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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

Reflections on Roger Nicole

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 In God’s Word we are repeatedly told to give thanks to God. So when God calls people home whom He has used in marked ways in our lives, it’s time to pause and give thanks. Though I won’t be able to attend his funeral in Florida, I can offer thanks to God by sharing some of the gifts I received through Roger Nicole. The following thoughts started off as personal ruminations in my quiet time yesterday morning as I thanked God for His gift of Roger in my life. Then, as the document grew, I shared it with others, and they suggested that I share it more widely this week to celebrate God’s work in our brother.

I first got to know Roger Nicole when doing an M.Div. at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the mid-eighties. I took systematic theology classes from him, especially the electives which reflected his particular interests, and eventually become his teaching fellow (1984-1986).
 
Now, it was a good time to attend Gordon-Conwell. Many of my fellow Dukies were there, like Zane Pratt and Greg Wills, as well as others who became dear friends like Frank Thielman and Rikki Watts. But it was the faculty that was the great draw in those days. The school was what you would call “ripe.”
 
It was filled with men who had taught for decades, along with a few younger promising professors. I studied under included David Wells, Gordon Fee, Doug Stuart, William Nigel Kerr, Gordon Hugenberger, Meredith Kline, Richard Lovelace, Greg Beale, Gwyn Walters, and J. I. Packer (visiting professor in 1984). I love these men and am indebted to each of them in particular ways.
 
But none of them surpassed—in my affections and esteem—Roger Nicole.
 
In one sense, he was the reason I attended Gordon Conwell. In the summer of 1981 I spent two weeks at a student camp, and James Montgomery Boice was the preacher. I spoke to Boice at one point and mentioned that I was Calvinistic and a Baptist. Boice’s face lit up, and he exclaimed “If there was one man in America I could study under, it would be Roger Nicole.” Boice was the first one to mention Nicole to me. It was one of God’s kind providences.
 
10 THINGS ROGER NICOLE TAUGHT ME
 
Here are ten things Roger Nichole taught me:
 
1) Westminster Assembly—Though he had a few disagreements with the Westminster Assembly (he was a Baptist!), Roger remained an unreconstructed fan of everything about the the Assembly and its products.
 
2) Atonement—Like all of us, Roger had his sins. No doubt his awareness of his own need for a Savior contributed to his profound devotion to Christ, and to his fascination with how God had provided for a sinner like him! Through his studies on the atonement, Roger was one of the most effective critics of C. H. Dodd’s idea that God’s wrath was simply an impersonal force of bad consequences from bad actions. Roger would not permit the mere idea of expiation (covering over) replace the more profound and biblical idea of Christ’s work propitiating God’s right and personal wrath.
 
3) Roman Catholicism—Through growing up in Switzerland and France as well as through marrying a wife brought up in a Roman Catholic family in Quebec, Roger became intimately familiar with Catholic theology as it was believed and practiced, as well as the official theology of the Roman Catholic Church.
 
4) Inerrancy—One day in class, Roger announced that he would teach additional material about inerrancy after class to all who were interested. So I stayed around. He explained the doctrine of Scripture, commenting on historic and current controversies, and then answered questions. It was his practice to assign so many pages of reading for a class, but to drive students toward the authors that he considered most important (like Owen and Warfield), he would give triple credit  for reading certain works by them. So Roger made sure that Warfield’s Inspiration and Authority of Scripture continued to be read by M.Div. students.
 
5) Bibliography!—Roger had the most amazing bibliographical knowledge in theology of anyone I’ve known, and it was all in his head. He showed me the value of knowing books.
 
6) Tender devotion to his wife—He loved Madame Annette! During their decades in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, they had a date almost every lunch time. Roger would go home and eat lunch together—while watching a soap opera!
 
7) Fairness—Roger was especially fair to those whose views he did not share but opposed. He always presented both the strengths and weaknesses of each position he described, and put things carefully in perspective of the gospel. In fact, so well would he describe the strengths of the positions he did not hold that it may be that there is more than one noted paedo-baptist minister today who became paedo-baptist through the Baptist Roger Nicole’s lectures.
 
8) Graciousness—Roger was personally kind and thoughtful to others, being sympathetic to concerns, always trying to help others think. He was not himself thin-skinnned or overly self-concerned when he was criticized.
 
9) Humility—In my first chapel service at Gordon-Conwell, there was a time of community sharing. Nicole, the senior professor, stood to his feet in the midst of the congregation and said, “Some think it a great honor to be called ‘Doctor’ or ‘Professor.’ But I have no greater honor than to be addressed as ‘Brother.’” And he meant it. I remember seeing him more than once joyfully down on all fours in the hall with toddlers. And I remember him sitting in my rocking chair in our basement in Topsfield, Massachusetts, in the summer teaching high school students theology. Roger was a humble brother.
 
