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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.

In his introduction to a biography of Dr. Nicole, Packer expands the tribute with regard to the man’s graciousness:

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 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.

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.

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48 thoughts on “Roger Nicole (1915-2010)”

  1. Erik says:

    A giant in the Reformed community has graduated to glory.

    Very insightful post Justin.

    Thanks for providing many links into the life of this influential theologian.

  2. Chris Donato says:

    Great stuff here.

    Perhaps this is a more fleshed-out version of the address you highlight above? “How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us” (link is to 1st part, but it has 4 parts).

  3. Kamilla says:

    One correction – they do call themselves, “Christians for Biblical Equality”.

    Perhaps it is a weakness, such as one may have after suffering an illness (I used to be an Egalitarian), but although I know both Dr. Nicole, (who I once had the privilege of meeting), and Dr. Vernon Grounds, (who I knew), both made enormous contributions to Evangelicalism, I can’t view that with anything but sadness for the destruction they have visited upon Evangelicalism with their crucial support of the Egalitarian heresy.

    1. Mark S says:

      You should probably rethink your use of the word “heresy” here. You may disagree with egalitarianism, and you may think the Bible does not not agree with it–but egalitarianism is not a heresy. It is just not a word you should throw around so glibly.

      1. Kamilla says:

        Been there, done that, Mark. I’m a repentant heretic myself. It is not a word I throw around lightly, nor am I alone in its use. I don’t simply “think” the Bible does not agree with it, I know it does not. And so has the Church thought, all three historic branches, for more than nineteen centuries.

        Egalitariaism is, by definition, a heresy because it strikes at the heart of the Gospel. I’ve made the argument elsewhere, you can check my blog if you are interested. You can also read Steve Hutchens’ case for it over at MereComments. There are others making the case as well.

    2. Chris Donato says:

      Hmph. Appears someone ought to read the essay I linked to in the above comment.

  4. Michael says:

    What a great tribute to a devoted and influential Christian. I had never heard of him, and I’m so glad I read this post. This is the kind of legacy I would like to leave one day. I want to be known as a man who loved the Lord and who did his part to lead people into a relationship with Jesus. I will likely never have the influence this man did of course. But however God chooses to use me is perfectly fine with me. :)
    Son Followers Blog

  5. MichaelOris Howard says:

    Thank you Justin. What a wonderful tribute to a man of God. My heart is moved as tears fill my eyes. I thank God for Dr. Nicole and only wish there were more of his words in print and on audio. All Because of Jesus, Mike Howard, Wheaton College, 1973 and Westminster Theological Seminary, 1977.

  6. ajcarter says:

    A faithful teacher and a servant of Christ.

  7. Bobby Grow says:

    Thank you, Justin, for sharing this. A loss for us, a gain for the Church Triumphant!

  8. David Bailey says:

    Thank you, Justin! How I would love to see that smile and hear that laugh just once more … his joy is now full.

    1. Bill Haynes says:

      How very true that is, David. He is a man that will be missed by many, including me. He was a true friend and godly example for theologians and pastors to follow.

  9. Robert says:

    As generations of men know, it was a pleasure to be educated on the same campus where he taught. He influenced the tenor of debate and the means of argument, leading to more light, less heat. He now sees the light that shines in the darkness, face to face. We’ll see you soon, Dr. Nicole.

  10. Thank you Justin. I learned of Jesus’ view of the Scriptures from him, and it batten down my trust of the Scriptures. A great tribute you have written.

  11. Ray Pennoyer says:

    I had the privilege of studying under Dr. Nicole at Gordon-Conwell. The greatest thing I learned from him was not information (though there was plenty of that) but what he modeled in the classroom: That one can argue from firm biblical convictions without, however, being argumentative. Dr. Nicole was a blessing to the church.

  12. Dewey Jones says:

    Thank you for the tribute to Dr. Nicole. It brings back the fondest of memories of theology classes with him and meeting with him in the corner office at GCTS from 1975-1978. He was a wonderful teacher, friend and mentor. Not many have mentioned his passion for ministry, encouraging the growth of the church among the French speaking communities scattered throughout New England and in French speaking Canada. He had a major influence in my life to pursue a rural ministry in northern New England–to hold firmly to the Truth of God’s Word and boldly proclaim it.

  13. steve hays says:

    Yes, Dr. Nicole was wrong about egalitarianism. However, we should probably make allowance for the fact that he was a Frenchman at heart, so he probably had a soft spot for les femmes!

  14. Rusty says:

    Thanks for the honor of the introduction in this brief bio. Sounds like a wonderful man of God.

  15. Fred Harrell says:

    Loved my time with Roger Nicole at RTS in Jackson many moons ago. We used to take him out to lunch to Golden Corral in Clinton, MS. He would make fun of a certain unnamed Systematic Theology teacher who liked to use a lot of Latin words in dramatic fashion… “he does not know Latin, he knows Latin words”… but he did it so graciously, and hilariously. :) He had a tremendous impact on those of us who find complimentarian arguments wanting. I mean no disrespect. I love 99% of what this group is about and some of my best friends are members. But what a pity that Dr. Nicole himself couldn’t be a member of “The Gospel Coalition”. Nor could John Stott. Nor could Neal Plantinga. Nor can I. Perhaps Dr. Nicole’s passing will be a time to consider broadening your circle of reformed friends? I wish you all the best regardless, and am thankful you are honoring Roger Nicole so well. What a true gem he was to have with us.

