Orlando Costas (1942-1987): a holisitic global theologian, pastor, professor, and missiologist by David Wylie

Orlando Costas: a holisitic global theologian, pastor, professor, and missiologist

by David Wylie

Introduction: Orlando E. Costas: American Missiologist

A growing number of evangelicals are making the connections between ecclesiology, missiology, social justice and the good news of Jesus Christ.  Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century many in evangelical circles have rejected “social justice” as being a stream of liberation theology and as being too far removed from evangelism and choose to focus on the good news of Christ for the soul.  Liberation theologies “arose in the 1960s as an ecclesial and contextual theology responding to a specific historical and social setting” (Dyrness and Kärkkäinen 2008, :487).

In the development of liberation theology in Latin America Latin American Protestantism and theology were reexamining their role and their theology of mission and ecclesiology.  During that time “there was the formation of a younger group of Latin American leaders who did not follow liberation theology but were convinced that the church needed to respond to the issues raised by it” (Dyrness and Kärkkäinen 2008, :475).  One of the key leaders of this conviction was Orlando Costas.

Orlando Costas (1942-1987) in an essay called Evangelism and the Gospel of Salvation adds theological insight reminding us that “To bring the good news of salvation is to interpret Christ’s saving work in the light of the struggles of mankind” (Chilcote and Warner 2008b, :39).  Contextual evangelism and mission meant that Christians “not only to ask about the past and present of a text in the light of the past and present of its readers and hearers, but especially to ask about its future, its transforming effect upon those who will come into contact with it” (Costas 1982a, 4-5).  This view of context is one reason why Costas is still relevant today.

There are growing number of evangelicals that believe salvation of the soul is not the complete picture of the good news of Christ.  Orlando Costas’ life and theology exemplifies a holistic understanding of salvation for all of life and not merely the afterlife but a salvation that has critical implications in this life and not only for the individual butfor people collectively as well, knowing that we are not isolated individuals isolated from one another and from history.

Practical Holistic Good News

Dr. Orlando E. Costas (1942-1987) a Latin American American expressed the importance of practical holistic evangelism and social action in his understanding and practice of missiology and ecclesiology.  Costas’ writing reveals his holistic missiological understanding and how he has influenced American theology and missiology.  Secondly, Costas’ publications and what others have written about Costas’ reveal how he himself was shaped by his historical, theological and ecclesial context.


By examining the writings of Orlando Costas the research presented here will examine Costas’ missiology and theology and the historical context in which his views were developed. Looking into publications throughout his life as primary sources the research presented here will examine Costas’s theology and missiology and his historical context.  Additionally, through other’s accounts of Costas’ life and work the research presented here will also examine how his life and work have influenced global theology and missiology and how Costas has contributed to a holistic understanding of missiology.

Latin American American: Costas’s Bicultural Contexts

Dr. Costas was born in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in 1942.  Puerto Ricans were made United States citizens in 1917 (Levinson and Sparrow 2005, :168). The  Costas family moved to the United States when Orlando was twelve in 1954 after his father’s grocery business had failed as many other struggling Puerto Rican families did (Strong 1997, :108). Douglas M. Strong in his work They walked by the Spirit: Personal Faith and Social Action in America discusses the Costa families move to America and writes,

Faced with ever deepening poverty, many Puerto Ricans sought employment in the urban centers of the U.S. mainland. The migrant subculture that developed among Puerto Ricans in the United States was split in two directions: older immigrants continued to channel their cultural allegiance back to Puerto Rico while their children were drawn toward the consumerism flaunted by the dominant Anglo-American culture (Strong 1997, :108)



The Costas family also faced other challenges for being Protestant because most Puerto Ricans were Catholic both in the U.S. and in Puerto Rico.   When the Costas family moved to the U.S. they joined the Hispanic Evangelical Mission which Costas and his siblings viewed as a social refuge and a place that they were excepted. 

            The Costas’ family moved would become an example of a new dimension of America’s Christian history.  Mark Noll writes, “The growing number of Hispanic Americans, mostly from heritages with some church connections, has added a new dimension to the history of Christianity in twentieth-century North America” (Noll 1992, :488).   Costas was a clear case of this.

Costas described his new context in the U.S. as “a strange environment, full of hostility and prejudice” (Strong 1997, :108)  Costas explained that this new context and the prejudice that he encountered gave him culture shock (Costas 1995).  Additionally, his father was unable to find work and Costas faced outright racism and was ridiculed for being Puerto Rican.  These pressures caused Costas to rebel and he rejected his parent’s faith.


Costas’s “Three Conversions”

Although Costas did not write an autobiography many of his publications contained autobiographical elements and stories.  In his article Conversion as a complex experience: An Hispanic case Study, Costas tells of his conversion as a process.  He describes his spiritual journey through what he calls his “three conversions” (Costas 1980)

Costas’s “conversion” of salvation.  Costas initial conversions was at a Billy Graham conference on June 8, 1957.  Billy Graham had an alter call and Costas went forward to express his commitment to Christ.  Interestingly, at that event Billy Graham invited Martin Luther King to the pulpit.  This event changed Costas forever.  Costas describes the event as his first conversion (Costas 1980) .  

