Roger Nicole (1915-2010)
Yesterday, December 10, 2010, was the 95th birthday of Roger Nicole, the great Reformed-Baptist theologian.
This evening was his homegoing to be with his Lord. He has completed his earthly race. Having fought the good fight of faith, he entered into the joy of his Master. And undoubtedly he heard the words we all long to hear: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
He was, by common consent, a theological giant. (See these brief reflections by Don Carson, Tim Keller, and Mark Dever.) But because he never wrote a book and didn’t travel the conference circuit, many evangelicals have not heard of him, to our detriment. As Timothy George has written:
Roger Nicole is one of European Christianity’s greatest gifts to the American church. His role in the shaping of American evangelical theology in the latter half of the twentieth century was enormous and deserves to be better known.
J. I. Packer has a gift not only for summarizing theological truth in a concise, compact way, but also for getting to the heart of a friend’s character and legacy. A few years ago he was able to summarize Roger Nicole in a sentence:
Awesome for brain power, learning, and wisdom; endlessly patient and courteous in his gentle geniality; and beloved by a multitude as pastor, mentor, and friend.
For a man of such power of mind, clarity of thought, range of knowledge and strength in argument, Roger’s patience and courtesy toward the less well favored is a marvel that has become a legend. He was said when first I knew him to have learned to greet people in something like fifty different languages so that he could always welcome overseas students and make them feel at home. Such sweet pastoral care in the conventional coolness of academia is also the stuff of legend, and deservedly so. No one could ever accuse Roger of throwing his weight about; very much a Swiss gentlemen in style, he is also a gentle man and a great encourager, overflowing with goodwill at all times. He has been a model for me in this, as in so much more. Roger stands at the head of my private list of persons worth celebrating, and I am sure I am not the only one who would say that.
Roger R. Nicole was born December 10, 1915, a natural-born Swiss citizen, in Charlottenburg (greater Berlin), Germany. His father was a pastor, and the family moved back to Switzerland when Roger was four and a half years old. He lived there until the age of twenty.
His education was extensive. He received a BA from Gymnase Classique in Lausanne, Switzerland. In 1935 he moved to France and received an MA from the Sorbonne in Paris; and a diploma from the Bible Institute of Nogent Marne in France, where Roger’s older brother Jules was his principal and teacher.
In 1938 he moved to the United States and entered Gordon Divinity School in Boston and would earn three degrees from the school: BD in 1939; STM in 1940; ThD in 1943. In 1944, at the age of 29, he began teaching at Gordon and became professor of theology in 1949.
In the 1940s he met Annette Cyr. She had left home at the age of 16 due to family difficulties, worked in a factory until she was 26, and then became one of the first women to join the Coast Guard. She received her first Bible from Roger when he was pastoring a local church. They would marry in 1946, a union that would last for 61 years. An obituary of Mrs. Nicole would note:
The couple did not have biological children but there are 19 people in the U.S., Africa and Asia who call them Mama and Papa. “These are some of the students we sort of ‘adopted’ throughout my career who regard us as their parents,” Roger Nicole said.
John Piper has written that “One clear mark of Christlike tenderness is love for children,” and several of Roger Nicole’s friends have noted his love of children. David Bailey says, “He converses as effortlessly with a five-year old child as with an academic colleague.”
Timothy George writes of Roger and Annette, “For many decades they have modeled the graces of Christian hospitality. Several generations of students and colleagues have known the largesse of their table and the conviviality of their home.”
Packer recalls meeting the couple for the first time:
One of my cherished memories is of the day, nearly half a century ago, when they lunched in our home and Annette laid into me with passion for being an Anglican and not a Baptist while Roger, beaming all over his face (and how that man can beam!) sat silent enjoying the fun. They are two of the most warm-hearted, free-spirited, and altogether delightful believers that it has been my privilege to know.
In 1947 he gave his first lecture on the atonement, at Western Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary in Portland. He provided a biblical theology of the atonement from Genesis to Revelation, arguing for its centrality. His work on the atonement remains one of his lasting legacies today. He was still writing on the topic into his 90s. (For a classroom definition of the gospel, achieved by the atonement, click here.)
He was a founding member of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), established in 1949. Dr. Nicole served as Vice President in 1955 and President in 1956.
In 1967 he would receive his second doctorate, a research PhD from Harvard University. Wheaton College would grant him the D.D. in 1978.
In the 1970s he served as an assistant translator for the New International Version, and as a founding member of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, which produced the Chicago Statement, among other documents.
In 1986, after 41 years of teaching at Gordon-Conwell, the Nicoles moved to Orlando where he continued teaching at Reformed Theological Seminary. They would spend their remaining decades in Central Florida.
In 1987 he worked with other egalitarians to form the organization Christians for Biblical Equality, to the disappointment of many and the delight of others.
During the 1980s he also served as an associate editor for the New Geneva Study Bible, which has today been revised as the Reformation Study Bible.
In 2001—at the age of 86—Dr. Nicole wrote a review of Greg Boyd’s God of the Possible, a defense of “open theism,” and in 2002 he presented charges against Clark Pinnock and John Sanders for their advocacy of “open theism,” saying, “I present this motion with a heavy heart.” In his correspondence with these men—whom he thought were undermining the very character of God as revealed in Holy Scripture—he would sign his letters with typical graciousnessness: simply, “Love, Roger.”
He was a collector by nature. As an avid stamp collector, he amassed over 1 million stamps throughout his lifetime. And as a bibliophile, his personal library consisted of over 26,000 volumes—not including 6,000 mystery novels! Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando now houses the Roger Nicole Collection, consisting of 25,000 theological works, including many rare volumes from the 16th and 17th centuries.
