Theological Trends in the Korean Presbyterian Church

What is the theological picture today within the Korean Presbyterian Church? To those who take any active reading or praying interest in such a question, the answer will probably be, “Why, it is thoroughly conservative!”

That opinion has likely come from the flood of literature and press releases which followed in the wake of the 1959 division of the Korean Presbyterian Church.1

Is the Korean Presbyterian Church conservative? Donald Grey Barnhouse, former editor of Eternity magazine, said it was. “The church…has had a remarkable witness for faithfulness in doctrine and practice…It is a Bible·believing church. I well remember my first visit there, and the impression which this church made on me. There was wide-spread use of.a system of church discipline; both life and doctrine must conform to Scripture, and even the leaders were subjected to sharp discipline.”

Is the Korean Presbyterian Church conservative? L. Nelson Bell, editor of The Southern Presbyterian Journal, associate editor for Christianity Today, associated for many years with the Board of World Missions of the Southern Presbyterian Church, said it was. Writing about the 1959 division and alleged liberalism in the church, Bell speaks strongly: “I would like to state categorically that the basic problem is not doctrinal; that there is probably no church in the world more conservative than the Korean Presbyterian Church.”

Is the Korean Presbyterian Church conservative? A joint appeal, issued by representatives of the respective foreign mission boards of United Presbyterian and Southern Presbyterian Churches’, says of the 1959 split, “In our opinion nothing has happened which makes such a break necessary.” Billy Graham writes to the Korean Church, “Many of you have probably already rationalized that the issues arc deep, when down in your hearts you know that it is pride, false information about brethren, and in some instances downright jealousy.”

Our subject is not the reasons for the division of the Presbyterian Church in 1959. Our subject is a theological one. What is the character of Korean Presbyterianism today? Is it true that “there is probably no church in the world more conservative” than this one? There are, in the main, four large Presbyterian bodies in Korea today.2 Is their theology inter-changeable, their separate existence only the result of factionalism, political maneuvering, and the foreign dollar?

The Trend Toward Liberalism

Missionary literature tends strongly to emphasize reasons other than theological for the church divisions of Korea. The presence of liberalism is greatly minimized, almost to its exclusion. A recent work by Dr. Samuel H. Moffett is an excellent example of this strong tendency to either ignore or strongly underplay the battle between liberalism and Christianity in Korea. In virtually the only references to the question in the book, Moffett uses the terms in a context that casts great doubt on the relevancy of their usage in Korea.3

The theological picture in Korean Presbyterianism today is. we feel, far from the simple one drown by men like Bell and Barnhouse. It is in a tremendous stage of upheaval and activity. Almost all of this stimulation is coming from theological pens and minds devoted to an historicistic application of Barth and Bultmann to the Korean scene. To an observer from abroad, interested primarily in church-patterns rather than thought-patterns, the picture would be called “confusing.” I remember an official representative of the Christian Reformed Church caning it that within the last four years. But for those willing to concentrate on trends in theological development, there is definite direction and shift. It is strongly directed towards the crisis thinking of Karl Barth and the existential re-directions of Rudolf Bultmann.

Liberalism has had a long history in the circles of Korean Presbyterianism. The first Korean General Assembly was held in 1912. By 1934, at the twenty-third General Assembly, the question of the authorship of Genesis and liberal higher criticism had to be faced. The pastor of the Seoul SoUtJl Gate Church had denied the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. The conflict ended with the church accepting a committee report the following year. The committee argued that denial of Mosaic authorship was “in opposition to section one of the Church Confession of Faith.” The conflict ended, but the battle had only begun.

From 1938 to 1945, liberalism had its greatest opportunity for growth. In September of that year, Pyung Yang Seminary, the only seminary of the as-yet-united Korean Presbyterian Church. was closed indefinitely. Its conservative voice was stilled. About this same time, conservative missionaries who had guided the theological thinking of the church since its infancy had to leave the country because of growing hostility between the west and Japan, Korea’s “protectors” since 1910. Korean conservative voices were stilled also. Many fled to Manchuria to escape persecution. Others were imprisoned for resistance to the Japanese shrine worship.

