Semper Reformanda in its Historical Context
The phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (the church reformed, always reforming) has been used so often as to make it a motto or slogan. People have used it to support a surprising array of theological and ecclesiastical programs and purposes. Scholars have traced its origins to a devotional book written by Jodocus van Lodenstein in 1674. Van Lodenstein, no doubt, had no intention of being a phrase-maker or sloganeer. What was his intention, and what did he mean by this phrase?
Van Lodenstein was a minister in the Reformed Church of the United Provinces in what we know today as the Netherlands. This church was born of decades of faithful preaching by ministers—many educated in Geneva—who risked their lives to carry the gospel, first into the French-speaking regions of the Low Countries, and later into the Dutch-speaking regions farther north. Some ministers were martyred for their faith, but they gathered a rich harvest of committed believers. Their message of the need for the reform of the church according to the Bible resonated with many who saw the corruptions of the old church.
Under the rulers Charles V and Philip II, the government of the Low Countries made every effort to suppress the Reformed religion, which was a large part of the reason for the Dutch revolt against their Spanish overlords. This revolt (1568-1648) became known as the Eighty Years’ War, giving birth to a new state in the northern part of the Low Countries. In this new state—the Dutch Republic, also known as the United Provinces—the Reformed Church was dominant, receiving government support and becoming the church of the majority of the population by the middle of the seventeenth century.
This church subscribed to the Belgic Confession (1561) and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), and had an essentially presbyterian form of government. Interference from the Protestant civil authorities of the new state limited the freedom of the Reformed Church, particularly in matters of discipline. That interference, in part, led to a crisis in the church in the early seventeenth century with the rise of Arminianism. That crisis was addressed and settled at the great international synod held in the city of Dordrecht in 1618-19. The Canons of Dort prepared at this synod became another doctrinal authority in the life of the church.
Jodocus van Lodenstein was born into a prominent family in the city of Delft in 1620. He was educated by two of the most distinguished Reformed professors of the day: the scholastic and pietist theologian Gisbertus Voetius of Utrecht and the covenant theologian Johannes Cocceius of Franeker. While being personally friendly with both theologians, he was more influenced by Voetius. Voetius stressed both precise theology and Christian living. Van Lodenstein was called to serve as a pastor in Utrecht, where he ministered from 1653 until his death in 1677. As a pastor, he always encouraged the faithful to disciplined, vital Christianity.
Van Lodenstein was an inheritor of a body clearly and fully reformed according to the Reformed or Calvinistic interpretation of the Bible. The Calvinists often described their vision of the church in three categories: doctrine, worship, and church government. In all three of these areas, the Dutch Reformed Church was thoroughly Calvinistic, similar in most ways to Calvinistic churches throughout the rest of Europe.
No church’s life is ever static, however, and van Lodenstein certainly saw some changes in his lifetime. In doctrine, for example, Reformed theologians were developing a covenant theology that would give great insight into both the structure of the unfolding revelation of the Bible and the work of Christ. Most Reformed Christians have seen this as a real theological advance. Van Lodenstein also saw the increasing use of the organ in public worship in the Reformed churches in his time. He knew the debates as to whether this change was a reformation or a deformation in the worship of the church. Are these the kinds of changes that he had in mind when he wrote about a church reformed and always reforming?
The answer to this question is no. Van Lodenstein was not thinking about adjustments and improvements to the church’s doctrine, worship, and government. These matters of external reform had been absolutely necessary when the Reformers accomplished them in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. But for Calvinists like van Lodenstein, they had been definitively accomplished and settled. He was not contemplating the value of relatively minor changes. He was not a man of later centuries who believed progress and change were necessary and good in and of themselves. He believed the Bible was clear on the foundations of doctrine, worship, and government, and that the Reformed churches had reformed these things correctly. In this sense, reform was a return to the teaching of the Bible. The Reformers had gotten these things right, and they were settled.
The great concern of ministers like van Lodenstein was not the externals of religion—as absolutely important as they are—but rather the internal side of religion. Van Lodenstein was a Reformed pietist and part of the Dutch Second Reformation. As such, his religious concerns were very similar to those of the English Puritans. They all believed that once the externals of religion had been carefully and faithfully reformed according to the Word of God, the great need was for ministers to lead people in the true religion of the heart. They saw the great danger of their day not as false doctrine or superstition or idolatry, but as formalism. The danger of formalism is that a church member could subscribe to true doctrine, participate in true worship in a biblically regulated church, and yet still not have true faith. As Jesus had warned against the Pharisees of His day, citing the prophet Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matt. 15:8).
The part of religion that always needs reforming is the human heart. It is vital religion and true faith that must be constantly cultivated. Formalism, indifferentism, and conformism must all be vigorously opposed by a faithful ministry.
Van Lodenstein and those who stood with him believed that the Canons of Dort presented a vision of true religion like their own. In the battle against Arminianism, one of the great issues had been the doctrine of regeneration. In sixteenth-century Reformed theology, theologians used regeneration as one of several synonyms for sanctification. So, for example, Article 24 of the Belgic Confession could state that we are regenerated by faith. But in the struggle against the Arminians, regeneration took on a more technical meaning, referring to the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in planting the new life in the soul that is necessary for faith. This new use of regeneration explained how faith was a gift of God, not the work of human free will. But it also explained how Christians were, by the grace of God, able to live a new life, pursuing holiness. The Canons of Dort declared:
When God carries out this good pleasure in his chosen ones, or works true conversion in them, he not only sees to it that the gospel is proclaimed to them outwardly, and enlightens their minds powerfully by the Holy Spirit so that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God, but, by the effective operation of the same regenerating Spirit, he also penetrates into the inmost being of man, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised. He infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant; he activates and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it may be enabled to produce the fruits of good deeds.
This doctrine of regeneration was used, then, to stress the new principle of life in the Christian and the need for that new life to be lived out. The Christian needed to eschew formalism and live out his faith in the daily struggle against sin, finding rest and hope in the promises and Spirit of God.
So what did van Lodenstein mean by his famous phrase reformed and always reforming? Probably something like this: since we now have a church reformed in the externals of doctrine, worship, and government, let us always be working to ensure that our hearts and lives are being reformed by the Word and Spirit of God. Whatever other meanings may be made of this phrase, this original meaning is well worth pondering and preserving.