the Korean church and its revival, especially because it was translated using Korean script (which was regarded by scholars as inferior to Chinese script), thus making it widely available to women and ordinary people.8 In fact, the tradition of Bible study was so much the hallmark of early Korean Christianity that one missionary called it 'Bible Christianity'.9 The distinctive mark of Korean Christianity as Bible Christianity was due to the fact that the Korean education system was heavily influenced by the Confucian traditional method of teaching and learning. Confucian learning was highly systematized and people of the ruling and middle classes were required to learn Confucian texts by heart. People were taught to accept Confucian texts as the authority for socio-political principles as well as the daily practice of ethics and moral conduct. There was no critical evaluation of the texts, nor of their validity in the context of Korea, but they were regarded as given authority by the king and his forefathers. People read them aloud or memorized them and recited them, and tried to follow their teaching literally. In the period when Protestant Christianity was introduced in Korea, Confucian philosophy was largely questioned by educated people, due to the corruption of the government and the division and infighting between different Confucian schools. Nevertheless, the mode of learning it through inculcation is dominant in the Korean education system even to the present day.

When the Bible was introduced to the Koreans, and once Korean Christians accepted it as the sacred text, it was reverenced as the authority above others. And they employed the Confucian method of learning as they studied the Christian scripture. They tended to accept the literal meaning of the text and tried to put it into practice in their daily lives. In this conservative approach, any new understanding or interpretation of the text has to be scrutinized by the traditional understanding of the text. This approach has in turn shaped the Korean church in that there is a strong commitment to applying the scriptures, which has contributed to the rapid growth of the Korean church.

This emphasis on the importance of the text, coupled with pietistic ethics and a great zeal for evangelism, continues to be characteristic of mainstream Protestant Christianity in Korea. The most prominent church leader and theologian was Kil Sun-Joo, who was one of the first ordained Presbyterian ministers in Korea and who led the Pyeungyang

William N. Blair and Bruce Hunt, The Korean Pentecost and the Sufferings which Followed (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), p. 67. Report of British and Foreign Bible Society (1907), p. 70.

revival movement in 1907. His conservative theology was based on his belief in the imminence of the second coming of Christ. He encouraged Christians to attend early morning prayer meetings, made reading of the Bible a priority and rejected any form of modern biblical criticism. Though his theology owed much to evangelical missionaries from North America, who tended to preach an escapist gospel, his enthusiasm for scripture and spiritual renewal was a motivation for Korean Christians in the midst of political turmoil. He himself became one of the thirty-three signatories of the Declaration of Independence in 1919.

Owing to a rigid commitment to the text, any liberal interpretation of the Bible provoked a strong reaction from both the church leadership and theological circles. More open to the modern biblical interpretation, Nam Kung-Huek, Professor at Pyeungyang Seminary, contributed his New Testament commentaries, particularly on the Pauline epistles, and on the continuity and unity of the teachings of Jesus and the theology of the apostle Paul in response to liberal interpretations. Similarly, Byuen Hong-Kyu, influenced by the neo-orthodoxy of the wider theological circle, saw holiness as the key to understanding the God of the Hebrew Bible, which is expressed as four dimensions: ritual, ethical, personal and spiritual. The liberal interpretation of scripture was much debated in the Korean churches in the 1930s, concerning three issues: the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch; the translation into Korean of the Abingdon Bible Commentary, which was regarded as liberal; and the inerrancy of scripture. The conservative section of the church was led by Park Hyeung-Ryong, who held the theological position of 'plenary inspiration', and insisted that doing theology in the Korean church meant not creating something new, but continuing to uphold the apostolic traditions. This conservative and evangelical approach to the text was also reflected by many leading theologians, such as Park Yeon-Sun and Lee Jong-Seong.10

Although the strong commitment to the Christian scripture made a significant contribution to the growth of the Korean church, this rigid and radical affirmation of the text also limited the development of Korean Christianity in various ways. Korean Christians tend to take the text literally and are reluctant to accept any new interpretations. The method of interpretation of the Bible by the missionaries which came with the introduction of the scripture was 'accepted as the norm' or held as 'authority'. Therefore any other interpretation had to be measured by this original interpretation. This is not to say that the Koreans accepted the

See: Choo, A History of Christian Theology in Korea, pp. 152—73.

interpretation of the early missionaries simply because they brought a text, but rather Koreans accepted that particular version of Christianity and they wanted to maintain their initial commitment. 'Bible Christianity' could lead into biblicalism in which there could be no interpretation but only transmission of the text. This attitude contributed to a fundamentalist approach to the Christian faith, to other scriptures and to people of other faiths. This preoccupation with the study of the Bible as the only authoritative text of Christian living tends to lead Korean Christians to be less concerned about the actual application of the teaching. In other words, this lack of interpretation of the text hinders any experiment with creative approaches to the text, and as a result the text becomes law, which either demands the literal obedience of Christians or puts Christianity in danger of becoming irrelevant to contemporary Korean society. Nevertheless, this eagerness to study the Bible and follow literally what it teaches has been a source of strength for Korean Christianity, especially in times of persecution and turmoil during the nineteenth century, the Japanese occupation and the Korean War.


