Jeon Geongyeon

1   Jeon Geongyeon was an outstanding figure among Korean theologians and the first Korean biblical theologian to obtain a Th.D. degree from an institution in the United States, the Boston University School of Theology. He was a professor at Korea Theology College (renamed Hanshin University in 1980) for 40 years, and worked alongside his fellow theological luminary Bak Bongrang. Together they raised numerous scholars, pastors, and ministers, as well as introduced the latest trends in theology to Koreans.

Jeon was born on July 1, 1917 in Hamheung, to Jeon Changho and Hong Changil, a middle child between two elder brothers and three younger brothers and one sister. Under the influence of his father, who was a devout Christian, he began his religious life by memorizing Bible verses in his childhood.[1]

In 1934, Jeon graduated summa cum laude from Hamheung Yeongsaeng High School and started working at a financial institute in Hamheung for several years.[2] After listening to God’s call when he was 19 years old, he decided to study overseas and entered the Japan Theological Seminary in 1936 (renamed Tokyo Theological Seminary in 1945).[3] It was a financial challenge to study in Japan, but the seminary afforded him rich opportunities. He could study Reformed theology, but the school was also open to other theological traditions so that by reading widely he could explore the breadth of Western theology. Jeon Geongyeon also studied English deeply by reading famous literary works (novels, poetry, and plays) and through studying philosophical books.[4]

In theology, he most admired and studied Karl Barth’s theology of the Word of God, who resisted German dictator Adolf Hitler through the Confessing Church movement.[5] From his burning desire to learn, Jeon read Rudolf Otto’s Das Heilige (The Idea of the Holy) in German, studied Greek and Hebrew, and immersed himself in the thought of the Reformers.[6] He advanced in his academic training in both theology and the humanities.[7]

At the end of the Second World War, atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in many deaths and injuries. Jeon also lost his church, house, and books and faced the liberation of Korea in the midst of anxiety, fear, and starvation.[8] He confessed, “The experience of God I experienced during the war…was an experience of death. When I heard many rumors of the war, all hopes for the future had disappeared and my existence has fallen into ruin. Then, I realized that everything is in the hands of God…From this experience, there has always been a feeling of hope in the present, with the Lord in daily life.”[9]

After graduating from the Japan Theological Seminary in 1944, in September 1945, Jeon Geongyeon gathered the remaining members of the Korean community in Tokyo and founded the Korean-Japanese Tokyo Church. He took office as a preacher and served until 1947. At this time, Jeon met Gim Bonghwa, who later became his wife, and was admitted to the Princeton Theological Seminary (including tuition and a stipend) on the recommendation of Dr. Karl, a chaplain of the MacArthur Headquarters who attended the church. He returned temporarily to Korea to apply for a passport and then was on his way to study in the United States.[10]

In 1947, he arrived in Princeton and began his theological training in the United States. In particular, he was hugely influenced by Professor Otto Piper, who succeeded Karl Barth in teaching Church Dogmatics and ethics at the University of Münster in Germany and later came to the Princeton Theological Seminary to teach New Testament theology after being expelled by the Nazis. Connecting his interest in the Bible and Barth’s theology, which deeply influenced his life back in his days at Japan Theological Seminary, Jeon submitted a graduation thesis entitled “Karl Barth’s Understanding of the Bible” and received a master’s degree.[11]

In 1950, when the Korean War broke out, he moved to Boston in order to continue his theological education. Jeon recalled that he decided to major in New Testament Studies in accordance with the Boston University School of Theology’s academic tradition and its professors’ tendencies. At this time, he was able to advance his knowledge on biblical theology by learning from his academic advisor, Professor Donald Rowlingson on biblical theological methodology and from Professor Leslie on Jeremiah, Isaiah, and wisdom literature.[12]

During his studies in Princeton and Boston, Jeon Geongyeon encountered Rudolf Bultmann’s concept of demythology and the recent discussions in New Testament studies revolving around Bultmann’s claims. Jeon continued to follow the discussions on the historical Jesus and later introduced these new trends in New Testament Theology to Korea.[13] While doing his Th.D., he translated Barth’s Dogmatik im Grundriss and in the spring of 1952, successfully defended his dissertation on “The Resurrection of Jesus in Luke-Acts and in the Fifteenth Chapter of First Corinthians.”[14] In October 1952, after finishing his 5 years of study in the United States, Jeon was married to Gim Bonghwa in Japan on his way back to South Korea, which had been devastated by the Korean War.[15]

