Real Protestants Keep Reforming

In the time it takes to read the Bible cover to cover, you could read the Westminster Confession almost seventy times.

Just think of it. Westminster, seventy times through. Almost four centuries ago, 120 of the best English-speaking pastors and theologians in the world labored for three years to hammer out the key theological and ethical teachings of Scripture. What good might it do you for a lifetime if you worked diligently through those learned 12,000 words some five or six dozen times?

Cast in such terms, normal Bible reading can begin to seem inefficient. Might your time be better spent in seventy readings of Westminster than one long journey through the whole terrain of Scripture with its genealogies, cultic regulations, esoteric aphorisms, and minor prophets?

Hopefully, you would answer “no,” but in responding to a question put that way, you might intuit both the profit and peril of our creeds and confessions.

Wonder and Danger of Creeds

The usefulness of such creeds is bound up with their brevity — whether it’s the longer 12,000 words of Westminster or the tight 200 of Nicea. What wonderful, helpful, instructive summaries faithful creeds and confessions can be! The full text of Westminster can be read, at a reasonable pace, in about an hour. It’s just a little more than 1% of the Bible’s length, and it is, by and large, a very good synthesis of Scripture’s teaching.

It is remarkable to rehearse the enduring Reformed formulations that emerged in that ninety-year period, beginning a generation after the Reformation (from the 1560s to 1640s):

1561: Belgic Confession
1563: Heidelberg Catechism
1619: Canons of Dort
1648: Westminster Standards

Some adherents to Westminster today will tell you that the task of reformation was great but finite — and by 1648 it was essentially done. With the advent of Westminster, they say, the church’s doctrine, worship, and government were, at last, reformed. The project was complete; the last four centuries have brought plenty risk of erosion but no real exercises in improvement.

Others in the Reformed camp think differently — and these varying instincts have often clashed over what might be the most controversial of Reformed theology’s handful of Latin maxims: semper reformanda, “always reforming.”

Origin and Context

The oldest record of something like the phrase is in a 1674 devotional book by Dutch Reformed pastor Jodocus van Lodenstein (1620–1677). He juxtaposed “Reformed” and “reforming” not to plead for formal doctrinal improvements but for the reforming of the human hearts of professedly Reformed readers. His concerns were pietistic and devotional, and as Robert Godfrey writes, these “concerns were very similar to those of the English Puritans.”

Kevin DeYoung emphasizes the need to consider the context: “It is important to see the entirety of van Lodenstein’s phrase: ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbi Dei (‘the church is Reformed and always [in need of] being reformed according to the Word of God’).” Observe here the twin assertions — the church is both (1) “Reformed” as well as (2) “being reformed” — with two passive verbs, ending with the standard of that action: the word of God. As DeYoung, Godfrey, and others rightly stress, it’s not that the church is “being reformed” by the winds of the times but “according to Scripture,” by the ancient rule of God’s written word.

Semper reformanda, then, as a corollary of sola Scriptura, is not a call to revise for the sake of revising, or to assimilate with contemporary patterns of unbelief. Rather, it’s a reminder of our personal and ecclesial entropy, our gradual decline into the disorder of sin, our tendency to wander from Scripture’s doctrines and ethics. Without fresh effort and energies, and drinking ourselves from the headwaters of Scripture, the church’s life and doctrine will soon decline and erode.

Yet even in context, and with such disclaimers, the maxim unnerves some Reformed bents and inclinations.

What We Don’t Reform

Here on Reformation Day, as we remember the impulse of “always being reformed,” we clarify anew what we do not seek to reform: the substance of true doctrine.

For two millennia, Christ’s final word that is Scripture has been complete, objective, and fixed. The external word of the Scriptures has not changed or been added to since Patmos. For sure, not only individuals, but Christian communities, and the church at large, have grown and made improvements in these many centuries in understanding and articulating and applying God’s word. With the written word complete, the Holy Spirit has not been inactive, distant, or ineffective in working in his people to better know and appropriate the ancient word. But Scripture itself, what it teaches, and thus the substance of true doctrine has not changed and is in no need of reform or update.

To be clear, semper reformanda is not a blank check to rethink our doctrine from scratch in this generation.

What We Keep Reforming

What, then, do we seek to reform in an ongoing manner? Or, in what ways are we the church “always being reformed”?

