Evangelicals love their mottos, especially in Latin! One of the most honourable and the most urgent is the famous slogan “semper reformanda”: ‘always reforming’. This has become a clarion call amongst evangelical Christians not to be satisfied with the status quo, but to keep on reforming. It is a motto which sums up the sense of restless and continual energy of the reforming movement in every generation.
The origins of the saying are obscure (probably date from the late 1600s). Almost certainly it was never used by the great reformers of the sixteenth century, although it is consonant with their teaching. But the kernel of the idea is true enough: Until we are glorified—until we are fully, finally, perfectly conformed to the exact likeness of Christ—we as saints individually, and the whole church collectively, must always be reforming.
In recent decades, semper reformanda, that glorious evangelical motto, has become a favourite liberal catchphrase—aided by a common mistranslation, “always reforming“—in recent times we’ve seen this motto misused in support of ends which are completely contradictory to the spirit and intent of the Reformation and the Reformed tradition. The idea is not that we should change for the sake of change. You can be sure that whoever first penned that slogan was not urging Christians to stay abreast of every wind of earthly fashion in order to suit someone’s shallow notion of “relevance.” Nor does the principle of semper reformanda require us to rewrite our doctrinal standards every generation in order to keep in step with the constantly-changing dogmas of human philosophy.
The motto of the Church of Rome is often said to be not semper reformanda but semper eadem, ‘always the same’, never changing. One of the reasons that Roman Catholicism has remained so impervious to liberalism over the centuries is because of its hostility to cultural and theological change. Yet evangelical churches are willing to run the risks, because of our mandate to connect the never-changing gospel with our ever-changing world. Nevertheless, there are risks, and too often Protestantism has succumbed to the dangers. As Michael Welker observes, because of our strong emphasis upon semper reformanda, reformed theology has put itself ‘at the mercy of the shifting Zeitgeist’ and has fallen ‘victim to the cultural stress of innovation’.
The motto (reformata and reformanda) speaks to two particular groups of people, found in the church in every generation, pulling in opposite directions – the radicals and the conservatives . The radicals are always champing at the bit for continual change. Instinctively, they dislike the old teaching and practices and want to grab hold of the new. They are trend setters. At the opposite pole, the conservatives instinctively stick in their toes and dig in their heels, and dislike change of any description. They prefer life the way it used to be and are constantly lamenting the erosion of the church’s historic heritage. Both are important, and both should be kept in balance. In the context of the sixteenth century (and the mind of the Reformers) this phrase does not mean that the church is always morphing into something new with the passage of time (a common misconstrual in our own day). Instead, this seventeenth-century motto is consistent with the Reformers’ idea that they were not innovating, but “turning again” to the form of the church and belief originated by Jesus Christ, lived out by the first disciples and early church, and born witness to in the writings of the Old and New Testaments shorn of later additions. Our faith should be “Reformed”, that is in agreement with the fundamental principles of the Scriptures, as summarized in the Reformed confessions. However, it should also be “Reforming,” seeking to bring our thought and practice more in line with Scripture
The two halves of the slogan must not be separated. The church is to be both reformata and reformanda, both reformed and reforming. The foundational truths of evangelical Christianity – expressed by those other Latin mottos, the five solas – remain inviolable for ecclesia reformata:
- sola scriptura (the Bible alone).
- sola fide (faith alone); sola gratia (grace alone); solo Christo (Christ alone).
- soli deo gloria (glory to God alone).
Those are the gospel foundations of the reformed Church – the ecclesia reformata. Once those anchors are in place, and within those limits, radicalism is very welcome. But as soon as our innovations begin to undermine the foundations of the reformed faith, which is biblical Christianity, the church will come crashing down. These wonderful gospel truths, encapsulated by the solas, need to be clearly and enthusiastically proclaimed without hesitation in every generation.
As Michael S. Horton, of Westminster Seminary in California, observed in his recent fourth and final volume on reformed dogmatics:
‘singing a new song’ and ‘always being reformed’ are only commendable goals if they are invitations to courageous and obedient faith rather than simply following the spirit of the age. It means that the church is always being reformed, not reforming itself, submitting itself to the judgment of God’s Word and asking anew whether its confession and practice are in accord with Scripture. Only in this way is any church truly apostolic.
