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Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda



Our misused motto 

By Anna Case-Winters | Presbyterians Today

Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda! Even to this day, these ancient words are a rallying cry for Presbyterians and other Reformed Christians. It is a motto that reminds us of who we are and who we intend to be.

But what does this phrase really mean? It is used as a springboard in all kinds of contexts and conversations, sometimes with little sense of how it arose and what it meant among the Reformed folk in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is appropriated in times of disagreement and pressed into the service of our own agendas. It is even sometimes wielded as a weapon against those who differ from us, as if to say, “My position is more reformed than your position!”

This saying should indeed be a watchword for us, but we need a heightened sense of its meaning and the challenge it puts before us. Used without attentiveness to its historical context and import, it loses much of its power to challenge us.

What the Reformers meant

Our Reformed motto, rightly understood, challenges both the conservative and the liberal impulses that characterize our diverse church today. It does not bless either preservation for preservation’s sake or change for change’s sake.

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.

The cultural assumption of the Reformers’ day was that what is older is better. This is strange to our contemporary ears. We do not share this assumption; if anything, we applaud the new and “innovative.”

But one of the serious charges church authorities hurled at the Reformers was that they were “innovating.” John Calvin responded to this and other charges in his treatise “The Necessity of Reforming the Church.” As he put it, “We are accused of rash and impious innovation for having ventured to propose any change at all [in] the former state of the Church.” He then goes on to counter that they were not “innovating,” but restoring the church to its true nature, purified from the “innovations” that riddled the church through centuries of inattention to Scripture and theological laxity.

The appeal was to a more ancient source, Scripture — ”sola scriptura” (Scripture alone). According to church historian David Steinmetz, by submitting themselves to Scripture, the churches of the Reformation movement were purging themselves of these unwanted “innovations” and returning to a more ancient and therefore purer form of church life.

What the motto does not mean

  1. Newer is always better.
    Using the motto to back up any and all “innovations” would be a misuse of the original intent. In many places where the slogan appears, the phrase is completed with a clarifying addition so that it reads: ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbi dei, which translates, “reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” Reform, where it is advocated, must find its grounding in Scripture.
  2. The church can reform itself.
    Another potential misuse of the phrase is lodged in a common mistranslation as “reformed and always reforming.” This can mislead us to believe that the church is the agent of its own reformation. 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. The Latin verb is passive, and it is much better translated as “always being reformed” or “always to be reformed.” 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.

The Presbyterian Book of Order, in the chapter “The Church and Its Confessions,” follows the mistranslation but is on target with its theological interpretation. It says: “The church, in obedience to Jesus Christ, is open to the reform of its standards of doctrine as well as of governance. The church affirms ‘Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda,’ that is, ‘the church reformed, always reforming,’ according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit.” That last phrase is crucial in clarifying both the direction (and the Director!) of the church’s reform.

Why the church needs reforming

  1. Because of who we are (sinners)
    Part of our openness to being reformed comes out of a conviction about who we are. Reformed folk have been particularly aware of human fallibility and sinfulness.

One of the particular gifts of our Reformed tradition is the notion of “total depravity.” It is one of our least understood gifts to the ecumenical community, but all it means is that we recognize that there is no aspect of our lives that is unaffected by our estrangement from God. Even our best endeavors and highest aspirations are prone to sin and error. Forms of faith and life in the church are no exception. This is why Reformed confessions tend to have their own built-in disclaimers. The preface to the Scots Confession invites all readers to offer correction from Scripture if they find the confession to be in error. The Westminster Confession of Faith asserts, “Councils may err and many have erred.”

We acknowledge that the church even at its best is a frail and fallible human institution. We know that we “hold these treasures in earthen vessels.” Edward Dowey, another church historian, has written that reform is the institutional counterpart of repentance. Recognizing how far short we fall from God’s intentions, we continually submit all doctrines and structures to be reformed according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit. The church is a frail and fallible pilgrim people, a people on the way, not yet what we shall be. The church, because of who we are, remains open to always being reformed.

  1. Because of who God is (a living God)
    Openness to being reformed comes not only because of who we are but because of who God is. The God “whom alone we worship and serve” (Brief Statement of Faith) is a living God. God is not bound, either to our tradition or to our particular contemporary context. God’s revelation is always a gift, never a given.

As Dowey rightly observed, “Reform has a backward and a forward reference. It leads not only back to the Bible but also forward under the Word.” The Presbyterian Confession of 1967 underscores this teaching: “As God has spoken his word in diverse cultural situations, the church is confident that he will continue to speak through the Scriptures in a changing world and in every form of human culture.”

The backward and forward reference of reform invites us on the one hand to attend respectfully to the wisdom and Scriptural interpretations of those who have gone before us with humility. On the other hand, it pushes us to do more than simply reiterate what fathers and mothers in the faith have said. Rather, we must do in our day what they did in theirs, worship and serve the living God. Therefore, while we honor the forms of faith and life that have been bequeathed to us, we honor them best in a spirit of openness to the Word and the Spirit that formed and continue to re-form the church. The church, because of who God is, a living God, remains open to always being reformed.

A gift to the wider church

A vision of the church reformed and always being reformed is one of the gifts the Reformed have to bring to the wider Christian church.

Such a notion may already be out there among our ecumenical partners. A case in point is one of the memorable moments in the first-ever face-to-face conversation between the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Roman Catholic Church represented by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity in December 2000. Cardinal Cassidy observed, “You have a saying that seems to be at the heart of your self-understanding as a church. What do you mean when you keep referring in your documents to ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda?” It was moving to hear the 12 Presbyterians at the table try to say in their own words what that means to us.

And it became all the more moving when the Roman Catholic representatives called our attention to the papal encyclical, Unitatis Redintegratio. In this they have now said in the strongest way possible that the church is continually in need of reform. This was a high point of the dialogue. The call to be reformed, while it remains our distinctive gift, may no longer be our exclusive possession.

Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda. This motto calls us to something more radical than we have imagined. It challenges both liberal and conservative impulses and the habits and agendas we have lately fallen into. It brings a prophetic critique to our cultural accommodation — either to the past or to the present — and calls us to communal and institutional repentance. It invites us, as people who worship and serve a living God, to be open to being “re-formed” according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit.

This article originally appeared in the May 2004 issue of Presbyterians Today.