Reviewing Ladd’s Epoch-making Work

Ladd, George Eldon. A Theology of the New Testament. Revised edition. Edited by Donald A. Hagner. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993. 764pp. $35.00.

George Eldon Ladd’s A Theology of the New Testament has been called the magnum opus of his distinguished career.[1] Ladd began his career as a teacher of the New Testament at Gordon Divinity School when it was still located in Brookline, Massachusetts.[2] He went on from there to Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasedena, California where he taught for over a quarter of a century until his death in 1980.[3] This thick volume has been widely regarded by evangelicals as one of the best of its kind. The following review will briefly summarize the material in the book and give an evaluation and critique of Ladd’s achievement.[4]

Ladd’s stated purpose is clear, “to introduce seminary students to the discipline of New Testament theology,” not to serve as “an original contribution or to solve difficult problems” related to the task of this discipline (xi). Rather, Ladd sets out “to give a survey of the discipline, to state its problems, and to offer positive solutions” (xi). He conceives the task of New Testament theology as basically a “descriptive discipline” (20). For Ladd,

“Biblical theology is that discipline which sets forth the message of the books of the Bible in their historical setting. It is not initially concerned with the final meaning of the teachings of the Bible or their relevance for today. This is the task of systematic theology. Biblical theology has the task of expounding the theology found in the Bible in its own historical setting, and its own terms, categories, and thought forms” (20).

After a brief introduction to the discipline of biblical theology (1-28), the revised edition devotes 218 pages to the synoptic gospels, 98 pages on the fourth gospel, 50 pages on the history of the early church as recorded in Acts, about 220 pages on Paul’s corpus, 52 pages on Hebrews and the General Epistles, 15 pages on the apocalypse of John, 35 pages to David Wenham’s appendix on the topic of unity and diversity, 4 pages to an index of authors, 31 pages to an index of biblical and other ancient references, and 8 pages to a subject index.

Evaluation & Critique

A Welcome Corrective to Bultmann
In the course of this work, Ladd offers “a corrective to the existentialist NT theologies of the Bultmann school.”[5] Perhaps this effort is most apparent in Ladd’s description of revelation and history, “God is the living God, and he, the Eternal, the Unchangeable, has communicated knowledge of himself through the ebb and flow of historical experience” (23). Whereas Bultmann claims “we must speak of God as acting only in the sense that He acts with me here and now[6],” Ladd contends that Bultmann’s program can only be done “at the sacrifice of the gospel itself” (23) because Jesus lived, died, and rose in history. God’s chief revelatory act was the sending of His Son, and this sending was accompanied by the revelatory word (25). The Bible is the revelatory word of interpretation of redemptive history (Heilsgeschichte, or Salvation History, 22). The unity of the Christian canon consists in its consistent testimony to God’s workings in the history of salvation, which culminate in the redemptive events of Christ’s life (27). Ladd’s insistence upon God’s work in history and upon the Bible’s infallible witness to that history must have been a breath of fresh air to evangelical students during an era that was so dominated by Bultmann’s approach.

Ladd’s view of revelation and history are reflected in his approach to New Testament theology. Because God has revealed Himself in history through Jesus and in the revelatory word, “The historical approach is reflected in the organization of the work. It is arranged, not under the loci or topics of dogmatic theology (God, creation, sin, redemption, church and eschatology) but under what Kümmel calls the ‘principle witnesses’ of the NT.”[7] Laudably, Ladd does not retreat from history or from the careful exegetical examination of the biblical text. He shows that careful scholarship and attention to history must characterize one’s method if one is to be faithful to the intention of the New Testament.

Unity and Diversity
As noted above, Ladd himself acknowledges that his book should have addressed the issue of unity and diversity in the New Testament. As a matter of fact, he had planned such a revision, but was unable to complete it before his death. David Wenham’s appendix (684-719) attempts to overcome this weakness in a way that the editors believe would have pleased Ladd.[8] In spite of the revision, one wishes that Ladd had addressed this issue himself in this volume. In particular, Ladd does not show how Heilsgeschicte serves as the unifying element throughout the New Testament. Even though this is clearly his approach, “The bond that unites the Old and New Testaments is this sense of the divine activity in history” (21), it is not clear how this unity is manifested in the terms of each of the individual writings of the New Testament.

