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Who doesn’t love a good Latin phrase, especially when it can be bandied about in support of the spirit of the age?

Semper Reformanda. Always Reforming.

When the church changes its mind--or a professor or pastor or professional blogger demands that the church changes its mind--on, say, the definition of marriage or the nature of sexual sin, we can rest assured that, however much some traditionalists may object to the change, the church is courageously embodying the legacy of the Reformers and their insistence that the church should be always reforming. The Spirit reveals new truths for a new day. The body of Christ learns to set aside encrusted orthodoxy. The risen Jesus teaches his people what they had never seen before. That’s what semper reformanda is all about, right?

Not exactly.

While it’s true that we all see through a glass dimly and must be open to changing our minds, the Latin phrase semper reformanda was not about change for the sake of change, let alone reforming the church’s confessions to keep up with the times. In an insightful chapter entitled “Reformed and Always Reforming” (Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey, p. 116-134), Mike Horton explains the origins of the oft-repeated phrase. The saying first appeared in 1674 in a devotional book by Jodocus van Lodenstein. As a key figure in the Dutch Second Reformation (Nadere Reformatie), van Lodenstein wanted to see the members of the Dutch church, which had seen its doctrine become Reformed during the Reformation, continue to pursue reformation in their lives and practices. His concern was personal piety, not doctrinal progressivism.

It is important to see the entirety of van Lodenstein’s phrase: ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbi Dei (“the church is Reformed and always [in need of] being reformed according to the Word of God”). Notice three things about the saying.

First, it begins by addressing the church that is Reformed. Given van Lodenstein’s context in the Netherlands, we are right to capitalize Reformed. The saying was not generally about churches of the Reformation (though it has application for those churches too). Rather, van Lodenstein was addressing the Dutch church that had identified as confessionally Reformed, specifically in subscription to the Three Forms of Unity. In other words, far from encouraging doctrinal innovation, the original phrase presumes doctrinal stability. Whatever semper reformanda means, it cannot mean figure out your theological standards on the fly.

Second, the Latin verb reformanda is passive, which, as Horton points out, means the church is not “always reforming” but is “always being reformed.” The difference is consequential. The former sounds like change for the sake of change, while the latter suggests adhering to the proper standard. The passive construction also suggests that there is an external agent operating upon the church to bring about the necessary reform.

Which leads to the third and most important point: the church is always being reformed according to the Word of God. There is nothing Reformed or Reformational about changing the church’s theology and ethics to get on “the right side of history,” or to stay current with the insights of the social sciences, or even to prove that we love the least of these. The motto of the Reformation was not “Forward!” but “Backward!”--as in, “Back to the sources!” (ad fontes). As Horton puts it, the Reformers “wanted to recover something that had been lost, not to follow the winds of a rising modernity” (p. 123). If the church can never stand still, it is because it always needs re-orientation according to the Word that is over us (p. 125).

Semper reformanda is not about constant fluctuations, but about about firm foundations. It is about radical adherence to the Holy Scriptures, no matter the cost to ourselves, our traditions, or our own fallible sense of cultural relevance. If Christians want to change the church’s sexual ethics, so be it. But don’t claim the mantle of the Reformers in so doing. The only Reformation worth promoting and praying for is the one that gets us deeper into our Bibles, not farther away.

Stand your ground, hold fast, guard the good deposit. And be open to change whenever we drift from the truth or fail to grow up in it as we should.

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6 thoughts on “Semper Reformanda”

  1. Andrew_Z says:

    just a nit to pick – reformanda is a future passive participle in latin, and with the implied predicate verb it expresses obligation or necessity. So “must always be reformed” is probably a better translation than “is always being reformed.” Not sure there’s actually an emphasis on the “passivity” of reformation here. cf. the famous phrase Carthago delenda est. I don’t think it materially changes your emphasis here, but it does suggest an obligation that the Church must always be seeking to have it’s life, practice, doctrine etc., most closely conformed to scripture (i.e., the ad fontes impulse you point out). Clearly that’s not a “all change is good change” sentiment, but it does expect that the church’s doctrine is not a finished product and that we need to continue to search the scriptures.

  2. Dr. Richard Zeile says:

    Andrew’s point is well-taken. On a similar note, among Roman Catholic monastic orders it was a truism that community life and even the whole order’s life would need to be reformed according to the original ideals from time to time. Familiarity breeds contempt, practice becomes lax, words and ideals get subverted by the daily temptations we face. Progressivism subverts Church history including the venerable phrase Semper Reformanda; thank you for calling attention to the original idea.

  3. Curt Day says:

    The crucial issue about semper reformanda can be expressed in the one-and-many problem. Yes, we need to be reforming or always being reformed and it matters not at this point which is which. And the reason why we always need change is partially due to the errors of our ancestors as well as the new circumstances we might be facing that were not face before. To conform with our ancestors for conformity’s sake is to embrace an authoritarianism that revolves around the tyranny of tradition. And when that occurs, then it is possible that we have exalted the past over the present to the point that we have overlooked the limits and sins of the past.

    But while changing, we can’t afford to cut ourselves off from the essentials of the past that unites all of us in Christ. When we emphasize the present so much that we cut ourselves off from all tradition including what is essential, then we are embracing narcissism.

    As for being on the right side of history, it seems that this judgment must be determined on an issue by issue basis so that there is not rule that we can apply beforehand whatever the issues are.

  4. Floyd says:

    Etymology is probably a good place to start when speaking of words. Afterwards, we can move to grammar. Grammar gives some context, but etymology offers a bit more. The word actually arises from Old French (and that from Latin, meaning to return to the original with the connotation of a “good state.” Who or what defines that good? God did in the beginning after He completed His work of creation. This provides us some really good context. The Fall created an environment that took us away from the original good state of God’s intent. Always reforming is the process of returning us to what God proclaims as good in His declarations of the Scriptures. Another word helps us at this point – transform or transforming. God is in the process of transforming us according to His original intent. One day we will reach that original good state when we see Him face to face.

  5. Dean says:

    The winds of modernity and the winds of corruption & the wise man who built his house upon the rock (not Peter). The church, being organic, is a living thing, always growing, finding it’s nourishment in the ever rich and rested soil of Scripture as the Spirit tends to its health, maturity & fruit yeild.

    The right side of God is what is essential, not an obscure head nod to history which can amount to nothing more than the mud and mire of political manouvres and a crowd mentality helped along by a media driven storm.

    “Mid toil and tribulation, and tumult of her war”

  6. Paul Janssen says:

    Unfortunately, what Kevin does here is to construct an argument, the basis of which is one that he frequently decries, i.e., the “straw man.” While I will concede that there are progressives who carelessly toss around “reformata ut semper reformanda,” it is simply false to use phrases like “change for change’s sake” and the like. Serious Biblical research underlies a great many of the impulses of a variety of “progressive” movements. In other words, they are quite exactly following the maxim “reformata ut semper reformanda” according to the Word of God – rather than refusing to be reformed on account of cultural tradition or overlain interpretation. Sorry, but this argument does not bear the light of clear thinking.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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