A confounding and misleading message is being bandied about at will by many authors and theologians who regard themselves as being of the reformed faith. It is based on a misappropriation of the phrase ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda. What is often understood from the context in which they commonly apply the abridged version, being simply semper reformanda, is that the church itself should constantly be seeking ways to reform, or actively pursuing new or better avenues in an effort to retain or advance its reformed position.
There is not a single reference in Scripture to support this approach; in fact, there are explicit warnings against our trying to perform this type of enhancement to Christ’s work and His church. Nowhere in the Word of God are Christians commissioned, mandated or yoked with doing that which God alone can do. Christians do not have a calling to conform to the teachings, creeds, confessions, hypotheses or traditions of the reformation per se, however, that is not implying that most of what the reformers stood for was wrong, unnecessary or not based on Scripture. Indeed, the fives solas and emphasis on the sovereign grace of God, are summarizations of that which the reformers stood for, are truths and tools of significant value.
Christians do not have the ability to reform Christ’s possession and are under no obligation to do so. Followers of Christ have no duty to reform the church, which they might perform according to their individual abilities, or choose to neglect to perform by reason of their disobedience. True Christians are by nature of their standing before God, reformed by God’s Holy Spirit, not by any value or effort toward that reformation on their part. Christ’s church is reformed by nature of God’s work, not by the enthusiastic efforts or contributions of man. The truth concerning semper reformanda, is that God does the reforming, as He has done and will continue to do in eternity and not only for the last five centuries. Semper reformanda is not an instruction to men to always be reforming the church, it is an inevitability of Gods will that His church is always being reformed.
By A. Craig Troxel
The Latin phrase semper reformanda–usually translated “always reforming”–is the widely known slogan of the Reformed tradition. It has become quite popular. Authors conjure it. Theologians cite it. Trendsetters love it. But I have become suspicious. And my suspicions stem from seeing the phrase appear at all too convenient times for a person’s point or agenda. My fear is that it is now regularly used as an excuse for novelty and innovation.
Let me illustrate my concern grammatically. The word reformanda in the phrase semper reformanda is what Latinists refer to as “gerundive.” This grammatical designation refers to the future passive of a word and is frequently signaled by the combination of letters “nd”, both in Latin and English. For example, whereas an “agent” is someone or something through which an action takes place, the “agenda” (“things to be done”) is the object upon which the action(s) will fall or take place. An agent is active, but an agenda is passive. Words like memoranda (“things to be remembered”) and propaganda (“ideas to be spread”) also illustrate the point.
The upshot of this is that the passive of the Latin phrase semper reformanda implies more the idea of my being changed, than my doing the changing. I am the object and in the passive, “always being changed,” more than I am the subject and in the active or aggressive role of “always changing” things around me, or seeking out changes to make. Hence, my preference for rendering the phrase “always being reformed” or “always being changed” over “always reforming” or “always changing.”
The difference is rich with implications. When a Reformed Christian says semper reformanda, we understand that a higher authority, the Lord, is changing us. In the back of our mind is another Reformed principle called, sola Scriptura, ”Scripture alone.” This principle commits us to God’s revelation in Scripture as authoritative and sufficient for the Christian in faith and life. We believe that the reforming in our lives is driven by Scripture’s agenda, not ours. We are subservient to the Lordship of our Sovereign king. We are in the passive role, sitting under the authority of God’s Word. The ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda is “the reformed church” that is “always being reformed” by the Word of God.
However, what I see and hear increasingly looks quite dissimilar. I hear semper reformanda being used as a convenient slogan to excuse innovation. For example, some post-modern evangelicals might be willing to assert that we must be “always reforming according to the Word of God,” but then they quickly also add that we do so in order to preach the gospel “in the context of an ever-changing world characterized by a variety of cultural settings…” True, our changing world and times demand keen sensitivity if we are to proclaim the Gospel effectively. But it is quite another thing to believe that Christian doctrine should be revised as it navigates the world’s numerous changing social and historical settings. As Brian McLaren has put it, with the constant challenges confronting the church, Christian leaders must “create new forms, new methods, new structures–and it requires them to find new content, new ideas, new truths… “ This is semper reformanda?!? Yes, says McLaren, because these new dimensions of the Gospel message “are examples of the Spirit of truth doing what Jesus promised he would do: continuing to guide them into new, previously unknown truth, truth that had been hidden in Christ all along, but had not yet been bearable, needed, seen, or discovered. I can’t see church history in any other way, except this: semper reformanda, continually being led and taught and guided by the Spirit into new truth.”
Semper reformanda is not a slogan to excuse our changing the message or discovering new truth because we are taking our cues from the culture. It is a principle that provokes us to modify our confession because we are taking our cues form the Word of God. As some have noted, there is a huge difference between the Reformation and the EmergentChurch at this very point. It wants to hitch its wagon to Reformed mules when it is convenient, but it is not really in it for the long haul. This reflects how opportunistic, superficial and eclectic evangelicalism can be.
But it is also intellectually weak to claim for a slogan what has been an important and sober principle for Reformed believers. It reminds me of a guy I heard of in the Army National Guard who thought it was no big deal to stitch an “Airborne” patch on his uniform until he ran into some bona fide ex-Jumpers who failed to appreciate his shallow regard for the real deal and expressed their displeasure quite tangibly. The Reformers earned their stripes–some with blood–by being faithful and humbly submissive to the Word of God, not by trying to discern the changing winds of culture. Semper reformanda does not mean, “always seeking innovation” when it suits the times or my fancy. It speaks of our “always being reformed” or changed because the authority of Scripture and the Lordship of Christ require it. That is not novelty or innovation; it is the obedience of a servant.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Nicotine Theological Journal, and is used here with permssion and gratitude.
The author speaks of Latinists in the third person. He is not a Latin expert, nor has he ever been accused of being one.
John Franke, “Reforming Theology: Toward a Postmodern Reformed Dogmatics,’Westminster Theological Journal 65 (2003), 1.
Brian D. McLaren, Generous Orthodoxy (Zondervan, 2004), 192.
Brian D. McLaren, Generous Orthodoxy (Zondervan, 2004), 193.
E.g., D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant With the EmergentChurch (Zondervan, 2005), 42-43.
I am including some helpful links for those who want to actually know more about false teachers and what they really teach. I pray that most of you do: