‘From Christ to Social Practice’ by Ng Kam Weng

This book is originally the doctoral dissertation of Ng Kam Weng, the present Research Director of Kairos Research Centre in Malaysia, submitted to the University of Cambridge, under the supervision of Stephen Sykes who was then the Regius Professor of Divinity there.

The whole title of the book ‘From Christ to Social Practice: Christological Foundations for Social Practice in the Theologies of Albrecht Ritschl, Karl Barth and Jürgen Moltmann’ is already quite informative to the reader of what to expect.

The dissertation was done in the late 1980s and published in 1996 by Alliance Bible Seminary, Hong Kong. It is a research into the theology of three significant theologians, namely Albrecht Ritschl, Karl Barth, and Jürgen Moltmann.

Ng explores the social ethics produced by these three theologians from three different social conditions. He is interested to see how each’s theological response to their social challenges is connected to their Christology. The purpose of this is to identify “theological resources [of these past theologians] relevant to a contemporary ethical problem.” (p.6)

Ng expounds each theologian’s social ethics within their overall Christological framework and so it is impossible to highlight all the important theological insights contained in the book. Therefore this review focuses only on Ng’s appreciation and critique of their social ethics.

Ng sees Ritschl’s social ethics as ‘Social Influence’ theory where Christians’ obedience to Christ “will extend Christ’s spiritual influence to and transform all social conditions.” (p.38) That’s why to Ritschl, Christian social practice should pervade social institutions as the “social shape of the kingdom [of God] is not totally dichotomised from nor discontinuous with existing forms of institutions.” (p.39)

However, this does not mean Ritschl simply identifies the kingdom of God with the best social order and culture. He left this part without explanation. Ng critiques Ritschl’s social ethics to be individualistic and has departed from his earlier insistence on communal effort for social engagement. (p.44) This weakness is rooted in Ritschl’s “defective christology” that is devoid of “ontological, societal or cosmic significance.” (p.48)

On Barth’s social ethics, Ng points to a remarkable statement drawn from Church Dogmatics volume 3 on the theological nature of ethics:

“…ethical theory is not meant to provide man with a programme the implementation of which would be his life’s goal. Nor is it meant to present man with principles to be interpreted, applied, and put into practice… Ethics exists to remind man of his confrontation with God, who is the light illuminating all his actions and before whom men must act responsibly.” (p.63)

To Barth, ethics is when we place our life story within the context of the narrative of Jesus Christ by participating in the community founded by Christ. The community is more than just fellowship of believers,

“As a christocratic brotherhood, it consists of ordered relationships, implying the need for form, order and law having exemplary significance for the world. [This does not imply that] the community of Christ should impose its order over wider society. It does not pretend to be an exact fulfillment of the eschatological kingdom so much as a provisional representation. It is not a direct portrayal of God’s design for human society. It is only a human society moving like all others to the eschatological manifestation of the kindgom. […] The church exists as a paradigm community which demonstrates God’s reconciliation within world history. […] Jesus did not sanctify himself for his own sake nor for the sake of a little flock of believers but for all humanity. Neither is his community to exist for itself. His community exists to represent provisionally, but with certainty, the great alteration of the human situation secures in Jesus Christ.” (p.107 – 108)

Ng’s critique on Barth is that his social theology may contain the “dangerous tendency of losing touch with existing social realities.” (p.196) That is to say that though the general framework provided by Barth is affirming and illuminating yet it remains to be demonstrated how this affects the challenges that the society is facing.

In addition, Ng discusses Barth’s notorious rejection of natural theology and concludes that Barth does not entirely diminish the prospect of learning from social theories. For instance, Ng demonstrates that Barth accepts “descriptive anthropology” but rejects “speculative anthropology.” (p.92)

For Moltmann, Ng points out his call for the church to “mediate the freedom of faith into the realm of social reality by creating in the realm of social reality practices that are “correspondences”, “reflections” and “images” of the kingdom of God. It is true that the church is only an anticipation of the kingdom but precisely for that reason it has the task of representing the kingdom to wider society.” (p.166)

Moltmann’s social ethics can be broadly understood in the following quote Ng picked up from Richard Bauckham, an authority on Moltmann:

“The Church is paras pro toto: a preliminary and fragmentary part of the coming whole (the universal kingdom), and so representative of the whole for the sake of the rest of the world whose future the whole is. Consequently, the Church can only prove itself as an anticipation of the coming kingdom ‘through intervention and self-giving for the future of others’.” (p.167. Italics original.)

We see Barth’s influence here on Moltmann. Ng appreciates and acknowledges Moltmann’s effort in carrying Barth’s social ethics further by grounding it in social realities, for example in dialogue with social theories. However, for that, and the way how it was carried out, Moltmann’s position is seen by Ng to be “riddled with contradictions.” (p.204)

Moltmann’s drawing of a dialectical relationship between the Church and the society is perceived by Ng to have fell into a confusing category. If the Church is in a dialectical relationship with the society, that means the Church is opened to be influenced by social forces. For this, Ng concludes that “Moltmann’s social practice remains arbitrary in that he failed to demonstrate that his specific social policies are the logical outcome of a dialogue between ‘Barthian’ insights and social theory.” (p.205)

Now, we turn to Ng’s own Christological social ethics.

One of the major questions that Ng tried to solve is in the book is which Christological framework should inform the Church’s social practice?

