The Reformation churches have some wonderful slogans that are chock full of important truths. Sometimes, however, these slogans can be misconstrued, misreported, and misunderstood. With the possible exception of sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone), none of these slogans has been mangled more often toward greater mischief than ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (the church reformed, always reforming). According to historian Michael Bush, much of what we think we know about this slogan is probably wrong. The phrase is not from the sixteenth century. I have searched hundreds of documents in a variety of languages from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda does not occur in them. Neither does the phrase semper reformanda (always reforming). Certainly, the Reformed writers spoke of a "Reformed church" and of the necessity of reformation. But men such as Calvin, who published a treatise on the need for reformation in 1543, did not use the phrase. The Dutch Reformed minister Jodocus van Lodenstein (1620-77) first used something like it in 1674 when he juxtaposed "reformed" with "reforming," but he did not say, "always."
The Dutch Reformed theologian Jacobus Koelman (1632-95) expressed similar ideas and attributed them to his teacher Johannes Hoornbeek (1617-66), who himself was a student of the great Gijsbertus Voetius (1589-1676). None of them added the phrase secundum verbum Dei (according to the Word of God). The source of that phrase is almost certainly the twentieth-century Princeton Seminary professor Edward Dowey (1918-2003).
Van Lodenstein and the others were part of a school of thought in the Netherlands that was closely connected to the English Reformed theology, piety, and practice represented by such writers such as William Perkins (1558-1602) and William Ames (1576-1633). They identified themselves as part of a "Further Reformation" (Nadere Reformatie). Like Perkins, Ames, the divines of the Westminster Assembly (1643- 48) in the British Isles, and the great international Synod of Dort (1618-19), this school of thought was concerned that the church not lapse back into error and darkness. It wanted the church to continue to pursue purity of doctrine, piety, and worship.
The full phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei (the church reformed, always reforming according to the Word of God) is a post-World War II creature. It was given new impetus by the modernist Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968), who used variations of the phrase with some frequency. Mainline (liberal) Presbyterian denominations have sometimes used variations of this phrase in official ways.
In effect, the phrase is most commonly taken to mean "the church is reformed but needs to be changed in various ways." It is frequently invoked as a way of expressing dissatisfaction with Reformed theology as received and expressed by the Reformed churches in the Reformed confessions (for example, the Belgic Confession, 1561; the Heidelberg Catechism, 1563; the Westminster Standards, 1648). Thus, in 1967, the United Presbyterian Church in the USA rejected the historic Christian and Reformed understanding that Scripture is the inerrant (does not err), infallible (cannot err) Word of God written. Ironically, under the modern misunderstanding of the phrase the church reformed, always reforming, the denomination moved away from the Reformed view and adopted a view taught by the Anabaptist radical Thomas Müntzer (1489-1525) that the Reformers knew and rejected.
When Calvin and the other Reformed writers used the adjective reformed, they did not think that it was a thing that could never actually be accomplished. Late in his life, Calvin remarked to the other pastors in Geneva that things were fairly well constituted, and he exhorted them not to ruin them. He and the others thought and spoke of reformation of the church not as a goal never to be achieved in this life, but as something that either had been or could be achieved because they believed God's Word to be sufficiently clear. That is, what must be known for the life of the church can be known and, with the help of God's Spirit and by God's grace alone, changes could be made (and were being made) to bring the doctrine, piety, and practice of the church into conformity with God's will revealed in Scripture. That's why they wrote church orders and adopted confessions—because they believed that reformation was a great but finite task.
They did not imagine that the theology, piety, and practice of the church Reformed according to Scripture was inherently deficient such that it needs to be augmented by other traditions. Unlike many today who invoke these words, the Reformed did not see reform as a justification for eclecticism, borrowing a bit of this and a bit of that for a theological-ecclesiastical stew. They were not narrow, however. They were catholic (universal) in their theology, piety, and practice. They sought to reform the church according to the Scriptures, but they paid close attention to the way the early fathers read and applied Scripture, and, where those interpretations withstood scrutiny (sola Scriptura), they adopted or restored them.
Another of the more pernicious abuses of the slogan semper reformanda in recent years is its invocation by adherents of the self-described Federal Vision movement. The adjective federal in this context has nothing to do with civil politics; rather, it refers to Reformed covenant theology. The advocates of the Federal Vision adopted this name for their movement to highlight either the need to change Reformed theology or to recover an earlier version, depending upon which of them you ask. They agree, however, that every baptized person is given a temporary, conditional election, regeneration, justification, union with Christ, adoption, and so on. After baptism, it is up to the Christian to do his part to retain what was given by grace. They speak of the "objectivity of the covenant." They typically do not accept the Reformed distinction between the covenants of works and grace, between law and grace, or between law and gospel. They reject the Reformed doctrine that there are two ways of communing in the visible covenant community (the church): inwardly and outwardly. According to the Federal Vision, no one is finally regenerate, elect, or justified until the last day. They either redefine or mock the historic understanding of justification by divine favor alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) as "easy believism." Like the modernists who would take us back to the Anabaptists on the doctrine of Scripture, advocates of the Federal Vision seek to take us back to the pre-Reformation church in the doctrine of salvation, and as they do so, they invoke the slogan ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.
When Calvin and others in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries wrote of the church reformed and of the necessity of reforming the church, they were expressing their consciousness that, because of sin and its effects, the church tends toward corruption. Within just a few decades of recovering the gospel of free acceptance by God through faith alone, the Protestants nearly lost that precious truth in the 1550s. Reformation can be and has been achieved in this life, but it is not easy to retain it. By the time of late-seventeenth-century Geneva, the church had enjoyed the ministry of some of the most courageous ministers and professors in the Reformation: William Farel, John Calvin, Pierre Viret, Theodore Beza, and Francis Turretin, to name but a few. By the early eighteenth century, however, the Reformation was virtually extinct in Geneva, and has not yet been fully recovered.
There is much truth in the slogan the church reformed, always reforming, but it was never intended to become a license for corrupting the Reformed faith. We should understand and use it as a reminder of our proclivity to wander from that theology, piety, and practice taught in Scripture and confessed by the church. Certainly, our confessions are reformable. We Protestants are bound to God's Word as the charter and objective rule of Christian faith and practice. Should someone discover an error in our theology, piety, or practice, we are bound by our own confessions and church orders to hear an argument from God's Word. Should that argument prevail, we must change our understanding or our practice. But we should not, under cover of this late-seventeenth-century slogan, subvert what Scripture teaches for a continuing, never-ending Reformation that leads us away from the heart and soul of what we confess.