The founding of the Faculty
In 1975, the time of communist reign in former Yugoslavia, the representatives of the Lutheran Church and the Baptist Union ventured into a somewhat avant-garde project for the time: the founding of a Protestant faculty of theology named after Matthias Flacius Illyricus (1520-1575), a Croatian Protestant theologian, reformer, linguist, philosopher, and church historian born in Labin, Istria. The faculty formally opened its doors on Reformation Day, 31st October 1976.
At the very beginning, the leading roles were held by dr. Josip Horak (1912-1999) of the Baptist Union, and dr. Vladimir Deutsch (1929-1999) of the Lutheran Church. Dr Josip Horak had been the pastor of the Baptist Church in Zagreb since 1947, the president of the Baptist Theological School (1953-1957), and the president of the Baptist Union in Yugoslavia since 1957. Dr Vladimir Deutsch received his PhD in 1979 from the Lutheran Faculty of Theology in Bratislava with a thesis entitled “Matthias Flacius Illyricus” – life and work (“Matija Vlačić Ilirik” – život i djelo). He was an evangelical pastor in Zagreb and Opatija, and, since 1960, the senior of the Lutheran Church in Croatia and a member of the National Council of Lutheran Churches in Yugoslavia.
Although the Faculty was founded by two Protestant denominations, from its very beginnings it was conceived not only as a denominational school but as an institution with a broad range of influence and contribution to Christian life in Yugoslavia. With this agenda, the Faculty transcended the scope of Protestant educational institutions of the time, which bore a strong denominational mark and had a profile of one-year, two-year, or, sometimes, three-year biblical schools.
From its very beginning, the Faculty was an institution of higher education with a five-year study program. The basic intention was to revive, cherish, and promote the heritage of the reformation in Protestant communities by educating church officials (pastors, deacons) as well as a wider circle of believers, and by aiding the tasks of catechesis, mission, and evangelization. As an educational and scientific institution, the Faculty was to be accessible to all Christians and all people in general. The wide scope of its mission kept the ideas within the faculty progressive, especially if we take into consideration the ghettoization of Protestant communities in the communist society of the day.
All of this was accompanied by a vision of dedicated and serious scientific work. The founders saw this as a continuation of the ideas of Matthias Flacius Illyricus, who was planning to form a university for Christians from southern Slavic countries in Regensburg (something he was unable to do because of various unfavourable political and historical circumstances).
The study program of the faculty aimed to offer an exhaustive classical, theological, and humanistic education. The denominational structure of the Faculty’s staff itself showed an ecumenical openness to others. Besides teachers from various Protestant communities, both domestic and foreign, the Faculty also hired experts from the Catholic faculty, as well as experts from other scientific institutions. This concept was well perceived within the wider public, which is why the Faculty’s students included not only Protestants but also people from other Christian denominations, as well as young people of varying worldviews.
The time of crisis
The Faculty was ultimately unable to seize the exceptional opportunity contained within its vision and within the comparatively favourable historical situation at the time of its founding, which delayed the realization of the vision by a few decades.
Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, the Faculty slipped into a crisis after a little less than a decade after its founding. Classes were occasionally interrupted, the students could hardly achieve their rights, and the work at the faculty slowly died down. The poor conditions became more complicated as the war began in the 1990s. At the time vice-dean Deutsch and dean Horak died (1999), the Faculty found itself in a very difficult situation, made worst by the fact that the majority of the Protestant teaching staff sought better fortune abroad.
The fight to preserve the Faculty
An almost negligible number of students, a complete lack of financing, a complete lack of Protestant teachers, and new, demanding regulations for higher education in Croatia, which the Faculty could hardly comply with, suggested that the Faculty was to close for good. It nevertheless managed to survive this difficult period, largely thanks to the efforts of prof. dr. sc. Vitomir Belaj.
Although not a theologian, but an ethnologist, dr. Belaj, who was a member of the Lutheran Church, took over the position of dean despite his commitments at the Philosophical Faculty in Zagreb. In 2001, he managed to ensure that the Faculty becomes an official, publicly accessible institution of higher education and that the Ministry of Education grants it a license to begin teaching. This provided an institutional framework for the return of both the teaching staff and students.
With the financial aid of one of its founders – the Baptist Union in Croatia – the Faculty began to actively restore its inner structures, reengage its contacts and associates, and to promote and build-up academic frameworks. In 2003, Lidija Matošević was employed as vice dean and Enoh Šeba as secretary. Due to a newfound favourable synergy within the faculty, the number of enrolled students began to climb, old collaborations were restored and new ones formed, publishing activity is initiated, and several public appearances were organized, which served to promote the values of ecumenical, inter-religious, and social dialogue set by the Faculty’s vision.
In 2004, the Faculty moved its headquarters from the building of the Lutheran Church in Gundulićeva 28, Zagreb, where it had operated since its inception, to Radićeva 34. However, despite the renewed life at the institution, the Faculty’s leadership soon faced serious problems.
Shortly after the license to operate was granted, a new law which regulates the activity of institutions of higher education was promulgated, reserving the right to perform university programs to faculties which were constituents of a university. As an institution which was not a constituent of any university in Croatia, the Faculty was classified as a private school by default. This had effectively banned the Faculty from having its program accredited by the Ministry of Education. Additionally, since the Faculty was classified as a private school, it could not receive public funds.
Integration into the University of Zagreb: the founding of the University Center for Protestant Theology Matthias Flacius Illyricus
In 2008, the Faculty’s leadership approached the University of Zagreb. These meetings resulted in the signing of a contract by which the University of Zagreb became formally responsible for the undergraduate and graduate courses in Protestant theology, while the Faculty of Theology Matthias Flacius Illyricus became the coordinator who organized the day-to-day teaching activities. The mentioned courses were formally accepted by the Senate of the University in November 2010, while in December 2011 the University and the Faculty signed a further contract, allowing for a formal framework for the courses to proceed.
Prof. dr. sc. Siniša Zrinščak, a sociologist from the Faculty of Law at the University of Zagreb, who was an associate of the faculty for a number of years, was named the director of studies, while dr. sc. Lidija Matošević was named deputy director. The Undergraduate course in Protestant theology was formally introduced in the academic year 2011/2012, while year 2013/2014 saw the formal introduction of the Graduate course.
The shortcomings of this arrangement, owing to legal and organizational difficulties, have surfaced after a few years. In the interest of optimal development of the study programs, the process of integration into the University of Zagreb needed to be completed. The crucial moment in this process was a letter of intent instigated by the rector Aleksa Bjeliš and signed in April 2004 by the representatives of the university study program, the Faculty, and representatives of the Faculty’s founders. The letter proposed the founding of a university center for Protestant theology, which would take over the teaching activities of the Faculty and create an institutional framework for scientific work in the field of theology, especially Protestant theology.
After thorough preparations, the University Center for Protestant Theology Matthias Flacius Illyricus was formally founded on 17th January 2017 by the Senate of the University of Zagreb. From that moment onward, the Center fully took over the coordination and day-to-day management of teaching activities. Along with this important organizational change, new headquarters and classroom facilities were assigned to the Center, located in Lučićeva 1A, where the Center had moved in in the summer of 2015.
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