This evening Roger Nicole, a widely admired theologian and man of God, died at age 95. Justin Taylor has written an obituary that recaps his significant contributions to the church. Nicole will be greatly missed.
I recall the excitement and affirmation I felt when Nicole wrote a letter commending a controversial piece I acquired for Christianity Today. I never had the privilege of meeting Nicole, but I knew of his faithful service and profound scholarship through many generations of students he influenced at Gordon-Conwell and Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. His defense of biblical inerrancy and substitutionary atonement in particular girded evangelicals against many contemporary challenges.
Don Carson and two of Nicole’s students—Tim Keller and Mark Dever—have shared words of appreciation for this man who fought the good fight and has now finished the race.
Born a Swiss citizen, Roger Nicole never freed himself from his charming French accent. His ability in question-and-answer sessions was legendary. Many of us hoped he would complete a major systematic theology, but it was not to be. For so long and fruitful a life, his literary remains are small. Nevertheless his stamp on generations of students was profound. A Reformed theologian, he combined a love of the biblical text (his brother in France was responsible for one of the three most popular French translations of the Bible) with a passion for devout and careful systematic theology. Who could forget his lectures on Scripture or his careful defense of definite atonement? His wide reading, reflected in his large personal library, made him aware of the dangers in C. H. Dodd’s views on the atonement before most other evangelicals understood them, and his response in a 1955 essay in WTJ began to establish his reputation as a defender of the faith. His review of Clark Pinnock’s The Scripture Principle, published in Christianity Today, is still worth reading. The degree to which he espoused egalitarianism ensured he was not entirely trusted in complementarian circles, but no one who talked with him about these matters thought he arrived at his conclusions by trying to skirt Scripture’s authority.
Roger Nicole was my professor of theology when I was at Gordon-Conwell from 1972 to 1975. I took four lecture courses with him and one reading course on sanctification (3,000 pages!) Dr. Nicole has not been widely known because he did not write very much. Instead he put his energy into teaching, and he was superb. His lectures were things of beauty. He simply: 1) laid out every theological heading, 2) told you what all the main views were—Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Wesleyan, etc 3) then gave the strengths and weaknesses of every position, and the one (the Reformed) he thought was correct. Finally he made his biblical case for his position. This was quite literally systematic theology, and I was just blown away by it.
He was unfailingly kind and gracious to students who disagreed with him. I remember once a student in class expressed real hostility to the doctrine of predestination. “That makes God the author of sin and evil!” she exclaimed. Dr. Nicole raised his eyebrows and began by saying that, indeed, it was understandable why many people rejected the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, because in the the Arminian system God seems safely distanced from blame for any human sin and evil. He was sympathetic. “But,” he continued, “I would respectfully argue that any apparent advantages of the Arminian position are greatly outweighed by the severe disadvantages.” And he proceeded to sweetly take the Arminian position apart.
I came to Gordon-Conwell an Arminian, and left a convinced Calvinist, to a great degree because of the ministry of Dr. Nicole.
Roger Nicole was my systematic theology professor at Gordon-Conwell from 1982 to 1986. The last two years, I had the privilege of being his teaching fellow. He and his wife, Annette, were in our home, and my wife and I were in theirs. They were a loving, hospitable, remarkable couple. Roger’s outgoing nature, his fairness in argument, and his encyclopedic bibliographical knowledge made him an amazing tutor in theology. His special love for the doctrines of Scripture and the atonement have certainly left their mark on me. And for that I am thankful. His kindness in reveling in being called ‘brother’ rather than “Dr. Dr.” (he had two earned doctorates) was instructive. His delight in children was itself delightful. It was an honor to know him and be taught by him.