In 2008 Oxford University Press published John A. D’Elia‘s A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship in America, which serves as both biography and interpretation. The book contains valuable insights into Ladd’s childhood, training, and life, and also includes the author’s editorial thoughts and interpretation (or application!). For this new series, ThinkTheology will be writing collaboratively as we work through the book chapter-by-chapter, exploring ideas, life lessons, and theological concepts from Ladd via A Place at the Table. For brevity, each author’s contribution will be identified with their initials (LG = Luke Geraty, KB = Kenny Burchard, AB = Able Baker, RM = Robby McAlpine). Read part 1 to get started.
Chapter 1: “Early Life & Academic Preparation”
LG: Chapter one of A Place at the Table was a tough read for me. The chapter summarizes Ladd’s childhood , family life, and education. Ladd’s childhood, to put it bluntly, was really horrible and his family life leaves much to be desired. Having parents that appear quite disconnected and being a social outcast, Ladd’s early years are quite depressing.
Despite the challenges Ladd faced, both in his family and social life, grace appeared. Through the preaching of a woman(!) at a Methodist church, Cora Regina Cash, Ladd came to faith. D’Elia quotes Ladd’s own testimony:
“Christ became a reality to me… I resolved that evening when the invitation was given to take my stand for Christ and to make an open confession of Him. It was a struggle, one of the most difficult things I have done in my life, but I did it.” (p.3)
I do wonder, from this testimony, Ladd’s understanding of having an experience of God’s transformative grace and making an intellectual decision. I wish I could have a better grasp on what conversion or the new birth looked like for Ladd.
Anyway, Ladd’s education was a challenge because of technicalities. Though he eventually graduated with a PhD from Harvard, the journey to get there was fraught with obstacle after obstacle, discouragement after discouragement. This too made a lasting impact of Ladd.
There are really two sections of D’Elia’s thoughts that strike me as important to discuss. First, our biographer writes:
“… George Ladd’s early life was largely joyless.” (p.2)
“This period of preparation introduces some of the influences and ideas that would define the rest of Ladd’s life and career. His obsessive quest for a place in a respected doctoral program exposed some of the psychological wounds from his childhood, wounds that dogged him until his death. The feelings of inferiority and inadequacy he developed as a result of his family’s poverty and lack of a secure home caused his overreaction to the rejection he felt in his search for a school. In both his pastoral and academic work, however, he found a measure of acceptance and healing of those earlier injuries… Ladd struggled with his sense of inferiority for the rest of his life.” (p.31, emphasis mine)
Based off of the evidence, I think D’Elia’s interpretation of Ladd’s life is spot on. Several thoughts are raised as I read these words. First, as a parent, I cannot underestimate the importance of joy for my children! And joy for the Christian’s life! Joy, pleasure, and satisfaction, as articulated by the likes of Jonathan Edwards and John Piper, are aspects of the Christian life that many appear to miss, or worse, be told aren’t important. Ladd’s life proves just the opposite, albeit from a negative example. Beyond working for the God-centered joy of my children, I need to do the same as a husband, pastor, and friend!
Second, while there appears to be a degree of healing that can be experienced while one is in ministry, I wonder how to best discern whether someone should be in ministry versus someone who should get healing before they go into ministry. If Ladd’s overall life is considered, the “measure of acceptance and healing” that Ladd experienced as a pastor and academic was short-lived and not very comprehensive. What could churches do to better understand this issue? What are the challenges? How might pastors discern for themselves where they are at?
Third, our identity, if not centered on Christ, is fragile, easily broken, and without eternal substance. Based off of what we’ve read (and will read) in A Place at the Table, Ladd’s insecurity got the best of him time and time again. This challenges me to do all that I can to solidify my own identity in Jesus and to labor toward that for all those whom I know and love.
At any rate, this chapter is extremely important if you want to understand future challenges, decisions, and failures that George Eldon Ladd, one of my favorite biblical theologians, faced.
RM: Bilbo Baggins once referred to his community as “fine and admirable hobbits”. I find myself writing here among some scholarly heavy-weights, and therefore I will give them space to discuss the theological and cultural implications of this chapter.
I do, however, have some pastoral observations on the life lessons that all of us — scholar, pastor, theologian, lay person — can learn from Ladd’s story.
The following are snippets from chapter two, “Brilliant & Broken”, from my book, The Genesis Cafe: Conversations on the Kingdom.
1. Where do we find our identity?
“[W]hen our sense of identity is hit hard by criticism, failure (real or perceived), or any number of disappointments in life, it’s not unusual for our head knowledge about our identity in Christ to be nearly drowned out by the screaming insecurities in our hearts. If we measure our sense of identity in what we do, and even more so when we base our identity on people’s approval of what we do, we are setting ourselves up for wounding and disillusionment.”
* * *
2. Whose approval is the most important in our lives?
“Ladd had many positive voices in his life, thanking him and applauding his scholarly efforts. These voices should have created a deep sense of gratitude that he was truly making a difference in the lives of others.
“There were also the negative voices of those who disagreed or openly opposed him, yet you would think that the good voices would at least balance out the negative. But it seemed that the positive comments were somehow disqualified, because the people that Ladd really wanted to hear affirmation from either ignored or opposed his best efforts.”
* * *
3. It’s all about relationship.
“Ladd was so focused, so driven, so consumed with his ‘mission’ in life, that he neglected his wife and children, and it had a devastating effect on all of them. And as the relational distance between them increased, Ladd withdrew even further, burying himself in his work.
“We get one chance to be newlyweds. To be new parents. To run beside a five-year-old, as she wobbles on her bicycle, without training wheels for the first time. To put the Flintstones Band-Aid on the boy’s knee and ‘kiss it all better’. To sit on a cold metal bleacher and cheer together for the local football team. To celebrate another anniversary over a candle-lit dinner.
“The sobering lesson from Ladd’s family life is painfully clear: some things are more important than our ‘life’s mission’.”
AB: In our pursuit to understand theology (by Theology I mean: what people say about what God has said) we all have some agenda that we carry into the discipline. For Ladd I cannot help but notice two sucking personal vacancy’s (needs) that he seems to bring to the theological table.
1. Ladd had a deep personal need to be respected, valued and heard. It seems as if he then projects this need onto his love and interpretation of Evangelicalism. It is interesting to me how broken theologians contribute to a more robust and whole theology. Ladds broken story brought more cohesion to our new testament theology! That is an amazing paradox kind of like the already and not yet. How aware was Ladd of the relationship between his personal agenda in theology and his personal life?
2. Ladd was riddled with insecurity. A desire to be respected, valued and heard when combined with an overwhelming sense of insecurity are the two most volatile ingredients one can mix with popularity or success. Though it does not make Ladd less of a genius it does make him less capable of handling the criticism that comes with the praise. I am interested to see how Ladds desire to see Evangelicalism become a respected voice among its critics compares to his inability to handle criticism. I am inclined to think that it has something to do with one of the cores of Evangelicalism being “personal experience”(abstract) as opposed to certain forms of Christianity that are more academic and thus rigidly concrete.
Feel free to engage us in the comments, as we’ll be engaging each other! And pick up a copy of A Place at the Table as we continue to read through and interact at Ladd’s table!