The Christianity of Costello

The Reverend Tim Costello is famous. Not simply because he’s the brother of the Australian Treasurer, but for a ministry of social action which in its own right has had a wide influence and enjoys a good reputation. From legal practice and street ministry in St Kilda, to being the Mayor of that same city, to having an increasing national voice on social issues, and now as the President of Australian Baptists, Costello’s responsibilities and profile have grown. He is actively sought out by the Australian media for his opinion on a whole range of issues, religious and social. With this high profile, Costello is able to speak passionately and articulately about issues such as gambling, and so bring attention to the damage and injustice that are taking place in the name of ‘progress’. For this we must be thankful.

But with the publication of his book, Tips From A Travelling Soul-Searcher, I believe thoughtful Christians have cause to be cautious about claiming Tim Costello as a representative of the evangelical Christian gospel. Undoubtedly making a claim like this will be labelled by some as churlish and narrow.1 But if we see the biblical gospel as the centre which is to motivate and inspire and drive us in all that we do as Christians, then we must ask where a gospel like Costello’s will take us. So with this in mind, I invite you to reflect with me upon what it is that Costello believes.

Scripture as story

Tips From A Travelling Soul-Searcher is a loose anthology of user-friendly advice on a variety of areas, which Costello feels to be important as we move through life. Accordingly, he makes much of our need to successfully negotiate life by choosing powerful ‘stories’, that is, narrative frameworks or unifying concepts which will help us make sense of the past and the present, and even guide us into the future. For Costello, such stories may be used and applied in a very flexible way. It comes as no surprise to read that,

[the] familiar stories of my religious tradition… don’t need a fixed interpretation. … I am not bothered that each and every one of my favourite Biblical stories describes historical events. (p.15).

Which is to say, the stories of the Bible can be extracted from their context, and retold in a way that is much more than simply making a legitimate cultural adjustment. It is nothing short of stripping away the very framework that gives the stories their intended meaning. The Bible is no longer the Word of God, to which we must bow. Instead, it is something we mould and master, as we supply the context for the stories we read.

Universal Salvation

It may come as no surprise to find that Costello subscribes to a universalist view of salvation: all religions have the ‘truth’, so all are saved. He favourably quotes a mentor, Ernst Troeltsch:

‘Christianity is not to be isolated from other religions as though it possesses special privilege by reason of its supernatural claims.’ (p.140)

After surmising how Philip Adams’ hatred of a God of judgement may stem from his view of his own father as judgemental and “fundamentalist”, Costello admits that

You can find that image in the scripture, if you pick up the strands of text which refer to salvation being only for believers. But there is a different strand, a strand of inclusive salvation that stands in tension with this, that declares the God of love and justice finally encompasses us all. The God I pray to is a God who woos each one of us, even against
our wills. (p.153)

This approach is the old chestnut of postulating two “strands” of teaching, asserting a “tension”, and then choosing the “strand” you prefer to relieve that “tension”. The other thing that is extraordinary here, is the suggestion that it is evangelicals (those who hold that salvation is “only for believers”) who handle Scripture selectively on this point! Costello is frequently off-handed and shallow in his treatment of the evangelical understanding of Scripture. In fact, at this point he comes very close to outright misrepresentation of evangelical belief. Of course the atonement is indeed for all (e.g. 1 Tim 2:6), and God does desire all people to be saved (1 Tim 2:4), yet not all take advantage of this generous offer of salvation (e.g. Matt 7:13). Salvation is universal in its offer, but not universal in its acceptance.

The gospel according to Tim

If “the God of love and justice finally encompasses us all”, where does this leave Costello’s understanding of Jesus Christ, and his sacrifice for us? Costello can celebrate “the Christmas miracle”, but this is reduced to

the unconditional and inexplicable love which is called forth for a particular baby at its birth. (p.259)

And so it shouldn’t come as any real surprise to find that Jesus the man is trimmed down to a radical political figure:

I explained [to the attendees at the 1998 ‘Black Stump’ rally] that the journey from such a view of the atonement as a sacrificial substitution to a social, cultural and political view was a long journey, and I said that for me Jesus was a person who radically challenged his society, and ultimately died as a direct result of what He taught and how He lived. He can only be confessed as Son of God because of his radical lifestyle. (p.155)

This is a far cry from the New Testament picture of Jesus designated as Son of God by virtue of his resurrection from the dead (Rom 1:4). Jesus’ death on the cross is not seen as a sacrifice for sin. Instead, Costello seems to be saying that it’s an event that has no real meaning for us in our modern, urban society. Jesus was primarily a righteous politician who got crushed in the political cogs—not a Saviour whose sacrificial death secured forgiveness of sin.

