A short overview of the history of the Theological Institute

The Protestant Churches (Reformed, Lutheran and Unitarian) represent a minority among the people living in Romania (ca. 3.6% of the total population is a member of these churches). The Protestant Churches which are closely connected to the Hungarian-speaking inhabitants appear typically (though not exclusively) in the Transylvanian region. According to the census from 2011, there are more than 700,000 Reformed Protestants (ca. 95% Hungarian-speaking), about 67,000 Unitarians (ca. 97% Hungarian-speaking), and about 27,000 Lutherans (ca. 56% Hungarian-speaking). By way of comparison, there are about 18,800,000 Romanian Orthodox (86%) and 1,025,000 Roman Catholics (ca. 4.7%, about 57% Hungarian-speaking).

Concise historical overview

Romania has three large provinces today: Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania. Through the centuries, these territories developed in very different ways. Moldavia and Wallachia were constituent parts of the Byzantine civilization, culture and everyday life, its political thinking was formed by the Byzantine culture. Transylvania was part of the Hungarian kingdom for a long time. During the reign of King Stephan I. (969-1038), the Hungarian civilization came to be thoroughly influenced by the western civilisation. The Roman Catholic Church got its grip on Hungary during the reign of Stephen I. The first Christian Hungarian king linked Hungary, including Transylvania, to the intellectual and cultural life of Europe of the Middle Ages. Thus the Carpathian Mountains served as a demarcation line of the western European and eastern Byzantine culture and church.

In 1859 Moldavia and Wallachia came to be united under one principality, and as a result of political negotiations, in 1918 Transylvania was detached from Hungary and unified with the Romanian Principality. This act put together not only two different countries but also two nations with different historical, cultural and religious backgrounds. This has had a tremendous impact on the life of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania, as well as the church-life of the Protestant people. During the past century, Byzantine-styled cathedrals were built next to the six-seven centuries old gothic churches. The Hungarian speaking Protestant churches in Transylvania had to survive in their shadows.

Church history and the beginnings of the academy

The Hungarian speaking Reformed Church was founded in the 16th century (1564) as a result of the devoted work of several Hungarian reformers. The teachings of Luther and Melanchthon exerted their strongest influence among the German burger colonies of Hungary, inhabiting mainly the northern parts of Hungary and the southern parts of Transylvania. In the ranks of the Hungarian speaking population, the influence of Luther and Melanchthon was not so undisputed. Even though they were well-received, already the first Hungarian reformers showed themselves partly susceptible to the teachings of the Swiss Reformation (in the first period to Bullinger and finally to Calvin). The most prominent workers in calling the Reformed churches into being and organizing them were brilliant minds, like Martin Sánta of Kálmáncseh, a popular speaker of great originality, follower of Zwingli, Gál Huszár, an untiring traveling printer and preacher, Stephen Kis of Szeged, a confessor of great courage and learned first rank theologian, the highly gifted church organizer and controversialist, Peter Melius, minister of Debrecen and bishop. It was due especially to the influence of the last named that from 1560 onward the Hungarian Reformed Church became a separate entity both in doctrine and in organization. As a standard of doctrine and norm of religious education the Second Helvetic Confession and the Catechism of Heidelberg were accepted. It was mainly through these documents that the spirit of the Swiss Reformation cast its spell over the Hungarian soul.

Quite early at its start, between 1566 and 1571 the Transylvanian protectorate supported Unitarianism (Anti-Trinitarianism), but after this short period the Catholic Stephan Báthori became the prince of Transylvania. In spite of the clear religious affiliations of the Transylvanian princes, the earlier principle according to which each town was allowed to choose its own confession continued to be valid. The Catholic Transylvanian princes worked together with the Habsburgs, and there was a fear of re-catholisation movement. However, eventually the Reformed nobility succeeded to gain rule over Transylvania at the end of the 16th century. The Turkish supremacy favoured the Reformed Church because they formed an anti-Habsburg front.

After the theological disputes in the Reformation era had calmed down, a peaceful period followed which had positive effects on the newly established churches. This peaceful cohabitation was urged and supported by the great Calvinist Princes of the 17th century. They have founded many schools, supported congregations, built new churches and renewed old ones. Gabriel Bethlen, the greatest Prince of Transylvania, founded a university at Gyulafehervar (now Alba Iulia), where foreign teachers have participated in the academic program. Its academic status was suspended later, but it continued to function as an establishment of higher education, albeit endangered of being closed with various motivations during the centuries. Due to the Tatar and Turkish invasions this academy was moved in 1662 to Nagyenyed (now Aiud), and it continued there its activity for two and a half centuries. It supplied the Church with the necessary replacement of pastors and theologians. It ensured an excellent intellectual basis for further studies at foreign universities (the so-called academic peregrination). The number of Hungarian Reformed Protestants who attended foreign universities reaches to the thousands.