The result of all this was to place the church in the hands of the liberal theologians of Korea. This control was made even stronger when those strongly inclined to liberal theological positions began to support the government policies of Shinto shrine worship. When the war ended, Japanese government support had not only kept the liberals in power. It had added to their power. The liberal seed had blossomed.

The Voice of Kim Chai Choon

In these early years, perhaps the loudest Presbyterian voice for liberal theology was that of Kim Chai Choon. Kim had begun his theological studies at Aoyama College in Japan, a place he himself characterized recently as “almost radical liberalism…a branch office of Union Seminary in New York…” From there he went to Princeton, where he tells us he was particularly attracted by Machen and stimulated by the contrast of fundamentalism with his liberal background from Aoyama. He returned to Korea in 1930 at the age of 32. where he began leaching Bible in a church-related junior high school in Pyung Yang. During this same time, he was invited to do some teaching at the Pyung Yang Seminary, the seminary hoping he might eventually become a member of the faculty. However. an article he contributed to the seminary theological journal raised a number of questions and Kim did not become a full member of the faculty. On these years Kim himself writes, “The church and society were so cold that 1 was nearly choked. I could barely teach in a junior high school and associate with our new generation. I made up my mind to give a more ‘opened’ vision to the new generation and let them grow in the breath of the world. I published The Crusader, a little magazine,…to create a new breath in the Korean Presbyterian Church which was ‘canned’ in ‘orthodoxy’…(Christian Thought, a magazine, July, 1964, my translation).

Since those early years, Kim has played a large role in Korea’s theological and ecclesiastical direction. From his pen have come translations of Bennett’s Christianity and the State, Georgia Harkness’ Christian Ethics. Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture. In addition to these, he has authored a small Bible Handbook Commentary for laymen. a series of lectures on the Lord’s Prayer, two collections of sermons and addresses, and numberless articles. During most of this time. he has been associated with HanKuk (originally called Chosun) Theological Seminary. Under his inspiration it has become the leading exponent of Barthian theology in Korea today. A bitter controversy over the liberal direction of its theology eventually led to the divisions of the Korean Presbyterian Church in 1952–1953 and the organization of the KOREAN CHRISTIAN PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (often popularly labeled the KiChang), presently supported by the missionaries of the United Church of Canada. The HanKuk Seminary is now the official teaching institution of that denomination.


A Theological Melting-Pot

Kim’s own theological outlook is perhaps indicative of much of the liberalism apparent today in the Korean Presbyterian Church. It is a kind of ecclectical melting-pot of theology. Kim himself writes, “I am unable to tell from which professor and book I have been influenced. I may say that I was influenced by Barth and Brunner. But when I read their books, I overlooked them, not studying deeply. And also, when I read the works of Niebuhr, Tillich and Bultmann. Tread them just like travel stories…In short, I feel that I have a habit that, when I read books. I treat them as a reference book…”

There is here also a noticeable detachment from commitment. A recent writer on the Japanese theological scene has said, “Barth has been a kind of theological pope in the Japanese church for a long time, for over thirty years. Unlike the situation in America, for instance, where Barth has been considered one of the top theologians of this century. in Japan Barth has been regarded as the ONLY theologian.”4 Another Japanese theologian has spoken of the “Germanic Captivity” of the Japanese church. It seems to me it is rather difficult to apply such language to Korea, although there is certainly a deep dependence on the Germans. TIle Korean approach to theology takes a very strongly historicistic bent, always learning, never coming to a position of strong commitment, towards one particular scholar as over against another.

This is seen particularly in recent works. Recent issues stimulating theological discussion in Korea concern themselves with the relative merits of Barth versus Bultmann, Dodd and the kerygma, etc., in short. a growing dialogue with contemporary western theology. But the dialogue, as it emerges in Korean publications. has much more the characteristics of a monologue in which the west talks and Korea just listens. Criticism is very negligible, even from a liberal point of view. Perhaps because a criticism demands a commitment!

