SWBTS Legacy: William B. Tolar
When William B. Tolar’s teacher challenged him to read the Bible, she had no idea the impact that challenge would have on not just the 13-year-old Tolar, but on generations of seminary students.
The teacher shared that the Bible was the best-selling book in history but speculated that 99 percent of people had never read it in its entirety. Tolar, not yet a Christian, accepted the challenge and started reading.
He quickly found himself convicted by the “living and effective” Word of God.
“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 later said.
This Bible reading set Tolar 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.
Tolar’s academic and ministry career ultimately spanned more than half a century, and he came to be known as a world-renowned Bible teacher, a scholar among scholars, and a spiritual giant at The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. But through it all, he sought only to serve the Lord by making an impact on individual lives.
“I had a very profound sense that I wanted my life to really count for God,” he said of his initial calling. “If you were a minister, you would be helping people all the time.”
William Bert Tolar was born on July 5, 1928, in Jonesboro, Louisiana. A successful student, he ranked highly in an academic competition and was named Louisiana’s top high school running back. Louisiana State University offered him a full scholarship, but Tolar wanted to prepare for ministry at a Baptist school.
He graduated from Baylor University in 1950, and he was pastoring a nearby church when an educator again influenced 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 the nearly four decades that followed, Tolar equipped thousands of Southwestern Seminary students for ministry around the world. These included many who would serve in pivotal roles in the Southern Baptist Convention, including Jimmy Draper, Ronnie Floyd, David S. Dockery, and current president of Southwestern Seminary Adam W. Greenway.
“Dr. Tolar set an example of how to combine academic theological education with practical ministry in the churches,” said Russell Dilday, president of Southwestern Seminary 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.”
Tolar went on to serve as dean of the School of Theology and then as vice president for academic affairs and provost. In the late spring of 1994, Tolar was called to serve as the seminary’s acting president until Ken Hemphill was hired later that year.
Writing in the May/June 1994 issue of Southwestern News, Tolar said of his role as acting president, “Quite frankly, I had great reluctance to serve in this capacity because my calling, training, and passion for nearly 40 years have been for teaching and preaching and not for administration. … It was only because of my profound respect, love, and appreciation for the faculty, administration, staff, and the student body of the seminary that I agreed to accept these awesome responsibilities.”
Tolar said his immediate goal as the acting president was “to redeem this spring semester for our entire seminary family—especially our graduating students.”
In his column for the next magazine, Tolar reflected that this goal had been accomplished. “At the reception for the graduates held the night before spring commencement,” he wrote, “almost every student who spoke to me expressed heartfelt gratitude for the way administrators, faculty, and staff had worked to make things go smoothly for them during the closing weeks of the semester.”
Ken Hemphill, who was elected Southwestern Seminary’s seventh president in late 1994, said 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 said. “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 Seminary, 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 nearly 50 churches, including First Baptist Church in Dallas.
After his retirement, Tolar maintained an active teaching schedule at DBU. He and his wife also established the William B. and Floye Tolar Faculty Assistance Endowment Fund, which provides financial assistance to faculty and staff at Southwestern Seminary.
“Bill Tolar was my student, my faculty colleague, my dean, my vice president, my acting president, and my dear friend,” said 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.”
When news of Tolar’s failing health began to spread in 2018, many of his former students took to social media to share memories of his influence. One student said, “Out of love for the Scriptures, often he would tear up as he taught the class.”
Tolar died on Dec. 29, 2018, leaving behind a legacy of biblical scholarship coupled with personal ministry, all in service to the Lord.
“Dr. Tolar’s legacy of distinguished service at Southwestern Seminary is an example to every minister of the Gospel,” said D. Jeffrey Bingham, dean of the School of Theology. “Whether in the classroom, as dean of the School of Theology, as vice president for academic affairs, as provost, or as acting president, Dr. Tolar faithfully served his Lord at his alma mater.”