  16. Sue says:

    I thought he was Swiss not French and committed to an egalitarian ethic as a Christian belief. ( I am of Swiss background and educated in Switzerland, and somehow it seems different from France – just a little bit.)

  17. Rod Lyon says:

    I have never known a more tender giant. Though far above us mere mortals in the realm of the knowledge of God he was a friend to all and a co-laborer for the cause of Christ and the Gospel in the lives of ordinary people. His love for God, His Word and his fellow believer was never more apparent to me than when I most needed someone in the darkest night of my soul. I chose to betray my God, my wife, my family and my church when I chose the way of sin. God broke me and used Roger Nicole to remind me of the infinite extent to which Christ went to atone for my sin. Roger was the first person who called me and invited me to his home. I was more than a little frightened at what he might say. He warmly welcomed me into his home. He prayed for me and then opened God’s Word to Psalm 51. Without diminishing the depth of my sin he spoke of God’s grace that was greater than my sin. His desire to remind me of Christ’s atoning work were never more glorious, grand and magnificent. His words opened my eyes further to the irresistibly infinite grace of God and further propelled this prodigal’s return. The glories of the trinitarian work of salvation were not just academic, they were light and life and the meat and core that Roger Nicole knew every sinner needed to hear, believe and embrace. Hallelujah, my dear brother! How you are beloved by God and those of us who were blessed to know you.

  18. Dave Bissett says:

    Amen to these tributes to a fine, saintly scholar. I met Dr Nicole twice (briefly) and was charmed by his graciousness and challenged by his keen mind. Thank you for posting these extended remarks for the world to see. db

  19. Jason Falck says:

    I’m so glad I caught this post.

    My wifes childhood pastor was Roger’s older brother, Jules-Marcel Nicole. He evidence many of the same qualities as Roger. In fact, she told me, as a child, she thought, “If someone could be like Jesus, it would be this man.”

    What grace God has poured out on this family! Again, so thankful for all the resources that I can now look at, and for the inspiration to walk with God and man in a humble way!

    Jason Falck

  20. Alan W. says:

    I met Dr. Nicole when my youth pastor, Mark Dever, invited him to teach a kids’ mid-week Bible study. I was amazed not only at his gentleness and ability to relate to us pesky kids, taking our spiritual questions seriously, but also his command of the scriptures. I was a new Christian and his godly intellect made a tremendous impression on me. Rest well, brother.

  21. MARK ROHRBAUGH says:

    While of lesser importance, Dr. Nicole was also very competitive. On occasion he and Dr. Glenn Barker were on the opposite side of a ping pong table competing with Dave Rambo and me. While complimenting good returns, it was obvious he did not enjoy losing though he never threw his paddle. He was extraordinary in every way.

  22. I went to GCTS as a very strong Arminian over 33 years ago. At the time I told him this and argued many times with him about the scriptures. He said that I did not have to read Berkhof but I could read Wiley for the course. It was reading Wiley that helped me want to study more and eventually led me to basic Reformed Theology. Years later I sent him my first theological joke book and he responded by giving me a personal call. It was great to tell him that I had become Reformed in theology. I loved to hear him talk to me using the words, “Mr. Anderson,” in his Swiss accent. He was a wonderfully gracious man.


  23. Greg Clark says:

    While at GCTS (over 25 year ago) I was blessed to take two Systematic Theology courses with Dr. Nicole. One thing I always recall about Dr. Nicole is his dry sense of humor. While studying christology I remember a young seminarian asking Dr. Nicole if Jesus would have been a great basketball player. With a wry smile Dr. Nicole said something like this, “I believe Jesus would have made some baskets and missed some baskets” at which point the class broke out laughing. Those of us who knew Dr. Nicole are forever blessed.

  24. Thank you, Justin, for your beautiful bio statement for Dr. Nicole. I loved him and thought of him often over the years. One of my favorite lines of Dr. Nicole came when a fellow student asked him, “Why did the New England Puritans fail?” He responded, “What failure? They founded a 250 million nation, didn’t they?” One wonders who, if anyone, can fill his shoes.

    Thank you.

    Terry Johnson
    Independent Presbyterian Church
    Savannah, GA

  25. D.L. Painter says:

    Thanks for the overview of Roger Nicole’s life. I think of the few times I heard him speak, talked with him, read articles by him and am just always turned to a more reverent view of God our Savior and His truth. The last time I heard him was at a Bunyan conference and it was glorious with his closing the last of his messages in halleluiah’s in which we all joined.
    The last time I talked with him he reflected on he and my friend Dr. Gerstner. He said that they would spend time together when Gerstner was at (I think) Harvard. He reflected on how much he enjoyed his company and the great conversations they would have about the Lord they each loved so dearly. Thanks be to our Lord for His work in and through Dr. Nicole.

  26. J. Thomas Whetstone, D.Phil. says:

    I had the rare privilege of meeting Dr. Nicole in the 1990s when I served as the chauffeur who accompanied Dr. John Reed Miller and his dear friend Dr. Nicole to lunch at a Shoney’s after the latter spoke at RTS Jackson, MS. Dr. Nicole saw from our waitress’s nametag that her name was Renee. He asked her if she knew what her name means in his French language. She did not, so he politely informed her it means born again. She excitedly rushed back to the kitchen to tell her mother, who was a cook. When our still excited waitress finally returned, he did not complain that she had forgotten to take our order but kindly asked her if she was what her name proclaims. I will always be warmed by this man’s profound love and evangelistic concern.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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