Nevertheless, certain features of Korea’s liberal trends stand out sharply. Th ere is an increasing amount of criticism leveled against ‘fundamentalism’, ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘conservatism’. Kim Chai Choon, for example. in 1946 wrote, “Orthodox theology is actually more of a beautifully forged humanism than modernism. Orthodoxy is a heresy.”5 This theme has been taken up by other younger critics. Professor Lee Jong Sung. professor of Systematic Theology at the United Graduate School in Theology on the campus of Yonsei University, calls fundamentalism “neo-Pharisaism.” The fundamentalists “flourished the sword of orthodoxy to judge every doctrine and character that was not agreeable to their fixed doctrine…Orthodoxy and fundamentalism had two fatal weak points. One is that they don’t believe the authority of God as the Bible promotes it; the other is that they consider the theological system of orthodoxy as an escape-all…In the latter point, their neo-Pharisaism or intellectual Pharisaism appeared…”6

And What About the Bible?

Usually this criticism is linked carefully with a criticism of the so-called conservative approach to the Scriptures. One of the rising New Testament students in Korea is Dr. Park Chang Whan. Presently teaching in the Korean Presbyterian Seminary in Seoul, associated with what has been popularly labelled the “WCC group” (also called the Dong Hap group). Dr. Park has been the subject of much controversy in the church, because of his Barth-colored criticism of fundamentalist leaders in the church. A regular contributor to the liberal-oriented Christian Thought magazine, Park has recently completed a translation and revision of Machen’s Greek Grammar. He is also the author of the section on Johannine theology appearing in a recent Korean work, New Testament Biblical Theology, and a 259 page commentary on Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. Writing recently on “The Place of the Bible in Modern Protestantism,” he analyzes briefly the change in the climate of opinion regarding the Bible after the Reformation. Regarding the Form-critic school, he is highly complimentary. “Today, almost all theologians recognize historical and literary criticism and try to discover the will of God in the Bible as it was criticized. That is to say, they attempt to study form criticism or its historical condition (sitz im leben) and so continue Biblical-theological study.” Park goes on to an analysis of the attitude of the Korean Protestant Church. And here he is highly critical. “Korean Protestants love the Bible. But they love it blindly…Korean Christians think that the Bible is so easy and read it. And they read just the external part of it…Korean Christians use the Bible wrongly for they don’t have a correct knowledge of the Bible…We have to reconsider that our altitude on the Bible is too exclusive. The question is not our view of the Bible. But it is an awful wrong to think that one’s thought is only right and his interpretation is the best of all with regard to the Bible. It may be reasonable for everyone to think that he is right but when they open their minds and compare themselves with another’s thoughts and then consider and recognize that there may be reason behind another’s opinion, then they can have a satisfactory and complete interpretation and so establish a peaceful church without dispute.”

One also notes a certain reluctance to touch certain subjects on the part of contemporary Presbyterian disciples of liberal theology in Korea. So, for example, in the article cited above by Park Chang Whan, the very relevant question of the Bible and inspiration, inspiration and inerrancy, is not even raised. A similar impression comes from reading an essay by Professor Paik Lee Ven, of Yonsei University. He too writes on “The Word of God and the Church,” but carefully avoids the question of inspiration and inerrancy. His three-fold definition of the Word of God, however, as sermon, Bible, and logos is so strongly oriented to Barthian thought patterns that there can be little doubt how he would solve the question if it did arise.8 In the same spirit, the question of Barth’s neo-universalism receives little comment in Korean discussions. The neglect of these questions seems to me to be more than just due to lack of space and time. or even an under-emphasis of their importance. Korean theologians are as aware of their contemporary relevance as western theologians. Part of the reason for lack of discussion may come from Korean efforts to discuss their own emerging questions, dictated by their own demands. At the same time, one also feels almost a reluctance to raise these as questions. Why there is this reluctance is also difficult to say, Does it come from fear of raising issues that might split the church even more? Does it come from a reluctance to open one’s self to damaging criticism by church conservatives? Or are the questions just not relevant for Korean theology as yet?

