The Hungarian Reformed Bishops (with a special guest)

Stephen Nichols (SN): Today, we are welcoming back a good friend, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey. It’s nice to have you back, Dr. Godfrey.

W. Robert Godfrey (RG): Great to be here.

SN: Dr. Godfrey, of course, is president of Westminster Seminary California. He is a Ligonier teaching fellow, and we are always looking for times with him to talk about church history. This time, we are going to talk about something very interesting, and we have to start off with full disclosure. Your wife is Hungarian.

RG: My wife is Hungarian.

SN: There we go. So, let’s now talk about the Hungarian Reformed Church.

RG: Well, the Hungarian Reformed Church is one of the great neglected secrets, almost in the world, generally speaking. One of the great successes of the Reformed movement in the sixteenth century was in Hungary, and there seemed to be just a wonderful preparation of the Spirit of God for the Calvinistic gospel to come into Hungary. And ethnic Hungarians, known as Magyars, were very responsive to the gospel. They moved to become a largely Calvinist country, and the great city of Debrecen for many centuries was referred to as the Calvinist Vatican because it was such a strong center of Calvinism, Calvinistic churches, and Reformed theological education.

SN: Well, we are working toward keeping this well-kept secret no longer a secret. But there is an interesting twist to this story; it has to do with the bishops.

RG: That’s right. The Hungarian Reformed Church, to this day, has bishops, and that’s somewhat anomalous for Continental Reformed churches. So, the questions arises, why are there bishops in the Hungarian Reformed Church?

SN: I thought you were going to ask, which came first, the bishop or the Reformed church? But we will just ask, why are there bishops?

RG: Well, it is a curious bit of history. As any Hungarian could tell you, in 1526, the Ottoman Turks invaded eastern Hungary and came into the great plain of Mohács. And the king of Hungary, King Louis, and many of his nobles and all of his bishops from the Roman Catholic Church—because in 1526 Hungary was still Roman Catholic—marched out against the Turk. And they were brave and they were strong and they marched out courageously into battle and they were all slaughtered. And the result was, all the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church were killed.

SN: In one fell swoop.

RG: In one fell swoop. And some of the surviving nobility decided they weren’t too eager immediately to have bishops replace them because they could take the income for the diocese for themselves. So, these bishoprics remained vacant, and when Calvinism came into Hungary a few decades later, there were these vacant bishoprics, and the Calvinists said, “Why not move in and take over?” That is the danger of having Calvinists move in—they take over. So, that’s a very brief rendition of the story of why the Hungarian Reformed Church has bishops.

SN: So, their military might did not quite match up to their courage that day.

RG: No, and most of Hungary was ruled by the Turks for quite some time. In the latter part of the sixteenth century, the Hungarian Reformed churches that were not under the Turks adopted a church order, and it was a fairly standard Reformed church order, except for the bishops. But then, the last article of this church order is great; it says, “And for the brothers under the Turk, they should do the best they can.”

SN: As we should all.

RG: As we should all; that is a great Calvinist sentiment.

SN: Thank you for that wonderful bit of history and providence coming together there in the history of Calvinism, the Reformation, and the Hungarian Reformed Church. Thank you, Dr. Godfrey.

RG: Great to be with you.