Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei

or, in English, “The church reformed and always being reformed according to the word of God.” This 16th-century Latin motto captures the spirit and purpose of the Reformation, and so it has continued to be used through the centuries by those of us who consider ourselves heirs of the Reformation and students of the wisdom of the great Reformers. (You know, the sort of people who look at October 31 and think “Reformation Day,” not just Halloween, and write blog posts in honor of the day.)

Unfortunately—aided by a common mistranslation, “the church reformed and always reforming“—in recent times we’ve seen this motto misused in support of ends which are completely contradictory to the spirit and intent of the Reformation and the Reformed tradition; this sort of thing is quite common in the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination in which I serve as a pastor. The tendency is to interpret “always reforming” as the ongoing work of the church, reinventing itself to fit the culture, and set that over against “reformed” as if these are two separate things. Thus, for instance, we get this comment from Adam Walker Cleaveland from a few years ago on his blog pomomusings (emphasis mine):

I think that one could fairly easily make an argument that many of our Presbyterian churches today have focused primarily (almost exclusively) on the “Reformed” aspect, and have not critically evaluated how the church may need to continue to be “always reforming” in light of our current context.

Always reforming. Always being sensitive to the radical openness and movement of the Spirit. Always being aware that we may need to be critically evaluate our theology and methodology. While at the same time, being aware of and sensitive to the things that are part of the tradition of the Presbyterian church, and those things that are important in the holy scriptures. The Bible is an important part of the heritage of the Presbyterian church and the Christian tradition, but we must be wary of creating logocentric churches, where we become strict-constructionists when it comes to our theologies and methodologies, only allowing whatever the scriptures and tradition says. That must be balanced and held in tension with the new waves of the Spirit that may be calling for new theologies and new methodologies in a new world.

In Cleaveland’s case, he was coming from a self-consciously “emergent” position, an influence which is only beginning to emerge (if you will) in the PC(USA); but we see this sort of argument all the time from liberals in the denomination. “The Bible is an important part of our heritage, but the world is evolving and we need to evolve with it. Yes, Christians used to believe that homosexuality was sinful, but we know better now. God is doing a new thing, and his Spirit is calling for a new theology that’s appropriate to the times. We’re supposed to be always reforming—we can’t afford to cling to the dead past, we need to move with the present.” And so on, and so forth. In a nutshell: “Always reforming, new wind of the Spirit, therefore whatever we don’t like about historic Presbyterian theology and morality, we can throw out.”

The problem is twofold. First, these are folks who are very interested in reforming the church, but not so interested in the secundum verbum Dei part; I don’t know what “according to cultural assumptions” would be in Latin, but that would be more to the point. This is not to say theyreject the Scriptures, just that they reject the idea that the Scriptures could be telling them something they really don’t want to hear; they want the church to believe what they want the church to believe, and they’re happy to offer any interpretation of Scripture they can which supports that, but if they decide they can’t sustain those interpretations, they don’t respond by changing their position. Instead, they respond by rejecting the authority of Scripture on that point, declaring essentially, “that was then, this is now, and we know better.” (Some would point out that secundum verbum Dei is a later addition, which is true; it is, however, a clarifyingaddition—it adds nothing new to the older motto, but rather makes explicit what was already implicit.)

(It should be noted at this point that most of this can also be said of many who consider themselves evangelicals; the primary difference is that evangelicals don’t justify themselves by explicitly rejecting the authority of Scripture. Rather, the evangelical tendency is to privilege the individual interpretation of Scripture and simply insist that yes it does mean what I want it to mean. It still ends up locating primary authority in the autonomous individual rather than in the voice of God speaking by his Spirit through the Scripture, but by a different route and in less straightforward fashion.)

Second, there is the belief that the church is the agent of its own reformation, and that this is about the church reinventing itself and evolving. As McCormick theology professor Anna Case-Winters pointed out in Presbyterians Today several years ago, this is directly opposed to what this motto actually means, and what the Reformation was all about. As she says, this doesn’t mean that “newer is better,” nor does it leave it to us to determine what “reforming” looks like. Rather, it’s about

restoring the church to its true nature, purified from the “innovations” that riddled the church through centuries of inattention to Scripture and theological laxity. . . .

God is the agent of reformation. The church is rather the object of God’s reforming work. God’s agency and initiative have priority here. . . . Theologian Harold Nebelsick put it well: “We are the recipients of the activity of the Holy Spirit which reforms the church in accordance with the Word of God.” The church is God’s church, a creature of God’s Word and Spirit. As we say in our Brief Statement of Faith, “we belong to God.” God’s Word and Spirit guide the church’s forming and reforming.

What we need to understand here is that this motto isn’t about justifying anything we might want to do; it is rather about acknowledging that being the church isn’t about justifying what we want to do. It isn’t about getting what we want, or believing what we’re comfortable believing; instead, it’s about the negation of that approach. It’s about recognizing that the reason we keep needing God to reform us is that we keep slipping back into building churches that are about us, giving us what we want and keeping us comfortable, and thus keep needing to be called back to the will of God as revealed in Scripture. It’s also about recognizing that yes, God still speaks by his Spirit—but that he will not contradict anything he has already said, because who he is doesn’t change, and thus that if we think we feel God leading us, we need to test that sense against what he’s already revealed in Scripture.

