Well, we are living in the end times, according to Scripture, since Christ was the firstfruits from the dead (see 1 Corinthians 15:20–24). With the resurrection of Christ, the new creation has broken into the old creation. In this episode, we have a question about theologian George Eldon Ladd, who was born in 1911 and died in 1982 at the age of 71. It comes to us in the form of a question from a podcast listener named Matthew. “Dear Pastor John, I’ve been reading a lot of books recently by a professor from Fuller Seminary that I’m sure you’re familiar with, Dr. George Eldon Ladd. I’m intrigued by his writings, but I don’t know what to make of his theological leanings, whether or not he’s an evangelical. What is your opinion on Ladd? Did you ever have him as a professor? And how did he shape theology today?”
I totally did not expect a question like this, and I’m so happy to have it because I don’t hesitate, Matthew, to say I’m thrilled you are reading George Ladd. I really am. I knew George Ladd personally. He was my professor when I was in Fuller Seminary from 1968 to 1971. That’s a previous century! I took his basic course on New Testament theology which became the book A Theology of the New Testament. I was in his home for discussion at least once.
He was — as many evangelicals were back in those days — a kind of broken men with many personal flaws. But I had an affection for him. I still do because of what he taught me. I totally regard him as evangelical. In fact, I would say he was a conservative evangelical and one who would affirm all the so-called fundamentals of the faith, even though he himself would not want to be called a fundamentalist.
“All of life is eschatological.”
He was what was being called in those days neo-evangelical. They were trying to distance themselves from fundamentalism in the sense of engaging with frontline Christian scholarship and cultural involvement.
What I mean when I called him evangelical (just to put clear meat on the bones) is the following. First, he believed in the inerrancy of the Bible. Second, he believed in the substitutionary work of Christ on the cross, where God actually propitiated his own wrath against sinners so that we could be justified by faith alone. Third, he believed in the necessity of hearing the gospel in order to be saved. Fourth, he believed that people must be born again in order to escape hell, which was real and conscious eternal torment. Fifth, he believed in the necessity of good works as a demonstration of faith, and the necessity of preaching the gospel to all of the nations so that they’ll have a chance to believe and be saved. I know personally he believed all of those things.
Let me just mention a few other things about him so that you can get your bearings as you read, so that you know what you’re in for or what the wider perspective is on some of the things you’re seeing. Maybe Ladd’s book that bears the present title The Presence of the Future (it used to be called Jesus and the Kingdom when it first came out) answers some of your questions. That book, in answer to your question about his influence, was a path-breaking book to describe the pervasive nature of eschatology in the New Testament.
What I mean by that is that eschatology is not simply what happens in the future at the end of the age. But since Christ the Messiah — expected for the end of the age — has come and has broken into the present age and brought the kingdom of God to the present, he brought the future into the present so that all of life is eschatological. The future is here because the present participates in the “already” of the kingdom, but the “not yet” of the consummation.
That’s the paradigm that has shaped virtually everybody in biblical studies in the last fifty years. He wasn’t the only one who spoke it, but I think he was one of the decisive voices for creating that kind of mindset, which is virtually in every seminary in the country. Everybody talks in terms of the “already” of the kingdom and the “not yet” of the kingdom, which is absolutely the right way to talk about it.
A Sweet Legacy
Here’s a second thing. Ladd wrote a very important book called The New Testament and Criticism in which he tried to show how an evangelical can make a judicious use of contemporary critical methods of Bible study without undermining the doctrine of inerrancy.
“I’m happy to be a Ladd-like premillennialist today.”
Third, Ladd was perhaps best known among conservatives because of his strong affirmation of premillennial eschatology and the post-tribulation return of Christ. In other words, he did not believe that the church would be raptured from the world, followed then by a period of tribulation, followed by the second coming. Rather, he believed that the next major event on God’s eschatological calendar — after the revealing of the man of sin in 2 Thessalonians 2 and a great period of tribulation — is the second coming.
At that second coming, Jesus would establish his earthly millennial kingdom for a thousand years, after which Satan would be released. There would be a great final battle, and then the inauguration of the final state of the new heavens and the new earth. This is now called (and has been called anyway for years) historic premillennialism. I found the arguments compelling in those days, and as I’ve tried to continue to weigh them I still find them compelling. So I’ll be happy to be a Ladd-like premillennialist today.
A Must Read
I could wish one more thing. I wish that every believer today — how many years since he passed away? Fifty plus years maybe, I can’t remember when he passed away — I wish that every believer would read his New Testament theology. What a wonderful education would lie in store for the person willing to put in the effort. It’s not too demanding. If you can read Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, you can read Ladd’s New Testament theology. (It does presume Greek and Hebrew though.)
I think Ladd’s New Testament theology is accessible, and I congratulate you on discovering this man who flourished in the middle of the twentieth century. I think the church needs his teaching today.