Obituary: The Rev Vilmos Vajta

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VILMOS VAJTA, an exiled Hungarian Lutheran theologian, was a harsh critic of the compromises the Lutheran Church leadership in his homeland made with the Communist authorities. But, unlike almost all other critics of such collaboration in the Eastern- bloc churches, Vajta stuck firmly to a theological approach, arguing convincingly that the collaboration resulted in a distortion of the church's teaching amounting to heresy by preventing the church from playing a prophetic role in society.

He published a restrained but devastating attack on the "theology of diaconia (service)", the pseudo-theological term the Hungarian Lutheran Church had invented to lend respectability to its collaboration. Vajta summarised this theology as "ideological non- intervention, combined with practical co-operation", based on "one-sided selection" of biblical passages. In practice this had a devastating impact on the church, Vajta believed.

The church was deprived of the opportunity to comment on and criticise abuses in Hungary. "It is permissible to criticise racism in South Africa and North America," Vajta complained, "but when Hungarian troops marched into Czechoslovakia in 1968, not a single word of concern was uttered by the church. Nor are Jews and intellectuals who have been expelled from socialist countries regarded as suitable subjects for the concrete practice of diaconia in our world today." He concluded that the theology had in fact become an ideology, criticism of which was not tolerated.

The broadside, published in a German magazine in 1983, provoked a blistering response from senior Hungarian Lutheran leaders, all of whom had been appointed at the behest of the state. Vajta had particularly criticised pronouncements by Bishop Zoltan Kaldy, then head of the Hungarian Lutheran Church and a vocal supporter of the "theology of diaconia". Kaldy himself remained silent, but five other senior church figures issued a statement condemning Vajta's "slanders".

Instead of tackling Vajta's theological points, they resorted to discrediting "someone who for the last 42 years has lived in the West . . . but who none the less believes that he is qualified to lecture to and censure his former church". Throughout this exchange, Vajta remained unfailingly polite. He later amplified his ideas in a 1987 book.

Vajta grew up after the First World War in newly independent Hungary, studying theology in Sopron from 1936 to 1940, when he was ordained as a Lutheran minister. After service in various congregations, he gained a grant to study in Sweden in 1941. As pastor to the Hungarian embassy in Stockholm he was, like other embassy staff, granted political asylum by the Swedish government when Hungary was annexed by Nazi Germany in the spring of 1944.

Vajta studied first in Uppsala and later in Lund, where he received his doctorate in 1953 for his work on Luther's theology of worship (published in German in 1952 and in English in 1957). He also looked after congregations of Hungarian Lutherans in Sweden.

At the end of 1953 he was named as first director of the Lutheran World Federation's Department of Theology, based in Geneva. From there he organised international conferences, maintained links with Lutheran theological institutions and administered the grants programme for students.

Vajta began a string of publications on the history, constitution and life of the Lutheran churches worldwide. He was one of the initiators of the Luther Research Congress, whose first conference he organised in Denmark in 1956 and whose work he followed closely and moulded for several years, inviting not only Lutheran theologians but other Christians, historians and later even Marxists. He became committed to ecumenical work, attending conferences of the World Council of Churches and the Second Vatican Council.

In 1964 he was asked to go to the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg as its first director, where he stayed until his retirement in 1981. There he continued his ecumenical work, playing a key role in Lutheran-Catholic dialogue (which would eventually reach fruition with a joint declaration on justification by faith earlier this year).

Despite the conflict with the church leadership in Hungary, Vajta remained attached to the church, retaining a sense of responsibility and concern. For 30 years from 1957 he served as president of the conference of Hungarian church workers abroad. After the resolution of this conflict, which ended, appropriately enough, in 1990 by his receiving an honorary doctorate in theology from the theological seminary in Budapest, he devoted a considerable effort to publishing his theological work in Hungary.

Vajta was also committed to his adopted country of Sweden, taking Swedish citizenship in 1949 and becoming a pastor of the Swedish church, as well as being married to a Swede.

Felix Corley

Vilmos Vajta, theologian: born Kecskemet, Hungary 15 June 1918; ordained 1940; Director, Lutheran World Federation Department of Theology, Geneva 1953-64; Director, Institute for Ecumenical Research, Strasbourg 1964-81; married (one son, two daughters); died Alingsas, Sweden 21 October 1998.