22 Feb 2013

The Hungarian Reformed Church

Many North American Christians are unaware that the Reformation had an impact in east central Europe. Hungary was one of the countries affected by it, and this influence has lasted to the present. The Reformed Church in Hungary has a number of unique characteristics setting it apart from other churches. Its confessional standards are the ecumenical Heidelberg Catechism and the Second Helvetic Confession. It is one of only two explicitly Reformed churches to have bishops, although these bishops are little more than district superintendents and make no claim to be in apostolic succession. In fact, as its website puts it, "the church exists in its congregations." It is a member of the World Communion of Reformed Churches. As the map indicates, the Reformed Church encompasses congregations scattered throughout the pre-1920 Lands of the Crown of St. Stephen, which extend from the Adriatic in the west to the Carpathian Mountains in the east, and from the borders of Poland in the north to those of Serbia in the south. In Hungary proper Reformed Christians make up the second largest church body after the Roman Catholic Church, while in Romanian Transylvania, they make up the largest Hungarian-speaking church denomination.

Why are Reformed Christians so concentrated in the east? These were the lands controlled by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century, whereas western Hungary was under the rule of the Austrian Habsburgs. The Habsburgs imposed the Counter-Reformation within their territories, while the Ottoman authorities were rather more tolerant of religious diversity within their lands. (Recall that they had taken in the Jews expelled from Ferdinand and Isabella's Spain in 1492.) Thus the Reformation flourished in the latter but was suppressed in the former.

A dozen years ago I guest lectured at one of Redeemer's sister universities. There I encountered a student in one of the classes who had a Hungarian name but carried a Romanian passport. He was a Reformed Christian who lived in a region of Romania with an ethnic Hungarian majority. Despite his Romanian passport, he told me that he felt himself to be Hungarian, which, as I understand it, is not atypical of the Hungarian-speaking populations in Romania. Thus to be a Reformed Christian in that country brings with it a Hungarian identity as well.

The geographic distance between the Hungarian Reformed and other Reformed Christians is undoubtedly exacerbated by linguistic distance as well. Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric language related to Finnish and Estonian but completely unrelated to the Indo-European languages surrounding it in central Europe. I have considerable admiration for such people as Frank and Aria Sawyer, who teach at the Sárospatak Reformed Theological Academy and long ago mastered this difficult language.

In North America the Hungarian Reformed are represented in two bodies: the Hungarian Reformed Church in America and the Calvin Synod, a confessional body within the United Church of Christ. Reformed Christians in Hungary still sing the Genevan Psalms in Albert Szenczi Molnár's 16th-century versifications. If their North American counterparts have given this up, they would certainly do well to re-appropriate a tradition that has served their brethren in the old country so well over the centuries. If they should ever look for a usable English translation, I would be happy to provide them with one, however partial it may be at present.

Incidentally, although I have no known close Hungarian family relationships, my genealogical records indicate that my wife, daughter and I are all lineal descendants of Kings Geza I through Istvan V of Hungary.


Chris said...

Does the Reformed Church in Hungary also practice paedocommunion? I wondered if that was another practice unique to this branch of the Reformed Church. My understanding was that the Hussite churches practiced paedocommunion.

David Koyzis said...

I have posed your question to a minister in the Calvin Synod, and he says that, to his knowledge, the church in Hungary does not practise paedocommunion.

Stephen said...

The Hungarian Reformed Church is a fascinating subject, yet in comparison to (say) the Dutch Reformed churches it is relatively unknown outside the country. I know a little since my wife is Hungarian Reformed. As far as I know it is the only Reformed Church which has survived more or less intact, without splits, since the Reformation period.

Another thing that is interesting is that in addition to the confessional standards you mention, the Church in Transylvania still makes use of Luther's Small Catechism.

As for communion, the usual practice is that children (previously baptised) undergo confirmation around the age of 12-13, and are then admitted to the table.


David Koyzis said...

Thank you, Stephen (or Istvan?). My friend in the Calvin Synod received this response from a colleague in Hungary who is apparently a descendant of Molnár: children are communed "only after confirmation, around Pentecost, about age 14, although some have been confirmed at age 12, we always have chosen age 14."

It is remarkable that a Reformed Church has remained intact institutionally for nearly five centuries, especially when one considers all the negative forces, such as communism, which could have produced multiple schisms.

As for Luther's Small Catechism being used by the Church in Transylvania, I think I must have known that at some point, although it strikes me as a little odd given the differences between this and the Heidelberg, e.g., in the numbering of the Ten Commandments. How would they go about reconciling the divergences between the two?

David Koyzis said...

Might the presence of Luther's Catechism amongst the Hungarians' confessional standards indicate that this church dates from before the final split between Lutherans and Reformed?

Stephen said...

Hi David, I'm not Hungarian myself, so no I'm just plain Stephen.

Your friend is probably right about 14 years being the age, I was taking my best guess from what I have personally observed.

Some have postulated that the lack of major splits actually owes something to the persecution of the communist years - it helped keep the people together. Certainly in Transylvania to this day, the Reformed Church still plays a key role in maintaining (Hungarian) identity.

My understanding of Luther's SC is that it is used in some parts of Transylvania proper, not all. In fact I would like to research more into the history of this myself! So I'm afraid I can't answer your question about the inconsistency in numbering. But my hunch is that, as you suggest, some of the practice goes back a long way and reflects a time before the final Lutheran/Reformed split.

David Koyzis said...

Stephen, I know there is a distinct Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hungary proper. Is there one in Transylvania, or do the Reformed represent the only protestant presence there?

Stephen said...

David, Yes, the Evangelical Lutheran Church exists in Transylvania too, but it is very small compared to the Reformed Church. There are friendly relations between the Protestant churches, seen for example in the fact that the Reformed, Lutheran and, somewhat interestingly, Unitarian, churches share a Theological college in Kolosvar (Cluj). The Lutherans in my wife's home town have an afternoon service in the Reformed Church (no building of their own).

David Koyzis said...

Stephen, is this the Kolozsvári Református Kollégium or a different institution? It seems rather odd that the Unitarians would be part of it as well. Would you say that the Reformed and Lutherans in that part of the world maintain their respective confessional distinctives?

Stephen said...

David, Yes, that's the one. Some info here:

The Unitarians seem to have had a strong presence in Transylvania. I share your surprise! What is not clear to me is the extent to which a common theological training is received, or perhaps faculty members are specific to the churches.

Yes, I would say confessional distinctives are maintained. The Heidelberg catechism is taught for confirmation, and ordinands are examined on it.

One thing I missed in my earlier reply is that in addition to the Hungarian-speaking Lutheran church, there is also a Saxon Lutheran church in Transylvania.

Baus said...

Note too that the "Közép- és Kelet Európai Református Presbiteriánus Egyház" (or
Reformed Presbyterian Church of Central and Eastern Europe) is a continuation of faithful orthodox Hungarian Reformed churches, which organized after the the "communist regime change".