10) Ferocious on defending the Bible and the gospel—He was unusually sharp verbally when it came to the authority of Scripture and the objectivity and completeness of the atonement. He was, you may imagine, a vigorous champion of the Reformation. When vital theological matters were at stake, Roger would not shy away from controversy.
 
But there is so much more I would like to share about Roger, things that I trust you would want to know. Things like what? Things like these:
 
20 INTERESTING FACTS AND ANECDOTES ABOUT ROGER NICOLE:

1) Roger was born in a prisoner of war camp in Charlottenberg, Germany during World War One, where his father was the chaplain for the French-speaking protestant Prisoners.
 
2) He had a master’s degree from the Sorbonne. He was a student in Paris in the mid-1930’s! It is strange to me to think that someone with whom I was speaking just a few months ago, whom I knew, was so familiar with pre-WWII Paris! And it makes me appreciate the richness of the education that he brought into his American theological studies that were to follow.
 
3) In the mid-twentieth century, as mainline Protestant seminaries in the Northeast declined and shed volumes from their libraries, Roger & Nigel (“Big Bill” as Roger called him) Kerr would climb into a station wagon, drive to these libraries, and buy huge amounts of books at good prices to build up the Gordon Divinity School library.
 
4) Roger said that the most impressive person he had ever met was John Murray, then of Westminster Theological Seminary.
 
5) He could read with amazing speed, comprehension, and retention. And he could do this in several languages—of course French, German, English, Hebrew, Greek and Latin, but in a number of others as well. He “collected” greetings and loved to greet people in their native language.
 
6) He was a perfectionist about his own writing, which is why he published comparatively little. (This has been a good caution to me.)
 
7) Roger not only had tens of thousands of theological books (all carefully catalogued in his basement, at least in the Massachusetts years), he also had about 10,000 detective novels. Roger was a HUGE fan of knotty plots. He also had a huge collection of postcards and stamps (which he always enjoyed showing the willing spectator). Annette would roll her eyes when reference was made to Roger’s basement, or library!
 
8) Roger was an ardent five-point Calvinist! He preached on Jesus Christ the great Calvinist—yes, he did! You can find it at a PCRT on the ACE website. And he was one of the most attractive proponents of definite atonement I’ve ever heard (he disliked the word “limited”). Listen to any of his messages on “Particular Redemption.”
 
9) He was an ardent feminist. I, too, was a feminist when I entered Gordon-Conwell, but during my time as a teaching assistant for him, I became convinced of a complementarian position. In the years since, he would never speak to me without giving me some recent writing about this issue.
 
10) He took a nap in his office for 15 minutes every day after lunch. He had a couch. I would be there grading tests. He would recline, say to me “Broder Dever, wake me up in 15 minutes,” and then immediately begin to snore. Fifteen minutes later exactly, he would sputter, open his eyes, look at his watch, seem a little surprised, sit up, and get on with his day. This was an unvarying routine.
 
11) Speaking of sleep, I remember hearing rumors of how Roger fell asleep during his own lectures, and I assumed, as a good critical historian, that such stories were at least unlikely and probably apocryphal. But then my cynical self witnessed it! I was sitting in a lecture after lunch, and about half an hour into the lecture, mid-sentence, Roger just stopped talking. At first, the class thought that he was, perhaps, uncharacteristically, pausing to gather his thoughts, but the pause became too long…twenty seconds…thirty seconds. People began to get concerned. Whispers began. They looked at me since I was his teaching fellow. After about one minute, I began to get up, but no sooner than I did Roger’s eyes opened, and he picked up mid-sentence where he had left off! Roger had been asleep! He continued on, apparently unaware of what had happened. (His narcolepsy did give his wife Annette serious concerns.)
 
12) Roger would not tolerate misspelled words in a paper or test, particularly British spellings offered in a paper to an American institution! “Saviour” may have been right in Cambridge, but it was wrong in Boston!
 
13) Roger would offer oral exams for his electives for any students brave enough to want one. You could simply schedule a time to come to his office, and he would ask you questions. After you left, he would assign you a grade based upon his assessment of what you knew and understood.
 
14) He loved his wife Annette dearly. (In conversation, she was the more direct one of the couple.) He spoke of her with fondness and a sparkle in his eye. One of the great trials of his life was her physical challenges, and especially his loss of her a few years ago. Though difficult for him, he bore the loss with unshaken faith in God.
 
