AMBS professor emeritus remembered for prolific scholarship, faith and humility

Published: November 8, 2019

By Annette Brill Bergstresser

Willard Swartley, Ph.D., discussed his newest book, Jesus, Deliver Us, on Sept. 7, 2019, during a book signing at Fables Bookshop in Goshen. (Credit: Bekah York)

ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — The Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) community is grieving the sudden loss of a beloved colleague, teacher, mentor and friend. Willard M. Swartley, Ph.D., professor emeritus of New Testament, died of natural causes at age 83 on Nov. 6, 2019, in Goshen, Indiana. He had lived with a heart condition for many years.

Swartley, who retired from the Elkhart, Indiana, seminary in 2004 but continued to be a regular presence on campus, will be remembered for the ways in which he lived out his deeply rooted faith in Jesus — both within and beyond his academic work. Those who knew him speak of his gentle and humble spirit, his pastoral presence and his consistently encouraging nature, in addition to his intellectual curiosity and numerous contributions to biblical and peace scholarship.
“Willard was an exceptional and widely respected biblical scholar and a committed teacher,” said Beverly Lapp, Ed.D., acting president and academic dean. “He lived his faith, looking after those who were struggling in life, and he believed in the work of Christ and the church to increase God’s kingdom here and now. He loved AMBS so very much.”

From 1978 to 2004, Swartley was a professor of New Testament at AMBS. During his tenure, he also served as academic dean (1979–81; 1995–2000), acting president for half a year (1996), and director of AMBS’s Summer School (1990–93; 1995–2000). Swartley was actively involved in fostering scholarship for the church, serving as director of the Institute of Mennonite Studies (IMS), AMBS’s research agency, for more than a decade (1979–88; acting, 1997–99). At IMS, he was also editor of the Occasional Papers series (1981–88) and co-editor with Ben C. Ollenburger, Ph.D., retired professor of biblical theology, of the Studies in Peace and Scripture series (1990–2006). His final book, Jesus, Deliver Us — published earlier this year — is the 16th volume in the latter series.

Mary H. Schertz, Ph.D., professor emerita of New Testament and a longtime colleague of Swartley’s, praised his contributions to the church’s understanding of the Bible. She described his 1982 book Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women as “perhaps the first and certainly the most influential gift toward our recognition that we read the Bible from different perspectives and, for that reason, come to different conclusions about the biblical witness.”

“It would be difficult to imagine how deeply the life of the church and its relationship with the sacred text would have been impoverished and malformed without the tireless devotion and care of Willard Swartley,” she reflected. “As Mennonite biblical scholars, we have so much to thank him for.”

According to IMS Managing Editor David C. Cramer, Ph.D., Swartley’s generosity toward colleagues and students elevated the level of scholarship of the entire seminary community.

“He viewed scholarship as a communal rather than a competitive enterprise,” Cramer recalled. “When appointed IMS director, his first act — according to a memo he wrote in 1982 — was ‘to assist the collegiality of the AMBS faculty in research and publication’ by celebrating their work at the end of each semester.”

Cramer added that in May, Swartley was recognized for beginning IMS’s annual book celebration, a cherished seminary tradition. And just last Friday, Nov. 2, he attended a book celebration for Bible faculty members Safwat Marzouk, Ph.D., and Drew Strait, Ph.D., at AMBS.

Swartley’s collaborative spirit and encouragement of colleagues and students alike come through in the tributes and testimonials that have been shared in the seminary community and on social media following his death. Earlier this year, Swartley himself described being encouraged in his faculty and IMS roles at AMBS by one of his predecessors, William (Bill) Klassen, Ph.D., a former New Testament professor. Klassen had also recommended Swartley for membership in the Society for New Testament Studies (SNTS).

Swartley paid it forward. Jewel Gingerich Longenecker, Ph.D., dean of lifelong learning, remembers how warmly Willard welcomed her and her husband to AMBS when she came as a new student in 1990.

“His pastoral qualities and character were striking from the start,” she reflected. “In the days and years that followed, I also saw his enormous intellectual gifts and academic productivity, always interwoven with deep, courageous spirituality. When I returned to AMBS as an employee, he continued to be a key mentor and, along with Mary [his wife], a dear friend to me and my family. We will miss him greatly.”

Assistant Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins Drew Strait, Ph.D., also experienced Swartley’s warm welcome when he joined the AMBS teaching faculty in 2018.

“Willard’s enthusiasm for scholarship and capacity to encourage others are character traits I will long admire and seek to emulate,” he reflected. “He found that narrow way; he was simultaneously a formidable scholar and humble disciple at the foot of the cross. His legacy will inspire us for many years to come.”

Swartley will be remembered not only for helping shape the theology and peacemaking practices of generations of students, but also for the friendships he cultivated over his many years at AMBS.

Daniel Schipani, Dr.Psy., Ph.D., professor emeritus of pastoral care and counseling and a longtime colleague and friend of Swartley’s, shared that he and Swartley enjoyed “countless conversations on Jesus, interpreting the Bible, evil, salvation, the Holy Spirit and much more.”

