Carl Trueman on the abuse of the phrase “semper reformanda”

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You gotta love Carl Trueman. He just says a thing so crisply and clearly. I envy his students at Westminster Theological Seminary, it must be an absolute joy to attend his lectures on a regular basis. Here he writes about the contemporary abuse of the phrase “semper reformanda“:

“One of the great clichés in the church of recent years has been the hackneyed phrase ‘ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est’, which translates as something like ‘the reformed church is always in need of reforming’. In the hands of many of today’s church people, this has taken on the status of a virtual axiomatic truth, to the extent that it may surprise some that the phrase is not actually found in the Bible nor, as far as I can see, in the works of the major 16th-century Reformers. Of course, the principle is a good one, as long as one adds the proviso ‘according to the Word of God’ and remembers that, to the Reformation mindset, this would not require an iconoclastic view of the past; rather, it would embody an attitude that saw the past as something upon which to build and improve in a constructive manner.

The problem today, of course, is that for many this cliché has become not the principle of an ongoing reformation whereby the church seeks to constantly subject herself to the searching gaze of God’s Word. No. In an era where kaleidoscopic consumerist options combine with an untrammeled pluralism, it has become an aesthetic value. Let me explain. Many of us have grown tired of being lectured by trendy types about ‘conversations’ and have a deep suspicion that for many (post)moderns it is the ‘conversation’ and not any actual conclusion that is important. The same kind of people generally trumpet the ‘semper reformanda’ cliché, and what they mean by it is not the regulation, refinement, and improvement of the church’s confession, but rather the idea that truth is to be found in the continual flux of change and instability that so marks contemporary society, from the intellectual heights of its deconstructive epistemologies to the pragmatic depths of its rampant consumerist materialism. 

Of course, the relationship between the church’s historic tradition, both doctrinal and practical, and contemporary practice is always going to be complex. Just because ‘we have always thought/done/said it in this way’ does not mean that ‘it’ should continue in the status quo. Yet certain basic Protestant premises would seem to indicate that the church at least should exhibit more stability and continuity in belief and practice than, say, the local video store, bank, or hairdressing salon. Perspicuity of scripture would seem to imply that there are not that many major breakthroughs to come on the doctrinal front and thus require a practical respect for the teachings of the confessions and catechisms that have served so well for so long. Respect for the past and for old age (both central to the world of the Bible) would seem to call into question the real biblically strategic value of any sentence which starts with ‘Well, young people today won’t…’. And the basic fact that Christianity is not reinvented every Sunday should temper any hankering after innovation.

One of the interesting phenomena of recent years has been the attraction of Eastern Orthodoxy for many evangelical Protestants. Now, I am not arguing here for the superiority of Orthodoxy (though I do think there are strengths there from which we can learn); but I do want to make the point that Orthodoxy’s strength does not lie in its innovations, its desperate attempts to be trendy, or its iconoclastic attitude to the past. Rather, its strengths lie in its stability, its desire to be faithful to its roots, and its appreciation of its theological heritage. It is the fact that it is different to the world that surrounds it that makes it so striking. No ‘semper reformanda’ there.

With the continual change in church practices, driven as much, I suspect, by the exaltation of ‘conversation’ as the supreme model of contemporary thought and practice, by the narcissistic belief of every generation that this – here and now! – is the most important time ever, and fuelled by the surreptitious intrusions of marketing and consumerism into the church, I am sometimes left wondering if the reaction of many outsiders these days to a typical Presbyterian service in North America would be ‘The great thing about that church is that it’s so like us, so normal, not what you’d expect’. Such a reaction indicates a church that has signally failed in its mission. As we change and change and change again, in a desperate attempt to be relevant and gloss it with a specious reference to ‘semper reformanda’, I suspect we fail abysmally to match up to the kind of church Paul envisages in the New Testament. Of course, he does not give us much detail on what the Church is meant to be like, but he does tell us that it is to be a profoundly unsettling and disturbing experience, one that overwhelms people with a sense of God’s holiness and their own unworthiness. 

True church reformation really has nothing to do with contextualisation, worthy and important as that may be. It has rather to do with continuing to bring the Bible to bear on practice and belief in the place in which God has positioned us. And to the true, biblical Protestant, that demands continuity with the past; it cannot and must not displace it.”

– Carl Trueman, Wrongheaded Reformations, The Monthly Record of the Free Church of Scotland, August [2008]:17

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