15) He and Annette were some of the first guests my wife and I had over to our house for dinner when we moved to the Boston area in 1982. They were kind, delightful, humorous, and encouraging. Roger seemed shocked when he started to drink a glass of Welch’s grape juice and realized that it was straight and uncut. He was used to adding water to his juice to dilute the taste and, no doubt, make it last longer.
 
16) Annette loved to dance! J. I. Packer once characterized Roger and Annette as being a great couple. “They swing well together,” said jazz-aficionado Packer.
 
17) When I decided to accept the call to the pastorate of the Capitol Hill Metropolitan Baptist Church, as it was then named, Roger was disappointed that I was not going to teach. But he was supportive. In fact, though I was reluctant even to mention it to him, he informed me that he was coming to my installation. Certainly this was a great honor and joy to me.
 
18) At my installation in September 1994, Roger and Carl Henry were sitting next to each other. Matt Schmucker began to introduce them to each other, and Nicole just laughed and said “Dear brother, we have known each other since before you were a gleam in your parents eyes!” In fact, Henry had dedicated one of his first books back in the 1940s to Roger Nicole! On a related matter, Nicole was saddened that Henry had, as he put it, “stood aloof” from the important work of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, which Nicole was deeply involved in and thought was both important and successful. He felt that this was a mistake on Henry’s part.
 
19) My last meeting with Roger was in his shared room at Village on the Green this past summer (June 2010). Dan Wright had kindly prepared me, advising me to bring something to write on. I was anxious to introduce three young friends of mine—Philip van Steenburgh, Bobby Jamieson and Zach Moore—to Roger. I wanted them to meet the remarkable man who had helped disciple Carl Henry back in the 1940s, who had encouraged a young J. I. Packer for his work in Fundamentalism and the Word of God in the early 1960s and that God had used to shape thousands of young pastors in New England and beyond. I also knew that Roger would enjoy meeting more young students. And so, for an hour or so, Roger “taught.” I would ask carefully considered questions, and Roger would deliver his 10-minute lectures from his bed, with energy, a smile, a thick accent, and an evident joy in sharing just the smallest bit of the vast store of information and reflection that he had amassed.
 
20) When I saw him this past summer, Roger had grown quite deaf. But he quickly remembered my name and my wife Connie’s name. Then he told me privately that he prayed daily for Annie and Nathan, our children. The warm affection of his embrace and the kind offering of his prayers were completely consistent with the professor I had first encountered almost thirty years earlier. When I was a student in Cambridge, he wrote to me about the Puritan preacher I was studying, Richard Sibbes: “Imbibe freely from the riches of Sibbes so that you will not only know best what he wrote and how he thought, but you will steep yourself in the very atmosphere of godliness that he manifests. Be an heir, not just a student of Sibbes.”
 
So I pray that these offerings from the memories God gave me with Roger will help you. It is right that we should follow godly examples. As Paul wrote, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). May God help us to follow the good examples He has put in each of our lives.

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Thanks for the encouraging reflections on your friend, Mark.

Just now I am staying at Gordon Conwell with my wife as we visit our daughter and her husband who is engaging in an M.Div. My son was here for five years until 2009. It's a great school, and I am thankful for Pastor Dever's reflections on the life of one of its finest professors.

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Thank you, Mark, for this moving account.

Thanks for the reflections. Another Dr. Nicole story: I was a student at RTS-Orlando in the late '90s. My introduction to Dr. Nicole was very abrupt. My very first official school function was the beginning of the semester chapel. As one professor was preaching, I noticed that a heavy-set, elderly professor had fallen over his chair and land on the ground unconscious. He sat there for a couple of minutes while they just kept on with the service. When he came to, another professor just reached down and helped him back to the chair. No one blinked, no one stopped, everything just kept moving on. I thought, "what kind of crazy place have I come to." It was then that I found out that Dr. Nicole had narcolepsy.
Dr. Nicole became a beloved voice in my studies, and I would take any free time I had to sit in on one of his electives. I once asked him what he would change about his life if he could go back, "oh broder, i would have never bought so many books."

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It was my very first class w/ Dr Nicole @ RTS Orlando.
The class was entitled “Theological Foundations” and part of the required reading was “The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination” by L Boettner.
About half way through the semester Dr Nicole began to comment on the required reading. He proceeded to tell us that so many Arminians ignore the difficult texts that Boettner taught via his book. Then he said something like this, “But dear brothers, I caution you. Our dear brother Boettner was at times ornery in his argumentation”. What an early impression on me during my first year @ RTS Orlando.

