Korean Presbyterian and the West

What contributions has the west made to Korean theology in the past? What is it doing now? What may be the relation between Korea and the west in the future? Is there some possibility of a productive Korean theology that may contribute to western patterns of thought?

These are the questions we should like to pose in this final article of our series. We are not primarily interested now in the question of whether or not missionaries are still needed in Korea today. Nor are we asking what role the missionary must play in the future of the Korean church. Our subject is theology, not missionaries. We are interested more in theological thought patterns and their inter-relations. Practical matters of mission methodology, pioneer evangelism as over against institutionalism, missionaries and the national workers, are not primarily within the purpose of this last article. Our question is of another dimension—What has been the effect of western theology on the Korean Presbyterian Church? And what may possibly be its effect in the future? And finally, cannot Korean theology also give direction to western thinking?

The Past Relationship

The relationship between western and Korean streams of theology in the past might best be described in terms of monologue, rather than dialogue. And the formulator of the monologue has been the west. Perhaps the terms “formulator” and “leader” might fit the situation most aptly.

It is perfectly natural to describe the relationship in such terms. Christianity came to Korea from the west. And, although some of its earliest manifestations in the Chundokyo sect and the beginnings of Roman Catholicism bear strongly syncretistic, eastern characteristics,1 Protestantism, and more specifically Presbyterianism, has been strongly oriented to western theology.

Formal Presbyterian mission work may be said to have begun in Korea in the fall of 1884, with the arrival of the first resident missionary, Dr. Horace N. Allen, or in April, 1885, when Rev. Horace Underwood stepped ashore at Inchon on Easter morning. In either case, by 1888, Korean students had been selected for theological training, and the development of Korean theology had begun.

It began under strongly conservative direction. In 1904, Mrs. Lillian Underwood, the wife of the first Presbyterian missionary, was writing on “The Present Status of Missions in Korea.” She commented, “One of the men of the New Theology asked me anxiously whether we ‘were teaching the Koreans a theology that would soon need revising.’ Thank God the theology the Koreans are being taught is not man made or man revised. Thank God he is vindicating the ‘old time religion,’ the old time theology, the old time Bible, as good enough for Korea, powerful to the pulling down of heathen strongholds, powerful to change wicked men into good men, heathen communities into righteous, pure and good ones. Unto Higher Critics—a stumbling block, unto liberal New Theologians—foolishness, but to those who take him simply as little children and his Word—the power of God and the wisdom of God unto salvation….”2

As the church progressed, creating its own teaching institutions, the western missionary continued to formulate and lead. Even in Pyungyang Seminary, the only seminary of the young church, western thought patterns played a leading part. The presidency was always in the hands of a westerner. Dr. Samuel Moffett was elected its first president and served till 1924 when he was replaced by Dr. S. L. Roberts, of the Southern Presbyterian Mission. Roberts served until the closing of the school under the Japanese in 1938. In the earliest years, from 1901, when a full five-year course leading to graduation was adopted, until 19–22, when a three-year curriculum was inaugurated, faculty members were, for the most part, missionaries released from their regular evangelistic work. More permanent appointments were made after 1922. But even as late as 1936, C. A. Clark notes five missionary professors on the faculty and three American-trained Korean professors.3

In other ways also, missionaries fed the thinking of the early church. Korean Christian literature was strongly western in authorship or translation. Charles Allen Clark (1878–1961 ), of the Northern Presbyterian MiSSion, for example, was responsible for fifty volumes in the Korean language during his lifetime. His textbooks on Homiletics and Pastoral Theology are still being reprinted and used in seminaries today. The Theological Journal of Pyungyang Seminary, which began to appear in 1918, was almost completely the work of missionaries both in its earlier years and even until its cessation in 1940.

This leading role of the early missionary has been subject to criticism. A recent doctoral thesis submitted to Yale University turns on the supposed dictatorial methods of the missionaries in this formulating period. Speaking of the Korean theological students, the author writes, “The ‘puppet’ candidates were not even allowed to interpret the Bible in their own way. This was done for them by the ‘pope’ in charge, and woe be unto those unfortunate students who defined the ‘Verbal Inspiration’ or ‘the Virgin Birth.’”4 The most obvious displeasure is reflected in these words. And it is primarily displeasure over the role the missionary played as a teacher in Korea.

