[VIEWPOINT]Why Calvinism took root here

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[VIEWPOINT]Why Calvinism took root here

In only two centuries since Christianity was introduced to Korea, it has achieved an amazing growth: one fourth of Koreans profess to be Christian. The Presbyterian Church alone boasts 4 million followers. The Korean Presbyterian Church is the largest in size among reformed churches in the world. Considering most Korean reformed churches adopted the presbytery system, the theology of John Calvin, the founder of the Presbyterian Church, has cast immense influence on Christianity in Korea. There are many reasons Calvinism prospered in Korea, but the philosophical similarities between Calvin and his contemporary, Lee Hwang, are especially interesting. There are three major aspects shared by the French-born Swiss theologian and the Korean Confucian scholar.
First, they had a similar premise in understanding mankind. According to “The Doctrine of the Mean” by Mencius, a man is born with the innate traits given by heaven. The Bible states that God created man in “his own image.” Therefore, the premise of Lee’s understanding of mankind was the command of heaven, and Calvin’s understanding of mankind was based on God’s own image. While they used different terms, they both recognized man’s relationship with the transcendental presence of heaven and God.
Second, they shared an understanding of human nature. The core of Confucian learning is the philosophy of benevolence. The Chinese character for benevolence is composed of the characters for “man” and “two,” literally meaning two people. Therefore, the goal of the Confucian self-cultivation project is to live as two people instead of by oneself; in other words, creating a harmonious community of men. In the Book of Genesis, God created males and females so that mankind would live as members of a community, not in isolation. The key of Christianity is love, which is achievement of the “communal humanity,” the human nature given by God. Therefore, Calvinism and Lee’s Confucian teaching perfectly coincide with their theories of mankind.
Third, they are both fair in their means. The basic method of Lee’s Confucianism is to respect and study truth and reason. Calvinism can also be summarized with “pietas” and “scientia.” After all, the reasoning methods of the two scholars are based on a practice of piety and search for truth. Moreover, they both put more emphasis on piety than study.
While Lee’s Confucianism and Calvinism have surprising similarities, they pursue different ultimate goals. While the purpose of Lee’s Confucianism was finding truth and reason, Calvinism was focused on experiencing and comprehending Jesus Christ. Once you believe that Jesus represented the truth, it is not so strange for Koreans to follow Calvi-nism, as we have already been exposed to similar Confucian teachings. Therefore, the success of Calvi-nism in Korea was, in a way, foretold. In other words, Lee Hwang had prepared a theological foundation for Calvinism before it was ever introduced.
However, the miraculous similarities between Calvin and Lee Hwang ended up creating religious and cultural chaos along with the prosperity of Korean Christianity. For example, Korean pastors hardly preach about anything other than the five Confu-cian virtues ― benevolence, justice, decorum, wisdom and trust. The problem is that the rigid Confuci-anism of the late Joseon period is experiencing a revival in the name of Christianity. The evils and vices of the Korean church today are not unrelated to Confucian influences.
Reformed churches are characterized by the continuous search for truth. The absurd conservatism of the Korean reformed churches not only is against the fundamental sprit of the reformed church but also resembles the self-contradictory pitfall of the fundamentalist Confucianism in the late Joseon period.
In fact, Joseon Confucianism has been the moral basis for Koreans for over five centuries, but today’s Christianity in Korea is too absorbed in expanding its influence and dividing the orthodox and the conservative, failing to serve as the moral root for society.
Korean churches have to be reformed. In order to achieve that, we have to understand Mr. Lee’s philosophy and Korean culture before learning Calvinism and its theological teachings. We desperately need the spirits of the reform-minded Confu-cian scholars along with an understanding of the heaven’s command and open ears.

* The writer is a professor of theology at Kangnam University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Heup-young
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