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Immediately, Jeon Geongyeon was invited to teach at Yonsei University and Seoul National University, but he began his professorship at Korea Theology College. Gim Jaejun, who was the great Christian thinker of Korean Protestantism at the time and the dean of the college, urged him to do so. Jeon remained devoted to the same school for the next 30 years, putting every effort to reform the Korean church and to raise the theological knowledge of pastors so they could participate in global conversations.

Gim Gyeongjae, a professor at Hanshin University, notes that though Jeon was a scholar belonging to the first generation of Korean New Testament scholars in the 20th century, he was most of all a dogmatic biblical theologian who adhered to the evangelical-reformed theology represented by Barth. In other words, he believed that the ultimate goal of theology is to serve the Church’s proclamation of the Word.[16] Barth’s Reformed theology inspired Jeon Geongyeon to clarify the Church’s proclamation of the kerygma, to which the Bible testifies, by systematically pursuing and clarifying the historical revelation of God.[17]

In debates with Yun Seongbeom, Heo Hyeok, and others over the indigenization of the Christian gospel in Korean Christianity, he deeply realized the necessity of introducing the central themes of theology, as well as the work of major theologians from ancient times to the present.[18] Therefore, he began publishing the Evangelical Theology Series in 1964 at his own expense.

To begin, Jeon first translated and published three of Barth’s important books: The New World in the Bible, Selection of Grace and Gospel and Law, and Humanism and Culture. He also collaborated with Bak Bongrang to translate and publish Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope, and other major works and included them in his Evangelical Theology Series. In other words, he was alert to the fact that many initiatives started from the missionary desire to seriously consider the specificity of the Korean situation ultimately led to debates over the indigenous (and/or contextual) Korean Christianity. He played a role as a person who used the Bible and Barth’s theology to illuminate the meaning and limitations of Bultmann’s interpretation of the Bible, Minjung theology, indigenous theology, and religious pluralism.[19] Jeon Geongyeon always addressed the most important theological themes of the time, and introduced the related theological works for Korean audiences.[20]

In addition, Jeon was a New Testament scholar who closely collaborated with the New Testament scholars in the United States, Britain, and Germany and represents one direction of Korean New Testament scholarship. He presented the three goals for the development of Korean biblical theology as follows: 1) establishment of tradition, 2) publication of Korean translation of the Bible, 3) publication of commentaries.[21] With these clear goals in mind, Jeon published Introduction to the New Testament in 1955 and The New Testament Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew in 1958. He also took the lead in the translation of the New Testament from 1961 to 1965 and published a new Korean translation of the New Testament in 1967. This Bible was the first Bible translated directly from the original language, written in modern language, and published with horizontal writing.[22]

Jeon Geongyeon wrote about 30 books in his lifetime including A Study of the Epistle to the Romans, commentaries on First and Second Corinthians, and a commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. In addition, he translated and published 45 books (including 33 books in his Evangelical Theology Series). He contributed greatly to the development of the Korean theological circles by serving as the president of the Korea Association of Christian Studies, the president of the New Testament Society of Korea, the chairman of the New Testament Translation Committee, Dean of the Graduate School of Hanshin University, and a Board member of Ewha Womans University.

