This month's edition of Tabletalk magazine features an impressive lineup of church historians (namely, Bob Godfrey, Carl Trueman, and Scott Clark) discussing the historical origins -- as well as popular uses and abuses -- of the slogan "reformed, [and] always reforming according to the Word of God" (reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei). Employed as an epithet for the Protestant Reformed church as a whole, the slogan in its fullest form (including the prepositional phrase "according to the Word of God") is apparently "a post-World War II creature" (Clark; p. 17). Godfrey traces the abbreviated slogan (lacking the prepositional phrase) to a 1674 devotional work by the Dutch Reformed minister Jodocus van Lodenstein; Clark qualifies this claim somewhat, pointing out that while Van Lodenstein did in fact juxtapose "reformed" with "reforming" in description of the church, he never used the exact expression "reformed, always reforming," and, for that matter, never qualified "reforming" with the adverb "always."
The authors agree that the slogan can be put to positive use, either to remind Reformed Christians of their need to bring their piety into line with their doctrine (i.e., always reformed in doctrine, always reforming in life) or to remind them of the constant need to return to the Reformed faith as expressed in our historic confessions (given our natural proclivity to drift from the same). More often than not, however, the slogan is employed to justify doctrinal or practical innovations in the life of the church, as if "always reforming" means doctrine and worship must never exactly mirror doctrine and worship as it existed in any previous generation. "Always reforming," in other words, becomes the catchphrase of those who are never content with the faith confessed by the saints who have gone before us, and so are always tinkering with the same, invariably for ill rather than good.
Regarding the question of this slogan's historical origins, it's interesting -- particularly in light of the reality that Van Lodenstein never qualified "reforming" with "always" when juxtaposing it with "reformed" -- to find the exact phrases "always reforming" and "reformed" purposefully juxtaposed by an English writer six years prior to the publication of Van Lodenstein's work. The English writer in question was Abraham Wright, a.k.a Abraham Philotheus, a religious conformist at the time of the restoration of Charles II. Wright's work has not figured into historical work on the origins of the phrase semper reformanda (for reasons that will become obvious), but perhaps it should. Wright wrote, in 1668, a book called Anarchie Reviving, in which he denounced Presbyterians north of the border (i.e., Scottish Covenanters) who justified their lack of conformity as an instance of "freedom of conscience." Wright urged the use of governmental force to suppress such persons. In his view, Scottish Presbyterians were politically seditious and religiously schismatic, in both regards satisfying what he identified as an inherently British "itch... for factions" analogous to the French passion for "new fashions."
Having traced the Covenanters discontentment with civil government and ecclesiastical policies through the successive reigns of Charles I, the "long" and "rump" parliaments, Cromwell, and Charles II, Wright made the following conclusion about Scottish Presbyterians:
They could no more endure the Long Parliament with [its] Aristocracie, not the Rump with [its] Oligarchie, nor the Protector with his Olivarchie, then their lawfull Prince with his regular Monarchie. In a word, what they are in Church they are in State; always Reforming, but never Reformed.
Wright's juxtaposition of "reformed" with "always reforming," obviously intended as a slur, results in something different than the slogan eventually embraced by the Reformed church to identify herself. One does wonder, however, if Wright -- who was actually a fairly clever writer -- wasn't intentionally punning an already existing phrase which Scottish Presbyterians employed (perhaps in defense of their ongoing efforts to achieve the church they envisioned in the face of political resistance) when he described his literary targets as "always reforming, but never reformed." In other words, Wright's comment could be read as historical evidence -- however slender -- for a pre-1668 use of the exact phrase "reformed, always reforming." At the very least, it may point to the need to keep open the question of when the precise phrase "reformed, always reforming" originated, regardless of what the literary record tells us.
In any case, the particular result of Wright's juxtaposition of "always reforming" with "reformed" may provide us with a useful label to affix to those who champion the slogan reformata, semper reformanda towards mischievous ends. Those who constantly tinker with the Reformed faith, and excuse their actions as a matter of "always reforming" (Clark mentions Karl Barth, mainline liberals, and recent Federal Visionists in particular) might best be labeled "always reforming, but never reformed." Being "reformed," after all, means arriving at the doctrinal positions of the historic Reformed symbols, not starting from there to travel elsewhere.
The Latinization of Wright's phrase would gives us the slogan, useful for describing such Reformed dissidents, as semper reformanda, numquam reformata. And since, as Michael Bird recently reminded us, "Latin is cool," why wouldn't we want to supply ourselves with another handy Latin phrase, particularly one which -- like the bulk of our Reformation era Latin slogans -- serves to situate us in relation to those with whom we disagree?
Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.