I sat quietly for a while thinking about the man who had turned thousands of aspiring pastors — this one included — into preaching theologians.
Raised in the Swiss Reformed Church and educated at the Sorbonne, Nicole sported a thick French accent decades after immigrating to the U.S. His intonations added icing to the cake of scholarship informed by three doctoral degrees.
Through three semesters of systematic study of theology — beginning with the theology of Scripture and God, ending with eschatology — his lectures followed a consistent outline.
He would begin by introducing the Roman Catholic position on a topic of the week (or two). He would present it in the most positive light — aiming to surpass the efforts of the best Catholic theologians. Just as he nearly convinced us all to “go back to Rome,” he began to dissect that position, convincing us that it comes up short.
He then would outline the Lutheran approach to the topic. His presentation compelled agreement among the students. Then he would dissect again, and the chagrined students scurried to cancel their one-way tickets to Wittenberg.
He would continue in this vein through the Reformed tradition, Methodist tradition, Baptist tradition, until he finally left it to the students at this multidenominational seminary to sort it out for themselves.
I was convinced in favor or the Reformed tradition on all counts.
Nicole also convinced me to be a preaching theologian — to seek to educate my congregations to allow God’s Word to direct their faith and guide their lives.
Nicole also convinced me to listen to the convictions of others with whom I disagree and to argue against them only after first articulating their beliefs with clearer logic and a firmer biblical rationale than they could express for themselves.
Serving PC(USA) congregations, where “lifelong Presbyterian” was the exception not the rule, the Nicole-habit provided me tools with which to honor the liturgical instincts of the Roman-Anglican refugees. It helped me to preach to the Methodist transfers and Baptist sojourners. It helped me to honor my nondenominational, fundapentacharisgelical roots — for the sake of those shaped by such churches (even if they couldn’t pronounce the word).
I haven’t always followed Nicole’s model well, most notably when (in 1996-97) I was promoting the adoption of the fidelity-chastity amendment and over several subsequent years working to retain it against other alternatives. I made speeches, debated in presbytery meetings and placed ads in the Presbyterian Outlook, all aiming to convince the undecideds to vote with my side. I presented my side’s position as heaven-sent, and I painted in perilous terms the position of the other side. Support this policy and you’ll know joy evermore. Oppose it and the sky will fall.
Now I was speaking truthfully and accurately, as I saw it. I never misquoted anybody. I was sure to check my sources. But I was caught up into the process of seeking votes for a cause I believed in. And the lingua franca of political lobbying is bullet-point simplification and gross exaggeration. D.C. resides alongside P.C., i.e., PC(USA).
Once each vote was complete, whether my side prevailed or fell short (as in the defeat of the same-sex prohibition amendment of 2000-01), I unconsciously stopped caricaturing my opponents. I returned to more tempered speech. And I renewed my pastoral instinct of respecting the varying deeply-held convictions of my immediate venue of ministry: my congregation. I resuscitated the Nicolehabit which Eric Metaxas attributes to a contemporary of Nicole’s in his monumental biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “He could appreciate the value in something, even if he ultimately rejected that something — and could see the errors and flaws in something, even if he ultimately accepted that something” (p. 61).
In these post-Amendment 10-A days, the pages of the Outlook have been filled with articles that are seeking to do the same (see pp. 19-20) — in the hope of helping all of us to move past the political lobbying rhetoric in favor of mutual listening, mutual critique and mutual forbearance. Or in other words, helping the Roger Nicole legacy to live on.