Who doesn’t love a good Latin phrase, especially when it can be bandied about in support of the spirit of the age?

Semper Reformanda. Always Reforming.

When the church changes its mind—or a professor or pastor or professional blogger demands that the church changes its mind—on, say, the definition of marriage or the nature of sexual sin, we can rest assured that, however much some traditionalists may object to the change, the church is courageously embodying the legacy of the Reformers and their insistence that the church should be always reforming. The Spirit reveals new truths for a new day. The body of Christ learns to set aside encrusted orthodoxy. The risen Jesus teaches his people what they had never seen before. That’s what semper reformanda is all about, right?

Not exactly.

While it’s true that we all see through a glass dimly and must be open to changing our minds, the Latin phrase semper reformanda was not about change for the sake of change, let alone reforming the church’s confessions to keep up with the times. In an insightful chapter entitled “Reformed and Always Reforming” (Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey, p. 116-134), Mike Horton explains the origins of the oft-repeated phrase. The saying first appeared in 1674 in a devotional book by Jodocus van Lodenstein. As a key figure in the Dutch Second Reformation (Nadere Reformatie), van Lodenstein wanted to see the members of the Dutch church, which had seen its doctrine become Reformed during the Reformation, continue to pursue reformation in their lives and practices. His concern was personal piety, not doctrinal progressivism.

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”). Notice three things about the saying.

First, it begins by addressing the church that is Reformed. Given van Lodenstein’s context in the Netherlands, we are right to capitalize Reformed. The saying was not generally about churches of the Reformation (though it has application for those churches too). Rather, van Lodenstein was addressing the Dutch church that had identified as confessionally Reformed, specifically in subscription to the Three Forms of Unity. In other words, far from encouraging doctrinal innovation, the original phrase presumes doctrinal stability. Whatever semper reformanda means, it cannot mean figure out your theological standards on the fly.

Second, the Latin verb reformanda is passive, which, as Horton points out, means the church is not “always reforming” but is “always being reformed.” The difference is consequential. The former sounds like change for the sake of change, while the latter suggests adhering to the proper standard. The passive construction also suggests that there is an external agent operating upon the church to bring about the necessary reform.

Which leads to the third and most important point: the church is always being reformed according to the Word of God. There is nothing Reformed or Reformational about changing the church’s theology and ethics to get on “the right side of history,” or to stay current with the insights of the social sciences, or even to prove that we love the least of these. The motto of the Reformation was not “Forward!” but “Backward!”—as in, “Back to the sources!” (ad fontes). As Horton puts it, the Reformers “wanted to recover something that had been lost, not to follow the winds of a rising modernity” (p. 123). If the church can never stand still, it is because it always needs re-orientation according to the Word that is over us (p. 125).

Semper reformanda is not about constant fluctuations, but about about firm foundations. It is about radical adherence to the Holy Scriptures, no matter the cost to ourselves, our traditions, or our own fallible sense of cultural relevance. If Christians want to change the church’s sexual ethics, so be it. But don’t claim the mantle of the Reformers in so doing. The only Reformation worth promoting and praying for is the one that gets us deeper into our Bibles, not farther away.

Stand your ground, hold fast, guard the good deposit. And be open to change whenever we drift from the truth or fail to grow up in it as we should.