Worth reading is Orlando Costas’s The Church and Its Mission (Tyndale House Publishers, 1974). A native Puerto Rican who long lived and studied in the United States, Costas emerged to champion a modified “theology of liberation” while professor of missiology in Latin America Seminary. His plea for the Church’s “total” task, as against evangelical preoccupation with the “primary” task of verbal gospel proclamation, espouses a diaconate concept of salvation that meshes into the struggle for justice and peace on earth.

Now secretary of studies and publications for the Institute of In-depth Evangelism, Costas rejects the Wheaton and Frankfurt declarations as too conditioned historically to provide a normative global concept of evangelical mission. He opposes any imposition of such North Atlantic approaches either on ecumenical Christianity or on evangelical churches in the Third World (p. 214). While he hails the theology of liberation as “first and foremost a Latin American theology,” he nonetheless considers it significant for “the rest of the Third World” and even for “the church universal” (pp. 221, 223).

Liberation-theology rejects a missiology that, despite 400 years of Christian presence, perpetuates in Latin America “the largest Christian area of the world of poverty” (p. 231). Costas views North American missions abroad as beholden to international business interests; despite a profession of political neutrality, their indifference to the status quo reinforces an economic domination that perpetuates impoverishment of the masses (p. 246). Instead of going along with the exploitation of the disadvantaged, Christian mission should espouse the cause of the oppressed.

Although one usually hears from foes, not friends, of Christianity such undocumented generalizations as Costas’s charge that the Church has often transmitted “a gospel of repression, subjugation, and alienation” (p. 250), we ought not on account of his overstatement to turn a deaf ear to his plea that evangelicals “start sounding off on the imperative of orthopraxis, instead of spending all our time defending right doctrine” (p. 247).

What alternative does Costas propose? He commends liberation-theology as sponsoring a biblically congenial missiology, and criticizes as ahistorical and docetic in tendency such traditional expositions as Harold Lindsell’s An Evangelical Theology of Missions (1970) and George Peters’s A Biblical Theology of Missions (1972) which skirt concrete historical structures while promoting evangelism. Only naïve mission thinking, he says, ignores prevailing social structures and assumes that theology can be done without political commitment. “Perhaps the greatest merit of the theology of liberation” lies in its “insistence on the concrete historical situation as a necessary starting point” (p. 241). “When the theologians of liberation insist on … the necessity of theologizing out of commitment to the concrete historical situation of the downtrodden, they are in fact calling us, at this one point, back to the heart of biblical theology” (p. 245).

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Costas nonetheless considers dangerous the liberation-theology emphasis that the concrete historical situation is the text or the normative element in hermeneutics on which theology is grounded so that Scripture has only a secondary comparative and descriptive function (p. 251). He proposes to modify its radical historical orientation and situational hermeneutic by a balancing correlative starting point: Scripture must be considered “a primary frame of reference together with the situation” (p. 252).

While Costas thus avoids an explicit deflection of Scripture into an instrument promotive of a Marxist alteration of the status quo, he is nonetheless vulnerable to the same tendential exegesis when he elevates to co-primacy with Scripture the present historical situation viewed in the context of socialist analysis. For Scripture alone is not the norm for Costas, but rather Scripture in correlation with the critically viewed contemporary politico-economic context. Costas commends as the ideal method “one with an ideology that favors the oppressed in their struggle for liberation” (p. 252), thus connecting the Bible comprehensively with an ideology that promotes a tendential hermeneutic.

Moreover, he locates the truth of Scripture not in the propositional teaching of the biblical text but in a mystical authority mediated by the Risen Christ and the Holy Spirit’s witnessing presence in one’s “encounter with the text” (p. 252). Dilution of the primacy of Scripture, mislocation of the truth of special revelation, and connection of the Bible with a particular ideology inevitably blunt his appeal to the norm of the canon and the normativity of Scripture.

Costas does not indicate what specific forms of social action—engaging Soviet sphere as courageously as free world?—are to be ventured in evangelizing men universally ruled by pride and passion and harried by regional injustice and oppression. If the term “salvation” is comprehensively defined, surely some “salvation-works” would nevertheless involve an objectionable redefinition of the doctrine in its biblical understanding. The Church, we are told, should be involved in all struggles for a better world, yet Costas concedes that these struggles are also under God’s judgment. But God must be identified with them “because in their imperfection and/or moral limitations, they represent the cause of justice and well-being, and God is the giver of all good gifts” (p. 205, n.84). We need clarification of how and why God must be identified with what is under his judgment.

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Yet we must stand courageously with Costas in championing the Gospel’s irreducible relevance for oppressed multitudes, and actively identify evangelical Christianity with the justice God demands in all arenas of human exploitation and oppression. Costas rightly complains that many evangelicals polarize the individual and social aspects of salvation, whereas structural interrelations are critically important for the problem of social justice. It does not help his cause that he readily quotes ecumenists whose preoccupation with social structures dwarfs their concern for the necessity of individual regeneration. But if evangelical Christians are not to forfeit to secular ideologies or to radical theologies the perception of dire needs that plague masses of humans on every continent, we must aggressively cope with such needs in a principled and practical way.

The new order of life implicit in the Gospel concerns not only the individual but also man in society, not excluding government and business, and it carries a special care for the despoiled and destitute. No facet of this comprehensive mandate falls outside the Church’s missionary witness and work, for personal conversion and social transformation alike belong to evangelical mission.

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