Five for Friday is our new blog series in which we interview Reformation pacesetters: those who are leading the way for Reformation in the own communities and churches. This week, we’re pleased to introduce you to Dariusz Brycko, the executive director of the Tolle Lege Institute, a Grand Rapids based outreach to Poland. If you know of a Reformation pacesetter that we should interview, please drop us an email with a brief explanation of their work and their contact information.
What impact, historically speaking, did the Reformation have in Poland?
Initially, the Reformation had a great impact on Poland! To be more specific, it was Prussia, at the time a vassal of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which became the first Protestant state by adopting the Augsburg Confession. (Today, the Prussian territory still belongs to Poland and is called Mazury, but today’s Mazurians are not native to those lands and know very little about the Protestant heritage of the region in which they live.)
Furthermore, many “early Protestants,” such as the followers of Jan Hus (John Huss), were so heavily persecuted in Bohemia that they fled to Poland. This included Amos Komenski (Johannes Comenius), famous for his pedagogical ideas and a candidate for the first president of Massachusetts’ Harvard College. In 1555, the Czech Brethren united with the Polish Reformed (and even today some members of the Polish Reformed church continue to uphold their Czech heritage).
Many influential members of the Polish gentry and nobility were so interested in the Reformation cause that they invited John Calvin to come lead the Polish reformation. Calvin turned down this invitation, explaining that he already had accepted a job in Geneva. However, he dedicated his Commentary to the Book of Hebrews to the Polish king, and together with other Reformers (especially Bullinger) was always interested in the Polish situation. He carried on extensive correspondence with members of the Polish Reformed congregations.
Poland also had a reformer of its own, Jan Laski (Johannes a Lasco). Laski knew Calvin well, and before his work in Poland he led the Reformed Churches in Emden, East Frisia as well as the Stranger Churches in London. Abraham Kuyper rediscovered Laski’s important contribution to the Reformation cause, and his influence upon John Knox and Presbyterianism has become well-recognized. While in Poland, Laski promoted an irenic union between the Reformed, Lutherans, and Czech Brethren. This union took place ten years after his death when, in 1570, Polish Protestants united under the Consensus of Sadomir.
Even into the seventeenth century, Poles continued to contribute to the Reformation cause, producing some of the most important Reformed scholastic thinkers of the era, such as Bartholomew Keckermann (who was ethnically German), the famous professor of philosophy in Gdansk, and Jan Makowski (Johannes Maccovius), professor of theology in the Frisian Franeker Academy. Interestingly, Makowski was one of the most popular professors in the history of the academy and attracted many Polish students who later returned to Poland to serve the church. I guess I should also mention that Makowski married a sister of Rembrandt’s wife and thus was related to the acclaimed Protestant painter.
This is only to sketch the impact of the Reformation on Poland in very broad strokes. I still have not mentioned Protestant thinkers and theologians such as the father of Polish literature, Mikolaj Rej, or prolific pastors such as Jakub Zaborowski, Bartlomiej Bythner, Daniel Kalaj. Also, I have not mentioned the schism within the Polish Reformed church that resulted in the birth of the Polish Brethren (later known as Unitarians) and their controversial Italian leader, Faustus Socinus.
In sum, Polish Protestants in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were a vibrant community, which produced many important thinkers. To underestimate their influence is to have an incomplete understanding of the Reformation in Europe’s Early Modern period.
How did Poland’s existence behind the Iron Curtain help or hinder the cause of Reformation?
Before I answer this question, readers need to understand that the cause of the Reformation was already severely hurt even before the Iron Curtain went up. This was due to the 123 years of cultural and religious oppression from Germany, among others.
In 1795, Poland as a state disappeared from the map of Europe and was divided between Lutheran Prussia, Orthodox Russia, and Catholic Austria. In the German and Russian partitions, Polish culture and Catholicism were persecuted, and being Polish was often associated with being Catholic. Poland as a state was reborn only in 1918, but World War II, followed by 40 years of imposed Soviet Communism, in many ways stood in continuity with the political and religious struggle from the previous century against these non-Catholic aggressors.
The election of Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II confirmed to many that Catholicism was the best guardian of Polish culture and that to be Polish was to be Catholic. Unfortunately, very few people realize today that this idea was foreign to Marshall Josef Pilsudski, the father of the modern state of Poland, who converted to the Reformed Church.
So, as I have said, the cause of Reformation was hindered before the Iron Curtian went up. What might have further hindered it was that some Protestant clergy and missionaries collaborated with Communists, but this was also true for Roman Catholics. In many ways, life behind the Iron Curtain was very beneficial to Polish Christians (both Protestant and Catholics), where true believers, pastors, and priests sometimes shared the same prison cell; and, as Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Part of what Tolle Lege tries to do is to nourish the soil in which these seeds have been planted.
What are the greatest dangers to Reformation now that they are no longer under the influence of Russia and Communism?
The greatest dangers to the Reformation (and also to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy) in Poland are secularism, liberal theology, and materialism. However, what endangers specifically Polish Protestantism (especially Evangelicalism) is the church growth movement, the prosperity gospel and, recently, Federal Vision.
What does your group try to do to influence Polish Reformation?
Tolle Lege Institute is not a church and it does not seek to do what the church is called to do. Thus its goal is to support the educational efforts of Protestant churches (Confessional and Evangelical) in the areas in which they continue to struggle.
We seek to accomplish this purpose by translating and publishing classic works of Protestant theological literature as well as works that will guide people to a better understanding of classic, orthodox Reformed theology.
We are now getting ready to print in Polish our first book (about 1000 pages long), which is the translation of Joel Beeke and Randall Pederson’s Meet the Puritans. This will be the first comprehensive guide to Puritan theology on the Polish market. Once we have funds, we would like to put together a selection of actual Puritan writings, which will serve as a companion to the first volume. We hope that these two volumes will be popular not only with Protestant Christians but also in university circles interested in Early Modern studies and American history.
We are also raising funds to translate J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. We believe that this work will address questions of theological liberalism common to all Christian, not just Protestants.
There are still many other important classic Protestant works which have not been translated to Polish. This long list includes, for example, the works of John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Herman Bavinck, and Louis Berkof.
Finally, our dream is to establish a small research center in Poland where clergy, scholars, journalists, and skeptics could come to research the Protestant contribution to Christianity. However, in order to do this we need to find committed supporters because work in Europe can be very costly.
How can donors who are willing to stand with you help the cause?
There are few specific ways in which donors can help our cause:
- Potential donors can contribute to the translation of a specific book. We do not start a translation project until we have all the necessary funds. Anyone can participate in helping with the costs of the books for which we are currently raising money, or even propose a book that they would like to see translated and published in Poland. As long as the book meets our criteria, we would be happy to consider adopting it as our project.
- Potential donors can also donate to our general fund, which allows Tolle Lege to exist and develop. This has been by far the greatest need, since it is much easier to find support for specific books and projects.
Donations can be mailed to:
Tolle Lege Institute
P.O. Box # 150101
Grand Rapids, MI 49515
or made with major credit card via our website.
I always encourage any new donors to get in touch with us personally and let us know if they have questions or suggestions, and why they are interested in supporting our work.
Dr. Dariusz Brycko is the executive diretor of the Tolle Lege Institute.