Revival has been described as a key characteristic of Korean churches: anyone wishing to understand the Korean church has to understand its revivals. A series of revivals, led by Kil Sun-Joo and other evangelists from the early twentieth century, has resulted in several dynamics in the practices of the Korean church in which Korean Christians experience an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, genuine repentance and forgiveness, and this gives them confidence to preach the gospel and keep the faith in times of difficulty. One of the most distinctive characteristics of Korean churches, resulting from the revivals, is the prayer meeting with tongsung kido (the whole congregation praying aloud individually but simultaneously). These take place daily in the early morning, in weekly house groups and all night long on Fridays. The revival meetings were to do with seeking blessings, such as forgiveness of sins and personal and national salvation. Studies suggest that during the time of the Japanese threat to the Korean peninsula many of the western missionaries tried to direct the Korean Christians' attention to 'spiritual matters' rather than to a political struggle which they foresaw would inevitably end in Japan's favour.11 The message of the preachers and

See: Min, Korean Christianity and Reunification Movement, pp. 59—114.

the expectations of congregations were directed toward something beyond this world.

When Korean society went through depression under the Japanese occupation, there was a frustration that the Christian leadership were preoccupied with either the liberal-conservative debates or hierarchical positions in the church. There was much criticism of the church and also a desire for renewal. In response to this, the revivalist Lee Yong-Do insisted on the need for spiritual renewal and started to lead revival meetings all over Korea from 1928. Crowds gathered at churches and at various prayer and spiritual renewal activities and this continued even after his sudden death in 1933. His theological basis was the personal experience of oneness with Christ, by which the believer could experience the transformation of the life and spirit of Jesus. This required complete self-denial and identification with Christ's suffering. Lee's methods evoked Korean mystical and shamanistic religiosity. He claimed that Jesus Christ had defeated the spirits and demons of popular Korean belief, and engaged in healing and exorcism.

The tendency of the Korean church to depend on spiritual revival coupled with forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation was challenged particularly after the Korean War. The three-year War resulted in the death of over two-and-a-half million soldiers and three-and-a-half million civilians, three million refugees were created and over ten million families were separated. The peninsula was devastated and the people left in extreme poverty. In this situation, as people were desperately looking for a way to meet their material needs that was both eschatological and experiential, they were seeking the eternal kingdom in the reality of the present situation.12 There was a rapid increase in revival meetings and the messages preached were to meet the people's need of material blessing and healing. This gospel of holistic blessing became dominant in Korean Christianity as these meetings became popular and various religious groups grew up soon after the War. There were also a growing number of 'prayer mountains' where people stayed for prayer and fasting, and where supernatural events and healing were often reported. It was indeed a time of great turmoil and testing for Korean Christians. People were confused and yet they wanted to see God's blessings here and now rather than rely on a future eschatological hope. It was not that they didn't care about matters of belief, ethics and ultimate destiny but, as they had recently faced the challenge of life and death in a real sense, their faith had to be

Min, History of Korean Christianity, pp. 470—1.

met by the immediate result of supernatural events and healings and above all by liberation from desperate poverty.

The man who epitomises this approach is David (Paul) Yong-Gi Cho of the Full Gospel Church in Seoul. The story is of the remarkable transformation of a church which started meeting in a tent in 1958. Yonggi Cho, in his often-quoted book, The Fourth Dimension, described the struggle of hundreds of thousands of Koreans who were living in extreme poverty after the Korean War, and saw their poverty as the work of the Satan. In this time of struggle, Cho often satisfied 'his hunger with nothing other than three meals of porridge given him by an American evangelist' and 'battled poverty along with the members of his congregation' as he 'called out to God for messages appropriate for such harsh reality'. It was this harsh reality that brought Cho to seek the meaning of the gospel and adopt the theology of 'three-fold blessing': 'spiritual well-being, general well-being, and bodily health'.13

