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  • Beth Lantinga


What Happened in Hungary

Daniel Szabo - June 2003

This post marks a shift away from Romania and Ukraine to Hungary and the testimonies of Daniel Szabo and Joszef Berenyi. Like the others we interviewed, their lives were dramatically altered by the communist regime. Daniel Szabo’s desire to become a pastor grew during his days in a Reformed seminary, but his courageous criticism of changes in the Reformed church leadership led to his expulsion from the seminary. Though he was never ordained, he never stopped serving the Lord in extraordinary ways.

Joszef Berenyi - June 2003

Joszef Berenyi was the pastor of a large Reformed church bursting at the seams during the Renewal movement that swept through Hungary after World War II. His effectiveness drew the attention of government officials who demanded that church authorities do something about him. Had Hungarian Reformed Church (HRC) leaders defrocked Rev. Berenyi, it might have created a backlash against them. Instead, to silence him, the church leadership sent him packing him to a tiny village far away from any city and any large audience. There his family lived primarily by subsistence farming and regularly endured terrifying midnight inspections and interrogations.

Though Daniel Szabo and Joszef Berenyi encountered fear and moments of terror, their stories reveal another thread. Woven into theirs is the story of HRC insurgents. Following the revelations at the end of WWII, they were ashamed of their church’s failure to stop Hungary’s Holocaust. Though their worldview was only peripherally acceptable to the communist regime, some of them became tools of the regime and cooperated in the unseating of the HRC’s elected leaders. Some took up the church’s leadership positions themselves. These new, openminded leaders were the ones who handled both Szabo and Berenyi.

As I listened to their stories and recalled brief references from others we had interviewed, I decided to look more closely at the recent history of the HRC. It seems that during the 20th century varying influences had shaped the church. The evangelistic Christian Renewal movement called Bethania swept through Protestant churches in Europe and attracted many Reformed folk too. The HRC also received Dutch theologians associated with the World Council of Churches and welcomed Karl Barth more than once. Another influential contingent had a strong Kuyperian voice that claimed God’s ownership of every square inch of human experience.

It became apparent that these influences were reflected in seven different forms of faith or general categories within the Hungarian Reformed church of the late 1940. Some of these exist in one shape or another still today. As I considered these general categories, they seemed to me to form a circle of faith, with one morphing into the next. As you read the coming stories of Szabo and Berenyi, perhaps you can imagine where they might have landed on the circle. From their stories you might also conclude that the Hungarian Reformed Church leadership inhabited a different space.

To Be Hungarian Reformed Could Mean . . .

Rationally Reformed - claimed historical ties to the Reformed church and integrate enlightenment rationalism into their understanding of being Christian. Faith might be defined as rational assent to propositions with analysis and higher criticism representing the most revered theological activity. The life of faith was primarily the life the mind.

Culturally Reformed – considered a Reformed identity as nearly synonymous with loyalty to Hungarian culture. Faith’s primary influence is seen in the preservation of traditional church holidays, weddings, and funerals.

Classically Reformed - embraced traditional theology and were serious about traditional worship and Christian living. The Christian walk was primarily on the Hungarian path.

Classical/Renewal - shared the traditional understanding of being Reformed but with personal, spiritual renewal aspects. Unlike the previous groups, those with this perspective might publically discuss faith and God’s goodness.

Renewal - focused on personal faith and Christian living. Their loyalty to Hungarian culture takes second place to their Christian identity. Members of this group might look for ways to bridge cultural and regional differences, relying on the power of the Spirit.

Renewal/Justice – took seriously the claims of the New Testament. Faith and trust in a loving God overflowed with good works They created programs to address social needs and built institutions to care for widows and orphans.

Social Justice - Creating the kingdom on earth was their preoccupation and usually, political ills and oppressive social structures were their main targets. Social, not theological criticism marked their approach. They looked for explicit direction in Jesus’ words and deeds, especially the language of service and justice. Their preoccupation was with the here and now. Faith meant action.

I realize that, given the history of my Reformed “family” with roots in the Netherlands, it should come as no surprise that within the HRC there were and continue to be different understandings of what it means to be a Reformed Christian. But it might come as a surprise to learn that the HRC has not emulated its Dutch neighbors and split into rival denominations. Some describe the HRC as an umbrella with many spokes that form a protective shield for its members. I hope the it can weather the storms of the 21st century.


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