Often when the church in the West commemorates the giants it produced, it forgets the contribution these leaders made to the church in the Global South, and the part they played in the renewal our churches are experiencing today.
We have just seen the passing away of another of those giants: J. I. Packer. This is a personal reflection on his impact on my life, and I believe on the lives of many Christians in the majority world:
1) Demonstrating the Intellectual Credibility of Evangelical Theology
My first encounter with Packer was when he visited Sri Lanka around 1970. I was a university student and he stayed in my parents’ home. The church in Sri Lanka at that time was in a situation of retreat. Numbers were going down. There were only a very few small, openly evangelical denominations. Christians were suffering from “post-colonial blues” with the accompanying embarrassment of being the religion of those who had ruled us. Liberal theology was the dominant position of most of the church’s hierarchy. We were made to feel that we had committed intellectual suicide because of our belief in the trustworthiness of scripture including miracles, eternal hell, and the absolute uniqueness of Christ.
During this critical time in our history, three Western evangelical scholars visited Sri Lanka: John Stott, Carl F. H. Henry, and Packer. Listening to them, we realized that there were brilliant scholars who still believed fully in the scriptures. We were encouraged in our resolve to remain committed to orthodox theology. Fifty years later, I still remember Packer’s talk on the inspiration of Scripture using a passage from Jeremiah.
2) Defending the Inerrancy of Scripture
I went for theological studies to the US in February 1972. The “Battle for the Bible” was just beginning to gain momentum. Many Christians were asking whether we could still believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. There was some simplistic scholarship defending biblical authority, which I found quite embarrassing. In December 1972, I spent the Christmas holidays in the home of my brother in New Jersey. During this time, I read Packer’s Fundamentalism and the Word of God. I became convinced that there was an intellectually credible case for believing in the complete trustworthiness of the Bible. The battle has moved on and new challenges have arisen. But that grounding received almost 50 years ago has helped me weather those storms.
3) Looking Theologically at Life and Ministry
In my final year at Asbury Seminary, we had a brilliant Anglican Englishman (like Packer), Bishop Stephen Neill, come for a few days to our school. I availed myself of every opportunity I could get to be near this great man who had spent a major part of his life in South India. During this visit, he gave us a piece of advice that I have followed all these years: Get into the habit of taking a good theological book and reading it slowly over a long period of time.
I believe the first book with which I followed that advice was Packer’s 1973 classic, Knowing God. I read it slowly, reading short sections at a time, over a period of about three to four months. What an impact it had on me! Some chapters, like one entitled “Sons of God,” became key aspects of my approach to life and ministry.
This book also helped affirm a conviction that was growing in me: that all of life and ministry is theological and should come from biblical, theological convictions. Several other of Packer’s books that I read buttressed this idea, such as Hot Tub Religion, Finishing Our Course with Joy, and Weakness is the Way. The latter two books, published in 2013, are among Packer’s most recent. They ministered to me deeply, speaking to my personal needs. Sometimes when a book impacts me markedly, I remember where I read it. I still remember where I read these books. The first was seated on a rock at the beach in Colombo; the second was on successive flights and airports during a trip to the US; and the third was while I spent two three-hour stretches in a queue on the road outside Thailand’s embassy in Colombo in order to apply for a visa.
4) Encouraging Aspiring Authors
My Th.M. thesis at Fuller Seminary sought to respond to the exegetical arguments for the doctrine of universalism. Universalism was growing in popularity in the church in Sri Lanka at that time, so I wrote this thesis hoping to get it published. I soon realized that no one was interested in publishing a densely argued exegetical work by a Youth for Christ worker in Sri Lanka (though an Indian publisher did a small print run many years later). Fifteen years after completing my thesis, the British publisher Kingsway published a simplified book that I wrote on the doctrine of hell based on this thesis. Yet it took a big risk in doing so, considering that I was an unknown youth worker who would seem unqualified to write a book on a theological topic. Enter James Packer. He wrote a foreword to this book that helped its acceptance among many. The book was subsequently published by Crossway in the US and in several other languages. I know that Packer has written so many other forewords and endorsements to books written by young, unknown writers. Having had to do this a bit myself, I know what a time-consuming task this is. But encouragers are willing to pay the price of spending the time needed to help other aspiring authors.
5) Packing Language Succinctly
Packer always remained true to his name by his ability to be a “packer” of complex truths succinctly and understandably. I had the thrilling experience of serving with people like Packer and Timothy George on the drafting committee of the Amsterdam Conference for Evangelists in 2000. I remember how we would discuss an issue for about 15 to 20 minutes while Packer remained silent scribbling on his notebook. Then he would break in, saying something like, “How does this sound?” And he would give in one sentence the gist of what we had been discussing for such a long time. The church needs such people who help it come to grips with complex and controversial ideas through concise and understandable expositions of truth.
6) Encouragement to Remain in Mainline Denominations
I am an active member of the Methodist Church, and staying on all my life in such a mainline church has not been easy—especially during the times when liberal theology has reigned supreme. But encouraged by the example of people like Stott and Packer, many of us in Sri Lanka stayed on in our churches. Over the years, we saw a change taking place as those who remained helped the evangelical viewpoint to grow in influence until it became a major force within our churches. One result of this has been a new commitment to evangelism resulting in the growth of our denomination, the Sri Lanka Methodist Church, through evangelistic efforts among unreached peoples. Fifty years ago, we would have never envisaged the possibility of the present climate within our denomination.
Sadly, the renewal Packer dreamed of did not occur in the North American branch of the Anglican Communion to which Packer belonged, and he was forced out of the church. I cannot imagine how much pain this must have caused him. But Packer’s decision to stay within the Anglican fold helped many of us to stay on in our churches. And we did see the renewal in our churches that he longed for. Membership has grown, new churches have been planted in unreached areas, and evangelical thinking is no longer considered a strange deviation from accepted beliefs.
The church in Asia is experiencing something of a springtime of renewal right now. I believe analysts have not taken sufficient note of the fact that a generation before this renewal there were Western scholars who helped lay a foundation which nurtured the indigenous agents of the present renewal.
This may well be one of the most important contributions that scholars like Stott, Henry, and Packer have made to the church universal. Our styles of ministry, worship, and communication differ markedly from theirs. But our lives and ministries have been built on the theological foundation we imbibed from them.
I join a host of others in the majority world who thank God for the impact that J. I. Packer had on our lives.
Ajith Fernando is teaching director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka.
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