The meaning of Semper Reformanda

carl-truemanArticle: Carl R. Trueman “What Semper Reformanda Is and Isn’t” (original source here)

There are many familiar phrases with which everyone would agree. “It would be a good thing to eliminate world poverty” is one that comes to mind. What is interesting, of course, is that while there may be agreement on the sentiment expressed, there is often radical disagreement on how it is to be achieved. In this example, some might argue for greater deregulation of international trade, others for increased aid, others for targeted educational solutions.

There are also some phrases that occur in the context of the church that are similar in terms of universal agreement. One that is a hardy perennial within broadly Reformed evangelical circles is this: The Reformed church always needs reforming. Who could disagree with that sentiment? It seems on the surface to capture something of the scriptural earnestness of the Reformation. To reject it would seem to smack of a complacent, if not positively pharisaical, assertion of the perfection of the status quo. It would also appear to undermine that most basic of Reformation ideas—the church is always to be measuring itself by Scripture and thus always seeking to change in ways that make its testimony more faithful to God’s revelation.

Unfortunately, however, the phrase is somewhat contentless. Within the last decade, it became the rallying cry of groups influenced by the so-called emergent church movement. To them, it meant that the church needed to engage in a fundamental, and generally continual, reformulation of her doctrine and, indeed, of her understanding of what doctrine is and how it is to function. Thus, doctrines such as justification, inerrancy, and even the idea of Scripture alone needed to be rethought in the context of a postmodern mind-set.

We might say that when used this way, the phrase “the reformed church always needs reforming” was less a basic methodological principle and more of an aesthetic. What I mean is this: we live in a world where the idea of truth as fixed and stable is unpopular and even regarded as dangerous and oppressive by many. Instead, people prefer a world where truth is always in flux, where it is negotiable, where, one might say, it ultimately makes no absolute demands on anyone.

Thus, this phrase appeals because it seems to make the truth a matter of continual negotiation and change. The church claims that Jesus is God? Well, that may have been true at Chalcedon in 451, but we need a different model for understanding Him today. The church denies the legitimacy of same-sex marriage? Again, that idea may have operated in a time when homophobia was dominant—indeed, it may have helped to maintain precisely such homophobia—but we need to reform our understanding of marriage and sex in light of contemporary needs and demands. Flux, change, and uncertainty rule, and glossing these with the phrase “the reformed church always needs reforming” gives this very postmodern aesthetic a speciously orthodox sound.

In fact, the phrase is a good one, but only when it is understood as reflecting the basic scriptural principle of the Reformed church.

There are two foundations necessary for grasping the appropriate meaning of the phrase. First, Scripture is the final authoritative source for the church’s life and doctrine. Everything the church says or does is to be consistent with God’s Word and is to be regulated by God’s Word. One implication of this is that whatever the church says and does because of inferences drawn from Scripture must be scrutinized very carefully in light of Scripture. There is always potential for refinement, for example. Continue reading