During yesterday morning’s sermon, the preacher mentioned the late Dr. Roger Nicole, a brilliant French Swiss theologian whose scholarly accomplishments are too many for me to name. If Dr. Nicole ever reflected on his impact on the world, he might have looked to his many writings, the many students he taught, the churches he served, the sermons he preached, and the various other public activities he engaged in. He might also have looked to his influence over those with whom he had a private relationship: his family, his friends, and his colleagues. In such moments of reflection, however, Dr. Nicole would have been completely unaware of the profound impact he had on me.
Like so many others, I was once a student of Dr. Nicole’s. He taught the very first seminary course I ever took: a three- or four-week class called “Theological Foundations.” That was the only class I ever took with him. It was a great class, and it helped strengthen some of my theological positions, but it didn’t really convince me of anything I had not already come to believe through my own reading of the Bible. It was meant to be a foundational introduction to theological education, but it was soon replaced with another introductory course taught by a different professor. I doubt Dr. Nicole would have regarded that class as anything particularly noteworthy or exceptional.
Yet for me, it was the perfect class taught at the perfect time by the perfect man for the job. I had been a Religion major at a secular university, so I entered seminary a little battle-weary and professor-wary. I knew going in that my university professors would be teaching things antithetical to my own beliefs, but I willingly entered that crucible in order to have my faith refined. In the end, I found that my professors’ actual arguments were not that difficult to refute. The far more difficult challenge was dealing with The Sneer—that look of disdain some of them would give whenever a student dared to disagree with them. I saw other students succumb to The Sneer because they just couldn’t stand to have their professors look at them like they were stupid—and their faith became shipwrecked as a result.
Now, I was not terribly worried about whether my professors thought I was stupid—I knew to expect it going in. Even so, it can be exhausting facing The Sneer again and again for years on end. It can become a “root of bitterness” (Hebrews 12:15) that grows into a kind of anti-intellectualism. One begins to grow suspicious of anything scholarly or intellectual because of the arrogance of those who adopt The Sneer. By the time I graduated, Paul’s statement that “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1) seemed to me to mean that the life of the mind was diametrically opposed to the love of God.
Enter Dr. Nicole, who addressed each student as “Brozer” or “Seester” in a way that seemed absolutely genuine. Dr. Nicole was teaching some theological subjects which are often hotly contested, and there was one student in the class who strongly held an opposing viewpoint. As the class wore on, this student raised objections and challenging questions with ever-increasing hostility. I knew Dr. Nicole had heard those same objections a thousand times before, and if he had been one of my college professors he would have pulled out The Sneer and squashed that student like a bug. Instead, he would act as if this was the first time he had ever heard that objection raised, and he would say something like, “Well, Brozer, you raise an excellent point, but I think you’ll find …” It was at that point that he would very lovingly dismantle that student’s arguments—all the while affirming that the student should not be the least bit embarrassed for making them.
This, for me, was something new: a brilliant man whose brilliance was exceeded only by his gentleness, respect, and Christ-like love for others. Dr. Nicole restored my belief that one need not reject the life of the mind in order to cultivate a love for God. Rather, the more one pursues knowledge, the more one needs to be pursuing the love of Christ. Apart from the love of Christ, knowledge does indeed puff up. Yet bathed in Christ’s love, a deeper knowledge can become profitable for building others up in the faith.
Dr. Nicole could not have known that he was having such a profound impact on a student who sat there quietly watching his Christ-like disposition, and I never had occasion to tell him. I am, however, deeply grateful to have sat under a man in whom no sneer could be detected. His conduct in that class has had a ripple effect in my life that Dr. Nicole himself could not see on this side of heaven.
That should encourage all of us who wonder if we’re having any kind of influence for Christ in the world. Whether our impact is plain to see or we labor in relative obscurity, our faithfulness to demonstrate the love of Christ to others is sure to have a ripple effect we may never see on this side of heaven. Yet who knows? Perhaps in God’s economy those unseen ripples will prove to be the most profound impact we have in this world.