I had never read a biography of anyone I knew before. That changed with Speaking the Truth in Love: The Life and Legacy of Roger Nicole by David Bailey. This is an apt title for a book about our “dear brother” for this phrase from Ephesians really seems to sum up the late Dr. Nicole as a person and Christian.
All who knew Dr. Nicole knew him to be wise and gracious. He knew what he believed, taught what he believed but did it in such a way that was kind. I never heard anyone say anything negative about Dr. Nicole, rather he was beloved by students and colleagues alike. In areas of disagreement, he was gracious and endeavored to understand the opposing position, teaching us to read our “opponent’s” work as a result.
In his preface to this book, Dr. Nicole noted:
“But this is a biography, not a eulogy. I am a Christian, which means that more than eighty years ago and ever since, I have confessed with tears that I am a miserable sinner”born in iniquity, inclined unto evil, inecapable by myself of any good thing, and who transgresses every day in several ways God’s holy commandments.” This is what I was saying every Sunday and a very realistic summary of the biblical doctrine of sin. I know myself as a disobedient sinner, proud, selfish, unbelieving, deceptive, lustful, lazy, insensitive, a ‘lover of pleasure rather than a lover of God’. I have even now not yet begun to plumb the abyss of wickedness from which I desperately needed salvation- how it is that none of these things is very apparent in this biography?”
Most of these sins were not as apparent to us as they were to him (and Annette). He was a godly man. This means that he was outwardly very much like Christ, but that, like Paul, knew the sin no one else could see. We don’t need to know the particular sins of this brother unless they directly impact his story.
David Bailey focuses on his work. That is good in my eyes. I don’t need to know his sins. Many of us wish (selfishly?) that Dr. Nicole wrote more since he was such a wealth of wisdom and knowledge for the church he loved and spent his life edifying.
As I read this book I wished I knew him better than I did, but in reading this book I understand why I didn’t. I met him during his ‘semi-retirement’ when he was a professor at RTS Orlando. He was my first academic adviser and I was fortunate to take 4 courses with him. I didn’t just learn theology from Dr. Nicole but also lessons about how to do theology (which I am still struggling to apply due to my own sinfulness) and live in community.
Our beloved professor didn’t arise in a vacuum. He was very much a product of his family. He inherited a legacy of godly, brilliant people who lived long lives. I see God keeping his multi-generational covenant in the Nicole family.
I was also encouraged to read how God provided for him in unexpected ways. In the early days of Gordon-Conwell professors were not paid well, but due to the gift of land from the seminary he was able to retire comfortably and continue his life of ministry in theological education.
Theological education was not just a job to him. In his “off time” he would teach at other seminaries, particularly in Canada. Dr. Nicole’s students fill the world enriching the church. He also served God’s people as a pastor and interim pastor to a number of churches. In God’s providence, he and Annette had no children and this freed him up to spend more time engaged in these various duties.
His story is one of God’s grace and faithfulness. Therefore this was a very encouraging read. Here we read of the formation of Gordon-Conwell, its struggles and the formation of other seminaries, like Fuller. He was instrumental in the formation of the Evangelical Theology Society. He was also one of the main contributors to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. His was a rich legacy on behalf of the church.
Of note to me was he words regarding the church that nursed me in my early years as a Christian. He had been an interim pastor in that church years earlier. As a result we knew some of the same people. He left them a legacy of covenantal and Calvinistic theology that unfortunately was ebbing away while I was there. Without nurture a church can easily begin to fall into step with more common (and less vibrant) theologies.
There were some subjects that I wish were addressed in greater depth. One that comes to mind was his friendship with Jim Packer (J.I. to you and me). I suspect that is more a function of Dr. Nicole than Mr. Bailey. He struck me as a man of his age, more private than people today. As a result he may have seen that friendship as more for each of them than one for our instruction (I don’t think McGrath touched on it much in his biography of Packer). Due to his involvement in so many organizations Dr. Nicole had friendships and associations with many of the leading figures in the American church in the 20th century. I suspect there would be much for us to learn from those friendships.
There is still much here of interest for those who were his students, or are students of 20th century evangelicalism in America. I would recommend this for all who love Dr. Nicole, and the church.