Roger Nicole, 95; theology professor backed right of women to become ministers

By Talia Whyte
Globe Correspondent / December 20, 2010

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Dr. Roger Nicole, a widely known theologian and professor emeritus at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, died Dec. 11 of pneumonia at the Village on the Green Health Center in Longwood, Fla. He was 95.

Friends and colleagues described him as a champion of biblical inerrancy who supported the right of women to become ministers.

“He had the ability to understand the opposing views on many controversial, biblical topics with other academics and still be able to be friends with them,’’ said Dr. Frank James, provost at Gordon-Conwell. “This was a quality that many of his colleagues appreciated very much.’’

Born into a family of theologians in Berlin, Dr. Nicole spent his formative years in Lausanne, Switzerland. He decided early that he was called to be a theological scholar. Dr. Nicole earned a master’s degree in theology from the Sorbonne in Paris before coming to the United States in 1938. He received a bachelor of divinity degree in 1939, a master’s degree in sacred theology in 1940, and a doctorate in theology in 1943, all from Gordon Divinity School (now Gordon-Conwell). He earned a PhD in historical theology from Harvard University in 1967 and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., in 1978.

For 41 years, Dr. Nicole was professor of theology and then Andrew Mutch Chair of Theology at Gordon Divinity School and Gordon-Conwell. During his tenure he mentored many students, some of whom returned to the seminary as professors.

Dr. John Jefferson Davis, professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics at Gordon-Conwell, was a student of Dr. Nicole’s in the 1970s.

“He would greet students with his gracious and urbane manner and distinct French-Swiss accent, and they would feel at home with him,’’ Davis said.

Dr. Raymond Pendleton, professor of pastoral psychology at Gordon-Conwell, was also a former student and said that he learned many life lessons from the elder professor, such as a quote Dr. Nicole would always tell his students: “You can always find something kind to say about everyone and everything.’’

“I remember him telling me about a really bad book he read, but then he would say that the book cover was nice looking,’’ said Pendleton.

Pendleton also said that he himself had problems with women going into the ministry until Dr. Nicole convinced him otherwise through many discussions over the years. While he was theologically conservative, Dr. Nicole was one of the earliest proponents of women ministers. He was so committed to the equality of men and women that he helped found the Minnesota-based Christians for Biblical Equality in 1989 and wrote many scholarly pieces in support of allowing women to hold leadership positions in ministry. Dr. Nicole’s colleagues said that his late wife of 61 years, Annette, had a strong, outspoken personality, and influenced his position.

Dr. Nicole was a strict interpreter of Scripture. He was also a founding member of the Evangelical Theological Society in 1949 and the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy in 1977, an assistant translator for the “New International Version’’ of the Bible and an associate editor for the “New Geneva Study Bible.’’

He wrote more than 100 articles and reviews as well as a number of essays, which have been gathered into the book “Standing Forth: Collected Writings of Roger Nicole.’’ One of his articles, “Polemic Theology: How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us,’’ is considered a pinnacle in religious scholarship among many of his colleagues.

Dr. Nicole loved books. He would spend summers traveling throughout Europe, buying rare and out-of-print volumes. In his lifetime, he collected more than 26,000 books, mainly works of theological scholarship.

In 1989 Dr. Nicole retired from Gordon-Conwell to help found and teach at the extension school for Reformed Theology Seminary in Orlando, Fla. Dr. Nicole donated his books to the school, where many are kept in its library.

Dr. John Muether, Reformed Theology Seminary’s library director and professor of church history, was also a student of Dr. Nicole’s at Gordon-Conwell.

“Although he became ill and declined physically in his later years, he was still a mentally sharp man,’’ Muether said. “He was always writing articles, reading, and was very active on campus.’’

Dr. Nicole also collected stamps — 1 million to be exact. When he wasn’t reading theological works, he liked to read mystery novels.

Although Dr. Nicole and his wife had no children, he enjoyed the company of many students socially and had “adopted’’ 19 students for mentoring over the years.

Daniel Wright came to study at Reformed Theology Seminary from Canada in 1991 with his wife, Lynn, and became one of Dr. Nicole’s “adopted’’ children. After Dr. Nicole’s wife died in 2008, the Wrights became his caretakers.

“He was a generous, kind person who had strong Christian values,’’ said Lynn Wright. “His students always felt welcomed around him and developed strong connections with him, which will leave a lasting impression on all of us.’’

Dr. Nicole had no immediate survivors. His funeral took place Dec. 15 at First Baptist Church in Sweetwater, Fla.

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