This state of affairs favourable for the Reformed Church changed after 1692, with the Habsburg occupation of Transylvania. Church buildings were confiscated and the use of the Catechism of Heidelberg was forbidden. A full re-catholicisation was prevented by the uprising against the Habsburgs in 1705-1711. The Patent of Toleration of 1781 eventually brought relief. The 18th century was characterised by an emptying of church life. The second half of the 19th century brought a radical change with different revival movements on various levels.

The structure of the church

In the 16th century the development of the Hungarian Reformed Church showed no closer connection with the characteristic ideals and demands of Calvin and his fellow reformers. Thus, e.g., two of the most powerful formative factors of the Calvinistic Reformation, its form of worship and its form of government, had never been recontextualised by the Hungarian reformers in their Church, at least they had never been taken over in their original Genevan or Huguenot-Scottish form. For a considerably long period, the form of worship of the Hungarian Reformed Churches retained certain elements characteristic to the Roman Catholic Church (such as making use of antiphons, passion-songs, and other liturgical elements), although this was obviously much less significant when compared to the worship of the Lutherans in Transylvania.

The form of government on the other hand developed along similar lines with the structure of the Lutheran Church, in spite of the complete separation in doctrine and organization. On the whole, the consistorial-superintendential system prevalent in Germany was taken over with some minor changes. The local congregations were governed by the ministers together with the landlords in the villages and the magistrates in the towns. As the most superior authorities Seniorates or Decanates were established with Seniors or Deans at their top (according to geographical coherence, or on the basis of political units, or they simply took over the former Roman Catholic dioceses-system). These seniorates were led by the Superintendencies with Superintendents as their head, who were also called bishops from the earliest times.

It was only much later, in the 17th century that the institution of elders, the presbyters of the Geneva model, began to win its way into this oldest system of Protestant church government in Hungary and Transylvania. And it was only in the 18th century that the participation of laymen in church government both in the lower and higher authorities, on an equal footing with the clergy, became universally established. (The formation of the institution of the elders proved to be a lifesaving act for the Reformed Church in some parts of the country. The exponents of the Counter-Reformation were of the opinion that, if the clerics (that is the ministers) could be eliminated from the life of a church the congregations could be turned by peremptory orders in whatever direction they pleased. But the elected presbyters formed a "second front" to defend the life of congregations bereft of their pastors for 30 or even 70 years. They were also able to practice their devotions without a minister).

Both the seniorates and the superintendencies met at Synods of their own, but no nationwide synod could be held in Reformed church. Only in 1881 could a national synod and church come into being in the Reformed Church, and even that lasted only for about 40 years, when Hungary fell apart after the peace treaty of Trianon. The Reformed Church was broken up into several parts.

Two church districts

The 20th century church life was marked by the above mentioned historical turn: Transylvania was joined to Romania in 1918. This was the cause of the separation of a Hungarian church District. Within these new circumstances, a new church grew out on Transylvanian soil having two centres, at Nagyvárad (Oradea) and Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca) respectively. After these changes, the activity of the Church came to be fully dependent of the new state-power. One of the consequences of this situation was that in 1921 the reformed bishop had to travel to Bucharest (the new capital) and vow allegiance to the government. He had to ensure the Romanian state that the Reformed Church would loyally integrate within the new state-order and that it would serve the interests of the Romanian state and nation.

From this time on, the churches fulfilled mainly cultural roles. Since the Reformation Protestant Churches had been governing many hundreds of schools and ten gymnasiums (seven in the Transylvanian Church District and three in the district of Nagyvárad). Besides their work of strengthening our church, they made serious efforts to introduce up-to-date educational and instructive methods into their educational system. They strove to make the spirit of the church relevant for Hungarian literature and for those professing natural sciences.

Church life after World War II

When the front line of the II World War was drawn up in Transylvania, the church began to feel the effects of the world-wide upheaval. Bishop Vásárhelyi made an appeal to all reformed pastors in the chaos and disorder asking them to stay firm in their congregations whatever was going to happen. He was the first to give a personal example in doing so by waiting for the Russian army right at his residence. The Russian army invaded Kolozsvár (Cluj) on the 10th of October 1944. In many places the invading Russian and Romanian soldiers made bonfire out of 16-17th century books and treasures of the church. Many people, including pastors, left their homes and fled from the insecurity and harsh life conditions. But they returned within a few months, after the danger was over. In some parts of Transylvania, evacuation was carried out by force. Almost all of those who had chosen to stay were dislocated and deported. Under these conditions the Reformed church started her work again. In an official letter dated to the spring of 1945, the Board of Directors empowered the bishop to get into contact with the Romanian Government led by Groza Peter in order to ask permission for restarting church activities. The Government acknowledged officially the Board of Directors to be the supreme government of the Hungarian Speaking Reformed Church in Transylvania. Thus the basis of the relationship between state and church has been laid. But this also meant that the state claimed the right to control the church and interfere within its work by means of territorial inspectors who for instance forbade even for the bishop to take part on some funeral services. If there was anyone to stand up and defend the freedom of church, he was immediately put away.