Costas’s “conversion” to his Hispanic and ecclesial roots. Later Costas would go on to attend Bob Jones University.  It was through this experience that Costas came in touch with his ethnic roots.  The culture at Bob Jones University troubled Costas due to racism and the Anglo-American ideas of manifest destiny.   Strong writes,

It was through these events that Costas overcame his personal cultural crisis and experienced and authentic cultural conversion, which he viewed as an outgrowth of his earlier conversion to Christ.  Indeed, Costas was convinced that it was his initial encounter with Jesus as Savior and Lord that opened him up to be able to interact meaningfully with the people of his own culture (Strong 1997, :110)


This “second conversion”, a conversion to his Hispanic and ecclesial roots, is where Costas would begin his life of community organizing and when he started the Latin American Union for Civil Rights and his passion for the church to be involved in holistic mission began.  Costas writes, I had overcome my cultural crisis.  I had experienced an authentic cultural conversion” (Costas 1995, 24)

Costas’s “conversion” to holistic mission. Costas began to realize that he was the not only a voice for Hispanics but was a voice of all minorities and for the oppressed people of the world and that Christ’s redemption covered all of life both personal and communal. 

Costas spent the rest of his life challenging Anglo-American theological hegemony and other forms of oppression.  Arthur F. Glasser in his work Announcing the Kingdom at one points notes how Costas’ work was significant and looks at how Costas’ ideas were geared towards the oppressed and in seeking to move beyond a theology that is done from the perspective of the powerful (Glasser and VanEngen 2003, :239).

Costas writes,

For a long time theology has been done from the perspective of the powerful and mighty; it is time that it be done from the side of the weak and downtrodden.  Far too long the poor have been hidden from the eyes of theology; it is time that they be rescued as a fundamental category of the gospel and as a place from which to reflect on the faith. (Glasser and VanEngen 2003, :239)


Costas thoughts on evangelism began to become more and more comprehensive and Costas saw all of life as part of the redemptive plan of God. Costa began writing a critique of the dominant missiology and theology which would be his legacy in a significant article called Mission Out of Affluence.  In this article Costas challenged the economic, political and cultural domination and racism of Christians, and discussed the relevance and significance of the gospel to this critique.  Costas wrote in 1973,

In an age when the reality of oppression, repression, exploitation, alienation and injustice is being brought out into the open by the growing consciousness of millions of oppressed people throughout the world and their increasing commitment to the transformation of their historical situation, the gospel of Jesus Christ comes through as a timely, relevant message. Little wonder then that everywhere, but particularly in the front lines of the world-struggle for liberation, one finds an openness to discuss the man Christ Jesus and the relevance of his gospel for all of life (Costas 1973).

Costas writing reveals his holistic missiology. In 1974 Costas wrote a very significant work in missiology titled The Church and Its Mission: A Shattering Critique From the Third World (Costas 1974).  In this work Costas lays out a complete critique “first world missions”.  Peter Wagner wrote in the preface of the book, “Few of even the most enthusiastic backers of Third World missions would have dared predict that so early in the process a textbook of missiology would be produced by an authentic Third World mission theorist, but Professor Costas has risen to the occasion and given us such a book” (Costas 1974).  This work would define Costas ministry and missiology.  This work reveals Costas holistic missiology.  Costa believes that Jesus’ redemption is for all of life, individually and in society.  Costas believed early in his theological journey that salvation is for both the personal and structural reality. (Costas 1974, 308)  Often there is a dichotomy between a personal savior that saves ones soul and Jesus as the savior of all of society and social problems and that the church is God’s agent in this mission. Costas writes at the end of the book, “Let us proclaim, teach, and witness to without reduction or apologies, the whole gospel of the kingdom to the whole man in the whole world” (Costas 1974, 313).

Costas’ missiology was comprehensive and holistic.  Costas understood very well the connection between discipleship and social action.  In his work The Integrity of Mission: The Inner Life and Outreach of the Church Costas asks tough questions that show his holistic understanding of salvation and the mission of God through the church.  In this work Costas explains his ideas of holistic mission through the practices of  preaching, discipleship making, mobilization and church’s growth.  Costas wrote in 1979,

To teach obedience to Jesus Christ in all things is the great challenge of world evangelization today. Everywhere we go we are confronted with the question of what kind of disciples we are making if there is no noticeable change in their; mental structure and lifestyle; if their energies are interiorized and exhausted in intrachurch activities rather than in the transformation of their history; if they make no effort to relate their faith to reality; if they leave Christ out of important areas of life- like economics and politics- and reduce him to the realm of the private self or the religious club (Costas 1979, 24).

Costas work continued to display this holistic charicater as Costas published several articles, chapters in books and his own books all of which contained a holistic missiological and theological understanding.  Costas wrote on topics such as evangelism, education, contextualization, missiology, ecumenics, Hispanic studies and theology, ecclesiology, church growth, social justice, and strategies in world mission.