On one hand, Ng rejects the type of practice that simply imitates the historical deeds of Jesus,

“[Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino] have chosen to focus on the significance of the historical activities of Jesus for social practice rather than the Christ in the christological dogma. Undoubtedly, it is easier to make a direct appeal to the historical Jesus rather than the Christ of the dogmas to underpin the social practice of the church. But the question arises whether in any theology which ignored the Christ of the dogmas one would not be left with a christological framework that is too restrictive. One advantage of the decision to focus the enquiry upon Ritschl, Barth and Moltmann is that the christological framework offered by these writers provides an ostensibly more comprehensive context for the grounding of the social practice of the church.” (p.5. Emphasis added.)

While on another hand, Ng seems to affirm what he views as too restrictive,

“The person of Christ and his work has always functioned as an inspiration and often the primary model for christian action. Our focus on Christ gives us the advantage of dealing with a historical personality rather than an abstract concept [of Christ?]. This is certainly consistent with our claim that theological ethical resources are better appropriated through exemplification.” (p.7. Emphasis added.)

I’m here reading Ng’s phrase “Christ of dogmas” in the former quotation as identical with “abstract concept” in the latter. I may be identifying too much due to my lack of grasp over the categories that Ng employed. Nonetheless, if it is true that Ng wants to differentiate the “historical Jesus” from the “Christ of dogmas”, as seen in the two quotations above, the interchangeable referencing appears to muddle the differentiation.

(The only instance he clarified his usage of the phrase “historical Jesus” is to differentiate it [not from the “Christ of dogmas”, but] from “historian’s Jesus”. By the former, Ng means “Jesus in his life and existence in historical Palestine while the latter refers to the portrait of Jesus constructed from the application of historical criticism based on historical sources such as found in the New Testament.” [p.22, n.30])

The interchangeable referencing of the phrases is noticed again in the following quotation:

“To be sure, the significance of Jesus remains as the past example, the prototype or model for social practice. But his significance must not be reduced to his past activities. For the Christian, the significance of Jesus must also be eschatological in that the future of the risen one determines the future of the church. The significance of Jesus for his disciples is that he enables them to take responsibility for and to redirect their own history. This requires that Christians follow Jesus’ “attitude” to life and history rather than any specific social programs.” (p.198. Emphasis added.)

It seems from the above quotation there is no differentiation between “historical Jesus” (with his past activities) from “Christ of dogmas” (whose future determines the Church’s future). Ng notes that the Jesus with historical activities is also the risen Christ whose future determines the future of the Church. If this is true, then it is curious how Ng rejects and affirms social practice that is derived from the historical deeds of Jesus.

Nonetheless it is probably the case that Ng’s Christology goes beyond the distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of dogma. Yet, it remains to be seen how such distinction distances itself from Ng’s condemnation of the “direct appeal to the historical Jesus rather than theChrist of the dogmas to underpin the social practice of the church.”

One theme that keeps appearing in Ng’s thesis is his insistence on relating theology and social theory (foreshadowing John Milbank’s theology associal theory project and present works on relating theology with continental philosophy?). Here are few instances:

“[The] challenge today is to meet the need for a contemporary theological ethic and practice that interacts more extensively with insights from social theory.” (p.132)

“[Christian] social practice is not to be established solely on philosophical or theological insights. Rather, it is to be a result of a conversation and collaboration between theology and social theory.” (p.193)

“[It] could be claimed that theology must take seriously the social phenomenon if christological social practice is to succeed in relating itself to concrete social realities.” (p.197)

Ng concerns to ground Christology, particularly the reality of the historical Jesus and the resurrection, as the Church’s engagement in the social reality of the day. And to achieve this, one must connect theology and social theories.

Overall, Ng’s work is a compact treatise on three great strands of theological social ethics that provides good summary of each one, coupled with valid critiques. At the concluding section, Ng ends by directing our attention to the significance of worship in Christian’s social engagement, a sight that Christians cannot afford to lose:

“[Worship] is necessary to ensure that christian practice be not reduced to its utilitarian value. It must be humbly admitted that many of the goals for social transformation are not longer uniquely christian since there are also other social movements which share the same social goals today. Indeed, such are the connections between church and civil society that Christians may offer themselves as agents in transforming social practice under pressure from these other social groups, for no better reason than to demonstrate the ‘relevance’ of Christianity for society. At the same time, it is precisely because the goals of social action groups are similar that Christians often have to justify their actions on the same grounds as these other social movements. As such, Christians must be alert to the possibility that in trying to be relevant they may allow others to determine their values and priorities. It is therefore important that the christian social activist be sustained by a worship which highlights a God who has engaged in a history that is both his and ours, but a history of which he is lord and we are not. This vital insight must be preserved if the Christian is to be spared from attempting any self-justification. For it is precisely because the social activist takes himself too seriously that he yields to the temptation of claiming finality and absolute authority, with the consequence that many revolutionary changes degenerate into reigns of terror and counter-terror. Christian worship frees the Christian from falling into a utilitarian vision of human existence. Religion as the source of transcendence is the authority which reminds society that the worth and dignity of human beings are not exhaustively defined by their social role.” (p.210)

~ Joshua Woo


Posted on August 4, 2011, in Book, Ethics, Malaysia, Review, Theology. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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