The Christian gospel is an ‘old, old story’, not a new discovery. Our obsession with the latest trends in modern and post-modern theology, and our Athenian love for novelty (Acts 17:21), is spiritually detrimental. As Nicholas Selnecker, the sixteenthcentury German hymn-writer, once put it:
Against proud spirits stand and fight,Who lift themselves in lofty might,And always bring in something newTo falsify thy teaching true.
The ‘old, old story’ needs to be retold and reapplied, but its glorious content does not change and cannot be bettered. Therefore, as Brian Gerrish suggests, there is a right sense in which reformed theology is deferential, willing to say with Elijah, even after the triumph of Mount Carmel, ‘I am no better than my fathers’ (1 Kings 19:4).
We are not better Bible expositors or theologians or reformers than they. Conservatism, like radicalism, must be brought into continual submission to Scripture.
This is why what Dr. Case-Winters says about the 16th century remains true for us today:
“In the 16th-century context the impulse it reflected was neither liberal nor conservative, but radical, in the sense of returning to the “root.” The Reformers believed the church had become corrupt, so change was needed. But it was a change in the interest of preservation and restoration of more authentic faith and life—a church reformed and always to be reformed according to the Word of God.”
The Westminster Confession, which similarly affirmed that ‘The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined…and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture’(Westminster Confession, I.10).
Being Reformed means being radical in precisely that sense, for it means not that we’re always becoming something new, nor that we’re always changing, but that we’re always being conformed and reconformed to the unchanging standard of the Word of God, which means of the character and will of the one “whose beauty is past change,” as Hopkins put it. It means not that we adapt to this world, but rather we’re pulled away from adapting to this world; the goal is not to let this world squeeze us into its mold, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. It means accepting that we don’t set the agenda, but rather that we’re called to surrender to God’s agenda, and thus recognizing that we’re people under authority—the authority of God, and thus of his revelation to us in his Word—and that we must bow to that authority even when we don’t like what we hear, rather than trying to find ways to rationalize what we want to do instead.
It means, in short, allowing ourselves to be Reformed, not by our word and our will, but by the will of God in accordance with his Word.
The only true and valid reformation occurs as we align our beliefs, our behavior, and our worship with the Word of God. In fact, the full, unabbreviated version of the Latin slogan is “Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est secundum Verbum Dei” (“The church Reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God.”)
God’s Word is the only true standard we have a divine mandate to conform to, and it is the ultimate standard by which we will be judged. Success or failure in ministry therefore cannot be evaluated by numerical statistics, financial figures, popularity polls, public opinion, or any of the other factors the world typically associates with “success.” The only real triumph in ministry is to hear Christ say, “Well done.”
One of the signs of spiritual life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was the proliferation of reformed confessions. Yet the motto semper reformanda reminds us to continue the task.
Professor A.T.B. McGowan has recently made the following appeal:
In our twenty-first century we face many complex issues, which earlier generations have not been required to face and it will not do merely to restate old ideas in the old familiar words and try to hide away from the modern world.
It simply is not an option to create little communities of people who attempt to live as people did in earlier centuries, using seventeenth-century language and seventeenth-century Bibles and circling the wagons against the outside world.
Semper reformanda means the rigorous reapplication of reformation principles to the theological questions of today. Who will take up the challenge?
Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, secundum verbum dei is a glorious motto for a reformation church. Both radicalism and conservatism must be subject to the word of God. To radicalism, the motto reminds us that reformation is not innovation – the gospel never changes. To conservative, it reminds us that reformation is not reassertion – the gospel needs to be continually reapplied, and our historic assumptions need to be continually reformed.
Semper reformanda is a clarion call to throw ourselves energetically into the reforming movement – ruthlessly to scrutinize our evangelical and evangelical traditions in the light of Scripture, to shake the ecclesiastical status quo with all our might, and never to give up.