FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) — Bill Tolar, a preacher-scholar who provided transitional leadership at key junctures for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and multiple Southern Baptist megachurches, died Dec. 29 following a battle with cancer. He was 90.
A faculty stalwart at Southwestern for more than 30 years, Tolar served as the seminary’s acting president in 1994 after then-president Russell Dilday’s departure amid the Southern Baptist Convention’s Conservative Resurgence. As a biblical backgrounds and archaeology professor, his students included then-future SBC presidents Jimmy Draper, Charles Stanley, Morris Chapman, Jack Graham and Ronnie Floyd.
Among his more than 50 interim pastorates were First Baptist Church in Dallas, Houston’s First Baptist Church and Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas. Tolar preached his most popular sermon “The Creation: Chance or Choice?” more than 100 times to thousands of Southern Baptists — the last delivery apparently coming less than four months before his death. He also preached multiple times at the SBC Pastors’ Conference.
Tolar “stands large in the history of our convention from the influence he’s had on many of our key leaders,” said Draper, SBC Executive Committee ambassador and retired president of LifeWay Christian Resources. Among the traits Tolar passed to many of his students were a knack for “leading in reconciliation” and “standing upon the Word of God.”
After teaching 10 years at Baylor University, Tolar joined Southwestern’s faculty in 1965, retiring in 2001 following 36 years as a professor, vice president and dean. When he was named acting president, Baptist Press reported he was the only candidate considered for the job because he was “acceptable to all in the denominational controversy.”
Jack Terry, interim dean of Southwestern’s Jack Terry School of Church and Family Ministries and a friend of Tolar’s since the 1950s, called Tolar “the stabilizing factor that brought Ken Hemphill onto the campus [as president in July 1994] in a very strong position.”
Hemphill told Baptist Press Tolar was “a very popular professor” known for his sense of humor and fast-paced lecture style. “There were all sorts of jokes about the Tolar classroom,” Hemphill recalled, “because he taught with incredible speed. They would say if you dropped [your] pen, you could lose a whole century in his lecture.”
When Tolar was thought to be near death in late December, former students remembered him on social media, with one former student tweeting, “Out of love for the Scriptures, often he would tear up as he taught the class.”
The preeminent memory of Tolar for many was his humility, Hemphill said.
Tolar was among Southwestern’s “giants” and “a scholar among scholars,” Hemphill said. “But he was such a humble and gracious man.”
Dilday told BP via email, “Dr. Tolar’s effectiveness as a seminary teacher was due in part to his ability to link scholarly research to the practical tasks of ministry in the local church. His frequent interims — preaching in congregations that were looking for a minister — not only served that church, but it also kept him in touch with current congregational issues the students in his classes needed to know about. Of course Dr. Tolar’s travels in the Middle East enriched his teaching as well. He will be missed.”
As a preacher, Terry said, Tolar “could put an audience at ease and wow them for an hour and a half, two hours. I have seen him with his messages just put an audience in his hand and hold them for hours.” Tolar was interim pastor of “just about every church in Texas,” Terry quipped.
Tolar’s sermon “The Creation: Chance or Choice?” argued for the existence of God based on the apparent design of the universe. Hemphill said Tolar preached the sermon in SWBTS chapel about once a year. What likely was his last presentation of the sermon occurred Sunday, Sept. 9 at Gambrell Street Baptist Church in Fort Worth.
“The sanctuary was full,” Gambrell Street pastor Jim Spivey told BP via email. “Bill still had the stamina to preach effectively and did his typically marvelous delivery, but he was clearly in a weakened state. His demeanor was positive; at the same time, he was candid with us about his condition and his hope to make it to the end of the year with the doctor’s new regimen of treatment.”
Tolar is survived by his wife Floye, two children and two grandchildren.
At the 2018 SBC Pastors’ Conference, Jack Graham reported that he and GuideStone Financial Resources President O.S. Hawkins recently had visited Tolar. When they asked how he could finish life so well, Tolar replied according to Graham, “I’m still relying on the risen Christ.”