'Semper Reformanda' or 'Semper Mutanda'?

The popularity of the phrase semper reformanda seems to be on the up-and-up.  Yet two serious questions haunt it.

The first, though far the less important, is, Who was the first to use it.  Many have enquired and searched diligently but the answer still seems to elude us.  It doesn’t occur in any of the great Reformed confessions or in the works of the magisterial Reformers, including Calvin.  It’s not even clear what exactly we’re looking for.  The phrase, semper reformanda, can’t stand by itself, yet we don’t seem to know what other bits were originally attached to it.  Presumably, the subject of semper reformanda should be ecclesia reformata, so that whatever semper reformanda  means it is something that should be done either by or to the Reformed church.  But the precise statement, Ecclesia reformata reformanda est, is proving very difficult to find; and if found at all will probably turn up in the writings of one of the more obscure theologians (or their opponents), not in the works of one of the Masters.

Not that it matters much who first said it.  Far more important is what it actually means, and here the discussion (or at least as much as I’ve seen of it) becomes a little irritating; as will my contribution to it, which verges on pedantry.  Too often, semper reformanda is translated, ‘always reforming’, but unless I’m losing my marbles that is emphatically not what it means.  If it were, the phrase would read, semper reformans, using a present participle; and even that would leave us with a lot of ambiguity because the noun would need either a subject or an object to tell us what is being reformed and who is doing it.

But reformanda is not a present participle but something infinitely more beautiful.  It is a Gerundive: a verbal adjective, and when applied to the Reformed church it means not, ‘reforming’, but ‘requiring to be reformed’.  It was a gerundive the Roman Senator, Cato, used when he urged an aggressive foreign policy on the Roman Republic in the second century BC and repeatedly hammered out the line, Carthago delenda est: ‘Carthage must be destroyed’; it is a Latinate gerundive we still use today when we speak of an ‘agenda’, meaning not ‘things which are doing’ but ‘things to be done’; and it is a similar gerundive we use when we speak of God as mysterium tremendum, meaning not that God is trembling but that he is to be trembled at.

The phrase semper reformanda has to be translated in the same way.  It doesn’t mean that the church (the Reformed church) is always reforming, but that it always requires to be reformed; or, more precisely, re-formed.

In practice?

But what can that mean in practice?  Broadly, that we can never be content with what we have attained; or, more likely, what we have slipped back into.  The danger that we shall revert to our pre-reformed state is ever present, and all too often that is the result of the latest invocation of semper reformanda.  We confuse change with reformation, as if semper reformanda  meant semper mutanda.  Then we end up simply reintroducing old abuses.

But what does semper reformanda mean in detail?

First, the need for continuous vigilance lest something in our confession or practice is, after all, unbiblical.  This point was made most memorably in the Preface to the Scots Confession of 1560, when the compilers urged anyone who found anything in the Confession ‘repugnant to God’s holy ward’ to  ‘inform them of the same in writing’.  Such a check is always imperative.  There may be elements in historic creeds which we now see cannot stand the test of scripture; and there may be dubious practices which have become set in stone for no better reason than that they have grown venerable with age.  Constant scrutiny is needed.

Secondly, it may be that God has caused new light to break forth from his word.  This may not be a contradiction of earlier light but simply a clarification of it.  Perhaps the clearest instance of this is the doctrine of divine passibility.  There is no denying that from the earliest church fathers down to the 20th century the doctrine of divine impassibility was taken for granted.  God could not be moved by anything outside of himself.  Such was the distaste for ‘passions’ that some of the Church Fathers even went so far as to assume that the human nature of Christ could experience no passions.  In particular, it was taken as an axiom that God couldn’t be grieved or upset, and since the Bible described him as having emotions (or reacting emotionally) these emotions had to be spirited away or demythologised.  They were only ‘as if’ emotions.  We then ended up with the paradox that the word ‘propitiation’  became an Evangelical shibboleth while at the same time the anger which propitiation was mean to appease was relegated to a mere anthropopathism.  God’s anger was only what we humans would feel if we were in God’s position, but actually he wasn’t angry at all because he is impassible: in which case, if nothing outside of himself affects him, why do we need atonement?  And in what sense do we bear God’s image if the anger we feel in the presence of moral outrage is completely alien to him?

The principle of semper reformanda means that the dogma of divine impassibility must, at the very least, be revisited.  There can be no purer God-talk than the talk of the Bible itself, and in that talk God is an emotionally interactive being.  Or is the joy in heaven over a sinner’s repentance confined to the angels?

