Book Review: God the Real Superpower

14 April 2011 by Wes Bredenhof

J. Nelson Jennings, God the Real Superpower: Rethinking Our Role in Missions.  Phillipsburg: P & R, 2007.  Pp. 261.  $21.99.

There are not many books written on missions from a Reformed point of view.  While P & R is certainly not the only publisher of Reformed literature, the fact that this publisher only has four other titles on this subject speaks volumes, especially when two were written several decades ago.  We can be grateful that attempts are being made to fill this lacuna.

One might expect that one of these attempts would be this book by J. Nelson Jennings.  Jennings is an associate professor of world mission at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.  Under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church in America, he served as a missionary for a number of years in Japan.  He is the president of Presbyterian Mission International, an organization that engages in worldwide missions through nationals.

In God the Real Superpower, Jennings sets out to argue that American Christians need to reconfigure their thinking about Christian missions.  He argues that there are too many inherited assumptions regarding missions and it is necessary to critically examine those assumptions.  In particular, Jennings is concerned that attitudes and perspectives that Americans have with regards to social, political and military influence have shaped the approach of many to the missionary calling of believers.

The author endeavours to execute his agenda through the template of the first epistle of Peter and particularly what that epistle says about suffering.  Peter writes about the suffering of the Saviour and about the suffering of his people.  Jennings believes that this message is pertinent for American Christians today.  He believes that suffering for American Christians in relation to missions means relinquishing “assumed and subconscious control, rights and privileges with respect to God and to other people” (8).  This is a dominant theme of the book and it reappears throughout.  Jennings attempts to unfold this through five subsidiary themes drawn from various passages of 1 Peter:

  • God is the mission Superpower (1:21)
  • The church is international (5:9)
  • God has sent the church into various contexts (2:12)
  • Christian missions should be multidirectional (4:10)
  • Christian missions are ongoing within the world’s various contexts (1:17)

At first glance, this appears to be a helpful approach.

There are several things that are commendable about this volume.  For instance, Jennings offers some incisive critical analysis of the “Three-Self Formula” of Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson (101-103).  He outlines how this formula, while developed with good intentions, is difficult to justify in the light of Biblical teaching on ecclesiastical interdependency.  Jennings is at his best when illustrating how racism subtly historically created distinctions such as those between missions and evangelism (74).  On a related note, he draws attention to those missiologists in the past who exempted North America from “the mission field” (167, cf. 181-182).  Finally, he has some excellent practical ideas about the benefits of organizing international pulpit exchanges and short-term mission trips that include “them” coming to “us.”

However, despite those positive features there remain some serious reservations.  One of them has to do with the insistence of Jennings that American Christians are called to suffer by relinquishing “control, rights, and privileges.”  Seen from the perspective of the suffering endured by God’s people in times past and present, this cannot help but seem rather glib.  While Jennings wants to apply the words of Peter to the American situation, his effort could be perceived as cheapening the real suffering endured by believers elsewhere.  It would seem that his argument would be better served by simply drawing attention to what the Scriptures say in 1 Peter (and elsewhere) about humility.

Another reservation has to do with the definition of mission/s.  Jennings insists on a distinction between mission and missions.  Mission is the missio Dei, God’s comprehensive singular mission.  Missions are what Christians do – through missions, believers participate in mission.  While this is a common distinction throughout contemporary missiology, Jennings assumes it rather than proving it from the Scriptures.  Given the suspicion that some Reformed missiologists have cast upon the missio Dei, we can reasonably expect such a proof.  Also, in his operational definition of missions, the church seems to be eclipsed in favour of individual Christians.  It is true that the church is mentioned occasionally throughout, but the emphasis is not ecclesiocentric.  Would it not be if Jennings developed his definitions from Scripture?

Related to the foregoing, Jennings’ understanding of the missio Dei is truly comprehensive and that has implications for the missions of Christian believers.  He speaks so often of “God’s ongoing mission of restoration” that one begins to wonder whether there may not be an over-realized eschatology functioning in the background.  This “mission of restoration” is broader than the saving of human beings from God’s wrath and extends to include social and political issues, and even ecology.  Believers are to participate in this missio Dei and so inevitably, missions becomes involvement with all sorts of forms of ministry, with the only qualifier being that it must be cross-cultural.  That qualification is unusual and, it seems to this reviewer, biblically indefensible.  More to the point, Jennings gives lip service to Stephen Neill’s aphorism, “If everything is mission, nothing is mission,” but in the end he falls prey to it.

Admirably, Jennings sets out to develop his thesis through some themes from 1 Peter.  However, in the end, 1 Peter fades into the background and modern missiological themes take the forefront.  While the author clearly respects Scripture and its authority, that respect does not come to full expression in this volume.  Similarly, for a Presbyterian theologian it is rather surprising that the Reformed confessions receive no mention.

While there are some helpful reflections in God the Real Superpower, there is little of anything distinguishably Reformed, particularly in the confessional sense of the word.  Certainly the approach to the field of missiology cannot be recognized as such.  By and large, the study of missions continues to be an unplowed field for Reformed theology.