In addition 4to his writing, Jeon was a pioneer in Christian social action. In 1965, Bak Jeonghui’s military government, which took power through the military coup in 1961, was pursuing talks with Korea to normalize diplomatic relations between the two nations. The move was prompted by the Japanese offer to fund economic development by giving South Korea three hundred million dollars, free of charge, and by granting a loan of two hundred million dollars to compensate for what happened during Japanese colonial rule. Many perceived the negotiations as humiliating because they ignored important issues such as the forced inscription of Koreans into the Japanese military and the matter of Korean comfort women. In the Korean church, Gim Jaejun, Han Gyeongjik, Ham Seokheon, and Jang Junha organized a committee against the Korea-Japan Talks. The co-chairs of the committee were Kim and Han, Jeon was the General Secretary. This event ultimately led to Korean Christians social participation.[23]

The government labeled the professors who participated in the opposition movement as “political professors” and ordered the Ministry of Education to dismiss them from national and private universities. As a result, Jeon Geongyeon lost his professorship at Korea Theology College and spent two and a half years facing economically difficult times.[24] Even so, he studied the epistle to the Romans during that intermission and wrote a 450-page commentary on the book. He also spent a year as a research professor at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1967. After he resumed his position at Korea Theology College in 1969, he was recognized as a leading figure in theological studies. For example, in 1977 when he was 60 years old, he served as a research professor at the University of Tübingen in Germany, studying with many prominent New Testament Scholars.[25]

Jeon Geongyeon has been recognized as exemplary in ministry. He was a great scholar, but he was not settled in the ivory tower. Since the day of his return from the United States, he engaged in Christian ministry. He planted Gyeongseo church in 1956 and Seongbuk church in 1963. In the latter case, he also donated a building site (worth over 15 million dollars in present value) to help build the church. In other words, Jeon always regarded the relationship between theology and ministry as inseparable. He believed that theology was always for the church, and put into practice the teaching of Barth who defined theology as scholarship for the right proclamation of the church.[26]

The secularization of the Korean Church, and the perceived diminishment of its message, inspired Jeon Geongyeon to devote his materials, time, and passion to rebuild the church so that it could proclaim God’s Word and administer the sacraments rightly. He wanted the church to become the place where the work of salvation happens. Jeon is the only person who, as a seminary professor, served as chairperson for North Seoul Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea. He confessed: “I believe that I live in front of Jesus every day. I suffer from my conscience shaking in front of Jesus, and in the encounter with his noble personality, I shed the tears of repentance and feel the ethical responsibility.”[27]5

Upon his retirement in 1981, Jeon donated numerous books and a scholarship of $100,000 (worth over two million dollars in present value) for the students in Hanshin University. He passed away on November 30, 2004 and, according to his will, his family donated all condolence money as scholarships to Hanshin University and Seongbuk church.[28] Jeon Geongyeon and Gim Bonghwa had three sons, and the first son, Sangyun, is a senior pastor of a church in the United States. The second son, Sangmyeon, holds a Ph.D. and teaches at Hoseo University, and his third son, Sanggeon, is a senior pastor of Seokgwang Church in Korea.[29]

His students testify about him as follows: First, he was gentle, humble, and sincere, possessing a righteous character with strong conviction. Second, Jeon Geongyeon lived a life embodying puritan sincerity, self-discipline, poverty and self-control, which is proved through his life of generous dedication and sacrifice for the expansion of God’s kingdom. Third, he was a great scholar and mentor in the Korean theological circles and his lifelong accomplishments in various fields such as New Testament theology, Dogmatics, and Reformation theology have been phenomenal.[30] They evaluate him as one who, against the tide of his time, disregarded the desire for power and honor, choosing to know only Christ and to serve the Church through scholarship.[31] He lived the gospel-centered life of Jesus Christ as a true theologian, true pastor, and true teacher.[32]

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Written by Duse Lee

[1] Yeongseok O, “Haengu Jeon Geongyeon gyosuui salmgwa sin-yagsinhag-ui segye [The Life of Haengu Geongyeon Jeon and the World of the New Testament Theology],” in Geu buleusim-ui sang-eul eod-eulyeogo [Toward the Goal to Win the Prize], ed. Jin-han Seo (Seoul: The Christian Literature Society of Korea, 2014), 78-79.

[2] “Hyeongseol-ui gongjeog: hagchang-ui gippeunnal dollim [The Fruits of Diligent Study: News on Graduation],” The Dong-A Ilbo, March 10, 1934. Accessed January 20, 2017. http://newslibrary.naver.com/viewer/index.nhn?articleId=1934031000209103005&editNo=2&printCount=1&publishDate=1934-03-10&officeId=00020&pageNo=3&printNo=4759&publishType=00010

[3] Geongyeon Jeon, “Naui sinhagsueobgwa sin-yaghag-ui segye [My Theological Education and the World of the New Testament Theology],” in Geu buleusim-ui sang-eul eod-eulyeogo [Toward the Goal to Win the Prize], 14.