“He was always supportive and encouraging, even when disagreeing about something,” Schipani said. He also recalled Swartley ministering to him with “prayer, anointing and wise words” when he was once hospitalized, noting, “He had a robust pastoral heart.”

“It’s fitting to apply to his life and work Jesus’ teaching in the parable of the talents: he faithfully and generously invested the gifts he had received, so now he’s blessed with the rewarding words, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy servant … enter into the joy of your master’ (Mt. 25:23),” Schipani concluded.

Swartley earned a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from Princeton (New Jersey) Theological Seminary in 1973; a Bachelor of Divinity from Goshen (Indiana) Biblical Seminary (now AMBS) in 1962; and a Bachelor of Arts from Eastern Mennonite College (now University) in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in 1959. He spent various summers studying at universities in TübingenHeidelberg and Göttingen, Germany; Union Theological Seminary, New York; and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois; among others. He also was a senior scholar at the University of St. Andrews, United Kingdom (2002), and a research fellow at Cambridge (United Kingdom) University (2002) and Yale Divinity School, New Haven, Connecticut (1988–89).

Among his many published works are the books Jesus, Deliver Us: Evil, Exorcism and Exousiai (Cascade, 2019); Living Gift: John’s Gospel in Meditation and Poetry, Art and Song (Evangel, 2013); John (Believers Church Bible Commentary; Herald, 2013); Health, Healing and the Church’s Mission: Biblical Perspectives and Moral Priorities (InterVarsity, 2012); Send Forth Your Light: A Vision for Peace and Mission, and Worship (Herald, 2007); Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics (Eerdmans, 2006); Homosexuality: Biblical Interpretation and Moral Discernment (Herald, 2003); Israel’s Scripture Traditions and the Synoptic Gospels: Story Shaping Story (Hendrickson, 1994); Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation (Herald, 1983); and Mark: The Way for All Nations (Herald, 1979; rev. ed. 1981).

Swartley was also the New Testament editor for the Believers Church Bible Commentary series (Herald) and editor of 20 other books, including Politics of Discipleship and Discipleship in Politics: Jürgen Moltmann Lectures in Dialogue with Mennonite Scholars (Cascade, 2006); The Love of Enemy and Nonretaliation in the New Testament (Westminster/John Knox, 1992); and Perspectives on Feminist Hermeneutics (IMS, 1987), with co-editor Gayle Gerber Koontz, Ph.D., professor emerita of theology and ethics.

Prior to coming to AMBS, Swartley was professor of New Testament at Eastern Mennonite College (now University) (1971–78), where he also served as dean (1976–78). He also taught at Conrad Grebel College (now University College) in Waterloo, Ontario, and Goshen (Indiana) College, as well as seminars and intensive courses in Japan, Taiwan, Swaziland, Nairobi, Botswana and Cairo. He and Mary also enjoyed building relationships with international students at AMBS.

Swartley was baptized in 1945 at Doylestown (Pennsylvania) Mennonite Church and, while still in seminary, became pastor and was ordained at the former Locust Grove Mennonite Church in Elkhart. From 1978 to his death, he was a member of Belmont Mennonite Church in Elkhart, where he served on numerous commissions and teams.

He was born Aug. 6, 1936, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, to William Henry Swartley and Ida Myers Swartley, as the youngest of eight children. He is survived by his wife of 61 years, Mary, of Goshen; their two children, Louisa Renee Swartley Oyer (Gary Oyer) of Hesston, Kansas, and Kenton Eugene Swartley (Emily Hertzler Swartley) of Cedar Falls, Iowa; six grandchildren; and a sister, Dorothy Swartley Martens of Chester, Vermont.

Visitation will take place on Friday, Nov. 8, 3–5 and 6–8 p.m. at Belmont Mennonite Church, 925 Oxford Street, Elkhart, Indiana. The burial will be on Saturday, Nov. 9, at 9 a.m. at Prairie Street Cemetery in Elkhart, followed by visitation at Belmont and an 11 a.m. memorial service at Belmont.


Willard Swartley, Ph.D., AMBS Professor Emeritus of New Testament, in 2002. (Credit: J. Tyler Klassen)

Willard Swartley, Ph.D., visits with his colleague Janeen Bertsche Johnson, M.Div., in Lambright Center in May 2004, when he retired from the AMBS teaching faculty. (AMBS photo)

Willard Swartley, Ph.D., and Ben C. Ollenburger, Ph.D., former co-editors of the Studies in Peace and Scripture series of the Institute of Mennonite Studies, display the first volume in the series, The Gospel of Peace: A Scriptural Message for Today’s World (Westminster/John Knox, 1992), by Ulrich Mauser, in February 1992 at AMBS in Elkhart, Indiana. Swartley was the New Testament editor of the series, and Ollenburger was the Old Testament editor. (Credit: Mark Boyce)

Willard Swartley, Ph.D., professor emeritus of New Testament, teaching a course at AMBS in October 1998. (AMBS photo)

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