The gospel of holistic blessing is not limited to the Full Gospel Church, indeed it is found across whole sections of the Korean churches. As revival is characteristic of the Korean church regardless of denomination, so the message of the expected blessings for those who seek is common to most mainline Korean churches. Good news to the poor in the Korean context in the 1950s and 1960s was seen as this gospel of threefold blessing and it seemed that the message prevailed. However, there has been considerable opposition to this gospel of holistic blessing, commonly known as kibock sinang, from both moderate and conservative sections of the Korean church. In fact, most of the articles written on kibock sinang in Christian academic or popular journals condemn this approach.14 They have various reasons. First, they see it as unbiblical and influenced by shamanism, which they regard as this-worldly, unethical, anti-historical and temporal. Second, they object to kibock sinang s belief that poverty is a curse and the result of wrong actions and attitudes toward God. Third, they interpret kibock sinang worship, offerings to God and good deeds as performed in expectation of receiving from God something in return. Fourth, they blame kibock sinang for contributing to the lack of political participation of the Korean church and a slowness to share their resources

3 Y. Cho, The Fourth Dimension (Seoul: Seoul Logos, 1979), pp. 9-14; The Fourth Dimension II (South Plainfield, NJ: Bridge Publishing, 1983), pp. 137-8. See also: Wonsuk Ma, William W. Menzies and Hyeon-sung Bae, David Yonggi Cho: A Close Look at His Theology and Ministry 14 (Seoul: Hansei University Press, 2004).

See the articles on kibock sinang in the special editions of Sinang Saekae (April 1989), Kidockyo Sasang (March 2000), PulbitMockhea (September 1996), and Mockhea wa Sinhack (December 1999).

with others. It was described as a 'corrupted faith' and 'making Christianity a lower religion'. In addition, some claim that biblical blessings are not meant to be material and that the gospel of Jesus is a gospel of suffering not blessing. Believing in Jesus, they claim, is for eternal salvation and the gospel is the gospel of the kingdom of heaven, of righteousness and forgiveness rather than material blessing.

The critics focus on the negative outcome of an excessive seeking of blessings, seen in the revival meetings and services. They criticize the revival preachers for their unethical approaches, such as offering material blessings and healing. It is not uncommon to see revival meetings dominated by stories and testimonies of those who have received blessings of wealth, healing and success. There is an excessive drive to increase church membership and construct new church buildings or church prayer halls in the mountains, often by borrowing money from the bank in 'faith' that God will fulfil his promise. The critics are right in that the extravagant demonstration of material blessings in church buildings and membership has become a problem in the Korean church. It encourages a materialistic and mechanical approach to faith.

However, these critics have their own biased perspectives. First, the critics focus on the fact that kibock sinang is somehow related to Korean traditional religiosity, shamanism, and they uncritically condemn shamanism as unethical, selfish, materialistic, this-worldly, temporal and non-historical. The fact that Korean Christianity has been influenced by a shamanistic understanding of traditional Korean religiosity is not necessarily a negative point. The religious tradition of the Korean people, including shamanism, cannot be just dismissed as unworthy. This interpretation is rather the result of a Christian missionary understanding of the religiosity of the people as something inferior, unacceptable, or even evil, and labelling anything to do with it as syncretism. While conservative theology may meet the need of spiritual fulfilment and eschatological hope, kibock sinang has harnessed the people's desire for dream-fulfilment in the present context. In Korean religiosity, the desire for something better, both spiritual and material, is expressed as seeking blessings. It is the humble desire of those who have not experienced fullness of life and who are constantly facing despair and poverty.

Second, it seems that the critics are emphasizing the other-worldly aspect of the Christian gospel and also stressing the example of the suffering of Christ and the Cross. It may be appropriate to preach on suffering, the Cross, inner spirituality and future hope to those who are experiencing material blessing, but the poor are suffering and carrying a cross.

A message of deliverance and liberation from poverty, and the promise of God's blessing in the here and now, is also part of the Christian gospel -often expressed as shalom, the peace and well-being of God's people. The tendencies to make blessing in the next world more desirable than blessing in this world have been consistent in Christian tradition, but kibock sinang challenges them. In the context of post-War Korea, many of the Korean church leaders responded to the problem of the poor by tapping into traditional religiosity and also interpreting the gospel as seeking holistic blessing.

Though the difficulty remains that the gospel of holistic blessing often threatens the principle of the Cross by employing the unethical methods of 'the end justifies the means', nevertheless it represents one way the Korean church has responded to the problem of poverty, and many testify that it has indeed been good news to the poor.15 It provided the people of Korea with hope here and now through Christian faith, and resilience to endure hardship and to persevere through the turmoil of post-War Korea.


During the 1960s to 1970s South Korea witnessed the rapid rise of the jaebul, or family-run mega-companies (with the help of government policy), which started to dominate the Korean economy. As a consequence, there was serious exploitation of factory workers in regard to their working conditions as well as to their wages. The majority of pastors saw this problem as a simply matter of the 'process' of development and concentrated on their emphasis on church growth. In this period, jaebuls and mega-churches rose in parallel and the church leadership believed that the growth of the Christian population and the growth of the national economy went hand-in-hand.

