18th January 2016
AN OPEN LETTER TO DR. J. I. PACKER
From Ajith Fernando, Youth for Christ, Colombo, Sri Lanka
Dear Dr Packer,
A few days ago I read that, owing to problems with your eyes, you have now come to the end of your writing and speaking ministry. I thought I must write this to acknowledge your contribution to my life.
AN INTELLECTUALLY CREDIBLE EVANGELICAL THEOLOGY
My first encounter with you was when you visited Sri Lanka around 1970. I was a university student and you 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 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 yourself. We realised that there were brilliant scholars who still believed fully in the Scriptures. We were encouraged in our resolve to remain committed to orthodox theology. Over forty-five years later, I still remember your talk on the inspiration of scripture using a passage from Jeremiah.
THE INERRANCY OF SCRIPTURE
I went for theological studies to the USA 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 did not like at all. In December 1972 I spent the Christmas holidays in the home of my brother in New Jersey. During this time I read your Fundamentalism and the Word of God. I became convinced that there is 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 over forty-five years ago has helped me weather those storms.
LOOKING AT LIFE AND MINISTRY THEOLOGICALLY
In my final year at Asbury Seminary we had a brilliant Anglican Englishman like yourself, 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 for over forty years. He told us to 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 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 the chapter “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 books that I read buttressed this idea, such as Hot Tub Religion, Finishing the Course with Joy, and Weakness is the Way. The latter two books are among your most recent books. They ministered to me deeply, speaking to my personal needs. I still remember some of the places where I read these three 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 USA, and the third was while spending two three-hour stretches in a queue on the road outside the Thailand Embassy in Colombo (to apply for my visa).
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 realised that no one was interested in publishing a densely argued exegetical work by a Youth for Christ worker in Sri Lanka (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 I wrote on the doctrine of Hell based on this thesis. Yet they 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. You wrote a Foreword to this book that hopefully helped in its acceptance by many. The book was subsequently published by Crossway in the USA and in several other languages. I know that you have written so many other Forewords and endorsements to the books written by younger 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.
PACKING LANGUAGE SUCCINCTLY
You have always remained true to your name by your ability to be a “packer” of complex truths succinctly and understandably. I had the thrilling experience of serving with people like you 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 fifteen to twenty minutes while you remained silent scribbling on your notebook. Then you would break in, saying something like, “How does this sound?” and you would give in one sentence the gist of what we had been discussing for such a long time. How the church has needed such people who help her come to grips with complex and controversial ideas through concise and understandable expositions of truth.
ENCOURAGEMENT TO REMAIN IN A MAINLINE DENOMINATION
I am a 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 reigned supreme. But encouraged by the example of people like John Stott and you, 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 through evangelistic efforts among unreached peoples. Forty years ago, we would have never envisaged the possibility of the present climate within our denomination.
Sadly, the renewal you dreamed of did not occur in the North American Anglican church to which you belonged, and you were forced out of the church. I cannot imagine how much pain this must have caused you. But remember that your decision to stay within the Anglican fold helped many of us to stay on in our churches. And we did see the renewal that you longed for.
The church in Asia is experiencing something of a spring time 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 agents of the present renewal. This may well be one of the most important contributions that scholars like John Stott, Carl Henry, Leon Morris and you have made to the church universal.
Thank you for your huge investment in the kingdom of God.
Your fellow servant of Jesus Christ,