Volume 4 Number 3
By Barbara Chaapel
Since the Reformation brought Calvinism to Hungary and the Thirty-Years War (16181648) established Debrecen as a fortress of the Reformed faith, Hungarys second largest city has been known as The Hungarian Geneva.
Calvinism gave Debrecen its first printing house, established in 1561 to publish works that buttressed Reformation theology. And in 1538, Protestants founded the College of Debrecen, later to become the Protestant College of Eastern Europe, famous for educating ministers and teachers for Reformed churches in Eastern Europe.
That college is now the theological faculty of the University of Debrecen, and in 1988 its then-dean Dr. Botond Gaal led the celebration of its 450th anniversary.
From his office in Princeton, where he spent the fall as a member of the Center of Theological Inquiry (CTI), Gaal was proud to talk about the theological faculty from which he graduated and where he is now professor of Christian dogmatics. My country sided with the Calvinist part of the Reformation because of the high view those Reformers had of education, he explained. We needed schools, and the Reformers began them, including the College of Debrecen. At the end of the sixteenth century, more than 95% of our population was Protestant.
A bloody Counter Reformation in Hungary changed the balance in favor of Catholicism, but todays smaller number of Hungarian Protestants are mostly Reformed.
It is no surprise, then, that Princeton Seminary has a close relationship
with its Eastern European sister church. Our relationship with Princeton and with the Presbyterian Church (USA) is more vigorous than with any other communion or seminary, said Gaal. Former PTS president James I. McCord kept a special place in his heart for the Hungarian Church and visited Debrecen often during his tenure as president of both PTS and WARC (the World Alliance of Reformed Churches). He encouraged Hungarian pastors to come to study at Princeton, and sent American students from PTS to Debrecen, an exchange that continues today. And Gaal himself signed President Thomas Gillespies honorary degree from the Theological Faculty when Gillespie visited Hungary in 1988 in the 450th jubilee year of the Reformed College of Debrecen.
But Gaals relationship with Princeton also has a more personal side. His father-in-law, Alexander Czegledy, one of the leading professors at Debrecen and an outstanding Reformed theologian until his death in 1998, earned his Master of Theology degree at Princeton in 1932.
Gaal met Czegledy in the classroom. He was one of his students at Debrecen in the 1970s. He later met and married Czegledys youngest daughter, Maria.
Gaal, however, did not at first intend to follow in his father-in-laws footsteps as a theologian. His first degree was in mathematics and physics, and he began his career teaching that pair of sciences. But science and theology were never far apart for Gaal.
I always wanted to be an ordained minister, Gaal reflected. Math and physics led me to theology. Intrigued by the doors that science opened for him into the secrets of the universe, Gaal found the study of theology a natural completion. After graduation from the Theological Faculty, he proceeded to another Reformed mecca (Edinburgh, Scotland) where he met and studied with Thomas Torrance, who encouraged his interest in the relation between theology and the natural sciences.
Torrance suggested that Gaal do research on the work of James Clerk Maxwell, a nineteenth-century Scottish mathematician and physicist and a devoted Christian and Presbyterian. Clerk Maxwell was the greatest Scottish scientist of his century, explained Gaal, and he loved sermons; in fact, he preached them himself, much to the surprise of his colleagues.
In a sense I followed Clerk Maxwells path. Theology and science had been divorced, but in Clerk Maxwells work that changed. He saw scientific truth as relative to reality. Out of his deep Christian faith he posited that everything in this world is created by God, even scientific knowledge.
Gaals own writing and teaching has since been devoted to the theology-science dialogue. He made his first visit to CTI eight years ago to read in the areas of mathematics, physics, philosophy, and theology. This year at CTI, his research focused on the origins and roots of European civilization from the viewpoint of Christianity and the natural sciences, as they developed from the Greek, Jewish, and Christian traditions. I would like to give help to both scientists and theologians, he averred. I believe that what the mind can accept is relative to the reality of the whole world created by God. We get closer and closer to knowing that reality, but it is a never-ending process. This is the biblical view of nature, and it is Christianitys gift to the world.
Hopeful about the convergence of science and theology, Gaal is also hopeful for the spiritual renewal of his church. After a long period of nationalization under Communism, the church in Hungary is experiencing a spiritual awakening, said Gaal. He cited an example: on Easter Sunday 1989, sixty-four children were baptized in the Great Church of Debrecen (the largest Reformed church in Hungary) where under Communism only about fifty children were baptized in a whole year. Young people are looking for a connection with the church, Gaal said, happy to be engaged in teaching the future ministers and Christian educators of the church.
Back in Debrecen, Gaal continues to bring his faith to bear on his culture. At the international scientific jubilee organized to note the 150th birthday of nineteenth-century Hungarian artist Mihaly Munkacsy, Gaal presented a paper he wrote about Munkacsys trilogy of paintings of Christ: Christ before Pilate, Ecce Homo, and Golgotha. In Munkacsys time, it was an established fact that Jesus of Nazareth had been a historic person and his life a sequence of historic events, but no scientific methods or investigation would justify that he had been the Saviour or the second member of the Holy Trinity, Gaal wrote. They have been decided and gifted to mankind by belief. So did Munkacsy think, and if we wish to get closer to the artists ideas, we must follow the route set by faith.
Gaals life follows his words: it is a route set by faith.
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