So then, what application is there to be made of Jesus’ death? As with his birth, it suffers a massive reduction in scope. In speaking of the risks we face in life, Costello remarks that

Christ’s crucifixion is central to any understanding of the way life can be. All of us risk facing a crucifixion of sorts… (p.288)

It is a feature of Costello’s theologising to take a centre-piece of the Christian faith, find an almost incidental aspect—in this case the realised ‘risk’ of Jesus being crucified—and make it the central lesson.

Here is another such ‘lesson’ from the death of Jesus:

I often find myself explaining that we can no longer do this [i.e. stigmatise marginalised groups]: God made the ultimate sacrifice of his Son so that there is no need to scapegoat particular individuals or groups any more: He has already willingly offered to be the general scapegoat for all of us, for all time. (pp.137-8)

That doesn’t sound too bad, until we take into account that for Costello the word “general” has an almost technical meaning: he means that Jesus’ death was not for sins in particular. For Costello, the ‘gospel’ is first and foremost sociological in its dimensions and implications; it is about a social revolutionary who campaigned against society’s injustices and whose death was the victimisation to end all victimisation. It’s only in this highly truncated form that Costello can speak of “the gospel”. And so he can say,

I certainly feel that I have sinned also, but not enough to warrant the death of the man I love. … Christ’s death is not solely to do with individual sin, but that it was to defeat all powers that cripple and deform human life. In this sense Christ was a generalist: the gospel story has God engaging His Son with all the dark forces of evil, at work in the world and not necessarily just in a particular individual. These forces can be overcome. These are the powers of greed, discrimination and fear expressed in the trial of Jesus and his crucifixion. (p.137)

For Costello, it appears that Jesus did not die primarily to deal with human rejection of God’s rule. He died for something far more weighty (in Costello’s estimation): the elimination of society’s social evils and injustices.

There are a couple of things that can be said to this. Firstly, Costello’s phraseology about “God engaging His Son with all the dark forces of evil” is evidently based upon Colossians chapter 2—a passage that simply will not bear the weight of Costello’s recasting of the Christian gospel. For in this passage, Paul pointedly argues that Christ’s death on the cross has as its goal the forgiveness of our sins, so that we who were “dead in our sins” (v.13) might have our sins forgiven (v.13) because the Law of Moses that condemns us has been nailed to the cross (v.14). In this way, says Paul, the “powers and authorities”—the Satanic forces which held us prisoner before we were in Christ—have been publicly humiliated by the cross of Christ (v.15). The natural context and content of the passage simply will not justify Costello’s focus upon social evil, as against the evils of sin. Now, no-one is arguing that society’s evils aren’t evil, and that Jesus wasn’t concerned about them. But what isn’t right here is the way that Costello recasts the work of Jesus on the cross to be primarily a crusade against the forces of corporate greed and so on.

Then there is the point-blank assertion that “these forces can be overcome”. We must agree with Costello, that social evils are not to be left as something outside the scope of the gospel. But we must always keep the agenda of social reform in biblical perspective: Jesus says that we will always have the poor with us. When, then, will the gospel victory over the injustices of this world be finally and fully achieved? Biblically, God’s timetable for the reform and renewal of this world is eschatological. It is not ultimately achieved through our efforts at social reform (as good and as proper and as pleasing to God as these may be); it is achieved through the return of Jesus (Rev 21:3-5).

The turning away

Yet for Costello, his gospel is the gospel of social reform. It is his centre. As a compassionate lawyer, he rightly wants to see the greed and corporate evil which tramples people down, trampled itself. But this is a gospel that is over and against the evangelical gospel of his upbringing. Speaking of the church he grew up in, Costello says,

Its message has always been evangelical and conservative, giving most weight to a spiritualised and experiential view of religion which has little or nothing to do with challenging issues of power and money. … I think [my father] and all the church mentors of my formative years would have been much happier if I had used my communication skills to concentrate on evangelism, to do what they would regard as the most significant work of God. (p.58)

This distance which Costello sees between evangelicalism and his current theology is persistent throughout his book. He talks of a time when, in his words, he

made a premature judgement that conversion and evangelism of each and every individual was the only essential thing to be achieved: that once people were converted to the faith, all the social injustice in the world would disappear naturally. (p.10)

There aren’t too many evangelicals I know who labour under the belief that the social evils of the world will automatically “disappear” with the preaching of the gospel (although historically where the bulk of people in a society have taken to heart the gospel, great social impact has followed, such as in the famous Welsh revivals). Biblically, God will bring about lasting justice and righteousness by creating a new heavens and earth, and not just by doing a major sociological revamp of this world order.

