The Perils of Evangelical Scholarship

Thanks to Gerardo Marti for his 2nd guest post of the week! See a couple of entries below for his fuller biography.

The Perils of Evangelical Scholarship
by Gerardo Marti

I just finished one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. Having heard of George Eldon Ladd as an admired figure among thoughtful evangelicals, I picked up this new biography by John D’Elia. The book, A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship in America, describes Ladd’s career in the context of the evangelical struggles of his day. Comparing the fervor of a young Harvard graduate at the beginning of the book to the debilitated and disillusioned professor barely able to speak at the end makes this a tragic, rather than triumphant, tale.

Growing up in Orange County, California, I always heard George Eldon Ladd associated with his book A Theology of the New Testament, a synthetic and highly readable text that pulled various scholarly threads together while honoring a commitment to inerrancy. But, behind this work lay a lifetime of effort, and D’Elia’s book lays it all out.

Ladd did not consider this later book to be his most important. Instead, D’Elia shows Ladd as an earnest student who craved a deeper engagement with critical scholarship and worked his way into the Harvard Divinity School. There, he absorbed and appreciated the theological innovations of the day, particularly the work of Rudolf Bultmann. Although Ladd never fully agreed with Bultmann (he eventually wrote his own assessment for Intervarsity Press), he deeply admired Bultmann’s principal goal – to overcome obstacles to the gospel amidst modern metaphysical assumptions. For Ladd, Bultmann’s demythologizing project had the right goal if not the right conclusions.

Ladd’s move to the newly established Fuller Theological Seminary fueled his desire to promote serious scholarly engagement from within evangelicalism. Alas, he faced fervent opposition by more established wings of evangelicalism that were unwilling to expand (give up?) questions and approaches considered to be legitimate. In the book, John Walvoord, president of Dallas Theological Seminary, stands out as an arch-defender of dispensationalist orthodoxy who alternately engages, critiques, and ultimately ignores Ladd’s effort to articulate issues in a different key.

George Eldon Ladd’s back-and-forth interaction with dispensationalism was peripheral to his truer ambition – a carefully prepared theological work that demonstrated evangelicals could incorporate the best aspects of contemporary Biblical scholarship effectively. Over a decade in the making, Jesus and the Kingdom: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism (currently printed as The Presence of the Future) was released in 1964. It was published by Harper and Row, a mainstream publisher, which bolstered Ladd’s hopes of elevating the profile of a critically engaged evangelicalism.

His enthusiasm was short lived. Norman Perrin, a respected Chicago Divinity School Professor of the New Testament, wrote a prominent book review that disagreed with several aspects of the analysis, marginalized the book, and failed to promote it as a fundamental text for future scholars. Combined with other battles and disappointments, Ladd sank into depression and alcoholism. His Fuller students and colleagues later recognized him in touching ways, yet Ladd never recovered. To his bitter disillusionment, Ladd found more conservative evangelicals to be critical and reactionary. Although he spent much of his life striving to accomplish the highest levels of scholarship while keeping his evangelical roots intact, his effort failed. He crumbled under the weight of criticism of his most cherished book and gave up his ambition to engage mainstream scholarship from the evangelical perspective calling it “a fool’s quest.”

For myself, I read D’Elia’s book as an exploration of the consequences of evangelical anti-intellectualism. George Eldon Ladd fought against the closed-circle assumptions found among many conservative evangelicals, assumptions that keep them fighting over internal orthodoxy while retreating from broader dialogues. D’Elia approaches this as a contest of wills with dramatic interchanges between a dozen notable figures. Yet, the pervasive background he brings to the text is a description of an intellectual climate still present among some fundamentalist-oriented evangelicals, and so the book provides a personal counterpoint to anti-intellectualist ethos described in works by Mark Noll, Richard Hofstadter, and even in the enjoyable new book by Thomas Kidd.

On the positive side, I believe Ladd was far more successful in his quest than he believed. Not only did he become a respected figure among evangelicals, he also may well have contributed indirectly to the expansion of evangelicals doing mainstream intellectual work, a development described by Michael Lindsey in his new book and, more specifically, an article in the May 9th issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Evangelicalism Rebounds in Academe.” These developments don’t indicate the mainstreaming of evangelicalism per se, yet I believe the image of critically-engaged evangelicals accomplishing high quality intellectual work both in and out of the academy would have pleased him.


Anonymous said…
With all due respect to evangelicals, how can they contribute to scholarship when most of them teach at colleges and universities that exclude Catholics, Jews, and nonbelievers. You can't have it both ways.
Anonymous said…
The point made by anonymous seems to me to be wrong. It would mean, by extension, that members of seminary and theological faculties cannot contribute to scholarship. Would it mean that faculty members at all male and all female institutions cannot contribute to scholarship? In fact, some of our most prominent scholars and intellectuals have been employed at such places.
Anonymous said…
Maybe anonymous has a point. Consider three of the most prominent evangelical historians- George Marsden, Mark Noll, and Nathan Hatch. All have spent part of their careers at Notre Dame. Has that school begun admitting Catholics yet?
Anonymous said…
Can there be real scholarship with a "commitment to inerrancy"?
James Aune said…
The point (I'm anonymous1) is that the supposed flagship colleges of the evangelicals (Wheaton, Calvin, whatever) exploit the resources of secular universities and associations, as well as non-fundamentalist Christian universities like Notre Dame, without reciprocating. Wheaton remains "Judenrein," out of fear of contamination, no doubt. Notre Dame actually practices Christianity--but as my evangelical students in the Bible Belt continually tell me, "Catholics aren't Christians."
Anonymous said…
When did "inerrancy" become the touchstone for what is "evangelical"? That sounds like a "modernist" innovation to me.
Anonymous said…
Marti's description of Ladd's important scholarly work as "a synthetic and highly readable text that pulled various scholarly threads together while honoring a commitment to inerrancy."

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