W. Sibley Towner, Professor Emeritus of Biblical Interpretation, dies at 85

RICHMOND, VA (May 23, 2018) – The Rev. Dr. W. Sibley “Sib” Towner, Professor Emeritus of Biblical Interpretation, who was valued and cherished for his wisdom, humor, and remarkable capacity to relate the Bible to the creative arts and the art of living, died early Wednesday morning. Towner died peacefully after a period of declining health in Kilmarnock, Virginia, where he and his wife Jane lived.

Brian K. Blount, president of Union Presbyterian Seminary, noted that Sib Towner represented the best of biblical pedagogy and scholarship. “A skilled exegete and powerful teacher, his work has a lasting impact for church and academy alike. He was a gracious and supportive colleague with whom it was a true joy to work. A gifted and caring teacher, he is beloved by generations of Union students. His is a Union legacy that will endure with lasting affection.”

Towner received a visit from Union alumni director Clay Macaulay in November 2017.

Towner was born in 1933 in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. He earned Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Divinity, Master of Arts, and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from Yale University. He was a research fellow with a Fulbright grant at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a Senior Common Room Visitor at Mansfield College, Oxford University.

From 1954-57, he served as a secondary school teacher at Gerard Institute in Sidon, Lebanon, a school of the Presbyterian Church in Lebanon. There, he met Jane Ann Miller whom he married in Beirut in 1956.  He was ordained to the ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 1960 in his home church in Nebraska.

Towner taught Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, Yale Divinity School, and University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, and for 26 years was Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Union Presbyterian Seminary (formerly Union Theological Seminary) and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia. He retired from the faculty in 2002.

He authored and edited numerous publications. His latest book “Prayers that Sing & Stir the Heart,” a collection of Towner’s public prayers delivered from the heart, was published in January 2018. Other publications include “How God Deals with Evil” and “The Rabbinic Enumeration of Scriptural Examples, ” as well as “Genesis” in the Westminster Bible Companion Series. “A Gargoyle Speaks,” Towner’s widely read column of essays on life of faith, appeared in the seminary’s “Focus” magazine for decades.

Towner leaves to cherish his memory his wife, Jane Ann Miller Towner, and two adult daughters, Ann and Hope.

A memorial service was held at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Kilmarnock on June 30.


UPDATE:  Below is a selection of remembrances alumni, colleagues, and friends of Dr. Towner are posting on the seminary’s Facebook page and alumni group (with permission). Most recently added comments appear first.

Howard L Hinman – I first met Sib Towner when he was a student pastor at my home church in Bridgeport, Nebraska, when I was in high school. He was well liked as the youth group leader who shared his impression of his time in Turkey. Fast forward to 1976 when I was a third-year student and he came to Union! We reconnected and reminisced about his summer at my home church. We were blessed when he arrived at UTS because he was an outstanding scholar and teacher and because he was a kind, gentle and humorous individual.

Chris Jones – I always appreciated the way Sib’s eyes twinkled when he was speaking to you. He was one of the few people I have known that was completely present when you were speaking with him. One of Sib’s many gifts that he shared with so many. 

Nikki Collins – “Put your feet up. Let me mix you a metaphor….”. Best sermon opener ever. What a light Sib Towner was and what a gift to learn from him! Much love to his family and to the seminary community.

Tony Palubicki – In one of the notebooks I’ve kept from my Old Testament class with Sib I have a note that reads: “You’re doing good work here, Tony.” A gracious expression of both his encouragement and kindness. So very glad that I got to know him and have him as a professor. I’ll cherish that note even more now! 

Amelia Canon – A jewel of a man and a great teacher. 

Lisa Cross – He taught OT for students in the Extended Campus Program. He was an excellent teacher in the IT platform, which cannot be said of all professors. And, as others have expressed, he supported, encouraged, and taught with humor, kindness, stories, and love. 

Steve Willis – Deeply grateful for the life of Sib Towner. Intelligence, gracefulness and attention to others marked his important presence at Union Seminary. And I will always remember his humorous, thoughtful words when preaching at mine and Amy’s wedding at Watts Chapel. 

Keith Cornfield – I remember his kindness, humility, and genuine concern for his students, during an Old Testament preaching course he co-led before becoming ill. I am saddened to hear of his passing.

Robbie Phillips – I never had him as a professor, but I remember him taking time to fellowship and eat with we Extended Campus folks. He was delightful, Funny and sweet. Much shalom to his family in this time of loss and loneliness. 

J. P. Kang – I am missing Sib this morning… the article should be edited to include his Daniel commentary, probably his most well-known work! 

Elizabeth L. Martin – He was a wonderful teacher; I was blessed to have studied Old Testament with him.

Meg Shaw Skidmore – I am sad to hear this. Sib was a great man of faith, scholarship, humor, and compassion. I am grateful to have been his student and to have been able to know him.

Robin Teasley – Wish I had been blessed to have him as a professor, but I have a book of his prayers, thanks to Michael Compton, and I treasure them.

Tommy O’Leary – He didn’t teach us with a powerful, thundering hand. He taught with a gentleness of spirit the made our studies that much easier. It was like sitting with him in his living room, giving us a fireside chat.

Matthew Rich – It was a great gift to be a student in Sib’s classes and to travel with him to the Middle East. I will never forget him telling us that from the moment hands were laid upon us at our ordination, we were called to be prophets.

Tom Blair – I wish I’d had him as a teacher… I so love his commentaries!

Jason B. Crawford – Sweet voice of Justice and LOVE. His prayers have stayed with me through the years.

Dan Hignight – What a wonderful scholar and a caring person! 

Tom Sparks – Look at scripture with awe, wonder, and astonishment! 

Jody Welker – I feel blessed to have been one of his students. He taught with depth, faith and grace. 

Amy Louise Busse – I have so many wonderful, funny memories of Sib, I’m not even sure where to begin. I am a better pastor and person because of him. 

Michael Walker – My class entered Union at the first year Sib taught there. We all were so privileged. He even made Hebrew fun, as well as relevant. He cared passionately for the Bible and for his students. I am forever grateful for his teaching, his friendship and his inspiration. Rest in peace, my friend. 

Monica Gould – He was such a fine professor! Old Testament narrated by Sib is the best ever! My favorite was his tale of Cain and Abel. Thanks for leaving us the legacy of your love for the Word. 

Leigh Beasley Gillis – I told him when I last saw him, at Doctor Mays’ funeral, that he is absolutely the best pray-er I have ever known. His prayers were virtually Psalms themselves. TBTG that we were blessed to know him! 

Tony Palubicki – It was a joy and gift to learn from this man! In one of the notebooks I’ve kept from my Old Testament class with Sib I have a note from him that reads: “You’re doing good work here, Tony.” So very glad that I got to know him and have him as a professor. I cherish that note even more now! 

Michael Compton – I have very fond memories of Sib in the classroom – kind, thoughtful, compassionate, and an excellent sense of humor. I learned much from him about positive models for ministry. And his book on Scriptural examples in the Mekhilta influenced my dissertation topic years later. Requiescat in pace.

Judy Thomson – I was blessed to know this wise, witty, graceful man–and talented writer of limericks–not through Union Seminary but through our shared participation in a faith community (St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Kilmarnock). My life was made richer by knowing, learning from, and being in the presence of, Sib Towner. Well done, good and faithful servant.