LUNEBURG, Germany (ABP) — A German Baptist theologian who led the International Baptist Theological Seminary through some of its most tumultuous years has died.
Wiard Popkes, a retired professor at the Baptist Seminary of Hamburg and long-time trustee chairman of the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague, died of a heart attack Jan. 3, according to IBTS Rector Keith Jones. Popkes was 70.
Popkes helped lead the European Baptist seminary through the Southern Baptist Convention's decision to withdraw funding from it in 1991, when it was known as the Baptist Theological Seminary in Ruschlikon, Switzerland. Fundamentalists who had recently taken over the SBC's International Mission Board — then known as the Foreign Mission Board — deemed the seminary too liberal to continue funding, despite the school's crucial role in preparing world Baptist leaders.
The SBC's decision to defund the Ruschlikon seminary became a key rallying point for moderate Baptists, particularly in the growth of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and formation of its global missions program.
As chairman of the IBTS board, Popkes also oversaw the school's purchase, renovation and 1996 move to a picturesque 19th-century campus in Prague, Czech Republic. The move was controversial because it included a change in the school's focus.
Popkes and another German Baptist, Karl Heinz Walter, represented the European Baptist Federation in negotiations with the Foreign Mission Board's trustees over the school's fate. They ultimately proved fruitless, as the more moderate European Baptist culture clashed with conservative Southern Baptist activism.
“He was a great … scholar and teacher for German Baptists, but also a doctoral father for IBTS doctoral candidates until his death,” said Jim Smith, a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship missionary in Berlin, in an e-mail to Associated Baptist Press. Smith served as vice chair of the IBTS board during Popkes' chairmanship.
“His years as chairman of the board included the difficult ones … when European Baptists voted to move the campus from Switzerland to Prague,” Smith noted. “He once told me that he'd lost some of his closest friends during the years of transition, but was convinced that the correct decisions were made to save the school.”
Popkes was one of European Baptists' best-known New Testament scholars. The seminary's rector, in a Jan. 4 e-mail to IBTS supporters, noted Popkes was also one of the seminary's earliest graduates.
“We thank God for Wiard — his deep Christian commitment; his outstanding New Testament scholarship; his devotion to our Baptist family; and his deep attachment and concern for IBTS,” Keith Jones wrote. “Let us remember his dear wife and all the family at this time of their grief and pray that they will know the strength and support of our God through these immediate days of grief.”
Besides his IBTS degree, Popkes received his doctorate in New Testament from the University of Zurich. In addition to his seminary teaching, he taught at the University of Hamburg.
He is survived by his wife, Irmgard, and a son.