But something else is reflected here also. It is criticism intimately related to doubt of some very basic truths of the Christian faith. Korean liberalism is reflected in these words. And, in terms of liberalism also, the west played a formative part in Korea.

In many ways, the west contributed to the development of liberalism in Korea. Koreans were sent to the west for theological education, and there they found the raging conflict between fundamentalism and liberalism. They did not a1ways choose the Biblical side.5 If they did not go to the west, sometimes, through literature, the west came to them. In 1935, for example, the Korean General Assembly dealt with the matter of the Abingdon Commentary. This commentary, a one-volume work produced originally under the aegis of the American Methodist Church, reflected a wide spectrum of theological views. Naturally, many of these views were liberal. The work, meanwhile, had been translated into Korean, several Presbyterians participating in the project. Anxiety had begun to appear in the church. In a situation where commentaries available in the Korean language were almost completely unheard of, a commentary of such marked liberal views was not the best first choice for a newly-developing, conservative church. The General Assembly of 1935 went on record as “Not approving” the commentary and instructing the churches associated with the Presbyterian translators to “investigate the facts and to make them known from first to last.” One of the translators admitted his lack of wisdom. The other, perhaps indicative of a growing spirit in the church, did not feel the commentary was contrary to Christian doctrine and said that the General Assembly could not suppress doctrinal freedom. Kim Yaug Sun calls this moment “the beginning of the conflict in the Korean church between liberalism and conservatism.”6

Perhaps though, the greatest source of liberalism from a western direction came from missionaries on the field, and especially from those associated with the United Church of Canada. Before 1925, when the United Church was formed, Canadian mission work in Korea was conducted by the Presbyterian Church of Canada. In this early situation, conservative leadership predominated, and liberals in the mission were content to accept the direction of the older men. But in 1925, the Canadian Presbyterian Church (or at least part of it) joined with the Congregational and Methodist Churches to form the United Church of Canada, which assumed responsibility for the mission field in Korea. The direction of this mission was placed in liberal hands. The mission chairman was William Scott, a dedicated missionary and a confirmed liberal. Generally speaking, these characteristics even today are descriptive of the missionaries of the same body. Like Kim Yang Sun, Koreans generally regard the formation of the United Church of Canada as the beginnings of liberalism in Korea.7

From 1938, this more direct function of the west as formulator and leader in theology began to change. Pyung-yang Seminary, the fountainhead of this theological influence, was closed in that year. By 1940, almost all of the missionaries had been forced by World War II to leave the field. intellectual traffic between churches during these years became increasingly difficult and, as in many other countries in the same situation, the national church, though tremendously decimated, had to assume a stronger role in its own guidance and development. In Korea, the change was effected not by one war but by two. The Communist conflict from 1950–1953 decimated church leadership once more. Again, in the providence of God, the literary and theological line between the west and Korea was cut temporarily. From out of all this came a new direction.



The Present Situation

What is the place of the west in Korean theology today? In many respects, it seems very much like earlier days. From the point of view of literature, the role seems almost unchanged. The west speaks and Korea responds. This is even more acutely true in terms of liberalism than in conservative thinking. Liberal thinkers arc in a great rush to catch up to the main stream of world thought. And in that rush, the majority of Korean theological books being released are western translations and the majority of articles by Korean theologians are strongly oriented to western problems and modes of thought. In a context where the liberal denounces the conservative for his theological captivity to western conservative thought, it is almost amusing to see the liberal imitate the same pattern he condemns so strongly! Only the names arc changed, to protect the guilty.

