Hungarian theologian appreciated 'American activism'
Written by Barbara Brown Zikmund
April 2003


Barbara Brown Zikmund

A monthly feature about the history of the United Church of Christ

Many of us know how irritating it can be when so-called religious people make pious statements about "beliefs" which seem to have no impact upon their lives. We also know how inspiring it is to meet someone whose faith bears fruit in action. For this reason we all need to know more about a UCC theologian named BŽla Vassady.

BŽla Vassady was born in Hungary and befriended by James Isaac Good, longtime leader in the German Reformed Church. He came to the United States in 1922 and two years later graduated from Central Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He served several Ohio Hungarian churches and also attended Princeton Theological Seminary. After returning to Hungary, where he finished his doctorate in 1927, he joined the theology faculties of the Universities of P‡pa, S‡rospatak and finally Debrecen. When asked about his "American experiences," he praised "American activism." America "taught me to turn my classroom theology into action theology at times when deeds truly spoke louder than words." He sought to embody "so-called American activism in European garb."

During the Second World War he was a highly published professor and a well-known Hungarian Reformed church leader. As the war progressed he became involved in relief work in Budapest. Yet, after the war his theological writings and his ecumenical experience led him back to America. Here, although he was invited to teach at the new Fuller Theological Seminary, its conservative theological stance could not affirm his ecumenical commitments. Finally in 1952, after a brief time at the University of Dubuque, he joined the faculty of Lancaster Theological Seminary, serving there until his retirement in 1973.

BŽla Vassady was deeply involved in the formation and development of the World Council of Churches. As a mature theologian within the United Church of Christ he often spoke of the church as both a beachhead and a bridge. As a beachhead, the church bears witness to God's truth. It is a prophetic critic involved in a ministry of "holy maladjustment," challenging society by confronting it with God's judgement. At the same time the church is also a bridge, testifying to the inclusiveness of Christian love. The church as bridge is "a fellowship of forgiven and forgiving sinners, proclaiming the good news, offering God's saving pardon to those who are ready to accept it."

In these times of high rhetoric and questionable actions, Vassady's theology calls us to remember that Christian "acts of holy nonconformity" must always go hand in hand with "deeds of reconciliation."

The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund is the series editor of The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ.

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