Recent Theological Literature

The influence of liberal thinking is apparent in many areas of Korean thought today. In literature and literary output of a theological sort, modern trends in theology have swept the field, The most prominent organ of theological publications in Korea is the Christian Literature Society. Governed by a board representing the larger missions and churches of Korea, its productions have become more and more slanted to a liberal-oriented theology than ever before, In recent years, it has emphasized espccially the production of theological textbooks, And these have been unifonnly representative of a liberal higher critical view of the Scriptures. O. M, Bailtie’s work on Christowgy, Georgia Harkness’ Christian Ethics, Paul Althaus’ lntroduction to Dogmatics, Otto Baab’s Old Testament Biblical Theology have been the more prominent western works to see translation under this program. Under the banner of the Society, a “Library of Evangelical Theology” has also begun the publication of a series of monographs, translated by two professors associated with the HanKuk Seminary. The first three titles to come out in this series have been translations of Karl Barth’s works. In the prospectus is a work by Aulen and another by Barth, From this same press comes a monthly theological magazine of some respect in theological and non-theological circles in Korea. Called Christian Thought, it is almost consistently a vocal spokesman for the liberal voice of Korea. Very, very rarely docs an article appear in its pages expressing a conservative position.

But not only is the Christian Literature Society a major vehicle for translated western liberalism, Those works done by Korean writers are also strongly slanted. This year appeared the most recent work of one of Korea’s great liberal theologians, Dr. Chai Pi! Keun, Dialogue on Philosophy and Religion, Dr. Chai, the founder of HanKuk Theological Seminary, is now teaching part-time in the Theological Seminary of the Dong Hap (or “WCC”) Presbyterian Church in Seoul. In this same series of theological textbooks, the works on Old Testament Introduction, New Testament Introduction, and New Testament Biblical Theology have been authored by Korean writers in symposium form, All three titles are deeply indebted to form-criticism and a basically destructive attitude towards the New Testament or Old Testament text.

In many respects, the situation in literature in Korea may be compared quite easily to the similar picture as it existed in the states during the controversy between liberalism and fundamentalism in the 1920s and 1930s, Then, as now, liberalism, partisan to its point of view, gained control of the presses and higher educational institutions, Evangelical scholarship, even though it had something to say, and could say it well, did not have the funds and the presses to compete. The problem, then as now in Korea, is not basically one of sterility in conservative scholarship. Evangelical scholarship was, and is now becoming in Korea, more unwelcome in those institutions where the newer dialectic has gained control. Locating in smaller denominational schools in Korea, academic demands are too strenuous to permit significant production, and denominational funds, as in America, are more and more being turned to support of academic centers and presses committed to modem theology.9

Influence in the Seminaries

In the theological seminaries today in Korea, modem theology speaks with a louder voice than ever. We have mentioned repeatedly HanKuk Seminary. Rev. Kang Won Yong, lecturer in theology there, wrote in 1961, “The Chosun Theological Seminary (the present Han Kuk Theological Seminary) was founded in 1940 exclusively by Koreans, All leading faculty members of this school advocated the neo-orthodox line, which was fonning the main current of the world-theology at that time.”10 Kang’s words are still quite descriptive of the present state at HanKuk Seminary, although in recent years a growing influence of Bultmann can be felt in faculty writings. As yet, however, Bultmann is a relatively new voice to Korea. His work, Mythology and the New Testament, appeared in Korean translation in 1959, and only a few articles can be found exploring his ideas in some depth in theological publications.

Another institution which promises to produce a great deal of support for modern theology is now in the process of formation. It is the United Graduate School of Theology, located on the campus of Yonsei University in Seoul, Opening its doors this spring term, it was begun with a very large grant from the Theological Education Fund of the World Council of Churches. It will eventually be the first institution in Korea to offer a Th.M, and Th,D. program of studies. Staffed by teachers from Korean churches participating in the program, it has already been a subject of some theological debate in the Korean churches because of its pointedly liberal stand, Opposition has been especially vocal among the constituency of the Dong Hap Presbyterian Church, although they continue to support it. A former member of the Dong Hap Presbyterian Seminary, Dr. Lee Jong Sung, mentioned earlier for his opposition to conservatism, is now on the staff of this United Graduate School. Its professor of Church History is Dr. Han Tae Dong, who was one of the first Koreans to receive his Th.M. at Westminster Seminary, He went on to receive his doctorate at Princeton.

