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John Newport, longtime prof & religion expert, dies at 83

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–One of Southern Baptists’ leading authorities on the New Age, cults and world religions has died.

John P. Newport, distinguished professor emeritus of philosophy of religion at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, died Aug. 18 in Fort Worth, Texas, at the age of 83. He suffered a stroke in June and had been hospitalized ever since, spending much of the time in a coma.

Funeral services are scheduled for 2 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 22, at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth with burial to follow at Greenwood Memorial Park.

“He had a strong faith, a strong sense of purpose and destiny,” said James Leo Garrett Jr., distinguished professor emeritus of theology at Southwestern and a friend of Newport since 1952. “His overall emphasis on an evangelical Christian apologetic” was probably his most important contribution to Southwestern, Garrett said.

“The evangelical world and the Southern Baptist Convention have lost a giant,” said Southwestern President Kenneth S. Hemphill. “John Newport was a scholar, a gentleman, a churchman and a friend. Few men have combined academic excellence and pastoral passion like Dr. Newport.”

Former Southwestern President Russell Dilday was one of Newport’s students, and Newport later served as vice president in Dilday’s administration.

“At Baylor and Southwestern, many a future minister has the same rewarding experience I had [in Newport’s classes] of moving out of foggy confusion into a new level of insight,” Dilday said. “There were frequent ‘now I see!’ intellectual breakthroughs for which we were all grateful.

“He is a great hero for me and many others,” Dilday added.

Born in Buffalo, Mo., Newport served at Southwestern from 1952-76 and then from 1979-90. In addition to his teaching duties, Newport also was vice president for academic affairs and provost. He continued to teach at Southwestern after retirement until 1999.

His wide spectrum of knowledge and his ability to bring it all together in a biblical worldview was one of the things that made his work so important, Garrett said.

“He shaped the department of philosophy of religion at Southwestern,” Garrett continued. “He put the whole effort in the framework of, ‘How can Christians be led to see the truth and viability of the Christian faith?’ and ‘What is necessary to represent the gospel to unbelievers?’ Salvation history was strongly fixed as the key beginning point for his approach.”

“I try to convey to my students a sense of the relevance, the excitement and the urgency of the Christian gospel,” Newport said in 1990. “This is where true freedom is, where true joy is, where true fulfillment is.”

Newport received his bachelor’s degree from William Jewell College, Liberty, Mo. During his senior year, he was offered a three-year scholarship to Harvard Law School and had already paid his fees when God’s call moved him in another direction altogether.

Instead of Harvard, Newport opted for Christian service and went to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky., from which he received a master of theology degree and a doctorate of theology in New Testament. He also received a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh and a master’s degree from Texas Christian University.

He taught at Baylor University and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary before going to Southwestern and was a visiting professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. From 1976-79, Newport held the Harry and Hazel Chavanne Chair of Religious Studies at Rice University. He also served as interim pastor of 52 churches in five states.

Known as a “constructive evangelical,” Newport was able to reach out to other evangelicals and was known for his willingness to converse with theologians of other beliefs while still holding firm to his belief in Jesus Christ.

It is, in fact, that evangelical basis and the firm commitment to Christ as the sole means of salvation that has made Southwestern what it is, Newport said in his Founders Day address in March.

Southwestern’s focus, he said, must continue to be “on the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in an increasingly pluralistic world.”

Not only did Newport have an inquisitive mind, said Garrett, but he related to others easily.

“He had equal facility in the scholars’ world and the local church. He was very person-oriented,” Garrett said.

During his career, Newport wrote 11 books, ranging from a study of the world famous theologian Paul Tillich, whom he knew, to a commentary on the Book Revelation, to his most recent work, “The New Age Movement and the Biblical Worldview.” His book “Life’s Ultimate Questions” is considered by many people to be his most important work and has been widely used as a seminary textbook.

“John Newport was one of the most remarkable persons I have ever known,” said Curtis Vaughan, distinguished professor emeritus of New Testament at Southwestern. “He had a vast range of knowledge and moved comfortably among intellectual giants.

“Yet the thing that impressed me most about John was his childlike faith and his warm devotion to Christ. Through his life and his teaching, John Newport made a huge contribution to Southwestern Seminary, to Baptist people generally and to all those who knew and loved him. I will miss him.”

Hemphill agreed. “I will miss him, for he was a confidant and friend to me,” Hemphill said. “The entire Southwestern family joins me in expressing our deepest grief to Eddie Belle and the Newport family.”

Memorials can be made in Newport’s honor to the John P. Newport Chair of Philosophy of Religion at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, P. O. Box 22500, Fort Worth, TX 76122-0500, attn.: Rodney Geno.

Newport is survived by his wife, Eddie Belle Newport of Fort Worth; three children, Martha Ellen Newport of New York City, Frank Marvin Newport of Princeton, N. J., and John P. Newport Jr. of Nyack, N.Y.; and six grandchildren.

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  • Cory J. Hailey