Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Struggles and Survival of Transylvanian Unitarians

Declaration of Religious and Conscience Freedom in the Diet of Torda by Ferenc Dávid in 1568 \ Aladár Körösfői-Kriesch (1896)

Every so often as I read church history I take a step back in wonder at the sort of things that people argued, fought, killed, and died over that had nothing to do with objective reality. For centuries Western Europe had its head up its ass with a system that demanded conformity to the status quo and dependence on the dispensation of salvation from an established religion. It was a three tiered world with heaven above and hell below, and plenty of witches and monsters in the dark woods. Then along came the Protestant Reformation, and suddenly there were a hell of a lot of heretics to be burned. Thinking the wrong thing? Repent or perish then, because unapproved thought and non-standard worship could be seditious. Possibly nowhere is this more clearly on display than in Transylvania.

The Transylvania region had Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism when Ferenc Dávid (hereafter Francis David) came along. His theology came to be at odds with that of Calvinism, particularly with regard to the Trinity, which he rejected. Fortunately for him he found a sympathetic ear with the reigning monarch of the time, giving him and his some room to breathe as they initially sorted out their beliefs. After hearing quite a bit of debate and becoming personally persuaded by David's way of thinking, King John Sigismund issued the Edict of Torda.

Preachers everywhere are to preach the gospel according to their understanding of it; if the parish willingly receives it, well: but if not, let there be no compulsion on it to do so, since that would not ease any man's soul; but let each parish keep a minister whose teaching is acceptable to it. Let no superintendent or anyone else act violently or abusively to a preacher. No one may threaten another on account of his teaching with imprisonment or deprivation of office. For faith is a gift of God; it comes from listening, and listening is through God's word. (McKanan, 2017)

Unfortunately, respect for this collapsed after King Sigismund died. Successive Catholic and Protestant rulers afterward persecuted the Unitarians. One of the first methods of doing so was freezing Unitarian doctrine in place.

While the diet in 1572 reconfirmed King John's decree of religious freedom, it also passed, on Prince Stephen's initiative, a new law forbidding any innovation in religion; any changes in doctrine or practice were, it was felt, likely to cause civil unrest. (Howe, 1997)

For Roman Catholics this could make perfect sense, with their belief in 'the faith once delivered' and the 'Deposit of Faith.' To them, the unchanging nature of religion was a sign of veracity. For rulers, holding doctrine in place was a way of ensuring that no 'traitorous' beliefs would be promulgated. The effect, whether intended or not, was to also stagnate theological development. The earliest use of this law was to condemn subsequent moves towards not praying to or invoking Jesus in prayer among Unitarians. 

Prior to that, in the time of King Sigismund, some of the earlier views of Francis David were taken in notes on the royal debates. Among these are a couple of items from the final of three debates that caught my eye. 

Jesus Christ is God and man but he did not create himself, for the Father gave him his divinity, the Father had him begotten by the Holy Spirit, the Father sanctified him and sent him into the world. (McKanan, 2017)

David was neither affirming the duality of Jesus nature as both God and human, nor affirming his unmixed humanity. Instead, he held that the Son of God was created by God, great in power and sharing divinity, and was sent into the world by God. However, the Son of God was not God. This aligns more closely with early Arian beliefs, as I understand them, and appears to be at variance with Socinianism, which rejected the pre-existence of Christ prior to the birth of Jesus. Still, when persecutions drove Socinians out of Poland, some found welcome refuge among the Transylvanian Unitarians. 

The Holy Spirit is not self-created God, not a third person in the Trinity, but the Spirit of the Father and of the Son, a seal of inheritance, life-giving strength, which the Father realizes in us through the Son, to be seen in ourselves and in our actions. (McKanan, 2017)

This item is still a sticking point for groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses, who reject the Trinity, consider Christ a created being (the archangel Michael) who was born into the world, and hold that the Holy Spirit is the force or power of God. In fact, there is nothing about the Holy Spirit as a personality or 'character' in the biblical narrative, although Trinitarians have pointed to some passages of the New Testament to show that the Spirit could be lied to and made to 'grieve.'

But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God." (Acts 5:3-4 ESV) 
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. (Ephesians 4:30 ESV)

Although this seems like thin 'proof' to me, the Trinitarian argument goes that since you can't effectively deceive or sadden electricity or gravity, but only a thinking being, then the Spirit of God is a person and not a mere force.

My reading of the history and beliefs of the Transylvanian Unitarians, a group that survives to this day, has given me a great deal of respect for them. Through the generations they've suffered greatly for their faith and have suffered losses through deaths and conversions, and yet they continue on. Although their exclusionary decisions regarding the lgbtq+ community in recent years has been discouraging, given time I believe that they will come around on that of their own accord, just as other religious groups around the world have done or are doing so. Already there is diversity of opinion among them. At least now, in the present regimes of Hungary and Romania, they have the freedom to change their minds.


Howe, C. A. (1997). For Faith and Freedom: A Short History of Unitarianism in Europe. Boston, MA: Skinner House Books.

McKanan, D. (2017). A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism (Vol. 1). Boston, MA: Skinner House Books.

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.