In sum, we seek to reform any large or small ways in which we have received, expressed, or applied the substance wrong. Our assumption should not be that our own tradition, however generally faithful, contains no errors or imbalances. Rather, the question is whether we might, in time, truly identify them and improve upon them.

In his memorable essay called “In Defense of Something Close to Biblicism,” Reformed theologian John Frame quotes his own professor of theology, the great John Murray, to this effect (emphasis added):

However epochal have been the advances made at certain periods and however great the contributions of particular men we may not suppose that theological construction ever reaches definitive finality. There is the danger of a stagnant traditionalism and we must be alert to this danger, on the one hand, and to that of discarding our historical moorings, on the other.

Murray issues this warning to Reformed types — like himself and Frame and me — who admire and cherish our theological tradition:

When any generation is content to rely upon its theological heritage and refuses to explore for itself the riches of divine revelation, then declension is already under way and heterodoxy will be the lot of the succeeding generation.

This taps on a long-standing fault line in the Reformed tradition. Some, like Murray, thrill to explore for themselves the riches of divine revelation; to others, this thought is more unsettling. Deep down, might they rather read Westminster seventy times than Scripture once? A right conception of semper reformanda presses on the tension.

In the essay, Frame provides various insights into how a true view of sola Scriptura (and with it, semper reformanda) will not only draw us “to explore [for ourselves] the riches of divine revelation” but lead, in time, to a kind of “creativity motivated by Scripture itself” — that is, not to “a stagnant traditionalism, but to a flourishing of original and impressive theological thought.” Now the stricter sect really begins to sweat.

Scripture, taken in practice as the final word (that both Scripture itself and our confessions claim it to be), “provides us with a powerful tool for the critical analysis of culture,” Frame continues, both our own and those of the past, and “guards us against both secularism and traditionalism.” That is, we will be shielded from making new mistakes as the society around us shifts, and we will see afresh what outright errors and lesser forms of expression we might improve upon with the ongoing work of “being reformed.”

We Reform Us

While our “always being reformed” will not include the substance of true doctrine, it may involve how we teach and express the doctrines in our generation. And putting in the energy to say the timeless substance in fresh contemporary ways will both deepen our own understanding (and our hearers) as well as open up our doctrine to some hearers who found the old articulations obscure or inaccessible. The times, into which we speak timeless truths, do change, and so, if we are faithful, our own preferred expressions and formulations will iterate over time. Even then, we observe a kind of conservatizing force in doctrinal formulation. For one, change risks new error. So, we do not recklessly reach for “fresh” language, or do so before it is time.

In the end, the heart of what we keep reforming centers on ourselves — and in particular, as was van Lodenstein’s original concern, our own hearts. “The part of religion that always needs reforming,” says Godfrey, “is the human heart.” We seek to search and address our own personal and communal and generational sins and shortcomings. We reform us, according to God’s word. At the heart of “always reforming” is “we,” “us,” and “ourselves.” And especially our hearts.

The question semper reformanda presses home today, as it did 350 years ago, is this: How is your heart? Are you content with formal religion, with historically accurate doctrines and external observance? Have you made peace with the appearance of godliness while denying its power in the inner man (2 Timothy 3:5)? Is your Christianity a religion of the heart? Have you been born again, or just baptized? Do you love and delight in Jesus and all God reveals himself to be for us in him?

Search the Scriptures

You will search in vain for a magic date, or magic year, when the Reformation was completed. The work continues, and most of all in us. Might we, then, just as well claim “no creed but the Bible”?

If “no creed” means subscribing to some other “Creed” as our final say, our last authority, our norming norm, some other human document over Scripture, then yes, no Creed, in that way. We have no final say but Scripture alone.

But if “no creed” means taking up no careful, expressed summary of key Christian doctrines and beliefs, then no, that is naïve. We have and love and benefit greatly from faithful formulations. And, as the Desiring God affirmation confesses,

We do not claim infallibility for this affirmation and are open to refinement and correction from Scripture. Yet we do hold firmly to these truths as we see them and call on others to search the Scriptures to see if these things are so. As conversation and debate take place, it may be that we will learn from each other, and the boundaries will be adjusted, even possibly folding formerly disagreeing groups into closer fellowship. (15.4)

With love for our confessions, we gladly default to Scripture itself, citing its chapters and verses, and counting the tradition of noble Bereans to be that, in essence, of the Westminster divines: “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).

What better course might Reformation Day inspire than a lifetime of diligent studies in our confessions, all within the context of an eager daily exploration of Scripture?