Reflections on Roger Nicole

Article
06.11.2014

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.

By:
Mark Dever

​Mark Dever is the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D. C., and the President of 9Marks. You can find him on Twitter at @MarkDever.