Respected scholar, former interim president William B. Tolar dies
William B. Tolar, former professor, dean, vice president, provost, and acting president at Southwestern Seminary, died on Dec. 29 at the age of 90. Tolar was a world-renowned Bible scholar with an academic and ministry career spanning more than half a century.
“Dr. Tolar set an example of how to combine academic theological education with practical ministry in the churches,” says Russell Dilday, president of Southwestern from 1978-1994. “He was a preacher-minister, but he also was a scholarly professor, balancing the intellectual with practical service in the churches. And it was that balance of intellectual scholarship with practical application as a practicing minister—not just theoretical knowledge, but knowledge lived out in Christian service—that endeared him to students and to fellow academics, church ministers, and lay leaders alike.
“I think there are few people more widely known and respected in academic and local church life. He will be missed.”
Tolar was born on July 5, 1928, in Jonesboro, La. Thirteen years later, when a teacher challenged him to read the Bible, she had no idea the impact that challenge would have on Tolar.
“I began to realize that if this book was right, then basically my life was wrong, because I was living without any serious regard for the God that the Scriptures were telling me about,” Tolar once said. It set him on a lifetime course of worship, Bible study and teaching. He made his profession of faith on Easter Sunday in 1942, and a year later, he accepted the call to vocational ministry.
“I had a very profound sense that I wanted my life to really count for God,” he said. “If you were a minister, you would be helping people all the time.”
Tolar graduated from Baylor University in 1950, and he was pastoring a nearby church when an educator would again influence his life. The chairman of Baylor’s religion department asked if he would teach part-time. Tolar accepted, and a year later, he was offered a full-time position.
After teaching at Baylor for 10 years, Tolar came to Southwestern Seminary in 1965 with his wife, Floye, to teach and complete his Doctor of Theology degree. He was elected to the seminary faculty that same year as a distinguished professor of biblical backgrounds. In his nearly four decades at Southwestern, Tolar equipped thousands of students for ministry around the world.
Tolar went on to serve as dean of Southwestern’s School of Theology and then as vice president for academic affairs and provost. In 1994, Tolar was called to serve as Southwestern’s acting president until Ken Hemphill was hired later that year.
Hemphill, who served as Southwestern’s president from 1994-2003, says Tolar’s impact on the seminary was “immense.”
“I think he was invaluable in that transition time; it was a pretty difficult time in the life of the institution,” Hemphill says. “And I think he was a real peacemaker, scholar and gentleman.
“When I came, he was very supportive of me being there, and that helped in the transition with existing faculty and students. And he not only helped me to understand some of the dynamics of the school, since I was not a Southwestern graduate myself, but also to know some of the history, some of the traditions of the school and the institution to be able to connect with its past as well as to look to its future.”
Following his tenure at Southwestern, Tolar taught as an adjunct professor at Dallas Baptist University and as a distinguished fellow at the B.H. Carroll Theological Institute. Throughout his ministry, Tolar studied and lectured in 53 countries and served as guest lecturer in the Holy Land more than 80 times. He also served as interim pastor at almost 50 churches, including Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas.
After his retirement, Tolar maintained an active teaching schedule at Dallas Baptist University. He and his wife also established the William B. and Floye Tolar Faculty Assistance Endowment Fund, which provides financial assistance to Southwestern faculty and staff.
“Bill Tolar was my student, my faculty colleague, my dean, my vice president, my acting president, and my dear friend,” says James Leo Garrett, distinguished professor emeritus of theology at Southwestern Seminary. “A clear witness to the grace of God, Dr. Tolar masterfully lectured on biblical backgrounds and preached and taught the Bible in scores of Southern Baptist churches. He was, in his generation, the preeminent conductor of tours to the biblical lands.”
Tolar is survived by his wife, Floye; son William and daughter-in-law Laura Tolar of Hurst; daughter Lora Mae and son-in-law Brian O’Riordan of Chicago; and two grandchildren.
“Dr. Tolar’s legacy of distinguished service at Southwestern Seminary is an example to every minister of the Gospel,” says current interim president D. Jeffrey Bingham. “Whether in the classroom, as dean of the School of Theology, as vice president for academic affairs, as provost or as interim president, Dr. Tolar faithfully served his Lord at his alma mater. The Southwestern family grieves his loss and prays that the peace of Christ will comfort and console the Tolar family.”