[4] Geongyeon Jeon, Sin-ang-ui yusan [The Heritage of Faith] (Seoul: Hanshin University Press, 1996), 370.

[5] Yeongseok O, “Haengu Jeon Geongyeon gyosuui salmgwa sin-yagsinhag-ui segye [The Life of Haengu Geongyeon Jeon and the World of the New Testament Theology],” 87.

[6] Geongyeon Jeon, “Naui sinhagsueobgwa sin-yaghag-ui segye [My Theological Education and the World of the New Testament Theology],” 16-17.

[7] Yeongseok O, “Haengu Jeon Geongyeon gyosuui salmgwa sin-yagsinhag-ui segye [The Life of Haengu Geongyeon Jeon and the World of the New Testament Theology],” 79-80.

[8] Geongyeon Jeon, “Naui sinhagsueobgwa sin-yaghag-ui segye [My Theological Education and the World of the New Testament Theology],” 16.

[9] Geongyeon Jeon, Sin-ang-ui yusan [The Heritage of Faith], 371.

[10] Bonghwa Gim, “Onjeonke hasoseo – naui nampyeon, Jeon Geongyeon bagsawaui salm [May Be Proficient – The Life with My Husband, Dr. Geongyeon Jeon],” in Geu buleusim-ui sang-eul eod-eulyeogo [Toward the Goal to Win the Prize], 150.

[11] Geongyeon Jeon, Sin-ang-ui yusan [The Heritage of Faith], 374.

[12] Geongyeon Jeon, “Naui sinhagsueobgwa sin-yaghag-ui segye [My Theological Education and the World of the New Testament Theology],” 18. See also the list of the faculty of Boston University School of Theology at http://www.bu.edu/sth-history/faculty/faculty-of-boston-university-1945-1972/.

[13] Ibid., 24-25.

[14] Ibid., 20. The dissertation is available at Boston University School of Theology Library. http://buprimo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/primo_library/libweb/action/display.do;jsessionid=9CB0A527B10D1F53ABA311F5876422A7?tabs=requestTab&ct=display&fn=search&doc=ALMA_BOSU121680666680001161&indx=1&recIds=ALMA_BOSU121680666680001161&recIdxs=0&elementId=0&renderMode=poppedOut&displayMode=full&frbrVersion=&frbg=&vl(272876225UI1)=all_items&&vl(173035485UI0)=any&dscnt=0&vl(1UIStartWith0)=contains&scp.scps=scope%3A%28AZBOSU%29%2Cscope%3A%28BOSU%29%2Cscope%3A%28LawLibGuides%29%2Cscope%3A%28CRBU%29%2Cscope%3A%28ALMA_BOSU1%29%2Cscope%3A%28buLibGuides%29%2Cscope%3A%28OpenBU%29%2Cprimo_central_multiple_fe&tb=t&vid=BU&mode=Basic&srt=rank&tab=default_tab&dum=true&vl(freeText0)=%28THE%20RESURRECTION%20OF%20JESUS%20IN%20LUKE%20ACTS%29%20AND%20%28IN%20THE%20FIFTEENTH%20CHAPTER%20OF%20FIRST%20CORINTHIANS%29&dstmp=1484956374645

[15] Bonghwa Gim, “Onjeonke hasoseo – naui nampyeon, Jeon Geongyeon bagsawaui salm [May Be Proficient – The Life with My Husband, Dr. Geongyeon Jeon],” 150-151.

[16] Gyeongjae Gim, “Gaehyeogpa sinhag-ui bog-eum-eul galeuchyeojusin seonsaengnim [Teacher Who Taught the Gospel of Reformed Theology],” in Geu buleusim-ui sang-eul eod-eulyeogo [Toward the Goal to Win the Prize], 174-175.

[17] Yeongseok O, “Haengu Jeon Geongyeon gyosuui salmgwa sin-yagsinhag-ui segye [The Life of Haengu Geongyeon Jeon and the World of the New Testament Theology],” 90.

