A Brief Critique of George Eldon Ladd’s Views on the Kingdom of God

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I found myself cheering Ladd onward as I read what he wrote about Jesus’ emphasis on the present reality of the Kingdom of God, or more clearly said in English, the present reality of God’s reign in people’s lives.

Recently I read George Eldon Ladd’s seven chapters on the Kingdom of God in his A Theology of the New Testament. A distinguished professor for many years at Fuller Theological Seminary, Ladd passed away in 1982. Eight years before his death, he saw the first edition of his colossal book roll off the presses. Written with seminary students in mind, A Theology of the New Testament has endured the test of time. Throughout the English-speaking world, students and pastors regularly consult its pages. Seminary students become pastors, and pastors preach sermons; therefore, Ladd’s scholarship continues to be influential, and because of its influence, a brief critique of his conclusions is justifiable.

I found myself cheering Ladd onward as I read what he wrote about Jesus’ emphasis on the present reality of the Kingdom of God, or more clearly said in English, the present reality of God’s reign in people’s lives. For example, the professor remarked, “Jesus’ proclamation of the presence of the Kingdom means that God has become redemptively active in history on behalf of his people.” In another place he explained, “The Kingdom is primarily the dynamic reign or kingly rule of God, and derivatively, the sphere in which the rule is experienced.” These statements converge with the thrust of Robert Lindsey’s research on the gospels. Nevertheless, Ladd’s ideas diverge from Lindsey’s conclusions at other points.

As I surveyed Ladd’s book, what struck me was his avoidance of rabbinic sources. A Theology of the New Testament contains 719 pages of text, and scattered among those hundreds of pages are just fifteen references to rabbinic literature. While explaining the Kingdom of God, Ladd made six cursory references to one primary source, namely the mishnaic tractate Avot. The six references appear on one page in two short, consecutive footnotes. Consider, however, what David Flusser once said about rabbinic literature: “Talmudic literature remains our principal source for the interpretation of the synoptic Gospels…”

Solomon Schechter’s classic book Aspects of Rabbinic Theology includes three chapters devoted exclusively to the Kingdom of God. At the point where this eminent Jewish scholar launched into his discussion on the Kingdom of God, he stated: “The concluding words of the last chapter, ‘The kingdom of God,’… have brought us to a theological doctrine described by some Rabbis as the very ‘Truth (or essence) of the Torah.’” Schechter’s words indicate that the Kingdom of God stands as a centerpiece of rabbinic theology. Moreover, the New Testament and rabbinic texts are the only two bodies of literature where the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven) appears repeatedly as a technical term. By engaging the rabbinic literature in a superficial manner, Ladd deprived himself of a rich source of information that could have sharpened the results of his research.

Ladd’s second-hand knowledge of rabbinic literature allowed him to mischaracterize the faith of the Jewish people. For example, inspired by his reading of the Mishnah, he remarked, “The focus of rabbinic ethics was upon outward obedience to the letter of the Law.” Contrasting the God of the Old Testament with the God of post-biblical Judaism, Ladd said, “The God of Judaism had withdrawn from the evil world and was no longer redemptively working in history.” In another place, Ladd described Judaism as a religion of merit: “The righteous person was not one who had been freely pardoned by God, but one whose merit outweighed his or her debt.” At the end of the paragraph where this last sentence appears the editor of the revised edition, Donald Hagner, placed an asterisk and added a note directing the reader’s attention to E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism. In his book, Sanders forcefully refuted such a misrepresentation of the Jewish faith. It is true that Ladd wrote before Sanders, but Schechter and George Foot Moore wrote before Ladd. Sanders elaborated on a topic which Schechter and Moore had already visited.

I suspect that Ladd’s imperfect view of Judaism affected the methodology of his research. As part of a refutation aimed at Joachim Jeremias, who stressed the need to hear Jesus’ parables like his first Jewish audiences heard them, Ladd commented, “The proper life setting of the parables is Jesus’ teachings, not Judaism.” Ladd apparently did not see Jesus as being a genuine, organic part of the Jewish people and their post-biblical, Jewish religion. In my opinion, however, Jesus’ teachings belong wholly to Judaism, and they approach at many points a coterminous relationship with streams of religious thought resident within Judaism of the late Second Temple period. Could Ladd’s perception of post-biblical Judaism as a religion of merit with its ethics focused on external obedience to the letter of the Law have prejudiced his attitude toward rabbinic literary sources? Could it help explain the sparse appearance of references to these sources in his A Theology of the New Testament?

One place where Ladd’s conclusions suffered concerns the Kingdom of God’s conceptual relationship to the Age to Come (and eternal life). Commenting on the Rich Young Ruler story, he equated the two concepts: “The Age to Come and the Kingdom of God are sometimes interchangeable terms. In response to the rich young ruler’s request about the way to eternal life, Jesus indicates that eternal life is the life of the Age to Come (Mk. 10:30).” Yet anyone who spends time reading early rabbinic texts knows that the Kingdom of God is a concept indirectly related to, but distinct from the Age to Come. The former constitutes God’s dynamic, redemptive reign today among people who have made God’s will their will; whereas, the later marks a new age which will come in the wake of a universal, apocalyptic event.

In the case of the Rich Young Ruler story, there is no difficulty in the dialogue beginning with a question about eternal life and ending with the high cost of entry into the Kingdom of God—two distinct concepts. In other passages, this separation cannot be neatly maintained, and Ladd’s approach to the problem is one option. I, however, prefer treating the original context of Jesus’ words as being post-biblical Judaism; therefore, when I encounter dissonance between Jesus’ views on fundamental Jewish concepts and their expression in the literature of the rabbis, I am willing to explore the possibility that the evangelists, or those who contributed to the formation of the synoptic tradition before them, were more responsible than Jesus for the dissonance.

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  • Joseph Frankovic

    Joseph Frankovic

    Joseph Frankovic graduated with a Master of Arts degree in American Studies from Northeastern State University. He holds additional degrees in other disciplines, including Biblical Literature, Classical Studies, and Midrash. He earned these degrees at state and private universities and accredited Jewish and Christian seminaries.…
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