ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)–Renowned theologian Roger Nicole, a leading light on the doctrines of inerrancy and Christ’s atonement, died Dec. 11, a day after his 95th birthday.
A founding member of the Evangelical Theological Society, Nicole was well known for bringing charges in 2001 against ETS members Clark Pinnock and John Sanders for their advocacy of “open theism,” the idea that God cannot know the future because some human decisions have not yet been made and thus do not exist to be known.
Despite Nicole’s tenacity about biblical truth, he demonstrated supreme grace toward those with whom he disagreed, said Bruce Ware, professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who collaborated with Nicole in presenting the case against Pinnock and Sanders.
“Roger was a very strong defender of orthodoxy generally, particularly of the centrality of the cross and Reformed theology. He was one of these people who speaks with such grace and kindness but with such strength when he defends the faith against views he believes are destructive to central evangelical convictions,” Ware said. “In many ways, he reminded me of what we read of Jesus in John 1:14, that he was ‘full of grace and truth.’ Roger Nicole embodied that — a very gracious man but very committed to upholding truth.”
Greg Wills, professor of church history at Southern Seminary, studied systematic theology under Nicole at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the 1980s and found him to be a role model for theological debate.
“Roger Nicole displayed genuine humility and godliness, had lively wit and a ready smile, and in his discussions of theology modeled accuracy and grace,” Wills said. “He described positions with which he disagreed in their best light and with the utmost fairness. At the same time, he was not embarrassed to advocate his own position firmly. It is an approach that I attempt to emulate.”
Nicole believed passionately in the importance of regular worship with church family, said Joel Breidenbaugh, Nicole’s pastor at First Baptist Sweetwater in Longwood, Fla.
“Even up to a couple of Sundays ago, Dr. Nicole was always in church, every single week. He always had kind words to say to me after a sermon and gave sort of a theological encouragement with his words, a much deeper, more substantive kind of comment than your average person would make after a sermon or worship service.
“At 95, Dr. Nicole still had a very keen mind, very sharp theologically. He was able to quote Scripture passages at tremendous length, which reminded me of the value of the Word in his life,” Breidenbaugh said. “Because he invested the time over the early years of his life, he was able to share that great love of Scripture with those around him. I counted it a great honor to know him.”
Nicole wanted to be remembered for his writings on inerrancy and the atonement, said Bill Haynes, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Somerset, Ky., and Nicole’s former pastor in Longwood.
“Roger was probably the most renowned Baptist theologian on the atonement and inerrancy in the 20th century,” Haynes said. “I received an e-mail from a friend who went and visited him last week. He told her, ‘I hope the contributions I am most remembered for are the understanding of the inerrancy of Scripture and the atonement of Christ.'”
Despite his stature in academic circles, however, Nicole was delighted to give his time to the local church, Haynes added.
“Here was this major theologian who was always in demand for people to talk to, counsel with and come speak, but I asked him one day if he would be willing to come in on Monday afternoons for two hours and do theological seminars with our staff at the church,” Haynes said. “It was almost like I had done him a favor by asking him to do that. He would lecture for an hour and then let us ask questions until we were finished. For several years, we had our own mini-theological seminary going on, in which he contributed to all our lives in a really positive way.”
Even when the staff asked him to address subjects on which they knew he disagreed with them, Nicole handled the disagreement in a Christ-like manner, Haynes said.
“One of his best articles was on how to handle people with whom you disagree. It was written primarily to young Calvinists to help them see a balance in how to approach theological discussions,” Haynes said. “He didn’t tolerate what some would call the “caged Calvinist,” for whom Calvinism is all they want to talk about. He was strongly Calvinistic himself, but he didn’t see that as the major battle to be fought. Roger said we have a love for the Gospel and a love for the Lord, so we have a love for one another. He never fought over those issues. He proclaimed them clearly but he was not going to let that become a divisive point among him and his brothers.”
Born Dec. 10, 1915, in Charlottenburg, Germany, Nicole was the son of a pastor and lived in Switzerland most of his childhood. He held degrees from Gymnase Classique in Lausanne, Switzerland; the Sorbonne in Paris; the Bible Institute of Nogent Marne in France; Gordon Divinity School in Boston (now Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary); Harvard University; and Wheaton College.
In 1986, after 41 years as a professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell, Nicole and his wife Annette retired to Orlando, Fla., where he served as an emeritus professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.
He was a founding member of the Evangelical Theological Society, the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy and Christians for Biblical Equality. He served as an assistant translator for the New International Version of the Bible and an associate editor for the New Geneva Study Bible (now the Reformation Study Bible).
Nicole was preceded in death by his wife, who died two years ago. A memorial celebration of his life will be held Dec. 15 at First Baptist Sweetwater.
Mark Kelly is senior writer for Baptist Press.