However, in the context of 1970s Korea, others realized that there was a need for a new theological paradigm to meet the needs of the urban poor who were victims of the highly competitive capitalist market. The philosophies of kibock sinang and evangelistic campaigns did not seem to have the mechanism to deal with this problem of 'process' in modern Korean society. The problem of poverty was not just an individual matter or to do with Christian congregations but it had to do with the structure of the

5 Charles Elliott, Sword and Spirit: Christianity in a Divided World (London: Marshall Pickering,

Korean economy and society. At this point, some Christian intellectuals realized that the poor were not just poor in the sense of lacking material things, but they were also exploited and unjustly treated, and that the gaps between the poor and the rich and between employee and employer were widening. The minjung movement was sparked when Jun Tae-Ill set himself on fire in November 1970 as his protest against the exploitation of fellow factory workers. The incident shook the country and soon some socially concerned Christian leaders took this as major issue and stood up for and with the poor and exploited. This meant challenging the status quo of the government and the capitalist market economy of the jaebul. In 1973, they issued 'The Korean Christian Manifesto', which says:

We believe in God who, by his righteousness, will surely protect people who are oppressed, weak and poor, and judge the power of evil in history. We believe that Jesus, the Messiah, proclaimed that the evil power will be destroyed and the kingdom of the Messiah will come, and this kingdom of the Messiah will be a haven of rest for the poor, oppressed and despised.16

Two years later, Suh Nam-Dong, among the most well-known of minjung theologians, presented his thesis arguing that Jesus identified with the poor, sick and oppressed and that the gospel of Jesus is the gospel of salvation and liberation. For him, this is manifested in the struggle with those evils and so liberation is not individual or spiritual but rather communal and political. Suh systematized his minjung theology in the following years, seeing the minjung as subjects of history and introducing han, or anguish and despair, as the key theme for theology in the Korean context.17 Ahn Byeung-Moo, another well-known minjung theologian, asserted that Jesus identified with the people in such a way that 'Jesus is minjung and minjung is Jesus'. He shared his life with the minjung to such an extent that the event of the Cross was the climax of the suffering of the minjung.18 Therefore the presence of Christ is not when the word is preached nor when the sacrament is conducted but when we participate with or in the suffering of the minjung. Jesus is God becoming flesh and blood, which is a matter of material being and reality in everyday life, not of ideology or philosophy. Therefore he argued that the minjung are the

Rhie Deok-Joo and Cho Yee-Jei (eds.), Creeds and Confessions of Korean Church (Seoul: Han Deul, 1997), pp. 270-6.

Suh Nam-Dong, 'Toward a Theology of Han' in Kim Yong-Bock (ed.), Minjung Theology: People i8 as the Subjects of History (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1983), pp. 51—65.

Ahn Byeung-Moo, The Story of Minjung Theology (Seoul: Korea Institute of Theology, 1990), pp. 31—7.

owners of the Jesus community. This is fundamentally a 'food community' - a community sharing food; the concept of a worshipping community came later.19

Minjung theologians captured the people's imagination and brought the issue of poverty and exploitation into the church. Here we see minjung theology as a 'protest' theology on behalf of the minjung against injustice and exploitation. Their interpretation of 'the poor' is not in isolation from others but it is relational. The poor are poor not necessarily because they are sinners or do not have a 'right' relationship with God, but because of the greediness of some others and the unjust system of modern capitalism. Therefore the theologians' main concern was not dealing with individual poor people but rather to do with social process and the system which prevents the minjung from coming out of their misery. In this respect, as they try to deal with economic and political injustice, the minjung theologians' concern was more with anything anti-minjung than with the minjung themselves. Minjung theology made a great contribution to the Korean church and society through its rediscovery of the gospel of liberation and justice, and by showing the poor and oppressed that they are not or should not be the objects of exploitation and that their protest was a legitimate one. Minjung theology has been good news to the poor and, like the gospel of holistic blessing, it was intended to uplift the poor. However, in its identification of the problem and the way to deal with it, it is vastly different from the latter.

There have been some critiques of minjung theology in two areas.20 First: Is minjung theology by the minjung or of the minjung, or is it a theology by elites for minjung? Second: Who are the minjung in contemporary Korea and how do they see themselves? Are they only a conceptual group which is created by theologians for the purpose of their argument? On the question of the identity of minjung theologians, and therefore of minjung theology itself, minjung theologians did identify themselves with the minjung by participating in sufferings with them. Many theologians went to prison and went through hardship. Because they identified with Jesus and the minjung in their theology, they suffered with the minjung and so the minjung theologians, at least in the first generation in the 1970s,

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