With cliches and famous phrases, all you need to do is begin the expression and most people will know how to properly finish it. Knowing half of the phrase or being ignorant of its meaning, however, can lead to gross misuse. (Yes, that’s a nod to Ron Burgundy.)
A popular phrase in some Protestant circles–especially Presbyterian ones–is the Protestant Reformation expression ecclesia reformata semper reformanda, Latin for what many translate as “the Church reformed and always reforming”. (With ‘reformed’ here not synonymous with Reformed theology, but indicating adaptation or re-construction or re-molding.) In mainline Presbyterian conversations that often gets shortened even further to “always reforming”, and is held up as the rallying cry to which we must adhere.
The often implicit, sometimes explicit intent with this is to say that the Church is not being faithful to her calling or identity unless she is constantly revising and reinventing herself. If we need to get rid of certain things, modify others, or introduce new ones, then so be it. So much the better, actually, because we are to be “always reforming”. Why be shackled by things like history or tradition? Why not fashion creative new structures or beliefs?
At the end of the recent The Lego Movie (I should probably say “spoilers ahead”), the scene between father and son shows the two different approaches they each take to the Legos. Dad has carefully followed all the instructions, built an intricate world, and superglued most of it together so it cannot be changed. His son, however, likes to disassemble it all and rebuild it in creative new ways, mixing pieces that had never been mixed before, joining various worlds together, and unleashing his inner creativity. The dad, after being upset at what happened to his stuff, joins the audience in seeing that this is actually why the toys were made in the first place. He had been limited, shackled by the instructions, and never able to have real fun until he joined his son in taking the materials and reforming them into whatever they wanted.
It was a good end to the movie, and a great way to view Legos as toys. (Though I have to confess, when my boys have disassembled their special Lego sets and then asked me to rebuild them, I’ve been tempted to grab the superglue myself.) ‘Always reforming’ would be a fine slogan to prompt innovation with interlocking plastic pieces, but I think it can be problematic for the Church. Here’s why.
To begin, ‘always reforming’ is not even a correct grammatical translation of the Latin semper reformanda, which is a ‘gerundive’, or future passive, and is meant to be translated “always being reformed”. In other words, the Church is not the active agent who does the reforming, but the passive agent who is reformed. So we may ask, “How, and by whom/what?”
For starters, we need to consider the entire phrase, not just half of it. The entire phrase that the Reformers used–which you almost never actually see–is eccelsia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei. That last part means “according to the word of God”, and is the lynchpin for the whole expression. It’s in Scripture that we find the revealed character, will, and purposes of God. So whatever ‘reform’ is being proposed or attempted in the Church is to be done in accordance with these things. And, because we are being reformed, we are reminded that it is the work of the Spirit to bring about these changes in the hearts and lives of those whom God has called to himself in Christ.
This is not to advocate an arid traditionalism or say that any and all change is wrong. But against those who will say that we must be willing to move into new understandings or beliefs because we’re ‘listening to what the Spirit is saying in our day’, we must remember the call to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3) by listening to what the Spirit says in the Word.
I recently came across on old blog post by Craig Troxel who expressed these thoughts quite well. Here’s part of what he wrote:
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.
Is the Church in need of reform? Yes. It always has been. After all, it’s full of redeemed sinners. But that reform isn’t done on a whim or in response to new societal currents or cultural trends. It’s not even done by us. Rather, it’s done to us and in us by the Spirit who speaks in and through the Word to remake us into the image of Jesus Christ.