What Semper Reformanda Is and Isn’t
There are many familiar phrases with which everyone would agree. “It would be a good thing to eliminate world poverty” is one that comes to mind. What is interesting, of course, is that while there may be agreement on the sentiment expressed, there is often radical disagreement on how it is to be achieved. In this example, some might argue for greater deregulation of international trade, others for increased aid, others for targeted educational solutions.
There are also some phrases that occur in the context of the church that are similar in terms of universal agreement. One that is a hardy perennial within broadly Reformed evangelical circles is this: The Reformed church always needs reforming. Who could disagree with that sentiment? It seems on the surface to capture something of the scriptural earnestness of the Reformation. To reject it would seem to smack of a complacent, if not positively pharisaical, assertion of the perfection of the status quo. It would also appear to undermine that most basic of Reformation ideas—the church is always to be measuring itself by Scripture and thus always seeking to change in ways that make its testimony more faithful to God’s revelation.
Unfortunately, however, the phrase is somewhat contentless. Within the last decade, it became the rallying cry of groups influenced by the so-called emergent church movement. To them, it meant that the church needed to engage in a fundamental, and generally continual, reformulation of her doctrine and, indeed, of her understanding of what doctrine is and how it is to function. Thus, doctrines such as justification, inerrancy, and even the idea of Scripture alone needed to be rethought in the context of a postmodern mind-set.
We might say that when used this way, the phrase “the reformed church always needs reforming” was less a basic methodological principle and more of an aesthetic. What I mean is this: we live in a world where the idea of truth as fixed and stable is unpopular and even regarded as dangerous and oppressive by many. Instead, people prefer a world where truth is always in flux, where it is negotiable, where, one might say, it ultimately makes no absolute demands on anyone.
Thus, this phrase appeals because it seems to make the truth a matter of continual negotiation and change. The church claims that Jesus is God? Well, that may have been true at Chalcedon in 451, but we need a different model for understanding Him today. The church denies the legitimacy of same-sex marriage? Again, that idea may have operated in a time when homophobia was dominant—indeed, it may have helped to maintain precisely such homophobia—but we need to reform our understanding of marriage and sex in light of contemporary needs and demands. Flux, change, and uncertainty rule, and glossing these with the phrase “the reformed church always needs reforming” gives this very postmodern aesthetic a speciously orthodox sound.
In fact, the phrase is a good one, but only when it is understood as reflecting the basic scriptural principle of the Reformed church.
There are two foundations necessary for grasping the appropriate meaning of the phrase. First, Scripture is the final authoritative source for the church’s life and doctrine. Everything the church says or does is to be consistent with God’s Word and is to be regulated by God’s Word. One implication of this is that whatever the church says and does because of inferences drawn from Scripture must be scrutinized very carefully in light of Scripture. There is always potential for refinement, for example.
For example, in the third century, most theologians held to some form of what is technically known as subordinationism—that Christ was not quite God, and only God the Father was fully God. It was only over a period of time, as this idea was subjected to scriptural scrutiny, that this view’s weaknesses and flaws became clear and the church had to sharpen her formulation of the doctrine of God in order to exclude this inadequate theology. The church was being reformed—was reforming her teaching—in the light of Scripture.
The Reformation was in many ways the greatest example of this. The medieval church had preserved much that was true: the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation are perhaps the most obvious. But her teaching on grace, on justification, and on the sacraments (among other things) had wandered far from the teaching of Paul and the Apostles. The Reformers did not abandon all that the church had taught in previous centuries and start to rebuild her from the ground up. Instead, they subjected the church’s teaching to the scrutiny of Scripture and abandoned those parts that failed to measure up to Scripture’s teaching, sharpened those parts that lacked scriptural precision, and maintained those parts that were faithful to the Bible.
The second foundation for grasping the appropriate meaning of the phrase “always reforming” is the knowledge that human beings are fallible—indeed, not just fallible but sinful. Thus, we make mistakes, even when attempting to interpret and apply God’s Word. More than that, as sinners we have a vested interest in interpreting and applying Scripture incorrectly when it suits our own selfish purposes.
We see this all the time. Some try to soften the Bible’s teaching on sin in order to make themselves seem less bad. Some alter the Bible’s teaching on the penal nature of the death of Christ in order to avoid the terrifying fact that God is wrathful against sin.
Perhaps we might bring this closer to home: Reformed churches have at times used Scripture to justify such things as racism (for example, in the United States and South Africa). The point is that we are all, as sinners, vulnerable to using God’s Word in sinful ways, and thus we are always in need of “being reformed” in the light of Scripture. Thus, the church needs to be constantly vigilant and to demonstrate in practice that Berean spirit of searching the Scriptures to see if the things the church teaches are indeed so (Acts 17:10-11). That is what “always reforming” means—always returning to Scripture to examine the church’s testimony in the light of what Scripture teaches.
When we compare the two ways in which the phrase is used, the difference is clear. In the former use—that of the emergent church and the postmoderns—the assumption is that truth is flexible, a function of context and circumstances, as malleable and adaptable as the social framework within which it is found. If this is so, it is indeed hard to determine what would constitute an error, for the truth is so elusive as to be nonexistent according to any traditional understanding of truth. Perhaps error is simply whatever does not work in a particular circumstance. The key to reforming is to find what does work. That would certainly explain the mystical and pragmatic direction that the emerging church ended up traveling.
In the latter use, the assumption is that, to borrow a phrase, “the truth is out there” in Scripture and is indeed accessible. Yes, human beings can make errors of interpretation because of intellectual and moral incompetence, but they are errors precisely because Scripture embodies truth and has a fixed, true meaning against which error can be judged. God has spoken, His Word is truth, and it is the church’s responsibility to regulate her speech in light of God’s speech. That is what continual reformation is. The true meaning of the phrase is that we are constantly called back to Scripture as the final authoritative basis upon which to build our theology and our practice.