Daniel and Three Men of the Cloth
Updated: Feb 27
In this blog post, Daniel Szabo reflects on Janos Peter and Tibor Bartha, bishops in Debrecen, Hungary’s Reformed “Jerusalem.” Szabo also considers the role Albert Bereczky played as the bishop in Budapest. Reformed bishops wielded power and had a decisive, many would say negative, impact on the Hungarian Reformed Church.
I have been struck by the fact that all three men described here were affiliated with
the Renewal movement. Like Daniel’s father, they were men whose vision of the gospel included all of life. I suppose that in some way, they were Kuyperian in that they responded to the needs of the poor and society’s forgotten. So perhaps, their move left into the communist camp is not entirely surprising.
Janos Peter was the Debrecen Bishop when I became a student at the seminary there. He was a man of deeply held values and great talent. In Paris Peter’s French knowledge earned the highest award given to foreigners, and he was also awarded a stipendium to study in Canada. Like Bishop Bereczky, he lost his liberty and freedom when once enmeshed in the system, he began to issue statements and sign letters that contradicted his earlier beliefs. The authorities used devious techniques, including psychological profiling, to snare their men and keep them in their clutches. Only those who were 100 percent obedient to the system were allowed to operate in a seemingly free way, but even so, some of them were not considered entirely reliable.
You could see that it was impossible for Janos Peter to act solely as a servant of the state. He was not able to totally separate himself from his Reformed Christian roots and the church in which he had served before he became deputy minister. So as soon as he did not give 100 percent to the new order, he was put aside, and demoted to the position of deputy chair of the Hungarian parliament, a position equivalent only in appearance to his role as deputy foreign minister. This frightening system either used human beings absolutely for its own purposes or ground them up, while at the same time wanting nothing less than a theological justification for its ideology.
Like Janos Peter, Bartha possessed a powerful personality. The title of his Ph.D. thesis was The Homiletical Characteristics of the Theology of Karl Barth; it was very good. Later Bartha received a stipendium to study in Germany, and his knowledge of English was good, very good. He was a part of the renewal movement in Transylvania where he worked as a pastor, and he established a mission school in Transcarpathia.
As a representative of the Renewal movement, he stood in opposition to the official Reformed seminary for a long time. Sometime during that period, Bishop Janos Peter was the one who counseled and advised him. This is how Peter and Bartha became close associates, and Peter came to recognize that Bartha was a talented man. When Peter was away from his office, Bartha sometimes replaced him as a kind of secretary.
As time passed, Bartha grew close to the wider church leadership, so during the revolution in 1956, he became a target for the revolutionaries. After revolution was crushed, Bartha emerged politically stronger and followed Janos Peter as bishop in Debrecen. He was also acceptable to state officials.
It was a characteristic of the church at this time that the high leaders lived quite apart from pastors and congregations. They were untouchable, living at great distance and high above the regular church people. My father knew Bartha during the period of their common commitment to the Renewal movement. Then, my father and Bartha usually sat together in church meetings, and my father often had to warn Bartha not to mutter his opposition so loudly because it was dangerous and would draw unwanted attention to him.
Sometime later, following a meeting in Miskolc, my father was traveling back to Debrecen on the same train as Bartha; he told him that the changes in him were not good. Bartha told my father that it was an easy change and that a great deal of water had flowed down the river since their earlier time together. It was apparent that Bartha had changed
What could have caused these changes in Bartha’s worldview? Perhaps Bartha had a vision about the system in the 1950s and the changes right after WW II that is similar to a historical philosophical view that was accepted by Janos Peter as well. There were those that believed that the changes were not just changes of society and the political structure, but a kind of revelation from God – and there would be some victims. I haven’t heard this from their mouths, and I hope they never spoke this way.
However, the political ideologists of the system talked about it hundreds of times, asserting that one cannot look at these changes on a small level. They said that one has to accept the fact that there have to be victims of these socio-political changes, changes that were leading us to a heavenly state on earth, communism. Victims were a necessary evil that must be accepted before human kind could reach this paradise. They didn’t care that it meant the destruction of over 100,000,000 people. They did not hesitate to kill those within the system who offered opposition. Even some church leaders accepted these deaths because they believed that this system was a kind of revelation from God.
Bereczky’s position as bishop was a sort of political job within the ministry of culture, a political secretary of the minister of culture. This is why he regularly had to go to the state authorities and report to them. In a closed circle not for the public of church officials, he once said that we had to be very cautious and careful with the actions of the church because he was a frightened man, and his fear led the way he governed the church. He was terrorized, and his inner fears determined his decisions and actions within the church.
In addition, Bereczsky also had a personality like that of Tibor Bartha; they both gladly assumed a prophetic posture. Professor Torok, who honored the talents of both Bereczsky and Bartha, once told Bereczky, “Please do not play a role of a prophet because the things you are doing, my dear Albert, are not truly prophetic.” Bereczsky replied, “I don’t want to be a prophet.” Torok said to him, “Then, don’t let others make a prophet out of you.”
Bereczky was often photographed in newspapers with his eyes raised above with a pose of serious significance. The papers also liked to exhibit him in his revelational pose. When he was ordered by the revolutionaries to give up his bishop’s mandate in 1956, he was already a sick man, but – this was also typical of him – in spite of his sickness, he could not give up his status, even though physically he was incapacitated. Once they were in the system, there was no way for people like Bereczsky to get out.