Thirdly, the principle of semper reformanda means that the church cannot remain forever locked-in to the controversies of the past.  She must continually re-adjust herself to face new challenges. Not that the great debates of the Reformation are now obsolete: protest against the errors of Romanism will always be an essential part of what it means to be Reformed, and any interpretation of semper reformanda which mutes this protest is to be deplored.    But at the same time there are new challenges: Darwinism and Pentecostalism, to name but two.  Our responsibility, under the rubric semper reformanda, is not simply to say No! to such developments.  They are also opportunities to fine-tune our own Reformed doctrine.  Whatever the downsides of the Charismatic Movement, for example, it has generated an unprecedented interest in the ministry of the Holy Spirit and reminded us that the church is fit for purpose only as we ‘fan into flame’ (2 Tim. 1.6) the gifts he has given to us.  At the same time rigorous criticism is in order, directed particularly at the idea that we can be ‘in Christ’ and yet not enjoy the fullness of the Holy Spirit.

But semper reformanda also means taking pains to keep our reformed identity even as we continue to re-form ourselves.  This has to mean more than hanging on to the so-called Five Points.  But it also means that we can’t simply fall in to the mind-set of post-Wesley Evangelicalism.  Instead, we have to re-form in accordance with the total witness of the great Reformed confessions:  a witness which includes precisely those elements most gravely jeopardised by the abuse of semper reformanda. 

First, the doctrine of the church.  The story of Western Christianity since the Great Awakening has been the story of an unstoppable slide into ecclesiastical anarchy.  In the thought of Calvin and the Reformed creeds the church was the divinely appointed agent not only of pastoral care but also of evangelism, missions and church-planting; and precisely for that reason it was imperative that she be organised not in accordance with human entrepreneurialism but in accordance with the structures indicated in Scripture.  This is why of the four books of Calvin’s Institutes one whole book is devoted to the doctrine of the church, carefully outlining a Presbyterian polity, defining the church’s place in relation to the state, and working out a detailed doctrine of the sacraments.

To Calvin, this was no secondary matter.  It was absolutely central, and his legacy stands today to remind us that in order to qualify as ‘Reformed’ a church has to be reformed in polity as well as in doctrine.  Once we forget that, we create confusion and disorder, not least because instead of trying to reform the church we forsake her, and bring under our own personal management work which properly belongs to the church.  The result is a plethora of independent organisations which all too often become private spiritual fiefdoms.

Secondly, the principle of semper reformanda has too often served as a cover for innovations in worship which carry us far away from the worship of the Reformation.  So-called ‘worship wars’ are often derided as distractions from the real work of the church, but the Reformation itself was largely a worship war.  Should the ‘host’ be adored?  Should the Virgin be worshipped?  Should images be used as aids to devotion?  Should saints and angels be invoked?  Should there be prayers for the dead?  Should we kneel at Communion?  These were central issues for the Reformers, and they were no less central for the Puritans.  It was precisely for their refusal to return to pre-Reformation patterns of worship that 2000 ministers were expelled from the Church of England in the Great Ejection of 1662.  In how many ‘Reformed’ churches would these Puritan ministers survive today?

The Reformed principle of worship was crystal-clear.  Expressed positively, it laid down that all the elements of worship must be sanctioned by Scripture; expressed negatively (as, for example, by Calvin, in his tract on The Necessity of Reforming the Church), it meant that ‘God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word.’  Anglicans and Lutherans adopted the very different principle that what was not forbidden in worship is permitted, but the Reformed were adamant that, when it came to worship, human ingenuity, inventiveness and taste must be reined in.  It was for God, not man, to decide how he should be worshipped.  He, not the congregation, was to be impressed.  In sum, the phrase, ‘we like’ had no place in liturgical thinking.  After all, Roman Catholics liked ‘the high drama of the Mass’.  But it was what God ‘liked’ that mattered.

This didn’t mean, and still doesn’t mean, that it is always clear what exactly has been prescribed by God; nor was it always clear what was an ‘element’ of worship and what was merely circumstantial.  The Puritans seem to have spent little time, for example, arguing over versions of the Bible.  But they were in no doubt that the indispensable elements of worship were prayer, the reading of the word, the preaching of the word, the administration of the sacraments, and the singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs; nor were they in much doubt that any additional ceremonies and embellishments were evil.

What would Calvin think were he to come back to sample Reformed worship today?  He would be gratified, I’m sure, by the quality of much of the expository preaching, but appalled by the musical hype, the theatrical razzmatazz and the shameless exhibitionism.  And he would have demanded, imperiously, ‘Reformanda!  It must be reformed!’

The fundamental principle of Calvinism, wrote B. B. Warfield, is ‘a profound apprehension of God in his majesty’.  It is that apprehension that lies at the heart of Reformed worship.  Its key-note must be a tremulous awe in the presence of the holy; its fundamental posture must be self-abasement; and its primary melodies must be those of the human heart and voice, burdened by sin, comforted by grace, and moved by the sublimities of revelation to cry out, ‘Oh! the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!’