Yesterday I joined many hundreds of others to celebrate the life of Noel Vose. Noel was one of those rare breed whose lives are larger-than-life. At the age of ninety-four he remained active, alert, engaged, interested, and loved.
The young Noel’s circumstances were humble, his education meagre. Yet against the odds he gained an education, finally being awarded his PhD for a thesis on John Owen in 1963 from the University of Iowa. His wife, Heather, and their two children had already returned to Australia from the United States, and so Noel sent a telegram to advise of his success: “NOW IM A PHOOLISH DUNCE LOVE NOEL” (See Moore, Noel Vose, 130).
I have a vague memory of Noel telling me once that he was the first Baptist in Australia to be awarded the degree. Or perhaps he said “first Baptist minister.” Either way, he was rightfully proud of his achievement.
Noel became the founding principal of the Baptist Theological College of Western Australia. Many years later I was the recipient of his diligence and industry, becoming a student at the College, and years later again, am privileged to teach at the now renamed Vose Seminary.
Noel went on to lead the Australian Baptists before serving as President of the Baptist World Alliance. He has met with heads of state and sat on international councils, exercising his enormous influence for good. In his eighties, the Roman Catholics and Baptists were conducting an international consultation at the Vatican. Noel was invited as a Baptist representative and in a small gathering also met his Holiness, the Pope.
After preaching at Parkerville one Sunday morning from Psalm 77 on the importance of meditation in the Scriptures, Noel thanked me for the message and told me of that meeting. He told of a cardinal speaking to the small group and citing Jerome, “If you don’t know the Scriptures, you don’t know Christ!” He told of another meeting on another day in which the Pope spoke and also cited Jerome, “If you don’t know the Scriptures, you don’t know Christ!”
“Twice they said it, this cardinal and the pope! We Baptists sometimes think we are people of the word, but we are not the only ones! And we had best stay people of the word!” And then he looked me square in the eye, gripped my hand and said with great emphasis, “If you don’t know the Scriptures, you don’t know Christ!”
For all his stature and accomplishments, Noel was interested in the individual, taking time to seek out the newcomers and the young, to inquire after their faith and learn of their ministry. One left his presence feeling carefully listened to, challenged, and deeply encouraged.
When Noel learned of my own interest in Karl Barth, he told me of attending Barth’s 1962 lectures in Chicago. He had driven all night with a friend to get there, and upon arriving and hearing Barth’s slow English in a thick guttural accent, wondered how he would stay awake! The room for the first lecture was packed with several thousand people and Noel had had to stand in the rear of the auditorium, peering around a column. After a few minutes, however, he realised that Barth was making him think “great thoughts about God.” A few weeks later, he gave me a little parcel: it was his handwritten notes from that series of lectures, as well as his copy of the famed Time magazine featuring Barth on the cover. “You might find these of interest,” he said.
In his address at the funeral, Arthur Payne said of Noel, “he was a man in whose presence you became better than you are.” Even more insightful was the word spoken by his granddaughter about his life of prayer. He told her many times: “Your prayers are powerful; you can change the world with your prayers.” He was a man of regular, constant, fervent prayer.
A man of prayer. A man of the Word. A man of immense personal integrity and presence. A man of vision, devotion and compassion. A man tireless in his service of God and God’s people. Noel Vose has left us an example to follow and perhaps, a mantle to take up. His was an extraordinary life, a life well-lived. May we follow him, as he followed Christ.