Should the Church Really Be Always Reforming?

Kevin DeYoung:

The Church doesn’t get everything right. Anyone who knows church history will admit that Christians have been wrong before, and they will be wrong again. And yet, to confess our interpretive imperfection is not to open the door to every interpretive innovation. Change is not always good and drifting with the winds of the world is always bad.

Whenever there is a push to alter the church’s historic understanding of the faith — regarding sexuality or biblical authority or the historicity of Adam and Eve or whatever — you are bound to hear someone appeal to the Reformation slogan semper reformanda. We are told that the Spirit reveals new truths for a new day, that Jesus is pouring old wine into new wineskins, that the church must be “always reforming.”

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 reforming the church’s confessions to keep up with the times. The saying first appeared in 1674 in a devotional book by Jodocus van Lodenstein. As a key figure in the Dutch Second Reformation, 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. In English: “The church is Reformed and always [in need of] being reformed according to the Word of God.” Notice three things about this dictum.

First, it begins by addressing the church that is Reformed. Van Lodenstein was addressing the Dutch church that had identified as confessionally Reformed, specifically in subscription to the Three Forms of Unity. Far from encouraging doctrinal innovation, the original phrase presumes doctrinal stability. It is not an encouragement to figure out your theological standards on the fly.

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

This leads to the third and most important point: The church is always being reformed according to the Word of God. There is nothing Reformed 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. The point of van Lodenstein’s phrase was that the Church must constantly re-submit itself to the Lordship of Christ exercised in his Word.

Semper reformanda is not about constant fluctuations, but about firm foundations. It is about a personal devotion to match our doctrinal precision. 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 people think the Bible is wrong, they should say so. But they must not 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.

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.