Augustine, Calvin and the Korean Church




In-Sub Ahn



The Korean church has made a remarkable growth in number, even though she has a short history which started at the end of the nineteenth century. Some statistics show that the protestant church, especially the Calvinistic church, is now one of the most influential religions in Korean society.[1]

It is true when Auke J. Jelsma, a Dutch church historian, remarks that the history of theology cannot be understood if it is not associated with general history,[2] for the church exists in political and social circumstances. The Korean church also developed in connection with the modern history of Korea.

Concerning this research I would like to reflect on the past of the Korean church briefly, because my fundamental concern was entirely formed in the typical situation of Korea and the Korean church.

Protestantism was introduced by Western missionaries in 1884 with the open door policy of the Choseon dynasty. When Korea experienced Japanese imperialism from 1910 to 1945, a number of Christians vigorously participated in the independence movement, especially in the early period. Thus, Japan persecuted the Korean Christians and coerced them to Shintoism, which was the official religion of Japan, in the later years.[3] Life under Japanese imperialism meant a long period of persecution for the Korean church. It sawed the seed of the division of the Korean church because of the problems about Shintoism.

After the independence by the end of the second world war, the Korean peninsula was divided and the two governments were established in the South and the North (in 1948) because of the political ideology and the international situation.[4] Under the communist government the church in the North faced persecution again, and many Christians streamed into the South for religious freedom. The division was fixed after the Korean War(1950-53), and it was a tragedy for both Korea and the Korean church.

The separation of State and Religion is the principle of South Korea from the beginning. However, by the support of the first President Syngman Rhee(1948-60), who was an elder of a church, the Korean church made a strong coalition with the government. The dictatorship of this government, which justified itself in the name of anti-communism, ended with the civic revolution (1960). It demonstrated the failure of the collusion of the church and the state in Korean history.

Under the consecutive military governments, which were illegally established, the Korean church showed extremes in its attitudes to the governments. On the one hand, some churches supported them, giving priority to the security from the threat of war by the communist government in North Korea.[5] However, even when they witnessed the suppression of the natural human rights by the state, these churches were able to support the rulers openly, if only they could gain or keep their profits. When they encountered the allurement or the threats from the immoral rulers of the state, they tried to show no concern about the situation, motivating this attitude in the name of the separation of the church and the state. For them the theory was useable arbitrarily, depending on the circumstances.

On the other hand, for other churches the missionary task of the church should be an extreme political movement. They could not give satisfaction to the spiritual thirst of the Korean Christians. Thus they failed to appeal to the general Christians of Korea, even though they have contributed to the democratical development of South Korea. We can notice that their unyielding theory would include an element of theocracy, which in a sense would lead to a coalition between church and state.

As we have seen above, when we reflect on Korean church history in relation with general history, the Korean church should have recognized its identity as a ※sojourner§. She is in this world, but is not of this world. The church should have sought the value of the city of God, not that of the earthly cities. Thus of the Korean church we can say that she took various attitudes in practice, depending on the situations - no matter how their theories were. The churches in Korea were not tolerant to themselves. They continued to put the blame on each other, making their own attitudes absolute. Therefore, in my opinion, one of the most significant duties in the Korean church is to establish a commendable relationship between church and state.

Against these backgrounds, as a member of the Korean Calvinistic church, I felt a great interest in Calvin*s teachings about church and state. This research, however, will intend to argue neither that Calvin*s thought should be kept and repeated as it was, nor that his ideas ought to be understood as a perfect system from beginning to end. If we did, it would be a non-historical approach. Indeed, Calvin himself was a figure with various limitations within his own times. Thus, his teachings should be reinvestigated and be newly evaluated within those periods.

In his recent book, A.J. Jelsma acutely describes the circumstances of sixteenth-century Europe. He says,


※... I believe it is no exaggeration if I call the Catholicism of the beginning of the sixteenth century an all-encompassing power. In the late Middle Ages the church had grown to be a system from which no one could withdraw, which determined the life of everyone to a high degree, a bureaucracy which controlled the social, judicial, economic, cultural, political and, of course, religious life in Europe:...§[6]


In these historical situations, Calvin would be an outstanding reformer, who could successfully make Geneva a reformed city-state, endowing the state with a special task. Then in which circumstances, and how did Calvin work? What was the character of his reformation concerning church and state? Was there any development of this thought through his whole life? If so, then what were the reasons?

Whenever we examine the process of his reformation, we cannot overlook the fact that Calvin inexhaustibly used Augustine and he did so increasingly. In Calvin*s first Institutes of 1536, Augustine was the most frequently cited ; 24 times among all 115 quotations. However, if we examine his last Institutes in 1559, it is clear that he developed his thoughts, using Augustine much more. He quoted Augustine par excellence again, 389 times, when he cited fifty Church Fathers 866 times.[7] He even tried to argue that Augustine belonged to his own party during the disputes against his opponents.[8] As Calvin thought, Augustine, who was continuously received by the whole church history in the West[9], was indeed the greatest theologian, especially on the issue of church and state. If so, what did he teach us about the church and the state in his own circumstances? In the end, in which political situations did Calvin use Augustine? Why and how far did Calvin accept him in his struggle against his opposers? What were the consistencies and inconsistencies in Calvin*s and Augustine*s ideas to church and state? Why did they occur? These questions are the important matters of this research.


[1]) According to Korean Gallup Research, among the whole Korean population Buddhists are 23.5%, Protestants 20.7%, Roman Catholics 7.5%, and the atheists are the rest 47.2%, in October 13, 1998.

[2]) A.J. Jelsma, ※De Kerk als tegenbeweging. De strategische waarde van martelaarsboeken§, in: Geloven in de minderheid?, (Red.) F. de Lange (Kampen, 1994), 22-23.

[3]) M.Y. Lee, A Special Lecture in the History of Korean Christianity (Seoul, 1989), 181-196.

[4]) A.C. Nahm, ※History§, in: An Introduction to Korean Culture, (Eds.) J.H. Koo and A.C. Nahm (Seoul/Elizabeth, NJ, 1997), 86-90.

[5]) N.H. Yang, Reformed Social Ethics and Korean Churches (Seoul, 1994), 200-202.

[6]) A.J. Jelsma, Frontiers of the Reformation: Dissidence and Orthodoxy in Sixteenth-Century Europe (Aldershot/ Brookfield USA/ Singapore/ Sydney, 1998), 1. This book was translated from his Zonder een Dak Boven het Hoofd: In het grensgebied tussen Rome en Reformatie (Kampen, 1997).

[7]) R.J. Mooi, Het kerk - en dogmahistorisch element in de werken van Johannes Calvijn (Wageningen, 1965), 366-367, 384-385.

[8]) See Joannis Calvini Opera Selecta ( = OS ), Petrus Barth (Ed.) vol. 5 (München, 1926), 380-381.

[9]) For the present studies of the influence of the Church Fathers as well as Augustine through the whole church history of the West, see the immense book of I. Backus (Ed.), The Reception of the Church Fathers in the West: From the Carolingians to the Maurists, 2 vols. (Leiden/New York/Köln, 1997).