22 February 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.

14 February 2013

Singing the Psalms through adversity: Hungary

The following appeared in the 11 February issue of Christian Courier as part of my monthly "Principalities & Powers" column:

I love the Hungarian people. Among their many national virtues, they boast some of the greatest musicians, such as Béla Bartók (1881-1945) and Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967), who did so much to shape 20th-century music by drawing on their country’s unique folk idioms. There is a substantial Reformed Christian minority in Hungary, and they are well known for their love of singing the Psalms. In fact, it can be justly argued that psalm-singing carried them through four decades of communist tyranny.

Last year saw the 450th anniversary of the completion of the Genevan Psalter. Although the Psalter’s texts were originally written in French verse, they were quickly thereafter translated into a number of other languages, including German, Dutch, Czech and Hungarian. The remarkable polymath, Albert Szenczi Molnár (1574-1634), was responsible for the Hungarian version. A pastor, linguist, poet, writer and translator, Molnár (whose surname means miller) was born in Senec (Szenc), near what is today the Slovak capital of Bratislava, and would come to exercise a formative influence on the development of the Hungarian language.

Molnár travelled widely during his life, visiting and studying in a number of European centres associated with the Reformation. His metrical translation of the Psalms was inspired by the German-language Psalter of Ambrosius Lobwasser and was published in Herborn in 1607. (The Reformed Christian legal theorist Johannes Althusius had published his Politics in Herborn a few years earlier but had moved to Emden before Molnár's arrival.) Molnár died in Kolozsvár in Hungarian Transylvania, now Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

Amazingly, Molnár is reputed to have completed his translation of the Genevan Psalms in less than 100 days, which must surely set a speed record, given that this would require him to translate at least a psalm-and-a-half per day. Molnár’s texts have stood the test of time and are still sung by Hungarians today. The extent to which they are sung can be judged by the increasing numbers of performances posted to such sites as youtube, the sheer number of which might lead the casual observer to assume that the entire Hungarian nation is organized into hundreds of thousands of choral groups.

One of the best-known of these is the Cantus choir of the Reformed College in Debrecen, a major centre of Reformed Christianity in eastern Hungary. The College was founded in 1538, and the Cantus in 1739. The Cantus has recorded choral performances of the Psalms, including Kodály’s arrangements of Psalms 33, 50, 114, 121, 124, 126 and 150, whose continuing popularity appears to be undimmed by the passing of the years.

Hungary suffered much in the 20th century. In 1920, following its loss in the Great War, it was deprived of nearly three-quarters of its territory, leaving nearly a third of Hungarian-speakers in the new states of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, as well as in a newly enlarged Romania. During the Second World War it suffered under a pro-fascist government, followed by 40 years of communism, interrupted in 1956 by a failed effort at freedom quickly crushed by Soviet tanks. However, once Mikhail Gorbachev ended Moscow’s sphere of influence over its “allies,” Hungary was the first to move towards democracy and to begin dismantling the Iron Curtain.

After the chains of oppression had fallen away, outsiders discovered that Hungarians were still singing from the Genfi zsoltár, their sturdy voices ringing out their complaints, petitions, thanksgivings and praises to God, despite the efforts of an officially atheistic régime at silencing them. Small wonder, then, that many of us admire the Hungarians, so many of whom have persisted in giving voice to God’s Psalms in the face of such adversity.

05 February 2013

Gerson on Obama

Yesterday's Washington Post carried this article by Michael Gerson: Obama’s new contraception rules try to fool Catholics. This is in response to President Obama's latest effort to soften the impact of the Health and Human Services mandate, which many see as a threat to religious freedom. Gerson's final paragraphs are worth reading:

But President Obama’s policy does not strike me as cynical. Disturbing, but not cynical. The administration has never shown a particularly high regard for institutional religious liberty. Obama’s Justice Department, in last year’s Hosanna-Tabor case, argued that there should be no “ministerial exception” at all — a contention the Supreme Court labeled “amazing.” In this case, the administration views access to contraception as an individual right to be guaranteed by the government, and institutional religious rights as an obstacle and inconvenience. But the First Amendment, it is worth remembering, was designed as an obstacle and inconvenience to the government.

All this is evidence of a deeper debate. Liberalism, back to John Locke, has understood religion to be a fundamentally private matter. It has a difficult time understanding the existence of loyalties outside the law, and often views them as dangerous (unless the demands of faith are harmless and picturesque, like the Amish). But this is not the way many religious people understand religion. They view it as the grounding for a vision of justice, and the source of standards for a community of believers.

It has been part of the American miracle to balance individual rights with institutional religious freedom — a difficult task for which the Obama administration shows little appetite. So now it falls to the courts.

What I find remarkable about this is that, unlike many Americans, Gerson clearly discerns the ambiguous influence on his country of John Locke, a conventionally religious 17th-century philosopher who nevertheless sought to recast state, church and marriage alike as voluntary associations, thereby emptying them of their distinctive institutional characters. Such refashioning called for the privatization of ultimate religious beliefs, ironically in the name of tolerance. One hopes that the Obama administration will come to recognize religious freedom, not as exceptional, but as basic to doing public justice. Thus far the prospects do not look especially promising.

Given this context, I commend strongly the work of my friend Stanley Carlson-Thies and the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, whose declared purpose is "safeguarding the faith of faith-based organizations." IRFA deserves our prayers and support.

Kuyper in caricature

Cartoonists have long loved to take on our political leaders, who have a tendency to take themselves entirely too seriously. From Thomas Nast more than a century ago to Herblock more recently, editorial cartoonists have delighted generations of readers with their biting visual commentary on our politicians and the issues they are elected to address. The great Abraham Kuyper, who served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands between 1901 and 1905, was lampooned as often as any other politician of his era, as indicated in this book, which I discovered today: Kuyper in de caricatuur. Enjoy!

01 February 2013

God's mysterious ways

Peter Leithart calls our attention to a rather remarkable phenomenon: Islam and Jesus, drawing on this article in Charisma Magazine: Why Revival is Exploding Among Muslims. Read the entire piece, which illustrates vividly that God works in powerful and unexpected ways to bring people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.


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