Lesson Learned?
The gospel calls us not only to defend the truth and glory of the Gospel, but to also love our opponents as Jesus loved us when we were His opponents.

And THAT in a nutshell was Dr Roger Nicole, teaching his students not only how to do battle defending Scriptural truth, but also teaching by word and deed what Jesus said was the most important commandments:
to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

For Dr Roger Nicole, defending the truth and loving his neighbor was a “both / and” not an “either / or”. Dr Nicole’s legacy will not only be his academic prowess, aptitude and mastery; but also that he truly believed he was loved, and thus he loved, and taught us to love.

Mark,

Thank you for this account, Doctor, er, brother!

You have well emulated your mentor's friendship and influence.

~ jordan t.

Incredible reflections of the mentor from the recollections of the student. Thank you for taking time to reflect and share with the rest of us.

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"which is why he published comparatively little."

Some sermons were mentioned, but are there things he wrote that are accessible and recommended?

The work by Dr. Nicole below is usually only available in Bible college and seminary libraries, so it will have to go down as "recommended" but not that "accessible" (unless it has been made available somewhere in digital format that I am presently unaware of). I mention it to you anyway, because it has proved to be the most useful to me of his works ever since a head librarian directed my attention to it back in the late 1970s.

Moyse Amyraut: a bibliography with special reference to the controversy on universal grace.
New York: Garland Pub., 1981. ISBN 082409350X

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Thank you, Dr Dever. For those who only know Dr Nicole from his few articles and sermon, this was a real treat. More than that, it was an encouragement to see the "real-life" faithfulness of a well-known saint.

It's clear his legacy of scholarship and godliness will live on in those he invested much.

Blessings!
John

Pastor Dever wrote: 8) Roger was an ardent five-point Calvinist! He preached on Jesus Christ the great Calvinist—yes, he did! You can find it at a PCRT on the ACE website. And he was one of the most attractive proponents of definite atonement I’ve ever heard (he disliked the word “limited”). Listen to any of his messages on “Particular Redemption.”

Alliance store website is www.reformedresources.org - search on "Nicole". PCRT 1974 may have the above? Could not tell for sure. Also it's possible the Alliance may have MP3 versions that aren't posted online. Go to alliancenet.org for contact info.

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"Be an heir, not just a student" communicates so much to me about disciple-making, education, being a teacher, being a student! I love it. As teachers, we are entrusting much more than facts and information to those entrusted to us. As students, in order to be good stewards of the opportunity God has given us, we are to learn far more than the facts and information. With that said, the facts and information are important. We should know them. But we should never stop there. To do so is to stop short, far short, of the goal. What a word to write (heir)! Students of God's word under the instruction of godly men are receiving an inheritance...the theological estate that has taken a life of hard work and faithfulness to acquire.

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I had the privledge this past July to speak in French with Dr. Nicole and he advised me to find find save up for a ring, then go find a myself a good baptist wife so I can be set right on baptism! I was planning on visiting him this April... I may still go down to Florida, I don't know, but I will me sure to leave flowers at his grave.

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"In fact, so well would he describe the strengths of the positions he did not hold that it may be that there is more than one noted paedo-baptist minister today who became paedo-baptist through the Baptist Roger Nicole’s lectures."

During the 1986 PCRT he presented the millennial views in a message titled "Pre-Mil, Post-Mil, A-Mil". This was later published in "Our Blessed Hope: The Biblical Doctrine of the Last Things", ed. James Montgomery Boice (Philadelphia: The Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, 1986), pp. 17-29. I have never heard the premillennial view presented so fairly by someone who did not hold to that position to this day. No one could do this better than this dear "Brother"! I came to that conference assuming that Dr. Nicole was not premillennial, but after that message I was left wondering until he clarified this during a question and answer session!

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Thanks for the really good reflections of this beloved servant of our Lord Jesus. He was always a joy to be around and you always were enriched in the grace of God. I remember as a young Christian being encouraged by Dr. Nicole in my newly acquired Baptist convictions. Dr. Gerstner was a friend and teacher to me so having someone like Roger Nicole helped me to feel more confident in what otherwise seemed so clear from Scripture. (You are always concerned with being novel)
Back when James Montgomery Boice began the Philadelphia conference on Reformed Theology it was such a joy to hear these men articulate Biblical Inerrancy and the 5 points. Their labors of love continue to pay dividends, all to the glory of our Lord.
As I read your reflections I could not keep from laughing out loud, good stuff. Thanks again.

Ah, yes, I had almost forgotten about the oral exam bit. I opted for that at the end of his Westminster Assembly elective. Nerve-racking, indeed!

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