written by Norman Perrin and published in 1965 in Interpretation, the journal of Biblical Theology associated with Union Theological Seminary. Though the reviews were not universally bad, and though he was reassured by those who appreciated his work, Ladd was unable to overcome his overwhelming sense of failure. So far as he was concerned, this was the watershed and defining event of his whole professional life. "Ichabod" was written over his life’s work. Even his successes, which were numerous and substantial, he was not able to acknowledge or enjoy, especially after the deep depression that descended on him after he read Perrin's review.
Ladd had a drinking problem. He drank all his adult life (at that time a big evangelical “no-no”), but excessive drinking became a chronic issue around 1965 when his book was not well received, and he concluded he and his life were failure. His not controlling his drinking led to increased difficulties in his personal, familial, and professional life. He was forced to take a sabbatical (1970-71). After his retirement (1974) and his wife’s death (1977) the problem intensified.
The life of George Eldon Ladd forces upon us a question which we will put in terms of experimental evangelical categories: Was he regenerate or unregenerate? Was he a true Christian or a false one (perhaps self-deceived)? Was he saved or unsaved?
Dispensationalists, among whom he would once have counted himself, and others who accept the carnal Christian concept, have an easy and perhaps somewhat comforting answer. He was a believer but a carnal one. Perhaps he was not adequately surrendered, not filled with the Spirit. He lost rewards but not heaven.
Other evangelicals, especially those who emphasize that salvation means not just freedom from the guilt and condemnation of sin (which are objectively perfect now) but also substantially from sin’s power, have more a problem. They will acknowledge that we can never know for certain the heart of any other; therefore, we cannot say whether or not Ladd died in a state of grace. But, there are disturbing elements. It might be possible to overlook at least some, if not most, of the relational issues, psychological demons, and spiritual sins. But the drinking is not so easy. Sins of the flesh, understood as some, though not all, bodily lusts (particularly sex, drugs, and alcohol), are harder for evangelicals to pass over when considering the spiritual condition of a person.
How did George Ladd understand himself with his psychological weaknesses, his moral inconsistencies, and his professional failures? His biographer suggests that that he made sense of himself and his life in terms of the categories of the “already and not yet” of the Kingdom:
In the end, Ladd’s life – with all its conflicts and messiness – fitted manageably into his understanding of a broken world, having caught a glimpse of the kingdom in part, waiting for the fullness to come at a later date. Only his eschatology, which formed the bedrock of his academic career, gave Ladd the hope he needed to survive the pain of his personal and professional lives.
It is obvious that there is a lot of “not yet” about the Kingdom. Look at the state of the world. Look at the church, even, or perhaps especially, our little tiny corner of it. When we consider the world and the church there is much more “not yet” than “already” to the Kingdom. A mustard seed yet.
However, we struggle more when it comes to the individual. Here the “not yet” explains persecution, suffering, and death. The Kingdom has not come. But, with regard to sin and the individual, we do not find the explanation so helpful and acceptable. We expect not perfection but a lot more “already” when it comes to the effects of regeneration and union with Christ. We want to see more sanctification accomplished experientially and practically already.
Among evangelicals all but perfectionists must acknowledge that, when it comes to sin’s power, there is an already but not yet. But how much already is required? How much not yet is allowed? Just what is the “normal” Christian experience and life now?
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 7: 24 – 8:1).
We’re not what we should be and will be. More than is comfortable for us to admit and more than we hear most of the time in church, we’re still a whole lot of what we used to be.
In Christ it’s all already. In us a whole lot of not yet.