Roger Nicole remembered
On 11 December 2010, Swiss theologian Dr Roger Nicole died; the day before had been his 95th birthday. Not an up-front leader so much as a behind the scenes scholar, Nicole was the subject of the biography Speaking the truth in love by David W. Bailey (from which the facts behind this appreciation are drawn).
Bailey’s book opens ‘Do you know Roger Nicole?’ and goes on to answer, ‘If you are a Reformed Baptist, you might; though probably not’. Nicole was a scholar’s scholar and was known for being a great collector of books, having a comprehensive theological knowledge, and, according to Dr Robert Reymond, for ‘deep Christian humility’.
Roger Nicole was born in Germany in 1915, but owing to Swiss citizenship laws was accounted a Swiss citizen. His family were scholars: Jules Nicole, his grandfather, was dubbed ‘the father of papyrology in Switzerland’; Albert Nicole, his father, was an Old Testament scholar and pastor; Georges Nicole, his uncle, was an archaeologist.
A profound influence was also exerted by older brother Jules Marcel, who came to study at Gordon College in America, ahead of Nicole himself. Nicole credits his brother with leading him to make all intellectual issues ‘subservient to the Bible’.
This was in his younger student days, when Nicole was faced with a gifted professor of philosophy who had little sympathy with the notion of biblical authority. Jules explained to his perplexed younger brother that the professor had bamboozled him with ungrounded presuppositions.
Nicole told his teacher, ‘I have come to the conclusion that my supreme criterion of truth must be Scripture, because this is God’s Word’. The learned professor fumed, ‘You are impossible’, but Nicole was off on a scholarly path leading to the Sorbonne in Paris, Gordon Divinity School and Harvard.
Alongside his studies, Nicole pastored two churches in French-speaking communities in Massachusetts. As a Baptist, he opposed the liberalism of Harry Emerson Fosdick and others. It was in this period of his life that Nicole met Annette Cyr (soon to be Annette Nicole), a Catholic who had begun to have questions about purgatory and the Mass.
Nicole witnessed to her. She was converted, and the two married in 1946, beginning a 61-year marriage. J. I. Packer called them ‘two of the most warm-hearted, free-spirited, and altogether delightful believers it has been my privilege to know’.
Nicole began to teach at Gordon College in 1944 and retired from there in 1986. Meanwhile, in his Harvard doctoral studies (he had two earned doctorates), Nicole said he ‘saw firsthand a vision of the desert when the Bible was abandoned’, which recalls Amos 8:11’s ‘famine of hearing the words of the Lord’.
1989 saw him move to the newly established Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, where Nicole’s personal book collection formed a significant part of the library holdings.
Potential embarrassment arose, though, when Nicole spoke at the first international meeting of Christians for Biblical Equality. Nicole’s egalitarianism concerning the roles of men and women in ministry seemed to be an anomaly, but it did not prevent such complementarians as Robert Godfrey, Ronald Gleason, and John Muether from benefiting from contact with him.
Indeed Gleason and his wife saw the Nicoles as adoptive parents, and Nicole wrote the introduction to Gleason’s book on Herman Bavinck in the year he died. Don Carson states that Nicole’s position, although erroneous, was not one which ‘skirted’ Scripture.
This brings us to Nicole’s attitude toward truth and controversy. His collection Standing forth begins with a piece entitled, ‘Polemic theology: how to deal with those who differ from us’.
This reveals Nicole’s own approach, which saw him standing forth graciously against Arminianism, Open Theology and reduced theologies of the atonement, as well as standing for the inerrancy of the Bible; and doing so in a way that demonstrated respect for his opponents.
Anyone who fears this approach might have made him weak should read his robust defence of B. B. Warfield’s The inspiration and authority of Scripture, in response to the attack of James D. G. Dunn, or his letter to Justice Harry A. Blackmun of the US Supreme Court, urging him to repent of his support for abortion in the historic Roe v Wade case (http://billhaynes.wordpress.com/2010/01/27/roger-nicoles-letter-to-justice-blackmun-1994).
Ultimately, Nicole will be remembered as a ‘Christian gentleman’ as James M. Boice called him, and in the words of David F. Wells, as a ‘man of God’.
In an era when civility and godliness are at a premium, we can only be thankful for the life of Roger Nicole.