by David Hall
Most Westerners have forgotten their Latin, if they ever knew it. If they’re not careful, therefore, they may confuse the Latin motto ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda with the U.S. Marines’ motto, Semper fi. There could be worse things.
For the Marine, Semper fi (abbreviated from Semper fidelis, “always faithful”) is shorthand for a lifestyle and a set of commitments. For the Christian, semper reformanda may help return communions to the ancient faith by separating mendicant (beggarly) traditions from the vitality of Scripture, or it may aid in diluting the faith.
THE MEANING OF THE PHRASE
Though the motto is frequently cited only in part, the full phrase means “the church having been reformed [past passive participle] and continuing to be reformed [future passive participle].” Sadly, many people corrupt the phrase either by mistranslating the original or by fixating on only one part of this motto.
The ideal version of the motto calls for three things: (1) for the church to undergo considerable reformation; (2) for the church continually to improve its reformation—but reformation toward a specific goal, namely, more Scriptural conformity; and (3) that any continuing reformation is also to be “according to the Word of God” (secundum verbum Dei). That key third aspect is often conveniently forgotten. When well-meaning Christians fail to emphasize all emphases of the motto equally, an ever-evolving church emerges. Christianity is continually reformed, all right—but reformed as Luther’s nose of wax, shaped like squishy putty according to each generation’s wishes.
Some groups seem to be disciples of semper revisionendum. To the naive observer, the First Church of the Here and Now—always changing, always revising—may appear attractive initially, but one will later find that this church is fatally infected with the virus of revisionism that destroys the church’s holiness, Apostolicity, and catholicity. One may transform a church that way, certainly, but the outcome is not always so salutary.
Revisionism can afflict conservatives as well as liberals. I once attended a conference where a group was implicitly trying to redefine itself. I was surprised to see the leaders of that ostensibly conservative group readily invoke the semper reformanda mantra. Having recently exited from a liberal denomination, I had learned to reach reflexively for my wallet to protect any remaining cash whenever I heard that phrase. In most cases, the phrase continually reforming signaled an ecclesiastical takeover or an attempt to move away from received truth. Of course, we realize that the past contains error, too. No tradition is infallible. G.K. Chesterton quipped: “The business of progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected.” Conservativism per se is not the standard. However, more often than not, the alterations based on this Latin siren call have been departures from orthodoxy.
At that same conference, not a single speaker showed the desired balance by citing the first part of the rubric: reformatus est (having been reformed). If one is be a semper reformanda advocate, then the least one could do to avoid total revisionism is to cite the motto’s first half—having been reformed—as emphatically as he calls for updating. Perhaps more attention should be devoted to “having [our churches] reformed” in reality before we march off to continue a reformation that wasn’t.
John Calvin (who didn’t employ this phrase) and others seemed to think that the ecclesiastical landscape could be primarily reformed according to the eternal truths of God’s Word; thus, the original Reformers gave little countenance to modernizing dynamics. Calvin, like Martin Luther, was certainly bold enough to seek to move the Roman Catholic Church back to the Scriptures and away from nonbiblical traditionalism. It is worth reminding our friends that Protestant reforming exemplars moved ad fontes (back to the sources) rather than ad futura sola (only toward the future).
THE PROPER USE
Properly used, this phrase can be helpful—a magnetic draw to our true north. Misused or employed for political liberalization or constant adaptation, it can be deadly. Semper reformanda is properly used when we recall:
- Our faith is not an evolving one (Jude 3).
- The church and its members are protected by biblical creeds and confessions.
- A confession is worthwhile if, and only if, it is thoroughly biblical.
- Only Scripture is inerrant; thus, confessions and any errant writings may be improved. The Westminster Confession of Faith even states in the opening chapter that the only infallible rule for interpretation is Scripture interpreting Scripture (1.9).
- Moreover, Scripture alone—our “norming norm”—is infallible and the “supreme judge…in whose sentence we are to rest” (WCF 1.10).
We also want to avoid Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees, who nullified Scripture to cater to the traditions of man (Matt. 15:6). Indeed, so much of Jesus’ example in the Gospels is concerned with returning gospel truth to its moorings, freeing it first from the barnacles of an encrusted traditionalism. Jesus’ exposition of the Mosaic law in Matthew 5 is a perfect example of calling for reform by returning to the true norm.
An example of a healthy continuing reformation occurred when the American version of the Westminster Confession of Faith altered its expectations about the civil magistrate’s scope. The original confession (adopted in an England that allowed for the authority of the state in church affairs) acknowledged a much larger role for civil governors than most modern democracies grant. At the first American Presbyterian General Assembly (1789), the church amended the confession in this section, seeking to protect individual and ecclesiastical liberty even against a well-meaning theocratic tendency. After centuries of exegesis and struggle (even martyrdom for some), the American version of the Westminster Confession was reformed according to Scripture. For that biblical correction, we may be thankful. Similarly, the modern church’s support for universal literacy, equal civil rights, and protection of the unborn, along with a more robust sacramentology, are examples of a continuing growth in biblical faithfulness.
FAITHFULNESS TO GOD’S WORD
Even more important than any Latinism, the real standard should be “Thus saith the Lord.” We ought to do as the Bereans did (Acts 17:10-11) in searching Scripture for the truth. The prophet Isaiah called us to measure things by resorting “to the teaching and to the testimony” (Isa. 8:20), while Jeremiah urged us to seek the old paths (Jer. 6:16). In Romans, Paul said, “Let God be true though every one were a liar” (3:4), while Jude 3 speaks of the changeless faith.
As the New Testament unfolds, it is not one faith among many, or “a faith,” or whatever it is to which people sincerely hold that is defended. Instead, it is “the faith.” A cursory review makes it clear that “the faith” is a set of revealed truths (1 Tim. 1:19; 4:1, 6, 16). God, in His mercy, has not founded the church on an imperfect platform that needs serial upgrades or constant core revision. However, human constructs always show imperfection.
Thankfully, even though fixed articles of belief were employed as standards of truth by the middle of the first century, the best Protestant confessions declare “Scripture over tradition” up front. Devoted Christians will want always to be reforming the church according to Scripture. Failure to do so often yields chaos, will-worship, confusion, idiosyncrasy, idolatry of method, or continual flux.
Being reformed according to Scripture and continuing to pursue even greater faithfulness to God’s Word can be emancipating. Pharisees and Sadducees, both ancient and modern, are masters of using the unwritten standards to club the uninitiated into a coma. A church conformed to biblical truths, however, does not subject the believing community to these secret laws. Instead, it liberates us from self-standards and also makes the church accessible to all under the same standards.
Nevertheless, two things will make this motto more useful:
- The reformatus est part—the church must first deal with major issues before turning its attention to lesser matters. A church not having been reformed on the essentials will hardly be able to continue reformation.
- The “always being reformed” is measured by a standard: Scripture itself (secundum verbum Dei). It does no good to call for continuing Reformation if it is not abundantly clear that the goal is to conform more to the timeless Scriptures.
The church of Jesus always needs to grow in conformity to Christ. However, that sanctification may be vastly different from conformity to revised ideas or modern impulses. As such, whenever we use this phrase properly, semper reformanda should lead to semper fidelis. That is the proper use of the ideal. And if Christ’s church is being sanctified and being made radiant (Eph. 5:27), if we learn some of the mistakes of the past and stick ruggedly to Scripture, we may be blessed with greater conformity to Scripture.