Results tagged “Semper Reformanda” from Reformation21 Blog

Always Reforming?

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."[1] 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..."2 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. 

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 Emergent Church at this very point.3 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.

1. The author speaks of Latinists in the third person. He is not a Latin expert, nor has he ever been accused of being one.

2. John Franke, "Reforming Theology: Toward a Postmodern Reformed Dogmatics,' Westminster Theological Journal 65 (2003), 1.

3. e.g., D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant With the Emergent Church (Zondervan, 2005), 42-43.

Editor's Note: This is an adapted version of an article which originally appeared in the Nicotine Theological Journal, and is used here with permission and gratitude. It was orig posted at Ref21 originally in February of 2006. 

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.