The latest issue of Christian Thought magazine, a monthly periodical introduced in our first article, illustrates the trend admirably. The book review column is concerned with two volumes that have appeared in the Korean language within the past two months—Brunner’s Justice and Freedom, and J. L. Neve’s A History of Christian Thought, Vol. I. Of the ten articles in the issue, one is devoted to an analysis of the proposed 1967 Confession of Faith of the United Presbyterian Church. Another asks the question, “Is Bishop Robinson’s New Reformation Possible?” A third article on “Jesus and the Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah” uses, in its analYSis, the contributions of Cullmann, Bultmann, Vincent Taylor, and John Knox among others. There is not a single reference in the bibliography to any Korean work on this field.8

Tn terms of literature, and certain specific fields of theological discipline, conservative thinking seems to this writer to be making a far more distinctive Korean contribution to theological writing. Certain areas of literature are untouched by either conservative or liberal national writers. Old Testament is one such area—apart from articles in scattered theological journals. Other areas are being contributed to by largely liberal thinkers. Church History and Apologetics are examples. But in the fields of Systematic Theology and New Testament, Korean conservatives seem to be making a genuine contribution. In Systematic Theology the work of Pak Hyung Nong is well known. Last year, Dr. Pak issued the first volume of a projected series on “Dogmatic Theology.” Based largely on the outline and contents of Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, Pak also includes material from Warfield, Berkouwer and Van Til. Yet, the western material is !lot just quoted. It is appraised. Dr. Pak’s previous interest in Apologetics makes his sections on the relations of faith and reason, general and special revelation especially interesting reading. He is aware of the work of Van Til, Dooyeweerd, and others in this area. He presents their ideas fairly and well. But his appraisal has a distinctly Korean point of view, and he is not afraid to criticize.

In the field of New Testament, another delightfully Korean contribution is coming from Dr. Pak Yune Sun, whom we introduced brieHy in our last article. Pak’s eight volumes, covering the entire New Testament, are not simply quotations from Bavinck, Hodge, etc. They are evaluations, sometimes disagreements, sometimes contributions. His work is dialogue, not parroting, and it is dialogue with a Korean flavor. Pak’s sermonic material, his selection of passages to receive emphasis in exegesis, is strongly aware of Korean problems—mysticism, pietism, theological emphases. One can feel the relevancy of Pak’s commentaries for Korea, when he contrasts them with the recent (and also conservative) works in the same field by Lee Sang Keun. Lee’s works are highly competent, dealing directly with the Creek text, even with matters of textual criticism. But the feeling one gets when through is that while Pak has written for the average Korean pastor, Lee has written for the European scholar.

The work of Pak Hyung Nong and Pak Yune Sun illustrate the new face on Korean theology today in terms of the west. To be sure, as we have already said, they point out the continued dependence of Korea on the western church in terms of theological stimulation, formulation, and leadership. But they also indicate the increasingly strong role taken by the Korean theologian in his own country, the new emphasis on the Korean as the formulator of Korean theology, the Korean as the leader in Korean theological development. A new note has been added to the old one of the west as formulator, as leader. Now, the west’s position, with the rising maturity of Korean leadership, is also that of mediator and friend. Perhaps, as time goes on, that role will grow larger.

This new change in emphasis from formulator to mediator, from leader to friend, can be seen especially in the place that missionaries today begin to assume in the Korean church’s theological development.9 We have noted earlier the prominent place the westerner occupied at Pyungyang Seminary. In contrast today are the theological institutions of the Koryu and HapDong groups in Korea. At this present time, only one missionary is serving on the faculty of the Hap Dong General Assembly Seminary in Seoul. Finishing his first term on the field, he is teaching at the invitation of the Korean church.10 Similarly, Rev. Bruce F. Hunt, of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is serving in Koryu Theological Seminary, Pusan, upon the invitation of the Koryu group. Mr. Hunt, who entered the field as a missionary in the late 1920’s, is at present teaching only part-time. and is therefore not a voting member of the faculty.ll In 1936 there were five full-time western professors at Pyungyang, and three Koreans. In 1965, the above-mentioned two institutions represent, together, nine full-time Korean faculty members, and only one full-time western instructor. The contrast in these proportions is some indication of a change in Korea’s kaleidoscope today.

The activity of the missionary in writing also offers a sharp contrast. Charles A. Clark had written over fifty books in the Korean language before his death. His son, Allen D. Clark, now serving in Korea under the United Presbyterian Church, although a prodigious writer and translator by contemporary missionary standards, is still far behind his father in output. The percentage of missionaries on the field engaged in active writing is considerably smaller than in former days. The contrast indicates the new flavor that is entering Korean theology, or at least the growing national character of the writing.