In 2004 his friends and colleagues honored him with a Festchrift: The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Historical & Practical Perspectives: Essays in Honor of Roger R. Nicole, edited by Charles Hill and Frank James. Keeping a Festchrift from an honoree is no easy task—and in this case it proved unsuccessful! When Dr. Nicole saw pre-publication mention of the book in IVP’s academic catalog, he boldly approached one of the editors asking if he could contribute, given that the book’s theme aligned so closely with one of his great passions! The editors confessed the nature of the project, and Dr. Nicole was able to include a brief post-script on penal substitution.
David W. Bailey, who took classes with Dr. Nicole at an extension site of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and would later write his authorized biography, recalls:
During his lectures, several of the students, on occasion, would weep. His keen mind (as an octogenerian!) was demonstrated in his total lack of notes (just an NIV Bible and a Greek New Testament!) and his ability to teach for nearly four hours solid at night (from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.) with only a 20-minute nap in between, from which he did not need to be awakened. He was gracious in handling questions from “difficult students.” We were deeply impressed by his complete transparency regarding his own Christian pilgrimage, his manifest godliness, his willingness to share with the students volumes from his own library due to the limitations of an extension center library. Such obvious brilliance was coupled with a love for stamp-collecting and mystery novels and an incredible knowledge of books. One feels both more intellectual and more Christ-like just spending time with Roger Nicole.
David Wells, his Gordon-Conwell colleague, dedicated a collection of essays on Reformed theology to Roger Nicole, and tried to get at the “center” of his theological vision:
The sovereignty of God, expressed in grace and in judgment, has always been at the center of Roger’s vision. It has led him to think globally. He has always been a strong supporter of missions because he is confident that God is great enough to accomplish his saving purposes worldwide. It has also led him to walk humbly because he knows that in our human fallenness resides no spiritual life. To know this is to be liberated from the clutches of that exaggerated and false sense of self-importance, which, in the end, undermines all human well-being. And it has given his life a serenity and stability that have been an example to his colleagues, students, and the administrators with whom he has worked. In times of crisis, he has been a source of wisdom; in turbulence, a source of strength. His unerring instinct for what is noble has touched those who have known him and has ever pointed to Jesus Christ, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”
For an inspiring taste of the man’s careful, insightful thinking, take a look at John Muether’s interview with Dr. Nicole in 2008, when he was 92 years old (two weeks before his wife went to be with the Lord). They cover topics of atonement, inerrancy, New Perspective, and polemics.
One would be remiss not to highlight in particular a very important essay he wrote, originally delivered upon his 30th anniversary of teaching at Gordon-Conwell: “Polemic Theology: How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us.” (A slighter fuller version may be found at ThirdMill.org: parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.) It remains a deeply relevant and timely piece for all of us to read and heed, and a model of grace.
Those interested in good, foundational essays—many of which helped to shape evangelical theology—to look at a copy of Standing Forth: Collected Writings of Roger Nicole, published in 2002 by Christian Focus.
For some sample lectures by Dr. Nicole, you can listen to this set of three talks online from the 1989 Bethlehem Conference for Pastors, on the achievement of the cross.
Below are a few of his 100+ articles and reviews—some scholarly and some popular—which are available online. Note the number that were written in his 90s.
- “New Testament Use of the Old Testament” (1958)
- “The Case for Definite Atonement” (1967)
- “John Calvin and Inerrancy” (1982)
- “John Calvin’s View of the Extent of the Atonement” (1985)
- “Prayer: The Prelude to Revival” (1992)
- “God Glorified in Conversion” (1993)
- “A Letter to Justice Harry Blackmun [Author of the Roe v. Wade Decision] Upon His Retirement” (1994)
- “Covenant, Universal Call, and Definite Atonement” (1995)
- “The Original Geneva Bible” (1995)
- “Review of The Openness of God” (1995)
- “Unbounded Love or Unbounded License?” (1996)
- “The Canon of the New Testament” (1997)
- “Confessions of Faith in Baptist History” (1997)
- “Induction and Deduction with Reference to Inspiration” (2007)
- “God in the Dock: The Apologetics of C.S. Lewis” (2008)
- “Justification by Faith Alone” (2008)
- “Christ, Our Righteousness” (2010)
Don Sweeting, President of RTS-Orlando, was able to visit with Dr. Nicole a few weeks ago and wrote a blog post about it. The close of that post is a fitting tribute to a man who has entered glory, seeing his Savior face to face:
Dr. Nicole spoke of his own retrenchment, not with deep complaint, but with a proper sense of realism and lament that comes from any loss. There was melancholy in his voice as he reminisced about days gone by and noted what he no longer had. But then he paused in the conversation. And with all the vigor of his French accented English emphatically exclaimed—“but I have joy.” And this, he said, could not be taken away! Not only that, but Dr. Nicole clearly understood that his present retrenchment is a season as well.
We ended our visit by opening up the Scriptures and reading together from Psalm 16. That great psalm begin—“Keep my safe, O God, for in you I take refuge. . . . I said to the LORD, ‘You are my LORD, apart from you I have no good thing. . . . You have assigned me my portion and my cup. . . . Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices.’”
It was with particular eagerness that Dr. Nicole recited from memory as I read the last part of the psalm. “My body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. . . . You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”
Seeing beyond our seasons of accumulation and retrenchment, Dr. Nicole clearly had his eye on yet another season, which for him, seemed just around the corner.