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 Emergent Church 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.
By A. Craig Troxel
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 Emergent Church (Zondervan, 2005), 42-43.