The Church under the Communism

During the first period of communist state and church (1945-1949) the church was allowed to work in a relative freedom. It was able to exert control over several schools. But afterwards the church lost this freedom. In 1948 a new law was issued which ordered that the churches should set up a new governing board to keep in touch with the political authorities. All agreements between this central board and the state were forcefully applied to the congregations as well. The members of this leading staff were legalized by the state. The 30th article of the law stated that even the budget of the church was subjected to the supervision of the state. If a congregation planned to build a new church, it was impossible because of lack of money. All church estates were confiscated by the communist state.

At about the end of the 40’s, communism began to take a stronger hold all over the country. The rule was taken over by the communist Party. Its atheistic Marxist ideology spread all over the country, attacking the church with increasing violence. All church schools were nationalized: the Reformed church lost more than 400 primary schools and 16 Reformed Colleges and high schools. Charity institutions were also nationalized. Religious education was forbidden in state schools and allowed to be done only by pastors on Saturdays. To make even that impossible, the state school youth organizations forced youngsters to participate on various communist activities even in the weekend.

Theological education was confined to within the walls of the Theological Institute. The building had to be shared by two other Hungarian speaking Protestant churches: the Unitarian and Lutheran. The church has reached a difficult point in its history, with times of struggle for its existence and survival.

At the beginning of the 50’s the state increased its influence upon church. The state security services appealed to bishop Vasarhelyi summoning him to renounce to building the Theological Institute. The bishop refused to comply. Following the Hungarian revolution in 1956, the state was looking for ever wilder methods to oppress the church. In Hungary people wanted to get rid of communism and they rose in arms, but the Hungarian communist party turned to the Soviet Union for help. The Russian army arrived to Hungary quelled the revolution and the terror started: thousands of executions and trials to prison were made. The influence of the revolution was felt in Romania too. The communists used this occasion to accuse the Hungarians in Romania of capital treason. They maintained that the Hungarians intended to re-join Transylvania to Hungary. The church was accused of organizing a plot against the Romanian state. Two waves of terror pushed into prison a lot of pastors, theology students and professors.

After 1964 the oppression seemed to have decreased, but this was in fact a period of silent and permanent oppression. Bibles were not allowed to be taken into the country, the publication of hymn books were reduced in number, no more church buildings were allowed to be built, the number of theological students was regulated by the state. This period of great afflictions was at the same time characterized by an enthusiastic spirit of duty among the pastors. Everyone tried to do his best in serving the church.

The Theological Faculty of Kolozsvár

The current building of the Protestant Theological Institute is a little more than one hundred years old but the institution of training pastors is much older. In 1622 Gabriel Bethlen, prince of Transylvania, founded the Reformed Collegium Academicum in Gyulafehérvár (now Alba Iulia). In 1662 this was moved to Nagyenyed (Aiud). In the middle of the 19th century the leaders of the church were convinced that the Academy should be moved to Kolozsvár (Cluj). In 1871 a university was founded in Kolozsvár without a theological faculty. Two decades later, the Reformed Church took the decision to build a centre for theological training in this city. It was here in 1895 that the Theological Faculty of the Evangelically Reformed Church started its activity. The old school in Nagyenyed lived on as church-based gymnasium.

During the first 20 years after its establishment, the academy experienced rapid development. It occupied an honorary position in the scientific life of our country. The change of empire in 1920 brought about a new period. Having been cut off from the Hungarian culture, a new start was needed. The internal mission of the Reformed Church in the 20's and 30's can be compared to the revival in the era of the reformation. Indeed, it actually was a new reformation after a long period of liberalism.

The importance of the theological renewal of the Institute is shown by the fact that between 1918 and 1940 the Institute received more than 1900 students from the Transylvanian district, more than 500 from the district of Nagyvárad, about 144 from Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Hungary 113, and about 144 from the German and Hungarian speaking Lutheran church in Transylvania.

After the Second World War communist rule exercised an even more penetrating influence on the life of the academy. In 1949 the administrative fusion of the Reformed Theological Faculty with the Unitarian Theological Seminary and the recently founded Theological College of the Transylvanian Saxons followed. Although the new Protestant Theological Institute supported ecumenism, it was introduced under the pressure of the state and since that time it was submitted to constant state control gaining back its freedom after the Romanian revolution of 1989.