Rev. Theodore Hard, in a study paper on the subject, “Are Missionaries Needed in Korea Today?” recently drew attention to the particular function of the missionary today in Korea. Although thinking more in terms of the work of the missionary per se, his words might also be considered descriptive of the contemporary missionary’s place in Korean theological development. He writes, “…When the missionary is no longer manager having authority over a body of believers he can still be a counsellor or advisor (I prefer these terms to that of ‘philosopher’) to the younger church where he serves, if so sought after. As to being a specialist, perhaps he is less so later than at first for his skill or training may often not exceed many of those with whom he works. So he is more a friend, a helper, a neighborly extra right hand. Though the specialist stance is more difficult or undesirable, yet he may have to specialize more now than in previous decades, because of the demand of more detailed knowledge than ever. But he is still more a consultant-engineer than an engineer, consultant-doctor than doctor, trusted brain rather than brain-trust for the work….He is also a mediator—one standing between two sister churches through whom messages and ministries How, and one standing between church and the unbeliever exhorting him in Christ’s name to believe. He was always the latter, but now also the former, in this double role of mediator….”12

The Future Prospects

It is to be hoped that one day the western church may feel the influence and strength of Korean Calvinism. But that will depend on many things -the internal development of Korean theology, its availability in English to the westerner, the willingness and enthusiasm of Korean and western missionary to assist in that communication process. At present, the possibility seems remote. Here in Korea there seem to be very few at present with an interest in Korean theology deep enough to desire to communicate it to the west. Recent studies on the Korean church in the English language deal largely with historical data to the neglect of the theological picture. Apart even from this, the studies are generally popular in scope and intended for a broad reading public. There is some possibility that Korean students abroad may engage in doctoral research in Korean theological topics. Some of this has already been done.13 But there is a lack of materials readily available in libraries of western conservative institutions. 1~ And this, plus initial lack of interest on the part of the student himself and similar lack of interest on the part of the faculty assigning the research field, is a tremendous hindrance to further advanced research. When this hurdle is finally overcome, one wonders if the thesis will ever be printed by an established publishing firm. The problems of communication from east to west, at present, seem almost insuperable.

In the meantime, the western church, as moderator and friend, can continue to offer stimulation, encouragement and support.

Above all else, it can pray for Korea. Conservative leaders of the Korean church need their Aarons and Hurs to hold up the hands of God’s Moseses (Exod. 17:8–13). The literary voice of liberalism in Korea today is a powerful one. Conservative forces lack the financial backing and prestige of large western denominations to produce textbooks. Virtually the only society in Korea devoted to the production of exclusively Reformed literature is the Korean Society for the Reformed Faith and Action (KSRFA). Thus far, they have produced only about one book a year.15 Conservative forces have other problems—ecclesiastical bifurcation, internal dissensions, lack of competent theologians to cover all the fields of theology, low, weak academic standards in their institutions, lack of respect in liberal circles. These problems are tremendous. But each problem is only one more reason for prayer. Each difficulty is only one more opportunity to seek the blessing of the Lord. We continue “to have not” because we continue “to ask not.” One of the greatest contributions the west can make to Korea is diligence in prayer. In 1904, these words were written about Korea: “It is indeed a time for earnest prayer that the God of nations will overrule all current events for the best good of this beleaguered people and for the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom.”16 They are just as true in 1965.