In an article in Apuntes magazine called Evangelism from the periphery: A Galilean model (Costas 1982b) Costas offers a view of evangelism that looks at Christian witness in view of justice for the poor again showing Costas’ commitment to holistic evangelism.  Costas’work in education began in the early 1970’s.  Costas’ later wrote several publications that had significant influence on theological education.  The same year 1984, that Costas became the Judson Professor of Missiology and academic dean of the Andover Newton School of Theology, Costas wrote an article titled The Seminary as Catalyst for Mission (Costas 1983).  Other publications on education that Costas wrote include Internationalizing the Curriculum in Christian Higher Education found in Mission and theological education in world perspective (Costas 1984).  In this publication Costas urges places of Christian higher education to do more to “cross intercultural, interethnic and interracial boundaries” (Costas 1984, 10).  Costas then makes the case that

An authentic Christian world view is informed by the conviction that “the whole earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps. 24:1)- that all of it is the arena of God’s revelation and that all of its parts make a contribution to an understanding and appreciation of the whole. If we are to develop a world view which is informed by revelation we have to take seriously the whole of the earth because it is God’s world. (Costas 1984, 10-11).


In Costas’ last work Liberating news: A theology of contextual evangelization which Costas worked on until his death and was published in 1989 two years after his death, Costas offers integrated ecclesiological insight that incorporates all of this passion for evangelism, education, contextualization, missiology, ecumenics, Hispanic studies and theology, ecclesiology, church growth, social justice, and strategies in world mission.  Costas wrote,

It is through the ministries of diakonia and dikaioma that evangelization gains credibility; similarly, it is through the ministry of Christian education that the church’s content is taught, its practice is critically evaluated, its agents are equipped, and its base of support is encouraged.As an educational agency, the church seeks to accomplish three general objectives: (1) to form (character, abilities, and thought), (2) to inform (the mind, contemplation, and praxis), and (3) to transform (values, individuals, institutions, and communities) for the kingdom of God by grace and power of the Holy Spirit (Costas 1989, 144).


In the hospital while Costas was working on the preface to Liberating News : A Theology of Contextual Evangelization (Costas 1989) Costas wrote on a piece of paper “The practice of evangelisation has been the passion of my ministerial career” (Costas 1989, ix) Costas view of evangelism did not waiver.  After Costas “three conversions” Costas always had the ability to hold evangelism, world mission, and social action together. 



Orlando Costas was an inspiration to countless missiologists, evangelists, pastors, and professors.  Costas represented an emerging voice in theology and missiology.  Costas is admired by countless Hispanic/Latino students of church and mission.  Even after his death his work has continued to be published.  Costas was commited to the gospel in holistic ways that did not bifurcate and dichotomize the holism that Jesus intended. Costas work will stand out in history and was ahead of its time.  As missiologists continue to struggle to include non-western non-Anglo perspectives into the conversation Costas will continue to influence missological education and practice as we proclaim what Costas has called the “totality of salvation” (Chilcote and Warner 2008a, :35) and Jesus’ good news of liberty.

Works Cited

Chilcote, Paul Wesley, and Laceye C. Warner. 2008a. The study of evangelism : exploring a missional practice of the church. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.

———. 2008b. The study of evangelism : exploring a missional practice of the church. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.

Costas, Orlando E. 1973. “Mission out of affluence.” Missiology no. 1 (4):405-423.

———. 1974. The church and its mission: a shattering critique from the Third World. Wheaton, Ill.,: Tyndale House Publishers.

———. 1979. The integrity of mission: The inner life and outreach of the church. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

———. 1980. “Conversion as a complex experience: An Hispanic case Study.” Occasional Essays no. 5 (1):21-44

———. 1982a. Christ outside the gate : mission beyond Christendom. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

———. 1982b. ” Evangelism from the periphery: A Galilean model.” Apuntes no. 2 (3):51-57

———. 1983. “The Seminary as Catalyst for Mission.” The Judson Bulletin (Special Issue):2-10

———. 1984. “Missiology in contemporary Latin America: A survey.” In Mission and theological education in world perspective, edited by H. M. Conn and S.F. Rowen, 81-112. Farmington, MI: Associates of Urbanus.

———. 1989. Liberating news : a theology of contextual evangelization. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.

———. 1995. “Centro Ecuménico de Teologia y Pastoral.” CENETEPA:24


Dyrness, William A., and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen. 2008. Global dictionary of theology : a resource for the worldwide church. Downers Grove, Ill.

Nottingham, England: IVP Academic ; Inter-Varsity Press.

Glasser, Arthur F., and Charles Edward  VanEngen. 2003. Announcing the kingdom : the story of God’s mission in the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.

Levinson, Sanford, and Bartholomew H. Sparrow. 2005. The Louisiana Purchase and American expansion, 1803-1898. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Noll, Mark A. 1992. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans.

Strong, Douglas M. 1997. They walked in the Spirit : personal faith and social action in America. 1st ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.


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