But after meeting a South African evangelist, who pointed out that the architects of apartheid were “Christians” (p.11), Costello confesses that

At that point I found my whole theological grid falling apart. (p.10)

In sum, my theological crisis was that a story about individual faith ensuring redemption of the world didn’t adequately accord with what I saw happening around me. (p.11)

Frankly, this is an amazing reason to dismiss one’s evangelical roots. It is a huge leap to go from one group’s abuse of others in the name of God, to concluding that biblical Christianity is inadequate. Costello could conceivably have found the same rationale for abandoning his faith, by studying the abuses and carnage wrought in the name of Christ during the Crusades.

A social gospel

Costello does not record for us whether he made any attempt to further examine this ‘Christianity’ of apartheid. But he says that it set him searching for a gospel that would more squarely address the social and political evils of this world.

I needed a gospel big enough to address social processes and to touch individual hearts. After much thought and prayer, the dominant story that I was able to retrieve and hold onto was the one about all creation being good. … But in the midst of this goodness of creation there is a fundamental flaw or fracture that runs through each of us. … Out of this view I started to discover a way of weaving the theological themes of redemption, atonement and salvation in a meta-story which was personal, interpersonal and extrapersonal. (p.12)

A significant point here is that Costello’s discovery of this gospel did not arise out of bowing to the unifying story of the Bible’s agenda and plot-line. Tim Costello was the one who decided what was an adequate gospel. In line with the title of this chapter, ‘Relish stories and choose a good one’, Costello himself decided what ‘story’ he would choose to build his life around.

As it has turned out, it’s a gospel that has social work as its defining centre. It is the gospel he most admires when he sees it in others. Speaking of one dedicated Christian couple he met, Costello says that

They had taken their Christian faith seriously enough to believe that feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison and assisting the homeless was the very heart of it. (p.72)

The work of such people is admirable, commendable, and exemplary. But we must never let this hide the fact that biblically, proclaiming the Word (the gospel) about the Word (Jesus) in the Word (the Bible) is what is central to Christian ministry. To cite just one example, Acts 6 tells us that for the apostles, the centre-piece of Christian work was proclaiming the message of salvation in Christ, and social responsibility (in this case providing for the church’s widows) flowed out of that centre. The apostles weren’t about to allow what Costello has allowed: the de-railing of Word-centred ministry.

A consistent feature of Costello’s portrayal of evangelical Christianity is that it fails to properly engage the social and political evils of the world. He seems to understand it as an either-or scenario: you can have either an evangelical Christianity with a message of salvation from sin, or you can have a social Christianity with its salvation from oppression and social injustice. You cannot have both.

But as I have already briefly tried to show, the Bible integrates the two; the biblical message of Jesus sacrificially saving the world from sin is what is to shape and direct our expectations and endeavours with regard to social work. Furthermore, history itself demonstrates that not only is evangelicalism compatible with a concern for confronting the evil structures of society, it in fact produces such a concern. It has been evangelical Christians who have often been at the forefront of groundbreaking social endeavour—people like William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army.

This is the same William Booth who was found by his son Bramwell, pacing his room late at night with a cold towel wrapped around his head to help manage a splitting headache. “Ought you not to be asleep?” asked Bramwell. William shook his head and said, “No, I am thinking”. Then he placed his hands on his son’s shoulders and said, “Bramwell, I am thinking about the people’s sins. What will they do with their sins?”

Booth had it right. It is indeed needful for people to “find work and a future” (p.73), and to “develop a sense of vocation” (p.74), but with Jesus and with Booth we have to ask, What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?

An uncomfortable choice

So how should Christians, especially Baptist Christians, respond to the views of the new Australian Baptist President? There seem to be some interesting parallels between the dilemma facing Australian Baptists with Costello, and those facing Australian Anglicans with Carnley. As both men have approached high office in their respective denominations, they seem to have become more ‘up front’ with their unbiblical views and theology. Both men question and recast basic Christian beliefs. Both men object to evangelical Christianity, with its focus on a gospel that proclaims faith in Christ as the only way to receive God’s salvation.

One question that niggled me as I read Costello’s book, was how a man so theologically liberal could be appointed head of a denomination that regards itself as faithful to the Bible and the biblical gospel. Not having any information on the process and context of Costello’s appointment, it’s impossible for me to be definite. But it has to be said that as the brother of the Treasurer, an ex-Mayor of St Kilda, a lawyer and a Baptist minister—combined with his winsome, articulate, and engaging manner—Costello was a public relations coup just waiting to happen.

Unfortunately, what’s best for public relations isn’t always best for the cause of the gospel. On this score, Baptists are left with an uncomfortable choice. Either they follow their leader, or they follow their Bible. They cannot do both—unless, of course, they recast their Bible to suit the appointment. As a denomination, maybe they have already done just that.

  1. Ed’s note: It may appear especially churlish to those who are aware that Tim Costello shared the 2000 ACLS Australian Christian Book of the Year Award with John Dickson, a Matthias Media author.

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