The Individual Contributions of the Synoptics
Reginald Fuller typifies what many critics felt after the publication of Ladd’s first edition, “There are no chapters devoted to the theologies of Matthew, Mark and Luke. This is incredible after twenty years of redaction criticism.”[9] Certainly, R. T. France’s contribution in chapter 16 attempts to repair this deficiency, but once again it would have been helpful to have heard Ladd’s own voice on this topic. James, 2 Peter, and Jude all get their own section, and it seems that Ladd should have given the same (if not more) attention to Matthew, Mark, and Luke.[10] It is remarkable that even Robert Guelich’s review in Christianity Today shared this critique.

Biblical Theology and the Canon
Ladd accords primary importance to the canonical books as the source for biblical theology (26-27). He argues that, “The canonical writings are conscious of participating in redemptive history while the noncanonical writings lack this sense of redemptive history. . .The canonical books thus share a unity of redemptive history that is intrinsic within them rather than superimposed upon them from without” (26, 27). However, even Donald Hagner admits that, “The argument from content, however, does not seem to work in every instance. Does the canonical wisdom literature, for example, really ‘partake of the character of holy history’? Are there not noncanonical writings that on the basis of content alone may be judged as superior to certain canonical writings?” (27, n.*). Given the fact that appeal to noncanonical literature has been a hallmark of biblical theology in the modern era[11], Ladd would have done well to offer a better justification for the primary place of the canon in his approach.

One of the great prospects of biblical theology is the noble goal of finding a procedure that bridges the gap between exegesis and systematic theology. In this task, one holds out hope that systematic theology can be refined and reformed by careful exegesis of the whole Bible. To this end, a faithful method utilizes an historical approach–that is, an approach that is organized not under the topics of theology, but according to the terms and categories of scripture. Ladd’s magnum opus makes great strides towards this aim, and the serious student will do well to emulate his procedure.

[1]Robert Guelich, review of A Theology of the New Testament, by George Eldon Ladd, Christianity Today 20 (1976): 39.
[2]Gilbert Bilezikian, review of A Theology of the New Testament, by George Eldon Ladd, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 39 (1996): 480.
[4]In this review, I will not interact with the occasional notes and revisions made by Donald A. Hagner. Nor will I comment on the essays contributed by R. T. France and David Wenham contained in chapter 16 and in the appendix. For the purposes of this paper, it is sufficient to note that Ladd had planned to update the book before his death in 1980, “Ladd had planned a new edition of this book in which he hoped to remedy two deficiencies that had been pointed out by reviewers: the lack of discussion of the theologies of the individual Synoptic writers and the lack of a full treatment of the issue of unity and diversity in the New Testament” (Hagner, viii).
Gilbert Bilezikian summarizes well the differences between Ladd’s earlier edition and the revised edition, “The magnificent work of editing done by D. A. Hagner enhances immeasurably the usefulness of this classic reference volume. The updating of Ladd’s work is generally subtle and therefore not intrusive, but substantial and comprehensive. Some of the improvements are formal, such as language revision, additional footnoting, minutely researched bibliographic expansions and the addition of a subject index. Other changes remedy lacunae that had been deplored by Ladd himself: a chapter on the theology of the synoptics by R. T. France, an appendix on unity and diversity in the New Testament by D. Wenham, and a survey of the recent history of Biblical theology by the editor himself” (Bilezikian, 480).
[5]Reginald H. Fuller, review of A Theology of the New Testament, by George Eldon Ladd, Anglican Theological Review 58 (1976): 382.
[6]Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (1958), 78 [quoted in Ladd, 23].
[7]Fuller, 382.
[8]Hagner says, “Ladd would have been particularly pleased with these essays, in my opinion” (viii).
[9]Fuller, 384.
[10]I do not appreciate Catchpole’s overall critique, but on this point he is right on the mark (David Catchpole, review of A Theology of the New Testament, by George Eldon Ladd, Theology 79 [1976]: 127).
[11]Wrede’s remarks typify this approach, “the New Testament writings. . .are to be seen not as canonical but simply as early Christian writings. In that case, of course, one’s historical interest insists on taking together everything from the totality of early Christian literature that historically belongs together” (Robert Morgan, The Nature of New Testament Theology: The Contribution of William Wrede and Adolf Schlatter, Studies in Biblical Theology, Second Series 25 [Naperville, IL: Alec R. Allenson Inc., 1973], 71).