ConSiderably less influenced by modem theolegical streams than either HanKuk Seminary or the United Graduate School at Yonsei University, yet also hearing unmistakable signs of its influence, is the Korean Presbyterian Theological College, associated today with the Dong Hap or “WCC” group of Korean Presbyterianism, Although perhaps the majority of men on its faculty may be conservative, several of its professors in the past have been strong spokesmen for anti-conservative forces. Dr. Lee Jong Sung, formerly associated with the school, takes a posture usually defensive of Barth against the conservative criticism of Van Til and Carnell, and against the liberal’s attacks.11 Dr. Park Chang Whan, now Professor of New Testament at the institution, has been subject to much criticism in the past for his theological stance. For a few years he was released from teaching duties, ostensibly to work on a new Korean version of the New Testament. He returned to his teaching duties during this past year, not much chastened but much quieter, in those positions where his views might create disturbance. A new voice on the faculty, now full-time instructor, is that of Professor Lee Yung Hyun, who is accused by Korean colleagues of theological deviations from Presbyterian conservative traditions. He has done little writing thus far. Dr. Chae PH Keun is also now serving on the faculty as a part-time instructor. He has been associated with Korean liberalism for many years.

Latitudinarianism Among the Conservatives

Apart from the pronounced propagandizing which these men mayor may not engage in among the students, there are also some signs of a regrettable tendency among conservative forces on the faculty. It is that of treating contemporary theology in a purely historical manner with little or no dramatic criticism. The seminary has sometimes been charged by Koreans with over-emphasizing modern trends in theology to the neglect of a Biblical basis for criticism and orientation.

In many respects the Seminary today bears much resemblance to the Princeton Theological Seminary that J. Gresham Machen and others saw before they left to form Westminster. Conceived originally as an institution to represent the Old School tradition of Presbyterianism, the Calvinism of the Hodges and Warfleld, Princeton took on a broader character under the presidency of Dr. J. Ross Stevenson. 1t was a character broad enough to represent two streams within the Presbyterian Church, one historically Presbyterian and the other historically Arian, one Calvinistic and the other liberal. Stevenson maintained, “We are the agency of the combined Old School and New School and my ambition as president of the seminary is to have it represent the whole Presbyterian Church and not any particular faction of it.” Dr. Kae II Seong, president of the Dong Hap Seminary, writing in his Seminary’s Theological ]ournal in 1964, comments on the divisions that have beset the Korean Church in recent years. In conclusion, he says, “Our seminary, the heart and artery of our church, must keep the true, original way majestically, neither turning to the right or to the left. Our church used to be a simple one, In the meantime, the liberal theological group left us. And then the so-called ‘orthodox group left us. A few years ago a certain Christian weekly asked, ‘Where does the KwangNa Bu Seminary go?’ [Author’s note: This name is also popularly used of the Dong Hap seminary.] One seminary took liberalism with it, and fundamentalism has been taken by another seminary. What is left with the Dong Hap group’s seminary? It was as if we were left with a vacant building and we were supposed rightly to raise our banner high in order to be seen clearly…Some sometimes charged that we should decide to stand clearly on the left or on the right and make clear our course of theology…Our seminary itself has no inclination to raise any new motto or banner conforming to the age. We are neither inclined to liberal theology or to a self-righteous, exclusive, so-called fundamentalism.”

What Machen feared at Princeton, as much as any pronounced liberal teaching, was a conservative theology that was indifferent to this debilitating trend, a latitudinarian atmosphere that spoke of co-operation and the expression of varying viewpoints, rather than sturdy commitment to the historic creeds. This is precisely the stage at which we now find this institution for Presbyterian education in Korea. It may be mirrored in these words by Dr. Han Chul Ha, now a professor at the seminary. Writing on “What Theologians and Books Did Most to Shape My Mind?,” he speaks of his indebtedness to C. Ernest Wright, Floyd Filson, C. Van Til,  H. Dooyeweerd, and others. In conclusion, he comments, “What I want to say finally is my attitude on the fighting between fundamental theology and liberal theology. I didn’t start my theological life as a fundamentalist theologian nor did I start it as a liberal theologian. My theological life began inevitably out of the need of my faith, and studying theology for me is no more than the effort to understand true Christianity and to be a true Christian…” Han, like the seminary, does not want to be classified either as fundamental or liberal. His cry seems to be for a free atmosphere where both may talk. Does he speak for his seminary?