And the west can also continue to send more men to Korea. One missionary has written recently, “The foreign church needs to give personnel more than money. The Korean church…most often asks for money rather than personnel, but the foreign church needs to give personnel more than money….Paul, in speaking of monetary gifts given by churches in Macedonia, said, ‘First they gave their own selves to the Lord and to us through the will of God.’ And I think that, for all their asking money, the Korean Church itself appreciates personnel above money, if and when the missionary will really give himself…. For the sending church the command is ‘go’; and money is no substitute for going…”17

In the opinion of this writer, Korea today demands a special type of missionary. It demands someone who is sometimes willing to listen more than teach. In the conflict between liberalism and Christianity, it demands someone who knows the difference and is not afraid to make that difference clear. In the changing role of western theology from leader to mediator, from formulator to friend, it demands someone who is humble enough to forget his dreams of pioneering like Livingstone and to listen like Eutychus at the window. Or, if need be, to forget his day-dreaming, and pioneer. The time is a flexible one. It calls for a flexible policy. And a flexible man to see this through. In the change of leadership in the development of Korean theology, from western to Korean, the missionary needed is one willing to act on another’s initiative, to encourage when he may want to lead, to stand by when he may want to stand in front. But above all, he is called to stand!


1. Compare Allen D. Clark, History of the Korean Church, CLS, 1961, pp. 29–39; B. 8 . Weems, Reform. Rebellion, and the Heavenly Way, University of Arizona Press, 1964.

2. L. H. Underwood, Fifteen Years Among the Top-knots, American Tract Society, 1904, p. 333.

3. Charles A. Clark, The Nevius Pion for Mission Work in Korea, YMCA Press, Seoul, 1937, p. 188.

4. Chun Sung Chun, Schism and Unity in the Protestant Churches of Korea, doctoral thesis submitted to Yale University, 1955, p. 61.

5. Compare remarks of Gordon Holcroft, Report of the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Korean Mission of the U.S.A. Presbyterian Church June 30–July 4, 1934, p. 208.

6. Kim Yang Sun, History of the Korean Church (1945–1955), mimeographed edition, translated by Dr. Allen D. Clark, pp. 54–55.

7. Op. cit., p. 57. Your writer wonders, in this connection, how relatively strong the influence of Japanese liberalism may have been in Korea, in proportion to its western sources. The west usually takes the brunt of the blame for Korean liberalism. Certainly Japan played also a large part in its development. During the years of Korea’s seizure by Japan (1910–1945), advanced theological education could be obtained virtually at only Japanese schools. And Japan, for many years, had felt the full impact of liberalism.

8. Although, as a matter of fact, there is little Korean material on Isaiah, 1964 did see the publication of a full-fledged commentary on isaiah by Dr. Pak Yune Sun.

9. Our subject here .is not the complicated one of the relation of the missionary to the Korean ecclesiastical structure. We are concerned with the influence of the missionary on Korean theology.

10. I speak here of myself.

11. Because of the large number of part-time instructors on a Korean theological faculty, voting membership and participation in faculty meetings is restricted to full-time teachers.

12. Theodore Hard, unpublished study paper, “Are Missionaries Needed in Korea Today?” presented at a joint study conference of the Orthodox Presbyterian and Evangelical Presbyterian Missions, Winter, 1964, p. 7

13. See (for example) the theses by Chun Sung Chun; Lee Kun Sam, The Christian Confrontation with Shinto Nationalism, Free University of Amsterdam, 1962; Kei II Sung, Christianity in Korea, Union Seminary, Richmond, Va.

14. Some progress .is now being made at Westminster Seminary on a collection of Korean theological materials. Apart from this institution, I know of no collection of sizable proportions at a Calvinistic seminary in America.

15. In 1965, Berkhof’s Principles of Biblical Hermeneutics appeared; in 1963, Gordon Clark’s What Presbyterians Believe. A collection of expository sermons on Philippians is now in the process of appearing, by this writer. The KSRFA has put out a total of about seven books since its inception.

16. Underwood, op. cit., p. x.

17. Bruce F. Hunt, unpublished study paper, “Relation of Missionary to the Korean Church,” presented at a study conference of the Orthodox Presbyterian and Evangelical Presbyterian Missions, Winter, 1964, pp. 8–9.

This is the third and last article in a series written by the Rev. Harvie M. Conn, who is serving as one of several Presbyterian missionaries in Korea. Earlier he discussed the infiltration of liberalism into the Presbyterian church of that land, long regarded as a bastion of historic Christianity, as well as the situation in which evangelical Christians find themselves there. In this article he writes more specifically about the relationship between Korean theological thought and that of the West. What kind of missionary-helper those churches need in the present situation is clearly defined.