[18] Sunyeong Bak, “Jeon Geongyeon gyosuui hangug seongseohaeseoghag yeonguui banghyangseoljeong-e daehayeo [On Professor Geongyeon Jeon’s Direction of Research of Korean Biblical Hermeneutics],” in Geu buleusim-ui sang-eul eod-eulyeogo [Toward the Goal to Win the Prize], 114-130. See also, Sunyeol Song, “The Inheritance of the Faith: A Footstep of the Hang-U, Jeon, Kyung Yun’s Academic Achievements,” Sinhag-yeongu [Theological Studies] 58, (May 2011): 12-15.

[19] Sunam Gim, “Nae salm-ui usan, Jeon Geongyeon bagsanim [The Mentor of My Life, Dr. Geongyeon Jeon],” in Geu buleusim-ui sang-eul eod-eulyeogo [Toward the Goal to Win the Prize], 204.

[20] Yeongseok O, “Haengu Jeon Geongyeon gyosuui salmgwa sin-yagsinhag-ui segye [The Life of Haengu Geongyeon Jeon and the World of the New Testament Theology],” 92.

[21] Ibid., 93.

[22] Sunam Gim, “Nae salm-ui usan, Jeon Geongyeon bagsanim [The Mentor of My Life, Dr. Geongyeon Jeon],” 205.

[23] Byeonggeum Jeon, “Jeongchigyosulo haejigdoeeo apeum-eul gyeokk-eun Jeon Geongyeon bagsanim

[Dr. Geongyeon Jeon Who was Branded as Polifessor, Lost His Professorship, and Suffered],” in Geu buleusim-ui sang-eul eod-eulyeogo [Toward the Goal to Win the Prize], 299.

[24] Geongyeon Jeon, “Naui sinhagsueobgwa sin-yaghag-ui segye [My Theological Education and the World of the New Testament Theology],” 34, Yeongseok O, “Ttaseuhan sigtag salang-eul silcheonhasin Jeon Gyeongyeon gyosunim bubu [Dr. Geongyeon Jeon and Bonghwa Gim Who Practiced Love around a Dining Table],” in Geu buleusim-ui sang-eul eod-eulyeogo [Toward the Goal to Win the Prize], 263.

[25] Geongyeon Jeon, “Naui sinhagsueobgwa sin-yaghag-ui segye [My Theological Education and the World of the New Testament Theology],” 34-36.

[26] Yeongseok O, “Haengu Jeon Geongyeon gyosuui salmgwa sin-yagsinhag-ui segye [The Life of Haengu Geongyeon Jeon and the World of the New Testament Theology],” 85-87.

[27] Geongyeon Jeon, Sin-ang-ui yusan [The Heritage of Faith], 18-20.

[28] Jungtaek Yi, “Ma-eum-e nam-a issneun gin yeoun [A Long Lingering Heart],” in Geu buleusim-ui sang-eul eod-eulyeogo [Toward the Goal to Win the Prize], 282.

[29] Bonghwa Gim, “Onjeonke hasoseo – naui nampyeon, Jeon Geongyeon bagsawaui salm [May Be Proficient – The Life with My Husband, Dr. Geongyeon Jeon],” 158.

[30] Yeongseok O, “Ttaseuhan sigtag salang-eul silcheonhasin Jeon Geongyeon gyosunim bubu [Dr. Geongyeon Jeon and Bonghwa Gim Who Practiced Love around a Dining Table],” 265.

[31] Gyunjin Gim, “Naui yeong-wonhan sapyoga doesineun Jeon Geongyeon gyosunim [My Eternal Guiding Star, Professor Geongyeon Jeon,” in Geu buleusim-ui sang-eul eod-eulyeogo [Toward the Goal to Win the Prize], 181.

[32] Gyusik Yeo, “Yeogie gijang-gwa hansin-ui salgil-i issda [Here Is a Way of Living for the Korean Presbyterian Church and Hanshin University],” in Geu buleusim-ui sang-eul eod-eulyeogo [Toward the Goal to Win the Prize], 256.