The Dong Hap Seminary seems to be a very good image of the present status of liberal studies and influence in the Korean Presbyterian church today. It is still a church with a very strong conservative mainstream. That mainstream is, as ill every church, most perfectly reflected among the laity. And yet, along with the mainstream is another stream, fed and motivated by largely liberal, western thought, seeking to become part of the Korean scene. At present, the conservative stream in Korean Presbyterianism is wider. But the liberal stream is moving faster, and with more power. And conservatives, in those denominations where it is appearing, are reluctant to deal firmly with liberalism for fear of further divisions and bifurcation of the church. In such an atmosphere of latitudinarianism liberalism cannot help but grow.

(to be continued)


1. This division has been described before in the pages of this journal. See T. Hard. “The Korean Church and the Reformed Faith Today,” TORCH AND TRUMPET, December, 1963.

2. These four groups are: (1) Korean Presbyterian Church-Dong Hap group, supported by missionaries of the United Presbyterian, Southern Presbyterian, and Australian Presbyterian Churches. The 1965 prayer calendar of Christian missions in Korea gives it 2027 churches and a constituency of 348,904. (2) Korean Presbyterian Church-Hap Dong group, also popularly called NAE group or Seung Dong group. It is supported by missionaries of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the foreign missions board of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The same prayer calendar gives it 1618 churches this year and a constituency of 455,967. (3) Korean Christian Presbyterian Church-KiChang group, supported by the United Church of Canada. No 1965 statistics were given. In 1964 they listed 674 churches and a constituency of 131,192. (4) Korean Presbyterian Church-KoSin group, also now called HwanWon group, 458 churches and 14,657 baptized members. (The constituency of this church would be larger, but they list only baptized members.) This group is also supported by missionaries of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The statistics give some idea of the church size, although they are, uniformly, extremely inaccurate.

3. Dr. Samuel H. Moffett. The Christians of Korea, Friendship Press, 1962, p. 114–115.

4. Yasuo Furoya, “The Influence of Barth on Present-Day Theological Thought in Japan,” The Japan Christian Quarterly, October, 1004, p. 282.

5. Quoted in Kim Yang Sun, History of the Korean Church Since Liberation (1945–1955), Religious Education Dept. Korean Presbyterian Church, 1956 p. 199–200.

6. Lee Jong Sung, “TheTrends of Modem Theology,” Theological Forum, published by College or Theology, Yonsei University, Vol. 5, 1959, p. 85ff.

7. Park Chang Whan, “The Place of the Bible in Modern Protestantism,” Christian Thought magazine, June, 1964.

8. Paik Lee Eun, “The Word of God and the Church,” Theological Forum, published by College of Theology, Yonsei University, Vol . 5, 1959, p. 135–141.

9. Cf. Carl Henry, Fifty Years of Protestant Theology, Wilde and Company, c. 1950, p. 89ff.

10. Kang Won Yong, “The Korean Church in the World Community,” Koreana, Vol. 3, No. 1,1961, p. 123ff.

11. Cf. Lee Jong Sung, “Trends and Issues in Recent Theology,” Theologal and Modern Times, published by The United Graduate School of Theology, Yonsei University, Vol. 1, 1964, p. 83–85.

Korea, long known as “the land of the morning calm,” has been far from knowing true calm in recent years. Political, social and economic upheavals have deeply disturbed the people. But of even greater significance for the cause of Christ are the disturbances which have been agitating the churches.

The Rev. Harvie M. Conn, long-time resident and missionary in Korea, traces the infiltration of liberal thought into the Presbyterian church which has been so widely recognized as a bastion of historic faith. His thorough and penetrating analysis will help us understand some of the struggles through which that church is presently passing.