This is why what Dr. Case-Winters says about the 16th century remains true for us today:

In the 16th-century context the impulse it reflected was neither liberal nor conservative, but radical, in the sense of returning to the “root.” The Reformers believed the church had become corrupt, so change was needed. But it was a change in the interest of preservation and restoration of more authentic faith and life—a church reformed and always to be reformed according to the Word of God.

Being Reformed means being radical in precisely that sense, for it means not that we’re always becoming something new, nor that we’re always changing, but that we’re always being conformed and reconformed to the unchanging standard of the Word of God, which means of the character and will of the one “whose beauty is past change,” as Hopkins put it. It means not that we adapt to this world, but rather we’re pulled away from adapting to this world; the goal is not to let this world squeeze us into its mold, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. It means accepting that we don’t set the agenda, but rather that we’re called to surrender to God’s agenda, and thus recognizing that we’re people under authority—the authority of God, and thus of his revelation to us in his Word—and that we must bow to that authority even when we don’t like what we hear, rather than trying to find ways to rationalize what we want to do instead.

It means, in short, allowing ourselves to be Reformed, not by our word and our will, but by the will of God in accordance with his Word.

Posted in History, Presbyterian/Reformed, Religion and theology, Scripture.


  1. I’ve failed in the past, I think, to express why an argument like this (I have encountered many) is very unlikely to reach its intended audience, which seems to be the liberal/progressive/emergent crowd.

    Just a few points I guess in response:

    Jesus Christ is the Word of God. The Bible is a human record of our experience of God, and as Christians we focus on the experience of Christ himself, but the Word of God is not a book, it is a Person. So the ultimate standard should never be the words on the page – no one is saying throw them out, but being bound to a book is being bound to a dead, fixed thing, rather than a living Person – who we might meet in the book, but who is not in any way imprisoned in the book.

    In short, I would say that it is possible, in theory, for God to contradict the Bible. If it isn’t possible, then God is not God in any meaningful sense.

    There are a number of stories in the Bible where God changes God’s mind, where God overturns previous rulings, and so on. These are always in line with the deeper moral elements which stood behind these interpretations all along, but the Bible is not, to people on my side, a singular document free of contradiction. Its teaching is *not* self-evident nor clear, and is not singular on most issues.

    Because of these two things, I am unable to accept an argument that is “we should do what the Bible says”. I would expand on what you say about evangelicals to say that *everyone* makes the Bible mean what they want it to mean on some level. That is unavoidable when human beings interpret a document. So what I hear is “you should all do what I say the Bible says”. And if what follows after seems to fly in the face of what we know about the world (the Bible’s story of six days of creation), or in the face of basic morality (the Bible promoting genocide), I just can’t accept the Bible in those instances.

    In the case of homosexuality, I understand why there is conflict – just as there was once conflict over issues with women or with different ethnicities. In some cases, we read one thing in the Bible and disagree with something else the Bible says in another section – because the Bible disagrees with itself in many places, and we have to make sense of that if we want to keep the Bible as a core element of who we are.

    There’s a lot more here to talk about, but this is already too long for a comment. I’m on call tonight, so maybe there will be more.

  2. Actually, I should clarify. There is *still* a lot of conflict over issues around women and non-white ethnicities in the Church; so those issues are more similar to homosexuality than I had implied.

    For example: on the marriage issue, the arguments against different ethnicities marrying, or against the idea that a wife is her husband’s equal, were all put forward as absolute “Biblical” arguments by people who were, and sometimes still are, totally convinced they interpreted the Word of God correctly.

    I just can’t help but see the strong parallels between that and our current cultural argument over homosexuality, marriage, etc.

  3. Kevin: thanks for the good words.

    Doug: actually, in this particular instance, the intended audience was rather different; had I been pitching it to a liberal audience, I would have been thinking of it rather differently. (Of course, being a blog, just sort of out there on a peak in cyberspace somewhere, one doesn’t get any sort of controlled audience at all; but one still has someone in mind as one writes.)

    Anyway, a few points in response to your response (perhaps to be dealt with in a blog post later, when I have more time and mental energy):

    One, agreed, Jesus is the Word, and the Bible is the word that contains the Word–or, as Luther put it (good Reformation Day reference, here), it is the cradle that contains the Christ. No bibliolatrist, Luther.

    Two, I disagree that it’s possible for God to contradict the Bible, and I disagree that saying so in any way limits God. That would be like saying that if God can’t make a rock too heavy for him to lift, then “God is not God in any meaningful sense.” One can of course be a process theologian, but one can also affirm that God does not change; and if he does not change, then he is faithful to who he is and what he says, and therefore does not contradict himself–such being an intrinsic or logical impossibility, along the lines that he cannot be someone other than himself.

    Three, regarding the stories you reference: again, you can read them as a process theologian, but it’s by no means the only way to do so; one can also read them as congruent with Numbers 23:19 (“God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”).

    Four, the difference between homosexuality and the other issues you mention is that there is no moral language attached to being a woman, or to one’s skin color.

    Five, the Bible doesn’t say the world was created in six 24-hour days. That’s one interpretation, but not the only valid one. 🙂 As for the Bible promoting genocide, it doesn’t. It records instances in which God commanded total war as a judgment on particular nations; it never holds that up for imitation in other circumstances.

    Six, I will certainly argue the need for humility in biblical interpretation, especially in instances in which the Bible is neither self-evident nor clear. I don’t, however, think that justifies obfuscation in cases in which our problem with the Bible is that it’s all too self-evident and clear.

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