FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s E. Earle Ellis, a New Testament professor who 25 years ago held conservative views on the Bible when many of his colleagues didn’t, died March 2. He was 83.
Ellis, research professor of theology emeritus, served at the seminar from 1985 until his death, which came only two weeks before his 84th birthday. Flags around the seminary campus have been lowered to half-staff in Ellis’ honor.
Ellis’ conservative views stood out at a time when the Southern Baptist Convention’s conservative resurgence — which returned the denomination to its orthodox roots — had just begun.
“Dr. Earle Ellis distinguished himself as a classroom teacher, scholar, author and true friend to thousands,” Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Seminary, said. “Until the last 30 days of his life, he worked diligently to complete a commentary on First Corinthians. He drove his chariot like Jehu and did everything that he did with a flourish. He is more a part of Southwestern than Fort Worth Hall — the venerable, original building on campus. We will all miss him profoundly.”
“Dr. Ellis was also a courageous man,” Patterson said. “[He] stood with conservative students who were attempting to have a pro-life group on a campus when, before 1979, such was not popular. Dr. Ellis demonstrated his courage by volunteering to be the faculty sponsor for the group contrary to the will of the administration.”
Ellis’ contributions to New Testament scholarship reflect the same courage. According to Sang-Won “Aaron” Son, professor of New Testament at Southwestern and one of Ellis’ former doctoral students, Ellis challenged the skepticism of modern scholars and stood for the truths of Christianity throughout his career. Son, in a 2009 interview, testified that Ellis was known throughout the world as an “evangelical scholar” who trusted God’s Word without yielding “his faith commitment to anyone, even to the most eminent of scholars or to the most vocal of power-groups.”
Having studied under Ellis, Son said his mentor stood “as a great model for and encouragement to me and to many other young evangelical scholars. He has successfully demonstrated to us how we should compete with the best, yet without yielding our evangelical faith.”
According to Berry Driver Jr., dean of libraries and Ellis’ long-time friend and colleague, Ellis not only excelled in scholarship, but he was also a devoted churchman and apologist for the Baptist faith. Ellis’ concern for the church was reflected in his works, as can be seen in the last sentence in the preface to his book, “The Making of the New Testament Documents:” “In this Easter season, it is my prayer that the volume will glorify God and further illumine his Word to his church.”
“Ellis lived within the Scriptures,” Driver said. “One day a professor came by his office with an oblique theological question in an obscure New Testament text. Dr. Ellis entered into the relevant text with aplomb and was soon moved to tears by its devotional application to his own life.”
According to Driver, Ellis’ “fidelity to God’s Word is his greatest legacy” to the seminary: “His deep reverence to verbal plenary inspiration, biblical authority and the sufficiency of Scripture continue as powerful foundations among his students, imparted richly in his lectures and through his large body of writings.”
Throughout his career, Ellis produced, alongside numerous articles, several books that have made a significant impact in the field of biblical studies: “Paul’s Use of the Old Testament;” “Paul and His Recent Interpreters;” “Eschatology in Luke;” “Prophecy and Hermeneutic in Early Christianity;” “The Gospel of Luke;” “The World of St. John;” “Pauline Theology: Ministry and Society;” “The Old Testament in Early Christianity;” “Christ and the Future in New Testament History;” and “The Sovereignty of God in Salvation: Biblical Essays.” Before his death, Ellis was laboring to complete a commentary of 1 Corinthians for the New International Critical Commentary series.
The impact of Ellis’ scholarship is portrayed by the two festschrifts that have been written in his honor. The first, published in 1987, is titled “Tradition and Interpretation in the New Testament: Essays in Honor of E. Earle Ellis for his 60th Birthday.” A more recent festschrift, titled “History and Exegesis: New Testament essays in honor of Dr. E. Earle Ellis for his 80th Birthday,” was edited by Southwestern professor Sang-Won “Aaron” Son. High-profile New Testament scholars from across the world, including F.F. Bruce, I.H. Marshall, Seyoon Kim, N.T. Wright, Richard Bauckham and Gordon Fee, also contributed to these volumes.
Ellis was born to Lindsey Thornton and Lois Belle McBride Ellis on March 18, 1926, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and was raised in the nearby town of Dania. After serving in the United States Army from 1944 to 1946, he began to show his academic capabilities as he completed his pre-law Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Virginia in 1950, with concentrations in law, economics, political science and history.
Although Ellis spent a year in the University of Virginia School of Law and intended to enter into a career in law, he began to develop a God-given thirst for Scripture that supplanted his desire to study law. He then studied for a time at Faith Seminary in Wilmington, Del., but soon moved to the Wheaton Graduate School in Wheaton, Ill., where he received his M.A and B.D. degrees by 1953. Two years later, he was awarded with a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh.
After his graduation, Ellis served in universities and seminaries throughout the United States, including Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Southwestern Seminary. He also founded the Institute for Biblical Research and the International Reference Library for Biblical Research.
Ellis is survived by his sister, Mary Lou Ellis Wilburn of South Carolina, and her three children: David Norman Wilburn III, Carol Lindsey Wilburn Franken and Timothy Ellis Wilburn.
Southwestern Seminary will host the funeral for Ellis at the Truett Auditorium during chapel time, 10:50 a.m.-noon (Central), on Wednesday, March 10. Patterson and Paul Wolfe, headmaster of The Cambridge School of Dallas, will officiate the funeral. Afterward, a graveside service will be held at 2:30 p.m. at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery in Dallas. Visitation will occur on Tuesday, March 9, from 4-6 p.m. in the Rose Room of the seminary’s Naylor Student Center.
A fund honoring the work of Ellis has been established in the School of Theology. Gifts honoring the life and ministry of Ellis may be made to the School of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, P.O. Box 22596, Fort Worth, Texas, 76122.
Based on reporting by Benjamin Hawkins, a writer for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (www.swbts.edu/campusnews).